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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Assault On Children

by digby

In the great tradition of Republican leaders Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh, Governor Mark Sanford has put both feet in his mouth and bitten down hard.

Here's Joan Walsh:

Remember Ty'Sheoma Bethea, the Dillon, S.C., girl who asked Congress for stimulus funds to rehab her dilapidated middle school? I thought she was an inspiration for America; wingnuts at the Washington Times thought she was "irresponsible" for asking government to solve her problems.

Now her governor, Mark Sanford, has taken that line of thinking one step further: He told Fox's great poet Glenn Beck that taking stimulus funds to fix schools like Bethea's would be "fiscal child abuse," while rejecting the funds helps kids. No, I'm not kidding.

The folks at Think Progress have the video.

As Joan points out, it's pretty hard not to wonder just how much race plays into this decision. There's no doubt that the poorest kids in South Carolina tend to be African American.

Mark Sanford is going to run for president on the fiscal responsibility ticket. And it may just work. If the economy is better, he and his ilk will rant and rave about debt. If it's worse, he'll say the spending did no good. And who knows what the media narratives will be?

But he's going to hell no matter what happens. Poor people in his poor state are going to suffer for his cynical political posturing and is sickening.
Tossing GWOT

by digby

Me Likee:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration has stopped using "war on terror," breaking with the Bush administration's terminology in describing the conflict with al Qaeda and militant Islam.

"The administration has stopped using the phrase, and I think that speaks for itself," Mrs. Clinton told reporters as she traveled here for a United Nations-led conference on Afghanistan.

The phrase has been criticized as having inflammatory connotations in the Muslim world. Some Democratic officials believe it is better to describe more specifically whom the U.S. is fighting, such as al Qaeda or the Taliban.

It's a good first step. But it would be even more meaningful if the Department of Defense would get with the program and stop issuing these:

This is actually a pretty important step and one that should be formalized. The GWOT was a "war" that justified all the outrageous unitary executive moves legalized by John Yoo under his "commander in chief in wartime is a functional dictator" argument. By declaring that war officially over, it would put another nail in the coffin of those unconstitutional rulings.

Remember, they initially gave that medal out to military which participated in the domestic "Airport Security Operation" after 9/11. Let's just say they had a somewhat "expansive" view of the GWOT from the very beginning since they created a military medal for a US military operation on American soil. And it's creepy. They should get rid of it.

Pre-Emptive Strike

by dday

In New York today, the Republicans are dispensing with the election and going right to the overturning of the election results:

Republican Jim Tedisco may be running for the House in a district where Republicans outnumber Democratic voters by some 70,000, but with the polls closing in a matter of hours, Tedisco’s campaign is prepping for a loss.

An electoral loss, anyway.

The Dutchess County Clerk’s Office has confirmed to FDL that Tedisco’s people have filed an ex parte motion in order, the effect of which would be to investigate and overturn today’s election results, should the outcome not be to Republicans’ liking.

FDL is trying to obtain a copy of the motion and will post when available.

This filing come on the heels of a report that Tedisco’s own polling has him losing to Democrat Scott Murphy by a narrow margin.

Why not? It's working for Norm Coleman. In fact, given that success I'd be surprised if Republicans acknowledge losing an election ever again.

By the way, I want to address somnething else about this race. There are definitely national implications to Tedisco losing this seat, in a Republican-leaning area, to a virtual unknown in the district, especially because the race has turned in many ways on Murphy's support for President Obama's stimulus package. And on taking joy in watching Republicans flail about and continue their losing streak I take a back seat to no one. However, I never asked readers to support Scott Murphy financially, only wrote about the race a few times, and whenever I did I included the caveat that Murphy has planned to join the Blue Dogs. And I completely agree with Chris Bowers that we cannot keep supporting Democrats just because of the D next to their name, especially after they announce their intentions to undermine our values.

We--participants in blog and email list small donor fundraising efforts--have to completely stop raising money for Blue Dogs. We should not give a single cent to any current member of the Blue Dog coalition. We should not give any money at all to any candidate who refuses to rule out joining the Blue Dogs once in Congress. If we hope to improve Democratic behavior in Congress, this break has to be as public and as thorough as possible.

In politics, money speaks a lot louder than either voting or public criticism. We can criticize Blue Dog behavior all we want, but as long as we keep funneling their members millions of dollars every two years in small, online donations, then we will actually be ratifying, not criticizing their behavior. We will be supporting their efforts to push the party to the right, not working to push the party to the left. We will be sending a clear signal of support for their votes, not working to hold them accountable for those votes [...]

If we keep sending the Blue Dogs millions of dollars in small, online donations every year, then there is no incentive for Blue Dogs to ever change their behavior, or for Democratic candidates to not seek out membership in the Blue Dog coalition. Currently, being a member, or prospective member, of the Blue Dog coalition provides you access to a network of Hill staff, corproate lobbyists and their PACs, large donor fundraisers, and press releases back home to talk about how you aren't like those other, dirty liberal Democrats. If we want to change Democratic behavior in Congress, we have stop adding even more incentives for Democrats to become Blue Dogs. Instead, we must offer strong disincentives for them to become Blue Dogs, such as a significantly reduced access to online, small donor fundraising.

Unfortunately, in Scott Murphy's case, small online donors raised over $300,000 for him even after Murphy had stated he was applying to join the Blue Dogs. That has to stop. Before we raise money for other congressional candidates in 2009-2010, we have to extract promises from those candidates that they won't join either the Blue Dogs (for House candidates) or Evan Bayh's groups (for Senate candidates).

Blue Dogs derive their strength from their numbers, and their ability as a caucus to block progressive legislation. I support particular individuals in the Blue Dogs on particular stances from time to time - Patrick Murphy in Pennsylvania comes to mind. But I can't support any individual who joins that group, which has been composed for the sole purpose of blocking progressive legislation. If we keep giving them money time after time we are being played for suckers.

Update: from digby

One way to do this is to support Blue America candidates. We learned the hard way some time back to get commitments on this and we don't endorse Blue Dogs or those who are open to being Blue Dogs.

Like dday, I have nothing against Murphy and I'll be happy if he wins, but the Blue Dogs have their own financing system and they can pay their own freight. I ask for financial support only for those congressional candidates whose values and positions on the issues are truly progressive. Somebody's got to do that or there will never be anything but Blue Dogs in congress.

Stop It

by digby

Rick Sanchez just asked Wolf Blitzer if the fact that Europe loves Obama will hurt him at home. (Blitzer said he didn't think so.)

But I have to wonder: aside from a handful of neocon nutballs and the far right fringe of the Republican party, do villagers actually believe the rest of the country hates Europe? Really? If that's the case, perhaps the better question is "who don't Americans hate?" If Europe really is considered an enemy to the extent that Europeans liking our president is a liability, then I'm hard pressed to think of any country we could consider a friend.

CNN shouldn't be feeding this idiocy and I have to wonder where it came from. Did somebody tweet Sanchez with the question?


by digby

Tonight is the night that Glennzilla and Amy Goodman will receive the first "Izzy" awards, for independent journalism from the The Park Center for Independent Media :

The Izzy Award is named after legendary maverick journalist I. F. Stone, who launched I. F. Stone Weekly in 1953 and exposed government deception, McCarthyism, and racial bigotry. Presented annually for "special achievement in independent media," the Izzy Award will go to an independent outlet, journalist, or producer for contributions to our culture, politics, or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Jeff Cohen of FAIR, who also runs the Park center, wrote this about I. F. Stone a few months back:

Before there was an Internet, Izzy Stone was doing the work we associate with today's best bloggers. Like them, he was obsessed with citing original documents and texts. But before search engines, Izzy had to consume ten newspapers per day -- and physically visit government archives and press offices, and personally pore over thousands of words in the Congressional Record. That's how he repeatedly scooped the gullible, faux-objective MSM of his day in exposing government deceit, like that propelling the Vietnam War.

Izzy was the ultimate un-embedded reporter. His journalism was motivated by a simple maxim that resonates loudly in our era of Cheneys and Rumsfelds and WMD hoaxes: "All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."

