Sunday, March 29, 2009

More War?

As Washington continues it's drumbeat for yet more war in Afghanistan, I really wish the people in charge would step back for a minute and examine what it is we are doing there and whether success is even possible.

This week President Obama announced that we will be sending more American soldiers in to Afghanistan. It's unclear exactly what the goal of these troop increases are though. On the one hand we are hearing that they will aide in training Afghan security forces. On the other hand Obama is making statements like these:

"The focus over the last seven years I think has been lost," Obama said. "What we want to do is to refocus attention on al Qaeda. We are going to root out their networks, their bases. We are going to make sure that they cannot attack U.S. citizens, U.S. soil, U.S. interests, and our allies' interests around the world."

That sounds like the troops will be used for a hot war with al Qaeda.

Recent polling shows that Americans are wary of more war in Afghanistan. For good reason.

While training Afghan security forces seems like a good idea, didn't we just go through this same debacle in Iraq. Month after month we were told Iraqi security forces would be ready to secure Iraq soon, and still thousands of American are there for security purposes. Why do we assume Afghanistan will end any better?

On the al Qaeda front, finding and eliminating al Qaeda operatives is a worthwhile goal, but do we need more troops to do it? Given that al Qaeda is an organization without borders, it seems unlikely that huge numbers of ground troops in Afghanistan are going to eliminate the problem. Bin Laden and company will just set up camp somewhere else. Wouldn't use of intelligence and highly trained special forces for localized operations against terrorists be more effective. Particularly in light of the fact that invasions of sovereign middle eastern countries may be doing more to grow al Qaeda than anything else we are doing.

We should be cognizant of history's lessons of war in Afghanistan. The British and Soviets found out the hard way that Afghanistan may be where empires go to die. Do we want to follow route?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Marketing Truth

This seems like the perfect way to wrap up this week.

I give you Bill Hicks on marketing.

Plus the ultimate Coke ad.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Oh Man! I can't wait to see this!

Where The Wild Things Are was one of my favorite books as a kid. It seemed like most children's books were about happiness and light, but Sendak's slightly darker vision of childhood appealed to me a little more. Of course I was happy that in the end Max got to come home to a warm supper.

Here's a reading of the Sendak book if you're interested.

For what it's worth I know where at least four of the Wild Things are. They live with me.


Chomsky On Politics

Here's Noam Chomsky talking about the US political system. Specifically the system's inherent protection of the rich and powerful. He's right, and if I may state the blatantly obvious, he's incredibly smart.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Imagine No Religion

It appears that the in the midst of declining attendance and tough economic times, the Catholic Church is closing parishes across the eastern and midwestern US.

According to CNN, the reduction has to do with the declining number of Catholics out there. Take this tidbit for instance:

"There are reportedly 67.1 million Catholics in the U.S., according to The Official Catholic Directory 2008. Compared to the 2007 number of 67.5, that's about a 400,000 decrease in one year. And the Pew Forum found that approximately a third of its survey respondents who were raised in the Roman Catholic Church no longer attend the church."

That's still a lot of Catholics, but that's also a huge decline in a single year.

Those types of numbers aren't just limited to the Catholic Church though. According to a recent USA Today poll, the third largest "religious affiliation" in the United States is "no religion," which comes in at 15% of those polled. (Up from 8% in 1990) By comparison, the second largest group behind Catholics was Baptists at 15.8%. (Down from 19.3% in 1990)

Of course the "no religion" group can, and probably does, include a lot of believers who have simply rejected any form of organized religion. The "spiritual but not religious" types. Even though that doesn't go far enough in my opinion, the increasing rejection of organized religion is on the whole a move in the right direction.

In the case of the Catholic Church, it's not hard to see why the numbers are declining. It's an organization that opposes many mainstream American values like equal rights for women and gays, birth control, choice on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. It's an organization allegedly dedicated to ending poverty, yet it has amassed wealth comparable to a fortune 500 company. (Back when such companies had wealth.) It's an organization allegedly dedicated to the protection of the weak, that allowed pedophiles access to children.

Eventually even the most ardent believer is going to look at that kind of track record and question whether the morals of the church are in line with basic human values. And that's without looking at the fact that it's whole belief structure lacks evidence.

Maybe the worm has started to turn on religion in the US. Still - we have a long way to go.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Inquisition.

This one's for my kid.

