Friday, January 28, 2011

From Michael Winship

The Bush Legacy Strikes Out American Justice

By Michael Winship

The Detroit Tigers are retiring the great baseball manager Sparky Anderson's number 11 this season. "It's a wonderful gesture," Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg wrote. "I just wish Sparky could see it."

Anderson won three World Series -- one managing the Tigers, two with the Cincinnati Reds -- and passed away this past November. Rosenberg said, "Retiring his number now is the baseball version of waiting until a relative dies to say thank you."

That's because it comes sixteen years after Anderson left the Tigers in a bitter feud with owner Mike Ilitch. Yet as Sparky once said, "I've got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There's no future in it."

I wish I could say the same, let bygones be bygones and the rest, but when it comes to two other baseball devotees, the Presidents Bush, it's tough. Father and especially son left behind a heap of wreckage.

I hear some of you say forget it, time to move on. Maybe, but theirs is not a legacy that simply fades in the distance and leaves us in peace. What they did continues to impact our lives in deleterious ways, notably when it comes to the full speed, head-on collision of partisan politics with American justice.

Just this week, the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) released a long overdue, 118-page report concluding that George Jr.'s White House used government agencies for Republican pep rallies and sent officials off on electioneering trips using taxpayer money, especially in the lead-up to the 2006 midterm elections. These are violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities in the workplace and forbids the use of tax revenues for political purposes.

According to the OSC's findings the abuses were "a systemic misuse of federal resources." As the website Talking Points Memo reported, "The Office of Political Affairs (OPA) in Bush's White House, overseen by Karl Rove, dispatched cabinet officials to campaign for Republican candidates on the federal dime and forced federal political appointees to attend political meetings during work time."

One memo, at the US Department of Health and Human Services, read, "This meeting is mandatory. It will essentially be the same large meeting that we had last year about this time. So, please clear your schedule, put your pom-poms on, and let's go!!!"

There won't be any punishment for the cheerleaders -- unless you count Democrats taking back the House and Senate in 2006, despite Rove and the GOP pulling out all the stops with their White House boiler room operation. No request has been made asking the Justice Department to file charges; Rove and any other miscreants fled the scene of the crime before Inauguration Day 2009 and can no longer be prosecuted. The Obama White House, however, has moved its Office of Political Affairs to Democratic National Committee HQ and the presidential re-election effort to Chicago. What could possibly go wrong in Chicago?

Attempting to rectify another Bush injustice this week, the Obama administration named two new commissioners to the US Commission on Civil Rights, which currently has an imbalance of four Republicans (two claim to be "independents") to three Democrats (one commissioner's reappointment by House Speaker Boehner will even things up -- it's a little complicated). Talking Points Memo: "The Bush administration stacked the commission with conservatives by having two of the commissioners switch their affiliation from Republican to independent. The move, said the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, was legal. But it was also, as former Commission Chairman Gerald Reynolds (a Republican appointee) acknowledged, intended to 'game' the system. The scheme unfolded in 2004, and the panel has since focused on racism against white people and claimed that measures intended to aid minority groups are discriminatory."

Meanwhile, the Bush family's Supreme Court appointees -- along with that mossback relic of the Reagan era, Antonin Scalia -- habitually thumb their noses at the very notion of an independent and impartial judiciary. Last week, the citizen's lobby Common Cause formally requested that the Justice Department investigate whether Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas (Bush Sr.'s notorious appointee) should have been disqualified from hearing the Citizens United case, last year's landmark ruling that lifted restrictions on corporate political contributions, allowing huge amounts of secret cash to pour into our elections.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Common Cause President and CEO Bob Edgar wrote, "It appears both justices have participated in political strategy sessions, perhaps while the case was pending, with corporate leaders whose political aims were advanced by the decision. With respect to Justice Thomas, there may also be an undisclosed financial conflict of interest due to his wife's role as CEO of Liberty Central, a 501(c)(4) organization that stood to benefit from the decision and played an active role in the 2010 elections."

Justice Thomas dismissed his failure to report his wife's income -- not only from the right wing Liberty Central but also the conservative Heritage Foundation -- as a "misunderstanding of the filing instructions." As for those "political strategy sessions," Thomas and Scalia attended secretive, invitation-only desert retreats, fundraisers held by billionaire Charles Koch, who, with his brother David, owns the energy giant Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the United States, and bankrolls the right wing, including elements of the Tea Party movement.

At those sessions, discussions may have been held about Citizens United while the case was under consideration; certainly, many of those in attendance have taken full advantage of the ruling and poured millions into the campaigns of conservative candidates -- Common Cause reports that Koch Industries' political action committee spent $2.6 million on last year's elections, in addition to tens of millions contributed by Americans for Prosperity, the right wing group founded by the two brothers. (The 2011 Koch retreat takes place this weekend; thousands plan to gather in nearby Rancho Mirage, California, to protest.)

This isn't the first time Justices Scalia and Thomas have hobnobbed with corporate bigwigs and right wing muck-a-mucks. Scalia is a regular headliner at the right-wing Federalist Society. In 2009, Thomas was featured at the Heritage Foundation's annual fundraiser and in 2008 delivered the Wriston Lecture at the conservative Manhattan Institute, an event that costs $5,000 to $25,000 to attend. Conservative court colleague and George W. Bush appointee Samuel Alito has also given the Wriston Lecture and attended fundraisers for The American Spectator magazine and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the wonderful folks who gave us ACORN hoaxster James O'Keefe.

