Friday, February 11, 2011

Last Call

It's worth noting that Israel was just as blindsided by the last two weeks as everyone else was...maybe more so.

As Israel faces what many fear could turn into its most serious national security threat in decades, fault lines are widening over how it should respond and some critics say the government appears ill prepared.

With the resignation Friday of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was widely seen as Israel's most predictable Arab ally, a quiet panic is spreading here as Israelis debate their next move.

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"This whole situation is making Israel's hawks more hawkish and the doves more dovish," said Yossi Alpher, a former government peace talks advisor and co-editor of, a Mideast political research firm.

Critics say Israel's leaders have so far seemed surprisingly unprepared to react to leadership change in Egypt, whose landmark 1979 peace treaty with Israel has long been a cornerstone of Israel's stability.

Even as late as Thursday, many Israeli officials were still confidently predicting that Mubarak would survive until at least September. An Israeli lawmaker telephoned Mubarak on Thursday afternoon to offer words of encouragement.

"They allowed themselves to go into denial," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli Justice Ministry advisor who is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. "Now they've got no strategy and their options just narrowed."

No strategy, and more importantly, no real contacts.  As strong as Israel is, like the United States, they don't really have any leverage right now, short of military action, which would be unacceptable.  It would of course be very advisable to continue the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal, but you know what?  There's new management, and that deal is more than 30 years old.

Somehow I'm betting Egypt has new terms.

The New Serfdom

Florida Republicans figure if you're unemployed, you have too much free time on your hands, and they'd like it back, please.

Florida's jobless could soon have to do unpaid work for a non-profit group in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

State Rep. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) recently introduced a bill that would require the state's unemployed to do at least four hours of unpaid service each week to qualify for benefits.

The proposal is likely to be just one element of an overhaul of the state's unemployment compensation system as Gov. Rick Scott and legislators search for ways to reduce its growing costs.

Under the bill, residents who don't meet the volunteer service requirements could be denied unemployment benefits, which could shore up a system that already has a $2.07 billion deficit.

Passidomo has no estimate of savings from the measure. Her hope is that the service requirement would lead to a job and get residents off jobless benefits. "You never know. It could help you get a job. You're not going to get contacts staying home," she said.

Community service already is a requirement in Florida for healthy adults, if they don't have dependent children or are pregnant, for receiving welfare assistance or food stamps. Scott's economic development transition team recommended community service for those on jobless benefits after 12 weeks in its Dec. 22, 2010, report.

So, I'm wondering how long it's going to take before we get to the point where community service becomes mandatory for all citizens.  I don't have a problem with people volunteering.  I have a problem with the government compelling people to do this in exchange for services they are already paying taxes for.

Besides, I thought the government forcing people to work was what Obama's secret volunteer program youth army was for.  Kind of odd to see it's Republicans drafting people into this.  How long before state government employees are simply replaced with people forced to work in order to get food stamps or benefits?

Of course, that would be indentured servitude, and freedom-loving Tea Party types would never go for that.


Wisconsin's Break-Up Break Down

Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker is paying for the state's budget shortfall out of the paychecks of state employees.

Wisconsin's new Republican governor on Friday will propose sharply curtailing the bargaining rights of public employee unions and other cost-saving measures to rein in the state's budget deficit.

The proposal, which would allow unions to bargain only on wages and not benefits, drew a critical response from Democrats in the state, which has a $137 million budget deficit in the fiscal year ending June 30.

Governor Scott Walker, who was set to announce his plans Friday morning, wants to push his plan through the Republican-controlled legislature as soon as next week.

"The governor and legislative Republican's plan is a misguided, radical, overreach to strip workers of their rights to bargain with their employer," Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller said in a statement.

"If Republicans get their way, workers will no longer be able to negotiate over the hours they work, the safety conditions they labor under or the health insurance and retirement benefits they and their families depend on," Miller said.

Elements of proposal, which Walker briefed to select state officials on Thursday, include state employee wage increases limited to the rate of inflation unless agreed to in a voter referendum, larger employee contributions to their pensions and health care, refinancing of state debt, and changes to the Medicaid program.

