Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Banditos Theorem Proof #386

Some New Jersey legislator with nothing better to do is in an uproar about the name of his state's hockey team, the Devils. Next thing you know, diminutive New Jerseyans will respond by asking that the NJ-based New York Giants get rid of their name too. Part of me secretly hopes that a Satanist responds by going to Anaheim and challenging the Angels' nickname.

The sad part is, this guy's from Newark - a place with a lot more problems than a stupid hockey nickname.

What Is Free Trade?

Looks like the Trade Wars are about to heat up again. The Central American Free Trade Agreement, a NAFTA-esque treaty involving six developing Latin American nations and the U.S., is headed for a hell of a battle in Congress. Prepare to have esoteric economic models hurled at your head at light speed.

But there's a more significant question to consider when we talk about CAFTA. The question is this: are we really dealing with a "free trade" agreement? Or are we talking about a sham meant to benefit corporate interests under the guise of free trade?

Take NAFTA for example. After NAFTA was passed, Mexico had to do away with its grain subsidies. However, as we all know, the US retains its export subsidies. The result was that cheap grain was dumped on Mexican markets, ruining the Mexican farmer. A real free trade agreement would have eliminated both our agriculture subsidies and theirs and allowed the market to work its supposed magic. But US agribusiness dictated the terms of the agreement, and so we got an agreement that ravaged Mexican subsistence farmers, driving thousands of peasants off their lands and into the cities. The resultant migration resulted in an increase in food demand that raised prices (since less people were growing their own) and a decrease in labor costs.

Fast-forward to now. With CAFTA, we are currently refusing to eliminate our barriers to sugar imports. CAFTA is supposed to open North American markets to Central American exporters - but not if they're selling sugar, apparently. As a result, "free trade" in the strictest sense of the word will be a casualty to U.S. agribusiness interests, just as it was in NAFTA twelve years ago.

It isn't just CAFTA, and it isn't just the U.S. government, that reveals "free trade" for the political power play that it is. Governments use trade agreements to jockey for power on the world stage at the expense of pretty much everyone. Take China. China has used its government to require laborers to work hours no Western worker could possibly work. China enables its manufacturers to sell at cost - something no profit-based business could do. China represses labor agitation for better hours and more pay - unions must be approved by the Chinese government. (Not that our government doesn't have anti-labor policies, but that's another story.)

Possibly worse than all that, though, is China's egregious currency manipulation. In theory, if a nation runs a trade surplus, it would drive the value of that nation's currency up, thus encouraging more imports and less exports. But China has pegged the value of its currency to that of the U.S. dollar - the currency of a country with a massive trade deficit. The result is that China has inoculated itself against the surplus-lessening effects of currency fluctuation. Meanwhile, since much of our trade deficit is with China, it prevents us from reaping the export benefits we're supposed to reap from a devaluing currency.

And now China is threatening to lodge a grievance against us with the WTO for daring to reinstate some textile tariffs to offset the currency manipulation. Ridiculous.

Your eyes are glazed over now, so I'm going to wrap it up and open the floor for comments. My point is that "free trade" is often nothing but an illusion when governments are instating it. (The free market is a similar illusion.) We don't have any free trade now, and probably won't in the future. As a result, I have no idea what the real effects of free trade would be.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Or Is It Too Little, Too Late?

So after a couple hundred years of unprovoked wars, broken treaties, and out-and-out genocide, the Senate is finally prepared to say "my bad." Kudos to Sen. Brownback (R-KS) for bringing this up. (This will likely be the only time I will ever congratulate Sam Brownback for anything, so take note.) Now all we need to do is get Congress to recognize the Anishinabe discovery of Italy...

Irony of the Day

Interesting how conservatives love to bash "judicial activists," yet seek the approval of justices who follow a philosophy that centers around using broad strokes of judicial activism to repeal progressive legislation... thanks to Ben for this link from the ACS on the Constitution-in-Exile philosophy.

(Note: here, ACS stands for American Constitution Society, not American Chemical Society.)

Proof That Iraq Will Be Alright After All

So what if things are getting more violent by the second in Iraq? At least there are enterprising souls over there who know opportunity when it explodes in their faces. Read about Iraq's new booming industry - glass sales - here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Hooray for the House!

The House of Representatives does something right for a change. So now embryos that would otherwise be destined for the garbage can will now be used for scientific good. I'll be interested to see how far stem-cell research can go.

A note - Bush's defense of his policy is quite asinine. I guess he didn't notice that the supply of frozen embryos far outpaces the demand for adoption of said embryos.

