K Marx
the Spot!

K Marx The Spot

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29 February 2004

Is Mitt Romney as Good as His Word?

Apparently not. In discussing John Kerry's candidacy with a reporter from the Boston Globe, he explained that he would bet on a Bush re-election in 2004.

But Romney also said he was happy to see Kerry succeed in the primaries because his nomination would be good for the state.

"It'll be fun for the Commonwealth to have a presidential candidate from Massachusetts again, assuming that trend continues," Romney said. He added, "I think ultimately my money's on President Bush winning this one."

Except that he hasn't put his money on Bush. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, if Romney has given anything so far to the Bush re-election campaign, it has been less than $200. And according to the Bush campaign's own figures, he hadn't donated as much as a Massachusetts state quarter. I thought that the Bush tax cuts were supposed to free up capital!

Posted by Tim W at 2/29/2004 01:42:00 AM

Blistering Barnicle

After Rod Paige made a particularly egregious use of the word "terrorist"—in his case, to the National Education Association—one would expect that conservatives would be at least a bit circumspect about bandying that word about.

But Mike Barnicle has managed to outdo even that infamously impolitic politician. According to the Boston Globe, an unprovoked Mike Barnicle slandered two Academy Award nominees as terrorists.

Reading the names of this year's Academy Award nominees on his talk show yesterday, Mike Barnicle inexplicably referred to two of the actors—Shohreh Aghdashloo and Djimon Hounsou—as "terrorists." Aghdashloo, who's Iranian, is nominated for best supporting actress for "House of Sand and Fog," and Hounsou, who was born in Africa and grew up in France, is nominated for best supporting actor for his role in "In America." Barnicle, a former Boston Globe columnist, didn't return a phone call yesterday, but a WTKK spokeswoman and Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy confirmed Barnicle made the remark. Shaughnessy was in the studio at the time. "We haven't heard from anybody. It happened so quickly," said Leslie Cipolla, marketing director for WTKK. "It was a passing comment."

The reaction so far to this outrageous comment in the press has been a resounding fizzle; even the report in the Globe is confined to the column in the Living/Arts section devoted to snippets about celebrities. When Rod Paige sniped at his adversaries, the press was justly critical. When Barnicle paints two absolutely innocent persons as terrorists, presumably because of their names or nationalities, he is broadcasting some repugnant prejudices. And the reaction of his employer is more than telling. Both Barnicle and WTKK are getting a pass on this ugly episode: the liberal media is striking again.

Posted by Tim W at 2/29/2004 01:17:00 AM

27 February 2004

For detailed analysis of just how badly the Bush administration is fouling the American economy, one could hardly do much better than regularly peruse the weblogs of Brad Delong, Max Sawicky, and John Quiggin. All three are great: Delong is less heterodox than the other two, but they all have their hearts in the right place, and they all understand the interplay of policy, politics, and economics.

I'm sure that any of them could do a bang-up job of explaining exactly why we should have expected that cutting the marginal tax rates of the wealthy (what Brad Delong calls the "$300,000+ a year crowd") would do a poor job of stimulating the economy.

I think that there's a very simple dynamic here. As he did today, Bush has been telling audiences that his tax cuts were designed to help owners of small businesses:

We cut all taxes. I believe if you're going to cut taxes, you shouldn't try to pick winners and losers in the tax code. Everybody ought to get tax relief. And so we reduced taxes on everybody who paid taxes. And it particularly helps small businesses when you cut income taxes, because, you see, most small businesses, like some up here, are what they call sub-chapter S corporations, which means they pay tax at the individual income tax level. A lot of small businesses are sole proprietorships, which means you pay tax at the individual income tax level. So when you hear people talking about cutting income taxes on individuals, not only does it help families, those tax cuts help small businesses. And if you're worried about job creation, like I am, and you understand that most new jobs are created by small businesses, it made eminent sense to have policies that affected small businesses in a positive way.

I really am glad that the president is concerned about job creation, but cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans—many of whom have not a thing to do with small business—has not led to a surge of new hires.

Imagine, if you will, that you are the owner of a small business that is successful enough to put you in the top income tax bracket. Before George Bush cut your taxes, your marginal federal tax rate was 38.6%; it has now fallen to 35%. The tax rate on your long-term capital gains income has fallen from 20% to 15%, and the tax rate on your taxable dividend income has fallen from 38.6% all the way to 15%. George Bush has hardly given you an incentive to hire more workers with the tax savings that you have reaped. Strangely enough, the decreased tax rate creates an incentive not to hire more employees, because each dollar that you spend on payroll or employee benefits saves you only 35 cents in federal taxes, not 38.6 cents. No, he has given you an incentive to take your savings and play speculator in the stock market; so, you might help your stock broker or mutual fund distributor make some money, but your investments are very unlikely to lead to job growth.

Thanks to the current administration, the stock market has recovered from its swoon in 2001, but the unemployment rolls list millions of workers who have lacked jobs for over a year. The only bright spot is that Bush has risked uniting the working class against his economic policies.

Posted by Tim W at 2/27/2004 01:34:00 AM

26 February 2004

Congratulations Rosie!

Rosie O'Donnell married her longtime partner, Kelli Carpenter, today, taking what she called a proud stand for gay civil rights in the face of widespread bigotry. O'Donnell, who may have done more to end anti-gay bigotry in this country than any other individual, deserves our admiration for the courage she has displayed. It is also good to see her talking common sense again.

