Saturday, February 12, 2005

After We Finish Spending the Money, Then We Can Start Spending More Money

My head hurts. A few Congressman are a tad bit antsy that the cost-estimate for the new prescription drug coverage plan has inched up slightly since Bush originally proposed it. To be precise, it has nearly doubled: from $400 billion at the time of passage, to $534 billion immediately after passage (information, incidentally, the administration knew but suppressed: see the Post article below), to $724 billion today. To be fair, not everyone thinks the pricetag actually will end up being $724 billion. The Washington Post, for example, thinks the ultimate price will actually be $1.2 trillion over the first decade of the program. The $724 billion dollar figure comes out when you factor in some offsetting "savings," but you'll forgive me if I'm starting to get a wee bit skeptical of those sorts of things. Anyway, what is Bush's reaction to the spiraling price of his pet healthcare proposal? According to CNN,
"Bush pledged this week to "deal with the unfunded liabilities of Medicare" once Social Security is overhauled as he has proposed."

So...once we enact a program that will incur trillions of dollars in new debt, then we'll try and fund the skyrocketing debt we've already got? Thus is the mantra of Bush budgeting I guess: Buy now, refuse to pay later.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Tea Time

I meant to post on this earlier, but got sidetracked. According to, the Attorney General has appealed the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal v. Ashcroft. The background of the case is as follows. The Church (known in short as the UDV) uses a type of tea in its ceremonies that contains hallucinogenic ingredients. The plant used doesn't grow in America, so they import it from Mexico. The DEA is arguing that this plant is classified as a Schedule I drug (the most restricted category) under the Controlled Substances Act, and thus the church should be barred from importing it. The 10th Circuit disagreed and ruled for the church. The case has now been appealed to the Supreme Court (who, to be clear, haven't taken the case, so this could all be moot).

If they do take the case, I can see a couple of outcomes. First, they could simply agree that prohibiting the drug importation for religious use fulfills a compelling government interest. Most obviously, it could plausably be argued that allowing the drug in for religious purposes would undermine Congress' regulatory scheme with regards to controlled substances. This argument hinges heavily on the outcome of the Raich v. Ashcroft, of which I blogged about here. If the Court rules that the use of drugs outside the general commercial market ruins Congress' regulatory scheme (which consists of keeping drug prices high via the black market), then the Church will almost definitely lose. However, this is one of the better possible outcomes.

The biggest problem is that the statute under which the church is seeking relief is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1). The law was in direct response to the Supreme Court's decision in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith that any legitimate, generally applicable law could override any free exercise claims besides mere abstract expression of belief. That decision justifiably came under a lot of fire, and Congress worked to change it. The RFFA sought to overturn that decision, and restore the "compelling interest" test in Sherbert v. Verner, which mandated that any law which impugned on the free exercise of religion must satisfy a compelling state interest. The Supreme Court has already ruled that act unconstitutional as applied to the states in City of Boerne v. Flores, saying that it granted preference to religion by only allowing them to claim exemptions from general law. However, since the UDV case deals with a federal claim, Boerne is inapplicable.

However, while Boerne itself only applies to the states, I don't see much in its reasoning that prevents it from being applied to the federal government. If the Court applies Boerne to the federal government, then that will entirely restore Smith to Constitutional supremacy and strike a lethal blow to the religious beliefs of minorities. It would, in effect, prevent these minorities from gaining judicial OR statutory relief from laws which prevent the exercise of their religion. That essentially write the Free Exercise clause out of the constitution. On the flipside, the Court could overrule Boerne and rule for the Church. That would be the best outcome.

There is a way that the Court could distingiush Boerne and uphold the law on the federal level. However, it involves some very scary implications for the future of 1st amendment jurisprudence. It has been well accepted for some time now that the 1st amendment's religion clauses now apply to the states, though they technically only say "Congress Shall Make No Law" establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. A few extremist jurists (Justice Thomas among them) do not believe this should have been so. If his view swings the Court, then the RFFA will be upheld--but only because it applies to the federal government. The implication, then, is that the states are exempt from some of the first amendments prohibitions and mandates--precisely what Thomas wants, but it direct conflict with decades of Court precedent protecting the rights of religious minorities. Upholding the RFFA could be a stealth attempt by the Court to utterly shortcircuit first amendment protections under the guise of protecting them.

