Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"on the roof..."

"Truly we are here on the roof of the world."

J.M. Coetzee

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Gabriel Conroy

Thinking about James Joyce this Christmas, less than a month before his "Ulysses" enters the public domain.

Thinking, too, about Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of Joyce's story, "The Dead," widely considered the best short story in the English language.

Conroy is modeled on JJ, and something many don't know about Joyce, was that he was a tenor, and an accomplished pianist who often liked to entertain his guests by playing piano on Christmas day.

Here's hoping this will be the year that I'm finally able to bring the story of Sylvia Beach's struggle to publish "Ulysses," and her turbulent relationship with the Irish writer to the big screen.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Newt Gingrich's Three Laws of Motion

Following in the footsteps of Newton's Three Laws of Motion, former House speaker and 2012 Republican presidential contender, Newt Gingrich, has developed his own set, and he's calling it "Newt Gingrich's Laws of
Upward Mobility:"

Newt's First Law:

Every object in stasis tends to remain in stasis unless an external force is applied to it, preferably a force in a size 6 gown, Chanel lip gloss, and diamond earrings from Tiffany's.

Newt's Second Law:

Acceleration and force work only when the direction of the force vector is the same as the direction of the acceleration vector, meaning don't set goals that ultimately take you from the public vector into the private vector because getting back into the public vector may be like trying to zip your fly with both hands tied behind your back.

and last but not least,

Newt's Third Law:

Some things never change. Newton's Third Law of Motion remains unchanged from Newton's: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction which means those who remember what happened the last time Gingrich and clan came to town to occupy the House need only multiply that by about a hundred to see what is bound to happen in 2012. Bill Clinton easily took the White House. In a thumbnail, Speaker Boehner, Eric Cantor, Romney, Gingrich et. al have just handed the 2012 election over to President Obama.

And, not just Obama, but just as they did back in '94, Gingrich and friends have all but ensured an election landslide for the Democrats in the House thereby leading one to deduce that, when used properly, every upward movement Gingrich makes in the polls can only result in a major backstroke and this time, as was the case eighteen years ago, Mr. Gingrich is taking his whole party along for the ride.

"Happy Holidays, Corporate America - I'd like to File a Complaint"

By Michael Winship

In the spirit of the season, I’d like to file a complaint – about complaints. Corporate America just doesn’t handle them the way they used to. As in, at all.

I grew up in retail. My father owned a drugstore in upstate New York and was as old fashioned as the next guy when it came to the rules of doing business. As in, Rule #1: the customer is always right. Rule #2: see Rule #1.

Unless, of course, he caught a customer shoplifting, in which case all rules and rights were suspended, including habeas corpus. Make an attempt to sneak out of his establishment with a bottle of moisturizer or a pair of sunglasses and prepare for the thunder of God’s own drums. I never heard him yell at his own kids the way he yelled at any young, incipient Artful Dodger who tried to skip the joint with a purloined Snickers bar tucked under his shirt.

As I got older, some of my classmates who sought the five-finger discount came to me directly, hoping I’d grab for them what they feared to take themselves. I trace the evolution of the sixties counterculture through their requests. When we were high school freshman, they wanted prophylactics and cough syrup. By the time we reached senior year, it was blank prescription pads and several hundred empty gelatin capsules, to be filled with who knows what homemade hallucinogen.

In those days, before the notion of Black Friday spread across the land and early rising consumers clamored for the privilege of getting stomped upon and pepper sprayed, my father’s busiest time at the store wasn’t the day after Thanksgiving but the day after Christmas, when holiday items were steeply discounted and customers arrived to exchange gifts received or complain about faulty products. Each complaint was handled with aplomb, cash returned or merchandise traded, no questions asked.

So having been raised to honor the sanctity of the complaint, when I reached my majority, I took my own complaining very seriously, drafting letters of such savage wit, spellbinding rhetoric and logic that any commercial enterprise in receipt thereof was compelled to immediately see the error of its ways and yield. Or so I imagined.

I always copied my missives to the Better Business Bureau and once – in the matter of a defective watch battery from Macy’s – received from a woman who worked at the bureau the epistolary equivalent of a standing ovation. Several years later, when my then-wife was having problems with a furniture store coming through with the proper door for a new credenza, I drafted a complaint letter in her name and copied the BBB. A note came back from the same woman, announcing – and I am not making this up – that it was the best one she’d read since that guy with the bad watch battery. Okay, maybe she simply noticed that the return address was the same, but in that moment it felt like I had won the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Whining, Original or Adapted.

Now, however, complaints go largely unanswered. I blame this, at least in part, on the Internet. Websites for stores or other businesses more often than not have a place where you can register a grievance but they disappear into cyberspace like those microwave transmissions of “Leave It to Beaver” now racing past Alpha Centauri, never to be heard from again unless alien civilizations have a twisted sense of humor and a desire for revenge.

In the last few months, I’ve dutifully typed onto my screen various grievances to various companies, including a hotel where, if the sheets were indeed changed daily it was from bed to bed, and a drugstore chain, the branch of which in my neighborhood more and more resembles a Matthew Brady photo of the day after Gettysburg – if you replaced the bodies strewn on the ground with toothpaste cartons, containers of painkiller and shredded circulars.