Posted by PAUL at 2/26/2004 08:30:00 PM

My House is a Terrorist Cell

It used to be that you could joke about what a teacher's union would do if it had unlimied power, but that was well before the 11 September attacks. It was when Albert Shanker was still running the American Federation of Teachers, and it was obvious that Woody Allen was being absurd.

When Secretary of Education Rod Paige declared before an assembly of governors that the National Education Association was a "terrorist organization," he might have thought that he was channelling that Woody Allen wackiness. Instead, Paige's comments met with as much approval as Woody Allen's dubious conflation of longtime girlfriend and longtime girlfriend's stepdaughter. And that fairly unified reaction made me happy, although it chagrined my wife to know that her dues were going to some sort of terrorist outfit.

(Imagine the vitriol that would have flown from all corners of the so-called liberal media if some Clinton cabinet member had said that the National Rifle Association was "a terrorist organization.")

For the moment, give Rod Paige the benefit of the doubt. I can understand why Paige thinks that the NEA is a pain in the neck. it pushes for adequate funding of public schools, opposes high-stakes testing that meshes poorly with curriculums, and opposes key elements of Republican education strategy, likemost school voucher programs. But what surprised me was how much the American public agrees with the NEA and not with our esteemed Dr. Paige.

In May and June of 2003, the Gallup Poll conducted its annual survey of American attitudes toward public education. The American public, it turns out, agrees with the NEA on its top priorities.

1. The public has high regard for the public schools, wants needed improvement to come through those schools, and has little interest in seeking alternatives. The number assigning an A or a B to schools in their community is 48%, with an additional 31% assigning the grade of C. The number of A's and B's rises to 55% for public school parents and to 68% for parents asked to grade the public school their oldest child attends. The number believing that reform should come through the existing public schools is 73%, up from 69% in 2002, while the number of those seeking an alternative is down to 25%....

4. The public is concerned about getting and keeping good teachers, thinks teacher salaries are too low, and is willing to see higher salaries paid to teachers teaching in more challenging situations. Sixty-one percent say schools in their communities have trouble getting good teachers, and 66% say they have trouble keeping good teachers. Fifty-nine percent say teacher salaries are too low, and 65% believe higher salaries should be paid as an incentive for teaching in schools determined to be in need of improvement.

And other recent polls, in July 2002, November 2002 and November 2003 indicate that Americans trust teachers more than most common professions. Pretty good for a bunch of terrorists.

Edited on 7 March 2004 to clarify that Soon-Yi Previn was not Woody Allen's stepdaughter. That was careless of me, and I regret the error.

Posted by Tim W at 2/26/2004 02:17:00 AM

Hanky Banky

Boston's bank customers are already seeing the implications of the acquisition of Fleet Bank by Bank of America, and the actual purchase will not happen until April Fool's Day. What has received some attention is the decision by Citizens Bank to offer a free checking account to customers who use direct deposit—Bank of America offers a similar product in many of its markets, although it has not committed to doing so in Boston.

But at a time when mega bank mergers are the norm, Citizens' offer of "free for life" checking comes with a catch: It is valid only as long as the bank is not sold. Otherwise, the acquiring bank would set its own rules, said Jackson, the Citizens spokeswoman.

She emphasized that the bank is not likely to be sold. Citizens is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, and it has been actively expanding its market share in the Northeast.

Citizens currently offers customers a basic checking account with a $2.50 monthly fee, limited ATM use, and limited check writing. The new Green Checking account substantially improves that offer, taking away most of the fees and restrictions on checking.

The new offerings also appear to outstrip Fleet's Self Service checking account, which charges a $7 monthly fee and a 50-cent transaction fee on some checks. With direct deposit, Fleet lowers the monthly fee to $5, but the bank charges $2 every time customers talk to a teller about their accounts.

A banking price war is good news for consumers who have had to go to much smaller banks than Fleet and Citizens to get free or even low-fee checking accounts in recent years.

But how will Citizens make up for the fees that it will not longer collect from its retail banking customers? We now know how!

Until a few weeks ago, Citizens was part of the surcharge-free SUM ATM network, a subset of the NYCE network of banks in the Northeast. Update (27 April 2004): I have since learned that this particular claim is overstated.) Members of the SUM consortium agree not to charge fees at the ATMs that they own to customers of other banks in the consortium. The customer's bank can charge a fee for using a "foreign ATM," but the foreign ATM cannot charge a fee of its own. The consortium started in 1998 when a number of smaller banks decided to band together to counter the growing dominance of Fleet, BankBoston (since merged with Fleet), and Citizens.

One of the original SUM members was USTrust of Massachusetts; when Citizens purchased US Trust in 2000, it made a promise to the Massachusetts Division of Banks that it would join the SUM network and back off its previous decision to charge fees to other banks' customers at its machines.

At the public hearing the Board raised the issue of ATM surcharges in light of the fact that Citizens Bank assessed such a fee while USTrust was the largest member of the surcharge free network, SUM. The Petitioner's oral testimony was that it would honor the terms and conditions of USTrust's contract with SUM. Moreover, the Petitioner stated it was in the process of reviewing its strategic position on ATM surcharges. The supplemental filing by the Petitioner confirmed the oral testimony. The Board has noted that Citizens Financial announced on November 22, 1999 that Citizens Bank will also now participate in the surcharge free SUM network. This action will currently add approximately 255 new ATM locations to the network and will benefit customers of Citizens and USTrust as well as all customers of banks participating in the SUM network.