Watch this case carefully.

Hearts and Minds

I'm a bit worried about this. Joseph Braude translates Ayman Al Zawahiri rebuttal to George W. Bush's state of the union. The reason I'm worried is that
Al Zawahiri's speech represents a departure from the Al Qaeda addresses of recent memory, most of which amounted to direct threats of violence targeting Western and Muslim regimes (including, needless to say, their civilian populations). This statement, by contrast, was not so much threat as political argumentation, and the audience was not Western but rather Arab and Muslim. Implicit in Al Zawahiri's speech was an acknowledgement that the United States is now actively competing in the war for hearts and minds in Muslim countries--leaving Al Qaeda no choice but to engage America at the level of politics and ideas.

Why does this worry me? Because in the current climate in the Arab world, I'm afraid it could get some traction. Zawahiri's speech is not standard al-Qaeda "blow up the infidels and build a bridge to the 12th century" rhetoric. Rather it tries co-opt (more accurately, pervert) liberal notions about freedom and justice into its radical ideology. Zawahiri states:
"The freedom that we want is not the freedom of interest-bearing banks and vast corporations and misleading mass media; not the freedom of the destruction of others for the sake of materialistic interests; and not the freedom of AIDS and an industry of obscenities and homosexual marriages; and not the freedom to use women as a commodity to gain clients, win deals, or attract tourists; not the freedom of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and not the freedom of trading in the apparatus of torture and supporting the regimes of oppression and Copts and suppression, the friends of America; and not the freedom of Israel, with their annihilation of the Muslims and destruction of the Aqsa mosque; and not the freedom of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Our freedom is a freedom of monotheism and morals and probity and asceticism and justice. The freedom that we are striving toward is on three foundations: The first is the rule of the Shari'a. The Shari'a, revealed by Almighty God, is the path that is obligatory to be followed. ... The second foundation, upon which reform must be established--and this is a corollary to the first foundation--is the freedom of the lands of Islam and their liberation from every robbing and looting aggressor. It is unimaginable that any reform may be realized for us while we are under the coercion of American and Jewish occupation.
As for the third foundation, which is also a corollary of the first foundation, it is the liberation of man. The Ummah [pan-Islamic nation] must snatch back its right to choose its ruler and call him to account and criticize him and depose him, and snatch back its right to enjoin good and end that which is abominable. ... The Ummah must undertake [to end] repression and brute force and theft and fraud and corruption and dynastic succession in rule, which our rulers are practicing with the blessings and support of the United States.

This is a relatively clever bit of rhetorical jujitsu. It manages to sound somewhat liberal (even though it isn't), play on latent anti-Americanism, and oppose the current wave of elections, all at the same time. I can see that message carrying a lot of weight. In Iraq, for example, political parties were falling over each other to see who could be the most anti-occupation...even though they were doing it in the context of a democracy the occupation enabled. My guess is there is a significant portion of the Arab world that will jump at the chance to appear both anti-American and pro-reform. If al-Qaeda manages to portray itself as in that niche, we're in trouble.

To be 100% clear, I am not saying that al-Qaeda is in any way a reformist organization. They are not, but they are trying to appear that way. If their distortion works (and remember, the primary entity that can is and willing to refute this, the US, has precious little credibility here), that's when the trouble kicks in.

Oh, and Happy Birthday to me! Big 19 today. The blog doesn't turn 1 until June though. [sniff] It just grows up so fast...

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Calm Like a Bomb

First things first. I am now a co-blogger at Centerfield, the blog of The Centrist Coalition. The following post is also cross-posted there. This does not mean that I am abandoning this blog. I don't anticipate posting any less frequently here. I will merely be dropping in that blog from time to time to throw some thoughts out. Anyway, the blog is great and I highly encourage y'all to read it. Now, on with our story.

North Korea has the bomb.

Of course, U.S. policymakers have suspected NK had nukes for some time now. But obviously, their flagrant admission, paired with their withdrawal from mulitparty talks, changes the geopolitical situation dramatically. What's a centrist supposed to do?

