Saturday, December 31, 2011

New year arrives

Goodbye 2011 and good riddance; hello 2012, what's next?

war is kinda over.jpg

One down, mostly. One to go, dismally slowly. Future wars to avoid and avert; part of our human condition.

Friday, December 30, 2011

This is what a political opening seized looks like: New Deal history

At this time of year, I'm always tempted to announce the book I've enjoyed, or admired, or learned most from over the past year. Some years, I resist this silly temptation, but today I won't. My "Best Book" for 2011 was Stanford historian David M. Kennedy's Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.

Thinking about possible choices, I was a little surprised to realize that several grand historical surveys had made the greatest impression on me. This is not how history is supposed to be written by "serious" historians; most academic history digs into a niche in past time, striving for accurate description of details we can never fully know, often getting lost in minutia. Grand sweeping tomes seem excessively ambitious, a dangerously pretentious over-reach. One of the attractions of Kennedy's book is that he dared to chronicle such a long and episodically diverging period and got away with it. At the very least, it would have been possible to envision quite separate volumes about domestic concerns from 1929-39 and the World War II years that followed. But he makes them feel a single epoch, just as they were lived. I was often awed by how gracefully he wove in all the themes that a contemporary historian wants to be sure to include -- women's experience, the implications on events of the country's historic racism, the tiny gay minority who occasionally stuck their heads up in this period. This is not easy as the records were created and left by others.
Over time I'll pull other tidbits from Kennedy's opus to try to get perspective on our own times, but right now I want to share the most significant insight I took away from this volume: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal program was not only an effort to restore employment to pre-Depression levels; he was out to change and stabilize the country's economic and political realities much more broadly. Here's Kennedy explaining:

Why did [Roosevelt] reject Roy Howard's [a newspaper chain owner] counsel that "there can be no real recovery until the fears of business have been allayed" and instead insist on gratuitously provoking business and thickening its anxiety? Those questions elude easy answers if… one assumes that economic recovery was Roosevelt's highest priority. But if one recognizes that lasting social reform and durable political realignment were at least equally important items on Roosevelt's agenda, then some of the mystery lifts.

I report that and think -- well, isn't that obvious? No it is not. Neither Barack Obama nor his critics seem to be responding to the Lesser Depression with this level of ambition. The 2009 stimulus and subsequent muddled economic pump-priming are aimed at restoring the status quo from before the bubble of the 00s, not rebuilding something stronger, fairer and better. Pressures -- the 99 percent movement and acknowledgment of rising inequality -- are mounting, but there's no sign that elites yet feel they have no choice but to encourage a new plateau of stability.

It's worth following Kennedy's description of how Roosevelt moved from plugging holes as banks collapsed in the first days of his administration to pushing through a program for long term economic stability. A significant feature was something we're not even considering these day: there was a great mass of people for whom the Depression was nothing new, just as the Lesser Depression is today, though since Bill Clinton we've learned not to even mention the perennially poor. Eleanor Roosevelt's reporter friend was sent out to chronicle life in the country outside the bright lights of the big cities -- Washington could do with some of that today.

As Lorena Hickok's travels progressed, she gradually came to acknowledge the sobering reality that for many Americans the Great Depression brought times only a little harder than usual. … The "old poor" were among the Depression's most ravaged victims, but it was not the Depression that had impoverished them. They were the "one-third of a nation" that Franklin Roosevelt would describe in 1937 as chronically "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." By suddenly threatening to push millions of other Americans into their wretched condition, the Depression pried open a narrow window of political opportunity to do something at last on behalf of that long-suffering one third, and in the process to redefine the very character of America.

It took elites awhile, as it has since the financial panic of 2009, to understand that this wasn't just a temporary economic hiccup.

[The President's advisor Harry] Hopkins himself was soon speaking of workers who had passed into "an occupational oblivion from which they will never be rescued by private industry. . . . Until the time comes, if it ever comes," he argued, "when industry and business can absorb all able-bodied workers -- and that time seems to grow more distant with improvements in management and technology -- we shall have with us large numbers of the unemployed. Intelligent people have long since left behind them," Hopkins continued, "the notion that. . . the unemployed will disappear as dramatically as they made their appearance after 1929. . . . For them a security program is the only answer."

In response to gathering pressure from the left (LaFollete, Sinclair Lewis, unions and Communists) and the right (Father Coughlin and Huey Long) Roosevelt pushed through what we think of as the New Deal in the second two years of his first term.

The unifying design of that program took different forms in different sectors of the nation's life, but the overall pattern of the Second New Deal taking shape in 1935 was becoming clear. In the social realm, the dominant motif was security; in the economic realm, regulation (which was security by another name); and in the physical realm, planned development. In all those domains the common objective was stability. No other aspiration more deeply informed the Second New Deal, and no other achievement better represented the New Deal's lasting legacy. Roosevelt now sought not simply recovery, nor merely relief, nor even the perpetual economic growth that would constitute a later generation's social and political holy grail. Roosevelt sought instead a new framework for American life, something "totally other" than what had gone before…, something that would permit the steadying hand of "that organized control we call government" to sustain balance and equity and orderliness throughout American society. Roosevelt's dream was the old progressive dream of wringing order out of chaos, seeking mastery rather than accepting drift, imparting to ordinary Americans at least some measure of the kind of predictability to their lives that was the birthright of the Roosevelts and the class of patrician squires to which they belonged. …It was a dream now brought within reach of realization by that same Depression and by the sense of possibility and the political fluidity it induced.

Will the country ever get there again?

"Honorable mentions" for 2011's "best book":
Paris 1919
Empire of Liberty
In hard times, history comforts. Somehow our forbears muddled through; we might too.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Keeping on, keeping on

I'm sure no one cares but me -- yesterday I passed the 1000 running mile mark for the year.

There were costs, but I'll willingly take them.

That missing ad for Lowe's

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the big-box hardware chain Lowe's had bowed to an Islamophobic pressure group and pulled its ads from a reality TV show that featured a U.S. Muslim family.

Here's suggested replacement ad, directed by Gregory Bonsignore and starring Rizwan Manji and Parvesh Cheena, both of whom starred in the NBC sitcom Outsourced. Enjoy.

H/t Religion Dispatches.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Line drawings in the 'hood

strutting line bird.jpg
He struts about, taking the space.

line man with mustache.jpg
He pokes his head up to take a look around.