It's not clear that Citizens joined the SUM network to get its acquisition of US Trust approved, but contemporary accounts noted the coincidental timing. In 1999, the head of the bank proclaimed the benefits of getting rid of surcharges:

"In the short run, we'll lose fees, but we feel we'll make up for it in the long run," Thomas J. Hollister, president and CEO of Citizens Bank, said yesterday.

Hollister said market research shows many bank customers hate paying ATM surcharges. "The SUM network is a terrific feature," he said. "I've been talking to customers off and on all day about it and people are delighted."

Hollister believes the bank will attract more customers by removing the surcharges.

Citizens has not exactly trumpted the news that it has abandoned the SUM network. Earlier this month, its ATM kiosks received new signage that replaced the SUM logo with that of the STAR network, a mostly midwestern consortium. (The STAR network website does not list citizens as a participant, though.) In fact, the SUM network's own list of participating institutions still lists Citizens Bank of Massachusetts as a member.

What is telling has been the promises, or lack thereof, on this front in more recent acquisitions by Citizens. When it bought Cambridgeport Bank last year, it made no such promise to the Massachusetts Division of Banks. By contrast, Banknorth, another serial acquirer of smaller banks in the Boston area, has consistently made light of its continued participation in the surcharge-free ATM network.

What makes ATM surcharges particularly annoying is that the owner of the machine has already been paid for the transaction. Typically the network pays the owner of the machine a small fee (generally in the range of 40 to 50 cents), tacks on a small charge, and bills the customer's bank. Many, but by no means all, banks pass along these charges to their customers in the forms of fees for using a foreign ATM. While I would rather not pay that sort of fee, I know that my bank is both trying to profit from the transaction and trying to recoup its actual transaction costs. But when the foreign ATM tries to charge me 75 cents to $1.50, then I know that I'm being ripped off.

Citizens promised, in both oral and written testimony to the state banking overseers, that it would maintain the surcharge-free machines of the bank that it acquired. But no one thought to get Citizens to keep making those promises. And now we know how it can afford to offer free checking to its new customers: through a bit of hanky banky.

Posted by Tim W at 2/26/2004 01:29:00 AM

25 February 2004

Blue States, Nothing But Blue States . . .

Alan Greenspan may have just put both Florida and Arizona in the "Blue State" column by calling for future reductions in Social Security to combat Bush's deficits. Karl Rove must be calling for Greenspan's head. Greenspan has to know the political harm this will cause Bush. Twelve years ago, Bush's father looked to Greenspan to throw his re-election campaign a lifeline but the reduction in interest rates never came, and George Herbert Walker Bush went down to defeat. Greenspan has certainly given the younger Bush everything he could want in low interest rates. Bush squandered that favorable monetary policy and has only his own administration to blame. Gore's "lockbox" that Bush and the "liberal media" made so much fun of is looking pretty good right now.

Posted by PAUL at 2/25/2004 06:15:00 PM

24 February 2004

Brad DeLong

Brad DeLong is essential reading.

Posted by PAUL at 2/24/2004 07:35:00 AM

22 February 2004

Spying for Dummies

In one of my favorite Bill Murray movies, The Man Who Knew Too Little, Murray spoofs a genre of literature and films made famous by Ian Flemming and Alfred Hitchcock: espionage. Murray's spy spoof is understated in comparison to Michael Myers's Austin Powers, the hugely successfully caricature of lover and cold warrior rolled into one debonair leading man. Murray is immensely funny as a Midwesterner who believes he is acting out a role in an avant-garde London theater when, in fact, he has fallen into a scheme by Russian and British spoofs to recharge the Cold War and recreate the demand for spies.

No doubt, feeling their image was getting shagged by Hollywood liberals, our intelligence community wanted to change its cultural image. It was bad enough when films like the Parallax View and JFK portrayed our intelligence community as subverting democracy through domestic assassination, but, at least those films did not hold up our intelligence agents and agencies to public ridicule. In response, a Cleveland-based company that sponsors niche museums, like that city's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, worked with an advisory board packed with former spies and senior government officials to revitalize a section of Washington, DC along with the image of espionage. The result is The International Spy Museum, a $30 million mini amusement park, which opened in July 2002. The "museum" is a Republican wet dream, a for-profit enterprise that received millions in public money and paints the world in the simplest of terms.

A more apt moniker for the project would be the Revisionist History Museum. I am told that the CIA, which keeps its own spy museum in Langley closed to the public, encourages visitors to The International Spy Museum. After a quick visit you will not wonder why. The trinkets of the trade and double agents are on display, but there is little or no evidence of the threat of Big Brother that Americans face. In the time it took me to get through the museum I saw virtually no evidence of domestic surveillance. It is a world cleansed of J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO aimed at attacking political dissent or Retired Adm. John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness efforts. One exhibit went so far as to claim that American traitors handed the Soviets the Manhattan Project's secrets, and then counted down to a nuclear explosion. An objective observer may even misunderstand the exhibit to be promoting the benefits of Mutually Assured Destruction. I assure you that was not the message. The Soviets are portrayed not as allies that lost 25 million people fighting fascism, but as a bad guy that tried to steal our secrets and destroy our way of life.

The International Spy Museum reinforces the simple good versus evil mantra of the Bush administration. At a time when the Executive Branch outs real intelligence officers in retaliation for their spouses speaking truthfully about weapons of mass destruction, lets hope Americans see the truth.