I also want to bring up how we seem to be ignoring our commitment to science where it matters most. Sure, Bush is giving lip service to alternative energies, but instead of funding research on alternative fuels, he decides to spend money on drilling in ANWR. And he's looking for excuses not to fund research that could cure Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and paralysis. I recently discovered that the NSF is pretty much flat broke. Good budgeting there, buddy.

(Yeah, this post is a little bit self-serving. I don't care - scientists do good work. Most of the time.)

More Useless Stuff

First let me regale you with my thoughts on the filibuster compromise. I think it's interesting that it was judicial appointments - which the media and conservative Christians have made into an outcropping of the overhyped "culture wars" - that sprung the whole debate. It was not some important piece of legislation like, say, a heinous bankruptcy bill.

I'll admit that judicial nominations are somewhat important, especially when it comes to the Supreme Court. Judges have had great effects in the past - civil rights historians can point to several key court cases that changed the face of the country (for better or worse) with regards to race relations. And the fact that Bush believes he doesn't need the Senate's advice and deserves its consent anyway is proof of his inefficient and misguided leadership style (not to mention his misunderstanding of the Constitution).

But throughout this debate, it was all "culture war" all the time. I didn't hear a word about the "Constitution in Exile" philosophy supposedly avowed by these judicial nominees (unless it was from Ben). Barely a peep about Justice Brown's public longings for a return to the days of Lochner, when activist courts declared popularly-backed minimum wage laws unconstitutional. No, it was all about abortion and homosexuality, as if that's all that matters nowadays.

Folks, there's a lot more out there than these so-called "culture wars." I admit, I've been seduced by these issues before. They're ripe for demagoguery, they're of a cosmic scale, and they're certainly more interesting than the ins and outs of the budget. But where's the liberal indignation over Bush's ridiculous budget? Why aren't we filibustering Bush's irresponsible tax cuts? Why aren't we attacking Bush's proposal to give MTBE manufacturers protection from lawsuits? These are all issues that affect us more than any government action in the "culture wars" ever could. I haven't been writing very much in the past weeks; I probably won't in the future since I actually have a job now.

I guess my point is this - I would like to see the outpouring of rage and strategizing and whatnot to materialize on economic issues, on quality of life issues, and on foreign policy issues. The "culture wars" are there to distract us from what the government can and does do to affect our lives. We need to channel that anger somewhere where it'll do us some good.

And now onto something less serious - music. Mike has passed me the Musical Baton. So I have to answer a bunch of questions that I don't know the answer to. Also, I'm at work, so I don't have music on my computer and am not currently listening to anything. So I'll make up answers to those questions. Anyway:

Total volume of music files on my computer: At home, about 1GB. That's not counting some 220 CDs.

The last CD I bought: The Essential Josh White. White is a bluesman who was a favorite of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. This is a disc of his early blues recordings, before he recorded the stuff that made him super-famous ("Free and Equal Blues," "One Meatball," etc.)

Song playing right now: I heard U2's "New Year's Day" on the way to work. I think that's the closest I can come.

Five songs I listen to a lot, or mean a lot to me: Geez. My apologies for the two country songs that materialize here (actually, one of them sounds more gospel, and one sounds more folk, but whatever).
1. "Your Song," Elton John. Our song.
2. "Simple Man," Lynyrd Skynyrd. Good advice for life and a kick-ass guitar solo.
3. "We Shall Be Free," Garth Brooks. It's odd to think that the normally conservative Brooks would sing a song that basically puts liberalism in a nutshell. And yet, there it is.
4. "The Walk," Sawyer Brown. A song about a man's relationship with his father through the years. It's obvious to anyone who's heard it why this one's on here.
5. "Sparkle," Live. Lyrically one of the best songs I know of.

Five people to whom I'm passing the baton: I'll let Andy and Danielle take a crack at it, as well as Lindi and Pierce if they have blogs. Miguel is also invited, if he still reads this.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Another Social Evil

In my last post, I talked about societal trends that lead towards violence. School administrators in Bend, Oregon have latched onto one that may cause horrible, awful consequences if it gets out of control... hugging.

Sing along with me now... "Everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people..."

Here's the link.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

This Will Anger A Lot Of People

Actually, this won't anger a lot of people, since not a lot of people read my blog. But you catch my drift.

The world, it seems, is captivated with the sad story of Laura Hobbs and Krystal Tobias, two girls who were murdered in Zion, Illinois on Mother's Day. I am not. I had heard vaguely about the case, but I don't think it stuck in my mind. Danielle seemed incredulous that I hadn't heard much about it. (For those of you out of the loop like me, Hobbs and Tobias were stabbed to death on Mother's Day. Hobbs' father was arrested for the murders. From what the Post said, the evidence seemed weaker than a virgin daiquiri, but I'm sure the media will waste no time convicting him.)