Month after month from 1953 to 1969 I.F. Stone's Weekly (biweekly through 1971) exposed deceptions as fast as governments could spin them. His timely and timeless dispatches are gathered in an exceptional paperback, The Best of I.F. Stone.


Born of immigrant parents, Izzy was an American patriot who worshipped the Bill of Rights: "You may think I am a red Jew son-of-a-bitch, but I'm keeping Thomas Jefferson alive."

And he worshipped our country's tradition of press freedom: "There are few countries in which you can spit in the eye of the government and get away with it. It's not possible in Moscow." But Izzy was never naïve about American traditions that threatened freedom, and he had a 5,000-page FBI spy file to prove it.

Today's muckraking bloggers are often belittled for working from their homes, far removed from the corridors of power. Izzy worked out of his home. If he were alive, he'd be applauding the Josh Marshalls and other independents, urging: Keep your distance from power.

I made no claim to inside stuff. . . I tried to dig the truth out of hearings, official transcripts and government documents, and to be as accurate as possible. . . I felt like a guerilla warrior, swooping down in surprise attack on a stuffy bureaucracy where it least expected independent inquiry. The reporter assigned to specific beats like the State Department or the Pentagon for a wire service or a big daily newspaper soon finds himself a captive. State and Pentagon have large press relations forces whose job it is to herd the press and shape the news. There are many ways to punish a reporter who gets out of line. . . But a reporter covering the whole capitol on his own - particularly if he is his own employer - is immune from these pressures.

I can't think of anyone who better personifies the Izzy Stone tradition than Glenn Greenwald. Congratulations to him and to Amy Goodman for the well deserved recognition.

Coming For The Social Security Checks, Again

by dday

How interesting that the Washington Post, in the midst of this Great Recession, decides that the biggest fallout of the loss of millions of jobs is not the health and welfare of those unemployed themselves, but the concurrent depletion of the Social Security Trust Fund, with a not-so-subtle inference that benefits need to be cut.

The U.S. recession is wreaking havoc on yet another front: the Social Security trust fund.

With unemployment rising, the payroll tax revenue that finances Social Security benefits for nearly 51 million retirees and other recipients is falling, according to a report from the Congressional Budget Office. As a result, the trust fund's annual surplus is forecast to all but vanish next year -- nearly a decade ahead of schedule -- and deprive the government of billions of dollars it had been counting on to help balance the nation's books.

While the new numbers will not affect payments to current Social Security recipients, experts say, the disappearing surplus could have considerable implications for the government's already grim financial situation.


Since the WaPo doesn't make it clear, Dean Baker can explain what they're talking about. Payroll tax revenue may be coming into balance with current payouts from the system during this recessionary period, but the article conveniently sidesteps the $2.5 trillion dollar surplus the system has generated over the years.

While those seeking to cut Social Security benefits are highlighting these new projections, in reality they have very little significance for the program. Under the law, Social Security benefits are paid out of its trust fund. This trust fund has accumulated a surplus of almost $2.5 trillion. The lower projected surpluses for the next few years will have some impact (if the projections prove correct) on the date at which the fund is projected to be depleted, but the projected depletion date will almost certainly be beyond 2040, even after CBO adjusts its numbers for the downturn.

Remarkably, this piece alludes to plans to cut benefits without ever noting that older workers and retirees have just lost close to $15 trillion in wealth due to the collapse of the housing bubble and the plunge in the stock market Presumably this would be an important factor in any debate over reducing benefits.

The issue here is not the successful administration of Social Security, but the historic maladministration of the economy and the rest of the budget by the "deficits don't matter" crowd. Of course, to them deficits only matter with respect to Social Security, not the magic doesn't-cost-any-money military budget.

By the way, I don't know why this wasn't heavily pushed all that much by the White House, but as part of the federal stimulus, beneficiaries of Social Security will receive a one-time $250 payment, beginning in May. This puts money into the hands of those who need it, for the most part, and goes a little way to strengthening the social safety net and helping out those who are collateral damage to this economic storm. We need more of it, not the Village nonsense about how benefits have to be cut based on misleading fiscal projections.

Major Leagues

by tristero

From Seymour Hersh's latest New Yorker article:
The Obama transition team also helped persuade Israel to end the bombing of Gaza and to withdraw its ground troops before the Inauguration. According to the former senior intelligence official, who has access to sensitive information, “Cheney began getting messages from the Israelis about pressure from Obama” when he was President-elect. Cheney, who worked closely with the Israeli leadership in the lead-up to the Gaza war, portrayed Obama to the Israelis as a “pro-Palestinian,” who would not support their efforts (and, in private, disparaged Obama, referring to him at one point as someone who would “never make it in the major leagues”)
This from Cheney, a bozo so, so...bozo-ish, it truly defies belief:
In his book It Doesn't Take a Hero, retired U.S. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf describes the evolution of the plans he and his staff made following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait... Following one White House meeting at which he'd asked for more time and more troops, Stormin' Norman reports, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell called to warn the Desert Storm commander that he was being loudly compared, by a top administration official, to George McClellan. "My God," the official supposedly complained. "He's got all the force he needs. Why won't he just attack?" Schwarzkopf notes that the unnamed official who'd made the comment "was a civilian who knew next to nothing about military affairs, but he'd been watching the Civil War documentary on public television and was now an expert."

And then, twenty pages later, Schwarzkopf casually drops the information that he got an inspirational gift from Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney right before the air war finally got under way. Cheney was presenting a gift to a military man, and he chose something with an appropriate theme: "(A) complete set of videotapes of Ken Burns's PBS series, The Civil War."

But that wasn't the only gift that Dick Cheney had for Norman Schwarzkopf. Having figured out that the general was being too cautious with his fourth combat command in three decades of soldiering, Cheney got his staff busy and began presenting Schwarzkopf with his own ideas about how to fight the Iraqis: What if we parachute the 82nd Airborne into the far western part of Iraq, hundreds of miles from Kuwait and totally cut off from any kind of support, and seize a couple of missile sites, then line up along the highway and drive for Baghdad? Schwarzkopf charitably describes the plan as being "as bad as it could possibly be... But despite our criticism, the western excursion wouldn't die: three times in that week alone Powell called with new variations from Cheney's staff. The most bizarre involved capturing a town in western Iraq and offering it to Saddam in exchange for Kuwait."
Remember the clowns in the Bush administration, people. They really were that bad.

No. They were worse.

Let's Do The Time Warp

by digby

Oh goody:

Tim Kaine, the Virginia governor and President Barack Obama's hand-picked choice as the head of the Democratic National Committee, infuriated abortion-rights groups Monday by signing legislation that gives abortion foes an important symbolic win.

Kaine brushed off intense lobbying by abortion rights supporters in Richmond to sign a bill that allows Virginia motorists to advertise their anti-abortion views by sporting "Choose Life" specialty license plates.


Kaine defended the move by pointing out that Virginia has a “long-standing program” allowing customized license plates and said that if Planned Parenthood applied for a plate he would grant it.

“I sign this legislation today in keeping with the Commonwealth's longtime practice of approving specialty plates with all manner of political and social messages,” Kaine said in a statement.

“Furthermore, if Planned Parenthood—an organization that is already a recipient of state budget funds—or another similar organization ever chooses to seek a specialty license plate in Virginia, I believe the Constitution would require the state to approve that plate to protect against any viewpoint discrimination.”

I wonder what the chance is that Plannet Parenthood could get a bill through the legislature that says "Choose Condoms." Not much, I'd guess.

Kaine is being too clever by half and it's really unfortunate. (He's apparently going to ban stem-cell research in Virginia too.) There's absolutely no good political reason for the head of the Democratic Party to advance the conservative movement's social agenda right now. It seems strangely anachronistic in this new era and gives gro0und at a time when it's completely unnecessary. In fact, it's lame on all levels.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Theater Critics

by digby

Speaking of the latest kerfuffle over Seymour Hersh's reporting on Cheney's assassination squad, Emptywheel quotes ex-official John Hannah on CNN today explaining why it would be perfectly legal:

Hannah: There's no question, in a theater of war, when we are at war--and there's no doubt, we are still at war against Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. and on that Pakistani border--that our troops have the authority to go out after and capture and kill the enemy, including the leadership of the enemy.