When discussing NK, there are two aspects to keep in mind. The first is the security issues. To be perfectly clear: North Korea is a security threat to the United States in a way Iraq never was or had the potential to become. There are a few reasons for this. First, their Taepo-Dong II missile, with nuclear warhead capabilities, can hit Hawaii and possibly the west coast of the US. Furthermore, nuclear proliferation offers one of the few ways for the cash-strapped North Korean regime to gain hard capital. Even if Kim Jong Il was bound by moral scruples (he's not), it would be hard to pass up that opportunity given the abject poverty and desperation the country faces on a daily basis. Finally, and not to toot my own horn here, but current US policy is making the situation worse. Several months ago, I predicted that continued US work on the ABM missile defense shield (paired with a more aggressive foreign policy stance generally) would cause NK to accelerate its nuclear program as a hedge against potential US military intervention (I made a similar prediction with Iran as well). Lo and behold, NK has picked up the jitters and has accelerated its nuclear program. It goes without saying, obviously, that Kim Jong Il with nukes is more dangerous than Il without them.

The second issue is of humanitarianism. Though there are a million and one factors that play into whether or not the US should seek to depose a given regime, Centrists must never forget that the most dangerous nations in the world also tend to be engaged in the most brutal human rights atrocities in the world. Every moment that regime stays in power, every moment that the world community fails to act, another political prisoner is shot, another family is imprisoned, another child starves. The human rights situation in NK is notoriously brutal. Between state sponsored terror and oppression (forced labor camps abound for even minor crimes), and the more general famine and economic poverty that is pervasive in the country, North Korean citizens rank amongst the most desperate in the world. For better or for worse, US and global inaction lends tacit consent to all of these activities. So while the security situation might demand caution, the human rights situation demands decisiveness and action. There must be a strong statement (and I don't mean that in the UN resolution sense) that government sponsored brutality is not and will not be tolerated by any nation, anywhere, at any time. Morality demands it.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Meddlesome Bureaucracy

Democrats and Republicans take different views of bureaucracy. Democrats see it as an unfortunate but necessary organization to maintain accountability and facilitate programs. Republicans think it's the antichrist--unless, that is, they want to obstruct something.

The Austin American-Statesman (link by the indispensable Daily DeLay) reports that a bill introduced in the Texas legislature will give the state ethics commission veto power over local prosecutors who wish to prosecute election law violations. In simple terms, it adds a layer of bureaucracy between prosecutors and their jobs (IE, prosecuting criminals).

Now, the commission is bipartisan, so one might think that it wouldn't succumb to political temptations. That's true in a sense--but only because the commission lacks any spine and thus will be an equal oppurtunity enabler of corruption for both parties. Since the commission's formation in 1991, according to the Statesman, "the agency...has never subpoenaed a witness or documents to investigate a complaint or referred a criminal case [to prosecutors]." So basically, giving this commission power over election law will render the law unenforcable. Which is exactly what Tom DeLay and his cronies want.

Lies and the...

...oh hell, I can't even motivate myself anymore. Just read and read.

Of course, this does bring about an option #3 to my lose-lose budget: Bush is lying about it. But then, why would his budget bear any resemblance to his tax cuts (they're temporary, really!), prescription drug bill, or privitization scheme? Fool me once, shame on me, fool me ad nauseum...well, what's one more try?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Rove's "New" Position reports that Karl Rove has received a new post, on top of his current one of Senior Advisor to the President, as Deputy Chief of Staff. While the former position only deals with politics, the latter position is one that relates to actual policy. Of course, since in the Bush administration there is no difference whatsoever between politics and policy, this is somewhat redundant. But it's nice of them to make it official and all.

Monday, February 07, 2005

It's Only Genocide, Part II

Sick, sick, sick. Eric Alterman defends Arab boycotts of Holocaust memorials on the grounds that
"I don’t expect Arabs to pay tribute to my people’s suffering while Jews, in the form of Israel and its supporters—and in this I include myself—are causing much of theirs...The Palestinians have also suffered because of the Holocaust. They lost their homeland as the world—in the form of the United Nations—reacted to European crimes by awarding half of Palestine to the Zionists. They call this the “Nakba” or the “Catastrophe.” To ask Arabs to participate in a ceremony that does not recognize their own suffering but implicitly endorses the view that caused their catastrophe is morally idiotic..."