Who is he? I don't know, but the city is more interesting for the adornment.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Laws we could do without

This week John G. Lawrence, who involuntarily lent his name the Supreme Court decision that legalized consensual, private gay sex in 2003, died privately as he had lived. Lawrence and his friend Tyron Garner had their bedroom invaded by Texas police and were dragged off to the station in their underwear to be convicted of the misdemeanor sodomy in 1998. According the Lawrence's obituary, Lawrence was not an activist, just pissed off at how he was treated. His name ended up on the decision that legalized the ordinary lives of LGBT people.

A significant fact about this landmark case seldom mentioned then or even now is obvious in this picture of Garner and Lawrence celebrating the Supreme Court decision with a supporter. Would Texas police have invoked the sodomy law if the couple had been of the same race? There's no way to know, but in 1998 prosecutions for "sodomy" were already few and far between.

The obituary quotes Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion in the case:

The U.S. Constitution's framers "knew times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress," Kennedy wrote.

That got me to thinking -- what current laws will look to future generations as no longer "necessary and proper," but instead wrong-headed and oppressive? Naturally my nominations reflect my politics and I may be oblivious to some possibilities, but here's what came to mind:
  • Criminalization of small quantities of recreational drugs. Legalizing marijuana is not my cause, but prohibition has failed. There must be a better approach to the reality that some people don't seem to be able to use drugs responsibly than a bloated prison system and enriching illegal drug dealers.
  • Powerful guns in the hands of private citizens. Target shooting and hunting are sports, but no ordinary individual needs to own automatic weapons whose only function is to kill other humans. Law enforcement would have less justification for its heavy armament and tank vehicles if there were less high-powered weaponry floating around. A New York Times article this morning points out that "typical permit holder — middle-age white men — are not usually major drivers of violent crime." Did they ask any women who they feared with guns? I wouldn't be surprised if "middle-age white men" weren't right up there among those feared.
  • The many private property rights that currently trump protection of the environment. Our cavalier attitude -- if we own it, we can do what we like with it -- is an artifact of a resource rich and sparsely inhabited planet that no longer exists. Law is going to have to enforce responsibility on individuals to protect the commons. If we can't find a way to do that, our societies will perish.
  • The death penalty. People who commit horrendous offenses must suffer punishment to make society whole, but we can stop ordering their deaths as retribution. State killing fails in its objectives; few find closure, no good thing is created, at great cost and social trauma. Let's stop doing it.
What suggestions for conventional yet wrong-headed laws come to mind for readers?

Monday, December 26, 2011

In praise of public defenders

Since I'm working these days on the initiative to end death sentences in California, I'm more than usually aware of the inequities in our criminal justice system. Despite the earnest efforts of courts and lawyers (at least most of them, most of the time), the legal system is neither efficient or reliably fair.

A New York Times editorial reports on a study of one aspect of this that confirmed everything I've observed.

[A Philadelphia] study examined murder cases of indigent defendants with similar profiles in the city from 1994 to 2005. The conviction rate of clients represented by staff lawyers working for the public defender association, a nonprofit organization that the city pays for its services, was 19 percent lower than those represented by court-appointed lawyers working alone. Their expected time served in prison was 24 percent lower, and they were far less likely to get a life sentence.

Philadelphia’s public defenders, who are randomly assigned to represent one out of every five indigent defendants accused of murder, are paid decent salaries, have money to hire expert witnesses and work in experienced teams. Court-appointed lawyers, representing the rest, are poorly paid, tend to take on more cases than they can handle and generally practice without feedback from other lawyers. As a result, the study concludes, defendants with court-appointed lawyers often get inadequate counsel, in violation of the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, and are vulnerable to greater punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

It's as if the city of Philadelphia had set up a scientific experiment to discern what method of providing lawyers to the poor achieved better results -- and the results are in.

But wouldn't providing better legal representation cost a lot of money? Well perhaps, but we are talking about depriving people of their freedom, so we ought to get it right. And the same study suggests the cost may not be so large as we intuitively think.

... if the state helped to improve the quality of counsel, it would achieve fairer outcomes, and possibly reduce prison costs by over $200 million. The citizens of Pennsylvania would benefit, as well as the indigent defendants.

All this accords with what I've seen when friends ended up before the courts; see a longer description here. Overworked public defenders do a very professional job of representing people who've tumbled into the junkyard of society; we need more, not less, of them.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

If animals could talk ...

There's an enduring and endearing legend in European folklore that on Christmas Eve, in commemoration of the Event in the stable, animals for one night possess human speech.

It is said that humans do not want to actually hear what the animals are saying because, even though they have the gift of speech just one day a year, they usually don’t have many kind things to say about their human masters.

Temple Grandin, writing with Catherine Johnson, in Animals in Translation offers a different window into what animals might be saying if they could speak and we could understand.

Temple Grandin is a scientific student of animal behavior whose prescriptions have become the standard for large scale animal farming in the United States -- she credits being autistic with helping her make sense of what she observes in animal behavior. Here's how she explains:

Animals in Translation comes out of the forty years I've spent with animals. It's different from any other book I've read about animals, mostly because I'm different from every other professional who works with animals. Autistic people can think the way animals think. Of course, we also think the way people think -- we aren't that different from normal humans. Autism is a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans, which puts autistic people like me in a perfect position to translate "animal talk" into English. I can tell people why their animals are doing the things they do.

Grandin has a lot to tell us. Anyone at all interested in animal behavior will be interested in this book, though she seems to me more attuned to dogs and large animals than the critters I see more of in my life that is, domestic cats. Don't I wish I knw what they were thinking. And Grandin sure can make us think. Consider this:

With dolphins, researchers have pretty much reached the conclusion that much of the killing they do serves no evolutionary purpose. Dolphins will slaughter hundreds of porpoises at a time. The only imaginable evolutionary reason for this would be if porpoises compete with dolphins for the same scarce resources, like food. But they don't. Porpoises eat different food than dolphins do. Killing a porpoise doesn't increase a dolphin's chances of surviving and reproducing in any way. The only conclusion is that dolphins kill porpoises because they want to.

