Monthly Archives: October 2003

More On The Frame

For Political Junkies II

Jeanne at Body and Soul has weighed in on Digby’s discussion of how the Dems should frame themselves and their goals for 2004 and has some insights to add. Here’s a taste:

Republicans and Democrats see the world in very different ways. Republicans want to be cavemen: Every man goes out into the world with his club and his spear, ready to take on the wooly mammoths. Every woman needs to find a guy with a big spear to take care of her.The problem with that view is that it never worked, even in the days of of the cavemen. It takes a lot of spears to kill a wooly mammoth. One guy with one spear is a wooly mammoth snack. If we hadn’t learned to work together, the wooly mammoths would be using computers, and we’d be extinct.

Today we’ve got problems that are a lot more complicated than knocking off mammoths, and we don’t need leaders who run out pretending to be brave, waving their wobbly little spears, and yelling, “Bring on the mammoths.” People like that can get us all killed.

Go read the whole thing.

I’m working on my response, but time is at a premium so it’s going to take awhile. Don’t give up.

Sold, America

It seems to be official: The US govt was sold to private interests who are now lining up to take their turn at the spoils. From today’s NYT:

It has been promoted as a bill to create jobs, to enhance American competitiveness and to level the playing field for companies overseas.But as House lawmakers pushed ahead this week with the biggest overhaul of corporate taxes in two decades, they found themselves briefly fixated on bows and arrows.

“U.S. manufacturers of bows and arrows are fleeing in droves for Korea and China,” said Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin. The problem, he told members of the House Ways and Means Committee, is that American arrows are hit with a 12.4 percent excise tax, but imported arrows are not.

So it was that members of the tax-writing committee agreed to drop the excise tax on arrows, along with excise taxes for fishing tackle boxes and fish-finding devices that use sonar. Liquor and wine distributors were given a four-year tax break worth $234 million and movie studios received a break on foreign royalties worth $600 million over 10 years.

These and other special-interest nuggets were little more than pocket change in a bill that would offer corporations $128 billion in new tax relief over the next decade.

As if the massive corporate tax breaks that created the biggest deficit in US history weren’t enough, corporations are lining up at the trough for more. It’s instructive, I think, that rather than change the rules to have the excise tax apply to foreign arrows as well as domestic ones, the HW&M Committee chose to drop the tax altogether. It’s also instructive that they used this excuse to give away a great deal more to their corporate owners…um, “sponsors”:

[T]hey are indicative of the trade-offs that have been necessary to win support for what began as a fairly modest goal last year: to repeal a long-standing tax subsidy for exporters, worth about $55 billion, which has been declared illegal under international law, and replace it with new tax breaks of comparable value.

Only they aren’t of “comparable value”; they’re worth a great deal more than $55M.

The bill that passed the House tax-writing committee would fulfill that goal, to the satisfaction of manufacturing companies, oil and gas refineries, farmers, movie studios and engineering conglomerates like the Bechtel Corporation and Halliburton.Scores of competing business groups have been pushing for their own piece of the pie, and the conflicts among them became so intense that it looked for months as though lawmakers would never be able to reach agreement.

But now they seem to be getting closer, and they are doing it in the most politically popular way, by giving something to almost everybody.

Except the ordinary taxpayer, of course. Once again, we–and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren–are the ones who will make up the shortfall.

You’d think at some point the corporations would be satisfied. I mean, they own the present govt lock, stock, and barrel, they get everything they want just by whining a little, and the members of the Republican Congress are competing with each other to see who can lick their boots the fastest and make them the shiniest. But they’re not satisfied. They’re already looking for new worlds to rape…er, “privatize”. Like water.

Jim Butler, a lawyer who’s on Georgia’s Board of Natural Resources, reports in the AJC that there’s at least one group aiming at just that:

There’s an old joke out West: “Water doesn’t flow downhill. It flows uphill, to money.” But water isn’t the only thing that flows to big money; so does the loyalty of some state employees. Water marketeers — those who would privatize Georgia’s most precious public resource — have used tax money to commandeer the loyalties of state employees scattered throughout state government and the University System.Under water marketing, water would no longer belong to all the people and be regulated by state government for their benefit. Instead, it would belong to whomever already had permits or got them in the future. Permits would be sold and water piped from poorer parts of the state to the booming Atlanta market.

So get over the idea that they will ever be satisfied, friends. Every victory just convinces them they can get MORE MORE MORE. As Michael Parenti once said, there is only one thing the ruling corporate interests want, and that is EVERYTHING.

If you doubt it, look to Georgia.

Iraq Pullout Coming Up?

A couple of quick blog-related points:

1) An article in The Hill about neocon fears that Bush might pull out of Iraq seems to have goosed a couple of the blogoisie, including Josh Marshall, into wondering if there could be anything to it. As Kevin Drum points out, though, there’s been zero sign of any such thought:

I haven’t seen any evidence either in the form of statements or leaks from administration officials or leaks of secret plans for an early withdrawal.

However, he adds that it’s not inconceivable:

Just to make my thoughts crystal clear: it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bushies declared victory and started pulling out early next year. Unlike Bush’s admirers, I view him as a strongly poll-driven man who undertakes only policies that he thinks are widely popular and risk free. If public support for Iraq goes in the tank, I think he’s the kind of person who would indeed cut and run.But that’s just psychoanalysis. I don’t have any evidence that they’re really thinking along these lines.