Posted by PAUL at 2/22/2004 07:49:00 PM

Physical and Psychological Walls

I just returned from a business trip to Washington where I filled in some gaps in my schedule with a little sightseeing. Having made numerous trips to DC, this was my first extended stay during the presidency of George W. Bush and post September 11, 2001. In contrast to a refreshing openness that I felt on previous visits, I was left with an overwhelming sense that the federal government has created a physical and psychological perimeter between it and the people. Government structures are protected by physical barriers. Access is denied. The White House, the Pentagon, the FBI Building, the Washington Monument and Walter Reed Hospital now have the appearance of American embassies in countries where we are not welcome. It was eerie.

It gave me hope that in contrast to the institutional fortress mentality, the people of Washington, those that make it home and visitors like myself, were out and about living life. Beautiful weather in the low to mid fifties did much to lift my spirits and appeared to have a contagious effect on virtually everyone I encountered. People flocked to central meeting places with no outward concern for security. The Metro was crowded with passengers. The shops and restaurants of Union Station were busy. It also says something about what our leaders value that none of these public gathering places were secured in any way.

When we attacked Iraq we secured the oil-fields, not the people, and not the antiquities. It should not be surprising that our president assumed the mission in Iraq was accomplished not by winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people but by taking control of the country's natural resources and forcing into hiding corrupt leaders that were once our obediant servants. Our government uses similar logic at home.

America's greatness is in our diversity and openness. It is a lesson we need to remember at home and abroad.

Posted by PAUL at 2/22/2004 03:40:00 PM

20 February 2004

Proud Mary Keep on Burning

From the helpful folks at the Mojo Blog from Mother Jones magazine comes word of an excellent guerrilla marekting campaign.

During the 2000 vice presidential debate, Dick Cheney sounded like a liberal when it came to gay rights:

[Bernard] SHAW: Senator, sexual orientation. Should a male who loves a male and a female who loves a female have all—all—the constitutional rights enjoyed by every American citizen?... Mr. Secretary?

[Cheney:] I think the fact of the matter, of course, is that matter is regulated by the states. I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions and that's appropriate. I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area.

I try to be open-minded about it as much as I can and tolerant of those relationships.

But now that gay marriage is a hot button for religious conservatives, Cheney is dead set against states coming to the conclusion that civil marriage is for gays and lesbians as well as straight people. So Cheney has thrown his support behind a movement to amend the federal Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage.

This would all be garden-variety hypocrisy except that Mary Cheney, his daughter, has been out of the closet as a lesbian for years. And the wonderful folks at dearmary.com want to remind Mary Cheney that her father—and, since she's managing his campaign for re-election, her employer—wants to perfrom a preemptive strike on her civil rights.

Please send a letter of your own.

Posted by Tim W at 2/20/2004 08:40:00 PM

19 February 2004

The Supermarket Labor Market

On the East Coast, there is good news in the supermarkets. Stop and Shop avoided a strike by members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and connecticut by coming to terms with union negotiators on a new contract. The two sides settled disagreements over pay and health benefits: the contract calls for modest increases in hourly wages, but also requires Stop and Shop to cover the full cost of health insurance. Workers will pay slightly higher co-payments for office visits and prescriptions, but will not the insurance premiums themselves.

On the West Coast, where three grocery chains are dealing with the same sort of issues, the gloomy news continues, albeit with a glimmer of hope—the two sides are still talking.

Workers at Albertsons, Kroger Co.'s Ralphs and Safeway's Vons chains have been on strike or locked out since Oct. 11. More than 59,000 workers are off work—although the union claims that 70,000 members are affected by the contract talks. That's because about 11,000 members of the UFCW's Southern California locals work at Stater Brothers and other regional chains that are bound by the contract but are not on strike or locked out.

On the West Coast, the major chains, feeling the shadow of Wal-Mart, have decided to try to break the unions instead of trying to force Wal-Mart to change its bottom-feeding habits. On the East Coast, similar companies don't make serious union-busting efforts; don't have long lockouts that hurt morale and corporate profits; and don't become easy targets for their competitors. Wal-Mart will have a harder time trying to crack the New England supermarket market because it will have to match union pay levels, and Stop and Shop management knows it. The myopic barons of the West Coast chains still don't understand.

Posted by Tim W at 2/19/2004 02:20:00 AM

Error-Correcting Memory

Bob Somerby has been on a roll lately at his Daily Howler web site; his insight and relentlessness on how the American media cover politics has been particularly indispensible over the past several weeks. Lately, he has shown proper dismay at the failings of journalists who have covered George Bush's adventures in the Texas and Alabama National Guard. In Monday's column, he urged journalists to reconcile what they hear in interviews with the known facts of the matter:

Finally! Finally, someone had reported serving with Bush! But there was one small problem with Calhoun’s claim. His account contradicted the basic chronology of the case—a timeline that has been clear and unchallenged for the past four years. Allen and his editors—hopeless incompetents—seemed ignorant of the story’s simplest facts.

Yes! It is vital for journalists to remember that a story with a history must take that history into account. You don't have to be a historical materialist to recognize that.

But Somerby later falls into a trap of his own. It's not a fatal one, but it's real enough.

