Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Communism FAIL

Yes, kids, that's an Aston Martin DB9 - which, according to Motor Trend, will put you out $186,000 and change. Workers of the world, unite... pooling your money is the only way you'd be able to afford one of those things.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Aden Comfort

As if killing 49 innocent Yemeni civilians wasn't bad enough from both a strategic and moral perspective, Joe Lieberman now wants us to bomb the entire damn country. Because if there's anything better than fighting two wars at once, it's fighting three wars at once.

Nigerian Scam

Bollocks to the song quotes for a while.

Here's a few thoughts on the recent terrorfail over the Christmas holiday...

- Terrorists are stupid. Apparently this guy thought that attaching an incendiary device - not an explosive, mind you, but an incendiary device, which is something that just makes fire - to his underpants was going to take down a plane. It's not. Only thing it'll do is catch your crotch on fire. Because it's a freaking incendiary device. Word has it this guy was an engineer... obviously a bad one.

- A commenter/contributor at the excellent conservablog Common Sense Political Thought points me to this interesting profile of the mad Nigerian bomber. Of note: the guy's own father had reported him to the authorities, and he was on a terror watch list. And he was allowed to fly to the U.S. why? We'll keep Cat Stevens out, but not a guy whose own father thinks he's a terrorist? What's wrong with this picture? Also, I thought the Department of Homeland Security and the new Directorate of National Intelligence were supposed to facilitate such information sharing. Looks like information sharing is just as bad as it used to be before 9/11. Speaking of the DHS being useless...

- The airplane security people have apparently decided that now everyone needs to stay in their seats for the last hour of a flight. Remember, the fire was set by a guy who was sitting down at the time. The TSA thinks this will help because... um... um... um... what the fuck are they thinking? See, this is the problem with the "OMG THE GOVERNMENT HAS TO DO SOMETHING" attitude. It leads to this kind of naked showmanship on the part of the bureaucracy that doesn't actually do anything and makes our lives that much more miserable. Better intelligence gathering and sharing is the only effective way to fight terrorism, people. All the rest is just window dressing. Yes, that includes wars and drone attacks on so-called "leaders."

(Sidebar: does anyone think that attacking so-called "al-Qaeda leaders" - and killing civilians in the process - would actually do any good? al-Qaeda is an amorphous group full of loosely affiliated individuals. Terrorists for al-Qaeda aren't foot soldiers being directed by some shadowy organization but individuals who are seeking help in carrying out their nefarious plans. Even killing bin Laden or Zawahiri won't stop Joey Jihad from trying to kill us. We ought to be concentrating on making sure the Muslim world produces more people who view America as benign and less Joey Jihads. And killing civilians is absolutely NOT the way to do that.)

In other news:

- The length of this list ought to be a comfort to anyone nursing a little Islamophobia.

- It's A Wonderful Iranian Life.

- Here's the news article for that last item. One wonders where all the conservatives' green website themes went. Perhaps showing solidarity with Muslims being abused by the Iranian regime is less politically correct right after a (poorly) attempted terror attack?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thought About the Army

Still working on that Hanukkah post. Yes, I know the holiday is over. I'll post something on it later, maybe during that other holiday that celebrates the birth of that false messiah :-P

Anyway, I'm noticing that the health care debate has kinda drowned out every other important issue out there. I don't think that's a good thing. For example, if we all weren't obsessed with the health care endgame (with good reason, to some extent) then someone besides Matt Taibbi and Winslow Wheeler would have noticed this:
Unlike the HASC and SASC (House and Senate armed services committees), the appropriations porkers have not changed their squiggly little tails; they have continued to raid the Military Personnel and O&M accounts to pay for their pork.

What I see is the following:

  • $1.9 billion in gross reductions to the Military Personnel (pay) account based on the arbitrary justification that there was need for an "undistributed adjustment," or in some cases "reimbursables."

  • $2.1 billion in net reductions from the O&M account in the base bill; $1.4 billion of that reduction was based on phony justifications (indirectly based on some flimsy GAO analysis never made public), such as "historic underexecution." (If you want to review my analysis of this flimsy GAO analysis , see it at http://www.cdi.org/friendlyversion/printversion.cfm?documentID=4535.)

  • The House and Senate Appropriations Committees also raided the direct war fighting O&M account in Title IX of the bill by $1.5 billion.

  • Total O&M raids, thus, amount to $3.6 billion.

  • Taxpayers for Common Sense tallied up the 1,720 earmarks in the bill costing $4.2 billion, but as TCS stated, that's just the earmarks they will admit to. Not counted in that tally are the 10 C-17s for $2.5 billion, nine F-18s for a half a billion dollars (in the war funding part of the bill), plus the added $465 million for the GE engine, plus ???