FWIW, I am not (in case you were wondering) a Bush supporter, and I understand why Kevin would see him that way, but there’s an element to Bush that, it seems to me, over-rides Rove’s poll-obsession: he has consistently, all his life, refused to admit he made a mistake about anything. Kevin and Josh both suggest that he might use the Kissenger Formula (“Declare victory and get out.”) but I doubt that even a Denial Monkey like Junior could see a withdrawl as anything other than a retreat–Viet Nam sits too heavy on his soul as it does on the souls of all neocons. That strategy might be OK for a Democratic war (Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay all advocated it for Kosovo), but no right-wing Republican could see it as anything but an acknowledgement of failure–a failure of will, of which there is no sin so frighteningly awful. Not to mention an electoral blowback which would be more destructive to Pubs than Dems–the Pubs would lose their right-wing engine, which would be (to say the least) profoundly disappointed.

What’s interesting here is that Bush’s Brain (Rove, of course) is totally unconcerned with either policy or political philosophy. His only concern is winning. If he sees the polls continue to drop as the war ramps up (and he probably will), his end-plan to save Junior’s re-election might very well be Kissenger’s dictum; after all, with some smart sales you could hold on to the right–where are they going to go if Lieberman or Clark isn’t the nominee? Dean? Kerry? I don’t bloody think so.

So what could be shaping up is a major disagreement between Bush and his own Brain. To assume, as Marshall and Drum both seem to do, that the Brain would win automatically is to underestimate Junior’s emotional investment in being right and overestimate Karl’s ability to sell the “Victory” meme to a simple-minded President fully indoctrinated into neocon thinking. Even George is going to see through that one.

2) For Political Junkies: Digby at Hullabaloo has an interesting post up about how the Democrats should be more active in framing the election more positively. Scroll down to October 28–“Frame Up”–and read. It’s worth the time.

I have some thoughts on this subject, but I’ll get to them later.

Every Child (And School) Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind law isn’t just an unfunded mandate, it’s a stalking-horse for the school voucher program. The ratings system is designed not to encourage schools to improve but to function as motivation for parents to opt out of the public school system altogether. John Young, opinion page editor for the Waco Tribune-Herald, calls it “…the ultimate consumerist approach, [which] requires that we have ‘failed’ schools, if only a few to get the ball rolling” in an op-ed printed in the AJC, and he’s right. The “reforms” are a trick intended to get parents thinking like consumers; if they’re aren’t happy with some service, they can shop around for something better.

As I pointed out in “The Mythology of Corporate Government (II)”, corporate managers are trained to see everything a govt does as just another market-driven. consumer-oriented product: the Treasury Dept is no different than McDonald’s, the Labor Dept is an extension of the corporate division where lawyers break strikes, and HEW are the consultants a corporation hires to promote “efficiency” by cutting costs. They don’t recognize any other goals or mandates, and the NCLB rules are designed using “objective” measurements that owe more to the ease of measuring than any concept of education as we’d understand the term.

And that’s beginning to be noticed by the very people who sold this travesty to us. Young points out that:

To have the Houston Independent School District rated “unacceptable” is like finding out that Mother Teresa was queen of the craps table.The district has been the graven image of school reform under President Bush with Houston ISD’s former superintendent Rod Paige elevated to patron saint or secretary of education, whichever is closer to heaven.

Now low, low drop-out rates under Paige have proved bogus. HISD is facing six months probation from the Texas Education Agency while its procedures are reviewed.


And golly, Mr Paige–the architect of Bush’s NCLB, Texas-version–doesn’t think that’s fair.

The irony now is that Paige’s school district is on notice as a loser, though he pleads that the “unacceptable” rating is a false generalization about a district that does good work. Excellent point, Mr. Paige.

Talk about chickens coming home to roost.

But as good as this editorial is in nailing the problems and repercussions of a totally flawed approach and accurately pinpointing the ultimate aim (pushing vouchers), Mr Young misses the reason that this radical right-wing Admin is pushing voucher programs in the first place.

It isn’t because they work, because they don’t. Practically every place they’ve been tried, vouchers have turned out to be a disaster, not a panacea. Schools aren’t Wal-Marts or GEs and if you attempt to judge them by the same criteria you’re missing the point (which is a little like throwing a basketball at the broad side of a barn door from 4 feet away–and missing it). Vouchers don’t promote better schools, they promote “teaching to the test” and fudging on the numbers, as Mr Young makes clear:

Because those test scores are seen as the end-all by tunnel-visioned policy makers, the demonstrable tendency in Texas has been for teachers to teach the test or for principals to fluff up the numbers by exempting students, just as the Houston ISD fluffed up its drop-out numbers.

So why does the Bush Admin want to promote the use of vouchers in the first place? Mr Young doesn’t say, but I will. Vouchers have only 2 functions as far as conservatives are concerned:

1) They provide a way to skew the system so that public schools will be left with only the poorest students in the poorest districts, everyone else having moved into private schools. Why do they want to encourage such a sea-change? So they will have an excuse to cut funding for those schools and eventually eliminate govt funding for education altogether. The ultraconservatives who control the Bush Admin (including Junior himself) want to do no less than get govt out of the education business, an item that has been high on the far-right wish-list for decades. Vouchers give them the mechanism to do it.

2) But underneath the far-right economic objective is a far-right religious objective: studies show that a lot of the parents who move their kids out of the public schools use the vouchers to place them in religious schools. Quite simply, vouchers are a way of sneaking govt support of religion (almost always the fundamentalist Christian religion) in under the radar and thereby avoiding (they think) the silly restrictions mandated by that obstructionist document the rest of call the “Constitution”. Such a bother. It seems to get in the way every single time they want to do something theocratic, so why not just go around it?

So I guess you could call vouchers a two-fer: with one stroke, you get to dismantle the federal education budget and slip theocracy in the governmental back door. Precedents are important in law: do it once successfully and that improves dramatically your chances for doing it again in other areas. It’s what the Brits call “the thin end of the wedge”: you use it to crack a locked door wide open one small, unnoticeable shove at a time.

Will parents wake up to what’s being done to the Constitution in their names? And if they do, will they be in time to stop it?

I don’t know. What do you think?

Electronic Voting Machines: Unverifiable

Perhaps stung by The Guardian report on the many troubling aspects of electronic voting, from lack of security to the possibility that elections have already been stolen, Newsweek has entered the fray, becoming the first mainstream US publication I know of to take this on. And about time, too. The piece is written by Technology Correspondent Steven Levy, and to his credit, he gets right to the meat:

The machines have “a fatal disadvantage,” says Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, who’s sponsoring legislation on the issue. “They’re unverifiable.”

Yup, that would be a “disadvantage”, alright, especially as the Diebold CEO has opined that he and his company are “committed to helping” George Bush get re-elected. Makes you wonder what “helping” might include.

As discussed here last week, Diebold’s program is about as secure as a papier-mache fort, and Levy backs this up:

It gets scarier. The best minds in the computer-security world contend that the voting terminals can’t be trusted. Listen, for example, to Avi Rubin, a computer-security expert and professor at Johns Hopkins University who was slipped a copy of Diebold’s source code earlier this year. After he and his students examined it, he concluded that the protections against fraud and tampering were strictly amateur hour. “Anyone in my basic security classes would have done better,” he says. The cryptography was weak and poorly implemented, and the smart-card system that supposedly increased security actually created new vulnerabilities. Rubin’s paper concluded that the Diebold system was “far below even the most minimal security standards.”

Lots of bad news here, but a little good news as well:

After Rubin’s paper appeared, Maryland officials—who were about to drop $57 million on Diebold devices—commissioned an outside firm to look at the problem. The resulting report confirmed many of Rubin’s findings and found that the machines did not meet the state’s security standards.

So they canceled the contract, right? Well, not exactly:

However, the study also said that in practice some problems were mitigated, and others could be fixed, an attitude Rubin considers overly optimistic. “You’d have to start with a fresh design to make the devices secure,” he says.

Maryland appears to be leaning toward the “It’s Not As Bad As It Looks” school, so the contract is intact–for now (Maryland’s Republican Governor favors it). But Diebold is on the offensive just the same–not correcting its shabby code, no no no. In the true BushCo’s-America SOP, they’re fighting the perception of shabbiness. Once again, from Mark Crispin Miller, who’s been following this:

[B]oth [Black Box Voting] sites have had a string of takedowns for reasons ranging from Diebold cease and desist orders to hacking to bogus spam complaints.

And Diebold’s counter-attack, it seems, may include some govt collusion. Miller quotes an email from a software engineer who criticized Diebold:

[T]wo FBI agents came by my house last week asking for names of radicals and organizations. My email is being monitored. Anyone on this board should assume the same.

Apparently Mr. O’Dell meant what he said.

But back to the good news:

To remedy the problem, technologists and allies are rallying around a scheme called verifiable voting. This supplements electronic voting systems with a print-out that affirms the voter’s choices. The printout goes immediately into a secure lockbox. If there’s a need for a recount, the paper ballots are tallied. It’s not a perfect system, but it could keep the machines honest.

A major consideration in the event of another close election. Let’s hope the states who are moving toward electronic voting machines are listening–and that not too many of them are part of the conspiracy.

UPDATE: Chris Nelson says that GQ also has an article on this in their newest issue (pg 256). It’s a landslide, folks, and the dam is cracking.

Why Isn’t Lauri Fitz-Pegado In Jail?

This is not a rhetorical question.

Lauri Fitz-Pegado was the PR rep at Hill & Knowlton who orchestrated a massive fraud on behalf of her clients, the Kuwaiti govt, in an attempt–ultimately successful–to convince the people of the US to back the First Gulf War. Using real Congressmen friendly to Bush I’s agenda, she rigged a phony “Congressional investigation” of atrocities in Iraq and coached a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family in giving phony “testimony” in which she claimed, among other things, to have seen Iraqi soldiers ripping premature infants from their incubators and impaling them on their bayonets.

Her “dramatization” was a key element in pushing the US into supporting Poppy’s war, but the incidents “Nayirah” testified to never happened and the Congressional Committee which Fitz-Pegado presented as “real” in fact was anything but. It was not discovered until after the war was over that the whole thing had been staged by Hill & Knowlton, an advertising agency. The incident inspired the film, Wag the Dog, and became infamous as the most elaborate–and expensive–political dirty trick on record.

I assumed she’d gone to jail behind that stunt since she’d broken a number of the laws around fraud and misrepresentation. But now I read (via Mark Crispin Miller) that she is still working, this time for The Livingston Group (a Washington lobbying firm with a lot of powerful connections), and that she will be promoting a book by the doctor who helped Jessica Lynch when she was injured.

Considering that she perpetrated a gigantic fraud that started a war, why is this woman not in jail?

Live Free Or Die in Libertarian NH

Well, this is a new one on me. I live a bit more than half-an-hour from Keene, and I hadn’t even heard a rumble of this before I saw the article in today’s NYT:

[T]he Free State Project, aims to make all of New Hampshire a laboratory for libertarian politics by recruiting libertarian-leaning people from across the country to move to New Hampshire and throw their collective weight around. Leaders of the project figure 20,000 people would do the trick, and so far 4,960 have pledged to make the move.The idea is to concentrate enough fellow travelers in a single state to jump-start political change. Members, most of whom have met only over the Internet, chose New Hampshire over nine other states in a heated contest that lasted months.

“Heated” is right; a main sticking point seems to have been climate:

(The other contenders were Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. One frequently asked question on the project’s Web site was “Can’t you make a warmer state an option?”)

Personally, I’m all in favor of this. I think it’s about time the Libs learned what actually happens when their Ivory-Tower theories, radio-talk-show sloganeering, and simple-minded, so-called “common sense” solutions run smack dab up against real problems in the real world. To my mind, Libs don’t seem to have thought very hard or very deeply about any of the stuff they propose. Like Ross Perot, they’re under some serious illusions that if you just “lift up the hood and look”, you’ll be able to fix what’s “wrong”.

But as Michael Feldman once said in response to Perot, “Have you ever looked under the hood of a modern car, friends? There’s a city under there.” There’s a simple reason why simple-minded, 2-syllable solutions don’t work: This ain’t a simple country no more, if it ever was. The only way you can simplify the burgeoning chaos that is modern life is to ignore, negate, or deny everything that makes it complex, from race relations to science to competing rights to globalization to you-name-it. None of it is simple, and the Libs have been skating by, pretending that it is, for a lot of uncontested years now. Seems like maybe the time has come for a Major Reality Check.

The main fantasy behind Libertarian hatred of govt has always been right under the surface, and 33-year-old Jackie Casey, who just moved to Merrimack, NH from Portland, OR, has the nerve, god bless her, to put it on the table:

“I want to be a billionaire in my lifetime,” she added, “and I don’t want to live among people who think that’s bad.”

And there you have it: Libs hate Govt because they’re just positive that it’s govt interference that’s keeping them from being rich. Not exactly as noble a goal as the Libs try to portray it, is it? News Flash for Libs: Government is supposed to tone down greed when it hurts other people. You got a problem with that? You think your desire to be rich trumps fairness, equity, and the right to be protected from shoddy or toxic products? You do, don’t you? Well–and this is simple enough that even Libs should be able to understand it–You’re wrong. It don’t.

And btw Jackie, a word of warning: I grew up in NH, and they ain’t either as conservative or as fond of wanna-be billionaires as you seem to think, especially in the southern tier where you are (Merrimack is near Nashua, which is 45-mins or less from Boston). They tend to have some idea that being overly rich is, well, kind of ostentatious, if you know what I mean, and a little silly. Make your goal too obvious and you might well find yourself being quietly snubbed as a “crackpot”–which in NH is a term applied to anybody who gets in a little too far over their head. They’ll wait to see if you actually make it, and if you do, they’ll let you buy them. Cheap. But they won’t respect you, and they won’t think such over-arching greed is a good thing.

See, they’ve had experience with people like you before (Massachusetts is next door, remember), and they’re perfectly aware that anybody who’s serious about getting really rich will eventually reach a point–usually sooner rather than later–when the only way they can reach that goal is to royally screw somebody who trusted them. So they’re wary of people who want too much, and not terribly helpful. You won’t be a persona-non-grata, but you won’t exactly be grata, either. The only people who will welcome you are the politicians. They know they have nothing to worry about from you, not at a mere 20,000 of you state-wide they don’t.

Take my advice, all of you–and I mean this sincerely: Go to some town meetings and listen (yeah, they still have them there). Give yourself a chance to see how this governing business actually works and what you’re up against. And then join a committee or two and learn what needs to happen in order to accomplish something–how many other people’s opinions have to be taken into account no matter how bad you think they are, how many competing interests have to be reconciled no matter how simple you try to keep it. There’s a reality here that needs to be acknowledged: you could be wrong. Somebody else could be right. Some of this you don’t find out about until you’re actually in control, but you’ll be able to see the outlines. Talk to Jesse Ventura about why he didn’t run again.

And then go home and leave NH alone. They’ve got enough problems, and your approach will only make them worse.

Corporate Theft–Here We Go Again

For any of those of you who thought that Enron, WorldCom and the rest were some kind of aberration, two on-going investigations are worth noting.

1) The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that MicroSoft may already be either undermining or ignoring altogether the deal it reached with the Justice Dept:

A key element of the antitrust settlement MicroSoft Corp. negotiated with the Bush administration isn’t working as effectively as hoped, the government and the trial judge acknowledged yesterday.The criticism comes just weeks before a U.S. appeals court considers tougher sanctions against the world’s largest software company.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly urged government lawyers during a court hearing to investigate over the coming months why only nine companies so far have paid MicroSoft to license its Windows technology for their own software products.

One of the most important provisions of the landmark settlement compels MicroSoft to permit competitors to license parts of its technology to build products that seamlessly communicate with computers running Windows software.

“I think all of us had hoped for more agreements,” Kollar-Kotelly said. “I am interested in finding out why we don’t have more licensed products.”

Kollar-Kotelly, informed by her previous experiences with one of the most devious corporations on the planet, is asking exactly the right question: given their agreement and their omniscience, why aren’t there more licensing deals? It’s clear she suspects that MS might be pulling yet another of their underhanded tricks intended to void the agreement they reached with the govt while giving the appearance that they’re complying with it. And she’s probably right. Complaints have surfaced in the business news the last few months of companies charging that MS’ “new” licensing arrangement actually does nothing to change the pre-agreement status quo.

Based on MS’ previous history and performance, one can well believe it. Bill Gates isn’t just a consummate corporate thief (everything Windows has ever been was based on products developed by other companies that were then pirated by MicroSoft), he’s a consummate thief who hates to lose. When he can’t win by assaulting the front door, he’ll sneak in through the basement window. When MS was first charged with illegal practices, Gates was apoplectic. He saw the attempt to bring MS into line with the law as unconscionable interference with “free enterprise” (that’s what he calls corporate theft when it’s his corporation that’s doing it), and he said he was determined not to let it happen.

Years and a ton of bad publicity later, MS appeared to capitulate and signed the agreement. But that may very well have been nothing but a PR ploy to get the newspapers off their backs. Gates knows perfectly well (having done it for many years) what Karl Rove knows–that you can get away with a lot for a long time by fostering the illusion that you’re running a straight shop while, under the cover of inattention, you go right on doing what you’ve always done. Kollar-Kotelly wants some proof that MS is living up to their end of the deal.

Good for her.

2) The Boston Globe reports that 4 managers at Putnam will be fired:

Four money managers of Putnam Investments, including its head of international investing, are being forced out of their jobs for using their personal accounts in 2000 to rapidly trade in and out of mutual funds that they managed, despite company policies that forbid such market timing.The money managers, along with two other Putnam employees, made profits of approximately $700,000 on the prohibited trades, according to Putnam officials.

The disclosures, made yesterday in response to inquiries from the Globe, directly contradict statements by Putnam this week that the market-timing scandal that has engulfed the mutual fund industry has been limited to a “minimal” number of outside individual investors. Instead, the problems also appear to reach into the highest levels of the company itself.

What a shock.

As time goes by, the picture of callous theft, illegal maneuvering, and the utter disregard of both law and their own clients that was a hallmark of the Enron et al corporate scandals last year has been–and is being–revealed for what it really is: Business-As-Usual in an age when a radical right-wing govt is prone to give Get Out of Jail Free cards to any corporation that gets caught with its hand in the cookie jar. In this case, Putnam execs were stealing from their own customers:

Putnam, founded in 1937, is the fifth-largest fund company in the nation, and the second-largest in Boston after Fidelity Investments, managing $272 billion in assets for 12 million investors.Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who has led the investigation of Putnam, said he was “stunned” at the disclosure, calling the trading “fundamentally dishonest.” The managers, he said, violated their duty to protect the long-term interests of their funds’ investors. “They took advantage of, in effect, insider trading to do market timing to pick the pockets of their own customers. The profits they made didn’t come out of thin air; they came from the funds they were supposed to be protecting.”

It even appears that the company lawyers caught on to the swindle 3 years ago and may have stopped it. Good, right? But then they closed their discovery with the standard corporate response–a coverup:

Some of the trades were for [more] than $1 million, government and Putnam officials said, and were concentrated in Putnam’s international funds. The employees were told by Putnam senior managers in 2000 to stop such trading, after their activity was detected by monitoring systems the company established to catch market timers.”We considered what the people were doing at the time to be inconsistent with what we felt to be appropriate for employees to be doing in terms of trading a mutual fund,” said Putnam general counsel William H. Woolverton. “And you can call it market timing. You can call it excessive short term trading. Whatever you call it, it went through our screens and we detected it. We sat down with these people and said, `Look we don’t think this is the right thing for you to be doing, to be engaging in this type of activity.’ And they agreed, and they stopped doing it.”

But Galvin said that for Putnam to wait three years to disclose the trading activity undermines the company’s claim that it acted responsibly. “That the company protected them for three years, took no action and never sought to reimburse anybody for anything, until we caught them, suggests that the company’s culpable,” Galvin said. “It isn’t a few rogue managers who did this. The company’s responsible.”

It’s time we faced the fact that since Ronald Reagan started to take the govt out of the role of regulating corporate activities, corporations have been doing exactly what a lot of us said then that they would do: run rampant, steal everything they could, even from their own customers, and count on the Feds to turn a blind eye.

Which they did. Despite all the promises we heard after the Enron mess, the money managers aren’t being charged by the SEC but by the AG’s of 2 states: Spitzer in NY and Galvin in Mass.

Given that we now have proof that hundreds of millions of dollars were stolen by corporations who, in a deliberate and calculated way, took advantage of a political atmosphere which included the disemboweling of regulatory agencies intended to prevent them from doing just that, can we now begin at last to admit that these guys need to be watched? How many more corporate crimes are going to have to be uncovered, how many more $$Billions$$ have to be stolen before we start demanding accountability again?

As far as I’m concerned, the answer is: We should demand it NOW. Enough is enough.

Dear George: The polar ice cap is melting. Do you care?

Open Letter to GWB:

Dear George:

The polar ice cap is melting at an astonishing rate:

NASA satellite images show that Arctic ice has been shrinking at the rate of nearly 10 percent a decade. During the past 35 years, it also has thinned by more than 40 percent — from 9 feet thick to about 5 feet.A team of researchers, who will report the latest findings next week in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate, say they don’t know how much of the change is due to man-made factors. But they say the changes are so dramatic and the likely effects so far-reaching that any political debate over the causes begs a more pressing question.

“Global warming is usually viewed as something that’s 50 or 100 years in the future,” said David Rind, of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. “But we have evidence that the climate of the Arctic is changing right now and changing rapidly. Whatever is causing it, we are going to have to start adapting to it.”

Would you now consider re-considering your unconditional surrender to corporate energy interests in order to help slow down the swamping of our coastal cities? Surely our right to live through the next few decades trumps their right to pollute.

Doesn’t it?

Yours somewhat sincerely.


PS. Doesn’t your family own some beach property in Maine? Just thought I’d mention it.

Tom Friedman Can’t Write

I haven’t chimed in on the Friedman debate which has enraptured a number of the members of the blogoisie because while I sometimes agree with him and sometimes don’t, what really drives me nuts about the guy isn’t what he says but how he says it. Tom Friedman can’t write.

Here’s an example from today’s NYT:

Most Democrats either opposed the war (a perfectly legitimate position) or supported it and are now trying to disown it. That means the only serious opposition can come from Republicans….

I’m sorry? Would Mr Friedman care to explain why opposition to the war means you can’t be a serious opponent of the war? Apparently not. In Mr. Friedman’s world, this is a given so obvious it doesn’t need to be explained, but the rest of us who are underprivileged enough that we have to live in the real world would like to know.

I don’t think that’s exactly what he meant. I’m not sure what he meant though I think he’s suggesting, for unexplained reasons, that opposition to the war before it was launched negates criticism of problems arising in the post-war period. But that’s not what he said. The construction (a very poor one) forces the reader to assume that Mr. Friedman believes that “serious” opposition to the war in Iraq can only come from people who support the war in Iraq, which is going to cut the opposition down to himself and, maybe, David Brooks (I don’t count Rummy’s recent snowflake because it has nothing to do with Iraq and everything to do with consolidating his own power). I suppose we should be thankful that he allowed as how Democratic opposition was “perfectly legitimate” even if it couldn’t be “serious”.

My problem with Friedman is that in every single column there’s at least one hopelessly confusing construction (often in the 2nd paragraph for some reason) that leaves one scratching one’s head wondering either: “Did he really mean to say that?” or “What the hell does that mean?” I get the impression sometimes that, perhaps forced by the constriction of column-length, he left something out that would fill in the blank. Other times, it’s something that seems to come from so far out in left field in the context of the column that one assumes it must belong in some other piece and got stuck into this one by mistake.

This contextual confusion tends to create internal inconsistencies that are difficult to reconcile with his main point. For example, if Mr Friedman did mean what I suggested he meant, the only way his apparent separation of “the war” and “the post-war” phases could be consistent is if he believed (not to belabor the obvious) that the war is over. Does he? Well, actually, No. He says later in the column:

Attacks on our forces are getting more deadly, not less. Besides those killed, we’ve had 900 wounded or maimed. We need to take this much more seriously. We’re not facing some ragtag insurrection. We’re facing an enemy with a command and control center who is cleverly picking off our troops and those Iraqi leaders and foreigners cooperating with us. Either we put in the troops needed to finish the war, and project our authority, or we get the Iraqi Army to do the job — but pretending that we’re just “mopping up” is a dangerous illusion.

He is actually chiding the Bush Admin for their refusal to acknowledge that the war is still going on, so how could he logically justify claiming that we are in a post-war phase? This kind of stuff is the reason I rarely read him and don’t waste my time criticizing him: who the hell knows what he was actually trying to say?

As Friedman has consistently been one of the most influential voices in the punditocracy, the confusion his writing often generates is a real problem, which is a shame because a lot of what I think he might be saying deserves “serious” consideration and debate, as in today’s piece. Doesn’t he have an editor? Somebody who could ask the 2 questions listed above before the column gets printed and suggest some clarification? Or does the NYT assume that everybody it hires can write and so it can afford to dispense with frivolities and useless extras like “editing”?

I don’t know what the answers to those questions are but it would be a lot easier on us readers (infelicitous constructions in the NYT are not exclusive to Friedman) if there was somebody around whose job it was to say, “Um, guys? This paragraph doesn’t make any sense….”

But I ain’t holding my breath.

Tiger Force

Randy Paul at Beautiful Horizons has put up a link to a series of articles in the Toledo Blade detailing a long-term series of atrocities committed by US soildiers in Viet Nam in 1967. They make for fascinating if extremely uncomfortable reading.

The actions of Tiger Force–the elite unit in question–weren’t completely unknown at the time; one newspaper, I remember, even ran a photograph of a number of them showing off their ear collection. But the extent and severity of their atrocities was never made public before now.

Read them and weep. Iraq is not Viet Nam but war is war and it could happen again.

Suing Unocal/Halliburton/KBR for Murder

A lawyer named Katie Redford (no relation to Robert) is suing Unocal in a California Federal court for aiding the Burmese military in its brutal actions to clear peasants from the land the company needed for it gas pipeline. Based on an almost unknown Federal statute that goes back to the time of George Washington called the Alien Torts Claims Act, her suit, after being dismissed by a lower court, has been upheld by an appeals panel which said the case has merit and should go to trial:

In her 1994 law school paper, Redford had argued that such violations would include human rights abuses by the Burmese military, which was guarding construction in its country at a pipeline partly owned by Unocal, a California oil company. That is precisely what will be argued by lawyers on Dec. 3, when the case is heard in California Superior Court.As for the federal case, a decision on whether it will proceed to trial is pending. A three-judge appeals panel reversed a lower court’s decision and ruled that Unocal may be liable for “aiding and abetting” the military in forced labor, murder, and rape since the company hired the soldiers and provided maps and information about the pipeline. The lower court had dismissed the suit because the company did not directly participate in the alleged abuses — though the judge said there was evidence that Unocal knew forced labor was being used and that it benefited from the project. Unocal has appealed the appellate court’s ruling. Redford says she is confident the case will proceed to trial. “You can’t put corporations above the law when fighting human rights abuses,” says Redford, now a 35-year-old mother of two. (emphasis added–m)

The major American contractor in Iraq, Halliburton (Dick Cheney’s company), is tied up with Unocal because its subsidiary, Brown & Root, is a subcontractor responsible for the actual construction of the pipeline. This is one of those unreported (by the American media, anyway) scandals in which American corporations either aid or countenance mass murder on behalf of their foreign interests, and they always get away with it by claiming either ignorance or lack of judicial jurisdiction. But Katie may have found a way to make them accountable. Finally.

You go, girl.

Troop Redeployment in South Korea

Phil Carter at INTELDUMP quotes an interesting article by Chris Cooper in the WSJ on the South Korean troop redeployment (Carter has a link but you need to be a subscriber, which I ain’t). Cooper argues that while the Pentagon claims that it’s merely “restructuring” its forces in order to reduce their size (from 37K to 27K), the North Koreans will almost certainly not take it as a peaceful, nonthreatening move (gee, I wonder why not?):

…such a move would appear likely to lessen tensions. Instead, North Korea brands the plan an “arms buildup” and a prelude to an invasion. Already courting a crisis by threatening to detonate a nuclear bomb, North Korea promises to protect itself.******

The confusion over U.S. intentions lies in the nature of the troops it plans to pull back. Since the Korean War ended, American and South Korean troops have arrayed themselves along the border region between the North and South to serve as a “tripwire” — an early warning of a North Korean invasion. The 19 camps between Seoul and the border house about 15,000 U.S. tripwire troops.

Because many of these troops likely would die in a surprise attack by North Korea, their presence serves to assure both sides that the U.S. would be fully committed if war broke out.
* * *
Pyongyang sees the plan as a strategic move to get American troops out of the North’s artillery range, making it easier for the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive attack and disrupting the current military balance.

Not that our relations with NKorea have ever been all that close, still, this has to be seen as the first fruits of the Bush Doctrine as applied to Iraq: nobody trusts our word any more. They watched Junior lying to Hussein with a promise that if he let the inspectors into Iraq the US would be satisfied and stand down from war; and they continued to watch as Hussein let the inspectors in, as requested, only to have the US invade anyway. NKorea doubtless knows it’s on Wolfie’s “Invade” List, and Bush named NKorea as one of the “axis of evil” states, along with Iraq. As paranoid as we know the NKorean leadership is, it seems clear that the Bush Administration’s subsequent refusal (for more than 2 years) to agree to substantive talks on the nuclear question is likely the proximate cause for NK’s jump-starting their nuke program again: they want the US to know that we won’t be able to roll over them as easily as we rolled over Iraq, that there will be penalties assessed. Nuclear penalties.

This is the sort of potentially dire consequence some of us were warning of when Bush was playing his Iraq game with a stacked deck. He virtually put states like NK on notice that they were in the crosshairs and had nothing to lose by going rogue. We can talk to Japan and SKorea and even China all we want; it won’t cut much ice with NK. George insisting he doesn’t want to invade likewise won’t cut it: the fact that he not only lied to Hussein about the inspectors, he lied to his own people to get support for the Second Gulf War and is even now still defending those rationalizations months after they were proved to be false, only convinces the NKoreans that nothing he says to them can be trusted either.

Carter doesn’t seem to get this:

Analysis: A lot has been made of the President’s statement that the U.S. has “no intention of invading North Korea”. (Query: was the word ‘invading’ chosen over ‘attacking’ to preserve the option of a pre-emptive airstrike?) Presumably, this statement was offered as a carrot to induce North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program. I think this pledge moves the ball forward in negotiations with North Korea, and hopefully, that it will de-escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. The sooner we can re-engage the North Koreans with diplomacy, economic contacts, and trade, the better.

He’s still talking as if this were the world pre-Second Gulf War and assuming that Bush’s credibility is intact. It isn’t. A President who lied, misled, and manipulated his own people in order to launch the first pre-emptive war in the nation’s history has forfeited any claim to have his promises taken seriously. If we are in denial about this, the rest of the world is not. (Turkey wanted the money Bush promised them upfront before they would agree to back the invasion.) Maybe Junior genuinely meant his statement to move things forward, but having blown his credibility all over Baghdad, his assurances are predictably having the opposite effect.

Bush is playing with dynamite here, and once again he doesn’t seem to have a clue what he’s up against. Cooper’s right: NK isn’t going see any change as massive as this one is as innocent of ulterior motives, and unlike the past, this time they have lots of recent justification for their paranoia: the Bush Admin has made it clear several times that they’re out to get NK. Sotto voce, they still are.

Indeed, some hawks in the Bush administration privately see the move as expanding its military options by separating the U.S. and South Korean forces and unwinding the joint structure of the current configuration. “If we were to discuss the need to perform pre-emptive strikes on North Korea, under the current configuration, we’d need South Korean approval,” said one such administration hawk. “Under the new configuration, we wouldn’t need that approval so much.”

So NK may not be so far off the mark in their suspicions after all.

Carter’s preliminary analysis of the situation comes down on the side of supporting the Pentagon’s decision to redeploy those troops, but it’s a cautious support:

I agree with the Pentagon plan. I think we need to move our soldiers off the DMZ both to make them more efficient and to make them more survivable in the event of a North Korean attack. But also [I] think this is an extraordinarily complex situation. Our moves in Korea will have repercussions for the South Korean political and economic situation that need to be mitigated. The secondary and tertiary consequences of our moves in Korea could affect the rest of East Asia — China, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, and others. Our forward-deployed 2nd Infantry Division is not just a “tripwire” to give early warning; it’s what has maintained an uneasy peace for more than 50 years. We should be very careful about giving up this posture.

I agree with the last part. Emphatically. And add that we’re not just playing with de-stabilization here, we’re playing with a potential nuclear war. I believe that–this time–NKorea genuinely fears an invasion. This time, they’re not bluffing. If the Neocon Wonder Boys mistake the NKorean buildup for some kind of gamesmanship and try to force a “regime change” in Pyongyang, millions could die.

Press Pass

This is a good one.

The Associated Press–you know them, they’re the ones who ran that fawning picture last week of Saint George wearing his halo?–in a report on the riots in Azerbaijan after a patently bogus election–

Western observers…cited instances of ballot-box stuffing, falsified vote counts and interference by unauthorized people in the voting and counting process. [What? Is that all?–m]

–in which a son replaced his autocratic-dictator father because Dad (you know him, too–he’s the one who likes to boil his political opponents alive while the family watches?) is in the US dying of terminal bestiality, described it this way:

Observers said the vote was marred by fraud.

“Marred by fraud.” Marred. Isn’t that cute? Not stolen, not ripped from their hands by force, “marred”.

Masters of understatement, those AP guys (for the record, the dispatch was written by Burt Herman).

Incidentally, while Aliev Pere is a despotic butcher whose everyday brutalities would make Saddam Hussein’s worst depredations pale into insignificance (and Aliev Fils isn’t much better), and who has for years been a rock-solid financial supporter of various terror organizations, strangely enough after all Junior’s talk about how such tyrants will never again be allowed to oppress their people, Azerbaijan is not–repeat NOT–on Wolfie’s “Invade” List. They’re not talking about it; they’re not even thinking about it.

Strange, isn’t it? Couldn’t have anything to do with the sweetheart deals Aliev gave American oil companies (like Chevron, Condi Rice’s old outfit) on the Baku fields, could it? After all, you don’t have to invade to control something you already practically own, do you?

Nah, that can’t be it. This is a principled Administration, just ask anybody. I’m sure the news of the destruction of a democratic election will galvanize our stalwart NWB’s to jump into their Ranger suits and ride to the rescue, just like they did in Iraq.


MOVIETIME: The Legally Blonds

I now know where they went wrong with the second one.

As it happens, I saw the second one before I saw the first and as a result I almost never watched the original, and that would have been a shame.

As a comedy standing on its own, Legally Blonde 2 has a serious problem: at heart, it isn’t serious enough. It doesn’t take Elle seriously, it doesn’t take her relationship with Emmett seriously, it doesn’t take her newfound intelligence seriously, and worst of all, it doesn’t take her passion seriously. It just goes back to the college Elle–the flaky, fashion-obsessed, prom-queen Elle–and drops her into the middle of Washington like the Clampetts got dropped into Beverly Hills: unceremoniously. Like them, Elle lands with a thud and forms a large crater.

Reese Witherspoon is an extraordinarily gifted comic actor–Election proved that beyond a reasonable doubt–and she puts all the energy and charisma she has at her disposal into Elle’s new predicament but it’s no use. Somewhere along the line, the new writers forgot her character (if they ever knew it) and came up with a different one that’s thin as a high-fashion model’s calves and about as substantial as President Barbie…or Bush, for that matter. It’s a one-note cartoon centered on a dolt–and a wimpy, whiny, unsympathetic dolt at that. The story is just as anorexically skinny as the new Elle, and all-in-all you come away feeling that it might be better for everybody if the dog ate her.

But the worst part of all this is that it didn’t have to be that way. After finally seeing the first LB, a charming and funny send-up of lookism in general and blonde jokes in particular, I was at a loss to understand how they’d screwed it up so bad. Elle Woods is a genuine comic invention, like Jack Benny’s miser or Lily Tomlin’s Edith; to throw it away and put in its place Adam Sandler’s polar opposite wasn’t just dumb, it was criminal. What could they have been thinking? Box office, yes, but they always think that and it’s not like there was any real risk; as long as Witherspoon agreed to do it, it would make money if a monkey wrote it. So–what, then?

High-concept thinking, that’s what; the bane of Hollywood’s better half. Here’s how the story conference probably went:

“They greenlight LB2?”
“Yeah, so now what do we do with her?”
“I got it! Get this: we send her to…Washington! Get it?”
“Got it. Brilliant.”
Quit for the day.

It might have worked if they’d done it right, but they didn’t. They disemboweled Elle’s character by making her frivolous. In the first movie, she was working on a murder case; the stakes were high and we were right there with her. In LB2, she introduces a bill so silly it’s a wonder lightning doesn’t strike her dead on the spot. There’s nothing at stake here–nothing. Who cares? They completely forgot about what suckers Elle into the law in the first place and draws out all the passion she’d hidden from herself: underneath all that SoCal superficiality and pampered privilege is the heart of a woman who seriously cares about people. That matters, that makes the difference, and they violated it. They didn’t get it.

Here’s how it could have been done:

1) Make the bill she introduced real–on the budget, discrimination, anything with real consequences where real people might get hurt. And let it be on behalf of someone else–not her own, egocentric pet project. Do that, and the Elle we fell in love with in the first movie would be back with a pink vengeance, loaded for bear and brunettes.

2) Forget Washington. It’s too big a jump. Let’s see her in her first year out of law school with a high-powered firm when they discover that the F Lee Bailey clone they thought they were hiring is apparently nothing more than Emma’s Big Sister. Do that, and we don’t just have Elle back, we’ve got a hit tv series on our hands.

LB2 did at the box office what it would have done no matter what was on the screen. Had they stuck to the original character, it would have made as much or more than the original. Some genius exec threw away a fortune because s/he didn’t understand that–or was so busy looking at the bottom line that s/.he missed it completely. As things go in Hollywood, that passes for tragedy.