And that’s where the problem comes in. No, dear readers, people can’t recall what they did, said or heard in 1972. You’ll never learn if Bush served in Bama based on such claimed recollections. How inane—how irrelevant—was Roig-Franzia’s report? He started by noting what a former Bush girl friend told a small newspaper four years ago. Emily Marks Curtis "told the paper that she had dated Bush while they both worked on the 1972 Senate campaign of [Winton] Blount, and that Bush had talked of going to Guard duty on the weekends," the Post scribe said. But alas! As Roig-Franzia noted, "even [Curtis] has no firsthand knowledge of [Bush’s] service in the Alabama National Guard, and relies, she said, on what she heard from the 26-year-old Bush." Alas! We have no way of knowing if Curtis was sincere when she made her claims about Bush; beyond that, if she was sincere in her claims, we have no way of knowing if her memory is accurate. In short, you can’t settle anything with "evidence" like this. But on the very day that Getler complained about the way the Post buries crucial reporting, this stupid story was out on page one, wasting the paper’s prime real estate.

Somerby's main point, with which I concur, is that the Washington Post is yet again putting unsubstantiated tales on its front page but putting real facts and history deep in the innards of its news section. The problem is that he claims that no one remembers what they did 32 years ago, in 1972. Well, I remember a whole lot from 1972, even though I was in kindergarten and first grade at the time. (On one hand, being in grade school meant that I killed fewer brain cells, whether from alcohol, drugs, or just too many Yes albums, than many adults. On the other hand, young kids don't know that it pays to remember the details of their everyday lives.) Indeed, I cannot tell you everything that I did, said, or heard in 1972. But I do remember an awful lot. I can tell you about my kindergarten and first grade teachers, and some of the lessons that they taught. I can tell you who the tallest kids in kindergarten were and why it was fun when two of us reached four feet tall. I can tell you about the day that my father came into kindergarten for show and tell. I can tell you about the two species of ants that were on our first-grade playground, about why I hated the jungle gym there, about the math and language arts curriculums, about how much milk and hot lunch and ice cream cost, about how scary the janitor looked and how nice he really was, and who my good friends were. In short, I remember a whole lot about my life in 1972. George Bush can't or won't—and he was an adult in 1972, not a six-year-old. If I had to, I could track down some of my classmates who could verify some of my recollections. So far, George Bush not only has not found someone to verify what he was doing in Alabama then, but has also not explained what he was doing there, either.

Posted by Tim W at 2/19/2004 01:47:00 AM

Talking About a Revolution

Quick: name a singer from the British Isles who's making a big splash in politics. Okay: now, name one who's not named Bono.

Billy Bragg has a cause that won't get him a lot of television time, but might make a huge difference to the cause of democracy in the United Kingdom. Currently, the House of Lords is a curious amalgam of 26 Anglican bishops, 92 hereditary peers, a handful of judges, and a passel of life peers appointed by the Queen. Jonathan Freedland explains that Bragg has a radical idea that is both simple and revolutionary. At first, it seems odd that a committed leftist like Bragg would be worrying about the proper make-up of the House of Lords, but how else can a right-minded Brit overcome the nasty vestiges of aristocratic government? (Trying to blow up the House of Parliament, for example, is likely to work as well in 2005 as it did in 1605.)

Bragg's cause is the reform of the House of Lords (you can see why a three-minute pop song has so far proved elusive). Like a lot of people, he has a scheme for what should replace the current mix of bluebloods, cronies and party hacks—all of them unelected. Unlike a lot of people, when he pesters MPs with his ideas, he tends to get his calls returned.

Last week came a breakthrough: an hour-long session with the cabinet minister responsible for constitutional reform, Lord Falconer, followed by meetings with the leader of the House of Commons, Peter Hain, and Labour party chairman, Ian McCartney. Those close to Lord Falconer say he takes Bragg's idea very seriously: "It's not the only game in town, but it is certainly being kicked around." Hain has gone further, publicly floating the Bragg scheme himself. Next week the government will publish a bill for the next stage of Lords' reform, calling for the removal of the remaining hereditary peers and the creation of an independent appointments commission. Expect the surrounding debate to include some warm words about the Bragg plan.

So what is it? It's not much of a slogan and it won't have them lighting candles or waving lighters at the next Bragg concert, but the singer wants the second chamber filled by a secondary mandate. Simply put, seats in the second chamber would be allocated proportionally and in line with the share of the votes cast for the Commons at the general election. No separate election, just the same votes counting twice.

Here's how it would work. If Labour got 43% nationally, it would get roughly 43% of the seats in the new house. The MSCs, members of the second chamber, would be chosen from party lists, much as they are now for PR contests in Scotland and Wales or for the European parliament. It would not be a straightforward national contest, but broken up into the 12 "nations and regions" of Britain, with 25 members for each one. So if the Lib Dems won, say, 50% of the total vote in the south-west, they would get at least 12 of that region's 25 members in the 300-seat second chamber.

Bragg reckons his scheme cracks all the aged chestnuts of a debate that has remained unresolved in British politics for almost a century. Those who insist our constitution rests on the primacy of the Commons will be satisfied, because choosing a government to sit in the Commons would still be the primary purpose of each vote cast in a general election. The second chamber is merely a bonus: buy one, get one free.

At the same time, the scheme would deliver what those who advocate straightforward election have always wanted: democratic legitimacy. The members would be there as a result of votes, not the whim of a prime minister or his chums. That, says Bragg, would reconnect those turning off politics—and refusing to turn out at the polls—with the democratic process. Right now, those in safe seats can feel their vote is futile: "Labour/the Tories always win here anyway." Under this system, even if the result in the local Commons constituency were a foregone conclusion, the regional PR contest would not be. Every vote would count much more.