Eugene Volokh smacks Alterman down, as does Kathy Young in the Boston Globe. First of all, I cannot fathom how Alterman can "include himself" as a supporter of Israel when he appears to oppose its entire existence. Meanwhile, he contradicts himself when he writes the Palestineans "lost their homeland," then, in the same sentence writes that it happened when the UN awarded "half of Palestine to the Zionists." Now, I'm not a math major, but if one loses a half, one still possesses another half, yes? So the Palestineans appeared to still possess one half of their homeland, at least prior to the Arab aggression that led to the Independence War. And of course, this doesn't even get into the implication by Alterman that only Palestineans had a valid claim to the land in question. To argue that Jews have zero legal, historical, or cultural claim to Israel/Palestine as a homeland is such a gross distortion of history it should not even bear mentioning. Only in a morally twisted world could an analyst, in evaluating two valid claims to the same territory, argue that giving the dispossessed party (Jews) part of the land they had been kicked out of in years past would constitute stealing from the party that had managed to possess all the land. To be 100% clear: Claiming Jews "displaced" Palestineans by gaining a state in Israel only makes sense if one believes the Palestinean people have an absolute, complete, and hegemonic right to total dominion over this territory. Such a view is blatantly anti-Semitic and reminiscent of the worst forms of dictatorial oppression.

The moral claims of Alterman are equally sophomoric. As Volokh notes:
"Now let's briefly analyze this: Alterman is not just saying that Muslim groups are not interested in commemorating the harm done to a group that they're now hostile to. (He is partly saying that, which acknowledges that many Muslims are hostile to Jews, and not just to Israel, but that's not all he's saying.) I should say that such a view would be understandable, though not laudable; it's human nature not to much feel the suffering of others, especially if you have some hostility to them.

Rather, he's analogizing the victims of the Holocaust (those who suffering is honored) to "[Muslim]-bashing bigots." It's not the Israelis who are being honored, it's the slaughtered and nearly slaughtered European Jews. Yet somehow they reverse-inherit the supposed guilt of Israelis and other Jews today. Men, women, children butchered in Auschwitz, even ones who had never had much interest in Palestine and who had no opinions at all to Muslims — quite analogous to "[Muslim]-bashing bigots," yes, indeed.

This strikes me as the classic morality of group guilt. Jews of the 1940s are morally tainted by their supposed sins today; we should hate ethnically Japanese because of Pearl Harbor; Jews killed Christ (assume for a moment that this is historically accurate — the hostility to Jews would remain wrong even then) so Jews today are culpable; many Arabs support suicide bombers, so I shouldn't care about wrongs being done to completely innocent Arab-Americans."

Many post-modernist theorists get spectacularly frustrated by the inability of liberal philosophers to see people in terms of groups. This is why. Far too often, group identification becomes the basis for irrational ethnic hatred, with the prejudiced party conflating all of the members of a certain group into a universal, monolithic whole, equally responsible for each other's sins. Jews who live today, by virtue of the fact that they are Jews, are responsible for killing Christ. Jews who died in Concentration Camps, by virtue of the fact that they are Jews, are responsible for the deaths of the intifada. This makes no sense unless one gives group identification meaning and vitality that overrides the actions of individual members.

When I originally blogged on the Arab boycott of the Holocaust memorial ceremonies, I wrote that:
"Obviously, on a visceral level I'm infuriated that anyone would have the gall to compare the intifada with the holocaust. Anyone who engages in moral relativism at that level of myopia is ethically bankrupt, and deserved to be labeled as such."

