Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Last Call

Hey folks.  Trying an experiment here.

If you've noticed the Tip Jar over on the side bar, I've set up a Paypal account if you'd like to donate, well, anything.  If you like what I've been doing for the last two years and have a bit of spare change, drop a little in by clicking on the Paypal donate button.

Appreciate it.  After all, this blog is nothing without you guys.

Zandar's Thought Of The Day

Silly Matt Yglesias.  We don't need National Institutes of Health funding!

Republicans taking control of the House next year would roll back funding to agencies, including NIH, to fiscal 2008 levels, according to a proposal by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is likely to become the chamber’s majority leader. That would equate to a 4.3 percent, or $1.3 billion, cut to the agency’s $30.8 billion annual budget.
The reduction would be “very devastating” and would demoralize scientists, whose odds of winning a research grant from the agency could drop to about 10 percent, NIH Director Francis Collins said in an interview. Fewer than one in five grant proposals are successful, he said.
NIH-funded research led to the development of drugs that include the cancer therapies Avastin, sold by Roche Holding AG, and Novartis AG’s Gleevec, said Jennifer Zeitzer, lobbyist for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda.
Republicans have God, so we'll be fine without science!  It's what the people voted for, so it must be right.

Right?  After all, you can't be a fiscal conservative without being a social conservative.

The Washington Catfood Massacre

The first of the three deficit commission reports are out today on how to balance the budget.  First up is the Peterson Foundation/Pew Foundation report, which calls for surgery on the budget with a chainsaw.

Specifically, the commission calls for a short-term goal of stabilizing the portion of the national debt held by private investors at 60 percent of the nation's gross domestic product by 2018. Debt held by private investors currently stands at about 63 percent of GDP.

To get there, the commission recommends a new law called the "Sustainable Debt Act" that would establish that borrowing goal and set annual targets for spending and revenues. In a major change, the tax-writing committees would be held to tight limits, as the spending committees are now, in an effort to rein in the explosive growth of tax breaks for various businesses and groups of individuals known as tax expenditures.

If Congress failed to meet those targets, the commission recommends a tough new enforcement regime that would cut all spending - including entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare - across the board and add a broad-based surtax to all forms of federal taxation.

The commission also recommends beefing up the congressional budget committees by adding House and Senate leaders, as well as the chairs of the appropriations and tax-writing committees, to their ranks. It urges Congress to adopt multi-year budget plans - rather than the current single-year proposals - to help keep them on track.

And it suggests creating long-term goals to restrain the growth of the major drivers of the nation's budget problems: Social Security, tax expenditures and the soaring health-care prices that are pushing up the cost of Medicare and Medicaid. Triggers would make automatic adjustments to those programs if the goals were not met. 

Oh, this ought to be good.  Across the board entitlement cuts and a national surtax?  Wow.  Hey wait a minute, did you say Peterson Foundation?  As in billionaire Pete Peterson?

Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson is making his move. Today in front of a Washington-centric audience at the Newseum, and flanked by deficit peacocks Kent Conrad and Evan Bayh, he launched OweNo (my sentiments exactly), a $20 million dollar ad campaign designed to “start a discussion” about deficit reduction, and by “start a discussion” I mean “cut your retirement savings and your health care.” Sam Stein reports:
Titled “OweNo”, the campaign, which promotes a mock presidential candidate irreverently named Hugh Jidette (get it? Huge debt), doesn’t take on Social Security reform directly. But the connections are fairly obvious and it has the program’s defenders deeply wary about being outgunned. The Peterson Foundation, for one, has never shied away from its push to reform the entitlement program. And in introducing the $20 million effort, the organization’s founder, former Nixon commerce secretary and fiscal conservative Pete Peterson made it abundantly clear that Social Security is in his sights.
“Solving our fiscal issues without fundamental entitlement reform is a statistical impossibility,” he said. “Entitlement reform must provide benefits for the most vulnerable. But if we wait too long to reform and we confront a crisis, the politics may become brutal and even violent and in such a situation there would be no assurance that the safety net, even for the most vulnerable, might not be seriously frayed.”
This begins a Sherman’s march for the deficit hysterics, a series of reports and fearmongering culminating in the release of the cat food commission report on December 1. Before that time, several reports calling for austerity will land, including the Pew-Peterson Commission report (funded by Pete Peterson), a report from Robert Greenstein and Charles Blahous saying that Congress should address Social Security changes “sooner rather than later” (The report is funded by Pew and Peterson), and the Bipartisan Policy Center Debt Reduction Task Force report from Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici (Rivlin sits on the Pew-Peterson Commission and is therefore funded by Peterson as well).