(Thanks for this information to the progressive ThinkProgress website. And yes, I know liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has allowed the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund to name a lectureship after her; that's an issue, too.)

"The Supreme Court is the guardian of its own integrity," The Boston Globe editorialized on Thursday. "That means staying above politics and maintaining an air of dispassionate consideration of constitutional issues. The court is not an elected body, and shouldn't function like one. This is especially important because, unlike with an elected body, there are few external constraints on the justices: They set their own rules, and the need for comity on the court largely prevents them from policing each other. Their shared commitment to maintaining judicial decorum is all that binds them."

No one is above the law, it's said, but Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito certainly behave like they are. None of them attended Tuesday's State of the Union address -- certainly not the first time that's happened, but still symbolically disrespectful. Sadly, unlike baseball legend Sparky Anderson's, their numbers are unlikely to be retired any time soon.


Michael Winship was senior writer for Bill Moyers Journal on PBS and is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Global financial meltdown avoidable?

On Thursday, a report from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Committee will be released, according to the New York Times, that says the global meltdown of 2008 was "avoidable." This hardly comes as breaking news to anyone any more than their conclusion that both the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations equally share the blame.

The committee places responsibility for the financial calamity squarely on the shoulders of former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, for his support of deregulation, as well as lack of oversight of what the Times calls "shoddy" mortgage lending practices, as well as "risky bets on securities backed by loans," but what some economists call fraud. Ben Bernanke is blamed for shielding derivatives.

Anyone looking for some larger, iconic statement will be disappointed by the report. The usual suspects, greed and incompetence, are allowed to upstage the real suspect, fraudulent, criminal activity for the sake of enhancing profit.

As the panel rightly suggests it would be an egregious lie to say that no one saw this coming as In October, 2008, the International Monetary Fund went on record predicting an imminent, ominous economic slowdown.

While many, including the panel, date the ineptitude of key figures in both administrations back to 2008, there is evidence that Federal Reserve practices of as far back as 2000 are largely responsible for the aftershock that was 2008. Former chief economist at the IMF, from 2001 to 2004, Prof. Kenneth Rogoff, according to Timesonline.Uk, spoke of a "worldwide credit crunch and financial turmoil especially in the U.S."

It was Rogoff who, years earlier, presaged the demise of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as the mortgage industry, and criticized the Federal Reserve for cutting interest rates in 2000: "Cutting interest rates is going to lead to a lot of inflation in the next few years," he told the TimesonlineUK back in August, 2008. And, Rogoff wasn't a lone wolf in the desert. There were other prominent economists at the time who envisoned the same catastrophic outcome if Federal Reserve policies didn't change.

But, the report does not ask the all-important question of why, despite persistent warning signs and cautionary advice from the IMF, firms like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were allowed to write home loans to consumers who had invisible credit. The report doesn't go into who profited most from this Federal Reserve policy of "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." So it is then that we can feel the anxious fingers of puppeteer like Greenspan and Bernanke behind recessions and recoveries. But, to whose benefit?

A quick look at the profit margins of banks, and corporations, whose profited as a direct result from the recession will prove enlightening:

Last April, as Reuters reported, Citigroup posted its best results in three years, up $4.43 billion in the first quarter of 2010 as the "recovery" reduced the bank's credit losses, and "increased prices even on its worst assets."

In September, per Bloomberg, AIG projected a pretax operating profit of $2 billion for fiscal year ending November 30, 2010.

As of October, JP Morgan Chase's profit, in 2010, jumped 23% to $4.4 billion.

The U.S. government now owns 80% of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Bailing out the ailing home mortgage company could cost as much as $1 trillion. Notably, the government absorbed their bad assets, and taxpayers are taking the hit. Think about this in light of this week's report that the federal budget deficit has now reached a record $1.5 trillion.

As James K. Galbraith, one of the world's leading economists, told a Senate committee back in May, "Fraud is at the root of the financial crisis."

There can be little doubt that the actions of big banks, and corporations who are now reaping record profits at taxpayer expense were deliberate, and premeditated, hence they are criminal.

So, now that the Supreme Court has endowed corporations with personhood granting them First Amendment rights, courtesy of the Citizens United ruling, it's time for Justice to read executive officers of Citigroup, AIG, JP Morgan Chase, and other corporate behemoths that boast obscene profits at taxpayer expense, their Miranda rights.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Thinking about that squirrel

While everyone else is anticipating President Obama's second State of the Union Address, I'm thinking about a squirrel I recently saw race across the street.

Last week, as I was walking for exercise, I couldn't help but notice one of the neighborhood squirrels scamper across a side street like a bat out of hell. This was not a special side street, but one like many in America with kamakaze drivers chasing each other back and forth at all hours of the day and night.

Likewise, it is not unusual to see squirrels climbing up and down the trees competing for nuts, and whatever else it is that squirrels like to eat. Often, I confess, I enjoy sharing my trail mix with them. For the most part, they are a pretty laid back bunch, the squirrels in my neighborhood.

But, this particular squirrel was unlike any I'd ever seen. It was like he was on steroids or something. As I walked farther up the street, and approached a stop sign, it was clear why the little fellow was running as if he was scared to death. The carcass of one of one of his comrades had evidently been run over by a speeding vehicle, and lay splattered between potholes on the pavement. And, about a half mile in the other direction, I could see the remains of yet another flattened squirrel who clearly got in the way of oncoming traffic.

Something about the way that squirrel sped wildly across the road made me flinch and, for a moment, feel ashamed to be part of the human race.