I don't know why animal violence happens, but when I read through the research literature I'm struck by the fact that the animals with the most complex brains are also the ones who engage in some of the nastiest behavior. I suspect people and animals probably pay a price for having a complex brain. For one thing, in a complex brain there may be more opportunities for wiring mistakes that will lead to vicious behavior. Another possibility is that since a more complex brain provides greater flexibility of behavior, animals with complex brains become free to develop new behaviors that will be good, bad, or in between. Human beings are capable of great love and sacrifice, but they are also capable of profound cruelty. Maybe animals are, too.

Grandin is so insightful and refreshing for a quality of observation well-exemplified in that passage: she treats human and animal behavior as very similar -- and equal -- mysteries. It's a stance that yields some very thought provoking moments. For example, she tries to answer the human question: are animals as smart as people?

Grandin starts with the observation that humans think smarts equate with language. But there are people who grow to adulthood and function without language -- they are born deaf and live in places where they have no exposure to the language of signs. So she plumbs accounts of the human language-less.

There are probably lots of language-less people in the world. Usually they are people who were born deaf into communities too small to have anyone who spoke sign language, and too poor to have schools for the deaf. But there are also some language-less people who were born into middle-class American homes but were never taught sign. Their brains are normal, and they had normal parents with normal incomes who loved them. They weren't poor and they weren't abused. The only reason they don't have language is that they were never exposed to language.

Susan [Schaller] became interested in language-less people when she volunteered to teach Ildefonso, a deaf mute Mexican immigrant who was raised in a town that had no education for deaf children. A Man Without Words is the story of her work with him. Susan discovered that Ildefonso had no concept of language at all. ...

The main difference between Ildefonso and people who have language is that he was missing a layer of abstract thinking. For instance, he didn't have the categories of real and fake. … He also didn't have just and unjust as abstract categories. It's not that he didn't have morals or a conscience. Susan doesn't say a lot about this, but she writes that Ildefonso became upset one day when she kept insisting on paying for his lunch after he had signed that he wanted to pay. Ildefonso got more and more angry until finally he signed, "God. Friend. Burrito buy I."

"He connected God and friend and placed them above burrito buying," Susan writes. "His anger was that of a religious instructor. I was properly rebuked for my concern for the material world. Who had more money was trivial." Later on he asked her what "God" meant, but he had already figured it out on his own. Susan writes that he had guessed that the word "God" stood for "unseen greatness, apart from and more important than the tangible stuff in front of us."

Although Ildefonso had the idea that there was something greater than the material world, he didn't seem to have any concept of human justice. He had no idea whether it was just or unjust for the green men [immigration police] to catch him and take him back to Mexico; he just knew that's what the green men did, so he needed to stay away from the green men. He was trying to understand the rules, without realizing there were principles behind the rules.

Ildefonso was an innocent. He didn't see all the good and bad that people do, and he didn't know there could be good and bad rules, either. After he learned language, he was sad to learn of the terrible things people do. Animals are innocents, too. Even when animals are treated badly by humans, or see other animals treated badly by humans, they don't seem to develop the abstract categories of just and unjust. Like Ildefonso, animals try to learn the rules without seeming to realize there are principles behind the rules. Since they don't know there are principles underlying the rules they don't realize that the rule itself can be just or unjust, or that a person could be breaking abstract principles of justice. Animals live much closer to the plain facts of the situation.
But the important thing to realize is that Ildefonso's innocence was not the same thing as being stupid, or unable to think. Ildefonso wasn't stupid, and he functioned as a person of normal intelligence and reasoning ability or even above-average intelligence, given that he had been able to immigrate to a foreign country, find work, and manage his life while struggling with a huge disability.

This means that when it comes to animals, we should not equate innocence with lack of intelligence. The fact that a dog never rejects a nasty owner doesn't make him stupid. …

… The lesson from Ildefonso is that although language does make thought more abstract, without language you can think more abstract thoughts than probably anyone has believed possible.

I think for normal people language is probably a kind of filter. One of the biggest challenges for an animal or an autistic person is dealing with the barrage of details from the environment. Normal people with language don't have to see all those details consciously. But I see them, and animals do, too. The details never go away, either. If I think of the word "bowl," I instantly see many different bowls in my imagination, such as a ceramic bowl on my desk, the soup bowl at a restaurant I ate at last Sunday, my aunt's salad bowl with her cat sleeping in it, and the Super Bowl football game. I think that probably happens to animals, too, and 1 wonder what Ildefonso's visual memory was like while he was still a language-less person.

There's a picture: most humans as creatures who constantly filter and organize an onrushing flood of signals, largely unconsciously and apparently effortlessly. I sometimes wonder whether, because we can, we are predisposed to multiply the layers of complexity and and number of stimuli until we either train our faculties to deal with them or our brains and societies frizzle in the attempt. Temple Grandin makes me think about things like that.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday cat blogging: Christmas tree edition

Cats and Christmas trees don't always mix well. I have a vivid recollection of the year in my childhood when our black cat decided the six foot high, tinsel-draped addition to the living room was something to be climbed. Forever after my parents wired trees to nearby window frames. The cat was not ousted; rather the tree was restrained.

Via Ronni Bennett here's Oskar the Blind Kitten discovering the joys of Christmas. Apparently Oskar is a bit of a web phenomenon. There are many clips of his antics.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Christmas present from the New York Times

The "paper of record" editorialized in favor of the campaign I'm working on!

[A judge's rejection of the state's execution procedure] exemplifies California’s capital-punishment system — badly broken and in need of being permanently shut down.

… An exhaustive study released last summer found that since 1978 capital punishment has cost California about $4 billion. The state could save billions without the death penalty, as many citizens grasp: They are well on the way toward gathering the half-million signatures required to put an initiative on the ballot in 2012 that would replace the punishment with life without parole.

California’s system of government-hobbled-by-referendum means only the state’s voters can abolish the death penalty. They should stop this madness of attempting to fix something that is immoral and simply cannot be fixed.

My emphasis. We're going to put it on the November 2012 ballot and replace it with a maximum sentence of life without parole.

To learn more or help out, visit SAFE California.

Digital Christmas

There's a very good chance you've seen this. If not and you are frequenting this blog, you'll probably enjoy it.

Ending California's death penalty and preparing for the holiday are keeping me too busy to blog more today.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

No hope for some of the desperate even in the season of sharing

Last Sunday at church, a friend asked our prayers for "Antonio" who will soon die because he has been denied a heart transplant. The friend is a medical doctor and an ethics official at a local hospital. She has worked feverishly and successfully with Antonio's cardiologist to round up doctors and the facilities to carry out the operation.