This fellow might quarrel with that seeing as how he's just been convicted of murder for capturing and killing the enemy in Iraq:

An American army sergeant faces up to 35 years in prison after admitting his involvement in the summary executions of four bound and blindfolded Iraqi prisoners.

US Sergeant First Class Joseph Mayo told a court martial in Vilseck, southern Germany, that he thought the shootings were in the best interests of his troops because he feared the prisoners would attack them if released.

The 27-year-old and fellow soldiers killed the four men with pistol shots to the head before pushing their bodies into a Baghdad canal in spring 2007 after fatal attacks on their patrol. His lawyer claimed that American troops on the ground in Iraq received insufficient support but military prosecutors said Mayo had demonstrated a "total lack of moral courage".

Mayo, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, told his court martial at the US Army’s Rose Barracks that he was guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Asked by the judge whether he thought he had the authority to shoot the prisoners, he replied: “I thought it was in the best interests of my soldiers.”

Turns out there are all kinds of laws that forbid such things even in the "theater of war." And there are laws that forbid assassinations and torture too. Cheney and his minions just believed those laws didn't apply to them.

Keeping It Quiet

by digby

Over the week-end, I wrote a bit about the latest torture revelations concerning Abu Zubayda and the fact that everything they got from him under "enhanced interrogations" turned out to be garbage. I mused that they didn't really care what the torture revealed, merely that they got lots of "metrics" that could show they were making progress in the GWOT with their macho tactics. Reader Sleon pointed me in the direction of this post by Bmaz at Emptywheel which adds another intriguing bit of speculation along the same lines:

Such is the clincher as to why the torture tapes had to be destroyed. It wasn't just that Bush/Cheney et. al wanted to keep evidence of their torture program secret, there was never any complete way to do that. But there was only one thing that could prove they tortured for nothing and got nothing - the tapes. Cheney and his coterie of fellow Torquemadas were fiends proud of their handiwork; if they had evidence that it worked, they would have kept it. They burn spies for fun, crow on television about their willingness to torture and what they have accomplished, do you really think for one second they wouldn't retain proof if they had it?

And let us not forget just who we are talking about here - it is the White House Principals group:

The so-called Principals who participated in the meetings also approved the use of "combined" interrogation techniques -- using different techniques during interrogations, instead of using one method at a time -- on terrorist suspects who proved difficult to break, sources said.

Highly placed sources said a handful of top advisers signed off on how the CIA would interrogate top al Qaeda suspects -- whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding.

The high-level discussions about these "enhanced interrogation techniques" were so detailed, these sources said, some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed -- down to the number of times CIA agents could use a specific tactic.

The advisers were members of the National Security Council's Principals Committee, a select group of senior officials who met frequently to advise President Bush on issues of national security policy.

At the time, the Principals Committee included Vice President Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

As the national security adviser, Rice chaired the meetings, which took place in the White House Situation Room and were typically attended by most of the principals or their deputies.

Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet and Ashcroft. Means, motive and opportunity. Who could have imagined?

This certainly explains why it was top White House lawyers including Gonzales, Addington, Bellinger and Miers, with "vigorous sentiment", assisted the CIA in the decision and process to destroy the torture tapes of abu-Zubaydah and others.

(Every time I am reminded of that principles group watching "choreographed" torture before signing off on it, I am shocked and appalled all over again. )

As to the question at hand, considering the fact that Cheney and Rummy spent their entire careers trying to correct what they considered the sins of the Nixon administration, Bmaz's speculation makes sense. After all, they believed that Nixon's catastrophic error was failing to destroy the ... tapes.


Bad Timing

by digby

Well it looks like we may get a little inkling of what would have happened if the GOP's social security privatization plans had been implemented:

Just months before the start of last year's stock market collapse, the federal agency that insures the retirement funds of 44 million Americans departed from its conservative investment strategy and decided to put much of its $64 billion insurance fund into stocks.

Switching from a heavy reliance on bonds, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation decided to pour billions of dollars into speculative investments such as stocks in emerging foreign markets, real estate, and private equity funds.

The agency refused to say how much of the new investment strategy has been implemented or how the fund has fared during the downturn. The agency would only say that its fund was down 6.5 percent - and all of its stock-related investments were down 23 percent - as of last Sept. 30, the end of its fiscal year. But that was before most of the recent stock market decline and just before the investment switch was scheduled to begin in earnest.

No statistics on the fund's subsequent performance were released.

Nonetheless, analysts expressed concern that large portions of the trust fund might have been lost at a time when many private pension plans are suffering major losses. The guarantee fund would be the only way to cover the plans if their companies go into bankruptcy.

"The truth is, this could be huge," said Zvi Bodie, a Boston University finance professor who in 2002 advised the agency to rely almost entirely on bonds. "This has the potential to be another several hundred billion dollars. If the auto companies go under, they have huge unfunded liabilities" in pension plans that would be passed on to the agency.


Asked whether the strategy was a mistake, given the subsequent declines in stocks and real estate, Millard said, "Ask me in 20 years. The question is whether policymakers will have the fortitude to stick with it."

But Bodie, the BU professor who advised the agency, questioned why a government entity that is supposed to be insuring pension funds should be investing in stocks and real estate at all. Bodie once likened the agency's strategy to a company that insures against hurricane damage and then invests the premiums in beachfront property.

Millard could be right that his diversification of the fund will result in a good return over 20 years. For all of our sakes, let's hope so. But putting pension fund money into the inflated real estate market in 2007 was just stupid and in retrospect entering the stock market at that point was a case of very bad timing at the very least. It will probably take years for the fund to recover what it lost in the crash. That is a very big "oops."

There has been no doubt for years that the fund was going to come up short with guaranteed pension plans going belly up, even in the good times. (See: airlines.) But instead of changing the agency's conservative investment strategy, they could have lobbied to change the law to allow them charge higher premiums to the companies they insure or find some other less risky way to boost their returns. Of course, in the Bush years, that was the kind of thing that could get you kicked out of the Big Boyz club.

But even the original Bush appointee was a prudent investor who didn't just start gambling with the pension insurance. Then they hired a Brownie:

In the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, the agency took a conservative investment approach under director Bradley N. Belt, who favored putting only between 15 and 25 percent of the fund into stocks.

Belt said in an interview that he operated under "a more prudent risk management" style and said he "would have maintained the investment strategy we had in place." Belt left in 2006 and Millard arrived in 2007.

Under Millard's strategy, the pension agency was directed to invest 55 percent of its funds in stocks and real estate. That included 20 percent in US stocks, 19 percent in foreign stocks, 6 percent in what the agency's records term "emerging market" stocks, 5 percent in private real estate and 5 percent in private equity firms.

The PBGC is all that stands between a lot of retired people and penury, after a lifetime of paying into a guaranteed pension plan. Is it even remotely reasonable that a major change in investment strategy of an insurance fund like this could be done without any oversight or input? And yet it did. As usual, the best and the brightest were all partying 24/7 and nobody wanted to call the cops.

This could be a huge problem before long. And one of the saddest, yet inevitable, consequences of the opaque trillion dollar financial system bailouts and million dollar bonus pools for greedy bankers will be that when average pensioners need bailing out there will be no political capital left to do it.

Foreclosure Waves

by digby

There are more ahead. And it's got some ugly consequences:

According to Robinson, those victims of foreclosure who do wind up being pushed out of their homes can be roughly divided into two waves.

The first wave consists of those who lost their homes because they were unable to keep up with payments on poor mortgages, often with cripplingly high interest rates. There's no hard research as yet, but anecdotal evidence indicates that, although these people didn't have the financial resources to keep up with their mortgage payments, most were able to rent apartments or even homes in their same communities.

But for the second wave, the transition hasn't been nearly so seamless. These are the people who are unable to make mortgage payments because they've lost their jobs. They no longer have the incomes to afford rentals.

This second wave is creating a strong demand for social services, including homeless shelters -- a demand that far exceeds supply. Again, as yet there is no hard data, but anecdotal evidence indicates a far higher percentage of these people are winding up in hotel rooms, with friends and relatives, in shelters, or even sleeping in cars or on the street.