I stood wondering what it is that makes us feel so damn special that we continue to do these drive-bys on nature, and think we can get away with it as I watched a twenty-something student take a blind curve at about 15 mph over the posted speed limit. Can we be that oblivious to the consequences of driving fast on a residential street? How can we not think about being faced with having to hit an unsuspecting pet, or worse in order to avoid a larger collision?

This is not just about squirrels, I thought, but about a world view. The same world view that leads us to buy the biggest sports utility vehicles we can find, so we can bully each other on the highway. This is the same world view that leads us to think it's okay to invade sovereign countries, topple their governments, and plunder them for their natural resources.

In the end, it is not just that squirrel that runs in fear for his life. It is the bluebirds whose hysterical chirp grows more coarse with every ounce of carbon monoxide we unload in the air. It is the depraved way we treat horses for our amusement, and the roar of the lions that have outgrown our mastery.

And, with our insistence upon dominance over each other, as well as all other forms of life, we have made petrified carcasses out of whole continents.

This evening, on the way back from Whole Foods, there was yet another poor squirrel splattered across the pavement in a driveway. He could well be the same squirrel from last week who looked like he knew he was in danger just trying to get from one side of the road to the other.

Maybe someday when we look to our own children the way we must look to that squirrel, we'll slow down just long enough to show a living creature a little respect.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Comeback for Santorum?

Pretty slim pickings on the Republican side of the aisle. It's a good thing the presidential campaign season is a year away, but there are already those who want to make their intentions known.

If, as has been said, the "early bird catches the worm," the field is filled with early birds like Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, and maybe even Sarah Palin. Neither Bachmann, Romney, nor Palin could pull off a teflon campaign; all three face serious caveats.

Palin is too easily "refudiated," and as for Bachmann, is the country really ready for a president in pumps who wants to criminalize what has been, for generations, Congress's favorite activity?

As for Romney, the right is already attacking him for doing to Massachusetts what it insists "Obamacare" will do to the U.S. But then, there's always Pawlenty. He looks more like a mortician than a presidential candidate, not that looks count, or maybe the Nixon-Kennedy debates, half a century ago, changed all that.

More to the point, now that they've won the gun debate,the issue neoconservative Republicans have in their crosshairs is choice. And, who better to emerge from the ashes like a born again phoenix than Rick Santorum who, brilliantly, is now seizing on the "civil rights" theme gays and lesbians have used to overturn Don't Ask Don't Tell to make abortion the signature issue of the 2012 presidential campaign, at least for Republicans.

Yes, savor the irony. The man who, nearly a decade ago, as senator from Pennsylvania, had the temerity to tell the Associated Press that consensual homosexual sex in the privacy of one's home is the same as incest, adultery, or polygamy wants a clean start. Those comments, back in 2003, caused Log Cabin Republicans to vehemently oppose him, as well as forcing him to step down as chair of the Republican Senate Caucus.

But, friends, Rick Santorum is back, and he's counting on your short memory.

Earlier this week, in an interview with, Santorum claimed that President Obama should be against abortion because he's black: "Well if that person, human life is not a person, then, I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'We are going to decide who are people and who are not people."

And, later on he told CBN he's "disappointed that President Obama, who rightfully fights for civil rights, refuses to recognize the civil rights of the unborn in this country."

Bingo! Brilliant, he's found the hook. How can Obama fail to "recognize the civil rights of the unborn in this country?" In one fell swoop, Rick Santorum has transformed anti-abortion activists, including maybe even those who killed Dr. George Tiller, into civil rights leaders.

Where did he get the cojones to do that? A quick peek at Santorum's past reveals that the former Pennsylvania senator is both a social and fiscal conservative who served in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2007 where he actively endorsed legislation that not only led to a ban on partial birth aborions, but to cuts in social security, as well as welfare reform. Clearly, then-Senator Santorum didn't consider the civil rights of poor children whose Aid to Dependent Families payments were slashed. Instead, he chooses to exercise his vocal cords about what he calls the "civil rights" of those yet to be born. Who cares that nearly one in five children in this country lives in poverty?

Before his Senate run, Santorum spent four years in the House where, back in 2001, he tried, and failed to insert language into the No Child Left Behind bill that touted so-called intelligent design, and denigrated evolution. And, while he is no longer an elected representative, this is a man who already has a built-in audience as a contributor to the Fox News Channel, the same channel that hosts Sarah Palin.

Among his early accomplishments, he represented the World Wrestling Foundation arguing against federal anabolic steroid regulations as he doesn't consider wrestling a sport. What is it then, Mr. Santorum? A civil right? Rest assured that a Santorum presidency would rank up there with that of George W. Bush as an environmental catastrophe.

Among his last legislative accomplishments, Santorum is the senator credited with introducing the phrase "Islamic fascism."

His positions are textbook neoconservative and closely aligned with those of the tea party. He is a fan of deficit reduction, privatizing social security, welfare reform, overturning Roe v. Wade, and bolstering notions of intelligent design, all of which are now mainstream Republican values.

The parallels between Bachmann, Palin, and Santorum are inescapable, but there is one big difference. Santorum can point to decades of experience. This may not sound like much, but the only other candidate floating around the idea of throwing his hat in the ring who has more experience is Mitt Romney. But, Romney has another big negative to Republicans besides the parallels to Obama's health reform legislation. Romney was for abortion before he was against it, and in this political climate, that's going to cost him dearly.

Something else about Romney; he may not be politically ambitious enough. In the early days of his political career, Santorum was dubbed the "most ambitious" politician by a Pennsylvania magazine. Scared yet?