Nobody expects The Spanish Inquisition!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gitmo Prisoners Were Innocent

Every time I think we've reached rock bottom on revelations about misconduct during the Bush years, I discovery that there's at least another sub-basement to go.

This week it was revealed by Lawrence Wilkerson, a Republican former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, that Guantanamo is loaded with innocent people swept up by U.S. forces unable to distinguish terrorists from bystanders. Some of these men have been sitting there for six or seven years.

To make matters worse Wilkerson, who is also a retired Army Colonel, revealed:

"U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released."

So for years my government knew it was sweeping up innocent people, imprisoning them, and refusing to let them go. Moreover, according to Wilkerson, Rumsfeld and Cheney knew about the problem and refused to address it because it would be seen as a black spot on their leadership. Well thank goodness we kept Don's and Dick's names squeaky clean! After all, their leadership is universally regarded as a shining light of hope across the globe. If we marred their reputations they never would have been able to pull off all the good work they did while in office.

My country held - and probably tortured - innocent people. We are just suppose to be better than that. We may have internal disagreements about how to best protect ourselves from those who want to hurt us, but can't we all agree that imprisoning innocent people is not what America is about?

But, also, what about our own soldiers? One country's grunt is another country's "enemy combatant." Didn't the Bushies think about how this would impact treatment of captured Americans? We at least owe it to them to be an example of mercy and justice. They are the ones likely to bear the brunt if we aren't.

Here's Wilkerson on Maddow talking about the issue:

President Obama, how about getting the shutdown at Gitmo done and turning some attention to the prosecution of people who imprisoned innocent men?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ham of Truth!

Every time we have ham my poor wife has to listen to me recreate this bit. Now I can subject the world to it!

"It's a Universal Truth - That's F-ing Good Ham!"

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fusion Centers: America’s Domestic Spying Facilities

Today I offer something a little different. A guest post by one of my favorite libertarians:

By Odie

When Bill invited me to write an article for his blog, I was quite flattered. As part of his invitation, he requested that I “try not to go all crazy ass Austrian School economist on [him].” Since I don’t want to take advantage of his hospitality, I’ll do my best to avoid those tendencies. (For those of you that don’t know me, I used to practice law, but now I’m an economist—I have an M.A. in economics and I’m working on a Ph.D.)

Therefore, I decided to pick a topic that on which he and I (and hopefully you) will probably agree. There’s a new institution in American life that hasn’t attracted much attention, but should: The Fusion Center. If you haven’t ever heard of fusion centers, you’re in the majority. Contrary to the implication of their name, fusion centers are not hubs of scientific inquiry about physics. In reality, they are data gathering and data mining facilities that combine the resources of government and law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels in order to effectively and efficiently disseminate security information. While that might sound relatively benign, the implementation is potentially insidious.

In essence, fusion centers are facilities for domestic spying. According to the ACLU,

"These state, local and regional institutions were originally created to improve the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among different state, local and federal law enforcement agencies. Though they developed independently and remain quite different from one another, for many the scope of their mission has quickly expanded—with the support and encouragement of the federal government—to cover “all crimes and all hazards.” The types of information they seek for analysis has also broadened over time to include not just criminal intelligence, but public and private sector data, and participation in these centers has grown to include not just law enforcement, but other government entities, the military and even select members of the private sector."

One of the scariest aspects of fusion centers is that they encourage law enforcement to profile and report any activity that seems slightly suspicious, even if it’s not criminal in any way. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department issued Special Order #11 on March 5, 2008. This special order states that it is a policy of the LAPD to “gather, record and analyze information of a criminal or non-criminal nature, that could indicate activity or intentions related to either foreign or domestic terrorism,” [Emphasis mine] and it lists 65 behaviors that LAPD officers “shall” report. Included in the list are activities like:

• using binoculars
• taking pictures or video footage with “no apparent aesthetic value”
• drawing diagrams
• taking notes
• taking measurements

(A copy of the LAPD Special Order can be found in the Findings and Recommendations of the Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) Support and Implementation Project, June 2008, Appendix B.)