Antonio is only marginally a paying patient, because he is an undocumented immigrant. But he's exactly the sort of patient who does well with a donated heart: he's relatively young (40ish), employed, and shows every sign being able to comply with aftercare protocols. There's really only one thing standing between him and a good place on the transplant list: no part of the "health safety net" will pay for the anti-rejection drugs that would keep his new heart beating. It would be irresponsible to place him on a transplant list if the heart might not survive for lack of follow up care. So Antonio's doctors are now scrambling to make visa arrangements so that some of his family can visit him before he dies.

A story by ace reporter Nina Bernstein in the New York Times makes it clear the Antonio's plight is not unique.

Without treatment to replace his failing kidneys, doctors knew, the man in Bellevue hospital would die. He was a waiter in his early 30s, a husband and father of two, so well liked at the Manhattan restaurant where he had worked for a decade that everyone from the customers to the dishwasher was donating money to help his family.

He was also an illegal immigrant. So when his younger brother volunteered to donate a kidney to restore him to normal life, they encountered a health care paradox: the government would pay for a lifetime of dialysis, costing $75,000 a year, but not for the $100,000 transplant that would make it unnecessary.

Go read it all.

We hear a lot about how the U.S. medical system is inefficient and excessively costly. We could do with more awareness that this jerry-built edifice is also simply insane -- and deadly.

Warming Wednesdays: Enjoy that latte while you can

Our warming world apparently is on the way to devastating the business of growing high quality coffees.

You can see [this] clearly in a place like Costa Rica. This Central American nation began exporting coffee in the 1830s, and coffee has played a central role in the nation’s history and economic development ever since. In 2008, coffee was Costa Rica’s third-largest export, valued at more than $300 million annually. Since 2000, however, warming temperatures, a growing number of extreme rainfall events, and volatility in world coffee prices have contributed to a 44 percent plunge in Costa Rican coffee production.

Scientists know that average temperatures in Costa Rica have been rising over the past century. They also know that the Arabica coffee plant’s preferred temperature range is fairly narrow: between 64 and 71° F (18 to 22° C). Both yield and quality decline above that range. Above 93° F (34° C), little photosynthesis takes place within the coffee plant. In Costa Rica, since the 1970s, however, the number of warm days has risen about 2.5 percent per decade. Arabica coffee plants are also highly sensitive to intense rainfall. Scientists know that extreme rainfall events have become more common in Costa Rica, and have been accounting for more of the nation’s total rainfall since the 1960s.

Another devastating factor is that warmer temperatures foster the expansion of the range of one of the most destructive coffee pests in the world: the coffee berry borer. These beetles bore into coffee berries to lay their eggs. The hatched larvae feed on the berry seeds, reducing the yield and quality of the crops. Before 2000, the coffee berry borer was not present in Costa Rica. But, over the past decade as temperatures have risen, pest has come to infest a growing proportion of the nation’s coffee plantations.

Union of Concerned Scientists, Nov. 2011

Having seen the importance of coffee to the peasant economies of Central America, this makes me wonder what happens to all the rural families whose annual cash earnings are dependent on the coffee harvest. Yet more trouble ahead, felt most by the poorest among us.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Too busy to blog today

We're drowning in the petitions that volunteers are collecting to end death sentences in California. That's as it should be. By February 24, we need 750000 signatures from California voters.

See for yourself what we're doing at our newly enhanced SAFE California website. Hey, you can even sign up to help or donate!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Newt's people: perhaps reliving their own hope and change moment?

It looks as if the Newt Gingrich balloon is leaking hot air. Apparently attack ads from the Romney and Ron Paul campaigns are doing their job in Iowa. Good riddance. The nation has real problems. We don't need an egomaniac blowhard dominating the national stage for even two weeks.

I mean the guy is a crackpot. If he were elected President, he claims he'd send the sheriff for judges whose decisions crossed him, put poor kids to work as janitors in their schools, and blow up Iran's mosques which he describes as hiding tunnels for a nuclear bomb project.

Who were the people whose enthusiasms fueled the Newt balloon? Okay, so he is not Mitt Romney and that's enough to attract a lot of Republican voters. Understandable, sort of. Mitt's another ambitious slick talker, who lacks any discernible principles or personal appeal.

Polling showed Newt's demographic base was old people:

Gingrich is attracting a disproportionate share of the senior vote across the board. And given that Iowa and Florida are two of the five oldest states, there’s plenty to recommend the strategy. Indeed, the most dramatic movement for Gingrich so far is in Florida, where one PPP poll showed him with a 47-17 lead over Romney.

Why would some fraction of my age peers and their elders have such fondness for the former Speaker?

I'm terribly afraid these are folks for whom Newt Gingrich was once Mr. Hope and Change. Conservatives had many victories in the era between 1954 and 1994. Their permanent Cold War against the Soviet Union became the unquestioned national stance. Richard Nixon stoked the culture wars that still divide us. And at the end of that time, Ronald Reagan and Bush the First chipped away at the national safety net. But they faced an obstacle: for four solid decades, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and hence retained a voice in national policies even under Republican presidents.

The reasons for that long dominance were not mostly anything that would thrill current progressives: Democrats held the House thanks to state gerrymandering, incumbency and the near life tenure of a mass of Southern white Democrats who resisted racial and other social changes. But hang on they did.

For conservatives of a certain age, Newt was the guy who broke the Democratic stranglehold on Congress. He was the guy who would bring a new era of conservative power that would do away with taxes, regulations and any international restraint on U.S. imperial dominance. I imagine that 1994 election that gave him the Speaker's gavel felt to them something like 2008 felt to many Obama voters who were desperate for a new direction after the squalor and shame of the Bush years.

Newt's enthusiasts didn't get all they wanted, though the one percent made out like the bandits they are from the new political configuration. Newt crashed and burned within a few years, victim of personal overreach and personal sleaze -- I mean the guy tried to impeach a sitting President for a blow job while having an affair with an aide unbeknownst to his second wife.

But Newt's people remember the rush when it seemed, for a minute, they'd overturned the political universe. They want that feeling again.

It's all enough to make me even more dubious than Obama has done about political evangelists of hope and change.

Why would I want to live anywhere else?

The other day I panned the view above Gerbode Valley in Marin Headlands in the midst of a trail run. How much better could life be than have access to this?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"War is U.S."