Oh hey, so it's like a major Wall Street titan is trying to stack the deck to suggest the only way out for America is more tax cuts for the wealthy and to decimate Social Security and Medicare to pay for them.

Nobody could have predicted, etc.  You know, except for DDay and Digby, who have been warning America about the drastic cut recommendations that would of course be coming down the pike just after the midterms. no matter who won.  They've had these Peterson guys cold for over a year now.  And now, everything in Washington will be framed in the need for austerity.

I called this Catfood Commission/Alan Simpson crap back before the midterms too.  With this first report dropping, now we see what the real plan has been all along.

Oh, but it gets worse.  Also dropping today are the draft recommndations from the President's Bipartisan Fiscal Commission itself.  Its main recommendation?

Massive government spending cuts across the board.

  • Index the retirement age to longevity -- i.e., increase the retirement age to qualify for Social Security -- to age 69 by 2075.
  • Index Social Security yearly increases to inflation rather than wages, which will generally mean lower cost of living increases and less money per average recipient.
  • "Increase progressivity of benefit formula" -- i.e., means test part of Social Security benefits by 2050.
  • Increase the Social Security contribution ceiling: while people only pay Social Security taxes on the first $106,800 of their wages today, that's only about 86% of the total potentially taxable wages. The co-chairs suggest raising the ceiling to capture 90% of wages.
  • The co-chairs suggest capping both government expenditures and revenue at 21% of GDP eventually.
  • Freeze federal worker wage increases through 2014; eliminate 200,000 federal jobs by 2020; and eliminate 250,000 federal non-defense contractor jobs by 2015.
  • Establish co-pays in the VA medical system and change the co-pays and deductibles for military retirees that remain in that system.
  • Eliminate NASA funding for commercial space flight.
  • Require the Smithsonian museums to start charging entrance fees and raise fees at the national parks.
  • Eliminate funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- which many conservatives suggested in the wake of the firing of former NPR contributor Juan Williams.
  • Reduce farm subsidies by $3 billion per year.

Oh, did I mention that all these government spending cuts are needed because the top tax rate would be cut from 39.6% to 23%?  Never mind that this is exactly the opposite of what voters actually want.

Just saying.

This is a complete disaster.  I can't think of a single politician that would support this.  Of course, as Digby reminds us, that's the point.

Now, in reality, keep in mind that all this is just to form the basis for "bipartisan cooperation." So, I wouldn't expect that in the end we'll see any cuts to the VA or farm subsidies. I think we know very well that there will be no tax hikes of any kind. And as I mentioned defense and Homeland security aren't on the menu. This is just an exercise designed to create a new "bipartisan"starting point for the destruction of social security.

But here's the absolute best part:  Obama will get 100% of the blame for this, even if 0% of the proposals are adopted before the 2012 elections.  And he did this to himself.  You thought the Tea Party hated him before?  Obama just became Public Enemy #1 to anyone over 60.  Republicans will print these recommendations as gospel truth in every attack ad, flyer, and circular over the next two years.  The Kenyan Usurper is gonna take your Medicare!

And he did it to himself.  If I'm a GOP strategist, I'm already designing the ads.

Catfood, catfood uber alles...

New tag:  Catfood Commission...because that's all you're going to be able to afford to eat in your retirement.