It would also bring new blood into Westminster. With just a 4% threshold to clear, the Greens, Scottish Socialists and UK Independence party could all expect to make their debut in the UK parliament. The British National party would probably make it, too. Bragg is not worried. "It would shine a torch into the dirty little corner where the BNP defecate on our democracy, and that would be much more powerful than duffing them up in the street—which I'm also in favour of."

Don't tell the Supreme Court here in the United States, but I think Bragg's on to something: the popular vote actually counting in elections!

Posted by Tim W at 2/19/2004 01:07:00 AM

Hybrid Rigor

Carl Pope and Ron Gettelfinger usually don't agree on much; Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club and Gettelfinger is president of the United Auto Workers. But the Bush Administration has managed to get them to agree on government policies toward automobiles. I suppose that's progress.

Under current rules, automobile manufacturers must meet standards for fuel efficiency—27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks—that apply separately for domestic and imported vehicles. General Motors, for example, cannot use its Korean subsidiary's subcompact car as a counterweight against the larger cars of its Cadillac division.

Pope and Gettelfinger note that the Bush administration plan is to gut these rules:

The Bush administration is proposing to scrap these standards for a new system that would establish a series of vehicle weight categories, with a separate standard for each category. Basically, heavier vehicles would have lower fuel standards. Since they would no longer need to meet a fleetwide average, automakers would be free to add weight to all of their vehicles to make them qualify for heavier weight categories.

The result would be a reduction in overall fuel economy and an increase in pollution. America's dependence on foreign oil would increase, and our environment would suffer.

The shift to a weight-based system could also jeopardize the jobs of thousands of Americans who work, either directly or indirectly, on the production of small cars.

In November, when a driver rear-ended our 2000 Honda Civic, my wife was unhurt but our car was totalled. We would have loved to buy a reliable American car that got better gas mileage and had cleaner emissions than our old car (which went 35 miles per gallon on the highway and 28 miles per gallon in the city). In 2004, an American car like that does not exist: the closest is a Ford Focus that has excellent emissions but gets slightly worse gas mileage. On the other hand, both Toyota and Honda offered cars with a hybrid gas-electric engine that promised gas mileage well above 45 miles per gallon and very low emissions. Our hybrid works great: it gets about 38 miles per gallon in mixed driving when the weather is fit for Winnipeg, but 45 miles per gallon when it's relatively warm. And it's built like a Japanese car. I just wish that American manufacturers would at least try to make one like it.

Japanese auto manufacturers are making clean and efficient cars. By contrast, the manufacturers in Detroit are hoping to concentrate on dirty and inefficient trucks masquerading as cars (and import a few small, efficient cars from Korea and China).

Posted by Tim W at 2/19/2004 12:46:00 AM

That Danged Liberal Media

Imagine that you are the managing editor of what many observers would call a liberal major daily newspaper in what many observers would call a major liberal Northeastern media market. Imagine that it's Wednesday, the day after both the Wisconsin primary and the dasy after a special election for an open Congressional seat in Kentucky. A local politician has won the Wisconsin primary in a close race, and the third-place showing of one of his rivals means that the Democratic presidential race is a two-man race—so it's reasonable to give the Wisconsin story top billing.

But the story from Kentucky is pretty compelling as well. The Democrat won, by a significant margin, a district that voted Republican in 2000 for both the House and the White House. And the Democrat did so by raising money over the Internet.

Well, in the real world, the Boston Globe, part of the so-called liberal media, devoted not a single word of Wednesday's edition to the story from Kentucky—not even an iota from the wire services.

Posted by Tim W at 2/19/2004 12:18:00 AM

17 February 2004

In Critique of Pure Tolerance

Joe Trippi has a blog—http://www.changeforamerica.com/blog/—up and running. I must admit I thought Eric Alterman's recent condemantion of Deaniacs was a bit over the top but reading some of the rants on Trippi's site has left me questioning my tolerance. It's hard to read some idiot call John Kerry a coward. I'm hoping Trippi reigns in much of the nonsense because the site has a lot to offer. Most of these people are too young to be this cynical.

Posted by PAUL at 2/17/2004 09:41:00 PM

13 February 2004

Regular People

I'm glad that Brian McGrory is happy to support the right of two men or two women to get married, but he still doesn't get it.

Imagine, for one brief but glorious moment, if we devoted this kind of attention, this kind of activism, this kind of ambition to something that might matter a little bit more to the everyday lives of regular people?

There is a bit of wisdom in those words—expanding the definition of marriage to same-sex couples will not adversely affect the millions of existing heterosexual marriages in Massachusetts. But there is also a heap of ignorance in those words: regular and heterosexual are hardly proper synonyms. All of the things that McGrory offers for better uses of the legislators' time and energy—feeding the hungry, protecting children, housing the poor, building safer prisoners, or rooting out pedophile priests—affect everyone, not just "regular people."

As one of my favorite political buttons notes, "if gay and lesbian people are given civil rights, then everyone will want them." The only truly regular people are those who get enough fiber.

Posted by Tim W at 2/13/2004 07:36:00 AM

Altared Perception

After two days of parliamentary wrangling and three failed votes on amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, the massachusetts legislature has postponed for four weeks any attempt to contravene the judicial decision that will allow same-sex marraiegs in this state as of 17 May.