Here in California, the effects of this are going to be huge:

California's unemployment rate will soar to between 12 percent and 15 percent by next spring and remain in the double digits until at least the beginning of 2012, according to forecasts released by two teams of University of California economists.

The state's unemployment rate has not reached those heights since the Great Depression.

And California isn't alone.

I'm sure the fiscal scolds will be putting the hammer down on anyone who wants the government to step up with direct aid -- and the GOP presidential hopeful club will be posturing and preening on this. But even if the economy were to turn around tomorrow (and it doesn't look hopeful) the displacement from all this is going to be felt for some time to come.

Play Money

by dday

From the Boston Globe, a terrifying report about how the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the agency that insures retirement funds, decided to play in the stock market at precisely the wrong time:

WASHINGTON - Just months before the start of last year's stock market collapse, the federal agency that insures the retirement funds of 44 million Americans departed from its conservative investment strategy and decided to put much of its $64 billion insurance fund into stocks.

Switching from a heavy reliance on bonds, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation decided to pour billions of dollars into speculative investments such as stocks in emerging foreign markets, real estate, and private equity funds.

The agency refused to say how much of the new investment strategy has been implemented or how the fund has fared during the downturn. The agency would only say that its fund was down 6.5 percent - and all of its stock-related investments were down 23 percent - as of last Sept. 30, the end of its fiscal year. But that was before most of the recent stock market decline and just before the investment switch was scheduled to begin in earnest.

The PBGC is a backstop against major losses by private pension funds and the parent companies slipping into bankruptcy. Especially at this time, with the economy struggling, the PBGC could be called on more than ever to help protect pensioners. Just as an example, a structured bankruptcy by GM or Chrysler would mean that huge liabilities would be passed on to this agency. Which apparently gambled and lost tons of money. That's exactly the opposite investment strategy that should be taken by what amounts to an insurer.

David Kurtz is blunt and right on the money.

A finance professor who had previously advised the agency not to make the switch away from bonds compared the move to an insurance company writing policies to cover hurricane damage and then investing the premiums in beachfront property.

Bush was able to do for the PBGC what he tried and failed to do for Social Security.

Josh Marshall concurs. These were Bush Administration officials who, in the wake of losing their battle to privatize Social Security, had this big pot of money - close to $64 billion - that they sunk into stocks, providing more money to Wall Street for them to keep pushing asset values higher. The timing of it happening just at the time before the market began to crash suggests that the Administration viewed this as perhaps a last-ditch effort to prop up Wall Street. The director of the PBGC, who advised and directed this strategy, is Charles E.F. Millard, a former managing director at LEHMAN BROTHERS, just to give you some more assurance. In the article he practically admits that he was just taking a whirl at the casino with public money:

He said the previous strategy of relying mostly on bonds would never garner enough money to eliminate the agency's deficit. "The prior policy virtually guaranteed that some day a multibillion-dollar bailout would be required from Congress," Millard said.

He said he believed the new policy - which includes such potentially higher-growth investments as foreign stocks and private real estate - would lessen, but not eliminate, the possibility that a bailout is needed.

Asked whether the strategy was a mistake, given the subsequent declines in stocks and real estate, Millard said, "Ask me in 20 years. The question is whether policymakers will have the fortitude to stick with it."

I don't think policymakers will be sticking with it, because there's probably almost no money left in that portfolio. Money that was designed to insure pensions.

This is a crime.

Escape Artist

by digby

Yesterday I referred to Chrysler chief Nardelli in passing as an example of the failed CEO who consistently fails up. Today, I read in the NY Times that the Obama administration is insisting that GM CEO Rick Wagoner step down before the taxpayers agree to give GM another dime. But Nardelli, whose record of failure is at least as great over the years as Wagoner's, stays.

According to the NY Times:

In deciding to urge Mr. Wagoner to step down, the Obama administration seemed mindful of the public’s growing outrage over bailouts of private companies, as well as the bonuses paid to employees of A.I.G.

Mr. Obama is well aware that he cannot afford to give the appearance of using tax dollars to reward executives who have done a poor job, and he began signaling as early as last week that he would take a tough stance with the automakers.

In a question and answer session at the White House on Thursday, the president said there had been “a lot of mismanagement of the auto industry over the past several years,” and declared that more government help would be contingent on the companies’ “willingness to make some pretty drastic changes.”

They'd certainly better watch the taxpayers wallet with Nardelli in the room:

Nardelli will be on a very short leash, and look for Congress to question his every move.

You see, he has a compensation problem.

When Nardelli resigned as CEO of Home Depot in 2007, he was essentially run out as a result of his pay. Not only that, he was criticized by shareholder activists for ignoring investor concerns about his pay. Indeed, at a May 2006 annual meeting, he refused to answer questions from shareholders and gaveled the meeting to a quick close, ignoring shareholders who wanted to exercise their rights by asking questions and making comments to the board. Nardelli and Home Depot would later apologize for the spectacle.

When Nardelli quit Home Depot in 2007, he drew more ire by walking away with a $210 million golden parachute – even though his tenure did little to boost Home Depot’s stock price.

In fact, House Financial Services chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., was critical Nardelli back then, calling the severance package “out of control.”

Frank’s words back then echo now in the controversy over bonuses paid to AIG executives and any compensation going to CEOs of financial-services companies that have taken federal bailout dollars.

Perhaps Nardelli has learned from the experience. He was, after all, the first of the Big Three auto execs to agree to take just $1 in pay.

How Nardelli structures his future compensation will judge how hard a time the government gives him – and Chrysler – in the coming months.

If the administration were to make an example of someone, this would seem to me to be the logical guy. Or if Wagoner really needed to go for other reasons, it's hard to see why Nardelli escapes the guillotine as well.

This man has more lives than an alley cat. Then again, maybe Nardelli just has friends in high places who are protecting him. As Julia reminded me, Nardelli is a long time Big Money Boy who, along with other Home Depot execs, did everything in his power to pay back Eliot Spitzer for his attempts to clean up Wall Street as NY Attorney General:

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's challenger for the state's Democratic gubernatorial nomination received hundreds of thousands of dollars from people with ties to Home Depot Inc. founder Kenneth Langone, a registered Republican and target of a Spitzer lawsuit.

Langone, a defendant in Spitzer's suit over ousted New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso's retirement pay, supports Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi for governor. Suozzi's campaign received at least $300,000 from Langone, his wife, Elaine, and two adult sons, and present and former business and charity group associates, Suozzi campaign records on the state Board of Election Web site showed.

``I've found a substantial number in the business community inside and outside New York who feel that Spitzer as governor wouldn't be friendly to business,'' Langone said in a Jan. 12 interview. Earlier that day, he had a lunch with 15 business associates, nine of whom promised to help Suozzi, Langone said.


He also has said Spitzer sought ``headlines, not justice,'' when he named Langone a defendant in a May 2004 suit over his role heading the stock exchange compensation committee that awarded Grasso a $187 million retirement package.


An examination of campaign records found Suozzi's donors include Home Depot Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Richard Nardelli, who gave $16,200. Walter Buckley, an original Home Depot shareholder and his wife, Marjorie, contributed $32,000. Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus and his wife, Billi, gave $32,000, while Steven Holzman, who Langone named in 2001 as chief executive of his Invemed Associates LLC, donated $16,000.

Why Wagoner and not Nardelli? Who knows.
Maybe he's got some pals protecting him. But it seems to me that if they wanted to "send a message" Nardelli is the poster boy for worthless, overcompensated losers.

Update: Fergawdsake.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

French Dread

by digby

Boo hoo:

“I must say I'm disappointed,” Senate Minority Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union. “After two months, the president has not governed in the middle as I had hoped he would. But it's not too late. He's only been in office a couple of months. Still before him are the opportunities to deal with us on a truly bipartisan basis,” the Republican told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King.

Bipartisanship is a one way street, dontcha know.

McConnell is also afraid that we are going to turn into a banana republic. Oh wait, sorry, he supports turning us into a banana republic. Obviously. He's a laissez faire, K-Street lackey after all. It's the US turning into France that has him petrified:

Obama’s administration “is going to be the furthest to the left of any government . . . certainly in my lifetime,” McConnell also told King. “I’m not sure that’s what people voted for. I mean they were angry with President Bush. They were not happy with the economy…. Whether they intended to see America kind of turned into a Western European country as a result of an explosion of spending and debt and regulation is another matter.”