The last American military convoy crossed over the border from Iraq into Kuwait on Sunday. Mario Tama/Getty Images/New York Times
If anyone doubted that the United States is leaving Iraq like an embarrassed dog hiding its tail between its legs, check out this:
For security reasons, the last soldiers made no time for goodbyes to Iraqis with whom they had become acquainted. To keep details of the final trip secret from insurgents, interpreters for the last unit to leave the base called local tribal sheiks and government leaders on Saturday morning and conveyed that business would go on as usual, not letting on that all the Americans would soon be gone.

Many troops wondered how the Iraqis, whom they had worked closely with and trained over the past year, would react when they awoke on Sunday to find that the remaining American troops on the base had left without saying anything.

“The Iraqis are going to wake up in the morning and nobody will be there,” said a soldier who only identified himself as Specialist Joseph. He said he had immigrated to the United States from Iraq in 2009 and enlisted a year later, and refused to give his full name because he worried for his family’s safety.
Somehow I doubt these Iraqis were quite as surprised as their unwelcome guests thought. We always did underestimate this ancient people.
Andrew J. Bacevich, now Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University and formerly a U.S. Army Colonel, contributed to a Council on Foreign Relations roundtable on the question Was the Iraq War Worth It?
The disastrous legacy of the Iraq War extends beyond treasure squandered and lives lost or shattered. Central to that legacy has been Washington's decisive and seemingly irrevocable abandonment of any semblance of self-restraint regarding the use of violence as an instrument of statecraft. With all remaining prudential, normative, and constitutional barriers to the use of force having now been set aside, war has become a normal condition, something that the great majority of Americans accept without complaint. War is U.S.

One senses that this was what the likes of [Vice President Dick] Cheney, [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, and [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz (urged on by militarists cheering from the sidelines and with George W. Bush serving as their enabler) intended all along. By leaving intact and even enlarging the policies that his predecessor had inaugurated, President Barack Obama has handed these militarists an unearned victory. As they drag themselves from one "overseas contingency operation" to the next, American soldiers must reckon with the consequences. So too will the somnolent American people be obliged to do, perhaps sooner than they think.
I think he has aptly summarized the meaning of our Iraq adventure for those not so unfortunate to have had to live it.

Bishop busted; crowd crunched

UPDATE: on the confrontation between Occupy Wall Street and Trinity Church that yesterday's post touched upon. At the left is the Rt. Rev. George Packard in a paddy wagon after he peacefully climbed the fence into the forbidden property.

Perhaps more representative of the day than this carefully orchestrated symbolic act was what happened outside, as recorded by Brook Packard, the bishop's wife. She was at the front of a crowd of protesters next to the fence when someone tried to snip some of the chain links. She writes at Occupied Bishop.
I stood there in my orange LL Bean jacket, a post-middle aged mom from the suburbs, trying to film my husband. First a line of police started to push the fence on all of us and they were determined. We sat watching the 10-foot chain link fence fall and descend closer and closer to our noses. All coming down on our sitting bodies. At this point, I think I stood up. I was forced close to the fence and turned to face Officer Teague. His knee came up and hit me in the chest. I was grateful for the chained fence – the barrier softened the jolt. I looked him in the eye saying "Please don't knee me." He looked back at me and did again. Did he smile? Then he did it again. I fell backward into the crowd below me feeling the crush behind, in front, and from the fence which the NYPD was still single-mindedly trying to push onto those outside the fence. Then I felt someone pick me up and throw me onto a pile of people. I looked up and it was a police officer; using my own body as a weapon against other peaceful protesters. Who knew the NYPD could be so clever?

There were no commands or advice to us, no higher order of thinking. The collective snake brain was in charge. There was no indication that the crowd should be dispersed as fellow human beings. No discernible objective of justice, peace making, or serving the public. This was "Bloomberg's Army" protecting the private property rights of an Episcopal church with over 10 billion in real estate holdings. ...
Big rich institution meets small vulnerable human beings; crunch.

I'm a long way from these events and have no special knowledge of them, but am moved and riveted by their poignancy and drama.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Occupy, fear, and finding peace this Advent season

Several hundred low wage workers, immigrants mostly, marched through the granite canyons of San Francisco's financial district on Thursday. Organized by Service Employees International Union United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW), they were joined by folks from OccupySF still gathered in front of the Federal Reserve offices despite being evicted from their tents. Local community organizing groups brought strong contingents. The marchers made stops at Wells Fargo Bank and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office. Longer account here.

1we are not afraid2.jpg
They carried what seems to me the essential message of this season of protest. The eruption of the 99 percent has been an announcement that we will not let fear will not rule us any longer.

2-1 percent profits from fear.jpg

Shrinking away in the vain hope that the one percent will let us keep some crumbs from the whole loaf they aim to monopolize has not worked. All that remains is to move beyond our fear.
3we are not afraid.jpg

I've been following with fascination developments on the other side of the country, in New York City, where Occupy Wall Street is challenging the sympathetic, but oh-so-wealthy, Trinity (Episcopal) Church Wall Street to open a patch of unused land to their encampment. So far, the church has given in to fear -- fear of disorder, fear of the unruly poor who are are their neighbors. Trinity is saying "no way."

A retired Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. George E. Packard, has engaged with the movement of the 99 percent and finds himself at something like home. He is blogging his encounter at Occupied Bishop. Here's what he wrote this morning as he and his wife set off to join the crowd at the disputed land, Duarte Park:

Brook and I travel down to Duarte in a few minutes and what awaits us I do not know. I do know that for me and the OWS I know no violence is intended, only peaceful disobedience if it comes to that. …

And speaking of "coming to that" I am still baffled that the Episcopal Church of which I have been a member all my life could not--through Trinity--find some way to embrace these thousands of young people in our very diminishing ranks. (Every year for the last five years we have lost 14,000 members.) Just as we pioneered an awareness of the full membership for the LBGT community what's happening here? How hard would it have been for Trinity to convene legal counsel and say, "Give us some options so that a charter could be granted over the winter months?"

Can a rich institution squeeze through the eye of a needle?
Across the country, another priest put himself alongside Occupy protesters and ended up looking like this when the Seattle police got through with him.
The Rev. John Helmiere recounts his attempt to keep the peace in a frightening confrontation and what happened next here.