Forty-two percent of the Democrats in the combined legislature voted for the Travis amendment, which would ban same-sex marriage on the grounds that only heterosexual marriage promotes "the stability and welfare of society and the best interest of children."

Now is the time for the Green-Rainbow Party of Massachusetts to concentrate a bit more on the grass roots and a bit less on its Moon Base idea of somehow winning the governorship in four years. The party's website is vague about how many candidates will run under the party banner for the 160 seats in the House or 40 in the Senate, but my count pegs it at 10 to 15.

Democrats dominate the Massachusetts legislature and hold 33 of 39 Senate seats and 137 of 160 House seats, and, of course, a fair number of them are liberals whose seats the Greens would normally be loathe to contest. Fully 94 of these same Democrats voted to amend the Massachusetts Constitution to deny a key civil right to a key group in the Green-Rainbow coalition.

It really shouldn't be too hard to target at least some of these retrograde Democrats. The only plank that a Green candidate really needs in her platform is a promise that, when elected, she will not vote for Tom Finneran for Speaker of the House.

I don't mean to disparage the Green Party candidates who are fighting to get seats in representative Town Meetings, School Committees, Boards of Aldermen, and City Councils. But running for state representative is the kind of endeavor that generally rewards one-on-one campaigning and talking about the issues—in other words, doing things the Greens are supposed to be good at. So why aren't they doing it for real?

Posted by Tim W at 2/13/2004 07:26:00 AM

10 February 2004

More Frist for the Mill

This statement from Bill Frist sounds like something that Philip Roth would have had President Tricky say, except that it would have seemed too farcical.

The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, said on Friday that "it is impossible" to have all Americans covered by health insurance, but he predicted that Congress would take incremental steps to expand coverage this year.

Dr. Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said his state was "going bankrupt" as a result of trying to achieve universal insurance coverage.

"It is impossible to get everybody covered," Dr. Frist said at a meeting with journalists. "It's impossible to get to 100 percent."

Remember that Bill Frist is a medical doctor who has run a chain of hospitals. it's not like he should be clueless about how medicine is practiced around the world. Yet practically every advanced industrialized country provides its entire citizenry with universal health coverage. That's so in France, in Canada, in Germany, and even in that coalition member of the willing, Great Britain. Only in the United States would such a normal component of government be considered impossible.

Posted by Tim W at 2/10/2004 10:58:00 PM

08 February 2004

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jesse Kornbluth makes some excellent points about outsourcing and how it could be vastly improved:

But why limit the competition to those who always take the fall for declining profits—people who live from paycheck to paycheck? Why not widen the focus? If budget-busting tax breaks for business and weakened workplace regulations aren't enough to ensure profits, maybe American corporations should consider outsourcing upper-echelon employees—that is, CEOs.

Can an unknown from India or China function at the exalted level of an American CEO? Well, look at Ken Lay. If he's to be believed, he has no idea what went on during his tenure as Enron's top guy, and yet he took home $141 million from Enron in 2000....

So by traditional standards of achievement—intellectual horsepower, leadership and vision or even hours spent in the office—it's getting harder and harder to understand why corporate boards rush to shower huge compensation packages that average $10 million per man and the occasional woman. With some CEOs earning roughly 500 times the salary of their average worker, the most efficient way a company can save millions is with a single stroke of the downsizing blade right at the top of the org chart.

My bet is that Indian or Chinese executives would happily become American CEOs for salaries of $250,000. Would Indian or Chinese CEOs require millions of dollars in sweeteners? Not likely. And it's equally unlikely that they would demand the grotesque going-away payments that are the final prize for departing American CEOs.

It is high time that something like this appeared on the op-ed page of a major American daily magazine. But you could have read the same points on the functional equivalent of this weblog back in July 2002.

Posted by Tim W at 2/08/2004 09:14:00 PM

Weapons of Mass Distortion

According to George W. Bush, war with Iraq was justified not because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction—he did not—but because he could have had them.

It's essential that I explain this properly to the parents of those who lost their lives.

Saddam Hussein was dangerous, and I?m not gonna leave him in power and trust a madman. He's a dangerous man. He had the ability to make weapons [of mass destruction] at the very minimum.

The "ability to make" nuclear weapons would put Saddam Hussein and Iraq into some fine company. The United States presumably has no plans to attack any of the declared nuclear weapons states—Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, and Pakistan—or Israel, widely recognized as a nuclear power. It has been loathe to provoke North Korea, a declared nuclear power that has yet to test any actual nuclear weapons. And it has not expressed any concern about the many advanced industrialized countries that could surely produce a nuclear weapon on short notice—think Germany and Japan.

What a wonderful message to send to our potential adversaries! After all, the United States has a few thousand of these weapons all over the world. And every time a war crops up, we find our leaders refusing to rule out using nuclear weapons in that conflict.

And meanwhile, old Soviet nuclear and chemical weapons lie in what often amounts to minimal security, with the current United States government unwilling to spend a relative pittance to destroy them and keep them out of the hands of real terrorists.

While the United States has spent more than $7 billion to remove all nuclear warheads from three former Soviet republics—Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus—and has destroyed hundreds of missiles, the task remains less than half done. Defense Department figures show that fewer than half of the 13,300 warheads slated for deactivation had been destroyed by the end of 2003, with prospects for finishing the task stretching out more than a decade.