As I've said before, state employee wages are one of the best direct government stimulus vectors out there.  That money gets immediately spent right back into the local economy, at local businesses.  Cops go to the grocery store.  City clerks buy clothing and shoes.  Firefighters buy baby formula.  It's not like money spent on public employee salaries vanishes into a black hole, never to be seen again.  Republicans talk about public employees like the money is 100% wasted and taxpayers receive zero benefit from it.  Oh yeah, and public employees still have to pay rent, property taxes, water, sewer, power, cable, phone, all that.  That's taxpayer money going right back into the local economy.

Cutting this is the least efficient way to save tax dollars.  What's better, paying a cop's salary or paying a cop on unemployment benefits?  Both use taxpayer money.  I'd know what I'd rather be seeing done with it.

Which brings me to Scott Walker going after public employee unions.  For all their talk of freedom and American exceptionalism and how Democrats are evil fascists, it sure is interesting to see the heavy hand of Republican government tell people what they're allowed to earn.  If it's fair to say the people have the right to vote on public employee salary increases, shouldn't they get the same right on private businesses in Wisconsin (the shareholders getting to vote on salaries, at the very least?)

So here's my question for Gov. Walker: How does cutting salaries for state employees create jobs?

Stress Busters Busted

It seems there's a good reason we are stressed.  Our most common ways to beat it are questionable and maybe not effective at all.

If deep breaths, weekly yoga classes, and venting to your friends aren't helping you relax, you have plenty of company—and it's not your fault. New studies show that these supposedly tried-and-true anxiety busters are often just... well, a bust. Read on for the surprising truth about what really helps—and what doesn't—when it comes to relieving chronically fried nerves.
The article goes on to tell us to treat ourselves to chocolate once in a while, let that temper flare occasionally, and go to bed angry if that lets you and your mate have some processing time to deal with your issues.

Sounds like good advice to me. I'm off to have a Snickers.

We Have A Winner!

Game pieces and entertainment leftovers are often ignored in archaeology, because they are often considered unimportant or less exciting than artifacts that explore day to day life.  Well, what of it when the city being excavated is the Las Vegas of 4,000 years ago?

Play is not generally studied for its significance to ancient peoples. Rogersdotter says that archaeologists do often find game-related relics at dig sites, but they’re usually discounted as unimportant or considered a ritual object. But at this site, almost every tenth find was related to leisure—dice or gaming pieces.

And they’re not uniformly scattered. The artifacts are clustered together in what might have been ancient, say, gaming halls or courtyards. Rogersdotter says that these games may have had real social significance and might be used to give us a better view of the lives of these Bronze Age individuals. Who very well might have hoped to roll double-sixes four millennia ago.
It certainly changes the image I had of how people lived during those times.  We absorb what we're shown, which are usually agricultural tools and crafts of the period.  It's kind of cool to realize that before modern civilizations existed, they were already throwing them bones and wagering money.

Melting The Snowe Queen

At CPAC, Tea Party Express leaders announced their top "target" is ridding the Senate of Maine's Olympia Snowe in 2012.  Only one problem:  they can't agree on anyone in the Pine Tree State to run against the popular politician.

The conservative group, arguably the most organized and best funded campaign tool in the tea party movement, announced Thursday afternoon that it plans to fight the moderate Republican’s 2012 re-election effort. Snowe enjoys tremendous popularity across the political spectrum in her home state, but she has irritated Maine’s small and disjointed tea party movement for her willingness to work with Democrats.
Pine Tree State conservatives have already dubbed “Snowe removal” a top priority for 2012, when Maine’s senior Senator will seek her fourth term. But they have struggled to rally around a single challenger.

“Olympia Snowe dishonors the notion that the Republican Party is supposed to be the fiscally conservative, constitutionalist political party in America,” Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer said in a statement.

“She voted for the bailouts, the failed stimulus plan, the repeal of tax cuts and showed her disdain for the constitution by voting in favor of the nominations of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotamayer to the Supreme Court,” Kremer said in the statement, which misspelled Sotomayor’s last name.

Snowe’s chief of staff, John Richter, countered that the Tea Party Express was “obviously ... totally unfamiliar with her record on fiscal responsibility.”