Even more scary is that Santorum's position on abortion is largely the same as that of Randall Terry who has long been a rabid crusader against choice, and who also says he wants to be nominated to run for president, but as a Democrat, and against Obama. Go figure! A Democratic candidate running against choice? Nah!

As an article in Raw Story suggests, Randall Terry's election campaign is largely meant to be a ruse, and is really about finding a legal way to produce graphic television ads that depict abortion procedures, as he has in the past, and run them during the 2012 NFL Super Bowl, and playoffs. He already found his platform. He will run on affirming the "civil rights" of a one inch fetus while working to eviscerate social programs designed to protect the rights of everyone else.

Of course, in the end, neither Rick Santorum nor Randall Terry will win their party's nomination which doesn't obscure the fact that a woman's constitutional right to determine her own reproductive destiny will be a major issue in the 2012 presidential campaign.

We'd like to think we have a two party system, but it's shrunk to one and a half.

If what's happening now with health reform is any indication, had Democrats strongly defended the Second Amendment the way Republicans have, we would have the strictest gun control laws in a generation.

The left, and those Democrats who want to preserve and protect a woman's right to choose, are going to have to be as passionate about its defense as the Republicans have been about their right to bear arms, or Roe v. Wade will soon become a footnote in a heavily redacted history book.

From Michael Winship

Court and Chevron's "Crude" Attacks Continue

By Michael Winship

Joe Berlinger's back is against the wall. Last week the independent filmmaker, already facing crushing debt from legal bills, was dealt a major blow in his continuing fight against the third largest company in America, Chevron.

It's a battle that epitomizes the hardship individuals face trying to challenge corporate giants that punch back with a knockout force of high-powered lawyers and unlimited cash.

What's more, Joe's struggle continues to raise serious First Amendment issues and -- as we approach the first anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision -- throws yet another spotlight on the increasingly pro-business stance of the nation's legal system.

It was this past May when my friend and colleague Bill Moyers and I first wrote about Joe's documentary Crude and its legal troubles. The film tells the story of how Ecuadorians challenged the pollution of rivers and wells from Texaco's drilling in the Lago Agrio oil field, a rainforest disaster savagely damaging the environment and the local population's health that's been described as the Amazon's Chernobyl. When the petrochemical behemoth Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001 and attempted to dismiss claims that it was now responsible, the indigenous people and their lawyers fought back in court.

In May, Federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered Berlinger to turn over to Chevron more than 600 hours of raw footage used to create the film. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit limited the amount of footage to be turned over (although it still amounts to more than 500 hours), but ordered Berlinger to submit to depositions.

Now, on January 13, that same court ruled, as reported in The New York Times, that Joe "could not invoke a journalist's privilege in refusing to turn over that footage because his work on the film did not constitute an act of independent reporting," and that the argument "that he was protected as a journalist from being compelled to share his reporting materials was not persuasive." As evidence, the court said that the film "was solicited by the plaintiffs in the Lago Agrio litigation for the purpose of telling their story, and changes to the film were made at their instance."

Berlinger responded, "While the idea for Crude was pitched to me by Steven Donziger, one of the Lago Agrio Plaintiffs' lawyers, this was not a commissioned film. I had complete editorial independence, as did 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair who also produced stories on this case that were solicited by Mr. Donziger. The decision to modify one scene in the film based on comments from the plaintiffs' lawyers after viewing the film at the Sundance Film Festival was exclusively my own and in no way diminishes the independence of this production from its subjects. I rejected many other suggested changes and my documentary Crude has been widely praised for its balance in the presentation of Chevron's point of view as well as the plaintiffs'."

Were mistakes made, errors in judgment? Perhaps. But the court's ruling fails to fully understand the nature of news and documentary reporting and will have a chilling effect on journalists who constantly receive information and suggestions from sources representing a variety of interests and points of view. It's the professional journalist's job to sort through them on the way to determining the truth. As Moyers and I wrote in May, "This is a serious matter for reporters, filmmakers and frankly, everyone else. Tough, investigative reporting without fear or favor -- already under siege by severe cutbacks and the shutdown of newspapers and other media outlets -- is vital to the public awareness and understanding essential to a democracy."

Just as dismaying about this latest ruling is the endless sinking feeling that the courts more than ever are stacked against the individual seeking redress against big business. In the 39 states where judges are elected, corporate cash has poured into judicial races -- contributions have more than doubled in recent years, prompting Sandra Day O'Connor to say, "No state can possibly benefit from having that much money injected into a political campaign." And in the federal courts, well, suppose Joe Berlinger's case were to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. A recent Fortune magazine cover proclaimed it "the most pro-business court we have ever seen," and as the Times more understatedly noted last month, "It is clear... that the Supreme Court these days is increasingly focused on business issues."

In case you missed the Times story over the holidays, it was headlined "Justices Offer Receptive Ear to Business Interests." Scholars at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago prepared a report analyzing nearly 1500 Supreme Court decisions across almost six decades. It found, "The Roberts court, which has completed five terms, ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time, compared with 46 percent in the last five years of the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, and 42 percent by all courts since 1953."

According to the Times' Adam Liptak, “The Roberts court's engagement with business issues has risen along with the emergence of a breed of lawyers specializing in Supreme Court advocacy, many of them veterans of the United States solicitor general's office, which represents the federal government in the court. These specialists have been extraordinarily successful, both in persuading the court to hear business cases and to rule in favor of their clients."

