29 February 2012

Bob Kerrey

I'm no big fan of former Sen. Bob Kerrey, but if he can retain the DINO Ben Nelson's seat for the Democratic party, I'm happy to see him decide to run for his old seat (Nebraska) again. (As has been rumored and was officially announced today).

Controversy over Pres. of Fish & Game Commission and the shooting of a cougar in Idaho

Here's how I see this controversy. (See this for details). If Daniel Richards were responsible for a Commission to Combat Child Abuse and posted his picture on a website touting his recent adventures (legal and on his own dime) with underaged prostitutes in Bangkok, the governor would be well within his powers to demand his resignation for conduct which was contradictory to and inconsistent with his legal charge. I see going to another jurisdiction and gloating over conduct which would be a serious crime in California, and the prohibition of which it is specifically the responsibility of the agency for which he is charged with oversight to enforce, is comparable. Gavin Newsom is right and when Governor Brown takes up the issue, he should publicly demand that Richards resign immediately.

If we can't hold appointed commissioners to higher standards than mere technical legality of their conduct, we need to enact some regulations that give the governor the power to require compliance with California's legal and ethical regime everywhere as a condition for continued tenure in office.

I find his defense, the usual bait and switch, particularly egregious, incidentally. He says what the "real problem" is is budget cuts to his agency. That's rich. Coming from a Republican; someone whose party and its obstructionist legislators are directly and exclusively responsible for the budget mess our state is in. It's just unbelievable. This guy's gotta go. 

21 February 2012

Santorum preaches biblical basis for climate change denial

And speaking of the poisonous effect of sanctimonious religiosity, see this on Rick Santorum's truly obnoxious preachiness on the supposed biblical basis for climate change denial (read: anti-rational idiocy; it's all the same).

Franklin Graham's not sure the president isn't a Muslim.

Today, one reads (see TPM) that Billy Graham's idiot son Franklin "can't be sure" Obama isn't a Muslim because his administration has given "Islam a free pass."

Sheesh. I'm starting to agree with the late Christopher Hitchens: Religion poisons everything. (Except I have to qualify the use of the word "religion" to mean the religiosity and sanctimoniousness of people so sure of their unfounded and unprovable beliefs that they think it's a fine idea to slander others and force their moronic views down others' throats).

17 February 2012

Must Read: Ari Berman from tomdispatch: it's not 1% -- it's .000063%

See this (cross-posted to Huffpo).

We have to face the fact, now, that we are living in the most inegalitarian oligarchy in the history of the human race. That's not the same thing as saying it's the worst government, which it clearly isn't, but the fact that the smallest elite with the most unequal wealth and power now runs this country, compared to any other political entity that has ever existed, is just that, a fact. And in my view, it is a contradiction that we simply cannot live with and must change.

(See this, if you doubt this statement). 

15 February 2012

Obama Budget: Theater but a step in the right direction

Although it's only possible to be happy about the Obama budget by comparison to the outrageously destructive policies of the other party, and one has to acknowledge that it is primarily a political document, part and parcel of ongoing political theater, intended to portray the Righticans in an unfavorable light with zero expectation that it will ever actually be reflected in policy, I still have to acknowledge that it represents a notable improvement in the policy positions of the Obama administration, and will likely help him consolidate his Progressive Democratic base.

For a discussion of some of the details, I recommend Ian Masters's interview with Thomas Ferguson on ianmasters.com ;  mp3 file; link here. Ferguson is on the board of the Institute For New Economic Thinking and a contributing editor to The Nation. Masters and he discuss "what is not an austerity budget, but one that calls for more taxes on the rich and therefore has no hope of Republican support, but yet might persuade American voters that it is the path back to economic health."

12 February 2012

A Critique of Sam Harris's comments on torture and "collateral damage"

I have a lot of respect for Sam Harris, and his attack on irrational religious belief in general (The End of Faith, 2004). I don’t entirely agree with all of his points. For example, I think he is a bit too doctrinaire in condemning (I'm paraphrasing here) the enabling effect of “liberal” Christianity, in particular, as having the effect of giving a pass to irrational beliefs that are actually practiced and cause harm by more fundamentalist Christians. (He argues that, essentially, all of Islam is fundamentalist, which is also arguably an exaggeration).

Still, his arguments are well reasoned and very well written. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to consider the position and moral value (or otherwise) of religious faith in a world where the necessity of rational policy decisions is becoming more and more critical, to the point even of being a question of survival of our civilization.

He makes one argument, however, that I genuinely abhor, namely a claim that equates, in terms of ethics, “collateral damage” in warfare with torture. He argues that collateral damage is much more ethically problematic than is generally acknowledged; but that there are situations where it is the ethical choice. He then argues that, at least as a thought experiment (the “ticking time bomb” type situation), there are circumstances where torture may be ethically justifiable. (Not that it should be legal, but that it could, in extreme cases, be moral). Much has already been written about this (see his own response here), so my comments here are no doubt not original (especially since it’s been eight years since this book appeared). Nonetheless, here goes:

I think any equation of collateral damage in war with torture is simply fallacious. Harris himself elsewhere talks about “perfect weapons,” and the fact that they don’t exist; collateral damage is the intentionally invoked probability of death and suffering being caused to innocents which necessarily results from waging even “just war.” So far, so good. But there is no specific intent to harm; every effort is made to avoid harming anyone other than so-called legitimate targets, and there is an at least tacitly acknowledged responsibility to strive, continually, to make weapons ever more perfect, so that danger and harm to noncombatants is minimized, or, better, eliminated. These are the moral imperatives of those who would attempt “just war.”

Torture is entirely different. Even the most evil person, taken prisoner, is not only no longer a combatant, he is not even in the theater of war. He is in custody. Prisoners, who are by definition under the control of their captors and no longer capable of waging warfare in return,  in a civilized society, are treated not under the rules of engagement with combatants, but under legal process. I hold as an absolute tenet that under such circumstances, it is never justified to use torture. Not only because it creates a slippery slope where unchecked state power is likely to lead to all manner of hideous, and increasingly terrible, consequences, with more and more people falling into categories of prisoners for whom torture is deemed justified, but because centuries of terrible experience has proven, once and for all, that torture does not work; that its results are uniformly unreliable and indeed useless.

So, on this point, I think Sam Harris is flatly and entirely wrong.

Nonetheless, much of what he has to say in The End of Faith and the more recent The Moral Landscape  and Lying is very well thought through, original, and highly probative.

10 February 2012

Message to White House on Contraception "compromise"

Very skillful statecraft in creating a "compromise" on the phony issue of contraception coverage, ginned up by Republicans as a wedge. It stole the thunder of the religious freedom argument while maintaining the fundamental principle that women need to have this coverage available.

The president needs to continue to make the interests of ordinary working Americans his main focus, and to devise strategies not only to win reelection, but to build a coalition for a new legislative agenda, and a strategy, including winning the Senate and persuading its Democratic leadership to force a rules change to end the supermajority requirement to pass legislation, to actually get a progressive agenda enacted.

This "compromise" and the president's recent commitment to prosecuting Wall Street Crooks, and the strengthened "deal" on mortgage fraud (while far from perfect), are all steps in the right direction which will help the President to consolidate his "Pragmatic Progressive" base. (Of which I consider myself to be a part).

Obama's end run on contraception

Although I find it a bit galling that any accommodation to misogynistic religious institutions is politically expedient, I have to acknowledge that the Administration's defusing of the ginned up (and largely phony) contraception insurance controversy was pretty clever. As I understand it, they said, OK religiously affiliated employers, we won't mandate that you be required to include no additional cost contraception in your health care plans for your employees. Instead, as part of the regulation of health insurance itself, we will require the insurers to do an end run around you and offer the same benefit directly to your employees. (Which they're plenty happy to do, since it's an established fact that providing contraception benefits saves insurers a ton of money... both abortion and childbirth care cost far more).

09 February 2012

Sam Harris takes on the Fireplace delusion

Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith, Lying, and The Moral Landscape) takes on the the Fireplace delusion, partly as an analogy for rationalist critiques of the truth claims of religions. But what he's saying here is actually quite true, even though contrary to most peoples' cherished beliefs. This is one uncompromising rationalist, this Sam Harris.

08 February 2012

Rightican Division good for Obama

I can see no reasonable conclusion other than that the insistence of the Fringe of the Rightican party on avoiding a seemingly mainstream candidate like Willard Romney, can only redound to the advantage of Obama. (Witness recent surge for Big Senate Race Loser Santorum last night).

07 February 2012

Prop. 8 Decision ... might NOT go to Supreme Court?

The L.A. Times is reporting speculation amongst legal scholars that today's 9th Circuit decision in Perry v. Brown, very narrowly finding California's Prop. 8 to be unconstitutional under the 14th amendment, may NOT end up being accepted for review by the Supreme Court. The decision (which I've read), is pretty clearly directed to Justice Kennedy, who was the author of the 1994 Supreme Court decision Evans v. Romer finding unconstitutional a Colorado law prohibiting local jurisdictions from enacting anti-gay-discrimination statutes. Kennedy is widely seen as the likely deciding tie-breaking vote should this case, or any "Gay Marriage" case, come before the High Court.

Today's decision is intentionally narrowly based on the specific procedural and legal posture of the Initiative Constitutional Amendment and context of pre-existing law in California, and will not have wide-ranging effects on other states' laws. The Supreme Court, the thinking goes, may well take a pass on this one, allowing this case to stand as the law in California, while waiting for a more general-question case on whether or not the 14th amendment is violated by gay marriage bans, in general.

05 February 2012

NYT Op-ed the Voice of Sanity on Iran

This op-ed in the NYT on the shape of a possible negotiated detente with Iran strikes me as the Voice of Sanity. Listening, Barack? Hilary?