Sunday, December 27, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

Matt Yglesias points us to this article in the Washington Post about possibly endangered Democratic congressmen. One of the most endangered is this week's Backbencher of the Week. Rep. Tom Perreilo(D-VA-5) represents a districts that leans strongly Republican, and in the 2008 Democratic tidal wave election Perreilo won by 727 votes. Despite being vulnerable, Congressman Perreilo voted for the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and the healthcare bill.

When asked about his vulnerability, Perreilo said "My ultimate goal is not to get reelected, It is to know that I did the best damn job I could representing the people of the 5th district and making a difference. That's just a different litmus test then some of the powers that be are used to working with."

For understanding the nature of his job, and working to do as much with his time in Congress as he can, we are pleased to award this week's Backbencher of the Week to Rep. Tom Perreilo.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

White Christmas 09

The Backbencher no longer has to dream about a White Christmas because he has now experienced one.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Difference Between a Moderate Republican and a Conservative Democrat

However much it stinks to high heaven, and it stinks a whole lot, there was a deal that could get Sen. Ben Nelson to vote yea on the healthcare bill. With her refusal to back the healthcare bill because she feels the bill is being rushed, Sen. Olympia Snowe(R-ME) makes it clear that no deal could be reached to earn her vote.

The incentives(political, partisan, and individual) were always structured in a way that Sen. Nelson would feel pressure to support the bill but Sen. Snowe would feel strong pressure to oppose.

The difference between a conservative Democrat and a moderate Republican is the difference between finding a way to get to yes and finding a way to get to no.

Backbencher of the Week

Though serving less then a year, Sen. Al Franken(D-MN) has already managed to garner a substantive accomplishment.

Back in October, Sen. Franken purposed an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill. Based on the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, the amendment prevents the department of Defense from contracting with companies that do not allow victims of sexual assault to pursue their case through the courts. Despite opposition from the Defense Department, and Republican men, the bill President Obama signed included Sen. Franken's amendment.

For a substantive accomplishment that stands up for women, and attacks the practices of military contractors, we are glad to award Backbencher of the Week to Sen. Al Franken.

Cleveland 41 Kansas City 34

The joy of watching two bad teams play each other.

Monday, December 14, 2009

San Francisco on the Buffalo Bayou

I wonder if Liturgygeek will like Texas a little more bit because of this?

Uganda and Grassley Update

The Republican Senator from my state, Sen. Chuck Grassley(R-IA), came out over the weekend and condemned the Ugandan homosexuality law.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Ivy League Education

Yale University, through their Open Yale program, offers the chance to listen to lectures that Yale professors give to their classes. You can go to the above link or download the lectures through iTunes. Besides the lectures, it is also possible to download the syllabus and reading lists.

Right now I am listening to Dr. David Blight's lectures on the Civil War and Reconstruction. I am planning on listening to lectures on European civilization, the modern American novel, Astronomy, and Old and New Testament.

Other colleges offer lectures and other presentations through iTunes U.

Springtime for Elections in England

Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are preparing for the possibility of an early election. The reports all say that there is a growing likely hood that soon after the new year Gordon Brown will call for an early election scheduled for March 25.

The Tories have maintained a constant lead in the polls since the last half of 2007 but recent polling indicates that Labour is closing the gap. This strengthening of Labour's position is leading many Labour MPs to push for a March poll.

I don't think Labour can close the gap enough to win but they are pushing the polling into hung parliament territory. If that is the case then the Liberal Democrats become king makers and Labour might stay in office through Lab-Lib coalition.

Tom Said Stop Talking

Sen. Tom Harkin(D-IA) is talking about resurrecting an idea he had fifteen years ago. Back in 1995, Sen Harkin teamed up with Sen. Joe Lieberman(I-CT) to introduce a bill that would curtail the filibuster. The proposal would have instituted a gradual threshold for ending debate. The first vote would require 60 votes for cloture but each successive vote would lower the threshold until it only required 51 votes to end debate.