Many of these lawyers work for or with the US Chamber of Commerce and its National Chamber Litigation Center, which calls itself "the voice of business in the courts on issues of national concern to the business community."

The Times reported, "The chamber now files briefs in most major business cases. The side it supported in the last term won 13 of 16 cases. Six of those were decided with a majority vote of five justices, and five of those decisions favored the chamber's side. One of them was Citizens United, in which the chamber successfully urged the court to guarantee what it called 'free corporate speech' by lifting restrictions on campaign spending."

The court's independence -- and historic skepticism about the needs of corporate America -- are relics of the past. Here's what was in a 2007 edition of BusinessWeek magazine: "Robin S. Conrad, head of the Chamber of Commerce's litigation arm, notes that the judicial branch offers an alternative forum where business can seek changes it has failed to win from other branches of government. In the 1990s, the chamber and other business groups made this a vital part of their tort reform strategy on a state level, pouring money into local judicial campaigns to reshape state supreme courts and, ultimately, state laws. Now with a US Supreme Court that's not allergic to business cases, the approach is playing out on a national level..."

It was President Calvin Coolidge who in 1925 famously declared, "The chief business of the American people is business," a sentiment this Supreme Court and much of the American judicial system would stoutly embrace. But ironically -- especially for journalists and filmmakers like Joe Berlinger -- he made the remark in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Its title: "The Press under a Free Government."

Truth and freedom, Coolidge said, "are inseparable." There is "no justification for interfering with the freedom of the press, because all freedom, though it may sometime tend toward excesses, bears within it those remedies which will finally effect a cure for its own disorders."


Michael Winship was senior writer at Bill Moyers Journal on PBS and is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

sitting here

sitting here
birds chase
each other
the clouds
cars pass by
the sky unfolds
over the ocean
while the sun
unmoved by
an ambulance
making its way
down the street.
sitting here I
think just
enough to
stop death in
its tracks.

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Amazing discovery

Archeologists are rumored to have made a major discovery, a tablet containing the first words Adam spoke to Eve, in the garden of Eden, when they first met: "It's lonely here at the end of the world."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Not goodbye, but hasta luego

One of the regular followers of this blog succumbed last night to a long, heroic struggle with pancreatic cancer. His name is Marvin Siegel. He was 83 years old, and and he lived in New York. Marvin was my mother's third husband.

While Marvin was not a father to me, I was an adult, and living on my own when he married my mother, his generosity, as well as support were with me through lean times. While he was not an intellectual kind of guy, or a big fan of political discourse, he had an appreciation for the finer things in life, and for the arts. He loved good food, music, and even read poetry.

More importantly, he was my mother's best friend, and the best friend anyone could want.

Marvin was a special guy. He had a heart. He had a healthy respect for the truth, and an appetite for telling it, even if it wasn't what you wanted to hear. He put the needs of those he loved before his own needs. He was magnanimous in the best sense of that word.

Some spend their time begrudging what they don't have, and others instead think of how they can make life better for those around them. Marvin saw to it he left you in a better place than when he found you.

And, when the time came, he faced his end with uncommon dignity and courage. Right up to those final excruciating weeks, he never complained about pain, but instead thought of others.

Marvin was as gracious in dying as in living, but make no mistake. He didn't want to die. His will to live was, in the best sense of the word, inspirational. The last time I saw him, he said he wanted to live to see Barack Obama elected president again.

The last time I saw him, Marvin also said "Life goes by very fast;" simple words, but ones that continue to resonate.

I'm now in northern California, thousands of miles away from his memorial service tomorrow, so instead I write this for an old friend who was, in his final days, like a small child on the verge of a great discovery.

And so, for Marvin, not goodbye, but hasta luego, and these heartfelt words from German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies:

"Who shows a child just as he is? Who sets him
in a constellation and puts the measuring stick
of distance in his hands? Who makes the child's death
out of gray bread that grows hard, or leaves it there
in the round mouth, like the core of a fine apple?...
Murderers are easily seen through. But this:
to accept death, even before life, so gently,
the whole of death, and not to be angry,
is past description."

On hate speech

Hate Speech the Right’s Magic Bullet

By Michael Winship

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov had a rule: if you show a gun in the first act, by the time the curtain falls, it has to go off. For weeks and months, that gun, the weapon of angry rhetoric and intemperate rabblerousing, has been cocked and loaded in plain view on the American stage; Saturday morning outside a shopping mall in Tucson, Arizona, it went off again and again and again.

The target, Gabrielle Giffords, a member of the United States Congress, lays critically wounded, one of thirteen shot and still alive. Six others are dead, including a respected Federal judge who happened to be there but who previously had received death threats from anti-immigration extremists, a member of Congresswoman Giffords’ staff and a nine-year old girl, Christina-Taylor Green. Just elected to her school’s student council, she had been brought by a neighbor to Congresswoman Gifford’s constituent event so she could see how grown-ups put democracy into action.

Instead, this child – born on 9/11 -- became just one of the latest victims of more political violence in America, violence fueled by an incoherent rage against government and elected officials who cannot instantly bring back prosperity and the jobs lost overseas or restore in a blink some idealized vision of a nation that might once have been but is no more. And all of it egged on by right wing leaders and their cronies lurking in the swampier reaches of the Internet, hate radio and television

We now see the deadly effect. The root causes are many and less distinct: fear of the future and what it may or may not hold, hostility inflamed by the economic injustice and uncertainty that force too many to live from paycheck to paycheck without anything saved or the slightest guarantee of security -- a gnashing of teeth and sharpening of claws because others may have what you have not. Or this: the simple fact that there are just too many damned guns in this country.