The Wrath Of The Spellbinder

In the continuing saga/national embarrassment that is the Alaska Senate mess, Joe Miller is now suing to eliminate any write-in ballots where Lisa Murkowski's name isn't spelled precisely correct.

Miller is asking a judge to stop the state from making a judgment on a voter's intentions if the voter wrote in something other than "Murkowski" or "Lisa Murkowski." State law allows no leeway for other spellings, his lawsuit says.

Despite the lawsuit, the state is preparing this morning to start checking and counting the more than 92,000 write-in ballots cast in last week's election. Gail Fenumiai, the state's elections director, said she plans to start this counting at 9 a.m.

The state counted about 27,000 absentee and early votes Tuesday, according to Fenumiai, with Miller gaining on the write-in total by about 2,100 votes. At the end of the day, Miller remained 11,333 behind the write-in total. 

At the beginning of the day, Miller had been trailing by 13,439 votes.

The Murkowski campaign reacted to Tuesday's lawsuit by accusing Miller of trying to toss out legitimate votes for the eight-year incumbent. "They're trying to discount as many votes as possible from Alaskans," Murkowski campaign manager Kevin Sweeney said.

Miller's lawyer, Tom Van Flein, is asking a federal judge for a hearing this afternoon.

I still stand by my theory that Joe Miller is making his case for overturning the 17th Amendment by making this particular direct election of a Senator so god awful that the country will gladly go through the entire process to not only get a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate but then have three quarters of the states ratify a Constitutional amendment just to prevent this from happening again in six years.
It's a devious plan to make us so despise statewide Senate recount nonsense that we're actually willing to hand it over the process to state legislatures and make them fight it out just to gain respite.

You laugh now, but the guy did run on repealing the 17th Amendment, after all.

Irish Eyes Are Crying, Part 3

It's looking like the next domino to fall in the Eurozone after Greece will indeed be the Emerald Isle.

Ireland's central bank governor conceded on Wednesday a huge bank recapitalisation programme had failed to reassure investors as borrowing costs soared on fears its new fiscal plan would not be enough to avoid a bailout.

Ireland's tottering government is struggling to prove it does not need a Greek-style bailout to help it reduce the worst budget deficit in Europe, with markets concerned it will struggle to pass the first of four austerity budgets next month.

The European Union's monetary chief reiterated that Ireland had not requested any financial aid but the premium investors demand to hold 10-year Irish bonds rather than German benchmarks widened at the same speed Greece's spread expanded shortly before it sought its bailout in May.

With bond spreads now well over 600 bps, Irish bonds are now bordering on junk status and European banks are clearly expecting Greek-style intervention.  Let's keep in mind also that Ireland implemented a major austerity program earlier this year in order to cut national spending and trim their deficit.  I said back months ago that the austerity plan for Ireland would fail miserably and that a bailout was coming.  All that ended up happening was that their economy ground to a complete halt and now they will almost certainly need a bailout, most likely before the end of the month (if not sooner).

Now it looks like time is almost up.  Ireland's economy is unraveling and over the next few days and weeks you'll see the next bailout plan take shape.

This jig is indeed up.  Meanwhile, next door in the UK, London is definitely calling when it comes to their own massive austerity plan.

Students demonstrating against higher tuition fees burned placards, scuffled with riot police and smashed windows at the headquarters of Britain's governing Conservative party on Wednesday.

Protesters, their faces covered with scarves, kicked through the glass doors of the building, a short distance from the Houses of Parliament. Demonstrators occupied the ground floor reception area, while others streamed onto the roof of the building.

The violence broke out during an otherwise peaceful march by thousands of students and lecturers protesting against plans by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to triple the amount universities in England can charge students for tuition.

Carrying placards saying "Stop education cuts" and chanting "They say cut back, we say fight back," the marchers passed parliament, where politicians will in the coming weeks vote on proposals to lift maximum tuition fees to 9,000 pounds ($14,500) a year.

One has to wonder how long it will take before our country finally takes to the streets.  A government guaranteed maximum yearly tuition of $14,500 a year here would be seen as socialism of the highest order.