After watching Max Baucus and his "gang of 6" drag out their deliberations on healthcare reform to the point of almost killing the bill, it is clear that there are plenty of ways for Congress to stop a bill from becoming law. The filibuster is a holdover from a bygone era and its use to stop progress, especially progress on civil rights, is evidence that the filibuster has long outlived its usefulness. The Senate recognizes this fact and instituted the process of reconciliation that allows bills related to the federal budget to pass with 51 votes. If 51 is good enough for budget votes then it is good enough for al bills the Senate considers.

I am especially glad to see that Sen. Harkin is leading the charge. As a longtime Senator, Harkin would usually be expected to jealously guard his prerogatives. Instead Sen. Harkin is to be commended for putting the good of the country, and the Congress, above his own individual prerogatives.

Backbencher of the Week

Over in the UK, there is an investigation going on about how the British government decided to join the U.S. in the Iraq war. One of the strongest critics of the decision to go to war to emerge during the investigation is the Conservative MP Adam Holloway. Holloway represents the constituency of Gravesham and he sits on one of the parliamentary defense committees.

This week Holloway claimed that one of the biggest pieces of evidence the Blair government used to make its case for war came from an conversation a Baghdad taxi driver overheard. The Blair government claimed that Saddam Hussein could launch WMD in 45 minutes. According to Holloway, an intelligence report debunks the claim and note the intelligence communities belief that the report was not reliable.

It is always heartening to see politicians on the right of the political spectrum speak out against war. Rep. Ron Paul(R-TX-14) and Rep. Walter Jones(R-NC-3) due valuable service in the U.S. when they criticize the Iraq War from the right. Holloway is doing the same in the UK and for that reason he is this week's Backbencher of the Week.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Stepping Up

It is good to see that Rick Warren and Sen. Tom Coburn(R-OK) both speak out about the bill the in Uganda that strongly curtails the rights of gays and lesbians.

I wish my Senator had the moral sense the Rev. Warren and Sen Coburn possess.

The Nobel Prize for War and Peace

President Obama accomplished the rare feat of accepting the the Nobel Peace Prize while in the process of escalating a war. The President used this occasion to articulate his particular interpretation of the "just war" theory.

He starts by acknowledging his debt to Martin Luther King but also says that as President he can't "be guided by their [King's and Ghandi's] example alone." Fair enough. However, I wonder if King's words about his country being the largest purveyor of violence in the world makes any impact on Obama's view point. Obama is right is that there is nothing naive or passive in King's methods but I wish Obama also recognized that King was spot-on in his view of the U.S. It appears that Obama's position limits his ability to see.

To defend the idea of 'just war," Obama states "a non violent movement cold not have stopped Hitler's armies." Pulling out the Hitler card is a cheap sot by the President; especially by cherry picking the date. A non-violent movement could not have stopped Hitler on September 1, 1939 or on June 6, 1944. However, Hitler did not come from out of nowhere. Hitler had been a force since the early 1930's and a non-violent movement might well have stopped at an earlier date.

Obama's big idea is that it is possible to fight a war on humanitarian grounds. I believe the President is sadly mistaken. First, when a country decides to go to war it makes a decision to commit resources that would be allocated in a different manner towards the war. The New Deal died at the hands of World War 2; President Franklin Roosevelt admitted as much when he had Dr. New Deal give way to Dr. Win the War. President Johnson's Great Society died at the hands of the Vietnam War. With a military budget of nearly 670 billion dollars, it is worth asking what kind of humanitarian projects at home are being starved at the expense of our war machine. What kind of humanitarian action continue to allow millions of people to go without health insurance or only sluggishly attempts to address the fact that 1o% of Americans are unemployed.

During his speech, Obama continually cites the war in Afghanistan as an example of the kind of war the fits into his paradigm. It's hard to see how that can be the case. Obama calls the war in Afrghanistan a "war we did not seek." This is a limited view of what precipitated the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. There is nothing in the 9/11 attacks that made a military response inevitable or necessary. the attacks on Pearl Harbor, which are the closest cousin to 9/11, were a strictly military attack. The Japanese Navy attacked U.S. military installations in the Hawaii. The surprise and shock of the attack does not diminish the military nature of December 7, 1941. 9/11 was not a military attack and should be viewed as a crime against humanity. Nothing suggests that a military response was required. Instead an international law enforcement effort could have accomplished much of the same thing. When the use of Guantanamo, black sites, and the Prison at Bagram are factored in it is impossible to see the military solution as being in any way "humanitarian."

Obama does touch on some meaningful goals. He continues to tout the idea of complete nuclear disarmament and the idea of diplomacy with unfriendly nations. However, I find myself disapointed with Obama's address. He speaks to having to dal with the world the way it is and I understand that. However, part of engaging and changing the world is changing the tools we use to engage the world. President Obama inherited a way of engaging the world that was strongly biased toward the military. Instead of siezing the opportunity to change out direction, Obama chose to embrace and defend it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why the Senate Doesn't Work

The Democrats have to get the vote of of a Senator who is opposed to adding to the deficit to pay for health care but would issue war bonds, which are nothing but another form of debt, to pay for the war of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

The Backbencher is a fan of Sen. Bernie Sanders(I-VT) and his type of Democratic Socialism. We recognized Sen. Sanders earlier this year for his work on healthcare reform, and now we recognize his work on the issue of reforming the financial system.

On Wednesday night, Sen Sanders placed a hold on the nomination on Ben Bernanke's nomination for a 2nd term as Chair of the Federal Reserve. Joining Sander with the hold, and also as Backbencher of the Week, is Sen. Jim Bunning(R-KY.) Bunning hold a warm place in the Backbencher's heart because he is a curmudgeonly old coot who is a constant pain in the rear to his fellow Kentuckian Sen. Mitch McConnell(R-KY). Also joining the Coalition of the Holders, and the winners of Backbencher of the Week, is Sen Jim DeMint(R-SC). These three will probably never be celebrated together again on this blog, but attention must be paid when a bi-partisan group of Senators forms to look at changes to the Fed.

Most of the reading I have done regarding the financial crisis indicates that Bernanke did as good a job as anyone given the circumstances. However, there are real questions if he is the right person to rebuild the economy. During Senate hearings this week, chairman Bernanke called for cuts to Social Security and argued against further measures to stimulate the economy and raise employment. Even though part of the mission of the Federal Reserve is maintain high employment, Bernanke is opposed to doing anything that might raise the employment level.

As Ezra Klein points out, the Fed Chair is to be insulated from day to to politics but he is not an independent actor. Politicians appoint and confirm the Chair, and their decision is an expression of the policy they want to see the Fed enact.

As a good government liberal, I would like to see Senate policy(including the use of holds) changed. However, the correct use of political power on the Fed is worthy of this week's Backbencher of the Week. Congratulations to Sens. Sanders, Bunning, and DeMint.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Christian Nation?!

When theocrats in the U.S. talk about wanting the U.S. to be a "Christian Nation," this is what they are talking about. Ugandan politicians with connections to U.S. evangelicals like Rick Warren and the the political/religious group the Family(the people who are responsible for the Stupak amendment) are pushing a bill that make Homosexuality a crime punished by life imprisonment or in some cases the death penalty.

Theocrats would like to bring the same type of bill to the U.S. but are prevented by our strong tradition of tolerance and by the idea of the separation of church and state. Groups fighting to uphold our grand traditions of tolerance and the separation of church and state include more secular based groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, religious groups like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and groups with feet in both camps like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

The Backbencher encourages you to clink on the above links to learn about these groups, support these groups, and find ways to join in the fight to keep church and state separate.

I Will Send Them 15,000 by 15,000

President Obama decided this week to send an additional 30,00 troops to Afghanistan. I oppose this move because I think it prolongs the attempt at a military solution where there is no military solution to be found. The position which John Kerry took in the 2004 election is I believe the right one; Terrorism is a law enforcement issue much more than a military one.

The correct way to defeat international terrorism is to increase use of law enforcement methods, and that includes the use of civilian Federal Court system. Increased international cooperation among police and intelligence agencies are also important tools in the arsenal against international terrorism. The best way to combat international terrorism is to invest in resources for 1st responders and capabilities to rebuild, increase the use of law enforcement and criminal justice resources, and reduce the use of the military. It would also be very beneficial to stop taking actions (like invading countries for no reason) that increase the risk of terrorism.

I remember when the purpose of going into Afghanistan was to capture Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive." Somehow that has turned into a long term effort to stabilize Afghanistan. I am afraid that this mission creep will cause the Obama administration to lose sight of the goal, which as far as I am concerned as been to bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice. The hijackers can not be brought to justice because they died in the attacks, and the alleged mastermind will brought to trial in a New York courtroom. That leaves only bin Laden as the last real Al Qaeda leader remaining. Since the safe house for the planning of the 9/11 attacks was in Hamburg, Germany, occupying various Afghan provinces does not really make us safer and it might be harmful if this "surge" keeps the government's focus away from Al Qaeda.

I do not feel betrayed by Obama because this is what he said he was going to do. However, I do feel like a moment that could have been used to reorient our policy had been lost. President Obama could have moved towards a more law enforcement approach. Instead he continue the imperial project and increased our military presence, and I do feel very dispaointed about the opportunity missed.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Saved by the Moderates?

The Senate begins debate on the healthcare this week, and the quality of the bill might depend on the stubbornness of a group of Senate moderates. This group of moderates includes Sen. Mary Landrieu(D-LA), Sen Joe Lieberman(I-CT), Sen. Blanche Lincoln(D-AR), and Sen. Ben Nelson(D-NE). All 4 of these Senators currently outright oppose or are skeptical of a bill including a public option. Each of the 4 senators have their own reasons and it might be difficult to appease all of them.

However, the opposition of these 4 might provide a a means for strengthening the bill. A new report from the Urban Institute says that a public option with triggers would be better then the public options currently in any of the legislation before Congress. There is also talk in the progressive community about the weaknesses of the public option. The problem with the public option is that it is not tied to medicare rates and it has limited eligibility. With these limitations, the public option could very likely become a dumping ground for uninsurable; which would make the public option more expensive.

A public option with a strong trigger might be able a better bill and might be able to pass the Senate because of the support of Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. I also think that a bill that jettisons the public might be a very good bill if it includes increased subsidies and increased access to the insurance exchanges.

There are good reasons to continue to fight for a public option. A successful public option would help liberals make the case that an increased role for government actually helps people's lives, and it would be easier to fix a weak public option then it would to create one at a later date. Those are both good reason to continue to fight for a public option but if those moderate senators are willing to increase subsidies and increase eligibility for the exchanges then I would be willing to make a deal on the public option.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book Review

Once he found out he was dying, Ted Kennedy gathered his journals, diaries, and the interviews he did for an oral history project and turned them into his memoir True Compass. True Compass is a very engaging and readable book and is a quicker read then a lot of political memoirs.

A great deal of the book's readability comes from Kennedy's natural talent as a storyteller and the quality of the stories he has to tell. Many of the best ones deal with the lengths Kennedy was willing to go to during the 1960 presidential election(a photo at rodeo in Wyoming illustrates this point). Kennedy also went to great lengths to speak at the 2008 Democratic Democratic Convention soon after doctors diagnosed him with a brain tumor. I thought I had followed the 2008 campaign closely but Kennedy shed light on a couple of details that I had not previously known.

The most difficult part of the book was reading about the 1980 election. Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination because of disagreements over health care. I admire Jimmy Carter and it hurt me to read of the continuing and long lasting rupture between these two men.

As to be expected from a younger brother(and a considerably younger brother at that) there is little critical said about his family. It is clear that Ted Kennedy has no time for many of the stories about his family and that John and Bobby could do no wrong. John's mediocre record of President is due to it being unfinished and that most the Great Society was passed because it was based on JFK's ideas and not because Johnson was better at getting legislation passed then Kennedy was. Also the book tries to protect Robert's image as ruthless and ignores such facts that it was Robert as Attorney General who acquiesced with J. Edgar Hoover's campaign against Martin Luther King. I can fully understand why Ted Kennedy is not critical of his family but I wondered if Ted might have been better served if he had been more critical of the lessons he learned from his family.

Kennedy's greatest success came in the Senate and he talks at lengths about many of them. He is also not shy about talking about his greatest political struggle and that was trying to achieve universal health coverage. Interestingly his proposal during the Clinton administration looks a lot like what the final product of this year's health care debate will look like. Kennedy's proposal included a "pay or play" version of the employer mandate and an individual mandate that included subsidies and a more regulated health insurance industry. I feel better about the this year's proposals after reading about what Kennedy wanted.