I stand by that statement: Alterman is ethically bankrupt. And the subsidiary point of the article holds as well: genocide is rapidly becoming a meaningless term. Consider Alterman's implicit argument: the suffering of Palestineans (we'll assume--though this may be giving him too much credit--that he means innocent Palestineans who are not taking part in hostilities against Israel) in the context of an ongoing theater of war, culminating in the tragic deaths of several thousand people, is morally equivilant to the deaths of 6 million Jews and 5.5 million other persons in a deliberate, planned genocide utterly unrelated to any military objective. Alterman has been, to quote from Mark Graber, "led astray by rhetoric that conflates all forms of disadvantage" into one indistinguishable mass of oppression. In doing so, he trivializes genocide and mass murder by putting it on the same moral status as the incidental death of civilians in a land dispute. This should be intolerable, but in modern society it appears genocide just doesn't mean what it used to.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Academic Standards

Wow. Swarthmore College History Professor Timothy Burke has written one of the most compelling posts I've read in a long while (hat tip: Crooked Timber). It's on the Ward Churchill scandel, of which I blogged on here.

In addition to writing a brief yet searing indictment of the scholars who share Churchill's vein of thought, he also makes a trechant point about how academia should deal with writers like Churchill.
"[T]he first instinct of all institutions (including conservative ones) that get caught up in this well-rehearsed minuet, is to cite free speech as a defense. I think that’s perfectly proper in a highly limited way. Once an invitation has gone out, I think you generally have to stick by your guns. Everyone does have a right to speak and say what they want, whatever it might be.

But academic institutions also insist in many ways and at many moments that they are highly selective, that all their peculiar rituals—the peer review, the tenure dossier, the hiring committee, the faculty seminar—are designed to produce the best, most thoughtful community of minds possible...Anybody has the right to speak, but nobody has the obligation to provide all possible speakers a platform, an honorarium, an invitation.

In that context, it becomes awfully hard to defend the comfortably ensconsed position of someone like Churchill within academic discourse, and equally hard to explain an invitation to him to speak anywhere. There’s nothing in his work to suggest a thoughtful regard for evidence, an appreciation of complexity, a taste for dialogue with unlike minds, a proportionality, a meaningful working out of his own contradictions, a civil ability to engage in dialogue with his colleagues and peers in his own fields of specialization. He stands for the reduction of scholarship to nothing more than mouth-frothing polemic.

We cannot hold ourselves up as places which have thoroughly and systematically created institutional structures that differentiate careful or or thoughtful scholarship from polemical hackery and then at the same time, have those same structures turn around and continually confirm the legitimacy of someone like Churchill. We can’t deploy entirely fair and accurate arguments about the thoughtless cruelty and stupidity of a polemicist like Ann Coulter only to fill our bibliographies with citations to Ward Churchill, not to mention filling our journals with highly appreciative reviews."

The point isn't to take a hatchet job to Academic Freedom. Churchill has the right to say whatever he wants to say. And the University of Colorado, by (ill-advisably) granting him tenure, has in doing so granted him immunity from punishment for the expression of his views. However, while the academic community has no right to censure him, neither does it have the obligation to provide him a forum. By citing him (at least approvingly), by inviting him to speak, by giving him fellowships and chairmanships, tacit approval is being granted to his shoddy scholarship. So while we can't take away what he's already been given (his teaching post), we can act to make his career stall out.

Of course, there is always the risk that restricting forums to "good" scholars will morph into restricting forums to "mainstream" scholars. That is a problem, to be sure. However, I think we can get past it. We all know of commentators that we respectfully disagree with. Those that make good arguments, even if we think they are wrong. For example, I have tremendous awe from Antonin Scalia, even though I have a radically different view of legal theory than he does. I'm heavily influenced by the works of Catherine MacKinnon, Richard Delgado, and other critical theorists, even though I disagree with a lot of what they say. Essentially, then, I'm not arguing for more uniformity in scholarship but higher quality. More debate, more discourse, and more discussion. Any professor who can't keep up with the big dogs should be left behind.

Revitalizing Redistricting

When Arnold Schwarzenegger first announced his proposal to make congressional redistricting in California into a non-partisan affair, I was drowning in irony. Why? Because while I think his idea is one of the most important things we can do for our democracy, unless it happens in both Blue and Red states, all it does is consolidate the gains the GOP has made by refusing to play fair.

Now The New York Times offers a glimmer of hope (link: How Appealing). The article says that the reform movement, if not exactly sweeping the nation, has picked up steam in at least 8 states: California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. By my count, that's 4 red and 4 blue states, a nice mix (note: Pennsylvania voted Democrat in the 2004 election but has a predominantly Republican congressional delegation. Hence, for the purposes of this post, I call it a "red-state," since we're talking about Congress). These would add to Arizona and Iowa, both of which have already adopted non-partisan redistricting methods. I'm particularly proud, of course, to see my own state of Maryland on the list. More importantly, the Maryland effort appears to be genuinely bipartisan--the article quotes from both Democratic and Republican sponsors in the state legislature. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the state that needs this reform the most--Texas--is not present. But while that would be a major coup d'etat, it will take a lot more momentum to crack the power shell Tom DeLay has put up around his home state.

But that's a minor problem in the scheme of things. I'm thrilled that non-partisanship is starting to get some momentum, and hopefully it will be a sign of more things to come.

Lose-Lose Budget

When discussing Bush's state of the union speech, I argued that Bush was making mutually exclusive claims about the budget. He essentially promised to
a) spend more money on a variety of pet programs b) make his old tax cuts permanent c) give new tax cuts (you and I both know that's what it means to "simplify" the tax code to Republicans) and d) halve the deficit.

Clearly, it's impossible to do all of these, even though Bush promised to cut or eliminate 150 federal programs.

Well, now Bush's budget is out, and outlines the cuts. Are they in Corporate Welfare for Big Business? Nope. Perhaps they close tax loopholes for the ultra-rich? Dream on. Is it in reducing spending for local police departments to upgrade technology and communication equipment? You better believe it.

A brief array of the programs being cut include the following:
Bush would slice a $600 million grant program for local police agencies to $60 million next year. Grants to local firefighters, for which Congress provided $715 million this year, would fall to $500 million.

He would eliminate the $300 million the government gives to states for incarcerating illegal aliens who commit crimes. It's a proposal he has made in the past and one that Congress has ignored. Also gone would be assistance for police departments to improve technology and their ability to communicate with other agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency's $8.1 billion would drop by $450 million, or about 6 percent, with most of the reductions coming in water programs and projects won by lawmakers for their home districts.

The Bureau of Indians Affairs would be sliced by $100 million to $2.2 billion. The reduction would come almost entirely from the agency's effort to build more schools.

The $2.2 billion program that provides low-income people -- in large part the elderly -- with home-heating aid would be cut to $2 billion. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said the reduction would be "wrong-headed an inappropriate," especially with this season's jump in oil prices.

Now, there are two possible end-results that occur from this budget. The first is that it passes as written. That might reduce the deficit, although it probably won't since it doesn't include the several trillion dollars in borrowing we'd need to take in order to fund his Social Security privatization scheme (or further Iraq/Afghanistan funding, for that matter). The second is that the programs will prove too popular to cut (you try telling constituents that you voted to eliminate funding for the local police), and we'll have our usual irresponsibile budget that we have every year. Both of these outcomes are bad in their own ways.

The latter scenario is bad for the obvious reason: It does nothing to solve the deficit. The former, by contrast, might (again, emphasis added on "might") help reduce the deficit. But it does so on the backs of the poor. That isn't just irresponsible, it's immoral. I support balanced budgets, but not at any cost. And when Bush decides that the way to balance the budget is to let poor people freeze to death in the winter (see budget cut item 5), I must respectfully part ways. Closing tax loopholes, repealing some of the upper-income tax cuts, and reducing corporate welfare are vastly superior ways of cutting the deficit than Bush's Soak the Poor strategy.

The subsidiary question is: Which one of these is more likely. On the one hand, as I've said, these programs are popular. Given Congress' inevitable tendancy to spend more, it will be very difficult to keep these items out of the final budget. And Bush has a very bad track record when it comes to the most powerful tool he has in imposing fiscal restraint on congress: the Veto. He's never used it once in his entire time in office. All of this would suggest scenario #1 is the more likely option. However, on the other side, the one area of Congress where these draconian cuts would find vocal support is on the far Conservative Right--in other words, the House Leadership. One can never underestimate the power Tom DeLay has over his caucus. He might just be able to pull of the upset here (though it would still face the uphill struggle of getting through the Senate).

Now, more than ever, is the time for Congress to show some spine. We cannot restore fiscal sanity in America without some hard decisions. Some of Bush's tax cuts just have to go, and it will be up to independent Republicans of conscience to make it so.