Utterly terrified, I made my way to the line between the occupiers and the police, held my arms out, and began shouting to my occupation brothers and sisters: “Peaceful Protest Everyone,” “Keep the Peace,” “Do not respond with violence.” My brothers and sisters on the police force began advancing behind a wall of horses and heavy bicycles. …

As I walked through the metal detector at the jail, a fellow occupier I hadn’t spoken with yet looked at me in my collar and said, “You’ve just been baptized.” …

Father John's entire account is very much worth reading.
In this season of Advent, Christians wait in hope for the coming of the light (literally in the northern hemisphere) and/or the coming of the Light (the child-human in whom we believe Godself joined us for a wonder-filled, tumultuous season). At my church we often sing an Advent refrain that expresses the mix of longing and hope that attend this time:

Come oh come Emanuel [the awaited Messiah],
With your captive children dwell,
Let all our sad divisions cease,
Here on earth, heavenly peace

Our friends who have been inspirited by the movement of the 99 percent are showing those of us who are comfortable -- again -- that the essence of the peace we so value comes with abandoning fear. Peace is not about avoiding conflict, but about giving up fear. Without fear, violence becomes unnecessary. We can get through our conflicts together. When we are afraid, we kill each other.

This is so simple it seems impossible. But really living means finding our courage.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Social Security at risk: now and then

Yesterday the New York Times published an unusually lucid description of the danger to the Social Security program that lurks in the plan to extend last year's emergency cut in the payroll tax. People who care about old people having enough to eat need to understand what's going on.

Critics predict one extension will lead to another as politicians balk at raising taxes to their former level, especially if unemployment remains high.

“Imagine that next December the unemployment rate is 8 percent and a year later it’s 7.4 percent,” said Robert Reischauer, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who is one of two public trustees for Social Security. “We’ll still be trying to stimulate employment and terminating the payroll tax holiday will be a big hit on most families, one that will hurt job growth.”

Democrats fear that repeated extensions would disrupt the link that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt forged to lock in support for Social Security: with workers taxed for their benefits, politicians would not cut them. And Republicans object that transferring general revenues to Social Security to offset the tax cut makes the program more like welfare, and worsens the federal budget deficit.

Politics aside, the bottom line is that a temporary tax cut is inconsequential to Social Security’s long-term health, from an accounting perspective. The threat remains the financial pressure of an aging population.

Social Security is essentially a pay-as-you-go system, with payroll taxes from workers flowing back out to retirees, survivors and the disabled. Last year, before the tax cut, the system for the first time since 1983 collected less in taxes than it paid out to 55 million beneficiaries — $49 billion less.

The program’s operating deficits will grow as more of the 78 million baby boomers become eligible. But trust fund reserves built up over years of annual surpluses will not run out until 2036, when tax revenues will cover three-quarters of benefits, trustees project.

David M. Kennedy's monumental history of our country in the middle of the last century, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, makes it all too clear that winning and keeping a Social Security program for elders has always been a struggle. His description of the legislative history put me in mind of the contemporary fight over Obamacare.

No other New Deal measure proved more lastingly consequential or more emblematic of the very meaning of the New Deal. Nor did any other better reveal the tangled skein of human needs, economic calculations, idealistic visions, political pressures, partisan maneuverings, actuarial projections, and constitutional constraints out of which Roosevelt was obliged to weave his reform program. Tortuously threading each of those filaments through the needle of the legislative process, Roosevelt began with the Social Security Act to knit the fabric of the modern welfare state. It would in the end be a peculiar garment, one that could have been fashioned only in America and perhaps only in the circumstances of the Depression era.

If we weren't watching Republicans challenge what looks like an inadequate, jerry-built new health insurance reform law in the Supreme Court, we wouldn't be able to imagine how much the shape of the 1935 law was set by trying to avoid having the plan declared unconstitutional.

Taking his own measure of "the prejudices of our people," Roosevelt clearly intended to establish his social security system not as a civil right but as a property right. That was the American way. The contributory requirement enormously complicated the planners' task. "What in the world," [Thomas] Eliot [the staff attorney writing the bill] asked himself, "could be devised to carry out the president's wish for a contributory old age insurance program that would pass judicial muster?" The president's insistence that workers themselves should contribute to their own individual old-age pension accounts through a payroll tax seemed to offer an open invitation to judicial nullification.

The result was intrinsically regressive: for the people who could least afford it, those with the lowest wages, Social Security taxes amounted to the highest percentage bite out of their take home pay. That discrepancy lingers today in the cap on the amount of income taxed for Social Security; people earning over about $108000 annually stop paying into the fund at that amount. The rest of us pay on every dollar of wages. Roosevelt understood he was creating a less than fair system.

"No dole," Roosevelt emphasized, "mustn't have a dole." "No money out of the Treasury," he declared on another occasion. He understood as clearly as any the inequity and economic dysfunctionality of the contributory payroll tax, but he understood equally those "legislative habits" and "prejudices" about which [Labor Secretary Frances] Perkins had reminded the CES. "I guess you're right on the economics," Roosevelt explained to another critic some years later, "but those taxes were never a problem of economics. They are politics all the way through. We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program."

The political history of Social Security is instructive and fascinating. The issue of maintaining our legal, moral and political right to old age assistance from the federal government is still alive today as Republicans repeatedly float plans to hand our security over the Wall Street.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An ignominious end to a war that never should have been

This just went up on the New York Times digital front page.
The Times reported yesterday on recently uncovered (left behind to be burned!) interviews with Marines about the Haditha massacre in which our soldiers apparently murdered over 20 unarmed civilians. Not surprisingly, the event became symbolic of why Iraq refused to allow U.S. troops, who would not have been subject to Iraqi law, to remain in their country after the war's official end.

“I mean, whether it’s a result of our action or other action, you know, discovering 20 bodies, throats slit, 20 bodies, you know, beheaded, 20 bodies here, 20 bodies there,” Col. Thomas Cariker, a commander in Anbar Province at the time, told investigators as he described the chaos of Iraq. At times, he said, deaths were caused by “grenade attacks on a checkpoint and, you know, collateral with civilians.”

The 400 pages of interrogations, once closely guarded as secrets of war, were supposed to have been destroyed as the last American troops prepare to leave Iraq. Instead, they were discovered along with reams of other classified documents, including military maps showing helicopter routes and radar capabilities, by a reporter for The New York Times at a junkyard outside Baghdad. An attendant was burning them as fuel to cook a dinner of smoked carp.

The documents — many marked secret — form part of the military’s internal investigation, and confirm much of what happened at Haditha, a Euphrates River town where Marines killed 24 Iraqis, including a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, women and children, some just toddlers.

Haditha became a defining moment of the war, helping cement an enduring Iraqi distrust of the United States and a resentment that not one Marine has been convicted.

One of the most succinct summations of the Iraq war's conclusion that I've seen appeared in the magazine Christian Century.

The Iraq war ends without a peace treaty or victory march. This misadventure has cost over $800 billion so far and taken the lives of more than 4,000 American soldiers and as many as 600,000 Iraqis. It represents a defeat for the neoconservative dream of bringing liberty and American dominance to the Middle East by a military invasion. Ironically, the war decreased American influence in the region and put Iran in a stronger position relative to its neighbors. Al-Qaeda is alive and well in Iraq, where it continues to be a menace, attacking and killing civilians, police officers and soldiers.

That paragraph introduces an editorial calling for an end to our Afghanistan war as well.

Roald Amundsen would have made a great electoral organizer

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's completion of his trek to be first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen outraced the British explorer Robert Scott who arrived at that notional geographical location a month later and died while returning to base across Antarctica. Among English speakers, Scott's doomed quest to be the first to the pole became the stuff of romantic adventure tales. Amundsen's efficient expedition was less heralded.

I knew next to nothing about Amundsen until I happened across an anniversary article by Mark Jenkins in Outside that provided fascinating food for thought. Old Amundsen knew a thing or two.

“Adventure is just bad planning,” [Roald Amundsen] would famously say.

I like that. I try to put it in practice in my work on progressive campaigns. “Angst and drama just reveal bad planning,” I say.

Attractively, Amundsen modeled overcoming difficulties and impediments by paying attention to the people who knew how to traverse the unfamiliar terrain at the poles, the native inhabitants of these forbidding environments.

Amundsen learned about dogsledding and igloo building from the Netsilik Inuits. What he saw impressed upon him the hard facts of polar travel: fresh meat could prevent ­scurvy (a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C), dogs and sleds were perfect for the poles, skis were fast and efficient over great distances.

…Amundsen was far ahead of his time, having the ­genius and openness to master the indigenous ­culture’s ancient survival skills—an ability not simply ignored but often disdained by other explorers of the day.

Who knows better than the people who live in a place how to survive and thrive in it? I try to remember this when working to bring message and mobilization to diverse groups within the population of California. If we want to talk with people who often live at the margins of the mainstream, we need to find who they already listen to and bring those leaders into the core of our efforts. We need to speak their native languages, often literally in a state where 43 percent of us speak a language other than English at home.

Amundsen was obviously a competitive, driven man. He misled and even taunted Scott about the progress of his plans when they were both still within range of communications. But when it came to the crunch, he was about accomplishment, not heroics.

After reaching the South Pole, Amundsen and his team easily cruised back to base camp, covering 700 miles in just six weeks. In all, they had skied 1,400 miles in 99 days. No one had died; hardly anyone had been sick. There was some frostbite, but no one lost fingers or toes. Amundsen had done everything possible to remove drama and danger from his expeditions, and for that he was, in a strange but tangible way, punished. Despite the fact that his South Pole expedition was the apotheosis of elegance and efficiency, arguably the finest expedition ever accomplished by man, he would be all but forgotten outside of Norway …

You know, for good political organizers, working so successfully that victory seems as natural as the sun rising is the highest success. The political consultants you hear about -- the Scotts -- the ones who make themselves the story instead of the cause or candidate, they may suck up a lot of oxygen, but they are not necessarily the brightest, the best or even the most successful.
The photo is of a monument to Amundsen in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. I never knew why we had such a thing adjacent to the Beach Chalet until I researched this article. Apparently Amundsen's head is looking toward where his sloop, the Gjøa, was on display from 1909 until 1972. In this vessel, the explorer had been the first to navigate a Northwest Passage through the Arctic Sea from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of North America. The old wooden ship decayed badly in San Francisco and during the middle of the last century became a refuge for LSD-dropping hippies. The Norwegians reclaimed the vessel and it is now on display, restored, in a museum in Oslo. But we still have the head of Amundsen, gazing north.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: listen to the young people

At the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban, Anjali Appadurai, a student at the College of the Atlantic in Maine, spoke for youth delegates from non-governmental organizations (that's non-profits in U.S. parlance.)

You've been negotiating all my life …

The science tells us we have five years maximum -- but you are saying, give us ten … in the long run, these will be seen as the defining moments of an era in which narrow self interest prevailed over science, reason and common compassion ...

It always seems impossible until it's done. So, distinguished delegates and governments around the world, governments of the developed world: Deep cuts now. Get it done.

It's easy for those of us who are older. We can hope the worse results of global warming won't be something we'll see. We can hope that the world as we've known it -- a world with plenty of water that falls in season, with enough food, with unimaginable material wealth and natural beauty -- will last out our life times.

And if we don't make the powers-that-be act NOW, our descendants will curse us.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Health care reform shorts: taxing the one percent

Good news about the 2010 health insurance reform I didn't know -- and I thought I was paying close attention. Despite being far too solicitous to the interests of insurers and of pharmaceutical, hospital and medical entrepreneurs, Obamacare pays for providing insurance to larger fraction of us by breaking one of our currents taboos. It raises taxes on rich people. Yes, though its sponsors didn't trumpet this in any way that most of us would notice, that's part of how the reform works. No wonder Republicans are so opposed; the health reform gores their sacred bulls.

Here's the exchange from one of Terry Gross' Fresh Air interviews on NPR that clued me in.

TERRY GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Dickinson. He's the national political correspondent for Rolling Stone and his article in the current edition is about Republican tax strategy and what the effect has been on Americans of tax cuts over the years.

You write that one of the reasons Republicans don't like Obamacare is that the top 400 taxpayers would be contributing an average of $11 million each and that, you know, the Obama health care plan is financed in part by increasing Medicare taxes on the wealthy, including new taxes on investment income. So can you elaborate on the Republican concerns about the funding of Obama's health care reform plan?