You cant' tell the story of the last 50 years. without including the Kennedy family. There success and tragedies are integral part of American history. Ted Kennedy's role and importance is indisputable and True Compass allows a major player in a half century worth of history to tell his story in his own voice.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Back in Byrd's Day

Sen. Robert Byrd(D-WV) is now the longest serving member of Congress in history. Starting in 1953, Byrd served six years in the House and in 1959 moved into the Senate. While breaking the record previously held by Arizona's Carl Hayden, Byrd has cast over 18,000 votes. Byrd's career in Congress has spanned such an expanse of history that he was able to fully support Barack Obama's presidential run forty four yeas after opposing the Civil Right's act. Senator Byrd's accomplishments are many, and the fact that half of West Virginia is named for Byrd is evidence of that fact, but perhaps his greatest moment came when he opposed the Iraq War.

When he was first elected to the Senate in 1958, Sen Byrd defeated the incumbent Republican who had the greatest name in Senate history; Chapman Revercomb.

Taking the 5th

The 5th Congressional district of Iowa comprises all of western part of the state. All of us who live in the 5th district have the joy of being represented by Republican Steve King. It is not that King is a conservative Republican that makes him an embarrassment but the fact that he is a unrepentant bigot. King called a vote against Hurricane Katrina Relief was "the best vote I ever cast." He cast the lone vote against a resolution honoring the slaves who built the U.S. Capitol.

Fighting the good fight to replace King is Mike Denklau. The Backbencher is an avid supporter of Denklau's campaign and encourages you to do the same. If you live in the 5th district, then find out when Mike is going to be in your area and go meet him. The Backbencher also encourages you to find ways to assist with his campaign. If you live outside the 5th, then consider contributing and telling your friends to that we can raise the national profile of this campaign.

Mike Denklau's website is here.
Here is an ActBlue fundraising page if you want to contribute.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Trying the Terrorists

This big news this weekend is that Attorney General Eric Holder decided to try some of the Al-Qaeda terrorists in U.S. Federal Courts. One of the people that will be tried is the person the government believes masterminded the attacks on 9/11/01. I think Holder's decision is a courageous and wise decision and I wish he would extend it to cover all the alleged terrorists that we hold in custody.

I have some thoughts about this decision.

1. It is my belief that this is the best way to defeat the terrorists. Al-Qaeda sees itself at war with the West and they want to west to react militarily so that the West overreacts and muslims respond by joining Al-Qaeda. Why would we want to play by the rules? I think treating Al-Qaeda like criminals will defuse the myth that they are super villains and deflate their standing.

It is my firm belief that the best way t defeat them is to use the institutions that enshrine the values of our democracy. Our ideals and values are stronger and more enduring than any bomb. Demonstrating our values in action before the world(friend, enemy, and skeptical) will do more to come closer to victory then any military action.

2. I do not understand the objections to the Attorney General's decision. I no see no security threat. Our courts and police have handled plenty of terrorists and other dangerous criminals. The Federal courts have successfully prosecuted the first world trader center bombers(in New York City), Eric Robert Rudolph, the Oklahoma City Bombers, and 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui. All of these trials went off safely and without any security disruption.

As for the fear of terrorists being released on a technicality; I think that fear is is misplaced. A "technicality" usually means the police or the prosecutor were sloppy. On a case as important as one involving Al-Qaeda, we would want our police and prosecutors to give their best and most detailed effort.

I also don't buy the threat of losing an intelligence resource. If there are safety considerations about an informant then our government contains plenty of people with expertise in providing security to witnesses. Otherwise the chance to public bring Al-Qaeda terrorists to justice and hold them to account in front of the whole world is worth the risk to our intelligence resources.

The U.S. effort against Al-Qaeda has suffered from too many self inflicted wounds. It is time that the U.S. anti-terrorism efforts earn a victory by upholding U.S. values and the institutions that uphold those values. Attorney General Holder's decision is a good first start.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review

The blue posts in the above photographs mark where the San Andreas Fault crosses the the southern portion of the Point Reyes Peninsula(about 50 miles north of the epicenter of 1906 earthquake).

I spent part of my childhood in the San Frncisco Bay Area, and I have been fascinated with th 1906 earthquake for as long as I can remember. As a boy I had a calendar commemorating the San Francisco earthquake and fire. I would often open the calendar and stare at the photographs show ing the damage the earthquake caused.

This week I read a comprehensive history of the earthquake and fire. San Francisco is Burning is Dennis Smith's narrative history of the 1906 disaster. Dennis Smith is a retired New York City firefighter and the author of Report From Engine Co. 82(the best book about firefighting ever written).

Since Smith is a retired firefighting, there is a lot of focus on the efforts to fight the fires. However the theme of the book might be how the disaster transformed the city of San Francisco. The disaster brought about the fall of the corrupt forces that ran the city and led to a rise of a government based on progressive reforms.

Smith's tale does have its heros and they are first and foremost the San Francisco Fire Department and a group of naval sailors led Lt. Commander Frederick Freeman and Ensign John Pond. The villains of the disaster are the corrupt mayor Eugene Schmitz and the political boss Abraham Ruef. Brigadier General Frederick Funston and the army come off not as villains but as people in over their heads whose mistakes add to the disaster. One of the devices Smith uses to tell the story is focus on a small group people and incidents as way to draw a wider picture of the devastation.

Smith's real gift has always been the ability to combine an understanding of the technical details of a fire or a disaster with an insight into the human dimension of people caught up in such a cataclysm. This gift makes for an engrossing an informative read.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Obama as Commander in Chief

If the reports that Obama has rejected all the options about Afghanistan that the military has presented are true, then this is good news. President Obama wants a plan that more effectively deals with the corruption in the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzi and a plan that includes a timeline for eventual turning over of the war to the Afghan army.

I am glad to to see President Obama exercising his authority over the military. Even though our society regular treats military leaders as dispassionate experts, it is worth noting that military leaders always have an agenda.

I am reminded of a story about how Franklin Roosevelt exercised his authority as commander in chief. During the early months of World War II, Roosevelt was embroiled in a debate with his top military commanders. President Roosevelt agreed with Winston Churchill and the British military that there should be an invasion of North Africa. The American military did not want to invade North Africa. Army generals wanted to invade Europe directly and they wanted to invade as soon as they could. Navy Admirals did not want to invade North Africa because they wanted the resources allocated for North Africa to be sent to fight Japan in the Pacific Theatre.

When the allied governments announced their intentions to invade North Africa, American generals and admirals got together and said that they could not support the plan and all the the resources should be diverted to the Pacific. Roosevelt called their bluff and told them to have a detailed plan to him the next morning. Since the military did not have a plan ready, the plan they produced was not very good. Roosevelt rejected the plan and ordered the military to go along with the invasion of North Africa.

Roosevelt knew what I hope Obama is learning and that is the military's agenda does not always coincide with what the President was elected to do.

The Separation of Church and License Plate

On Tuesday, a U.S. District Court Judge ruled that Christian themed license plates issued by the state of South Carolina that proclaim "I Believe" are unconstitutional. Judge Cameron McGowan Currie said that the case "presents a textbook example of the need for and continued vitality of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," and that the law "gives the impression that Christianity, as the majority religion, is also the preferred religion and its adherents favored citizens."

I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state because I believe that church losses the power of its message when it enmeshes itself with the state. What does the license plate actually say? "I am a Christian because the state of South Carolina lets me." "The message of the Gospel is most powerful when presented on a platform made possible by the state of South Carolina." This type of thinking leads to a belief that Christ and the Church have no power and that all the power belongs to the state.

It saddens me that the legislative sponsors are all Baptists because the great Baptist gift to the U.S. is the separation of church and state. It seems that there are many Baptists are willing to sell their religious inheritance for some meager crumbs from Caesar's table.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Armistice Day

Today is Veteran's Day is the U.S. but originally today was called Armistice Day. Today commemorates the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. Over time, the day has morphed into Veteran's day and I feel like that is unfortunate.

Veteran's Day has turned into a celebration of all things military instead of the somber remembrance of war that it should be. War is always industrialized mass murder and a military is the organization dedicated to carrying out industrialized mass murder.