Not one has been answered, which makes it all the more frustrating that when a store – the hardware behemoth Lowe’s Home Improvement – proves the exception and finally does respond to a complaint, it’s not for anything legitimate but in reaction to a right wing fringe organization’s hysteria over a cable reality show that depicts Muslims as normal people instead of terrorists. Lowe’s pulled its commercials from the TLC series All American Muslim (as did some other companies), reportedly caving to pressure from the Florida Family Association (FFA), a group which apparently consists of a single paid employee – its president -- and a mailing list of an alleged 35,000 members. (Lowe’s now says the FFA did not force its decision; it was “negative chatter about the show… appearing on social networks.”)

What’s more, I noticed the other day that Mark Ryan, who retired last year from his job as chief executive of the drugstore chain to which I complained – CVS Caremark – was one of the ten most highly paid bosses in America. That’s according to the corporate governance group GMI Ratings. The New York Times reports, “In his last year at CVS he received total compensation of $29.2 million and an additional $50.4 million from stock awards and options.” He’s now an operating partner with Advent International, a private equity firm specializing in corporate buyouts. Which is interesting because during the time he was CEO at CVS, its stock price dropped by more than half.

Therefore, as my Christmas gift to the One Percent, here’s a suggestion to Ryan and all you other “job creators.” Take back some of those millions in executive compensation and invest them in real customer service. Generate work -- hire people to take care of the people who buy your products and sincerely, productively respond to their concerns and problems, just like the good old days.

Admittedly, I did find one other exception, which is why I have to get over to Starbuck’s. The other evening, I was griping because they ran out of the stuff they put in their holiday eggnog lattes. They gave me a coupon for a free drink. Say what you will about the caffeine empire – they know how to handle a complaint.

So in the words of The Simpsons’ Krusty the Klown, “"Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Kwazy Kwanzaa, a tip-top Tet, and a solemn, dignified Ramadan." And speaking of complaints, I just know I’ll be hearing about this.


Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos, is senior writer for the new public television series Moyers & Company, premiering in January. Go to

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Did somebody say something about a recess?

A CNN post earlier today suggests that now that the House has made a decision on extending the payroll tax for another two months its members are preparing to go on holiday. Well, not so fast, fellas.

At a time when Congressional approval rates are circling single digits, it's nothing shy of audacious for any elected member of the House or the Senate to even wink at, let alone entertain, the prospect of decking the halls with bells of folly, or was that holly.

When a majority of Senate Republicans voted yea to extend the payroll tax cut, the bill met an untimely demise courtesy of those 140 odd rookie "tea party" Republicans who strong armed both Speaker Boehner, and House Leader Eric Canter.

Now, think about this: the House rejected a tax hike that amounts to less than 2%, and would impact a fewer than half a million millionaires, and instead voted to increase taxes on more than 150 million working and middle-class Americans, as well as cut unemployment extensions.

So, if you're looking for the grinch who stole Christmas, look no further than the House of Representatives which now represents 1% of the population, and not the remaining 99%.

Recess? Last time I looked 99% of us are paying their salaries. When was the last time your boss let you go on vacation, and leave him with a big mess?

Forget about Wall Street. Maybe it's time to Occupy Congress instead.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hunters and Christmas

After a late start, I decided to venture out into the wilds of pre-Christmas traffic. Admittedly, doing just about anything, including washing the kitchen floor, holds more allure for me at this time of the year than shopping, but as a fortune cookie once wisely proclaimed, "You gotta do what you gotta do," so off I went.

In what seemed at first a garden of entropy and not a major suburban thoroughfare, as I locked bumpers with the Volvo in front of me, being one to always look on the bright side, I relished the opportunity to think,

Christmas is a time that brings back memories of childhood. As a child, one of my favorite pastimes was to observe human behavior, preferably when I wasn't observable myself. When my mother used to take my little sister to the library, as a teenager, I would wait in the car, slink down in the rear seat, so nobody could see me and watch people walk down the street. People are funny creatures when they think nobody is watching them.

This afternoon's traffic afforded me yet another of those golden opportunities as I got to watch what can only be called the hunters and the hunted.

There's a lot to be learned about a person by the way he or she drives. People who cut you off in conversation are exponentially more likely to cut you off on the road. Those who won't let you in when you realize you missed your exit will, most likely, not give you the time of day on the street. While it may be relative, rudeness seems to survive all boundaries.

More often than not, too, hunters are those drivers who exploit blind spots, vacillate between lanes, or lunge at other cars from side streets.

They are the ones most likely to make a passive-aggressive lane change, or to look only in one direction when they pull out of a parking spot. They distinguish themselves most by taking the left on green, thus forcing other less aggressive drivers to yield and get stuck behind a red light.

Hunters also don't wait for you to completely pull out of a parking spot, but instead insist on making you wait, so they can go on through. Hunters invariably think that they are in possession of the divine right of way.

These are the same folks who spend Sunday mornings combing their local newspaper's obituary section to find available rentals, or looking for a deal when they see the foreclosure sign on their neighbor's property.