    Taibbi explains:
    What most people don’t understand about earmarks is that they are not achieved by simply adding to the top number for the whole federal budget. Earmarks have to come out of the approved number for that particular appropriations bill. So if you want a highway earmark, the money has to come out of some other highway program.

    In the defense bill, it usually works like this: Congress sticks in a few extra airplanes or ships as a handout to this or that member, usually in exchange for his vote somewhere else on some other issue. To pay for those earmarks, the favored targets for cutting are usually two parts of the defense bill: Personnel (i.e. military pay) and Operations and Maintenance (which includes such things as body armor, equipment, food, training, and fuel). Those of you who wondered over the years how it could be that soldiers in Iraq could somehow be left without body armor, well, here’s your explanation. They usually took the armor off those kids in order to pay off some congressman with an extra helicopter or two.

    Okay, so we're cutting the money we have available for soldiers' pay and basic equipment so we can pay for a bunch of pet projects for fancy weaponry we won't be using anytime soon because we're in a freaking asymmetrical war with a bunch of people who live in caves and hide out among civilians in towns. And if that's not enough, might I remind you of the massive fraud that occurs every day in defense contracts. Throw in the scandals around veterans' health care, including the Walter Reed debacle a few years ago, and it's absolutely disgusting the way the people in power (of whatever party) treat our troops. These men and women are putting their lives on the line for us, and you'd be forgiven for thinking Congress and the contractors treat them like they're a nothing more than a nuisance.

    What gets me is this. Our Congress and the contractors we entrust with some important logistical tasks for our armed forces are systematically stealing from our troops, which affects morale and readiness. I agree with Taibbi - where are the flag-waving, supposedly armed forces-loving conservatives on this? You'd think the people who are so cavalier with accusations of treason that they'd accuse people who oppose a war of it would certainly throw such terms around when it comes to actively picking the pockets of our soldiers and preventing needed supplies from reaching the front lines. Maybe it's so far under the radar that most conservatives simply don't notice it (though Taxpayers for Common Sense, a conservative group, apparently caught it)? Whatever it is, I'd hope things like this would catch fire if we weren't all concentrating all our energy on health care. But I'm not going to hold my breath.

    Friday, December 11, 2009

    A Game of Give and Take

    There's a fascinating Supreme Court case on the horizon now. The Court recently approved cert for Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a case that deals with whether a public university - in this case, the University of California's Hastings School of Law - can require a student group to accept all students who wish to join as a requirement of receiving funding from the school. The Ninth Circuit recently ruled that Hastings can enforce its policy if the group in question is receiving student funding. A similar case in the Seventh Circuit involving Southern Illinois University's law school went the exact opposite way. This split essentially forced the Supremes' hand.

    In both cases, the CLS is seeking the right to deny membership - or at least leadership positions - to gay students who don't conform to their view of Christianity. Both universities do not allow such discrimination from their student groups.

    There are a bunch of legal issues to deal with in this case. The CLS claims that the school is infringing on their First Amendment right to free association. But the CLS' position is somewhat convoluted - they think that the school's anti-bias regulation is okay, but they want an exception for religious groups. Hastings, unsurprisingly, sees that as giving religious groups special treatment - which would be strictly forbidden, of course.

    Public universities are clearly required to extend First Amendment protections to all their students. Realistically, we're talking about whether any student groups - founded and administered by students - can choose to discriminate and still receive funding. (Note that the group's right to meet under its own terms is not at issue here. The funding is the issue.) CLS points out that the Court, in the 1972 case Healy v. James, ruled that refusing to recognize a student group was a violation of the group's First Amendment rights (ironically, the student group in question in Healy was the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society, making this perhaps the only time in recorded history conservatives have ever supported SDS).

    On top of this are the myriad anti-discrimination laws that put the University in kind of a catch-22. On one hand, their policies say that they can't allow discrimination against gay people, so they can't fund CLS. But they can't discriminate against a group for its religious beliefs, so they have to fund CLS. Without Court guidance, then, they're stuck in permanent Vizzini mode, clearly unable to choose either glass of wine.

    Predictably, Americans United is stumping for the universities here, arguing that colleges should have the right to refuse public subsidies to groups that discriminate. Brayton disagrees, saying that groups' right to self-determination and free association ought to be preserved.

    My gut instinct is to side with Brayton and CLS here. It's important to note that the university isn't doing the discriminating here - the students are. These are essentially private clubs and the members of these clubs ought to have the right to admit who they want and keep out who they want. As for the funding issue, I'm hesitant to allow universities to deny funding based on the ideology of a particular student group. As Brayton points out:
    I agree that this means some students are compelled to support clubs that won't admit them, I just don't think this is a big deal. In fact, it's true of any student club that is based on a common set of ideas. By the usual funding arrangements for student groups -- usually a small amount of money is given to each club out of student activity fees or some other similar fund -- Democratic students are "compelled" to support Republican student groups and vice versa; white students are "compelled" to support Hispanic and Asian student groups; anti-environmentalists are "compelled" to support student environmental clubs; and so forth.