On Jan. 27, Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Managing the Atom Project told the Senate that less than half of 600 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium is even minimally secure. The rest is protected by as little as a rusting fence and a guard, and it will take 13 years to secure it at the current pace, he said.

Almost none of the Soviet 40,000-ton chemical weapons stockpile, much in shells that could fit inside a suitcase, has been destroyed.

Security specialists say disposing of these weapons is the best chance to prevent a more catastrophic follow-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They are calling on the Bush administration to resolve serious bureaucratic delays in the United States and Russia that are hampering efforts to secure dangerous materials.

Our leaders have cut taxes for the most affluent Americans, spent billions of dollars on a war against a country that was no threat to Kuwait, let alone the United States, and flooded the political sphere with ephemeral links between Iraq and terrorist groups, when they could have done something about the most likely way for terrorists to get the weapons that no sane person wants them to have.

Posted by Tim W at 2/08/2004 08:54:00 PM

Donald Rumsfeld Tries to Assure the World

The Bush administration finds itself in a nasty bind of its own making, now that almost every claim that it made about Saddam Hussein's Iraq has proven hollow. This weekend featured a telling quip from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a conference in Munich.

Asked whether America's stature in the world had been diminished since the war, he acknowledged the Iraq war had taken its toll, but contended that it was more because of biased reporting by Arab media like al-Jazeera than anything the United States had done. "I know in my heart and my brain that America ain't what's wrong in the world," he said.

I assume that Donald Rumsfeld honestly means what he says. But he has been quite sure of other things in the recent past—for example, this assertion from June 2003.

More searching in Iraq will uncover Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said following a meeting with House members yesterday.

Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard Myers also said that three divisions' worth of troops from other nations will join coalition forces in Iraq. This will put less pressure on American forces, DoD officials said.

Rumsfeld said he, the chairman and House members discussed charges that the Pentagon hyped intelligence information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program. Rumsfeld, who spoke to reporters outside the hearing room, said U.S. intelligence has been good in Operation Iraqi Freedom. "(The intelligence has) been enriched as they've gone through this past period of years, and that I believe that the presentation made by Secretary Powell was accurate and will be proved to be accurate," he said.

Rumsfeld keeps using those words "know" and "accurate"; I think that they do not mean what he thinks they mean.

Posted by Tim W at 2/08/2004 07:48:00 PM

02 February 2004

Endowment Jones

I used to think that the investment returns on university endowments were two parts puffery and one part justification for bonuses paid to endowment managers.

Now I know better. In three recent private letter rulings, the IRS allowed a university to allow donors to establish charitable trusts that participate in the return of the university's endowment. These trusts can be either charitable remainder trusts (in which income goes to the donor until some event, usually death or the death of both donor and spouse) or charitable unitrusts (in which the income goes to the university, but the principal goes to the donor's heirs at death), with the income tied to the return on the university's endowment.

These rulings will allow universities to use their endowments as more than just marketing tools, but as investment tools. Already, rich donors can save a bundle on income taxes by funding a new trust with stocks that had appreciated in value. The donors can then deduct the present value of the donations to the university on their taxes, and avoid all capital gfains taxes on the appreciated value of the assets—but the income component of either trust would generally be a function of the fixed-rate investments available to the market.

When they market either kind of trust, universities will have entered the mutual fund business, but with an important twist—at least in theory, mutual fund managers answer to the shareholders of the funds. University fund managers will have three masters— the university's reliance on endowment income, the prestige of having a large endowment, and the participating alumni. And for universities like Yale and Harvard, which specialize in investing in private equities and real estate, the day-to-day value of the endowment is more than a little subjective. These rulings provide even more reasons to take a liberal view of returns on those kinds of investments.

Posted by Tim W at 2/02/2004 12:34:00 AM

Doing My Bit for the Kucinich Campaign

The latest Quinnipiac University Polling Institute poll, based on interviews from 21 to 25 January, shows George Bush with a 49 percent to 45 percent lead over John Kerry in a hypothetical general election. The 4 percent margin is the smallest in the Quinnipiac poll since Bush led Wesley Clark by a 4 percent margin in October 2003.

Other polls have been more favorable to Kerry—consecutive Newsweek polls, for example, have shown Kerry ahead of Bush. Alas, the Quinnipiac poll would have been skewed even more slightly to the conservative side had not your faithful correspondent been one of the respondents. And who knows where Dennis Kucinich would have ended up in the final reckoning of 406 Democrats without my tally?

Posted by Tim W at 2/02/2004 12:01:00 AM

01 February 2004

Wit and Wisdom for Super Bowl Sunday

I found the following wit and wisdom while cruising the web this morning. The last quote, posted by a FReeper, gives me hope.

"How can we possibly know who is going to win the Super Bowl without having any tracking polls?"

"The Raiders have Joementum!"

"If everything you knew about drugs came from the taxpayer-funded ads on TV, you might think marijuana is the root cause of teenage sex, manslaughter and terrorism."

"The images of sex and pleasure used to entice drinkers will always have more impact than the Partnership for a Drug-free America's typically irritating mix of absurd hyperbole and stern paternalism."

"Our government at work doing what they do best; peddling lies to the rest of us, and using our money to do it with. I knew from the get go that this so called War on Drugs was pure BS. Hope I don't come to say the same about the War on Terror, though I'm not optimistic these days."

Posted by PAUL at 2/01/2004 10:05:00 AM

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