The Walrus, The Walrus's Mustache, And The Carpenter

John Bolton, John Bolton's mustache, and John Yoo think enough American nukes to fry every microbe on Earth hundreds of times over isn't enough, and it's one chunk of government spending we can't afford to cut.  The three of them take to the NY Times to explain to the hippies about force multiplication or deterrent gamesmanship theory or...something.  Anyway, the point is that the Declaration of Independence was all about smaller government that the Founding Fathers would want, and also to nuke Russia and stuff.  WOLVEREEEEENS!

THE sweeping Democratic midterm losses last week raise serious questions for President Obama and a lame-duck Congress. Voters want government brought closer to the vision the framers outlined in the Constitution, and the first test could be the fate of the flawed New Start arms control treaty, which was signed by President Obama and President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia last spring but awaits ratification. The Senate should heed the will of the voters and either reject the treaty or amend it so that it doesn’t weaken our national defense.

The treaty’s supporters are likely to try to rush it through the Senate before Congress adjourns. They worry that since the Republicans have gained six seats, New Start will fail to get the required two-thirds majority when the new Senate convenes in January.

Senators should be in no hurry. The Obama administration’s main strategy in this two-minute drill is likely to emphasize a “resolution of ratification” that the Foreign Relations Committee approved along with the treaty in September. But that resolution, which supposedly addresses concerns about missile defense and modernization of the nuclear arsenal, is a Trojan horse. Any senators who fall for this ploy will not only imperil our safety, they will also undermine the Senate’s formidable powers in the treaty-making process

Yeah, the same two guys (and an animate collection of facial hair) that said the plenary power of the Presidency trumped all during a time of war and argued that the President had by definition of the office the power to conduct unrestricted war are now saying that the Senate is the most important government body when it comes to foreign policy.

I'll let that sink in for a minute.  I was unaware that Bolton's mustache could type, let alone ghost write columns either...but there you are.

Senators cannot take these warranties seriously — they are not a part of the text of the treaty itself. As Eugene Rostow, a former under secretary of state, put it, such reservations and understandings have “the same legal effect as a letter from my mother.” They are mere policy statements that attempt to influence future treaty interpretation. They do not have the force of law; they do not bind the president or future Congresses. The Constitution’s supremacy clause makes the treaty’s text the “law of the land.”

Unlike acts of Congress, treaties reorient the balance of power toward the president. His understandings and interpretations of treaties typically have (and should) predominate, as President Ronald Reagan demonstrated in the 1980s debate over the meaning of the antiballistic missile treaty. The president can, after all, completely withdraw from a treaty on his own: President George W. Bush terminated the antiballistic missile treaty in 2002 and President Jimmy Carter ended the Taiwan mutual defense treaty in 1980, both without Senate consent or judicial complaint.

To prevent New Start from gravely impairing America’s nuclear capacity, the Senate must ignore the resolution of ratification and demand changes to the treaty itself. These should include deleting the preamble’s language linking nuclear arsenals to defense systems, and inserting new language distinguishing conventional strike capacities from nuclear launching systems or deleting limits on launchers entirely. Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start. 

So yes, to recap Bolton, Bolton's mustache, and John Yoo freely admit that A) the President has all the power when it comes to treaties (and cite examples of such) but B) they think the Senate should ignore that power and do what the three of them want anyway by passing a law that basically scuttles the treaty anyway, so please ignore all that plenary powers of the Office of the President that we pushed with Bush.

For this awesome level of intellectual consistency, Bolton, Bolton's mustache, and John Yoo continue to be treated as Serious Policy Wonks and get columns in the NY Times.


Auto Ironic

The Virginia Tea Party displays all the self awareness of a slightly damp cardboard pizza box.