One in four Americans owns at least one. The NRA would order gun racks in the cradles of newborn infants if they could. Too many weapons are used not for hunting or target shooting or legitimate protection, but for combating feelings of inadequacy and weakness with fantasies of firepower -- fantasies that crazed gunmen too often try to make reality. That someone like Jared Lee Loughner can walk into a store and buy a weapon that fires 30 rounds a clip is probably not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they talked about "a well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State."

No one can prove that the vitriolic talk from the right was in the killer's mind as he carried out his attack, but no one can prove it wasn’t, either. So in the absence of evidence to support either side, why doesn't the right just volunteer to put an end to all the ballistic language and images it's been employing for many years now? Why not cease and desist if there's any doubt about the impact on lunatics of provocative violent-saturated words and images?

Sarah Palin must have suddenly felt queasy about those crosshairs over Giffords’ congressional district that were still up on her website, because the mama grizzly, half-term governor took them down soon after the violence (although as of this writing they were still on her Facebook page). But then she sent an aide to do a radio show in which she agreed with the sympathetic interviewer that the crosshairs were more like “surveyors’ symbols”! Why prolong that kind of stuff? Why not just knock it off and apologize or simply shut up?

The fact is, it has been the right's goal to poison our political discourse for years. Remember the notorious “GOPAC Memo” back in the 1990’s, created for the Republicans’ leadership training institute and endorsed by Newt Gingrich? Titled "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” in it, candidates are instructed in what words to use when defining their opponents (i.e., liberals). "These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contract,” the memo said. “Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals, and their party” (in other words, demonize them).

Among them: intolerant… lie… pathetic… radical… sick… steal… traitors. Gingrich and his allies deliberately set out to employ toxic language against their opponents, and are still doing it. They will say anything to get a vote, especially now that the angriest and most irrational so often make up a majority of those who bother to go to the polls. This kind of talk is part and parcel of their strategy, and no matter what motivated the Tucson killings, it needs to stop.

Their lock and load rhetoric is reinforced by the rambling ranks of those who go on the Internet to spout any conspiracy theory, distortion of history or outright lie that helps them make it through the night. Add, too, the men and women of radio and television, the Limbaugh’s, Beck’s, and their ilk who use the airwaves as a cudgel, battering viewers and listeners with the certainty of their illogic, their thinly veiled messages of bigotry and meretricious embrace of Constitution, religion, flag and family.

All of them will huff and puff that this is an isolated incident by a madman that cannot be blamed on their bombast and bluster. But let’s call it out for what it is, let’s debate what in our gut we know to be true: even if it was not their intent, it’s likely the words of the right on radio and TV and in the books they publish spurred on the man who killed two and wounded six in a Knoxville, Kentucky, church in July 2008, and the murderer of George Tiller, one of the few doctors in America who still performed late-term abortions for women with problem pregnancies whose health was at stake from life-threatening complications, or whose infants would be born dead or dying. Their invective, whether inadvertently or not, has encouraged the vandalism and threats faced by so many of our candidates and elected officials, including the now desperately wounded Congresswoman Giffords. Her shooting, and the death and wounding of so many who came to meet with her are just the latest example of ideologically-motivated bloodshed.

“Let me say one thing,” said Clarence Dupnik, sheriff of Pima County, Arizona, where the shootings took place, “because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.” He singled out radio and TV and said, “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.” An elected Democrat, he was immediately attacked by Republicans and the right, his statements dismissed as partisan and inappropriate.

"The facts weren't even out there, Rep. Giffords had been carted away in a stretcher, we didn't even know her condition, but the war had already started. The folks on the hard left were already out there blaming the tea party." So complained Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation. He told The Washington Post, "If we ever needed an official political obituary to political civility in this country, we've seen it.”

Mr. Phillips, that obituary was written long ago, thanks to you and your friends. Enough.


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

From Michael Winship

At Year’s End, A Tale of Two Cities

By Michael Winship

We probably should have stayed in New Orleans.

At the end of a brief Christmas holiday there, last week’s blizzard was edging up the east coast and we checked the status of our flights back to New York every couple of hours or so.

A part of us hoped one or both legs of our return would be scrubbed so we could spend another day or two in a town that knows how to celebrate any and all occasions with music and dance, food and drink, and feathers and bows. As Christmas began at stately and majestic St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, even the solemn midnight mass was enlivened by the arrival of several Asian teenagers wearing balloon animal hats.

But alas, all went according to schedule. The trip from New Orleans to Atlanta was uneventful and although it seemed every other ongoing flight to the metropolitan area was canceled, for some reason ours went forward like a jet-fueled version of the Little Engine that Could, landing at Liberty International in Newark, NJ, just as the storm hit full throttle. No cabs or trains and a perilous nighttime bus ride into the city followed by the subway downtown took more time than the plane from Atlanta.

That long journey home made us even more regretful that we hadn’t stuck around New Orleans, especially at this time of year. It is, of course, a place where the philosophy of life falls somewhere to the left of “Whoopee!” and the open go- cup of beer or other spirits carried along the streets is as much a symbol of the town as Mardi Gras, the fleur-de-lis and the “Who Dat?” football Saints. But it is especially grand at Christmas: an afternoon concert of carols performed Dixieland-style at Preservation Hall, holiday lights spelling out “Peace Yall” in the French Quarter, the steam calliope on board the Natchez Queen riverboat pumping out “Jingle Bell Rock,” Christmas Eve bonfires on the Mississippi levees.