DICKINSON: This is not something that received a great deal of attention when the Obamacare was put through. But the primary funding mechanism is these new Medicare taxes. And for the first time there's going to be a 3.8 percent tax on investment income for the wealthiest. And so this has the effect of raising capital gains taxes starting in 2014 from 15 percent to 18.8 percent, I guess. And then if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire, you'll have an effective tax rate of above 23 percent on capital gains, which will be a higher rate on capital gains than at any time since 1997 when these - when sort of the initial campaign of cutting taxes on investment income began. And so this is obviously a matter of great consternation to the nation's investor class, and the Republicans are quite responsive to those concerns.

You'd think Democrats would want the 99 percent to know they'd done something so sensible. It will be interesting to see whether, as we enter an electoral season in which overcoming economic inequality is supposed to be a Democratic campaign theme, they'll be willing to cop to this accomplishment. You get the sense they tried to sneak it through under the radar. A lot of us might approve of getting the money we need from those who have it, if only we knew.

Sorry Lowe's, I rather liked you

But I will no longer be shopping at this home improvement retailer in view of their decision to sign on with anti-Muslim bigotry. The newscast below tells the story of how the big company caved in to demands that they pull their ads from an innocuous reality TV show about a U.S. Muslim family.

You can speak out against prejudice by signing the petition here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Are we drifting toward war with Iran?

Quite few smart commentators fear that the lunacy of a political season in which completely irresponsible Republicans push a weakened President Obama to prove his warlike bonafides toward the government in Tehran has the United States drifting toward just such a folly.

Writing at the Middle East Research and Information Project, Farideh Farhi carefully describes how both the United States and the Iranian government have taken to whining "we tried" when questioned about the drift toward open conflict. The article is an informed, balanced look at the behavior of both governments

And, in addition to trying to force the rest of the world to adopt more and more stringent economic sanctions in response to an effort to build a nuclear weapon that our own spooks don't think is taking place, the United States is already engaging in covert operations that target Iran. Here goes another fantasy of war on the cheap. On December 6 Al Jazeera reported on a U.S. drone aircraft shot down over Iran.

Harvard Professor of International Relations Stephen Walt is worried about where this kind of adventure leads.

It appears that we have gone beyond just talking about military action to actually engaging in it, albeit at a low level. In addition to waging cyberwar via Stuxnet, the United States and/or Israel appear to be engaged in covert efforts to blow up Iranian facilities and murder Iranian scientists. ...

... waging a covert, low-level war is not without risks, including the risk of undesirable escalation. No matter how carefully we try to control the level of force, there's always the danger that matters spiral out of control. Iran can't do much to us militarily, but it can cause trouble in limited ways and it could certainly take steps that would jack up oil prices and possibly derail the fragile global economic recovery.

Moreover, if some U.S. operation misfired and a couple of hundred Iranians died, wouldn't the revolutionary government feel compelled to respond? If U.S. or Israeli operatives are captured on Iranian soil, will pressure mount on us to do more? (Just imagine what all the GOP candidates would start saying!) Such developments may not be likely, of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore such possibilities entirely. Nor should we ignore the possibility that others will learn from this sort of "unconventional" campaign and one day use similar tactics against U.S. allies or the United States itself.

Foreign Policy

In Time World, Tony Karon focuses on how the Israel lobby -- AIPAC -- has successfully egged on both Republicans and Democrats to demand that the U.S. use its banking clout for what amounts to economic war on Iran. When AIPAC says "jump", politicians of both parties are conditioned by years of political threats to respond: "how high"? Karon is worried.

The Administration has warned that using the banking system to block Iran from selling oil could trigger a sharp increase in global oil prices, threatening the U.S. and world economy’s fragile recovery — even without such measures, tensions with Iran are already steadily pushing the price up. And Iran has previously warned that it would treat any attempt to bar its ability to sell oil as an act of war. But the legislators are hanging tough. ”The goal … is to inflict crippling, unendurable economic pain over there,” explained New York Democrat Representative Gary Ackerman. “Iran’s banking sector — especially its central bank — needs to become the financial equivalent of Chernobyl: radioactive, dangerous and most of all, empty.”

But it’s not only Iran that could be antagonized by the new legislation. The U.S. and its partners do very little business with the Islamic Republic today; the purpose of the new measures is to punish those who do. The Western powers have failed to persuade many of Iran’s key trading partners — China, Russia, Turkey and India, among others — to voluntarily support new sanctions, which they believe are neither justified nor likely to produce a positive outcome. The new measures envisioned by Congress use the centrality of the U.S. banking system in the world economy to strong-arm reluctant partners into complying with Western sanctions. ...

There may also be a deeper, unspoken concern, behind the Administration’s hesitation over putting Iran’s economy in a chokehold at this point: it could prove to be a not easily reversible step on the path to confrontation. If such sanctions are adopted as the only alternative to war, as the current debate frames them, their (likely) failure to bring Iran to heel renders armed conflict inevitable — at least as long as the logic that “the only thing worse than bombing Iran is Iran getting the bomb” prevails in the Washington conversation.

Escalation could even happen relatively quickly. Most states would treat an effective economic blockade that imposed “crippling, unendurable pain” as an act of war, and if Iran responds militarily, directly or via proxy forces or terror attacks, the two sides could find themselves quickly locked into potentially disastrous war. Yet, the domestic political dynamic in both Washington and Tehran raises the cost for leaders in both capitals of restraining the momentum towards confrontation.

Once upon a time, we had a notion in the United States that citizens ought to have a say when their leaders led them into war. These days, the country seems to be drifting closer and closer to yet another futile failed adventure in south central Asia after no sensible public discussion at all.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Seasonal cheer on 24th Street

Rebecca was just taking a walk and came across this. What a lovely reminder that we live in a beautiful city!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A walk through #OccupySanDiego

I was in San Diego yesterday working to end death sentences (see sidebar at right) and was able to take a walk through the civic plaza where OccupySanDiego is still getting out the message of the 99 percent.

These people's tents and encampment were pulled down by police in early October, but they haven't gone away. "A First Amendment right is not an unlawful assembly" says the banner. They are still speaking out.

Some of the signage reflects their ongoing struggle with hostile authorities.

Some of what they assert seems almost wistful.

Not that they haven't caused a stir. In an episode that warms my political activist heart, a local politician dropped by to set up a voter registration table -- and was hauled off by the cops for trespassing on private property.

He doesn't look very scary to me.

All over the country there are determined and desperate people keeping on … what will it take to make the system work for the 99 percent?