    All student groups that are formed on the basis of a common set of beliefs -- whether they advocate environmentalism, a political party, an ideological position like Students Against Sweatshops, etc -- are allowed to restrict their membership to those who share those beliefs. I see no reason to treat religious students groups any differently.
    The best policy, of course, would be to abolish activity fees for the students and have students donate to the groups they wish to support. If the university does choose to do the disbursing itself, though, the next best solution is one that ideally disburses funds based on need alone, and not based on ideology. That said, I don't necessarily blame the university for pursuing this litigation - they'll lose, but the Court ruling will give the University the plausible deniability it needs to say "we're not supporting discrimination, the Court made us do it."

    One interesting note, though. The conservative position boils down to this: ideological restrictions on money disbursement are wrong. Put differently, you can't complain if money goes to things with which you don't agree. If followed consistently, doesn't that position completely nuke the motivation behind amendments currently in Congress that would deny federal funding to anyone who buys an insurance plan that covers abortion?

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    My Old School

    Hooray for my old high school, which just got another #1 ranking from a meaningless "top high schools" list!

    Although personally, I went for the sports.

    Wednesday, December 09, 2009

    Hanukkah, O Hanukkah

    So Hanukkah, everyone's favorite exceedingly minor Jewish holiday, is coming up (I'll be doing a fun little history post on Hanukkah during the holiday). Which means it's time to bust out the tunes. Pardon me for saying, though, but the stable of Hanukkah songs is getting a bit... stale. There's the Adam Sandler songs, of course, and Peter Yarrow's classic "Light One Candle," but that's about it for Hanukkah songs this century.

    What's that you say? You want a Hanukkah song written by the Mormon senior senator from Utah, put to music written by a Jewish writer of contemporary Christian music, and sung by a Syrian woman from Indiana? I got that right here:

    Eight Days of Hanukkah from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

    Surprisingly, it's not half bad. Read the story behind the video here - it's actually really interesting. The Legend of Orrin Hatch grows.

    The comments are kinda entertaining. Special shout-out to the guy who dyslexically made reference to the "LSD Church." Mormons - man, y'all didn't tell me you took hallucinogens at church!

    Or perhaps you'd like some sexy R&B music that'll get you in the mood to light the candles and "fry up some latkes," if you know what I mean? Well, wait no longer:

    Sadly missing: "I'll rock you for ages, baby." Or "I know how to make your dreidel spin." Or... OK, I'll stop.

    Friday, December 04, 2009

    Dirty Laundry

    Anybody else read about this:
    The testy exchange was sparked by [American Urban Radio reporter April] Ryan's insistent questioning of White House social secretary Desiree Rogers' role at the recent state dinner, which has been in the headlines because of the fallout from Tareq and Michaele Salahi's "party crashing."

    Ryan claimed that there have been whispers around Washington insinuating that Rogers had overstepped the traditional role of her title at the event to become the "belle of the ball," thus "overshadowing the first lady." Frustrated by Ryan's tabloid-y line of questioning, Gibbs instructed her to "calm down" and to take a deep breath," adding "I do this with my son and that's what happens."

    As the press corps cringed, murmured and chuckled at Gibbs' chastising, Ryan shot back: "Don't play with me."
    and think of this (fast-forward to 1:45)?

    In Gibbs' defense, I totally agree with him and think dispensing with Ryan in that way was completely appropriate. But I'm not a press secretary.

    Wednesday, December 02, 2009

    Everything You Know Is Wrong

    In the words of Mike, zuh?
    First, though, [former TV personality Lou] Dobbs is working to repair what a spokesman conceded is a glaring flaw: His reputation for antipathy toward Latino immigrants. In a little-noticed interview Friday, Mr. Dobbs told Spanish-language network Telemundo he now supports a plan to legalize millions of undocumented workers, a stance he long lambasted as an unfair "amnesty."
    OK, what? Word has it that Dobbs wants to run for the Senate in New Jersey, which would involve his campaigning against the Senate's lone Hispanic member, Robert Menendez (D), but wow. Talk about a transparently political 180. This is a guy who was accusing illegal Latino immigrants of spreading crime and leprosy everywhere they went barely three months ago, and now he's a champion of a path to legalization for millions of undocumented workers? WTF?

    Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Part 2

    I've blogged previously about an odious new proposed law in Uganda that would make Idi Amin proud. It would provide for the execution of all gay people with AIDS and place anyone who supports gay rights or refuses to turn over a gay person to the authorities behind bars. The bill, despite its obvious insanity, has the apparent support of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and thus seems likely to pass. What I didn't note were some American connections that the bill has that are downright chilling.

    David Bahati, the bill's main sponsor, is (according to Jeff Sharlet) a member of the Family, a fundamentalist group most famous for evangelizing to American politicians. It counts North Carolina representatives Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre (both Democrats) among its members, as well as anti-abortion amendment guy Bart Stupak. The Family has also had connections with Museveni in the past. It's unclear whether the Americans who run the Family are supporting Museveni and Bahati in their ridiculousness; in fact, I doubt it. It is, however, worth noting that the ideologies that support this insane bill are influenced by American conservative evangelicalism, and as such, it falls to American conservative evangelicals to denounce the legislation since doing so might actually have an effect.

    I currently have no idea whether or not most of the American conservative evangelical movement's leaders have even been confronted with this legislation and forced to take a stand on it. One conservative evangelical leader has, though: Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren. When asked about the law - Warren is fairly involved in Uganda - he replied in a disappointing manner that generally implies his desire to remain neutral on the issue:
    The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.
    You can't comment? A mass murder is about to take place in a country you're deeply involved in and you can't be bothered to comment about it? Indifference in the face of mass murder is a sin, of course, but it's not as bad as tacit approval. If Warren had been actively opposed to other mass murders overseas but not this one, then we'd have an issue.

    Oh, wait, what's that, Twitter?

    Mmmhmmm. So it's horrible, HORRIBLE, that Christians are being killed overseas*, but when it's happening to gays? Can't comment. I now have no respect for Rick Warren. This attitude of "I'll only comment on genocide committed against my particular identity group" is dangerous and what enables genocides to occur.

    *Of course, I am just as opposed to people killing Christians because they're Christian as I am to people killing gays because they're gay. Warren's right on the spirit of this tweet - genocide committed against Christians doesn't get anywhere near the press it deserves in this country outside of evangelical circles. However, he's wrong on the substance - many non-Christian human rights groups speak out against such killings daily. Governments that encourage the slaughter of Christians should be criticized too, and I doubt Warren would have any qualms about doing so.

    Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money

    Last night I watched Obama's speech on Afghanistan (at a bar... yes, the bar I was at played Obama's speech on their big projector TV. It's that kind of place). Seems like everyone's talking about that 18-month deadline, especially conservatives who are busy with their "OMG it's a road map for the Taliban!!!!1!1!1" bullshit.

    Here's the thing about that deadline, though - it's not going to be a hard-and-fast limit. Does anyone seriously think that Obama's going to start pulling troops out if we're making progress against the Taliban and another few months will make us safer? I doubt it. Obama's already proven with the health care thing that deadlines are more suggestions to him. Why should this be any different?

    What the deadline does, however, is signal to the Afghan people that we're not there indefinitely. That's a good move, in my opinion. We've been there for eight years, and no doubt Obama realizes that some of the increase in support for the Taliban comes from the worry that America is intending to be an occupying power. Obama said as much during the speech, telling Afghans that we're there to be their friends, not their patrons.

    Greenwald fleshes out this idea a little bit more, saying that it's a good thing that Obama didn't try to turn this into some humanitarian issue and instead kept the focus on our narrow interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While there are many of us who might want to see Afghanistan become a beacon of human rights, I don't think we can force that on them by the use of military force. Afghans recognize that sort of rhetoric as empty and as justification for overstaying our welcome. We could say "spread human rights to Afghans" but the Afghans would just hear "subjugate and occupy Afghanistan."

    So now the Afghans know that we're not there on some ill-defined humanitarian mission and that we'll be out as soon as we've neutralized the Taliban and al-Qaeda. McChrystal has the surge he needs to get the job done. Americans have a clear objective and an assurance that the whole thing will be over soon. Obama chose the best of a bunch of bad options here.

    One more thing on the war: quit calling Afghanistan "Obama's war." He inherited this war from Bush. It's not "Obama's war" any more than Vietnam was Nixon's war or Korea was Eisenhower's war. It's a bullshit meme and it needs to stop.

    In other news...

    - The War on Hanukkah is back. Why do these people hate Hanukkah so much, not to mention New Year's Day?

    - New York is debating and voting on marriage equality. If it's passed, citizen initiatives cannot overturn it. More on that as it happens.

    - Tiger Woods did something. No one actually cares except the news networks, who apparently don't want to actually go out and look for real news.

    - World Cup draw is Friday. Again, more on that as it occurs.

    - Swiss voters, apparently trying to do an impression of a hyper-douchey HOA, voted to ban minarets from the entire country. Next on the ballot - pink flamingoes. Or maybe they could join us North Carolinians and ban clotheslines.

    If you hear the phrase "Should the government ban..." and your default response isn't to scream NO! at the top of your lungs, I'm in favor of banning you from voting. Sure, some bans can actually do some good, but banning should be reserved for cases when the safety and liberty of others is seriously, and involuntarily, put at risk. No other situations warrant a ban.