This special order directs LAPD officers to file a suspicious activity report (SAR) when they observe any of the listed activities. Unsurprisingly, both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Director of National Intelligence praised the LAPD for Special Order #11. DHS, in partnership with the Major City Chiefs Association, issued a report recommending expanding the LAPD SAR program to other major cities. (DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, GLOBAL JUSTICE INFORMATION SHARING INITIATIVE, MAJOR CITY CHIEFS ASSOCIATION

You may be wondering how the LAPD SAR program is linked to fusion centers. Consider the following: DHS , the Department of Justice, the National Intelligence Agency, the FBI and other federal agencies routinely partner with state and local agencies through fusion centers. The question is not whether the LAPD SAR program is being implemented in your locale, but rather which similar program is being implemented in your area.

At this point, it seems appropriate to ask whether there are any rules governing the operation of fusion centers. The answer is, “Yes.” The Department of Justice (DOJ) has established some guidelines for the operation of fusion centers. These guidelines are available online here. But some of the guidelines seem more problematic than protective. If you don’t have time to read all of them, let me bring to your attention some of the more troublesome guidelines. For example, the guidelines include a 6-page list (which it says is “not comprehensive”) of potential information the fusion centers could incorporate. Some of the sources the list includes are:

• Preschools, day care centers, universities, primary & secondary schools and other educational entities providing information on suspicious activity.
• Private physicians, pharmaceutical companies, veterinarians.
• Internet service and e-mail providers, the FCC, telecom companies, computer and software companies, and related government agencies.
• Apartment facilities, facility management companies, housing authorities.
• Private sector entities such as food/water production facilities, grocery stores and supermarkets, and restaurants.
• The gaming industry, sports authority, sporting facilities, amusement parks, cruise lines, hotels, motels, resorts and convention centers.
• State and child welfare entities.

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’d rather that DHS, DOJ and other law enforcement agencies stay out of my son’s day care unless it’s completely necessary.

As of December 2007, there were fusion centers active in 40 states. Of the 10 state without active fusion centers, fusion centers were under development in 8. The only two states without any fusion centers active or underdevelopment were Hawaii and Idaho. The issue is not whether any information about you is collected, but which information, how much, and the manner of its collection. Once fusion centers acquire information, they compile it and distribute it to law enforcement and government agencies at all levels. What information do they have? We don’t know because of the secrecy surrounding fusion center. But we know they exist. Hopefully the sun will shine on this operation sooner rather than later.

Odie is an economist and lawyer in Milwaukee, where he lives with his adorable son and somewhat annoying wife.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It's Hard To Be A Liberal

Sometimes you have to take a hard look at your own side of the debate and admit how absurd you can look.

Dammit it IS hard to be a liberal.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bonus Mania

The AIG bonus story has gotten plenty of press over the last few days - and rightly so. The idea that a company in "need" of billions in tax payer subsidies is also handing out millions in bonuses, justifiably angers taxpayers.

But truthfully it's just too easy to jump on the "bonuses are ridiculous" band wagon at this point. I'd like to look at this from a slightly different, although equally critical, angle. How did AIG executives not understand the public relations nightmare these bonuses would create?

These folks must have been watching the news when the president publicly decried these very kinds of bonuses a few months ago. They must have been paying attention when the million dollar office refurbishing played out in the media. They must understand that it's no longer the high flying 1990's - right?

It looks like the wall street sense of entitlement is even stronger than I imagined. Even looking at this issue strictly from a business perspective, how did AIG executives fail to notice the reputational hit the company would take when word of bonuses leaked out? Did they think it wouldn't leak? (That just seems naive.) Did they assume it would just blow over? (That's just stupid.)

In the end, the decision to hand out millions in bonuses probably points to incompetence at the helm of this company. Since the American taxpayer is handing over her hard earned money to this lot, can we at least put someone in charge who knows what they are doing?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Can You Tell Me How to Get....

Ricky Gervais gives us some new insights in to Elmo.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Watch Your Tone!

I'm in danger of becoming all religion all the time this week, but I want to drop another post on the topic.

I had an interesting exchange with a friend today about the tone (among other things) of my criticisms of faith here. She feels that my tone is too harsh in addressing difficult issues like faith. Naturally I disagree.

I've come across this issue before, and I think the last thing we need in the debate over faith vs. atheism is more deference to faith. (Here's an interesting discussion of this issue.)

I don't understand why opinions about the existence of god should be treated with any more respect than opinions about - say - politics. We regularly see public exchanges about political ideals that border on fist fights, and while you occasionally hear about changing the "tone in Washington", I've never heard anyone say that one side or the other of the political spectrum is entitled to deference and respect just because.