“The idea that Senator Snowe dishonors the notion that Republicans are the fiscally conservative party is absurd,” he wrote to Roll Call on Thursday, listing her effort in 2001 to preserve federal surpluses and pay down the national debt, as well as her support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Mainers are pretty laid back folks, and going after Snowe too hard is likely to backfire.  At the same time, there's a very good chance that millions of dollars from outside the state will flood into the primary to unseat her.  On the gripping hand, ask Alaska's Joe Miller how that turns out in the end sometimes.

My question is that there has to be a moderate Democrat that can win in Maine against a Tea Party winger, so where are they and what are Maine Democrats doing to prepare for the opportunity?

Denial Really Is A River In Egypt, Part 8

The key to control of Egypt is the military, and for now, they're backing Mubarak.

Western diplomats and American officials say that Egypt’s top military commanders, including both the defense minister and the chairman of the armed forces, have told them for weeks that the Egyptian army would never use force against civilians to preserve the regime. Some depicted Mr. Mubarak’s speech as a sign that his power had effectively waned.

“The government of Egypt says absolutely, it is done, it is over,” a Western diplomat said, but “that is not what anybody heard,” in part because Mr. Mubarak’s delegation of power to his vice president did not seem to be irrevocable. But the developments nonetheless reopened the question of who wielded ultimate power in Egypt after the military’s growing intervention.

The military statement, broadcast first by a civilian announcer on state television and then by a uniformed military spokesman, came as the city — and many other places in Egypt — began noon prayers on Friday, the Muslim holy day and the beginning of the weekend, a moment that has been the prelude for large-scale demonstrations since the revolt started.

Several hundred protesters gathered outside the presidential palace in the suburb of Heliopolis, news reports said, but troops backed by armored vehicles and razor wire barricades did nothing to prevent them from assembling.

In the upscale neighborhood of Mohandiseen, about a thousand protesters spilled out of the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque to march on the Radio and Television Building, even though shouting matches broke out as some Egyptians watching them urged them to call off their protest since Mr. Mubarak repeated that he would leave in September when elections are scheduled. But one demonstrator, Mohamed Salwy, 44, said: “Mubarak doesn’t understand. I think these protests are going to have to go on for a long time.”

Once they arrived at the broadcasting center, they were joined by thousands of others, facing a ring of steel made up of a dozen armored personnel carriers and tanks forming a cordon.

Outside the capital, television images showed large numbers of protesters gathering under a sea of Egyptian flags in Alexandria. 

Two things:  so far the military isn't going after the protesters, and the protesters are expanding their protests well outside Tarhir Square in Cairo.  Things are getting very tricky now.  If the protesters manage to actually shut down the Suez Canal, for instance, then all bets are off.  On the other hand, it's possible Mubarak could bug out at any time if the military decides they have more to gain by turning him in.

Either way, the army is the key.

[UPDATE] OK, now Mubarak is stepping down and has left Cairo.  Egypt's military is now in charge.

Another Shot At The Ring

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his fellow Democrats say they will take another crack at legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, but no details have been forthcoming on how Cuomo will avoid the measure's embarrassing defeat in the State when conservative upstate Dems killed the measure in the State Senate.

Mr. Cuomo, who included legalizing same-sex marriage in his campaign platform, said Wednesday that he intended to ask the Legislature to take up the matter in its current session, which ends in June.

“We’ll be working very hard to pass it,” the governor, a Democrat, told reporters after delivering an encore of his budget address at Hofstra University on Long Island.

His pledge was greeted warmly by gay-rights activists, who have waited with some uncertainty to see whether Mr. Cuomo, faced with a daunting battle over the budget, would make a charged social issue like legalizing same-sex marriage a priority.

Legislation to do that has repeatedly passed the State Assembly, which is dominated by Democrats. But in December 2009, it failed in the State Senate, which was then also controlled by Democrats, by a vote of 38 to 24, an unexpectedly wide margin.

It is not immediately obvious how the legislation would fare markedly better this year, given that the composition of the Senate, which is now controlled by Republicans, has not changed significantly since the last vote.

But gay-rights advocates point to public-opinion polls that show more New Yorkers than ever support the legalization of same-sex marriage.

“This is legislation whose time has come,” said Ross D. Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s leading gay-rights organization. 

That may be true, but then again Gov. Paterson found out last year the hard way that the votes just were not there.   Then again, the economic argument for same-sex marriage might be good enough to convince state senators to use it to help close the state's budget gap, too.

We'll see.


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