Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Drawing A Line Between Culture And Religion

Michael Newdow is back in action, this time taking on the phrase "In God We Trust" as it appears on all U.S. currency.

From The Sacramento Union:

Michael Newdow seeks to remove "In God We Trust" from U.S. coins and dollar bills, claiming in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday that the motto is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.


"The placement of 'In God We Trust' on the coins and currency was clearly done for religious purposes and to have religious effects," Newdow wrote in the 162-page lawsuit he filed against Congress.

Newdow is famous (or infamous) for his pending lawsuit on behalf of four parents in the Sacramento area challenging the Constitutionality of having the phrase "Under God" in the PledgeAllegianceence. That case is currently pending in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

I have to say that I love what Michael Newdow is doing, both because he's making a compelling point about the role of Christianity in the United States and because his actions drive religious conservatives completely bonkers. Both the PledgeAllegianceence case and now the case concerning our money cut right to the heart of Establishment Clause discussions and are significant for a number of reasons.

First, Newdow's point that the terms "Under God" and "In God We Trust" are religious expressions is absolutely correct, in spite of what the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 1996 case brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The appeals court ruled that the motto "In God We Trust" is more of a cultural symbol than a religious one; a view which many conservatives are happy to embrace as a nifty play-action screen around the First Amendment. However, this is a completely dishonest side-step of the issue by religious conservatives. Certainly conservative Christians are not advocating "Under God" and "In God We Trust" being used by the government for "cultural" reasons and any claim to the contrary is a politically expedient lie. They know very well what God these phrases refer to and why.

Second, Christianity has, for many years, enjoyeprivilegedeged position in American culture which is certainly in contravention of the Constitution and the ideals upon which the nation was founded. The difference today is that American society has become more pluralistic and certain religious and atheist minorities are beginning to flex their First Amendment muscle. The United States is a secular nation by design, with a separation of church and state built into our Constitution for a reason. That protection of the state from religion has allowed our democracy to flourish, while the same protection of religious institutions from the state has allowed religion to flourish as well. Conservative ideologues of today, including the current President, are seeking to undermine the very protections that have allowed their faith to gain the prominence it pretends it doesn't have today.

Finally, I find it shameful that conservative Christians express such fiery passion about defending the symbols of their faith but are eerily quiet on matters of true substance. The core of Christianity is supposed to be love and concern for our fellow man, not bellicose rantings about meaningless idolatry. Further, if the faith of today's conservative Christians is so weak that it cannot survive under the same set of rules as all other faiths in the country, then perhaps Michael Newdow isn't their real problem. There is no strength in a faith that requires recognition from an earthly government to grant it legitimacy. "Under God" and "In God We Trust" serve no purpose other than to allow conservative Christians to feel that their faith is superior in American culture.

As an atheist and secular humanist, I live everyday in a country where my moral beliefs are considered inferior at best and evil at worst. So it heartens me to see a man like Michael Newdow willing to stand up for the ideals that the United States was founded upon. It was not majority rule, no matter how often conservatives may make that claim. Personally, I couldn't care less if "In God We Trust" is on our fiat or if "Under God" is in our Pledge of Allegiance. I have nothing but contempt for any faith so weak that it requires validation through meaningless symbols. If conservatives can sleep better at night believing they live in God's Country, so be it.

Just don't expect the rest of us to play along with such delusions of grandeur.

Fundamentalists Without Borders

It's painful enough that those of us believing in compassion and reason are forced to witness our country being dragged back into the 13th century by medieval religious literalism. But when we start exporting the madness to other nations, that's when the shame and humiliation really sets in. President Bush, in yet another gross display of inhumanity, expanded the "gag rule" on USAID funds, effectively exporting his conservative religious dementia to some other nations where it can do substantial damage.

From ACSBlog:

Under the Global Gag Rule, which has been in effect since January 2001, family planning funds administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) may be transferred only to foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that pledge that they will not use any of their non-U.S. funds to provide abortion-related activities, including providing information about abortion through counseling or advocacy.

Essentially, not only can these organizations not use U.S. funds for such, but they must pledge to not use ANY funds they receive for abortion-related program activities. The tragic part is that USAID is very influential in poorer nations, particularly those where women are still second-class citizen.

The gag rule will affect a $193 million, five-year project for AIDS-HIV prevention programs in Kenya and requires organizations that seek funding to adhere to the administration's policy that the health organization not provide abortions, provide any information about safe abortions to women or lobby for change in their nation's abortion laws. In Kenya, complications from illegal abortions are a leading killer of married women in their 20s and 30s.

So much for being "Pro-life". That sort of rhetoric may soothe the conservative plebes back here in Gilead, but it's directly endangering the lives of women in countries that we're supposed to be aiding. What possible sense does it make to spend millions on AIDS/HIV prevention and treatment while all the while turning a blind eye to abortion complications that are killing thousands of women? It doesn't, unless viewed through the crooked lens of patriarchal religious fundamentalism, which attaches a sort of moral substance to inflicting suffering on women via religious strictures. It's nothing more than a spiteful poke at the legality of abortion in the United States, which, despite their best efforts, conservatives have yet to abolish. Sadly, no such rights exist for the women of Kenya, who are often at the mercy of the kind of patriarchal dominance for which American conservatives pine away.

Even more egregious, PEPFAR (The President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) has had other religiously-motivated restrictions placed on its funds.

For example, one-third of PEPFAR prevention funds had to be spent on "abstinence/be faithful" youth programs, even though Kenya's AIDS Control Program promotes "abstain, be faithful, or use condoms" (known as "ABC") messages. Last year, 11 faith-based organizations, some with no prior youth health experience, were awarded about $1 million each to engage in abstinence-only campaigns in Kenya.

It's almost unthinkable that Federal Government funds are being awarded to unqualified "faith-based" (another code word for "conservative Christian") organizations to push an abstinence-only ideology which is a proven failure in the United States. It's an embarrassment to our reputation in the world that our President cannot be relied upon to use sound judgment and science to guide government policy. Rather, every motion our government takes must now be governed by the over-arching goal of advocating conservative Christian moral stances.

Our Constitution does not end at our borders, else it is a very provincial and inadequate document. The ideals that the United States was founded upon, religious freedom being foremost among them, were written as applicable to the entirety of mankind. The very idea of "America" is eroded when we treat residence in the United States as a special condition to be met in order to enjoy the human rights upon which our nation stood, prior to the second Bush Presidency. The very notion that the United States is using adherence to fundamentalist religious ideology as a condition for receiving medical aid is cruel and un-American. Such "aid" is really no comfort at all.

Monday, November 28, 2005

No Dodging Responsibility On Global Warming

Thousands of various environmentalist groups and government agencies are meeting this week in Montreal to discuss a global strategy for curbing the greenhouse gas emissions which are exacerbating the global warming crisis.

From RedOrbit:

The U.N. conference, with some 10,000 participants from 180 nations, is considered the most important gathering on climate change since 140 nations ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.


The conference that opens Monday will set new agreements on how much more emissions should be cut after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires, though most signatories are already falling far short of their targets.

It's a commendable international effort, even if the Kyoto Accords have yet to demonstrate significant impact. The issue is, at last, being discussed and treated with the seriousness warranted a potential global crisis.

On a more embarrassing note, the current leadership of the world's largest polluter remains unwilling to accept any responsibility for its reckless environmental policies. The Bush Administration remains steadfast in its opposition to any regulation on greenhouse gas emissions, saying it will harm the world's strongest economy. Of course, the Bush Administration has also publicly been very reluctant to even admit that global warming is a fact and has outright refused to accept that mankind is contributing dramatically to the problem. The fact that this view stands in contradiction to nearly every scientist on the planet has not persuaded President Bush to rethink his destructive pro-business-at-all-costs stance on the matter.

From RedOrbit again:

A team of European researchers analyzed tiny air bubbles preserved in Antarctic ice for millennia and determined there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than at any point during the last 650,000 years.


Today's still rising level of carbon dioxide already is 27 percent higher than its peak during all those millennia, said lead researcher Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern, Switzerland.

"We are out of that natural range today," he said.

Moreover, that rise is occurring at a speed that "is over a factor of a hundred faster than anything we are seeing in the natural cycles," Stocker added. "It puts the present changes in context."

I understand completely the Republican party's stance on this issue, even if it's a grossly irresponsible one. After all, they are the party of corporate interests and the changes required to curb carbon dioxide and methane emissions are costly. This is typical of the short-term economic thinking of large business interests today. Setting a responsible course of action for the long term is more costly in the short term and is thus avoided. Bush's policies reflect this flawed reasoning, which is all too prevalent in today's business markets.

The part of the equation that I have difficulty grasping is why rank-and-file conservatives buy into the Republican rhetoric on this issue, often going so far as to dream up a sort of global science conspiracy about global warming. Global warming is a fact and the hypothesis that human activity is, at least, making the situation worse, if not being the outright cause, continues to gain scientific support. Sudden climate change can have disastrous effects on the world, particularly poorer areas with more agrarian economies (such as the U.S. Gulf Coast). Erratic weather, flooding, drought, extreme hot and cold spells, more frequent and more powerful storms; the list of possibilities is long and foreboding. Yet many conservatives remain adamant in their stance that global warming is a liberal conspiracy. Why?