Quelle horreur!

via Blue Texan at FDL

Beavis And Butthead Republicans

by digby

I'm beginning to think that Limbaugh is doing this in order to make clowns like Cantor and Steele look statesmanlike by comparison. It's working.

h/t to bill
Too Rich To Fail

by digby

What a racket:

The financial giant Goldman Sachs spent tens of millions of dollars to bail out two senior executives last fall who were short on cash, according to the bank’s proxy statement filed on Friday.

In an unusual move, Goldman bought back stakes in some internal investment funds from Jon Winkelried, the bank’s co-chief operating officer, and Gregory K. Palm, its general counsel.

Both executives are among the largest shareholders in the bank, owning more than a million shares each, and directors were concerned that a large sale of Goldman shares by the two men would alarm investors during a period of market turmoil, according to a person briefed on the matter.

To avoid the stock sales, Goldman paid Mr. Winkelried, who retired last month, $19.7 million to purchase about 30 percent of his investments in internal hedge funds and private equity investments.

The bank paid $38.3 million to Mr. Palm for about a quarter of his investments.

Soon after the bank aided the two executives, Warren E. Buffett invested $5 billion in Goldman, and the bank’s top four executives agreed not to sell more than 10 percent of their stock for three years.


Goldman was the last Wall Street firm to go public, and many partners there, current and former, have held onto their stock since the offering 10 years ago because they did not want to pay the large tax bills attached to the profits that would accrue from sales of their shares.

Some partners and other employees there borrowed against their stock for living expenses or to make other investments in areas like hedge funds and private equity funds.

In a much-noticed sign of the times, Mr. Winkelried, a former investment banker, put his estate in Nantucket on the market last fall for $55 million. He has since lowered the price. He also owns a home in Short Hills, N.J., and a horse farm in Colorado.

Mr. Winkelried spent 27 years at the bank, working in areas like leveraged finance and rates and commodities before being named a senior executive. Mr. Palm still works at Goldman, where he has been head or co-head of the legal department since 1992, when he joined the bank from the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. In 2007, he endowed a professorship in economics at his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Last fall, he represented Goldman before a Senate panel that focused in part on bank compensation.

What a great business for the guys at the top. No matter what happens they always wind up getting bailed out to the tune of millions of dollars.


The Bucks Stop There

by digby

Via Atrios, I read this little tale of "bonuses", a story which is happening in different businesses all over the country:

Though the company teetered on the verge of bankruptcy at the time, this past December Philadelphia Media Holdings awarded bonuses to CEO Brian P. Tierney, vice president of finance Richard Thayer and Daily News publisher Mark Frisby.

PMH board chair Bruce Toll confirmed bonuses of $350,000 for Tierney and $150,000 each for Thayer and Frisby in a phone conversation on Friday. Reached by phone, Frisby told Philadelphia, “The numbers are wrong. But I’m not going to give you a number.”


“I forgot,” he said. “I’m involved with something like 20 companies, and [when Philadelphia first called] you were asking me to remember what happened in December. But when I asked around, some other board members reminded me we had approved the bonuses.”

PMH filed for bankruptcy in February. Toll, of the homebuilding Toll Brothers company, confirmed that the PMH board knew the company¹s fiscal situation was dire. “The financial condition of the papers was obviously not good,” said Toll. “We knew what was going to happen sooner or later.”

So why give out $650,000 in bonuses? “We thought it was deserved,” he said. “But we can’t get into the details because we’re involved in bankruptcy proceedings.”

It had earlier been revealed that Tierney received a raise in December, just before Christmas, boosting his pay roughly 40 percent to $850,000. The company initially defended the raise, which was revealed in its bankruptcy filing, by saying that Tierney had taken on extra responsibilities since his initial deal had been struck. [He later gave back the raise when it was publicly revealed.]

The boyz take care of each other. That's what the club is for. There's nothing particularly unusual about rewarding failure like this and it's certainly not unique to this period in time:

Embattled Home Depot Chief Executive Robert L. Nardelli, under fire from stockholders for earning hundreds of millions at the same time the company's stock fell and market share dropped, resigned suddenly today and will walk away with a severance package of $210 million, the company announced....During his tenure, Nardelli earned $240 million in salary, bonuses and stock options.

....During his leadership of the nation's second largest retail chain after Wal-Mart, Home Depot lost market share to home-improvement rival Lowe's Cos. and its stock price declined almost 8 percent.

In the case of the auto companies (GM and Chrysler) or the behemoth financial and insurance companies we now have the taxpayers footing the bills for this nonsense, which makes it a matter for public debate and scrutiny. In the past, the excuse was that if the shareholders of public corporations don't mind getting repeatedly taken to the cleaners by a bunch of incompetents, it's not really a public problem. And hey, a high tide lifts all boats, so if these guys skim a nice, huge dollop of the cream for themselves, there's no harm in it if the economy is growing strong.

Except there is, if you care at all about justice. Even in the best of times, wages were rising for average workers at a snails pace and the only thing keeping them from actually losing pace was easy credit. All that's gone now and businesses of all kinds are in distress and trying to cut costs. And yet the fat cats are still giving each other big bonuses.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia:

Now comes news of the bonuses, which were awarded just two months after the company’s unions voted to postpone $25-a-week raises for each of its members at the request of PMH.

This is the behavior that brings out the pitchforks.

People are being asked to make all kinds of concessions these days. They are being asked to cut back hours and pay and forego raises and benefits. They are taking on extra work because the companies aren't replacing employees who leave. Reports of mistreatment in the workplace are way up. They are trapped in jobs they hate, with houses they can't afford, desperately afraid to get sick because if they lose their jobs they lose their health care. And yet highly paid executives are insisting that they are entitled to huge sums of money.

This attitude of entitlement is what's infuriating average citizens and legitimately so. These people are supposed to be masterful leaders and they are instead acting like pampered Chinese princes cloistered from the rest of the world behind the darkened windows of their limousines and the walls of their gated communities. They honestly don'[t understand just how angry people are at this display of arrogance and aristocratic privilege. It's astonishing.

Creating Jobs

by digby

So this morning David Gregory, in the great tradition of his forebear Tim Russert, was just a regular workin' dude interviewin' the big wigs about the troubles of average Murikins jess like him:

MR. GREGORY: My mother out in California, I presume, is watching this morning. She's like a lot of Americans, worried about her job and wondering why not just bank lending, but something called nonbank lending, securitization--what is that, and why does that matter to her?

Just like Joe and Jane American everywhere, Dave's mom is fearing for her financial future and would like an explanation for why she finds herself feeling so insecure.

I have an idea. Maybe Dave could get his wife, the former General Counsel for Fannie Mae, to explain all this high flying financial mumbo jumbo to her mother-in-law. And if worse comes to worse and Ma Gregory loses her job, maybe Dave could hire her to clean his multi-million dollar Nantucket vacation home.

Torture Metrics

by digby

Dick Cheney is going to hell. But we knew that. And so are Bush and Rice and all the rest who insisted on torturing Abu Zubaida, a brain damaged man who was so desperate that he made up fantastical terrorist plots just to make the torture stop. They not only committed a war crime, they made us all less safe by sending investigators all over the world on wild goose chases.

This story was always pooh-poohed by administration officials, who insisted that the information this man with serious memory problems gave under torture was vital in stopping many terrorist attacks. But they lied. The Washington Post provides some new details in this story in today's paper:

When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates -- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as "al-Qaeda's chief of operations," and other top officials called him a "trusted associate" of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.

Abu Zubaida was not even an official member of al-Qaeda, according to a portrait of the man that emerges from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement and military sources. Rather, he was a "fixer" for radical Muslim ideologues, and he ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 -- and that was because the United States stood ready to invade Afghanistan.

It goes on to lay out Zubaida's story in detail, and although it features one counterterrorism official who clings to the idea that the torture was effective, it quotes other high level officeials unequivocally saying the torture was counter-productive and wasted many valuable resources. Read the whole thing.