You say it's horrible. You'll get no argument from me. But why, might I ask, is the story of Demarcus Williams not getting national attention as well?

You probably don't know who Demarcus Williams is unless you're a fanatical Post reader. He was a four-year-old kid who made the grave mistake of annoying his daddy while he was watching television. So his daddy hit him. Then hit him again. And again. When it was over, Demarcus was dead, and his daddy - after confessing - was in jail. What's more, Demarcus was only one of seven people to be murdered in Prince George's County, MD this past weekend.

A Google search on Laura Hobbs turned up stories from Denver, Chicago, Washington - everywhere. A similar search on Demarcus Williams turned up old stories about basketball players.

So why the focus on Laura Hobbs/Krystal Tobias and not on Demarcus Williams? The conspiracy theorist in me wants to say that it's because Hobbs and Tobias lived in the posh Chicago suburbs and Demarcus Williams lived in the working-class environs of D.C. Maybe it's because the Hobbs case has more mystery around it. There are any number of reasons why the national press would latch onto one and not the other. But the truth is that these kids all deserve national attention. Every murdered child does, and I think we all understand that. And that's the problem.

Here's my theory as to why only Hobbs and Tobias are getting national attention. To treat the Laura Hobbs case with such national fanfare is to say that her case is somehow exceptional. Thus, we delude ourselves into thinking that violence against children is rare by making a big deal out of only the occasional case. In creating this delusion, we create along with it a complacency that allows us to maintain our faith in mankind.

Think about it. How would you feel if, every time you opened the paper, you discovered that another child had been murdered, that yet another smiling, happy, innocent face had been ripped unfairly from this world? In the back of our minds, we know it happens, but we simply don't want to believe that children other than Laura Hobbs and Krystal Tobias are the victims of brutal acts. By pouring our hearts out for just these girls, we avoid the draining, gut-wrenching process of having to do it for every murdered child.

But I refuse to buy into it. I won't follow the Hobbs and Tobias case because I know the truth - things like this happen every day. And as torturing as it may be, I'll let my heart bleed for every child that dies, whether by the hand of their father or by a misplaced bomb. Because this illusion we create has a darker side - it causes us to give short shrift to the sociological trends that cause people to murder children. It ignores the flaws that run deep in our society that allow such sick, disgusting acts to occur.

Our society is one that looks upon the creation of life with shame, but upon the taking of life with pride. We are consumed with our wants, and we allow ourselves to get angry when we don't get exactly what we want. We value the actions - and therefore the lives - of the rich and powerful over those of everyday people. We think of what's best for us before we think of what's best for those around us. All these things, I think, contribute to people's willingness to kill children. I may be wrong. But how will we know if we don't confront the problem?

And if we continue to convince ourselves that the murder of children is a rare, freak occurrence, what impetus will there be for change? What will cause us to do the soul-searching we so desperately need? Complacency is the friend of the status quo. Violence against children is not something that we can ignore and hope it goes away. We must confront the demons in our society, and confronting the truth - that children die violent deaths in appalling numbers every year - is the first step. We must do it for Laura, for Krystal, for Demarcus, for all the children who have ever died violently. And if not now, when?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tasks Completed Belatedly

Mike has passed me the Caesar's Bath Meme. This happened a long damn time ago, and I've been ignoring it. But right now, I'm waiting for a simulation to finish, so I guess I'll do something about it.

I'm supposed to name five things that are big within my circle of friends that I don't really care about. Hmm... well, I can think of at least one...

1. The Caesar's Bath Meme. I don't like chain letters where there isn't at least a vague hope of getting a postcard from Mongolia.

Oh yes, and there's also:

2. Corn syrup. This needs no explanation.

I could come up with a 3, 4, and 5, but I don't want to. I pass this on to... well, whoever wants it. Just claim it in the comments section.

Bush Undermines His Own Point

While visiting Georgia (the country) this week, Bush credited the current president Mikheil Saakashvili with leading the movement that began the recent wave of democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Lebanon. This former Russian republic erupted in mass demonstrations after dictator Eduard Shevardnadze rigged elections. Saakashvili famously burst into the Georgian parliament bearing a rose and demanding Shevardnadze's revolution.

Bush made a point of saying that Georgians' actions in 2003 encouraged Iraqis to go to the polls to elect their National Assembly.

But wait a second. If you buy this sort of domino-theory idea that political movements are contagious across regions, would it have been necessary to invade Iraq to create democracy there? According to Bush's own logic, the Georgian, Ukrainian, Lebanese, and Palestinian democratic movements would have certainly created the stirrings of democracy in Iraq. Iraqis might have even risen up in full-scale demonstrations or rebellion themselves.

It seems, then, that Bush doesn't hold as much faith in the spread of democracy as he claims publicly. If we accept, as Bush has apparently done privately, that democracy will not spread from one country to the next, then we should be attempting to destabilize other dictatorships around the world in order to spread democracy. But if that's the case, why haven't we invaded Uzbekistan or Belarus? Both are ruled by neo-Stalinist dictators and both are strategically important former Russian republics. (Not to mention genocide-ridden Sudan, where we choose to engage in failed diplomacy instead of sending troops.) If Bush says that we shouldn't invade them for fear of ticking off Russia, then it follows that we shouldn't have invaded Iraq for fear of further provoking al-Qaeda.

But if Bush did believe in the spread of democracy, why would we have invaded Iraq? It's obvious that a democracy movement hatched in Iraq would have been far more successful than one born of a US invasion. If Georgia was the catalyst that Bush claims it was - and if Ukraine and Lebanon are continuations of a single "wave," as it were, - a strong democracy movement would have been inevitable in Iraq. Making it work, would have required only small-scale aid similar to that given to Ukrainian winner Viktor Yushchenko.

The irony, of course, is this - by positing a somewhat dubious "domino theory" of democracy and placing Georgia at the center, Bush has made the most convincing argument against the invasion of Iraq that he launched. Of course, expecting Bush to see that is too much to ask.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Welcome to the World of Blog

We welcome two new bloggers to the Blogosphere this week. First, my fiancee, the lovely Danielle Bray, has created The Hole In The Fence. And Mr. Ben Stark has come up with What Would People Think? So go eat, read, and be merry.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Ethics Rules, Lobbying, and the Real Problem Here

Much has been made recently over the ethics of House members, especially a certain majority leader from Texas. It tends to center on the practice of accepting perks from lobbyists - free trips and the like. It's not just DeLay - influential politicians from both sides of the aisle accept free or almost-free trips on corporate jets, according to this Post article. The question arises, though: are these gifts are an attempt by corporations to "purchase" helpful policy from pliable legislators, or are they attempts to help out a Congressperson who has been helpful to them in the past?

Sometimes it's obviously in the former category. Of course, it's debatable that such tactics had a lot of success. Huntsman Corp., a major manufacturer of MTBE, flew around Harry Reid and Tom Daschle a lot, but both ended up supporting restrictions on MTBE in gasoline anyway. Some might point to Huntsman's gifts to DeLay, and similar gifts from anti-regulatory lobbying interests such as BellSouth, as influencing policy. But DeLay tends to be ideologically anti-regulation, and would probably vote the way BellSouth or Huntsman wants him to regardless of gifts.

So how much does corporate money influence politics? Certainly at campaign time it matters a lot. Corporations benefit from having elected officials with a certain ideological bent, and can bolster the campaigns of these officials significantly. They can also bring to lawmakers' attention issues of importance to them. But I posit to you that corporate money generally isn't changing the minds of congresspeople, so it's tough to argue that corporations are buying votes. I doubt it's fair to anyone on the Hill - DeLay included - to say that they're "in the pocket" of Corporate America.

It seems to me, then, that corporate influence is truly felt in the power to introduce issues, to select Congress' agenda. And here, it's not the money that's directly driving this phenomenon - it's the access lobbyists have to certain members of Congress. Corporate lobbyists can get the ear of Congresspeople and introduce issues to powerful lawmakers who share their ideology (such as DeLay). As a result, corporations can get things considered that would otherwise be ignored by the legislative process. Why else would Congress have taken up bankruptcy and Social Security when far more looming, troubling questions exist? The answer lies in the massive access to the legislative process enjoyed by the banking and investment industries. In a way, this is more insidious than the direct purchasing of votes. But I got news for you - it's not going away. It's not unethical to tell your friends on the Hill what's ailing you, and asking them to find a solution, and then giving money to them because they do a good job. Instead of whining about it, liberals should work to become more effective at lobbying, at getting access to Congresspeople. In the end, this will be far more effective than all the ethics rules we could come up with. Even with stricter ethics rules, access isn't going to be given to us; we have to take it.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

An Attempt At More Regular Blogging

The problem with a political blog, as opposed to other excellent blogs out there, is that an intelligent topical rant a day is tough to pull off. Even the best op-edists out there only write two columns a week - and it's their forty-hour-a-week job. Of course, their columns are far better researched than this little ramble. And then there are some days that are just slow news days.