Almost five and a half years ago, when levees along the canals burst in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, flooding eighty percent of the city with as much as ten feet of water and killing hundreds, many in the Bush White House wrote off New Orleans completely; others apparently saw the catastrophe as a convenient way to create a new city both smaller in size – 100,000 who fled have yet to return -- and whiter.

But New Orleans is a city of survivors, and if you have an ounce of soul coursing through your veins, the moment you arrive the idea of this vibrant place going under is simply unthinkable. And in fact, in conversations, including the overheard, local residents said progress was being made and recovery efforts were succeeding, even in the Lower Ninth Ward, the African American neighborhood most devastated by the hurricane – and the last to get its water and power back.

But the obstacles facing the town and its mayor, Mitch Landrieu – less than a year in office and the first white mayor in thirty years -- remain daunting. As Justin Vogt writes in the latest issue of Washington Monthly, “Piloting New Orleans successfully will require all of Landrieu’s political gifts and more. The Big Easy faces tremendous challenges. More than 40,000 abandoned properties fester all over the city. New Orleans boasts the highest murder rate in America. Its out-of-control police department is currently the subject of a massive investigation by the Department of Justice; a dozen officers have already been indicted. As a parting gift, former Mayor [Ray] Nagin left behind an $80 million budget deficit.

And although the city was not impacted by the BP oil disaster as directly as surrounding rural parishes, three pillars of the metro area’s economy -- oil and gas, tourism, and seafood—are all threatened by the spill’s still-unknown long-term effects. Governing under these conditions will require making the kinds of difficult choices that inevitably create serious political vulnerabilities for any elected leadership -- but especially one like Mitch Landrieu’s, which has the added burden of holding together an unlikely biracial coalition.”

What’s more, eventually the billions in federal recovery money fueling much of the city’s rebuilding will be gone – and how those dollars have been used will doubtless come under scrutiny by the new Republican House of Representatives. Add to that deficit reduction mania and cutbacks in both public works and public employees and you’ve got trouble.

We certainly had trouble as New York City grappled with its biggest blizzard in the last four years. In years past, squadrons of plows worked their way down busy Seventh Avenue outside my Manhattan apartment building several times during a storm; the night of this latest, a single plow came through on just a couple of occasions, and the outer boroughs were crippled for days. The morning after, the door to my building was drifted in and blocked – not the city’s fault, but indicative of what they were up against. Investigations have been announced as to whether disgruntled Sanitation Department employees implemented a slowdown to pad overtime or in protest of recent rollbacks, which included layoffs of several hundred employees (from a total of 6300) as well as demotions and reduced salaries for many supervisors.

Whatever the truth, there weren’t enough hands on deck. The Obama $787 billion job stimulus two years ago helped many states balance budgets and protected or created state and municipal jobs—in fact, the government says about half the jobs generated by stimulus money were funded by state or local governments. But now that money’s almost gone, too. According to the official website, 92% of the monies have been made available, excluding tax benefits. And regardless of the stimulus, according to The New York Times, in 2009, local governments eliminated 210,000 jobs.

Over the next years we’ll continue to see states and local governments grapple with recession fueled deficits, unemployment and conflicts with public employee unions, which in many instances are being used to deflect blame from the real culprits: big business, the banks and government. As the Times’ Michael Powell reported Sunday, “A growing cadre of political leaders and municipal finance experts argue that much of the edifice of municipal and state finance is jury-rigged and, without new revenue, perhaps unsustainable. Too many political leaders, they argue, acted too irresponsibly, failing to either raise taxes or cut spending. “A brutal reckoning awaits, they say.”

If what New York City briefly underwent last week is any indication, the fun has just begun. As we clambered over unplowed drifts and were carried by howling winds down frozen streets and sidewalks -- and despite the post-Katrina hell that great southern city has experienced -- our frostbitten hearts knew what it means to miss New Orleans. Happy New Year.


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Roofers

The leaves are
coming back slowly,
finally after the roofers came to
shave the tree for
better access.
The leaves are
back in red and
we could live for
days beneath
those branches bent,
but not broken by
the rain
were it not for
the roofers who
will come, yet again, to
shake the leaves

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl

Monday, January 03, 2011

Tax Dodgers and Those Who Love Them

Savor the irony. Many of the same folks who called people "draft dodgers" back in the Vietnam War, when we had conscription, are wannabe tax dodgers today.

Those who speak the loudest about deficit reduction are working the hardest to avert any reasonable attempt to lower federal debt if it infringes on what they'd like to see as their constitutional right to corporate gluttony, a right recently conferred by the Supreme Court in its Citizens v. United ruling.

And, at a time when, according to Reuters, a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll shows that 61% of the American people want to see the trend reversed, and taxes raised on the rich.

Yet, ironically, in mid-December, shortly after the president signed the tax bill, big business leaders, encouraged by extension of the Bush tax cuts, sat down with the White House to request corporations doing business offshore be given a repatriation tax holiday.

As Bloomberg reports, the heads of some of the largest, and most lucrative companies and pharmaceutical conglommerates in the country may well have been inspired by Obama's willingness to prolong Bush's tax cut to the upper 2% of income earners, as well as a 2% payroll tax reduction that begins this month to invite the president to consider their proposal.

Executives from Pfizer, Eli Lily, and Cisco Systems were among those who asked the president to make respectable women of them, so they no longer have to conduct business under the table, so to speak, and instead openly escape paying a 35% tax on offshore profits. This would also mean they would no longer have to hand prestigious, and pricey accounting firms beaucoup bucks to sanitize operations that, even in the best of times, would be considered scandalous.