The hunted includes anyone who doesn't actively resist aggressive behavior, or those who quickly capitulate in the interest of driving safely. Yes, it's better to yield the right of way than to meet your maker on Judgment Day and say, "but I had the right of way," but yielding inevitably lands one squarely under the heading of prey.

Hunters are often seen behind the windshields of behemoth pick-up trucks, sports utility vehicles, and are not bashful.

People who drive compact cars are often mistaken for passive or, lord forbid, courteous drivers, but they can be hunters, too. It's not the size of the vehicle, or even the hormones that determines the kind of behavior on the road that might inevitably lead to fist fights at a cocktail party.

The urge to merge is ever present on America's roadways, and not just in self-proclaimed merging lanes either.

I'm still not entirely sure what it is about hunters that scares me. One would think I'd be used to them, given that they propogate faster and more efficient than your average cockroach. It isn't the guns. Maybe, it's their attitude. I'm not a big fan of tailgaters either, but it isn't the vehicle or the driver, it's the hunter ethos, a kind of Ayn Rand on wheels, a survival of the fittest, I'm going to get mine and who cares if you get yours, that's taken over this country, and colonized it.

We're not so much a country of 1% versus 99% as 99% wanting to act like 1%. Frankly, the current bumper crop of neo-conservative Republican candidates isn't helping the predatory atmosphere either.

While hunters might appear in different venues, they're readily recognizable. You might have seen them in the workplace, on the streets near your house, in the schoolyard, in the lobbies of five star hotels, and of course there are those pesky bargain hunters in the malls. The urge to intimidate, overpower, and bully, as well as exploit the frailty of others is unmistakable. The only vehicle that is required is a body.

Poet William Blake wrote that there are two kinds of people: devourers and prolifics, and there is indeed something parasitic about hunting. In order to hunt, there must be prey, and the increasing randomness of what constitutes prey is especially scary.

If you haven't yet, you might want to read a story by George Orwell called "Shooting an Elephant." In it, Orwell describes the experience of a British officer sent to patrol occupied Burma. Circumstances transformed the protagonist from a thinker into a hunter: "But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against the knees, with the preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age, I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to."

Whether he wanted to be a hunter or not, and whether or not he wanted to be a killer, the character in the George Orwell story was pressured by the locals of Burma to shoot an animal that posed no threat whatsoever, an action that was mostly approved by his European counterparts. Orwell ends by saying he wondered whether anyone understood that the only reason he shot the elephant was "to avoid looking a fool."

By extension then, if one were to look inside the heart of a hunter, what one might find there is not darkness, or a perverse predisposition for cruelty, but rather a preoccupation with being socially acceptable. Even if one has to commit the most heinous, and eggregious acts, one is prepared to do that rather than face ostracism.

A culture that rewards those qualities that conduce to the slaughter of other living things is one that breeds the kinds of hunters encountered on metropolitan roadways, the bullies who leave their imprint on everything from talk shows to politics. Those who now want to become occupiers have themselves been occupied by an insatiable need for approval, the kind of approval any moral being would shun.

Why is it, I wondered on the drive back home, hunters seem to outnumber their prey by a ratio of somewhere around 2 to 1. Maybe it only looks that way because it's close to Christmas, and the irony wouldn't be lost on the fellow who said "The meek shall inherit the earth."

Friday, December 16, 2011

"How No, Brown Cloud: What Smog Hath Wrought"

By Michael Winship

Have you heard about the great brown cloud? No, it’s not a new nickname for Donald Trump (his cloud is more an intergalactic nimbus of Aqua Velva and Tang), or the ominous menace in a new Stephen King novel. It’s almost as nasty, though.

The Atmospheric Brown Cloud, formerly known as the Asian Brown Cloud, is a mass of air pollution hovering over northern India along the southern Himalayas and down across Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. The cloud began growing shortly after World War II, a smoggy mass of soot and sulfates from diesel emissions, wood fires and other burning stuff that’s almost two miles thick.

A new study by scientists from a number of research organizations – including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography – finds that the cloud’s pollutants are making cyclones in the Arabian Sea more intense.

This is a very big deal, because, as Dean Kuipers writes in The Los Angeles Times, “After the apparent recent increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, including the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, climate watchers everywhere have speculated whether these storms were made stronger by industrial or man-made emissions. This is reportedly the first study to indicate that human activity may, in fact, affect large storms.”

Wind shear turbulence can help break up cyclones and keep them from becoming bigger storm systems. But shade created by the great brown cloud lowers water temperature, which in turn cuts down wind shear, allowing more powerful storms to form. Since 1998, according to NOAA, there have been five storms in the region with winds greater than 120 miles per hour – killing more than 3500 people and generating $6.5 billion worth of damage.

Anjuli Bamzai, program director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, said, "This study is a striking example of how human actions, on a large enough scale, in this case massive regional air pollution caused by inefficient fuel combustion, can result in unintended consequences. These consequences include highly destructive summer cyclones that were rare or non-existent in this monsoon region 30 or so years ago."