Anyway, I've been receiving curiosity regarding my recent hostility towards corn syrup. Turns out corn syrup is off-limits for Passover - which eliminates about 95% of all food items out there from gastronomic intake for eight days. Passover is famous for its hijinks - I've asked people at burger joints to hold the bun on more than one occasion. This year, I had to ask someone behind the counter at Whole Foods if their barbecue sauce had corn syrup in it before buying a barbecue dish. (It did.) We also had to quiz them on what "canola oil" was. But we get macaroons, so it all evens out.

But it's hard to go eight days without mass-produced junk food - I doubt I'd be able to do it voluntarily. This is a segue, however strained, into a topical discussion. Turns out that here in North Carolina, legislators are debating a new school food policy that would limit junk food in NC's schools. I wrote about a similar proposed Texas policy some time ago. To rehash briefly: the upside is that eliminating vending machines will go a long way towards fighting the important problem of youth obesity (fueled by all that damn corn syrup). The downside is that vending machines are cash cattle for schools, and removing them would likely mean a loss in revenue that would have to be covered by a tax increase or spending cut. (And here in NC, it'll most likely be a regressive tax increase.)

This policy coincides with the release of the new "food pyramid," which will go roundly ignored by most Americans - especially those under 20 who aren't thinking of the long-term ramifications of that little package of donuts. Watch how much good it'll do. The FDA can put out pyramids all it wants to, but they'll continue to do nothing. The more the government advises against eating junk food, the more people will do it.

Junk food is marketed exceptionally well, especially to kids. There's no advice the government can give to prevent kids from wanting that candy bar. And kids who eat candy bars turn into adults who eat even more candy bars. In years past, the only thing keeping me from the junk food was Passover - but Passover has taught me how easy it is to go without junk food. So I guess what I'm trying to say is this - without some sort of legislation separating kids and junk food, obesity will continue. And, I dare say, kids will get used to spending eight hours a day without junk food. It may even spill over into the rest of their lives.

(I might also add that such policies, if effective, will probably save us money in terms of long-term health care.)

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Random Ramblings Again

First things first - I'd like to invite y'all to check out Andy's blog at lastricksresort.blogspot.com. It's certainly a lot more amusing than the dry bullshit you read here. And Andy correctly used the word "dingleberry" in a sentence, which gives him 50 official "cool points."

Now, a little complaint about the new budget. I hear there's some sort of deficit afoot. So, of course, Republicans propose cutting taxes by $108 billion (or so). Apparently, in their love affair with absurd economic models, they seem to have forgotten their third grade math - subtract from a negative number and you will always get a negative number. And the cuts in programs are understandable, but keep in mind that the deficit is about equal to the entirety of our discretionary spending budget. So unless we cut all discretionary programs and leave ourselves with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and defense, we're still in the red. Bush started to take money out of Medicaid, but didn't bother attacking widespread waste in defense and is ignoring Medicare. Oh, and his Social Security "fix" will cost an extra $3 trillion or so. My suggestion to Bush - learn to add.

I might add that the economy sucks now because we have a deficit, and will continue to suck until we don't have a deficit. So the economists on Bush's side seem to have forgotten that tax cuts don't fix the underlying problem (and indeed will exacerbate it), and thus won't produce more revenue. You can sell tax cuts on ideological grounds all you want. Just be honest about what they'll do to the economy.

Second, as I badmouth Bush's private accounts plan, he just did something intelligent . (Save this remark - I may never make it again.) He backed "progressive indexing" - that is, a change in benefit structure that will keep benefits to the poor intact while cutting them for the middle and upper classes. It's not the ideal solution - I'd still like to see a hike in the payroll tax ceiling. But at least Bush is recognizing that the poor are far more dependent on Social Security than the middle class and the rich, who tend to have pensions and 401(k)s to fall back on.

Of course, Democrats oppose this plan. This puts Democrats in the odd position of defending a welfare payment to the middle and upper classes. You know, sometimes I wonder if my party is really serious about policy at all.

(Critics do point out that Social Security has such strong support precisely because it pays to the rich and middle class as well as to the poor. Thus, all Americans feel like they're getting a slice of the program. But I think Americans will be more sympathetic to the needs of those less fortunate than Democratic critics expect them to be. Call me naive, but I don't think everyone is George Will.)

Lastly, Adolf Hitler knocked himself off 60 years ago yesterday. Before you start cheering, realize that the further into the past World War II slips, the easier it will be to be anti-Semitic again. People sure forgot the Crusades and the Black Plague genocide in a hurry.

And one more thing... fuck corn syrup.