It highlights something that I haven't seen discussed much, but which interests me as we try to get a handle on how something like this gets approves and becomes instutionalized. They report:

As weeks passed after the capture without significant new confessions, the Bush White House and some at the CIA became convinced that tougher measures had to be tried.

The pressure from upper levels of the government was "tremendous," driven in part by the routine of daily meetings in which policymakers would press for updates, one official remembered.

"They couldn't stand the idea that there wasn't anything new," the official said. "They'd say, 'You aren't working hard enough.' There was both a disbelief in what he was saying and also a desire for retribution -- a feeling that 'He's going to talk, and if he doesn't talk, we'll do whatever.' "

The application of techniques such as waterboarding -- a form of simulated drowning that U.S. officials had previously deemed a crime -- prompted a sudden torrent of names and facts. Abu Zubaida began unspooling the details of various al-Qaeda plots, including plans to unleash weapons of mass destruction

This isn't the first time I've heard that the Bush administration was obsessed with getting a volume of information, caring little about the quality or reliability of it. neither is it the first time that we've heard that this pressure came from the highest reaches of the administration itself. Back in 2005, I posted this:

Last week I wrote a post featuring Lt. Col Stephen Jordan and his testimony that the White House had been "impressed" with the "flow of information" coming out of Abu Ghraib. Today, Spencer Ackerman, pinch hitting for Josh Marshall at Talking Points, references this USA Today article about the same fellow, connecting many of the same dots and more.

There seems to be a great deal of emphasis placed on the numbers game. From the USA Today article:

Sergeant First Class Roger Brokaw, told the paper. "How many raids did you do last week? How many prisoners were arrested? How many interrogations were conducted? How many [intelligence] reports were written? It was incredibly frustrating."

From the Christian Science Monitor article I referenced in my earlier post:

Specialist Monath and others say they were frustrated by intense pressure from Colonel Pappas and his superiors - Lt. Gen Ricardo Sanchez and his intelligence officer, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast - to churn out a high quantity of intelligence reports, regardless of the quality. "It was all about numbers. We needed to send out more intelligence documents whether they were finished or not just to get the numbers up," he said. Pappas was seen as demanding - waking up officers in the middle of the night to get information - but unfocused, ordering analysts to send out rough, uncorroborated interrogation notes. "We were scandalized," Monath said. "We all fought very hard to counter that pressure" including holding up reports in editing until the information could be vetted.

General Ripper, as well, seems to have been mighty impressed with the quantity of intelligence he got from prisoners in Guantanamo after he "took the gloves off." From January's issue of Vanity Fair:

According to General Miller, Gitmo's importance is growing with amazing rapidity: "Last month we gained six times as much intelligence as we did in January 2003. I'm talking about high-value intelligence here, distributed round the world."

Daily success or failure in guerilla wars is notoriously difficult to assess. Unlike a war for territory you cannot say that you took a certain hill or town. Political types are always looking for some measurement, some sign that they are succeeding (or failing.)

Billmon noted this back in October in an interesting post on Rumsfeld's angst at being unable to assess success or failure in the WOT:

Above all, Rumsfeld cries out for "metrics" that can be used to measure progress in such a war:

"Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror," he wrote. "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"

Billmon makes the obvious comparison between Rummy and the most recent war criminal sec-def, Robert McNamara, concluding:

The same mindset also spawned McNamara's preferred metric: the infamous "body count." In that earlier, more naive, era, it hadn't yet occurred to management theorists that numeric targets can quickly become bureaucratic substitutes for real objectives, such as winning wars. So McNamara (and the military) had to learn it the hard way, as industrious field officers dispatched soldiers to count graves in Vietnamese civilian cemetaries in order to hit their weekly numbers.

I'm not sure what the equivalent might be today, although Rumsfeld's memo points in a possible direction when it suggests the creation of a private foundation that could fund "moderate" madrassas (Islamic schools) to counteract the radical ones. Perhaps someday we'll have a "moderate student count," in which hard-pressed CIA officers dispatch agents to count child laborers in Pakistani sweat shops in order to hit their weekly numbers.

It looks to me as if they found a simpler metric than that. Like the mediocre, hack bureaucrats they are, they decided that they would guage success or failure --- certainly they would report to the White House success or failure --- based upon the sheer numbers of raids, arrests, interrogations, reports, confessions and breakdowns achieved, regardless of whether any of it resulted in good intel or enhanced security anywhere.

This was the only metric they could conceive of and in order to get those numbers up they had to detain large numbers of innocent people and torture them for false information to fill the endless reports of success on the ground in Afghanistan, Gitmo and Iraq. They could hoist up a huge pile of paper in a meeting with their president and say, "look at how much intelligence we're getting. We're really getting somewhere."

McNamara quotes TS Eliot at the end of The Fog Of War:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

Well, not everybody apparently. Thirty years after the hell of Vietnam, it's the same shit, different fools. Lyndon Johnson is laughing his ass off in hell.

In the case of Zubayda there seems to be another element as well. They were desperate to keep up the fiction that Al Qaeda was the outsized foe they'd built them up to be. If they were merely a dangerous little gang of criminals rather than a deadly global army of supervillians, it would be hard to justify the spending of trillions on unnecessary wars and suspending inconvenient portions of the constitution. These Vietnam chickenhawks didn't want to hear anything that would imply that they weren't fighting the war of all wars.

They knew these were false confessions and fictional plots and cynically used them to keep up the sense of panic --- even among themselves --- that fueled their global ambitions and fed their damaged egos. Ultimately they failed in that, not because they actually did anything that kept the babies safe, but because the American people just don't have the attention span to stay panicked about anything for very long. Once the spell broke, there was nothing left but the metrics.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saturday Night At The Movies

Flowers of bro-mance

By Dennis Hartley

Oh, bloody hell…not another Rush tribute band

Humorist Matt Groening once observed: “Sex is funny. The French are a funny people. Then why is it that no French sex comedies are funny?” On the other hand, you have Roger Ebert, who once lamented about “a trend in which Hollywood buys French comedies and experiments on them to see if they can be made into English with all the humor taken out.” I generally concur with both those sentiments, but I think I have found the exception to Groening’s and Ebert’s rules- in the guise of a smart, funny and warm French comedy, that has inspired an equally smart, funny and warm American remake.

Okay, so Patrice Leconte’s Mon Meilleur Ami (which I reviewed here) was not a “sex” comedy, nor was it a huge hit with critics or audiences (I caught flak from some readers for including it in my Top 10 films list for 2007). I’m not here to gloat-but obviously, “someone” grokked Leconte’s film to be worthy of a Hollywood makeover, and as a vehicle for Paul Rudd, who has become the “go to” guy to portray wry romantic comedy leads. I’m here to tell you that I Love You, Man is all that (and a large orange soda).

Rudd is Peter Klaven, a somewhat self-effacing yet amiably good-natured Los Angeles real estate agent who has decided to pop the question to his ladylove, Zooey (Rashida Jones). The bubbly Zooey immediately begins enthusiastically phoning up a bevy of close girlfriends to share the happy news. When she asks her new fiancé why he isn’t jumping right on the horn to tell all his pals as well, he mumbles some vague excuse and appears eager to change the subject. It turns out that while Peter is adept at meeting women, he is more diffident when it comes to interacting with other guys; he can’t readily name anyone who qualifies as a “bro”, nor can he seem to cough up a candidate to be Best Man at their wedding. Someone is going to have to come up with an Action Plan.

Desperate to find himself a good bud on such short notice, Peter seeks assistance from his gay brother (SNL’s Andy Samberg), who encourages him to try some “man dates”. Zooey pitches in as well, helpfully brokering a “poker night” invite for Peter from her best friend’s reluctant husband (a skulking Jon Favreau, hilariously effective here playing a supreme dickweed). Most of these intros and invites end in embarrassment and/or some form of social disaster. Just when all seems lost, a Dude ex Machina arrives in the form of a free-spirited man child named Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). Teach me to dance, Zorba.