The good news, Amato Evan, lead author of the study and University of Virginia professor of environmental sciences, told the LA Times is that, “If emissions are reduced, we expect that this kind of trend would reverse on time scales of a few months. It’s not like greenhouse gases, where we think we’re already in trouble. With these kinds of aerosols, if you just stopped all the emissions right now, the atmosphere would become much cleaner in a matter of weeks. And then the whole climate system, the ocean and the atmosphere, would essentially lose memory of those aerosols. It’s pretty dramatic.”

But that’s about the only good news. The unsettling, worldwide evidence of climate change keeps pouring in. As the UN’s climate change summit in Durban, South Africa, began a couple of weeks ago (and ultimately made some small progress on carbon emissions), its World Meteorological Organization (WMO), presented data indicating that the last fifteen years have been the warmest on record, with levels of greenhouse gases continuing to climb and potentially a global average temperature rise of two to 2.4 degrees Celsius on its way – anything above two degrees can lead to mass extinctions and other calamities. Michel Jarraud, the WMO’s secretary general pronounced, “Our science is solid and it proves unequivocally that the world is warming and that this warming is due to human activities.”

A few days later, NOAA reported that, “To date, the United States set a record with 12 separate billion dollar weather/climate disasters in 2011, with an aggregate damage total of approximately $52 billion. This record year breaks the previous record of nine billion-dollar weather/climate disasters in one year, which occurred in 2008. These twelve disasters alone resulted in the tragic loss of 646 lives, with the National Weather Service reporting over 1,000 deaths across all weather categories for the year.”

In a recent speech at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco cited statistics from Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, which recently declared, “The only possible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change.” Lubchenco added, “What we’re seeing this year is not just an anomalous year, but a harbinger of things to come for at least a subset of those extreme events that we are tallying.” (At that same American Geophysical Union conference a biologist and photojournalist reported that with the reduction of arctic sea ice habitat, polar bears are resorting – no joke -- to cannibalism.)

Then the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) weighed in with an “Extreme Weather Map” (see it here: “In 2011, there were at least 2,941 monthly weather records broken by extreme events that struck communities in the US,” the advocacy group announced. Each of the fifty states was affected. “The frequency and intensity of some extreme events is likely to worsen with climate change… [inflicting] tremendous costs on our health and families.”

What’s appalling is that the American public knows this, gets it, and realizes that something must be done, but politicians and corporate greed stand in the way. A recent survey by Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that 65 percent of Americans polled “said that global warming is affecting weather in the United States;” half believe it is caused “mostly by human activities,” up three points since May. A similar survey by the non-profit environmental group ecoAmerica found that 57% of Americans realize, “If we don’t do something about climate change now, we can end up having our farmland turned to desert.” (Thanks for these stats to American Progress Fellow Joe Romm, editor of the “Climate Progress” blog at

During the 2008 presidential campaign Republican standard bearers John McCain and Sarah Palin – and Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and John Boehner -- acknowledged the reality of climate change (although Palin didn’t believe it was due to human activity). But these days, the issue is as anathematic to the GOP presidential field as abortion or gun control, the skunk at the Grand Old (Garden) Party. (Even the one exception, Jon Huntsman, started flip-flopping last week, creating his own great brown cloud by stating one day, “There are questions about the validity of the science,” and on the next, “I put my faith and trust in science.”)

In a National Journal cover story, aptly headlined “Heads in the Sand,” Coral Davenport writes, “Here’s what has changed for Republican politicians: The rise of the tea party, its influence in the Republican Party, its crusade against government regulations, and the influx into electoral politics of vast sums of money from energy companies and sympathetic interest groups.

“Republicans have long had close financial ties to the fossil-fuel industry, of course. Between 1998 and 2010, the oil-and-gas industry gave 75 percent of its $284 million in political contributions to Republicans. But the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed unlimited corporate spending on campaign advertisements, opened up a whole new avenue for interest groups to influence campaigns by flooding the airwaves with ads that support a political candidate or position. In the 2010 elections alone, the top five conservative and pro-industry outside groups and political action committees -- including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed PAC American Crossroads, which have close ties to fossil-fuel interests -- spent a combined $105 million to support GOP candidates (compared with a combined $8 million that the top five environmental groups spent to back Democrats). Both sides could double those numbers in 2012.”

Money trumps truth. Davenport especially points a finger at the tea party superPAC Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, principal owners of the oil conglomerate Koch Industries. She writes, “As Koch Industries has lobbied aggressively against climate-change policy, Americans for Prosperity has spearheaded an all-fronts campaign using advertising, social media, and cross-country events aimed at electing lawmakers who will ensure that the oil industry won’t have to worry about any new regulations.”

She quotes Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips: “If you look at where the situation was three years ago and where it is today, there’s been a dramatic turnaround. Most of these candidates have figured out that the science has become political. We’ve made great headway. What it means for candidates on the Republican side is, if you… buy into green energy or you play footsie on this issue, you do so at your political peril. The vast majority of people who are involved in the [Republican] nominating process -- the conventions and the primaries --are suspect of the science. And that’s our influence. Groups like Americans for Prosperity have done it.”

The smear tactics – like the Climategate e-mails, which have reared their misshapen head again -- and vast amounts of cash being thrown around by Americans for Prosperity, American Crossroads and the US Chamber of Commerce make it even more risible that Rick Perry and others claim climate change is – in Perry’s words -- “a contrived phony mess,” a conspiracy by “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Yeah, those nerdy science types are swimming in dough. That’s why they get all the cool dates. A momentary pause here as I pound my head against the wall.

Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina was defeated for reelection in his party primary last year – partly because he said climate change is real. “Being branded as anti-science is not a good future for us,” Inglis told National Journal. “How can we say to young people, we’re dismissing science? That’s not a good place for our party to be, and it’s not historically where we’ve been. There are conservative voices that will hopefully show the way back to conservatism and away from a populist rejection of science.”

William Reilly, head of the Environmental Protection Agency under George H.W. Bush, said, “Somehow, we’re operating on two levels of reality. One is ideological reality, which seems to work for some ideologues. But there is also the scientific reality. It was Republicans who traditionally have pushed for more science to underpin regulations. Science has suffered most severely in the current Republican Party. The ideologues will deny it right up to a point where there’s… a crisis -- and then they won’t anymore.”

But by then, of course, a great brown cloud may be the least of our ecological worries.


Update: A new minority report from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce notes that in the first session of the 112th Congress, House Republicans “voted 191 times to weaken environmental protections,” making this “the most anti-environment House in the history of Congress.”


Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos, is senior writer on the new public television series Moyers & Company, premiering in January. Go to


To his friends, Christopher Hitchens was known simply as "Hitch."

To the rest of us, he will be remembered not merely as a contrarian par excellence, but as a superb wordsmith with state of the art wit.

A master of paradox and, in this sense, the rightful heir to Walt Whitman, Hitchens personified the maxim, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I am large. I contain multitudes."

In this age of pre-fab obituaries, and self-congratulatory, often perfunctory, eulogies, it strikes me that he would like us to remember only that death is inevitable; life isn't.

And live he did, fully, irreverently, and with a flair for the audacity of being.

While he may have questioned who, or what to thank for his brief time on earth, Hitch lived as one who never questioned life itself. His renegade spirit will long survive us as a reminder that, first and foremost, we must occupy our lives.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ten years and another $660 billion for...

Gitmos in training:

The Republican-controlled House today passed a defense bill that authorizes awarding more than half a trillion dollars to military contractors, drone-makers, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while, at the same time, as USA Today reports, enhancing the ability to prosecute terrorists in civilian courts.

In the decade since the U.S. has remanded what Donald Rumsfeld dubbed "unlawful enemy combatants" to the naval base in Cuba, this measure which is nearly certain to be approved by the Senate on Thursday, virtually guarantees the continuance of unlimited detention, providing the military with the capacity to arrest and hold anyone inside the U.S., whether they're a U.S. citizen or not, who it deems is engaged in any subversive plot or activity.

As USA Today also notes, this new defense bill "will also give the president additional discretion in determining how the law will be implemented," thereby continuing that unitary executive thingy from the George W. Bush years.

Importantly, if this measure passes the Senate as expected, "suspected terrorists," domestic insurrectionists?, "even U.S. citizens seized within this nation's borders" will be denied the right to trial and held indefinitely.

So, not only has the President rescinded his promise to close Guantanamo, he also reneged on his promise to veto a measure that continues indefinite detention. Not only has the Military Commissions Act not been overturned, but this bill essentially expands its power to include domestic capture, and detention.

As executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, observes: “By signing this defense spending bill, President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law."

Moreover, the president has violated his own executive order to close Guantanamo Bay within a year, an order he issued shortly after he was inaugurated.

Thanks to this bill, too, as HRW asserts, the military will now assume domestic functions previously relegated to local law enforcement, and the FBI, and able to incarcerate anyone deemed a so-called high value terrorism suspect.

At a time of draconian cuts and austerity measures, the Pentagon now wants to give another $1 trillion to cover the cost of nearly 2500 new military aircraft. This is not only egregious, it flies in the face of common sense.

Now is the time to draw a line in the sand, and not build another sand castle. Defense appropriation is not just about money, but about basic values. This defense bill is an insult to all the ideals every service member in this country has fought for. If it manages to get past the Senate, President Obama must veto it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"I'm from California..."

After going to a PEN event in Oakland this afternoon, I was crossing College Avenue when I saw a car at a distance driving so fast, it looked like the driver was going to try and beat the light.

The fact that the light was about to turn stark raving red didn't seem to compel the driver to reach for his brakes, so I stood in the street waiting for the car to come to a complete stop before crossing. Call me old fashioned, but I don't only look at signs that say "walk," or even red lights, I wait for the cars to stop.

Behind the wheel was a 20th something fellow with what appeared to be his girlfriend beside him. Seeing the light was red, yes, he did stop. By that time the "Do Not Walk" sign was flashing, so I hurried across College Avenue at which point I heard something from that driver the likes of which I've never heard from a driver before in my entire life. He rolled down the window of his car, and yelled, "I'm from California, I can suck my own dick."

As if for confirmation, I glanced quickly at the passenger in his car. She looked horrified.

All I could say was, "You took the words right out of my mouth, pal."

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Newt Worthy

Since Gingrich has essentially been the template for Republican politics since the days of Ronald Reagan, there are a few things you might want to consider, if you haven't already, about a fellow who's been as close to Mount Rushmore for nearly as long as any president whose face is already carved there:

First, while he's most often thought of as a southerner, Newt Gingrich was born in Harrisburg, Pennsyvania and, in his mid-teens, the family moved to Georgia. Remember, too, that Pennsylvania is a pivotal state that Obama needs to win in order to be reelected.

2) As House Minority Leader from 1989 to 1995, Newt Gingrich was preceded by Dick Cheney. Now that's a hard act to follow.

3) Gingrich was the 58th Speaker of the House from 1995 through 1999. Many recall that he stepped down due to ethics violations, but the full Ethics Committee didn't agree on what to do about charges against him including claims of fraudulent tax-exempt status, but instead left it up to the Internal Revenue Service to pursue. The IRS cleared his organization of charges in 1999.

4) In 2003, Gingrich founded the Center for Health Transformation which focused on individual preventive care. Consider this if he actually gets his party's nomination. Let's see how much focus the media gives to CHT, and Gingrich's ideas for so-called health vouchers.

5) Notably, in the past decade alone, as The Washington Post reports, companies with which Gingrich and his wife have been involved have made close to $100 million.

And, according to the Los Angeles Times, in the past four years Gingrich's net worth has tripled from $2.4 million to $6.7 million.,0,2982591.story

6) Callista Gingrich, Newt's third wife, heads a company called Gingrich Productions which was founded in 2007. It is a self-described media production company from which Newt Gingrich reportedly earned more than $2 million in 2010.

7) In that same year, former speaker Gingrich wrote "Rediscovering God in America," a book in which he contends that the framers of the Constitution wanted religion to play a key role in the republic.

8) And, one day after Newt called Obama the "food stamp president," deep in the heart of Texas, a young mother of two killed herself, and shot both of her children in a welfare office after having been denied food stamps.

Keep this in mind and remember that, as House speaker, Gingrich worked his butt off to pass "welfare reform" legislation, which then President Clinton vetoed twice. Gingrich did manage to pass legislation tightening food stamp eligibility, cutting Aid to Dependent Families, reducing welfare assistance to immigrants while urging that states be responsible for making these allocations like any good federalist. At the same time, Gingrich was a virulent advocate for lowering the capital gains taxes, and corporate income taxes.

Rick Perry isn't the only one who balanced his state budget on the backs of the working poor. Newt Gingrich et. al would do the same with the federal budget. Oh, and when you hear all this GOP talk of "spending cuts," remember who Gingrich wanted to cut when he was Speaker of the House.

What a statement about the values of a country when everyone talks about the hypocrisy of a candidate whose calling card was family values in terms of how he treated his ex-wives, and few are talking about what Newt Gingrich did to poor and working families in America.

Make no mistake, there are Republicans out there who like to think of Gingrich as the Comeback Kid. Newt Gingrich should be welcomed back as much as Al Capone would be.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for smaller government, especially when government, for the past 30 plus years, has been fighting to distinguish itself from organized crime.

But, the Gingrich Republicans have made a career out of recycling, and they've also made a career out of deep pockets; theirs not ours.

Newt Gingrich is Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan rolled up into one. That said, even Barry Goldwater would have run off to an ashram by now.

In the end, maybe all politics is about recycling. If so, we need to start with better stock.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Michael Winship reports...

Merry Christmas: No More Insider Trading on Capitol Hill?

By Michael Winship

The other day, a couple of kids up in Kingston, NY, called 911 looking for Santa Claus. Law enforcement arrived to tell them that what they had done was naughty, not nice, but in deference to the holiday, no pepper spray was involved.

Meanwhile, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a guy dressed up like Frosty the Snowman -- that jolly, happy soul -- tried to thumpety-thump-thump a cop with the head of his costume. He’s also accused of kicking a police dog -- bad, Frosty, bad!

Then, of course, there are those cheery photos from Scottsdale, Arizona, of people -- including kids -- posing with Santa at a local gun club, hoisting their choice of machine guns, pistols, semi-automatic AR-15s, and grenade launchers. It’s okay, the club says, they’re not loaded, but you better not pout or cry... punk.

Welcome to Christmas in these United States, Anno Domini 2011.

Just in case you thought those three incidents were lacking in the true spirit of the season, last week the investment company PNC Wealth Management issued their annual "True Cost of Christmas" index which reported that purchasing all the items mentioned in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" costs more than ever -- $101,119.84, to be precise, up 4.4 percent from last year. The high price of gold sent retail demand plummeting so the cost of the five golden rings actually went down, but seven-swans-a-swimming rose by 12.5 percent. Pipers piping and drummers drumming "saw modest increases, both up 3.0 percent," but the cost of eight-maids-a-milking, representing the only unskilled labor, remained unchanged -- there was no increase this year in the minimum wage.

Coincidentally, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Democratic chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, held a press conference on Capitol Hill to announce, "There will be no Christmas for Congress unless there is an extension of unemployment insurance benefits." He and some of his colleagues declared that they’ll keep the House and Senate from adjourning for the holidays if action isn’t taken.

"I hate to inform my Republican colleagues," Harkin said, "but Wall Street did not build America. But when it comes to handing out hundreds of millions of dollars, Wall Street is up front. It’s time for middle-class America to be up front."

Fair enough. But it seems that during all that time it’s been up front, Wall Street also has done all right for our do-nothing Congress (and if you want to know just how do-nothing, a couple of weeks ago, congressional lobbyist Billy Moore told NBC News’ First Read that this Congress "has enacted just 55 public laws so far this year -- and 34 of them merely extended existing laws -- compared with the average over the last 20 years of 148 public laws for a first full session").

Such idleness comes with its rewards -- apparently, many of our members of Congress could afford all of that Twelve Days of Christmas loot without lifting a manicured finger. Last month, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that about 47 percent of Congress -- 250 current members -- are millionaires, a "lofty financial status enjoyed by only about one percent of Americans."

According to the Center, "the median estimated net worth among Senate Republicans was $2.43 million, and the median net worth among members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate was $2.69 million." In the House, "the median estimated net worth of a GOP House member was $834,250 in 2010... compared to a median net worth of $635,500 among House Democrats." (Richest was California House Republican Darrell Issa, with an estimated average net worth of $448 million. Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul was second with an average net worth of $380 million, Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry came in third at $232 million, much of it the assets of his wife Theresa Heinz Kerry.)

What’s more, the Center reports, "members of Congress might be more financially well off than we can see" because their personal financial disclosure forms don’t include government retirement accounts or any non-income generating personal property, including residences, cars and artwork. But we do know about their Wall Street investments.

"The most popular company in which members of Congress were invested in 2010 was General Electric, a company that spent more than $39 million on federal lobbying that year and ranked as the No. 3 top spender on lobbying. Seventy-five different current members of Congress held stock in GE in 2010, according to the Center's research. Collectively, these holdings were worth at least $3.6 million."

Coming in second and third were Procter & Gamble (62 lawmakers hold at least $8.7 million worth) and Bank of America (57 members, $2.8 million). Microsoft ($3.2 million) and Cisco (($1.3 million) were tied for fourth place; stock of each was held by 56 legislators. Fifth place goes to drug giant Pfizer -- 51 members held stock worth at least $2 million.

None of this, of course, includes corporate campaign contributions to members, which by all indications will hit dismayingly record heights next year.

"It's no surprise that so many people grumble about lawmakers being out-of-touch," Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics’ executive director, said. "Few Americans enjoy the same financial cushion maintained by most members of Congress -- or the same access to market-altering information that could yield personal financial gains."

But one of the few pieces of good holiday season news coming out of this forsaken Congress is that they may finally be doing something about "access to market-altering information," the knowledge members pick up via their privileged status and access to congressional testimony, reports, briefings and daily contacts with lobbyists, special interests and government agencies.

Five years ago, the intrepid congresswoman from western New York State, Louise Slaughter, ranking member of the House Rules Committee, introduced legislation to prevent insider stock trading by her fellow legislators. According to The Washington Post, "Most lawmakers bristled, offended by the mere suggestion that they would ever engage in such behavior." She could find but nine sponsors, only one of whom was a Republican – Walter Jones from North Carolina. It was, as the congressional newspaper The Hill reported, "a non-issue."

And yet, as that paper noted in its December 1 edition, there has been ample evidence that "consciously or not, federal lawmakers use their positions to reap better Wall Street returns than other investors.

"A 2004 study conducted by researchers at Georgia State University, for instance, found that trades made by selected senators between 1993 and 1998 produced returns more than 12 percent higher than the rest of the market. 'These results,' the researchers concluded, 'suggest that senators knew appropriate times to both buy and sell their common stocks.'

"More recently, researchers from four universities found that 300 House lawmakers trading 16,000 times between 1985 and 2001 outperformed the market by roughly 6 percent each year -- something the researchers deemed 'significant positive abnormal returns.'"

But what a difference a visit from "60 Minutes" makes. Last month, the news magazine broadcast a story based on the book, Throw Them All Out, by Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, the conservative think tank at Stanford University. Their report stated, "Congressional lawmakers have no corporate responsibilities and have long been considered exempt from insider trading laws, even though they have daily access to non-public information and plenty of opportunities to trade on it."

CBS was critical of both House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (they have denied any wrongdoing), as well as others, but perhaps the most damning evidence was against House Financial Services Committee Chair Spencer Bachus, Republican from Alabama, who just before the 2008 financial meltdown attended closed door briefings with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke.

"While Congressman Bachus was publicly trying to keep the economy from cratering," "60 Minutes" reported, "he was privately betting that it would, buying option funds that would go up in value if the market went down. He would make a variety of trades and profited at a time when most Americans were losing their shirts." According to the broadcast, Bachus made about 200 trades and netted around $28,000. As Peter Schweizer said, "I mean, talk about a stock tip." (Bachus has said the "60 Minutes" piece had 'a disturbing number of errors" and that Schweizer’s allegations are "a total lie."

Overnight, in the face of public outrage -- not to mention a Congressional approval rating seeming to fall more precipitously every day -- Rep. Slaughter’s legislation, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, came off life support and began acquiring sponsors faster than Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. She now has at least 133, including 37 GOP members.

Last Thursday, Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Susan Collins of Maine held the first hearings on Senate versions of the legislation. Lieberman hopes to have a bill out of committee by mid-December. House hearings are scheduled to begin this week and the House Ethics Committee has sent a memo to members on the proper use of non-public information.

And all of this isn’t the only holiday cheer spreading across the Potomac. Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota announced that he and more than half of his fellow senators -- 21 Republicans and 37 Democrats -- are planning a Secret Santa gift exchange. Franken told The New York Times he thought it "would be a good way to cut through the partisan divide here in the Senate. And who knows, maybe it will create some unlikely friendships."

The price limit is ten dollars, so no golden rings or partridges in pear trees this year. But the American public will be happy to throw in lumps of coal for free.


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and senior writer for the upcoming public television series Moyers & Company, premiering in January 2012. For more information, go to

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Mitt Reagan

Now that Herman Cain has officially "suspended" his campaign, and Newt Gingrich has more baggage than Louis Vuitton, it's pretty obvious that dupe du jour will be Mitt Romney.

Pundits point to Romney's past life as a liberal, and his pro-choice stance. Some even remember the Massachusetts Senate campaign against Ted Kennedy when Mitt Romney tried to pass himself off as more progressive, on some issues, than the fellow who came to be known as the lion of the Senate.

Make no mistake, once his campaign is in full swing, and that Citizens United ruling really kicks in, Romney will soon magically morph into that other famous one-time Democrat, union leader, and governor, Ronald Reagan. As presidential nominee, Romney's religion will play no greater role than Ronald Reagan's did.

Just as Reagan had to out-Herod Herod to win his party's favor, and move so far right that Goldwater looked moderate by comparison, so will Romney.

Caveat emptor. Whomever you vote for in 2012 cannot be exchanged or returned until 2016. Whoever Romney was in a previous life, pro-choice or not, if elected he will pander to those forces that made him president in the first place, those "special interests" that all presidents since FDR have promised to combat, yet none has.

Only, there's a big difference. Were he to become president, Romney would tilt the Supreme Court so far to the right that Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann will look like the Little League they are, and the corporate takeover of America will be complete.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

More Workers than Women Exploited by Cain

Arguably, Herman Cain has exploited more workers than he has women, yet the media feeding frenzy these past few weeks has centered exclusively on the Godfather Pizza CEO's sexual exploits.

Not even Mr. Cain's not-so-subtle hint to take a closer look at his 9-9-9 plan instead of his sexcapades has done any good.

Instead, all the cable networks, and much of the mainstream press, have been busy interviewing lawyers for three women who were allegedly sexually harassed by the candidate, and a fourth who claims to have had a consensual extramarital affair with Cain.

Apparently, watching one of his alleged victims, and a former restaurant worker, step forward and describe how, after they went out to dinner, Cain stuck his hand up her skirt gets higher ratings for the networks than detailing how Godfather Cain became godfather in the first place. Now Godfather Cain wants to become Citizen Cain, but don't believe it. Once a godfather, always a godfather.

To the Occupy movement, the pizza magnate says only, "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the banks if you don't have a job, and you're not rich. Blame yourself." This coming from a man whose annual income places him firmly in the top 0.12%

All the while, barely a peep has been heard about the fact that Mr. Cain became immensely rich off the labor of low-wage, part-time workers. If that sounds familiar it is. So-called "job creator," Texas Governor Rick Perry, contends that he is best suited to put America back to work while boasting of all the jobs Texas has created over the past several years. What both Mr. Cain and Mr. Perry don't tell you is that these have come at the expense of workers.

The latest details of Mr. Cain's 9-9-9 plan have been all but drowned out by the media ecstasy over his love life. A closer look at his plan reveals that, as president, as Fox News reports, Cain would work to eliminate minimum wage laws, roll back union rights, building codes, and even vouchers for school lunches. He is about as antithetical to organized labor as it gets.

Earlier this fall, according to Fox, Teamster president Jim Hoffa attacked Cain's 9-9-9 as offering even more of "an opportunity for corporate America to exploit workers and turn the U.S. into a third world country." And, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the Cain plan to repeal minimum wage laws "almost laughable" in light of the current economic climate.

At a time when income disparity has never been greater, surely the GOP party leaders are delighted by the distraction of Cain's much-publicized sexual transgressions as there can be no better way to deflect attention away from the reality that not one candidate running for president on the Republican ticket has supported unions, the minimum wage, building codes, and school lunches for children.

And, if you think Mr. Cain's views on Occupy Wall Street are his and his alone, listen to Newt Gingrich who sounds even more like Archie Bunker than Herman Cain. Not one would-be Republican contender for the presidential nomination in 2012 has defended the minimum wage, unions, and worker's rights. To the contrary, even those who come across as liberal on the foreign policy front, like Ron Paul, have said they would do away with the minimum wage.

Way to go, mainstream media. Make a spectacle of the Godfather of management so that those who don't read the fine print will overlook the indisputable attack by Republican corporateers, including Mr. Romney, on the average working man and woman in this country.

Even if Cain does drop out of the race, the Cain mindset will remain in place.