Yes, big business wants a holiday on hundreds of billions of dollars it owes to the U.S. Treasury at a time when the budget deficit is expanding faster than our waistlines. After all, executives argue, if you support George W. Bush's tax breaks to the rich, why not continue his 2004 holiday on repatriated money which reduced tax obligations by a whopping 30%.

Not surprisingly, the corporate head honchos who met with Obama also argue that to do so would not only bolster their bottom line, but would be the equivalent of a vitamin B shot for the economy. This proposal is not only scandalous, it's audacious. Such unabashed, unapologetic greed in an age of "fiscal austerity" is irony at its finest hour.

When the federal deficit approaches a trillion and a half dollars, how could anyone in their right mind approve legitimizing, and finalizing tax dodging for the most lucrative corporations, ones that make bilions of dollars in profit overseas, without letting them give a dime of it to the Treasury?

Arguably, a deficit hawk like Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, soon to be chairman of the House Oversightand Reform Committee, might consider it "wasteful spending" to award what his party likes to call a "stimulus check" to working families in the form of a payroll tax holiday, but "incentivizing" when it comes to providing cuts to the rich, and big business. This is the change voters went to the polls in the 2010 midterm election to elect, a change that excludes the vast majority of them while pandering to corporate profit.

See what happens if you earn $100,000 a year, and owe Uncle Sam $8,000 in federal income taxes. See how long you'll be able to avoid paying it. Well, U.S. corporations have reportedly managed to escape paying as much as $25 billion a year in repatriation taxes, an increase of $7 billion a year since 2003 alone.

No one is suggesting there's a problem with the repatriation tax rate which is a healthy 35%. The only problem is the number of companies, and the mind-boggling amounts of back taxes that are not being paid. If you or I were to do this, it would be called tax evasion.

According to Bloomberg, one company alone, Cisco, hasn't paid any taxes this year on more than $30 billion of profit. That's only one company out of dozens. And, to think that the first "entitlement" program Republicans are looking to cut is Social Security. Social Security, they say, is running out of money. Instead of diverting money from Defense, if the government were to collect even 20% of the 35% these companies owe in repatriation taxes alone, Social Security, and Medicaid would be in good shape for generations to come.

Were the president to agree to this request from big business not only would he be violating a campaign promise he made to work to defeat tax dodging by major corporations, he would also legitimize a practice which has been going on, with impunity and without oversight, for too long. The odds that the new head of the House oversight committee, Darrell Issa, will work with congressional Democrats to right this wrong are zero to none.

The CEO of Cisco who was among those at last month's meeting who wants to see another Bush tax cut, the repatriation tax cut, extended, too. What will big business want next to eliminate the repatriation tax altogether, along with making permanent tax cuts to those at the upper rungs of the income ladder?

The only word for this is Chutzpah. The logic is, now that you've rolled over for the upper 2% of income earners, Mr. President, how about rolling over for us, too?

Don't let the polls fool you. As of Wednesday, there will be even more members of Congress who represent corporate giants, and the wealthiest among us. Savor the irony, yet again, in that it was grassroots groups like the "tea party" who put them there. Strange, no, given that the percentage of tea partiers who belong to the upper 2% club is miniscule, and shrinking.

Well, up until now, Congress hasn't been buying that all big companies have to do is take their business overseas, and with a little accounting sleight of hand, finagle a way to avoid paying billions in taxes. Some, in Congress, have been pressing to close the loopholes for American companies that try to evade paying income taxes by opening up foreign subsidiaries.

All that might change now that the majority leader of the House is a Republican, Darrell Issa, who has the temerity to call President Obama's government "the most corrupt" in history. Ironically, the stimulus plan Issa condemns as wasteful spending, and the idea of a tax holiday for big business, are direct descendants of the Bush administration.

We know how a Democratically-controlled House might respond to letting corporations write off taxes on profits they obtained overseas, but how did a Democratic president respond, and one who inveighed against companies, in effect, making tax shelters out of offshore companies? President Obama handed the proposal for a repatriation tax holiday over to Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, which is like handing raw meat to a hungry lion.

One would expect the U.S. Treasury which faces increasing federal deficits to go after all this lost revenue, but somehow one doesn't expect Timothy Geithner to do that. Is the president playing "good cop, bad cop" here, or is he yet again pandering to the corporate establishment so that the rest of us can be assured the crumbs from their table?

If Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party hope to recover their losses from the midterm election, as well as the trust of the American people, they had better take another lesson from the Vietnam War, and start calling all those companies that are now cheating this country out of hundreds of billions of dollars "tax dodgers" the way those who ran to Canada during the 1960's and 1970's were called "draft dodgers."

The Democrats have the support of most Americans who would like to see this administration cut loose from the leash of big business. Many would like to see that those who can most afford to do so pay their share.

Unless, and until, tax dodging is openly denounced, and an effort is made to recover unpaid funds, the only difference between the election of 2004 and 2008 is four years.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Dining with Alchemists

When the earth
stands still
it is not for you or
me, but for
gravity, so don’t get
any big ideas,
he said. I didn’t
want big ideas.
I ordered
pizza with
extra cheese and
artichoke hearts.
The waiter arrives
with a plate that
shakes seismically
What is the matter
I ask.
He shuffles his
feet and from
the table
a little bald man appears as
inexplicably as ether.
They only have spaghetti,
he says.
the earth never
stands still except
in the movies.

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl