Torture Photos: Is a public release necessary?


It depends on our purpose.

In October 2003,  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)  sent  a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)  request to the Departments of Defense,   Homeland Security,  Justice  and several  other Bush Administration agencies.  The request was for  documents related to the US Government’s role in the torture and/or rendition of individuals in its custody.  The ACLU claimed,  “[The  Government has] failed to address the numerous credible reports recounting the torture and rendition of Detainees.  Nor have they explained what measures, if any, the United States has taken  to ensure compliance with its legal obligations with respect to the use of torture and the infliction of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or  punishment.  [And] to determine whether the United States is honoring its obligations under domestic and international law….”

Bush Administration officials refused to release the “torture photos” because, according to them,  the photos would inflame the Middle East, put unidentified individuals, groups and in-theater military personnel at risk and would run afoul of  international laws  prohibiting the public parade and humiliation of war prisoners.

In September 2004,  the US District Court in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) stated,  “Congress enacted FOIA to illuminate government activities.  The law was intended to provide a means of accountability, to allow Americans to know what their government is doing….  Yet, the glacial pace at which defendant agencies have been responding… shows an indifference  to the commands of FOIA.”  The judge also noted,  “As of today, eleven months later, with small exception, no documents have been produced by [the Department of Defense, et al].”

The District Court ordered the public release of  the photos after viewing a representative sample in camera (e.g. in the privacy of the Judge’s chambers).  Since then, the Federal judiciary has consistently ordered that the photos and other pertinent  documents be  redacted and released in compliance with national and international laws that prohibit the public humiliation of prisoners.

In August 2006,  the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the SDNY’s order to release the photos after  noting that the Bush Administration had interpreted certain legislative amendments to FOIA as “a diffuse and nebulous authority for keeping inflammatory information secret (though, curiously, only inflammatory information in law enforcement files).”  The Court continued, “Release of the photographs is likely to further the purposes of the Geneva Conventions by deterring future abuse of prisoners.”

On April 23, 2009,  the Obama Justice Department informed the Court that the Department of Defense would release its photos by May 28, 2009.

On May 13, 2009, nearly six years after the ACLU issued its first FOIA request, President Obama’s Justice Department informed the Court that the President had changed his mind,  “…upon further reflection at the highest levels of Government, the Government has decided to pursue further options regarding that decision…”  including a possible appeal to the US Supreme Court by June 9, 2009.

Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs expressed President Obama’s concern that release of the photographs would inflame the Middle East and increase the threat to US personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Obama team does not believe the Bush Administration adequately portrayed those risks in its Court filings and appeals.

Yesterday, The Huffington Post carried this ACLU response, “These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib….  Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse.”

The U.S.  Federal Rules of Evidence state, “Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice… or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”  In short,  not all relevant evidence is equal or admissible. A judge must determine whether its value as evidence substantially outweighs its potential harm.

There’s also a notion in civil societies  that an inflamed person is unlikely to be judicious.

Is it reasonable to believe that “The Amorphous Middle East” would be inflamed by a 24-7  media blitz of photos in which an occupying military force tortures citizens of  foreign lands?  Will “The Amorphous Middle East” see the photos as evidence  of the  Bush Foreign Policy, distinct from Obama’s?  And,  will that Middle East view efforts to hide the photos as a continuation of Bush policies?

One friend I spoke with said she wants the photos disseminated publicly. “Maybe pictures will  make Americans feel shame.  Maybe pictures will provoke an American conversation about who we really are and what ethics we really believe in.  Maybe it’ll force the politicians to really do something.”

Maybe;  but I doubt  the photos will stimulate the American public to a greater outrage.   Many of the people I know have been outrage- saturated by a plethora of criminal actions and a dearth of incarcerations.  Thankfully, the ACLU has a ton of arrows in its quiver.

Germany was shamed after World War I and a handful of years later we fought World War II.   We fire-bombed Germany during World War II and held them to account at Nuremburg. Germany is now home to one of the world’s fastest growing populations of Skinheads and other xenophobes.  Whether or not  cause and effect can be proved  in those examples,  they tell us  that shame is not a cure-all.

Our purpose, as opined by  the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, should be to deter “future abuse of prisoners”  and to ensure, as the ACLU demands,  that  “the United States is honoring its obligations under domestic and international law….”

We have a system of justice intended to do just that.  We place the accused on trial.  We hear the evidence against and for  them.  We release or punish them.  As a matter of course,  we  parade our convicted felons publicly.  We hope that their shame will deter others – will demonstrate our adherence to the rule of law.

With that in mind, whether the photos are released publicly or viewed in camera or by a jury,  the real issue is not which evidence will be presented (there’s tons) but rather, will Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, Dick Cheney, et al stand in the dock.  Will they be paraded publicly to cleanse rather than inflict shame?

A public trial of those who conceived and implemented the torture policy would stimulate a discussion about the American ethic and reassure the world of our honorable intention to uphold our ideals. Without that,  publishing the photos is just more Bread & Circuses and I fear, provocation.

******

Legal documents at ACLU website

[F]unny side of the [Wall] Street: Obamanomics

In the spirit of Jon Stewart, “Let’s just cut out the middle man.” If President Obama is serious about “changing how we do business,” then he needs to roll out something better than his new version of Reaganomics.


Imagine  you’re the on-duty emergency room (ER) nurse in a small country hospital.  Your resources are severely limited by high unemployment and a health insurance crisis.

A healthy snowboarder hobbles in with a broken leg and dislocated shoulder.

You start a prophylactic IV drip of normal saline, pain killers  and antibiotics to protect the snowboarder from dehydration, pain and infection.

In a corner of the emergency room is a bloated near-corpse in systemic organ failure. His liver’s shot.  His heart’s all but stopped.  The smell of his rot and disease are spreading out of the ER, down the corridors and into the rooms of recuperating patients.

Emergency room protocol requires you to infuse the snowboarder’s  IV solution through the bloated near-corpse middle man first, rather than  into the snowboarder’s arm directly.

Proponents of this bassackward policy say that if the gas in the bloated guy explodes, it’ll jeopardize everyone in the hospital so we have to treat him with the best of the drugs and hope enough benefit reaches the snowboarder to prevent her relatively minor injuries from becoming a systemic threat.  If you’re the cynical type, you might think  the nearly-dead guy’s membership on the hospital’s Board of Directors is significant, too.

Whatever the reason for  the policy, the outcome is assured:  the bloated near-corpse will drain  your few precious resources on its way to the morgue and the healthy patient will die of preventable consequences.

In the spirit of Jon Stewart,  “Let’s just cut out the middle man.”  Break with protocol and centuries of obsolete thinking. Infuse the snowboarder directly. She’s going into shock.  Microbes are chewing on her broken, exposed bone. It’s a matter of basic triage:  apply your resources where they will do the most good as you asses each situation  uniquely, dispassionately and quickly.

The snowboarder (like most of our  neighbors) will heal quickly and be ready to continue her education,  develop new products, create new markets  and in general, become the new economic engine.  She’ll be rebuilding our nation while the rotting AIG-Goldman Sachs-Citi-Bank of America-corpse that’s poisoning us all is buried quietly in the background.

Stimulate acutely-ill  borrowers with a direct infusion of debt-cancelling cash that can be paid by them  to their ORIGINATING lenders.   The funds will or won’t trickle UP to the bloated entities who bought and bundled the  stinky credit card and mortgage loans.  Those who are too-big-to-fail will collapse if the funds can’t  find their way through the maze of intermediaries.  But, by  excising the corpse and caring directly for our fundamentally healthy neighbors, we can mitigate the effects of this new shift in focus and purpose.

The “mortgage-crisis” isn’t the root of our problems.  And our continued reliance on a rotting corpse to rescue the future may not be the cause of our problems, but it’s certainly proximate.  If President Obama is serious about “changing how we do business,”  then he needs to roll out something better than his new version of  Reaganomics.

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NEXT:  Tell-tale quotes from this week’s House Financial Services Subcommittee Hearing.

Afghanistan


(Blog stats are collected so authors know which posts generate  most interest.  According to my stats, readers are more engaged by allegories and concrete helps and resources.  As dessert, it suits me fine;  but sometimes, we have to eat broccoli.  Ergo, Afghanistan.)

A few months ago, I posted a poll which asked respondents to suggest a  US course of action in Afghanistan.  Granted, only 16 people cast votes (it was early days) but for interest’s sake, the most often selected option was to employ our troops  “to improve infrastructure (schools, hospitals, roads, internet, etc.).”

There was one vote to “maintain current troop levels,”  one to “discontinue our military presence in Afghanistan,”  and one to “maintain current troop levels but improve dialogues with affected nations in the region.”  Six voted to “use troops to build or improve infrastructure. (Schools, hospitals, roads, internet, etc.).”  There were several comments which remarked on  Afghanistan’s  “empire-killing” history.  Mine was the only vote for encouraging “the sale of Afghanistan’s poppy crop to pharmaceutical companies.”   (I’ve moderated that opinion and think we should encourage the sale of poppies to a newly-constituted Afghani pharmaceutical industry.)

In recent days,  Pakistan has agreed with the Taliban to a virtual partitioning of the Malakand District  in the Northwest Frontier Province which borders Afghanistan. The Malakand is a political division with 592 square miles which means Sullivan County, NY is roughly 1.5 times larger.  The number of people living in the Malakand  (2004-2005) is nearly half a million more than the 76,000 in Sullivan.  The partition effectively places the District under Sharia Law. (See:  CIA and Census demographics.)

The Chief Minister of the Northwest Frontier Province said permitting the jurisdiction of Sharia Law would fill the hole left by lack of access to Afghanistan’s judicial system.

Accordingly, the argument goes, the de facto partitioning provides a legal framework in which to address land loss,  destruction of crops and the plight of orphans, among other things.

Apparently, if we want women to have the vote, go to school and be able to live with the same rights as their fathers, brothers and husbands, Afghanistan must be able to spread the rule of secular law.

“The United States — using unmanned drones — has carried out several airstrikes inside Pakistan on suspected militant targets, including one on Monday that killed at least 15 people, Pakistani sources said. Such airstrikes, which sometimes result in civilian casualties, have aggravated tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan.”  (CNN)

For nearly ten years in the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s resources were drained by its failed attempt to control Afghanistan.  That failure was encouraged by an international boycott of the USSR and thousands of tons of US armaments and other aid to the mujahidin.  (Wilson Center)

When the Soviets finally exited, the US anticipated the Afghan government would collapse within a year.  Besides being dependent on USSR food aid,  Afghanistan’s gas resources and consequent revenues had dried up.

Decade after decade, it’s been open season on the people of Afghanistan.  In  power struggles between foreign governments, warlords and religious extremists, the Afghani people have been bombed, starved, enslaved, brutalized, imprisoned, beaten and burned.  Villages have been destroyed. Crops have been wiped out.  This is the carnage of war.  It doesn’t count the cost of natural disasters in a nation unable to mount a concerted emergency rescue effort.

After the Soviet withdrawal,  the US government tossed around the idea of providing  farm equipment, fresh water augmentation, schools, hospitals and transportation.  For the most part, those ideas fell by the roadside.

Though only sixteen respondents answered the poll, the consensus was that we must engage the area in diplomacy and help provide the means by which Afghans can achieve independent growth and security. We are currently on track to increase our troop levels from 36,000 to 60,000.  (Reuters)  The majority of poll respondents agreed those troops should be used to help Afghans build schools and roads, grow food and generally, achieve the aims our government considered  twenty years ago.

Over the past several months, the few interviews conducted with US soldiers portray a force with too few weapons, too few personnel and too little support to respond effectively to “actionable intelligence.”

It seems to me that if sixteen citizens understand we’re on the wrong track, that President Obama must.

You can join me in leaving a statement at the White House contact site.

Bank of America : Get Your $78 Refund


(First,  a correction to  Bipartisanship:  The Lowest Common Denominator.  I misleadingly referred to Obama’s restriction on  executive salaries as a restriction on executive compensation.   Though President Obama  has put his weight behind capping certain executive salaries at $500,000,   total executive compensation may be oodles more.  Oodles, billions or trillions?     The difference is…?)

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On one hand,  Walt Disney accused the Screen Actors Guild of being a communist front bent on malevolently influencing Hollywood. On the other, he created  Donald Duck who quacked his way into popular culture  in  1934.  When Donald’s  nephews, Huey, Dewey & Louie came to stay for a day and never left, Donald was a de facto single dad with a  romantic companion he never  really married (Daisy).  In later years, he morphed into an adventurer who  dumped the kids on Uncle Scrooge.

Donald’s Hollywood foe, Mickey Mouse, was another Disney creation.  He met his main squeeze,  Minnie the Barmaid,  in a tavern and in their first short together,   Minnie parachuted out of a plane to escape Mickey’s pawings.  It was  the anthropomorphic mouse version of  John Wayne dragging  Maureen O’Hara around by her hair in one cinematic lust fest after another. (Not that I’ve watched The Quiet Man two billion times….)   Mickey & Minnie free float in each other’s lives–sometimes married, sometimes dating–but frequently together for  shared adventures.

In a time when Puritanism  and  Doris Day were slathering our cultural landscape with goo,  Disney understood that if a creature, character or person was cute  enough, he could sell us anything — even lifestyles we found offensive in 1950.

“Cute” and adorably irascible  have  sold us down the drain regularly.   George Bush and Laura Bush are almost as cute as   Ron Paul and he’s  even more adorable than  Barnie Frank, Diane Feinstein and Chris Dodd,  none of  whom hold a candle to the ETrade babies.  (Check out the E-Trade babies which front  for the much-maligned  E-Trade  online trading platform. )

Whether it was weapons of mass destruction or  financier- and congress-based  schemes to rip off credit cardholders,  we’ve  spectated at  our own screwing because so many of the salesman looked or spoke as disarming populists.

Bank of America did virtually no due diligence before it  bought  Merrill Lynch one weekend for $50 billion in stock.  Then, when BOA realized it had grossly underestimated Merrill Lynch’s toxic holdings, it “accepted”  a taxpayer bailout.

In this economy (brought to the point of collapse by financial institutions like Bank of America) what does  BOA do to taxpayer-customers who have BOA accounts and  own BOA’s debt?    They manipulated  “…customers’ account activity in order to trigger more fees for overdrawn accounts, returned checks, and similar infractions. Under the agreement, account holders who incurred overdraft fees from BofA between 2000 and 2007–or from any of the banks it took over during that period–may be entitled to up to a $78 payout. Although it may be a victory for the consumer, financial services advisory firm Bretton Woods says the restitution represents only a sliver of the $368 that the average U.S. household doles out each year for overdraft charges. Generating these and similar fees has become big business for banks and credit unions, which posted $37 billion-plus in such charges last year. As financial institutions try to compensate for losses on loan defaults and stiffer competition during the credit crisis, they are making it easier for customers–even those that carefully monitor their own activity–to trip the fee wire. Practices such as clearing the largest transactions in a single day from largest to smallest and posting deposits last of all makes it difficult for even the most diligent bank customers to avoid charges. In response, consumer advocates are counting on the Federal Reserve to take steps to protect the public from overdraft fees. While the issue failed to earn a place in new credit card rules approved by the agency last month, the central bank has signaled that it will raise the issue again–this time independently–sometime this year.  (See:  Center for Responsible Lending:  Bank of America)

We’re being raped by the people we saved and somehow,  Uncca Chris Dodd and “Populist” Barney Frank can’t get  legislation through Congress that would rescue us because of  push back from the financial lobby.

And then, there’s  Citigroup.

“… Citi began sending the notices at about the same time it was getting a $20 billion, taxpayer-financed government bailout.  No one at Citigroup would talk on camera to CNN about the matter. Instead, the company issued a written statement, which said: “To continue funding in this difficult credit and funding environment, Citi is repricing a group of customers.” Citi told CNN that anyone unhappy with the new [credit card] rates can opt out and continue paying the lower interest, but they must close their account when their card expires. It’s all in the fine print.  (See:  Cnn/Citigroup.)

Here’s Representative Carolyn Maloney’s  proposed legislation “Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights” which has been supported by The Center for Responsible Lending.

If you have a BOA  account, apply for your $78.00 and send a copy of the demand to your Congresspeople.

The Week That Was: Words & Brainstorms


It’s been a  flurry all week.  Here’s a collection of pieces:

US Army and Marines report a sharp escalation in soldier and veteran suicides.  (LA Times)  Caregivers on the front lines cited, among other issues, more and longer deployments, family stress, hopelessness, drugs, alcohol and extreme psychological fatigue.

In the Senate Banking Committee Hearing (Chaired by Sen. Chris Dodd),  Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve Chairman and Obama advisor offered,  “…other nations regulate the risk of  functions  rather than of entities  or particular business models.”  

 (Author note:  our present system regulates banks, for instance, but  the function of mortgage-backed securities slipped through the jurisdictional cracks of  twenty understaffed  regulatory agencies.  (See CSPAN videos.)

In the same hearing, Gene  Dodaro, Acting Comptroller General of the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Elizabeth Warren, Chair of  the Congressional Oversight Panel for the TARP  described faultlines in our financial structure and offered comments:  (1)  it’s inefficient, ineffective and inflexible; (2) it permits inadequate disclosures by credit institutions; (3)  the “financial illiteracy” of the populace  and inadequate disclosures by institutions combined to create predatory loans with incomprehensible terms; (4)  Federal and State jurisdictional issues created holes in oversight/regulation;  (5) institutions that originated loans passed the risk to other institutions without keeping “skin in the game”;  (6) we need  new ways to value  the debt because we don’t know who’s holding it or what it’s  worth;  (6)  current compensation models  encourage bad loans because there’s little or no  risk to the  originating broker. 

In an umbrella statement,  Dodaro described the current  financial model as pitting consumer protection against economic growth and urged Congress  to recognize that growth is impossible without the  trust and health of the consumer.

Senator Mark Warren referenced financial illiteracy  and  the  lack of regulation that’s allowed lenders and insurance companies to prey on our soldiers and their  families.

Witnesses in the hearing  concurred that:  (1)  we don’t know where the bailout funds are;  (2)  institutions who received funds feel no obligation  to reveal what they did with them; and regardless,  (3)  the bailout has not  significantly improved the flow of investments or loans; and (4) small business failures  and foreclosures are escalating.

Obama, stumping for the Stimulus Plan, described it as a strategy, not a piecemeal, temporary fix.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) told homeowners to stay in their homes when they’re foreclosed.  She told Amy Goodman (Democracy Now)  “…there’s a number people can call:  (888-995-HOME)  to get the proper legal representation so they can actually have the scales of justice be balanced rather than, now, all the power to Wall Street and none of the justice to Main Street.” 

(Author note:   When tenants were thrown out of their homes in the 1920s and ’30s,  their neighbors and activists overcame dogs, sheriff ‘s deputies and head-cracking batons to haul each other’s belongings back inside.)

Obama:  Companies  that receive TARP funds will limit executive compensation to $500,000.  This has caused corporations to worry they won’t be able to “attract the best talent.”   (Rewarding incompetence seems to have worked so well for all of us.)  

Aren’t our Graduate Schools  loaded with financial and administrative wizards?  Let them take take the mound and relegate  the Geithners,  Summers, Rubins and financiers to advisory positions in the dugout.  One idea is that executive officers be rewarded only after their policies result in  sustained profit growth over a number of years.  (No more $18 billion bonuses for collapsing a world economy in a single year.)

National Prayer Breakfast  and broadening of the old “faith-based” service model. My agnostic self is staying out of this one but my community organizer is shouting “hallelujah!”   (Perhaps the idea would be less offensive if we called it a “National Meditational Breakfast.)   “Community Service”  is, apparently,  fertile ground for another “Moral Majority” showdown.  It reminds me of  the efforts peace activists made  “to take back the flag”  after Bush invaded Iraq.  Obama’s model incorporates secular groups and recognizes a place for both secular and religious organizations.  My objection would be  to  religious bias dictating  what, how and to whom our civil services are provided.  (See:  First Amendment on separation of Church & State:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”)  Certainly, stringent guidelines must be enforced if  community service is to remain free of  religious dogma.

According to Bloomberg News  on February 4, 2009“Bank of America’s CEO (Kenneth Lewis) told employees that his management team and strategy have the board’s support and January results were ‘encouraging’ as turmoil in the credit markets eased.”  

The  very next day, “Bank of America’s  (BAC) shares  fell as low as $3.77 before finishing up 14 cents at $4.84.  The bank’s shares had fallen for five days prior to Thursday.”  (In the period from  January 1, 2009 to February 5, 2009 — 36 days — BAC has fallen from $14.08 to $4.56.)  No kidding,  some pundits are wondering whether Lewis is the “right guy for the job.”

Bank of America still won’t let people sully their great glass windows with community announcements.

Today,  “January’s sharp drop in employment brings job losses to 3.6 million since the start of the recession in December 2007 and…about half the decline occurred in the last three months.  January’s losses followed upwardly revised cuts of 577,000 in December and 597,000 in November.”  (CNBC

In an Orwellian way,  these unemployment numbers are good news because coincidentally, average hourly wages have risen from 0.3-0.4%  over last year. I guess that’s what happens when mass layoffs and retail closings  eliminate low wage earners from the statistical pool.

And finally, 14 year old actess  Dakota Fanning  strode  pencil-thin  onto the stage of late night television in a pair of  spiked heels.

Economy: Fixing a Broken Heart


The magical art of economics makes sense to me  only in real-life analogies.  I know some of the jargon and find it nearly as fascinating as the art itself.  High practitioners possess a comprehensive, pragmatic and effective understanding of (1)  where we are in history;  (2)  what the future holds;  (3) what we’ll need to bridge the gap;  and (4)  what  the probability is  that particular events will effect  our forward outcomes.  The last one calculates a dizzying array of  data and impressions from climate change and famine to  sonograms and pancreatic cancer.  Economics is the Buddhism of  the Magical Arts.  In fact, this blog could have been entitled, “Breathing is Economics.”

If a patient’s heart stops,  it needs a big  jolt to act as if it’s  alive. That initial jolt is a pretense:  whether we’re re-starting a heart, a battery or an economy,  the initial stimulus is a  second chance, not a fix.  Without fuel  to keep the engine charged,  another shut down is  inevitable.  (If a mixed metaphor works, then what do we care? It’s the gestalt we’re getting at here.)

The current inside-the-bubble  discussion is about whether  Obama’s Stimulus  creates enough jobs  OR  if it’s a wish list of  forward-looking investments.  (This is the basis of the stock market which predicts which  products will get us from here to there.)  The real question should be:  does it create or save enough jobs to give us confidence in the future  AND  does it anticipate building the educational and technological bridges  that will support a recovery?  In other words and to reference an Obama quote,  “Can we walk and chew gum at the same time?”

The economic stimulus has to to be big enough to  convince us that an innovative, smart economy is  in the offing.  Of necessity,  an  economic growth package has to create  sustainable manufacturing and service sectors.  So, we must invest in education and the  body politic (arts, humanities, science and technology).  We must stimulate  new economies and continuing education that  green the planet,  generate  well-health care and build local communities.

Both the stimulus and growth plans must prove our commitment to ethics and  to a workforce that  values and can afford  to buy what it produces.  Our decision making and its process must  prove we’re commited to a republic not an oligarchy.

On my birthday (January 27th) Jon Stewart suggested a stimulus plan that would eradicate our consumer debt (including mortgages) and inject  lending institutions with capital.  The  simple beauty of his plan lacks details and leaves much  to  debate, but it pinpoints the vital starting point:  worker-consumers.  As long as we’re afraid that  debt and job losses are going to drag us  over a cliff, we’ll buy only  necessities.  Demand for products will continue to slide and it’s ridiculous to invest  in companies whose products won’t be bought.   Combined with very little credit to grease the gears,  the world economy is grinding to a halt.    While Jim Cramer waxed  poetic about recession-resistant stocks like Johnson & Johnson and Colgate Palmolive, we were buying generics at the dollar stores. Our real lives are moving  faster toward pragmatism than the stock market can anticipate or pundits in a bubble can predict. Luxury and impulse buying are gone.   We’re cleaning  our own houses, cutting our own hair, plowing our own drives, mowing our own lawns, making our own yogurt and bread,  fixing our own plumbing and  growing  our own veggies.   (See  the  Foxfire Books. A Foxfire Christmas is particularly cool, I think.)  We’ve wakened from our consumptive coma  and we’re haunting  second hand shops and  buying toilet paper for  Just-A-Buck.  (If you’re new to this, find an old hippy who still looks like an old hippy and find out where s/he got her/his clothes, food and that nifty snowblower.  Also,  check out  Freecycle.  It’s an astonishing source of  free stuff.)

Sorry.  Back to Jon Stewart’s economic stimulus.

He’s  proposed  a new place to begin and called the scheme  “trickle up.”   Months ago, I suggested a direct infusion of funds to   local employers in order to stem job losses.  Both that idea and Stewart’s  shore up  the foundation of the  pyramid and frankly, as long as we jolt the core and build from the foundation, I don’t much care how we do it.

There are a blizzard of details to sort through of which these are just a few:

Regulators and  people facing foreclosure may not know which caballic entity holds their mortgage debt today,  but  consumers know which bank and loan officer  approved it. Do we give the money to the originating bank who may have issued a lousy loan?  Remember, the patient’s heading for complete cardiac arrest.  We don’t  have time to worry about which arteries messed us up; we need to jump start the  heart.  Some greedy consumers and banks will be rewarded.   It’s an unfortunate consequence that common sense suggests we must swallow.

Would every consumer get $15,000 to pay down or eliminate non-mortgage debt?   Would we modify corporate debt?  Or,  would we  limit debt cancellation to  locally-owned and/or  -operated businesses  with healthy, symbiotic relationships to their workers and communities?  (Nirvana, that and probably  fraught with legal challenges.  Not to mention how few locally-owned and/or operated businesses are surviving the early carnage.)

Which mortgage debt do we wipe out?  Do we subsidize all properties that have lost  value since purchase  or only property holders  who’ve lost or are in danger of losing the property?  Do we include only the primary home or do  we help the  retiree who bought a vacation home as a retirement investment?  Do we consider residential and commercial mortgages?  Do we have time to look at the community-at-large?  Can we afford not to?

We don’t have time to re-value each mortgage and  credit card so we might  have to pick a pay-back  percentage  which all parties  accept as whole.  If  we  owe the credit card company  $10,000, the company has to agree that  $1,000 (10 cents on the dollar) makes them whole.  Then,  Linens & Things and  Circuit City (the bankrupt companies where we bought our towels and computers) have  to accept $5 for a $50 bed sheet and  $100 for the $1,000 computer  they sold.  (I’m not saying it’s a bad deal, but  part of the equation is that when franchise retailers go out of business,  we lose the  under-compensated jobs many of us have been “educated” to fill.)

It’s gnarly; but so is the idea of a trillion dollars going directly to banks in hopes they’ll get around to re-financing  our debt.  They won’t.  Not just because they’re greedily waiting to scoop up the weaklings, but because they’d  be crazy to lend money in a sliding economy without substantial government investment in the future.

Increasingly violent hurricanes, floods, crop destruction,  water pollution and  water wars are events that threaten our basic food supply  and our economic forecast.  They  demand  resources for fixing rather than prevention.

Our transportation and electric grids are so  unreliable  that year-round, millions of people are left for weeks without heat/air conditioning, electric and water  in the wake of  storms.  When our transportation arteries aren’t flooded, they’re rendered impassible by ice.  They’re pocked with axle-busting potholes and our bridges are crumbling.  “Bird strikes” pose a known and unpredictable threat to our air transport, for cryin’ out loud.

We’ve got plenty of work to do–plenty of valuable jobs to fill.  If  an economic plan includes a large enough jolt and forward-thinking investments,  then it stands a chance of  succeeding.  (See:  House Bill and Senate Bill at Thomas.gov.)

A small note on “Sin Taxes.” Many of  us can’t afford the pleasures of  vacations, monthly trips to the movies or fresh fruits & veggies,  so we cling to our cheap substitutes:  fast-fat-sweet-salty-food,  cigarettes,  dope and  beer).  It isn’t a pretty picture (especially for the children) but if we’re going to tax sin,  then we need to think of it in terms of  a population that can’t afford  regular trips to a therapist.

Is Obama Clearing the Way to Criminal Charges?


On January 21, 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order that revoked George W. Bush’s  Executive Order 13233.  Bush had sought to severely limit  access to the records of former United States Presidents.    His previous and  more exclusive version was drafted by then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and issued by President George W. Bush on November 1, 2001.

In signing the Executive Order,  President Obama  returned to the law as it was signed  by Ronald Reagan in 1989.

Obama’s  revocation affected two substantive changes  in what happens when a former president is asked to release  his presidential records.

Obama’s new order  reduces from 90 to 30  days the length of time a former president has to review records being requested.  This is important to the issue of delay as practiced for eight years by the Bush Executive.

More substantively,  the old version  (Bush’s Ex. Order 13233)  would have given Bush de facto veto power over Obama  if  Obama believed  Bush’s claim of  Executive Privilege was bogus:

“… the Archivist shall not permit access to the records by a   requester  [b]ecause the former President independently retains the right to assert constitutionally based privileges… the Archivist shall not permit access to the records by a requester unless and until the incumbent President advises the Archivist that the former President and the incumbent President agree to authorize access to the records or until so ordered by a final and nonappealable court order.

According to Bush’s rule,  both the former and incumbent Presidents would have to agree to the document disclosure.

Obama’s new rule allows the current President   to overrule the  former President’s claim of Executive Privilege:

[Upon receipt of a claim of executive privilege by a living former President], the Archivist (b)  In making the determination referred to in subsection (a) of this section, the Archivist shall abide by any instructions given him by the incumbent President or his designee unless otherwise directed by a final court order.

Even under Obama’s Order,  the former President has theoretical recourse to  the Courts.

Is  Obama clearing debris  from the path  to criminal charges?  In part, that will depend on what happens to Cheney’s records and how President Obama treats  “Executive Privilege.”

Bush’s Executive Order 13233 mentions the Vice President’s records specifically.  Obama’s order does not — as if Obama believes  the Veep’s documents are  integral to the  Executive Branch.  That would be a new view. As you know,  Cheney believed his office existed in a misty venue somewhere between the Executive and Legislative branches.

1.   Wikipedia intro to Bush’s Executive Order 13233

2.   Obama revokes Bush’s  Presidential Records protections

Inauguration Jubilee: Sunday


Pete Seeger, his voice  thinned by the years,  sings  old labor and unity anthems shoulder-to-shoulder with  The Boss.

Through the Vietnam War and the crushing of the labor unions, we sang with outrage, defiance and by the skin of our teeth.  Through the last thirty years, we’ve  sung to each other of Joe Hill,  Matewan, endless war  and  the Letter from the Birmingham Jail.    Even when we doubted, we pledged in small groups to join hands and overcome.  (Letter from the Birmingham Jail:   http://www.bu.edu/irsd/Ec326_2004/material_2004/Letter%20from%20Birmingham%20Jail.htm

In one moment during the Democratic Primary Debates,  Obama and Clinton showed us the fundamental difference between them.   The moment  received little subsequent coverage and  came in  response to a question from Kim Millman of  Burnsville, Minnesota:  “…there’s been no acknowledgement by any of the presidential candidates of the negative economic impact of immigration on the African-American community.  How do you propose to address the high unemployment rates and the declining wages in the African-American community that are related to the flood of immigrant labor?”

Obama replied with full understanding of how business and economic downturns have conspired to divide workers along racial, ethnic  and gender  lines  into weakened factions.  He encouraged workers to organize around their commonly-held kitchen table issues.  He reminded  us that all American workers are under siege and that we need each other.    His response educated workers for their own organizing good.

Clinton’s response acknowledged  that business scavenges  for low-cost workers and drives down compensation, but many of her words were vested in  the manufactured divide  between African Americans and “immigrant”  workers.   (The transcript of the debate is available here:  http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/01/31/dem.debate.transcript/index.html

This inauguration, we sing,  “This land is our land,”  with tears streaming.    We dare  to believe  we can re-create  a  “government  of the people, by the people and for the people.”

In  music and poetry we hear  a few of   the stories we didn’t learn  in school.  Queen Latifah takes  the  stage —  tall, certain and strong — to tell  us of  the day Marian Anderson and   Eleanor Roosevelt  faced down The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).   I give thanks to my mother and grandfather  for telling me the story  of  those two astonishing women.  There are so many clues in our history that show us how to avoid the mistakes that have separated us one from another.  (Here’s  the story of Marian and Eleanor.  It includes  The  First Lady’s letter of resignation from  the DAR: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals/eleanor.html

More than any other reason,  I thank the fates for Obama  this Inauguration weekend  because I remember how migrant farm workers were threatened with lynching in the town where I grew up.  I remember the faces of my schoolmates when we hid beneath our desks  in  fear of a  US-USSR nuclear war.    I am thankful,  while a ceasefire exists between Israel and Gaza,   that  our next  President  has an ingrained understanding  that we live or die together.

For years,  the picture of Eleanor climbing out of the coal mine hung over my bed.  (I was an atheist  who adored my spiritual icons.)  Her face was dirty and the miner’s lamp she wore hung low over her forehead and crushed her  hairdo.  She was looking up at the miners who were waiting to pull her out of the hole and into the light.  I haven’t located that particular photo but this  link  shows her entering the depths of  the Willow Grove Mine  in a mining car:  http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ridge/4478/grove.htm

Today,  the media speaks in breathless tones about the gown Michelle will wear tomorrow.   CNN is all a-twitter speculating on the designer’s identity and how many pairs of shoes  The First Lady will need  to survive the Inaugural festivities.

We  need bread and circuses, I suppose; but we also need to see  honest images of cashiers, neighbors, truck drivers, friends  and  autoworkers as they wait  in line this winter day at  their local food pantries.

Obama Picks: Holder & Geithner


Attorney General Nominee  Eric Holder, Separation of Powers and  The Citizen’s Advocate. The United States Constitution establishes three independent branches of  government which balance and check each other’s power.  The Executive Branch (The President and his appointees) is charged with executing  and enforcing laws enacted  by Congress or   adjudicated  by  the  U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Attorney General (AG) is  “The People’s Attorney,”   a watchdog  charged with ensuring that  the Executive Branch functions  consistent with Federal law  and within the framework of  The U.S. Constitution.  In the past, when the  AG   abdicated this obligation, Writs of Mandamus or the  Administrative Procedures Act (APA) have been used to force the AG to  (1) investigate the Executive’s actions or inactions or, alternatively,  (2)  to appoint an independent investigator.  In  recent years,  as the “Imperial/Unitarian Presidency” grew, these tools  of citizen redress have  been more frequently denied by  courts and Administrative  Law Judges.  There’s an underlying assumption that it’s better to countenance questionable Executive actions than it is to risk overstepping  the Separation of Powers.

As demonstrated by  Bush’s   Presidency,   an independent AG and Justice Department are   essential reins on  a run-away Executive.  The AG is often The People’s last recourse for achieving  administrative and judicial intervention.  In that light,  citizens should welcome Senator  Arlen Specter’s questioning (R-Pa.)  of  Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder about his  involvement in the Marc Rich pardon scandal.  Was Holder so dependent on President Clinton’s good graces that he abdicated  due diligence and independence for personal ambition?  In our current situation (an extraordinarily popular President-Elect and  a Democratic-controlled Congress)  it is especially important that the People’s watchdogs are  motivated by law and ethics not by personal aggrandizement.  According to Holder,  “The duty of the AG is to defend statutes…  unless there are compelling reasons [not to].”

In today’s  hearing, Senator  Orrin Hatch asked Holder (who has expressed opposition to  rendition, torture and warrantless wiretapping)  if  Holder would pursue  prosecutions of officials who approved extraordinary rendition and warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens.  In reply,  Holder stated,  “No one’s above the law  We will follow the evidence, the facts, the law and  let that take us where it  should.   We don’t want to criminalize policy differences…between the outgoing administration and the incoming Obama administration.  I want to know more about what lead to these decisions.”

In a loose citation of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952) Holder further stated, “[The President’s power is] weakest … where Congress has indicated something contrary to what  the President wants to do.”  In other words,  where Congress has expressed its will in legislation,  the President is obliged to act within the parameters established.  (Of course, Congress cannot usurp powers granted the Executive by The Constitution.)

It seems clear Holder understands his Constitutional obligations to uphold the law and to prosecute its corruption.  We should listen carefully to  Senator Specter’s questions and to  designee-Holder’s answers.  They may be the only additional clues we get to the stamina of  designee-Holder’s  ethics and independence.

Timothy Geithner, Citigroup & the global economic crisis. See  “Note 4”  below.  The Alternet-Politico article provides a good overview of Geithner’s involvement in the creation of our current global economic crisis and should be read in its entirety.

Several experts on finance,  mortgage-backed securities, hedge funds, bankruptcy, SEC regulations and lack of enforcement, arcane investment tools and the  TARP  have testified before Congress concerning our global economic crisis.  (See CSPAN archives.) Their grasp of the  factors affecting  an economic recovery was comprehensive.

As  the former president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, Timothy Geithner reduced  regulations and consequent oversight of Citigroup, et al.

Is he   the best person to develop the architecture of  our economic recovery?  Has he demonstrated a capacity for  predicting the effect of government interventions/pullbacks on financial  markets?   What  unique expertise does he possess beyond having overseen the building and crashing of an economic  house of cards?  What was the nature of his relationship with Citigroup and Robert Rubin? (Rubin is a past-Treasury Secretary, Geithner’s former boss and  was a  “special consultant” to Citigroup during its implosion.  He is also one of  President-elect Obama’s economic advisors.)

NOTES  &  CITATIONS

1.    Administrative Procedures Act:    http://usgovinfo.about.com/library/bills/blapa.htm

2.    U.S. Supreme Court and Writs of Mandamus which I’m including because it’s a tool too few of us know about:   (Per Justice Ginsberg in 2004,  No. 03-475″…an applicant seeking a §1361 mandamus writ must show that “the [federal] defendant owes him a clear, nondiscretionary duty.” Heckler v. Ringer, 466 U.S. 602, 616 (1984) (emphasis added). No §1361 writ may issue, in other words, when federal law grants discretion to the federal officer, rather than imposing a duty on him. When federal law imposes an obligation, however, suit under §1361 is not precluded simply because facts must be developed to ascertain whether a federal command has been dishonored. Congress enacted §1361 to “mak[e] it more convenient for aggrieved persons to file actions in the nature of mandamus,” Stafford v. Briggs, 444 U.S. 527, 535 (1980), not to address the rare instance in which a federal defendant, upon whom the law unequivocally places an obligation, concedes his failure to measure up to that obligation. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/search/display.html?terms=mandamus%20attorney%20general&url=/supct/html/03-475.ZD.html

3.   Bloomberg has a good overview of  the concerns raised by Holder’s nomination:  http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601103&sid=afLrs7qPiu2o&refer=us

4.   Alternet & Politico have this overview of Citigroup, Timothy Geithner, Robert Rubin  & the global economic  meltdown:  http://www.alternet.org/workplace/119871/how_citigroup_unraveled_under_geithner%27s_watch/?page=1