Yet I hear that argument all the time when it comes to "faith." Why is that? What is it about believing in god that entitles the believer to more respect or deference than any other opinion? It makes very little sense. If the believer can back up his beliefs, and wants to engage in a debate about it, he should welcome my challenge even if it comes in strong terms.

The "watch your tone" argument is particularly annoying in light of the tone that so many believers take with atheists. I'm not suggesting they should tone down their rhetoric, I can take it, but when a former president of the US has said atheists shouldn't be considered citizens; and when states still have laws on the books (although unenforceable) keeping atheists from holding office, maybe believers should take as good as they give.

Hey - I'm not really that harsh anyway. Now George knew how to be harsh.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What If God Disappeared!

Would we even recognize the world anymore?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Cali Gets Sane?

A California state legislator has proposed legalizing marijuana to help deal with that state's budget shortfall. This makes so much sense its silly. Setting aside the fact that pot possession and use never should have been illegal in the first place, and legalizing it allows adults to make decisions for themselves, this makes fiscal sense.

Check out these stats. Turns out that pot is California's largest cash crop by a wide margin. Pot comes in at $14 billion per year. Remarkably the number two cash crop in Cali is fruits and vegetables, at a meager $5.7 billion per year. That difference is staggering, and speaks to just how popular marijuana is.

Tom Ammiano, the legislator proposing the law, estimates that pot would bring a billion dollars per year in to the state's tax coffers. Given that the state has a $42 billion dollar revenue shortfall right now, seems like the state could use the money.

But think about the savings this kind of law would bring with it. Enforcing marijuana prohibition in California alone costs $170 million per year. Each of the 1,500 estimated prisoners in California jails for pot offenses cost $40,000 per year. All in all, that's a lot of savings.

I hope California seriously considers passing this law. Maybe if the rest of the country sees that the world doesn't end when pot is legal, they will consider legalization as well. Maybe then we can the start turning back the tide on the costly and unjust "war on drugs."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Worlds Apart!

Sometimes you just need a shot by shot remake of Journey's Separate Ways video!


Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Elf Delusion.

Here's a odd little story. Apparently the people of Iceland have a longstanding, folklore based, belief in elves. Icelandic people actually believe elves are real. In fact, when Alcoa wanted to build a plant there it had to allow a government inspector in to certify that the site was elf free.

Now I suspect that most Americans consider belief in elves ridiculous, and they would be right. After all, there is no empirical evidence for the existence of elves. But America has it's own "folklore." Religion.

Without any emperical evidence millions of Americans believe in an all knowing, all powerful, god who watches over all they do. Plus he's ready to punish them for all eternity of they don't act just so. Believers get preferential government treatment in the form of tax breaks, and I suspect that if the right people thought angels inhabited a plant site we'd spend some tax money investigating.

Belief in elves is ridiculous, but so is belief in Jesus.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Defenders of Marriage.

As the California Supreme Court gets ready to rule on whether Prop 8 survives or not, I give you this cogent analysis of "defending marriage" - in song!

Here's hoping that the Cali Supremes find gay people get to keep the same rights as the rest of us. With any luck it will open the floodgates for other states to follow.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Left Behind for Socialism.

Ok the crazy ass revelations reading fundamentalists are at it again. Take a few minutes to watch this interview with Tim Lahaye, author of the crazy ass Left Behind apocolyptic revelations loving book series. Turns out Obama's a socialist!

Set aside the crazy ass - no evidence havin - the world is going to end with jesus on a white horse smiting the non-believers stuff. (We can have some fun with that in another post) Enough with this Obama is a socialist stuff! He isn't. Unless he has just been lying about his positions, Obama is a Clinton style, down the middle new Democrat.

A socialist probably would support single payer government run health care. A socialist might consider nationalizing failing banks and insurance companies instead of handing them wads of tax payer money. A socialist - and get ready for this one because it's going to blow your mind - might stand up and honestly tell people that their taxes have to go up to pay for the mess we are in right now. A socialist would actually raise taxes to pay for programs. A socialist could - you know maybe - raise the federal minimum wage to a level where people can live on it. A socialist might strongly support unions, or government funded day care for working families.

There's all kinds of things a socialist would do, but Obama isn't promising to do these things.

If he was a socialist, I would have voted for him. I didn't.