The first answer is simple: ignorance, sometimes willful but usually not. Global climate change is an extremely complex area of science and is not something that can be easily reduced to simple political talking points, though there is certainly no shortage of those. Further, admitting that global warming is a fact and that human activity is contributing negatively to the problem really necessitates a change in behavior, which is something with which many conservatives are not comfortable. It's rather difficult to justify driving a gas-guzzling road hog once one admits that driving such is helping wreck the environment.

Another answer, and the one I believe to be correct, is a general antagonism towards science by conservatives in the United States.

From Cervantes:

[I]t is easy to see why [American Conservatism] is likely to be in tension with science. Science is dynamic. Science exists to explore the unknown, to generate new explanations, to overturn established ideas. Scientific discovery drives technological development, which fuels social change, and forces reevaluation of philosophical and religious ideas.

Global warming is forcing the world at large to reconsider the course of human development. It's forcing us to admit that we cannot treat the Earth like an ashtray and hope to maintain a livable habitat for successive generations. We have a growing body of knowledge about the problem and there is no reason that U.S. innovation cannot take take a leadership role in addressing the problem. Refusing to do so for short-term economic reasons is breathtakingly short-sighted and irresponsible, even by Republican standards.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Day Of Thanks

I thought I'd follow along with many of my fellow bloggers this morning and talk briefly about some of the things I'm thankful for today.

I am thankful first and foremost for my wonderful wife, Gifted-1, and our three children. She spends all day wrangling this howler monkey farm and manages to keep a positive outlook without selling any of the children on the black market.

I am thankful for my extended family, some of which read and comment on this site. I grew up surrounded by family and it's helped make me the person I am today. That's a good thing, in case you're wondering...

I am thankful for the wonderful friends that I have, though I don't see any of them nearly often enough.

I am thankful to all the folks that read and comment on this site, both friends and family. It's a very heart-warming thought that anyone would want to read my pedantic rantings on politics, and I thank you for that.

I am thankful for my job and the folks I work with. Accounting is not the most exciting line of work, but the folks I am privileged enough to spend my days with make it a lot of fun.

I am thankful for the men and women fighting overseas and I honor their sacrifice. I may not agree with the war we are fighting, but I lay that at the feet of those that started the war, not those who are bravely fighting it. I wish them a speedy return to their families.

Finally, I am thankful for living in a country where people can have diametrically opposed ideals and fight them out with keyboards, instead of guns. We may not be able to agree on what's best for American, but at least we agree that the best is what we all want.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Wrangling Over The War Intelligence

The Bush Administration has launched a full-frontal assault these past several weeks attempting to staunch the bleed-out of its credibility concerning the Iraq war. As accusations of misused intelligence information continue to surface, Bush Administration officials like Condoleeza Rice have begun to push back against their critics by once again asserting that "everyone" believed Hussein was an imminent threat and had WMD's. "Everyone" being defined as the Bush Administration, Congress and foreign leaders.

What's interesting about this approach is it essentially admits at the outset that the war was a mistake. Else, why argue that that the war was justifiable because many Democrats in Congress and foreign officials, who opposed the war, also believed Hussein was a threat? This is a tacit admission that the causes stated for war were phony and attempts to mitigate the damage by citing others for making the same mistake. Unfortunately for Bush, it wasn't foreign leaders or the Democrats in Congress that pulled the trigger on the Iraq invasion. As Commander in Chief, the buck Bush is attempting to pass rests squarely on his shoulders, no matter how many others he attempts to blame. No surprises here from the highest official in "The Party of Personal Responsibility".

Let's take a look at a couple of the quotes supposedly justifying the invasion, as cited by the White House's website.

French Foreign Minister Dominique De Villepin: "Right Now, Our Attention Has To Be Focused As A Priority On The Biological And Chemical Domains. It Is There That Our Presumptions About Iraq Are The Most Significant. Regarding The Chemical Domain, We Have Evidence Of Its Capacity To Produce VX And Yperite. In The Biological Domain, The Evidence Suggests The Possible Possession Of Significant Stocks Of Anthrax And Botulism Toxin, And Possibly A Production Capability." (United Nations Security Council, 4701st Meeting, New York, 2/5/03)

This quote is given under the justification that other foreign leaders believed Iraq had "stockpiles" of WMD's, as stated by Bush in his fateful State of the Union address. But notice what de Villepin is actually saying: that Iraq had the capacity to produce nerve agents (which turned out to be incorrect) and that it's possible that Iraq had biological weapons and the capacity to produce them (also false). This in no way justifies the invasion, as de Villepin himself said in March 2003 when saying "War is an acknowledgement of failure." France and Germany maintained that further U.N. weapons inspections would debunk Bush's assertion about Iraq's weapons production capability and such inspections would have done exactly that without costing thousands of lives.

Next, in response to allegations that Congress did not get the same intelligence that the White House did, this quote is offered:

"It was not that the intelligence was markedly different. Rather, it was that the PDBs and SEIBs, with their attention-grabbing headlines and drumbeat of repetition, left an impression of many corroborating reports where in fact there were very few sources. And in other instances, intelligence suggesting the existence of weapons programs was conveyed to senior policymakers, but later information casting doubt upon the validity of that intelligence was not." (Charles S. Robb And Laurence H. Silberman, The Commission On The Intelligence Capabilities Of The United States Regarding Weapons Of Mass Destruction, 3/31/05, p. 14)

This is such a baffling display responsibility parsing that it actually makes the accusations against Bush appear more damning. While this may technically assert that Bush personally received the same intelligence as Congress, it also demonstrates that other White House officials certainly had a greater pool of information. Else, how could they have summarized (and propagandized, apparently) the PDB's and SEIB's given to Bush and shared with Congress? Further, this quote actually serves to bolster the opinion that Congress was getting a skewed picture on Iraq by admitting that the information was biased towards Bush's war aims and failed to disclose later intelligence that debunked Bush Administration assertions on Iraq's threat level. How can Bush argue that Congress shares complicity in the mistaken cause for war when intelligence reports indicating sources like "Curveball" and Ahmad Chalabi were unreliable, were never issued to Congress?

As for Congress having it's own sources, The Stakeholder sheds some light on the deceptiveness of this claim:

Intelligence is made available to members of the House and Senate by providing it to the Intelligence Committees of the two chambers. A total of 21 (out of 435) House members serve on the House Intelligence Committee, and a total of 15 (out of 100) senators serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Intelligence provided to those two committees is kept under lock and key in small rooms in the Capitol. Any congressman or senator can go to the committee rooms and inspect the intelligence. Most members do not. They rely on summaries of the intelligence provided to them by the administration, normally done orally in briefings at the White House or in the Capitol.Congressmen and senators assume that the briefings being given to them by the executive branch are factual and not loaded with hype or spin. The national security of the country is too important for typical political spin.

That, of course, is not what happened this time.

Essentially, the Bush Administration is using the Animal House defense: "You fucked up. You trusted us."

So what did happen this time?

First, the intelligence provided to the congressional committees was incomplete. It did not reflect that much of the information on chemical and biological weapons was provided by a single ultimately discredited Iraqi dissident source (dubbed "Curveball"); that there was dissent inside the administration over the accuracy of this data, and that none of the data had been verified by any of our own operatives on the ground in Iraq.

Additionally, the administration only belatedly acknowledged that there also was dissent inside the intelligence community about Saddam's progress on developing nuclear weapons. This information was provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee in a National Intelligence Estimate just days before the vote in Congress and was never acknowledged publicly by the administration when making its case to the American people.

Secondly, saddling Congress with a caveat emptor obligation means that future Congresses may never accept information and evaluation of that type of information provided by a future President in times of national emergency.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that Congress should be held blameless in this matter. Far from it. Regardless of whether an in-depth review of weapons intelligence is standard operating procedure or not, the members of Congress had a responsibility to be certain before voting an authorization for war. Any Democrat, particularly in the Senate, claiming that they didn't believe a vote authorizing the use of force was a green light for war needs to stop smoking their breakfast. There is not one liberal in the country that doubted what Bush intended to do in Iraq, and I find it impossible to believe that the likes of John Kerry, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton didn't realize it also. Giving Bush a loaded gun but not expecting him to fire it strains credulity to its breaking point. The Democrats were attempting to avoid the fate of George McGovern (who was later completely justified in his stance against Vietnam) and attempting to appear strong on defense. History has shown that Democrats are strong on defense and they really needed no political calculus to support that fact. Apologies are a good strategy, as John Edwards has recently shown.