The Virginia chapter of the 9/12 Project is pushing a bill that would authorize the sale of special "Don't Tread On Me" license plates as official state plates.
"Don't Tread On Me" flags, also known as Gadsden flags, are a go-to protest symbol for the Tea Party set, seen at pretty much every rally since the Tea Party started having rallies.
But if the bill passes, Virginia residents won't even have to lift a finger to show their opposition to big government and higher taxes. Or, as the 912 Richmond website puts it: "The citizens of Virginia will soon be able to express their support for smaller government and protest the Federal Government's intrusion into the affairs of private citizens. How? With license plates that make a statement!"
The site says that the group collected "over 475 signatures" in support of the plate at the Virginia Tea Party convention this year. 

To recap, the group that has raised the shunning of standard government practices to an art form now wants you to pay the Commonwealth Of Virginia an extra ten bucks a year for a license plate.  No word if you can use the plate on your Medicare-financed Hoveround scooter while going to pick up your Social Security check on the way to the library.

Decision Points, Or How I Learned To Stop Thinking And Set Up Us The Bomb

As I said, I wouldn't use George W. Bush's new memoir for a coaster because it might ruin my drink.  The absolute best review of the (big air quotes) "book" is from the Independent's Matthew Norman.

The reduction of Bush's two terms to a satirical sequel to one of those US prep school movies in which the smirking, idiot boy breaks the honour code but is rescued by his Brahmin dad had come to seem shamefully hackneyed. But the one cliché worth trotting out here is that clichés are clichés because they are true. Somehow this half-witted frat boy journeyed, via some jovially preposterous sequence of events involving failed oil deals and baseball team franchises, from japes with Alpha Sigma Phi to possession of the nuclear codes. 

Nothing, not even W himself, is ever quite that simple, and palpably there was an edge of madness in the family. In his teens, when his mother Barbara had a miscarriage, he relates, he drove her to the hospital. "I never expected to see the remains of the foetus," he recalls, "which she had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital. I remember thinking there was a human life, a little brother or sister." Enough in that alone, to drive any adolescent to drink, you'd have guessed, yet the tale is told as a homily to his mother's wisdom, and in some impenetrable way to justify his pro-life, anti-stem cell research hard line.

Almost every sentence in the Times extraction (and it does feel like having a tooth pulled) invokes a fatigued he-just-doesn't-get-it. Churchill is inevitably adduced, while W bangs on about his passion for reading history. Inevitably, he fails to make the connection. 

"Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft," urged Winston, and while Bush did little as president other than read history books, the stagecraft entirely eluded him. Some of those tomes must have dealt with the British and Soviet experiences of invading Afghanistan, and not a word sunk in. I know how that feels from a tussle with A Brief History of Time. The difference is that I didn't extrapolate my failure to grasp a syllable into a bold attempt to rewrite the laws of quantum physics. He assumed he could rewrite the laws of geopolitics.

The process of historical revisionism has, like everything else, speeded alarmingly in the internet age. The emergence of Sarah Palin as an imaginable presidential candidate, allied to the unending travails of Obama, have induced in the amnesiac, the obtuse and the plain bananas a fondness for the memory of George W Bush.

A President designed for the 24-hour news cycle meant America got exactly what it deserved, and as a result the lesson we learned after discovering two years wasn't enough to clean up his mess is that we've decided as a people that Bush's main problem was that he wasn't insane enough, so we need the Tea Party.

The absurdity is glorious in all its garish vulgarity.  I often wonder if the rest of the world laughs at us, and then I realize that these days they look at us like a junkyard dog that needs to be put down, and nobody really wants to do it.  

Bush is, for all his faults, quintessentially American. And that should scare the crap out of you.

(h/t Balloon Juice)

And Then God Said "Noah? How Long Can You Tread Water?"

We're going to die because of fools like this.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who will seek the Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship maintains that we do not have to worry about climate change because God promised in the Bible not to destroy the world again after Noah’s flood.

Yeah, that's right.  The possible top House Republican on Energy refuses to believe in climate change because of an effing parable.  And this man  is an elected Congressman.

Future generations will look back at us as complete buffoons who deserve every ounce of scorn that we get.

Sully Gets The GOP Plan

As I keep saying, when Andrew Sullivan is on his game, he's one of the best.  This time is no exception as he distills the 2010 election down to "Get Obama".

It seems to me that the last year or so in America's political culture has represented the triumph of untruth. And the untruth was propagated by a deliberate, simple and systemic campaign to kill Obama's presidency in its crib. Emergency measures in a near-unprecedented economic collapse - the bank bailout, the auto-bailout, the stimulus - were described by the right as ideological moves of choice, when they were, in fact, pragmatic moves of necessity. The increasingly effective isolation of Iran's regime - and destruction of its legitimacy from within - was portrayed as a function of Obama's weakness, rather than his strength. The health insurance reform - almost identical to Romney's, to the right of the Clintons in 1993, costed to reduce the deficit, without a public option, and with millions more customers for the insurance and drug companies - was turned into a socialist government take-over.

Every one of these moves could be criticized in many ways. What cannot be done honestly, in my view, is to create a narrative from all of them to describe Obama as an anti-American hyper-leftist, spending the US into oblivion. But since this seems to be the only shred of thinking left on the right (exacerbated by the justified flight of the educated classes from a party that is now openly contemptuous of learning), it became a familiar refrain - pummeled into our heads day and night by talk radio and Fox. If you think I'm exaggerating, try the following thought experiment.

If a black Republican president had come in, helped turn around the banking and auto industries (at a small profit!), insured millions through the private sector while cutting Medicare, overseen a sharp decline in illegal immigration, ramped up the war in Afghanistan, reinstituted pay-as-you go in the Congress, set up a debt commission to offer hard choices for future debt reduction, and seen private sector job growth outstrip the public sector's in a slow but dogged recovery, somehow I don't think that Republican would be regarded as a socialist.

And what all this really reveals is that the person who voted for the GOP because "Obama is a Kenyan socialist" has a vote that counts exactly the same as the person who voted for the Democrats because of the reasons Sully listed above.  There are a lot more people in the former category than the latter because lying is easier and so is hating someone.  It also proves that Obama needs to fire his communication staff, immediately.

Voila.  Rise of the Tea Party.  Really is that simple.

Core Initiative

NASA scientists say there's definitely something at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, a "structure" that may be the remnants of a super-dense and massive black hole.

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has unveiled a previously unseen structure centered in the Milky Way. The feature spans 50,000 light-years and may be the remnant of an eruption from a supersized black hole at the center of our galaxy.

"What we see are two gamma-ray-emitting bubbles that extend 25,000 light-years north and south of the galactic center," said Doug Finkbeiner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who first recognized the feature. "We don't fully understand their nature or origin."

The structure spans more than half of the visible sky, from the constellation Virgo to the constellation Grus, and it may be millions of years old. A paper about the findings has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Finkbeiner and his team discovered the bubbles by processing publicly available data from Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT). The LAT is the most sensitive and highest-resolution gamma-ray detector ever launched. Gamma rays are the highest-energy form of light.

Other astronomers studying gamma rays hadn't detected the bubbles partly because of a fog of gamma rays that appears throughout the sky. The fog happens when particles moving near the speed of light interact with light and interstellar gas in the Milky Way. The LAT team constantly refines models to uncover new gamma-ray sources obscured by this so-called diffuse emission. By using various estimates of the fog, Finkbeiner and his colleagues were able to isolate it from the LAT data and unveil the giant bubbles.

Scientists now are conducting more analyses to better understand how the never-before-seen structure was formed. The bubble emissions are much more energetic than the gamma-ray fog seen elsewhere in the Milky Way. The bubbles also appear to have well-defined edges. The structure's shape and emissions suggest it was formed as a result of a large and relatively rapid energy release - the source of which remains a mystery.

Whatever the thing is, it's spitting out gamma rays out some 50,000 light years, and we just couldn't see it until the Fermi telescope, designed to detect gamma rays, locked on to the thing.  Maybe it's a leftover black hole, maybe it was something else.  But it shows we still have a long way to go towards understanding our own galaxy, let alone our universe.

It's a little humbling.


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