In its best moments (and this is high praise), I was reminded of Barry Levinson’s Diner, which I consider the granddaddy of all modern “bro-mantic” comedies, as well as one of the most keenly perceptive observations about male friendship ever put on screen. I think it’s interesting to note that screenwriter Larry Levin (who co-scripted with director John Hamburg) also wrote a classic 2-part Seinfeld episode called “The Boyfriend”, in which Jerry develops a “man crush” on one of the N.Y. Mets (this film could be seen as an extrapolation on that theme). In its worst moments, the film threatens to lean on that tiresome crutch of cheap gross-out humor that has largely put me off of contemporary “comedies”, but thankfully, the reins are judiciously pulled in (Woody Allen has managed to make tons of funny films over a 40 year period without one scene involving projectile vomiting-so why can’t the current crop of comedy directors learn from this?).

Rudd and Segel (who previously teamed up in Forgetting Sarah Marshall ) play off each other extremely well, and are obviously developing a solid comedy duo franchise (I think it would be a real kick to see them remake one of the Hope-Crosby “Road” movies-or perhaps that’s just me). Rudd continues to perfect an onscreen persona as the quintessential post-modern comic Everyman. I thought Segel’s performance strongly recalled Donal Logue’s slovenly yet endearing self-styled hipster saint wannabe in The Tao of Steve. Thomas Lennon (best known as “Lieutenant Dangle” from the wonderfully twisted comedy series, Reno 911) is a riot as a love struck stalker (no spoilers, please). Lou Ferrigno (as himself) is an unexpected delight, unveiling some previously hidden comic chops, and air guitar geeks will swoon at the cameo appearance by the Holy Trinity of Canadian prog-rock. If you have to ask who that is-you ain’t my bro, man!
Can Of War Crimes

by digby

Dday is blogging like a madman over at Washington Monthly so be sure to check in over there to see what he and the rest of the gang are up to.

He references this amazing story about Spain potentially indicting the Cheney Gang for war crimes and writes.

The amount of material connecting these six to the creation, authorization and direction of state-sanctioned illegal torture, based on perverse and discredited reasoning, is voluminous, and given the record of Garzon, I would imagine this will lead to arrest warrants.

This story shows once again the growing global unease with the implicit policy of the United States to conveniently forget the torture and other abuses of the Bush regime. In England, police are investigating whether British intelligence officers knew about and prolonged the torture of Binyam Mohamed, the recently released Guantanamo detainee. As Glenn Greenwald notes, other countries have not abandoned their commitment to the rule of law.


The end of the NY Times article shows why the US can hardly claim that Spain is acting irresponsibly beyond its own borders and violating the soveriegnty of other nations, because in one recent case we did almost exactly the same thing:

The United States for the first time this year used a law that allows for the prosecution in the United States of torture in other countries. On Jan. 10, a Miami court sentenced Charles Taylor, the former Liberian leader, to 97 years in a federal prison for torture, even though the crimes were committed in Liberia.

Last October, when the Miami court handed down the conviction, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey applauded the ruling and said: "This is the first case in the United States to charge an individual with criminal torture. I hope this case will serve as a model to future prosecutions of this type."

So do I.

Me too.

I honestly think they opened a can of worms that the United State government may end up wishing they'd dealt with themselves. Wars have been started on less provocation. We've even started some of them.


by digby

Fred Clarkson, doing his usual superlative job of tracking the religious right, has noticed a new approach to framing the abortion issue by some Catholic groups. It illustrates once again just how sophisticated the anti-abortion industry has become in shifting its marketing tactics to fit changing political circumstances. They operate strategically in both the long term and the short term, constantly reevaluating their tactics and tweaking them as necessary. (American business could learn something from them at this point.)

Clarkson has seen a new set of talking points emerge that builds upon some of the changing rhetoric on the culture war in the last couple of years as Democrats rushed to embrace the notion that they need to find a middle ground on abortion rights (and absurdly held that anti-abortion zealots would sign on to increasing access to birth control as a compromise.)

He writes:

I first encountered their screed in the form of an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, which was promoted by the abortion reduction advocacy group, Faith in Public Life. Then it was featured on SojoNet and promoted in an e-blast to their national list.

This article is titled: "What Makes Liberals and Conservatives Angry? Abortion Reduction". In this article I learned that any of us who disagree with the authors are ipso facto, making "`the perfect' the enemy of `the good.'"

This is very clever stuff. They are piggy-backing on the Obama campaign's rhetoric of post-partisanship and are placing their position as being the common sense "middle ground" that conventional wisdom has been telling us for the last year is exactly what the people want.

Clarkson continues:

Common sense tells us that just because Gehring and Campbell claim to represent a moderate and responsible middle between two alleged extremes, does not necessarily mean that in fact they do. And indeed, the amount of invective they were able to cram into a short space in the service of their strawman arguments, should give pause to anyone who might be inclined to consider whether their views are, in fact, moderate or reasonable.

Here is a sampler of terms they use in discussing those of us who disagree with them: "malign," "righteous zeal," "absolutist devotion," "predictable to the absurd," "demonization" "hardened agendas" and - my personal favorite -- a "scorched earth rhetorical style."

They conclude with a call to the rest of us to "embrace a spirit of greater humility, compassion and critical introspection..."

It was not hard to figure out where I, (as one of those who has written critically about the politics of abortion reduction) fit on Gehring and Campbell's enemies list. I must be among that notorious lot of unnamed "liberal bloggers" who allegedly "slam Catholics and evangelicals working on this approach as radical 'anti-choice' hardliners cozying up to the Religious Right." I say "allegedly" because Gehring and Campbell offer no examples and make no effort to actually address any of our points.

They could have named me too. I do believe that Catholics and evangelicals who are working with the Religious Right to outlaw abortion are worthy of criticism. If they were operating in good faith, they would admit that.

I certainly don't oppose greater access to birth control and better sex education and income assistance. As a liberal I was for such things before they were cool. But you don't have to be clairvoyant to see that they believe this will lead to a "compromise" in which they agree to make birth control more accessible, and we agree that abortion should be illegal.

But that's not a compromise, it's a capitulation on a fundamental human right to control your own body for the opportunity to have something (birth control) that people should have anyway as a matter of common decency. Despite what Lord Saletan insists, the need for abortion is not just a matter of stupid, promiscuous girls not understanding the seriousness of unprotected sex. Its the result of the most basic human drive there is and will always be necessary even, sometimes, for women who do everything "right." And there is no judge on the planet, not even Will Saletan or the pope, who is in a position to judge which women those are.

This fantasy middle ground exists only for those who think that if only women would be responsible there would be no abortions. I think we already tried that. Before Roe vs Wade, unwed motherhood was verboten, female sexuality was considered dirty and women who got inconveniently pregnant were shunned. Society placed a very, very high value on female chastity and fidelity and women certainly weren't stupid or lacked understanding of the consequences. And yet millions of women had sex and got pregnant and had back alley abortions anyway.

Now we have legal abortion, unwed motherhood is practically the norm, female sexuality is open and accepted and birth control is advertised on television. And yet millions of women still have sex, get pregnant and have abortions. The difference is that they don't have to die in some seedy motel when they get one and they aren't shunned and treated like whores for doing something that every human animal on the planet is programmed to do.

Brazil still outlaws abortion except in the case of rape or to save the mother's life, as do a many other Catholic countries, with the predictably disasterous results:

The number of legal abortions of girls ages 10 to 14 more than doubled last year to 49, up from 22 in 2007, the Ministry of Health reported. That was out of 3,050 legal abortions performed last year in a country of more than 190 million. But the vast majority of Brazil’s abortions are not legal. The Ministry of Health estimates about one million unsafe or clandestine abortions every year.

Brazil’s abortion laws are among the strictest in Latin America. Only Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua, which have banned abortion outright for any reason, are stricter, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which supports abortion rights.

In some parts of the region, most notably Mexico City, where first-trimester abortions are now legal, laws have been relaxed. But in other areas and countries, legislators have sought to toughen the restrictions on abortion.

Twenty years ago, Brazil had just one center to perform abortions. Today, beyond the 55 clinics that can perform them, another 400 or so treat patients that have been sexually abused.

If anyonee belives that every one of those one million illegal abortions could have been prevented with better access to birth control, I want to know what they're smoking.

That story, btw, is actually about this, which renders the church unqualified to make moral judgments about any of this in my view:

While much of Brazil has been riled by the case of a 9-year-old girl who aborted twins this month after claiming her stepfather raped her, her ordeal was an all too familiar one at the clinic.

The girl’s story of rape and pregnancy at such a young age seemingly caught the nation off guard, reviving a tense debate over reproductive rights in a country with more Catholics than any other. But doctors, clinic workers and other experts say her case is symptomatic of a widespread problem of sexual abuse of under-age girls — one that has long been neglected and may be getting worse.

“Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more common,” said Daniela Pedroso, a psychologist who has worked here for 11 years.

Weighing just 79 pounds and barely four feet tall, the 9-year-old girl, from Alagoinha, a town in the northeast, underwent an abortion when she was 15 weeks pregnant at one of the 55 centers authorized to perform the procedure in Brazil. Abortion is legal here only in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is at risk.

The doctors’ actions set off a swirl of controversy. A Brazilian archbishop summarily excommunicated everyone involved — the doctors for performing the abortion and the girl’s mother for allowing it — except for the stepfather, who stands accused of raping the girl over a number of years.

“The law of God is above any human law,” said José Cardoso Sobrinho, the archbishop, who argued that while rape was bad, abortion was even worse.

The storm intensified when a high-ranking Vatican official supported the excommunications. But then a conference of Brazilian bishops overruled Archbishop Sobrinho, saying that the child’s mother had acted “under pressure” from doctors who said the girl would die if she carried the babies to term, and that only doctors who “systematically” performed abortions should be thrown out of the church.

Finally, the Vatican’s top bioethics official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, also criticized the initial stance, saying the “credibility of our teaching took a blow as it appeared, in the eyes of many, to be insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking mercy.”

Seriously, if they had this much trouble sorting out the correct moral stand on that, then I honestly don't see how they can possibly have any credibility on this subjectat all. (You are, of course, allowed to believe whatever you want ...)

Clarkson goes on to point out that the second of these new talking points is to frame the issue as between religious and non-religious, which is incorrect of course. Abortion rights are supported by a majority of Americans and a very large majority of Americans describe themselves as being religious. Anyone can do the math from there.

The third new talking point is that "President Barack Obama has made abortion reduction a priority of his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships." That's not correct. The Democratic platform went a different direction, which I wrote about here, and changed the emphasis to reducing unwanted pregnancies and therefore, the need for abortion. As Clarkson points out, this "reflects the view that under the law, the Constitution, the party platform and the view of the vast majority of Americans, abortion is a legitimate 'need.'"

I prefer the language of civil liberties myself, but the fact is that the Democrats pulled back from the brink and stopped talking about the need to "reduce the number of abortions" and I hope we hold them to it. Reducing unwanted pregnancies is a laudable policy, and I support that 100%. I also know that it will never result in a 100% reduction in the need for abortion. Life is not that simple.

Finally, Clarkson reports that these new talking points claim that liberals are angry about the idea of reducing abortions. That's drivel, of course. Nobody thinks that way. Pro-choice liberals simply live here on planet earth rather than in some clean utopian world where accidental pregnancy never happens and pregnant women are always thrilled at the prospect of either a lifetime commitment or giving their offspring up for adoption --- as if all these things are simple, easy decisions compared to the moral darkness of the ugly alternative. On planet earth abortion reduction is a hopeful side effect of the reduction of unwanted pregnancy, not a goal in itself.

I don't buy that passing out birth control will eliminate the need for abortion, which is quite obviously where these people want us to grant that this "middle ground" leads, and which obviously leads to a ban on the practice. (And anyway, if access to birth control were what they truly cared about, we wouldn't have any need for abortion today. Condoms are available in every 7-11 in America. )

This is just another in a long line of very slick tactical moves by the anti-abortion movement. They are quite good at moving the debate their way in small increments, as they've been doing for decades now. And unfortunately, some in the Democratic party have all too often been their willing pawns particularly in their needy propensity to appear "reasonable." It's that neediness to which these talking points are designed to appeal (and sadly, which are being exploited by certain factions within the coalition who seek to expand their influence by being mediators.) Let's hope the Dems have learned their lessons and don't fall for it.

The shrill, unreasonable people are those who think the state should intrude on the most private, intimate matters of personal human sexuality and biology on the basis of certain religious beliefs. Reasonable people hold that everyone has a right to their own beliefs on these private matters but that the state cannot make just decisions on something so complicated and personal. Within that reasonable, if imperfect, framework a compromise was worked out long ago. It's called Roe vs Wade.

The Fatuous Gasbag And His Little Dog Bobby

by digby

Julia discusses the news that Little Bobby Jindal is doubling down with El Rushbo for the long haul. You can't blame him. Rush is the only person in America who still takes him seriously.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, R, reignited the controversy surrounding the Republican Party and Rush Limbaugh Tuesday night when he said it is OK to hope President Barack Obama fails.

Speaking to a conference of Republican leaders, Mr. Jindal, a man who many believe has an eye on the White House in 2012, said it is appropriate to hope the president fails if it means the president’s policies will jeopardize the nation’s security and stability.

“My answer to the question is very simple: ‘Do you want the president to fail?’ It depends on what he is trying to do,” Mr. Jindal said.


“Make no mistake: Anything other than an immediate and compliant, ‘Why no sir, I don’t want the president to fail,’ is treated as some sort of act of treason, civil disobedience or political obstructionism,” Mr. Jindal said to a crowd of about 1,200. “This is political correctness run amok.”

No word on whether or not they feel "Betrayused."

Meanwhile, Little Bobby's BFF is talking some amazing gibberish these days. I've been able to keep up with the GOPs spiritual and intellectual leadership much better since Media Matters started the LimbaughWire. I can only actually listen to his bombastic blather for a few minutes before I literally get nauseous. It's a great service (and entertainingly written too.)

The sheer volume of utter nonsense that the man spews out in just one program, much less each and every day for 20 years is amazing. It's even more amazing his listeners' heads haven't exploded from the sheer amount of dissonance their brains have to process. These highlights just from the last hour of Friday's show alone are awe inspiring:

LIMBAUGH: If the American people are ready for the destruction of capitalism, if the American people are ready for the destruction of the opportunity for the American dream, if the American people are ready to vote for an end to their chance to be prosperous, it must mean a lot of them want to sit around and do their doobies. But what's the big disconnect?


LIMBAUGH: The Obama administration said it supports the Copenhagen treaty process if, in the words of a U.S. State Department spokesman, it can come up with an effective framework for dealing with global warming. In other words, damn the consequences.

If we can claim that it fights global warming, we will do it. It fits right in, ladies and gentlemen, with Obama's plan to destruct the foundation of capitalism in this country and replace it with a giant government and a huge, huge welfare state.


LIMBAUGH: There is no global warming, so when you say that we have a solution to it, I -- you know, I throw my hands up. There's no solution to it, because there isn't any global warming. And I don't care if there is warming or cooling, there's nothing we can do about it. We're just human beings. There's not a damn thing we can do to cause it or to stop it. We're just prisoners here.


LIMBAUGH: It's like I said yesterday: "Cheat on me, but don't tell me. Obama can do" --

CALLER: Exactly. So --

LIMBAUGH: "Obama can do anything in the world. Just don't tell me what he's really doing, because I love the guy."

He's a cult leader. Battered liberal syndrome: "Cheat on me, just don't tell me."


LIMBAUGH: Nancy, honey, taxpayers are paying for health care. I don't care if it's coming [from] their company, their insurance -- taxpayers -- government health care is taxpayer-paid health care. The government can't pay for anything without taking money from people who produce it, unless they print it, which is sadly what is happening now. The third person in line for the presidency in this country is a complete airhead.

(By that logic, taxpayers just paid for my lunch and filled up my gas tank too. And he calls Pelosi an airhead?)

Those excerpts represent just one hour out of the week.

While nobody knows if his numbers are actually rising (and there is good reason to suspect they're not) I would expect that it won't matter. If the media believes they are real we will see Limbaugh's star actually rise, as ridiculous as that is. It's his money and success that enthralls them.