Now, many Republicans have begun to change tack on this issue by stating that a focus on the beginning of the war should really wait until after the war is "won". By "the war", they generally now mean our attempts to build a democratic, U.S.-friendly Iraqi state, not the ouster of Saddam Hussein. I disagree. While it is essential that we focus on bringing this war to a swift conclusion, it is also imperative that the Bush Administration be forced to take responsibility for their actions bringing us into this war. The war-making powers granted to the President are an awesome responsibility and it's a responsibility that Bush is continually trying to duck. Just declaring war, defeating "evil-doers" and strutting around on an aircraft carrier does not encompass the whole of tresponsibilitiesies of the Commander in Chief. These lame attempts at deflecting responsibility for this debacle demean the efforts of those forced to fight and die in Iraq for Bush's foreign policy mistakes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

No Leg Left To Stand Upon

Some ground-breaking news has come out of the Arab League Conference, currently taking place in Cairo, Egypt. Essentially the Iraqi government has expressed it's wishes as to what America should do about Iraq and it definitely does not fit the Bush Administration's latest talking points.

From The Guardian via AmericaBlog:
Leaders of Iraq's sharply divided Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis called Monday for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces in the country and said Iraq's opposition had a "legitimate right" of resistance.

The final communique, hammered out at the end of three days of negotiations at a preparatory reconciliation conference under the auspices of the Arab League, condemned terrorism, but was a clear acknowledgment of the Sunni position that insurgents should not be labeled as terrorists if their operations do not target innocent civilians or institutions designed to provide for the welfare of Iraqi citizens.

It really gets no more clear than that: the Iraqis do not want us in their country any longer. The Bush Administration has no further leg to stand upon on the issue of the Iraq war. Now, if we stay, we've truly become an imperialist power that is maintaining a military presence in a foreign nation against their express wishes. There were no WMD's. There was never any alliance between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida. Hussein and his Ba'athist regime are out of power and the country has both a democratically-elected government and a constitution. And now that democratically-elected government has asked us to leave. What more excuses for staying can Bush or Cheney possibly offer?

What's even more disturbing is the second paragraph that grants legitimacy to the insurgency. Yes, they also condemned terrorist violence but that violence is defined as aggression against civilians. U.S. soldiers occupying Iraq are certainly not civilians. The will of the Iraqi people seems clear, in as much as any elected government speaks for its people. They do not view us as saviors or liberators; they view us as occupiers and they would like us to leave. If we don't, they have said they are entitled to legitimate resistance to our presence there. Again, it doesn't get any clearer than that.

It's time for the Bush Administration to put an end to this mummer's farce and bring our soldiers home where they belong. The majority of Americans don't want them in Iraq and now the Iraqis have publicly stated that they don't want our soldiers in Iraq either. This war was, at best, one of the largest military tactical blunders in history and is a sad repeat of past American imperialist failures. All the heady rhetoric about "spreading freedom and democracy" cannot bring back the 2,000+ dead Americans that gave their lives for a war of ill fortune.

As for the broader "War on Terror", Iraq was never really part of that picture no matter what the Republicans like to claim. There were no significant terrorist organizations at work in Iraq prior to our invasion because Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship did not allow them to operate. Bin Laden was openly hostile to the Iraqi leader, and only misleading statements from Bush and Cheney ever brought any notion of an Al-Qaida/Iraq connection. Those groups certainly exist there today and now Americans will be forced to rely on a fledgling Iraqi government to contain and combat them.

This will be the sad legacy of the Bush Administration, even if Iraq does become a functioning modern democracy. A war of choice that cost the lives of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, and left America more vulnerable to attack than ever. A war that cost us heavily in lives, treasure and reputation in the world, only to be rebuffed by the very people our leader claimed to be "liberating". Change was always coming to Iraq; Hussein was an impotent dictator, isolated from the world, and his regime was unlikely to survive his death. All Bush did was demonstrate a careless disregard for the responsibilities of the office granted him by the American people. He rushed to war, either for reasons of political expediency, ideology or just plain incompetence, and the world is left a poorer place for it.

So how will George W. Bush justify his war now?

Monday, November 21, 2005

I Put A Spell On You!

Normally, I don't bother with movie reviews, mainly because they never conform to my taste in movies. Any medium which says Moulin Rouge is a great movie but gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead a mediocre panning is clearly lacking in credibility. However, I decided to break with this prohibition and actually read Focus on the Family's review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I also went to see last night.

I have to confess to some bias before I begin, though. First, I loved the movie. It was head-and-shoulders above the other three, which are all decent flicks in their own right. Second, as I noted below, I was rather annoyed that this bastion of family values dedicated time on its site for picking on an innocuous kid's movie while ignoring the latest Republican effort to further oppress the poverty stricken. However, despite my inclination towards thinking the reviewer was probably a loon from the outset, I still found some very interesting things in this review.

Some choice bits:

Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore calls for unity, friendship and cooperation among students from different schools and cultures.

This was listed under the "Positive Elements" portion of the review, and while it seems innocent enough, one has to remember that this is Focus on the Family's review of the movie. Given that, it's obvious that the reviewer went a bit off the reservation here. After all, one of the different schools was from France of all places, and we know that good "Family" members can't trust those atheistic, terrorist-loving near-communists. Even worse, the all-male Russian (aka: Communist) school made their big entrance with a coordinated dance number! All that was missing were the rainbow lapel pins and hammer-and-sickle cuff links.

Without magic and the occult there is no story. Supernatural goings-on inhabit every corner of the film. Harry and others fly on brooms, wield magic wands and utter incantations. Humans are transformed into animals and "hybrids." Words recited skyward cause clouds to form dark, foreboding symbols. Objects are endowed with the ability to transport anyone touching them from one place to another.


While navigating the hedge maze, a competitor is "bewitched".


A disturbing scene in a graveyard finds one of Voldemort's toadies tossing the shriveled wizard into a cauldron before adding other ingredients (including his own hand) that fuel a macabre transformation. The spirits of Voldemort's most recent kills appear to Harry and talk to him.

All of this lovely spoilage was listed under the "Spiritual Content" heading, which is puzzling. First, I have to wonder exactly what the review was looking for when bemoaning the focus on "magic and the occult"? The story's about a bunch of student wizards at a school for such. You know, without all the "supernatural goings-on" in the Left Behind series, there would be no story at all. There is nothing in Harry Potter that is any wierder than the Bible, and yet the reviewer is clearly panning this fine example of miracles and providence. Of course, it bears mentioning that if magic cups and spells constitute spritiuality, then my Dungeons & Dragons campaign back in the 90's earns me a divinity degree.

[T]he camera lingers on a group of girls' backsides wiggling in unison. While dancing with a woman, Hagrid's hand wanders south of her waist (she is quick to move it back).

A giggling female ghost makes a game out of trying to see Harry naked through the suds of his bath.

While the average Puritan may be hesitant to take his goodwyfe to this film, these examples of sexual content are probably safe enough for the average "Family" member. The girls were just doing an interpretive dance, no worse than Salome to Solomon. Hagrid's a seven-foot tall man dancing with a nine-foot tall woman! Where else was he to put his hand? I note the glaring omission of how his head rested on her naughty pillows, as well. As for Moaning Myrtle's "game", what of it? Good natured fun. Who hasn't wanted to play a rousing game of "Button, Button, Who has the button?" with the dead girl living in their toilet?

The Death Eaters, a sinister, Klan-like group with pointy black hats, crash the Quidditch World Cup event, creating chaos and decimating a campground by hurling fireballs (Harry gets knocked unconscious).


[H]e's bitten on the hand by an owl and a bowlful of squirming "snacks".


Professor Snape whacks disruptive boys over the head with a book.

Nothing about the Death Eaters is similar to the Klan, except for the pointy hats. By that rationale, many others are "Klan-like", including the Keebler elves and the Travelocity gnome. As for the other examples of violence, they're awfully tame compared to, say, The Passion of the Christ, although perhaps in the metaphysical calculus used by Focus on the Family to determine a movie's fitness, piety outweighs violence by a stark weighting.

Some images (skulls, serpents, headstones, etc.) may not be spiritual or violent per se, but they convey an aura of wickedness and death.

Finally, we have this little tidbit under "Other Negative Effects", which really just caps off the sanctimonious handwringing of this review. How any self-respecting member of "The Family" can be uncomfortable with images of death really calls into question the strength of their faith. And, really, a snake is just a snake, even if they do give bad moral advice.

All in all, it was a great movie and I highly recommend it. Focus on the Family is, as usual, far off into the right wing netherworld on their critique of the film. For everyone else living in reality, where ghosts and magic are make-believe, it's an enjoyable ride, though probably not appropriate for young kids.

In closing, I just have to say that after watching four Harry Potter movies, I'm more convinced than ever that my parents were negligent for not sending me to Hogwarts. I would have fit in much better there and likely learned a more interesting trade.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Party Of Fiscal Irresponsibility

Fiscal responsibility was the one-time rallying cry of the conservative movement. It centered around wrenching control away from the dastardly "tax-and-spend" Democrats and reigning in "Big Government" for the good of society. Unfortunately, like many GOP talking points, fiscal responsibility is actually the opposite of what Republicans practice while in office, in spite of how loudly they preach.

From The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

In both the morning and the evening of November 17, House leaders made modifications to the House budget reconciliation bill. Some of these changes were intended to garner support from members of Congress concerned that millions of low-income families would be harshly affected by the bill and forced to shoulder a large share of the bill's cuts.

CBO analyses show, however, that the modifications are very minor and do not soften the bill's effects on vulnerable low-income families very much. These changes reduce the total level of cuts that most directly affect low-income families and individuals by only about two percent. The other 98 percent of the low-income cuts remain.

This bill, which passed the House by a two vote margin yesterday, should be the final nail in the coffin of the "compassionate conservative" myth. After all, how compassionate can the Republicans be when the changes made to this bill, changes pushed by moderates to protect the pooraccomplishsh the following:

The House budget bill would still deny food stamps to more than 220,000 low-income people each month by 2008, and would cut basic food aid by nearly $700 million over five years.

As if it were not embarrassing enough that the wealthiest economy the world has ever seen has such a poverty problem as to need food stamps in the first place, our Congress sees fit to cut that aid. The oil industry will still receive its $9 billion in tax breaks authorized earlier this year in the Energy Act of 2005, while 220,000 more Americans will go hungry. I wonder what "moral value" this sort of thing falls under?

The bill still would allow states to charge unlimited copayments, as well as to impose large premiums for the first time in Medicaid's history, on six million low-income children and many other beneficiaries with incomes just above the poverty line (or above 133 percent of the poverty line for children under the age of six). There would be no dollar ceiling on the co-payment and premium levels that could be charged to patients just above the poverty line; the only limit would be that total co-payments and premiums could not exceed five percent of a family's annual income, a level that has been found by medical studies to result in large numbers of low-income patients forgoing needed care and becoming sicker.

Millions of low-income Americans are already living without insurance, and the GOP has seen fit to further cut the largest government program aiding those people. It's in the best interest of our society that everyone be able to get the best health care available without trading their economic well-being in the process. I speak with the voice of experience when I say that medical bills can completely derail a family's financial health. Plus, pushing responsibilitylity for burdening the poor onto the states is a loathsome game of "pass the buck".

According to CBO, the cuts in federal funding for child support efforts would result in $24 billion in child support payments that would be collected under current law going uncollected over the next ten years.

A common thread that runs through this so-called "Budget Reconciliation" act is a clear disregard for the health and well-being of children. Social welfare programs are tremendously weighted towards helpunderprivilegedeged children, and the major provisions of this act undermine that support. All of these clear attacks on children and families in need, yet supposed family-oriented advocacy groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council are too busy bashing gays and Harry Potter to notice. Apparently children and family just aren't quite as important as Republican politics for these organizations (but you knew that).

Of course, the real haymaker, the truly unkindest cut of all, is the rationale behind these onerous cuts to child and family welfare. As it turns out, the reconstruction in the Gulf Coast really doesn't enter the equation. So exactly what is the purpose of the Budget Reconciliation Act?

Finally, it remains the case that these cuts would not be used to reduce the deficit or to offset the costs of hurricane relief. These cuts would be used instead to partially offset the cost of the tax-cut reconciliation bill that the House plans to consider as early as tomorrow. The tax-cut bill would reduce revenues by $60 billion over five years, more than offsetting the total savings in the House budget-cut bill.

This latest tax cut is the elimination of the oft-maligned Inheritance Tax, that affects less than 2% of all American household.

This is where "compassionate conservatism" has led the United States: a budget-cutting bill that reduces aid to our poorest children so that our wealthiest children can receive billions in unearned income tax free. This is the kind of society that conservatives want and what they consider fair. Never mind that this actually increases the deficit yet again, which drives up interest rates. Tax cuts funded by deficit spending aren't tax cuts at all; they're tax deferments pushed off on subsequent generations. Quite a "compassionate" legacy to leave for our children.

Fiscal responsibility does not mean starving the poorest Americans of resources. It doesn't mean deferring taxes today so that our children pay more tomorrow. It doesn't mean allowing the wealthiest Americans to pass along billions in tax-free earnings to their children while our poorest children starve. The Budget Reconciliation bill is an abomination, designed to further crystallize American society into the wealthy elite and the working poor. It's fiscal irresponsibility at its most rank and demonstrates just how far out of touch the Republican party has become with the American people.

Jesus (among others) taught that concern for the poor was one of the most important values a person and a society could have. Perhaps the "Party of Moral Values" should give a read to the words of the man whose name they feel they own...

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bearing The Burden Of War

Almost immediately after the fall of Baghdad and the ouster of the Hussein regime, concern about the troop strength authorized by the Bush Administration has been evident. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's vision of a transformed military, designed for quickness and flexibility, ran into immediate conflict with the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force. Given that Iraq didn't actually have the weaponry the Bush Administration claimed, the invasion itself was over quickly. A lack of preparation for the guerilla insurgency that followed has led to a mounting crisis in our all-volunteer military.

From Joe Baker at the Rock River Times:

Now, after one term of Bush playing commander-in-chief, military life is not better, but much worse. Nowhere is the strain on the system more apparent than in Iraq.


[T]oday’s all-volunteer force is composed of married personnel with children. The repeated long deployments are putting great stress on those marriages and families. Most active duty personnel are skilled in tasks valued in the civilian world, so there is strong incentive for them to leave the military.

Rumsfeld's response to the decline in interest in military service at home as been to resort to a program called "stop-loss" whereby active duty personnel in Iraq have their tours extended. It's somewhat strangely ionic that "stop-loss" is named after a financial tool for preventing commodity losses. "No blood for oil" indeed.

Further, studies done by Walter Reed Medical Center have shown that the war in Iraq is taking a heavy toll on the psychological well-being of our soldiers.

From Army News Service:

Soldiers deployed to the front lines of Iraq face a higher chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental disorders than their counterparts in Afghanistan[.]


Eighteen percent of the Soldiers who responded to the survey questions after returning home from Iraq had PTSD, almost double the number, of Soldiers surveyed before deployment to Iraq.

Extended tours from the "stop-loss" program only exacerbate these problems.

What continues to be lost in all the macho blustering of the Bush Administration is respect for the men and women that are fighting this war. From the cocksure swagger of "Bring It On" to Bush's recent refusal to even discuss the idea of a time frame for bringing our men and women home demonstrates a profound disrespect for the institution that Bush and his cronies claim to hold in high esteem. Vice President Cheney has lately, with his strong advocacy for torture, joined President Bush in his reckless attempts to endanger our troops for their own political gain.

A gross insult has been leveled at those of us opposing the war, that somehow our patriotism just isn't strong enough nor our support of Americans in uniform steadfast enough. Utter garbage! We are the ones that opposed sending our soldiers off to die in an illegal invasion predicated on false pretense. We are the ones that decried the "stop-less" program and the lack of leadership after Abu Ghraib came to light. We are the ones doing our Constitutional duty by questioning the abuse of power by Bush and demanding accountability for the disaster unfolding in the Middle East. We are the ones begging for our soldiers to be brought home to their families where they belong, instead of off dying in a foreign land so that millions of couch-potato chickenhawks can get a vicarious thrill from watching the death and destruction on FoxNews. Yellow magnets stuck on a gas-guzzling SUV is not a sign of courage or patriotism.

It's time to call an end to this farce in the desert before even one more American or Iraqi dies. The war was a mistake predicated on lies and distortion. No matter how many press conference temper tantrums Bush throws, the reality on the ground is that Americans are dying in Iraq everyday.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A Culture of Conspiracy

How many "senior White House officials" need to be implicated before the Plame leak becomes a conspiracy? Perhaps three?

From JS Online:

The Washington Post reported that at least one senior Bush administration official - who was not identified - told editor Bob Woodward about CIA operative Valerie Plame about a month before her identity was publicly exposed.

The newspaper reported that Woodward told Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who is investigating the leak of Plame's identity, that the official talked to him about Plame in mid-June 2003. Woodward and editors at the Post refused to identify the official to reporters other than to say it was not Libby.

So now we have Karl Rove informing Matt Cooper, "Scooter" Libby talking to Judith Miller and a third, currently anonymous leaker that informed Bob Woodward at the Post. The White House clearly has a confidentiality problem, if nothing else, and it's impossible to argue any longer that the Plame leak was some kind of accident.

The Plame case cuts directly against two of the characteristics that conservatives claim draw them to Bush: his integrity and his staunch support of national security. By outing an undercover CIA agent working in nuclear weapons non-proliferation and then working stridently to stonewall the investigation, the Bush Administration has clearly put the lie to either claim. U.S. national security was compromised by the outing of Plame and the growing evidence of a conspiracy to do so and then to cover up is leaving the American people with a much more accurate picture of where Bush really stands. It's political victory at all costs and damn the consequences!

Also, I cannot be the only one getting very tired of listening to various journalists claim some sort of sanctimonious nobility from protecting their "anonymous sources". There is no honor in covering for a political hatchetman, nor is it some noble stance taken to protect the First Amendment. Bob Woodward, of all people, should realize the importance that government whistle-blowers play in our political process and should certainly be able to tell them apart from secretive White House operatives seeking to covertly destroy a political opponent. No "shield law" was ever intended to protect the powerful from the consequences of abusing that power.

Thomas Jefferson must be rolling in his grave!

Realism Versus Idealism In Teen Sex Education

Wisconsin is, by and large, a great state to live in if you're a liberal like myself. It's a state that aggressively supports education, environmentalism and sensible economic growth, and it largely succeeds on all three. Wisconsin tends to be politically "purple"; a near even split of liberals and conservatives, with smaller parties, such as the Green and Constitution parties, getting decent levels of support.

However, one unfortunate consequence of living in a state where conditions are good and jobs are, for the most part, readily available is that it gives the state legislature time to focus on certain issues that may not normally get too much consideration at the state level. Given that both houses of the legislature are controlled by the Republican party currently, this has resulted in a seemingly endless parade of draconian social engineering bills, many of which have been detailed here in other posts. Senate Bill 286 is one such bit of legislation, though it presents a somewhat special case.

SB 286 is a bill mandating that sexual abstinence until marriage be taught in the public schools as the preferred sexual behavior for teens, though it really draws no moral distinction upon age.

From JS Online:

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), said Wisconsin teens don't get the abstinence message in classrooms enough, because of a focus on using condoms and birth control instead. "Abstinence isn't taught out there, or isn't emphasized," Lazich told the Assembly Education Committee.

"Abstinence should be taught to students unapologetically," when a school district decides to teach students about growth and development, Lazich said.

I can't comment as to whether Lazich is telling the truth that abstinence is not being taught in Wisconsin schools; my son is in Early Childhood and there's really no time for SexEd between Reading Circle and Playground Time. According to the article, abstinence is taught nationally in about 1/3 of all public schools, so I will assume that holds true for Wisconsin as well.

I disagree with changing the emphasis away from safe sex and towards abstinence, mainly because it's just not a realistic goal. Teenagers are going to be sexually active regardless of what they're taught in school. Any educational standards that attempt to educate teens in such a way as to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STD's has to work within a realistic framework. Certainly abstinence is the best way to prevent those two things from occurring. But pushing for such at the expense of an emphasis on sex education which deals with the reality "on the ground" is irresponsible and does a disservice to our children.

Hence, a counter-initiative from Democratic Representative Tamara Grigsby of Milwaukee; Assembly Bill 690, which would put greater emphasis on teaching about safe sex and STD's, as well as abstinence.

Legislators would "stick our heads in the sand" by requiring schools to teach abstinence first, Grigsby said, because 60% of teens are sexually active by age 18.

"The reality is, (abstinence) is not the choice that's being made right now," Grigsby said, noting that the teen pregnancy and dropout rates in Milwaukee are among the highest in the nation.

The abstinence bill is typical of the various other social conservative "morality" bills introduced in Wisconsin lately in the sense that they are attempts at social control based on religious doctrine. However, the abstinence bill differs somewhat in that there actually is a social benefit to teaching abstinence to teens and abstinence does actually accomplish certain positive goals. It's not just ideology for the sake of such, as many other of these bills are.

I question first, however, the qualifier that somehow marriage equals sexual maturity. Sex and marriage are two very different things and packaging the two together can cause serious problems for both. Sexual compatibility is a crucial part of a successful marriage and, thus, it is not necessarily a good idea to wait until after actually tying the knot to "explore" the issue. Further, a marriage contract certainly does not immediately confer the maturity and responsibility necessary to create a sound relationship. It's a distinction drawn purely from an ideological perspective that can often have very disastrous consequences.

I also question this statement, made by Julaine Appling of the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin, a conservative Christian social advocacy group (emphasis is mine):

"Your job as legislators is to keep raising the bar" of expected behavior by teens, added Julaine K. Appling, of the Family Research Institute. "We need to keep before our young people a very strong - a very clear - abstinence message."

As is often the case, I disagree completely with Ms. Appling in her assertion. It is the job of the state legislature to debate and pass laws which operate the state of Wisconsin, not to act as behavioral role models or morality police. It's this kind of thinking by Republicans that led to the colossal waste of time and money spent hounding President Clinton about his personal life. Certainly it would be great if our politicians could be model citizens and paragons of virtue but that's not what they're paid to do. They're paid to provide good governance. Providing moral guidance is what parents should be doing, with support from clergy and other organizations.

In spite of my disagreement with this bill, I do agree that teaching abstinence is a positive. I plan on teaching the value of abstinence to my children, as it is the only way to be 100% certain of preventing unwanted pregnancies and STD's. Plus, sexual activity at an immature age can result in all sorts of emotional problems that can be avoided as well. But this steadfast adherence to abstinence as the only morally acceptable methodology for teaching safe sex is dangerous and unrealistic. Plus, treating marriage as some sort of sacred endowment that grants sexual maturity and moral rightness is demonstrably dangerous (as rorschach at No Capital shows).

Abstinence is a good idea. But abstaining from good safe-sex education certainly is not.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

In Defense Of The ACLU

In spite of the obvious irony of an accountant attempting to defend an organization of attorneys, I feel compelled to answer in defense of an organization which has received donations from me in the past.

I have had forwarded to me the ten reasons the ACLU should be opposed, as listed by StopTheACLU.org, a blog dedicated to this questionable cause. I will address them in the order they are presented on the blog.

The ACLU was founded by a Communist, with communist ideals, communist goals, and they continue to impose a Communist like agenda on America daily.

It's true that ACLU founder Roger Nash Baldwin was an avowed Communist and Socialist, and was a lifelong pacifist. Baldwin was also very critical of the social inequities caused by "free market" capitalism, inequities which persist today. Baldwin publicly distanced himself from both the Communist and Socialist movements, though, in 1939, in response to the social degradation of the Soviet Union and it's diplomatic relationship with Nazi Germany.
Baldwin fought tirelessly his entire life to further the aims of the poor and working classes, and was also a respected scholar in juvenile law. He received worldwide acclaim and recognition for his work, at the request of General MacArthur, in the post-WWII reconstruction of Japan and Germany, receiving commendations from both countries. Shortly before his death in 1981, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.
The ACLU of today still ardently supports the rights of workers, which could be very loosely described as "supporting Communist ideals", though such belief would make well over half of the American people Communists by default. The ACLU works to support individual rights as expressed in the Constitution, which is certainly not a "Communist-like agenda". Continuing to accuse the ACLU of having a Communist agenda because of the views its founder held as a young man is just dishonest.

The ACLU does not believe in the Second Amendment.

This statement is missing an important qualifier at the end: "...as interpreted by some libertarian gun enthusiasts." The Second Amendment, like all of the Constitution, is subject to interpretation and the ACLU explains its interpretation thus:

The national ACLU is neutral on the issue of gun control. We believe that the Constitution contains no barriers to reasonable regulations of gun ownership. If we can license and register cars, we can license and register guns.

Most opponents of gun control concede that the Second Amendment certainly does not guarantee an individual's right to own bazookas, missiles or nuclear warheads. Yet these, like rifles, pistols and even submachine guns, are arms.

The question therefore is not whether to restrict arms ownership, but how much to restrict it. If that is a question left open by the Constitution, then it is a question for Congress to decide.

"The ACLU agrees with the Supreme Court's long-standing interpretation of the Second Amendment [as set forth in the 1939 case, U.S. v. Miller] that the individual's right to bear arms applies only to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia. Except for lawful police and military purposes, the possession of weapons by individuals is not constitutionally protected. Therefore, there is no constitutional impediment to the regulation of firearms." --Policy #47

I have little to add other than I agree with this interpretation of the Second Amendment.

Their outright hatred of the Boy Scouts.

Yet another gross distortion of the truth. The ACLU's policy on homosexuality is that the same anti-discrimination laws that protect religion and race also protect sexuality. In the case of Boy Scouts of America vs. James Dale, the New Jersey appellate court essentially ruled that an organization with an open associative structure, such as the Boy Scouts, does not have the right under the First Amendment to discriminate based on sexuality. Membership that is open to "Any boy" (which is in the Boy Scouts' charter), cannot abridge that membership based on sexual orientation.
This complaint has nothing to do with the ACLU and everything to do with the conservative Christian belief that gays should be treated as second class citizens. It's rank bigotry which, by opposing such, the ACLU makes itself a target.

The ACLU are pro-death.

As above, the ACLU supports the legal right of women to make their own reproductive choices and supports a Constitutional right to privacy over life and death issues. Conservative Christians believe that sexuality and reproduction are not private issues, but should be decided publicly with deference to Biblical interpretations. An ideological difference wherein the ACLU just happens to be on the side of the Constitution and settled law, while the conservative Christians are on the side of 14th century Biblical medievalism.

The ACLU advocate open borders.

This is just an outright lie. The ACLU recognizes that the Constitution does not give foreigners the right to enter the United States. However, it does confer rights upon them once they are here. Every generation in the United States has had to deal with immigration, and most every wave of immigrants has faced the same overt discrimination and racism that immigrants face today. The ACLU stands in direct opposition to that treatment being institutionalized by the states or federal governments.
As an aside, StopTheACLU.org mentions the "Minute Men" as "a group exercising their free speech rights." Just to clarify: nothing in the First Amendment gives a bunch of racist rednecks the right to terrorize impoverished Mexicans for their own sport. The "Minute Men" are an abomination and a dishonor to the name.

The ACLU is anti-Christian.

Another lie, easily debunked. The ACLU has filed case after case over the years in support of the right to free religious expression. Conservative Christians, however, want their faith instituted as the "One True Faith" in the United States and are thus critical of any group that opposes such theocratic leanings.
Some sample cases from 2005:

September 20, 2005: ACLU of New Jersey joins lawsuit supporting second-grader's right to sing "Awesome God" at a talent show.

August 4, 2005: ACLU helps free a New Mexico street preacher from prison.

May 25, 2005: ACLU sues Wisconsin prison on behalf of a Muslim woman who was forced to remove her headscarf in front of male guards and prisoners.

February 2005: ACLU of Pennsylvania successfully defends the right of an African American Evangelical church to occupy a church building purchased in a predominantly white parish.

The evidence overwhelmingly speaks for itself. Blaming the ACLU for certain religious conservatives being ignorant of their rights seems terribly unfair given the ACLU's track record of supporting those same religious conservatives.

The ACLU Opposes National Security.

No group in the United States opposes national security and the ACLU is no exception. However, the ACLU goes even further by protecting the Constitutional rights of Americans from being abridged by the government under the auspice of national security. Past atrocities like the Palmer raids and the Japaneintermentent camps have represented grave threats to everything America stands for and the ACLU remains constantly vigilant to prevent such atrocities in the future. It's alarming that certain conservative groups appear to support fascism in the name of national security. Very alarming...

The ACLU Defend the enemy.

The ACLU defends the rights of American citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution. Sometimes this results in cases where the ACLU is defending those who have tried to harm America or support its enemies. Even Americans who commit seditious acts are still entitled to their rights under the Constitution and the ACLU should be commended, not decried, for taking such cases. The alternative is mob rule, which, of course, conservatives think is perfectly just in a democracy. Plus, since conservatives seem to have no problem abridging the rights of ordinary Americans, certainly those labeled as "The Enemy" are going to get little regard.

The ACLU supports child porn distribution and child molesters like NAMBLA.

This is a low blow even by the already gutter standards of StopTheACLU.org. The ACLU has spent 80 years defending the rights of individuals and has certainly never made an exception for children. The ACLU's position is that "adult media" is protected free speech and cannot be abridged just because a certain amount of Americans find it offensive. Guarding against the tyranny of majority rule is why the United States has a Bill of Rights in the first place. In any case, federal laws have since been written that outlaw the production, distribution, purchase or ownership of such materials, though the ACLU does carefully watch the prosecution of such laws in order to insure that they do not overstep the Constitution.

The ACLU fulfills its agenda using my tax money.

courseuse, at the end of the day, it's all about money for the conservative right. The ACLU lawyers collect legal fees and awards just like any other attorneys. This complaint feeds off of the biggest conservative fear, the one that trumps any sort of religious doctrine: the belief that someone, somewhere is getting something conservatives feel rightly belongs to them.

In closing of this monster post, I would also like to note that StopTheACLU.org's overwhelmingly biggest complaint is that the ACLU stands in the way of majority rule. StopTheACLU.org believes, as do many conservatives, that democracy means purely majority rule. Such rank ignorance of the Constitution is laughable. The Founding Fathers were wise enough to recognize that purely majority rule causes permanent underclasses and social strife, which leads to governmental collapse and civil war. In any case, even conservative ideologues, such as Rush Limbaugh, expect the ACLU to defend them when they feel their rights have been trampled. These ten objections to the ACLU are based in nothing but ignorance, bigotry and intolerance and clearly demonstrate why the ACLU is needed in the first place.

[Thanks to reader Daniel Levesque for the topic.]

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Look At The Bush Tax Reform Plans, Part 1

Or, as this post could rightly be called, "Doing The Hard Work So You Don't Have To". Being an accountant blogger, I felt it was my civic duty to wade through all 221 pages of the President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform's two plans to simplify our federal income tax code. Nothing like some light reading but at least I can get paid to read it, as it does relate to my job. After I began working on this, I realized it would be too huge for one post, so I will divide it up into multiple parts.

I don't want to get too far into the technicalities of the report, so I will just address the features and benefits laid out in the Executive Summary. I looked at each proposed benefit and asked the following questions:

1. Does the feature or plans overall provide a benefit?

2. Does it simplify the existing process?

3. If the feature or plans do provide some benefit, what is it and who gets it?

Let's take a look at what these two plans, called the Simplified Income Tax Plan and the Growth and Investment Tax Plan, actually do for Joe Taxpayer. Both are very similar, differing mainly in how they handle corporate taxes. This first bunch are some of the features common to both plans outlined in the Executive Summary:

Simplification of the entire tax system and streamlined tax filing for both families and businesses.

The plans do provide a streamlining of the paperwork process certainly. Gone are the vast majority of the ancillary schedules, particularly Schedule A for Itemized Deductions. The plan boasts that the simplest tax returns could actually fit, front and back, on a postcard. I agree that this is definitely a benefit and both plans appear to meet this goal.

Lower tax rates on families and businesses, while retaining the progressive nature of our current tax system.

Unfortunately, while the plans do lower the tax rates on some taxpayers and businesses, it is definitely those at the top who benefit. The top marginal rate is lowered to 33% and 30% for individuals and 31.5% and 30% for large businesses. Given that proprietorships are now treated as individuals under the new plans, larger single business owners will pay a higher rate. The 10% bracket is also eliminated, meaning those at the bottom of the ladder will now be taxed at 15%. Those in the upper middle class will likely pay a bit more while those, like myself, firmly entrenched at or near the national median will likely pay a little less.
A couple of fewer tax brackets does simplify the process somewhat, but is really a minor improvement. The progressive structure is maintained to a degree, but definitely turns around as incomes increase beyond a certain level.
Whether or not the new tax rates are a benefit depends entirely upon the individual taxpayer. For the working poor, it's a bad deal. For the middle class, little change from before. For the wealthy, a great new system.

Extension of important tax benefits for home ownership and charitable giving to all taxpayers, not just the 35 percent who itemize; extension of tax-free health insurance to all taxpayers, not just those who receive insurance from their employers.

Both plans fail the simplification test on this one. The new credits have to be calculated and are based on regional averages indexed to various growth indicators. The math isn't terribly difficult, but it's hard to make the case that this is a simpler way to figure credits. Plus, those with high mortgage-to-equity ratios in big dollar real estate markets (New York, Boston, San Francisco, etc.) are going to see a sizeable chunk of their mortgage interest no longer helping them with their taxes. On the positive side, the limits on the annual health insurance premiums used to calculate that credit are not bad, though if one's employer doesn't contribute much that taxpayer may lose the benefit from what was once tax-free premiums.
The one clear benefit, though, is that it does extend tax benefits for charitable giving and mortgage interest to those who may not have received it before.

Removal of impediments to saving and investment.

First off, I challenge that any such impediment exists for the average consumer under the current system. Or rather, I challenge that such an impediment is born of any tax-related situation. However, both plans do offer substantial tax breaks for those inclined to save their money. The problem is that rewarding savings is, by nature, a regressive benefit. Those with the most can afford to save the most and thus gain a far greater benefit from the plans, though they do have annual limits similar to a 401(k). This part is a great benefit for those with the income to take advantage of it and for the securities investment industry, as all the plans default into indexed securities plans.
As for simplification, they definitely accomplish that. Gone are many of the savings and investment vehicles of today, as well as the onerous worksheets for medical expenses and dependent care.

Elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax, which is projected to raise the taxes of more than 21 million taxpayers in 2006 and 52 million taxpayers by 2015.

Probably the best of this first list of details from the new plans. The AMT is a textbook example of a great idea ruined by poor design. Originally, the AMT was implemented to prevent wealthy taxpayers from taking so many deductions that they barely paid any taxes. However, the AMT was never indexed to any growth factor in the economy. This has resulted in more and more middle class taxpayers getting hammered each year with high tax bills compliments of the AMT. Both plans repeal the AMT outright, which is a benefit to many middle class tax payers and eliminates an entire book worth of forms and instructions. As for the wealthy, they already get such preferential treatment under the Bush Administration's fiscal policy that it would be very difficult to make the case that the AMT is much of a burden.

Good to end on a positive note. Currently, I give the overall plans a passing grade, though the repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax definitely weights the average. I have to take issue with the clear supply-side bent of these tax policies, which are no surprise coming from the Bush Administration. I will get into that in more detail as this series of posts continues.

For now, though, that's a good enough beginning for a Monday!

A New Fight For Civil Rights In Wisconsin

The battle rages state by state and should be at the forefront in Wisconsin for 2006: the right of marriage for homosexuals. After Governor Doyle vetoed the "Defense of Marriage" bill in 2003, Republicans in the state legislature immediately began their campaign to enshrine such state-sponsored bigotry in the state's Constitution. The measure must pass both houses of the legislature in consecutive sessions before it can be presented to the voters. Currently, the proposed Amendment has passed both houses once already, in 2004, and Republican lawmakers are working to get the measure passed through both Republican-controlled houses again in time for next year's gubernatorial elections.

From JS Online:

Republican supporters of the amendment hope for maximum political punch by timing the statewide vote to next year's governor's election, in which the GOP hopes to unseat Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

Certainly a viable political strategy. However, it also clearly demonstrates what this issue really means to elected Republicans, in spite of all the ideological hooplah. Gay marriage remains the most powerful get-out-the-vote issue of our times.

The best gauge to measure the purpose of this Amendment is the nature of the advocacy groups pushing for it:

"People who will come out to vote for this might never have gone to vote" otherwise, said Julaine Appling, executive director of the Family Research Institute, which supports the amendment and advocates for sexual abstinence before marriage, preserving traditional marriage and restricting access to abortions.


The Family Research Institute has shipped DVDs called "The Battle for Marriage in Wisconsin" to 4,000 churches to help mobilize support, with church leaders already gathering about 75,000 signatures backing it.

This is where the ideological rubber really meets the road. This issue has nothing whatsoever to do with the role of marriage in our society. It doesn't even really have much to do with the normal panoply of desired restrictions on sexual activity that make up the bulk of conservative Christian social policy.

This issue is about two things: giving statutory teeth to conservative Christian moral beliefs and creating a legalized justification for relegating homosexuals to a second-class status. Both of these ideas are patently Unconstitutional and cut against the very ideals upon which the United States was founded. Wisconsin also has had a long tradition of progressive and libertarian idealism, both of which are threatened by this onerous Amendment.

On the positive side, many progressive Christian organizations are beginning to wake up to the danger posed by their conservative brethren and are pushing back.

Under the umbrella of a group called Christians for Equality in Wisconsin, 16 regional faith organizations, including the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and 19 congregations have formally opposed the amendment.

"It seemed important to us that there were Christian voices calling for inclusion and fairness," said the Rev. Curt Anderson, head of Christians for Equality in Wisconsin and senior pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison.

The ban on gay marriage in Wisconsin is a clear abuse of the state's constitutional process; an abuse that the Republicans have been only too willing to perpetrate when their pet legislative initiatives are vetoed by Governor Doyle (Voter ID and Veto Restriction Amendments are both pending). There is no evidence available to indicate any negative societal consequences from expanding the statutory definition of marriage to include homosexual couples. The basis for this Amendment is pure bigotry, planted in religious ideology that has no place in a state (or federal) Constitution.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A Bad Stump Speech Is Poor Tribute on Veterans Day

Today, President Bush gave a Veteran's Day address to Tobyhanna Army Depot in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania which was supposed to be a tribute to our veterans but was actually more of the same pathetic attempts to drum up support for his war by obscuring the issue as much as possible. He also took this opportunity to run one of the Republican party's favorite "vote-getter" platform issues out for some exercise.

First up: the flag burning amendment.

Via the White House:

In June, the House of Representatives voted for a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. I urge the United States Senate to pass this important amendment.

The Flag Burning Amendment is such an old favorite of the GOP that I can remember discussions about it during the Reagan Administration when I was but a stripling samurai. It's also one of the most pointless and wrong-headed bits of legislation to ever be repeatedly defeated on the Hill. The right to desecrate the flag is a foundational cornerstone of the First Amendment right to free speech, and its abrogation by the GOP demonstrates an uplifting of the symbol over the ideals it symbolizes. Further, by making flag desecration illegal, it actually makes the act more powerful as a means of political protest and civil disobedience. As I've said in person, so will I say now: if the Flag Burning Amendment ever passes, I will burn a flag in the middle of my street in broad daylight in protest.

Of course, Bush, after loudly proclaiming his support for the GOP amendment to cheapen free speech, went on to honor the soldiers present by completely distorting and misstating the current role of our military in the world and the threats that our nation faces.

[T]hese extremists want to end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East, because we stand for democracy and peace[.]

Once again, it's "they hate us for our freedom", re-packaged to sound more politically affluent but really no better informed. Bush is correct that organizations like Al-Qaida want to end our influence the Middle East, though his reasons are wrong and his broadening of the description of influence as "Western" is pointless. It's not Canada's or Mexico's influence they want to be rid of, after all.

They want an end to U.S. influence because they believe, and rightly so, that the U.S. government is only paying lip service to the plight of the peoples in the Middle East while truly looking for stability of the world's oil supply. They want an end to our support of tyrannical regimes like the Ba'athists during the Reagan Administration and the Saudi royal family today. They want an end to Christian missionaries trying to convert their children away from Islam. They want an end to the influence of U.S. consumerism and what they see as the loose morality of American culture. They want an end to what they perceive as our unquestioning support of Israel, given that nation's draconian treatment of the Palestinians. And they certainly want an end to the Iraqi occupation.

These are just a few of the root causes of anti-American terrorism in the Middle East. Perhaps our Commander in Chief could find some time in his busy schedule of photo ops and campaign speeches to actually deal with some of these issues. He might then begin to realize that all the bombs, bullets and dead American soldiers in Iraq are not fixing any of these issues.

In it, Zawahiri points to the Vietnam War as a model for al Qaida. This is what he said: "The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam -- and how they ran and left their agents -- is noteworthy." [...] They believe that America can be made to run again[.]

Essentially what President Bush is saying here is that our foreign policy is now driven by his ego; pricked by the ghost of failed wars past. This is the very attitude that those of us wearing black today are protesting: this treatment of war as though it were some kind of sporting contest. What a terrible insult to our men and women leaving their lives and limbs in Iraq. America did not "run" from Vietnam. It limped, and it left over 50,000 of its sons behind for a war that served no purpose. No person who views war this way should ever be allowed the responsibility of Commander in Chief.

The terrorists regard Iraq as the central front in their war against humanity. We must recognize Iraq as the central front in our war against the terrorists.

Here we have the "we're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here" bit of stale political fluff, with the added bonus of another reframing of the issue into some sort of romantic "good vs. evil" morality tale. Perhaps someone should remind President Bush that Al-Qaida had no foothold in Iraq prior to our invasion. But toppling Saddam Hussein was such a high priority for President Bush that creating a nation-wide warzone for Al-Qaida to launch attacks from was an acceptable trade-off to get this one man. Bush foreign policy has effectively traded one impotent dictator that was no threat to the United States for a network of enraged militant extremists who are a threat to the entire region. Bush's illegal invasion gave Al-Qaida the foothold in Iraq it couldn't gain any other way.

Some might be tempted to dismiss these goals as fanatical or extreme. They are fanatical and extreme -- but they should not be dismissed. [...] And the civilized world knows very well that other fanatics in history, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, consumed whole nations in war and genocide before leaving the stage of history.

No one with any knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs has ever dismissed Muslim extremists as not being dangerous or a threat to the United States. Quite the contrary. This smacks of Fox News's favorite tactic of using the "some people" qualifier, as in "Some people think we should just surrender to the terrorists. But Republican lawmakers think...". Further, Al-Qaida and it's leadership bear no resemblance to those past dictators, either in ideology or in scope. Such a connection is another lame attempt by Bush to give his illegal invasion legitimacy by conflating it with other past conflicts. It was common during the Gulf War, when Republicans played the "Hussein is the next Hitler" card.

President Bush had an opportunity on this Veterans Day to stand up in front of our military and the American people and talk openly and honestly about the war in Iraq. Instead he chose, as always, to hide behind grandiose rhetoric and misstatements, in an attempt to drum up public support for his failing Presidency. It was an insult to the American people and our soldiers currently risking their lives in Iraq.

I propose a new way to honor our troops on Veterans Day: bring them home. Reunite them with their families. Beg for their forgiveness for sending them off into another politically motivated war. Remember our honored dead and support their family. Begin to take real, concrete, effective steps to end terrorism so that Americans and others around the world will truly be safer.

Judge Alito's No Recuse Excuse

One of the big questions circling Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, Jr. early on in his confirmation process is the questions of whether or not he should have recused himself from a 2002 case involving the Vanguard group.

From Mojo Blog:

In 2002, Judge Samuel L. Alito Jr., who owned $390,000 in Vanguard mutual funds, ruled in favor of Vanguard in a case involving a Massachusetts woman who was trying to regain the assets of her late husband's IRA's. The funds were frozen by Vanguard following a court ruling in favor of the husband's business partner.


It turns out that in 1990, when Alito was seeking Senate approval for his judgeship on the appeals court, he told members of the Senate that he would recuse himself from any cases involving Vanguard.

This is exactly the sort of issue that concerns me with Judge Alito and is a brilliant example illustrating where Alito's judicial philosophy leads. Issues such as abortion and gay marriage are very easy for advocacy groups to latch onto for judicial confirmation battles. They are easy to understand and articulate, plus they carry a heavy load of ideological conflict with them.

However, issues over things such as business ethics and the rights of consumers verses businesses are areas of the law which are not nearly so glamorous but carry no less a tangible impact on Americans. Alito's decision not to recuse himself was founded on a certain interpretation of his role as an investor in Vanguard's mutual funds.

In a recent meeting with Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Alito gave conflicting explanations for his behavior in the 2002 case (via the Appleton Post-Crescent):

"On the one hand he's admitting that he shouldn't have done it and that he took steps to correct it after the fact," said Feingold. "In other answers there's a sense that he didn't even know that there was a problem."

Feingold said Alito would be given ample opportunity to clarify his position. "I need to hear more about that and will certainly give him a full chance to do that," he said.

Feingold, as a Senator on the judiciary committee, is right in his qualification that Alito be given the chance to more fully explain himself in the confirmation hearings. Senator Feingold was one of a very few Senators that actually seemed interested in vetting John Roberts, rather than granting him the coronation most Senators felt he was due. This issue raises some serious questions, however, not the least of which is concerning Alito's personal integrity.

He seems to have clearly broken his word. His original promise to recuse himself from any Vanguard cases, made during his 1990 confirmation hearing for the appellate court seat he currently holds, did not stipulate any difference between direct ownership in the company or ownership in a Vanguard mutual fund. To draw that distinction now seems a terribly fine splitting of hairs that really doesn't excuse a possible conflict of interest. As an owner of any Vanguard mutual funds, Alito had a vested interest in the company's financial performance and thus should not have been hearing a case where Vanguard's fiscal interests were impacted.

The ruling itself also brings into focus some of Alito's beliefs about the balance of power between business interests and consumers. It seems likely that any judicial philosophy with which George W. Bush would find himself in agreement is going to contain some formulation of "free market" doctrine. Judge Alito's refusal to recuse himself seems to indicate a belief that conflicting business interests need not enter the framework of a consumer grievance. This contributes towards the "free market" belief in a relaxed regulatory atmosphere. Why recuse oneself for a conflict of interest when such conflicts should be beyond the consideration of the courts in the first place?

All the ruckus surrounding the Roe vs. Wade decision is actually serving the interests of Bush and Alito by obscuring many of the other issues that a judge's judicial philosophy could impact. The Supreme Court hears very few cases on ideologically-charged social issues but hears many on business regulations and commerce. And that's where the Alito nomination really has teeth.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Riding The Short Bus To Heaven

Time to go for the hat trick on the Intelligent Design hooplah for the week. The lunacy reigns supreme when that subtle voice of ideological moderation, Marion "Pat" Robertson, weighs in on the issue.

From JS Online:

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson warned residents of a rural Pennsylvania town Thursday that disaster may strike there because they "voted God out of your city" by ousting school board members who favored teaching intelligent design.

I'm sure the residents of Dover, PA, who this week voted to restore educational integrity to their school board, are just quaking in their boots at the thought of Pat's displeasure. Robertson always has such an elegent, In the Mouth of Madness way with words. But don't take my word for it:

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city."

At least I have to give Pat credit for actually revealing what the Intelligent Design supporters try so hard to hide: that their phony theory is really just Biblical Creationism stripped down to its girders. Of course, he may be saying that God was actually on the school board and voted off; it certainly wouldn't be the nuttiest thing he's ever said.
So what does Pat have to say to the Dover residents, now that they've sent the Intelligent Designers back down to the minors:

"God is tolerant and loving, but we can't keep sticking our finger in his eye forever," Robertson said. "If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them."

See now, Pat, that's just being a poor sport. Intelligent Design had its day in the marketplace of ideas there in Dover and the voters gave it due consideration. Hack theology lost and good science education won the day. Besides, it's terribly presumptuous of Robertson to claim he knows the limits of God's grace; one might almost call that blasphemy.

Of course, what do you expect from someone who advocates murdering foreign leaders, wants to use a nuclear bomb on the state department and claims that feminism causes abortions, lesbianism and witchcraft, oh my!? Pat Robertson is nothing more than Jack Chick without the surreal comic strips.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Tuesday Elections Bring Science Back To Dover

It's always nice to have a positive story to balance out ridiculousness like the Kansas board of education's redefining of science. The voters of the Dover, Pennsylvania school board decided not to wait for the Supreme Court to put Intelligent Design back in its proper place (assuming it even has one).

From Red Orbit:

Voters on Tuesday ousted a Pennsylvania local school board that promoted an "intelligent-design" alternative to teaching evolution, and elected a new slate of candidates who promised to remove the concept from science classes.

The board of Dover Area School District in south-central Pennsylvania lost eight of its nine incumbents in an upset election that surprised even the challengers, who had been hoping for a bare majority to take control of the board.

What a wonderful thing to see! The voters of Dover, PA didn't need the courts to tell them that Intelligent Design is garbage. They went to the polls and voted to protect the education of their children.

So exactly what was the now-defunct Dover Board of Religious Indoctrination forcing upon high school students:

The policy requires that students be read a four-paragraph statement that says there are "gaps" in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and that students should consider other explanations of the origins of life, including intelligent design.

Intelligent design holds that some aspects of nature are so complex they must be the work of an unnamed designer, rather than the result of random natural selection, as argued by Darwin's theory.

First of all, there are no "gaps" in the theory of evolution. There are gaps in the fossil record and there are certainly gaps in our knowledge about various genomes. But the theory itself is as rock-solid today as it was when Darwin first fleshed it out. There are no other scientific theories on how life developed to its present state. None. That evolution of lifeforms occurs is a well-tested and incontrovertible fact of nature. The exact mechanisms of how and why are still strongly debated but, again, there is no other theory for how life developed on the planet. Intelligent Design is nothing but ideological snake oil and has no role in a discussion of science.

Further, the complexity issue is nothing but ignorance stratified into a fake theoretical framework. Behe's "Irreducible Complexity" has been completely debunked and is nothing more than an attempt to fit God into the gaps in human understanding.

Intelligent Design is the theory of how life began for those living on a flat Earth orbited by Heavenly Spheres of glass, as they ponder which sign of the zodiac is most portentous for granting the wit to turn lead into gold.

Trying To Make Science Education Extinct

In a bold move to show that no idea is so wrong that it can't be tried over and over again, religious conservatives on the Kansas Board of Education have voted once again to re-define science and evolution by adding Creationism to the science classroom. Such was tried twice before, only this time "Intelligent Design" has been substituted for "Creationism".

From Red Orbit:

The new standards say high school students must understand major evolutionary concepts. But they also declare that the basic Darwinian theory that all life had a common origin and that natural chemical processes created the building blocks of life have been challenged in recent years by fossil evidence and molecular biology.

In addition, the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.

The sad part of this, besides it being the third time the Kansas Board of Education has made this mistake, is that Kansas actually allows religious advocacy groups to write its school board policy. The new standards were written by members of the Intelligent Design Network and basically reflect the same tired pseudo-science that I.D. proponents have been spewing for the past ten years.

The really dangerous part of these new standards is the re-writing of the school board's definition of science to remove "natural" as the qualifier for what makes an explanation scientific. Science is, by definition, the study of the natural world. Intelligent Design believers have attempted vigorously to change the definition of science in order to accommodate their phony "theory".

It's difficult not to feel some sense of loss, particularly for the students of Kansas, who have to live with the reality of a school board more interested in currying political favor with religious fundamentalists than in providing a sound education. Creation myths have their place in a school curriculum; just not in the science classroom. Intelligent Design is nothing more than a scientific-sounding attempt to justify God over science, which is pointless. If God created the natural world, then evolution is part of that creation. Intelligent Design is not science, nor is it even theology.

What Intelligent Design really is, and, moreover, what the whole antagonism towards evolution represents, is the discomfort many conservatives have with the idea that humans are not the center of the universe. Intelligent Design has nothing to do with God; it has to do with human arrogance. It's the arrogant belief that humans must have been specially created and thus are morally superior to all else that exists. It's also arrogance that leads the Intelligent Design disciple to proclaim that anything science can't explain in 2005 must be God's work. That approach to science was left behind hundreds of years ago and should remain a relic of our pre-Enlightenment past.

A further aspect of this degradation of educational standards in Kansas is its impact on standardized tests:

The new standards will be used to develop student tests measuring how well schools teach science. Decisions about what is taught in classrooms will remain with 300 local school boards, but some educators fear pressure will increase in some communities to teach less about evolution or more about creationism or intelligent design.

"What this does is open the door for teachers to bring creationist arguments into the classroom and point to the standards and say it's OK," said Jack Krebs, an Oskaloosa High School math teacher and vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science, which opposes the changes.

This aspect of it is both ignorant and dishonest. The premise here is that by changing only the state testing standards, it effectively leaves the decision of what to teach in the hands of local school districts. That way, the state board can blame the local boards when the schools start graduating students that can't compete in certain scientific fields because of a faulty education. It also makes certain that any local school board that chooses to provide a good science education to its students may leave them without the mythology education needed to pass the state's standardized tests. Of course, given that the essentials of Intelligent Design can be learned in about 10 minutes by the average 3rd grader does mitigate the latter risk somewhat.

The good news in all of this is that school board elections in Kansas are swiftly approaching, so perhaps the voters in Kansas will once again set their elected school board straight. Religion has no place in the science classroom and trying to blur the line between the two only weakens both areas of study. Evolution is a foundational theory of modern science and the only theory that explains the development of life on Earth. Intelligent Design is Biblical Creationism stripped of all its colorful mythology and intended to trick the average American into questioning established science. Putting it into a school science curriculum is unfair to those students wishing to have careers in science one day. And that's a real shame...

The fine students of Kansas deserve better from their school board.