Armistice Day began as a way to remember those who died in the calamity of World War I. When President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill creating Armistice Day into law he said the purpose of the day was to "be dedicated to the cause of world peace."

I wish that instead of a day glorifying the military we could actually work on the original cause for the day. One way we could do this we be to look at just what a calamity war really is. We could perhaps reflect on the fact that there were nearly 11,000 casualties on the last day of World War I that occurred after the Armistice was signed but before it could take effect.

We could look to World War II, which as we all know was an unambiguous "good war." The war started when Hitler's Germany invaded Poland and when the war ended Stalin's Soviet Union occupied Poland.

Perhaps instead of taking pride in our immense military might we think about what it actually gets us. War is more destructive then we ever imagine and as we enter into our eighth year in Afghanistan with the capture of Bin Laden looking less and less likely it should be clear that we are not going to get out of the war in Afghanistan what we put in.

Perhaps if we reflected on these things then we would see war as the stupid and sadistic state of affairs that it really is then we might come closer to the original intent of the day.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Book Review

Carlos Ruiz Zafon uses a simple concept in his book The Shadow of the Wind but he uses that concept to build a fantastic novel. Zafon's novel is built around the idea that some books are so powerful that their stories will in some very meaningful ways mirror our own lives.

The main character is Daniel, the son of a used book dealer, who finds an obscure novel. The book makes such an impact on Daniel that he attempts to find and read more books written by the same author. This desire to read more leads Daniel into a mystery that touches on issues of love, revenge, and life in post revolutionary Spain.

The summary in the previous paragraph does not to justice to the story. The real power to the story is that he reminds you of what it is about reading that you love. The book grabs a hold of you and just never lets go.

Sometimes a book is great because it grants some new insight about the world you live in and some books are great because they open up a new world to you. The Shadow of the Wind is great because it does both.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

Yesterday the House passed it's version of the healthcare reform bill. The House managed to accomplish a good and worthwhile task in such a way as to bring as little credit to itself as possible.

The final vote was 220-195 and only Republican crossed sides and voted for the healthcare bill. That Republican is Rep. Joseph Cao(R-LA-2) and he is this week's Backbencher of the Week. Cao represents the heavily Democratic district in New Orleans and won his seat because the incumbent was convicted felon William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson.

Since Obama carried the district with about 75% of the vote there is to be sure a certain amount of political self-preservation. However there certainly a number of Democrats who thought the political self-preservation meant they needed to vote they other way. Besides, every vote a Congressman takes contains a bit of self preservation.

For be willing to vote against his party, and on the right side of history, we award this week's Backbencher of the Week to Joseph Cao.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Election 09

The results from this year's elections are in, and the result is basically a draw. Two governor's mansions currently held by Democrats were won by Republicans, the Democrats won both of the special elections for Congressional seats, and the fight for marriage equality spilt between a narrow defeat in Maine and a narrow victory in Washington State.

This was not a referendum on President Obama or the national Democratic Party. The two federal elections were both won by Democrats. In the 23rd district of New York, a place that has been electing Republicans to Congress since U.S. Grant was a national figure, Democrat Bill Owens defeated the tea-bagger candidate.

In Virgina, Republican Bob McDonald defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds by running away from his hard right record, and getting an assist from Deed's tepid campaign. Of the two, Deeds was one whose campaign went to great lengths to distance itself from Obama. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie defeated incumbent Democrat John Corzine. While New Jersey is a state that usually votes for Democrats, Christy Todd Whitman was a recent popular GOP governor. Corzine was done id by a combination of a trouble economy, budget difficulties, and ties to Wall Street firms(a combination that almost did in the more popular New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg).

The national political dynamics that placed Barack Obama and his governing coalition in office are still the same. Both of the Republicans who won did so based on local issues and Christie explicitly used Obama in a campaign ad. In both of the elections for federal office, where federal issues are important, the Democrat won.

Granted, a tie is not a victory and it does not feel like one. The biggest reason is the marriage equality loss in Maine. While it is a deeply disappointing loss, I can see something of a silver lining. I realize also that it is easy for me say this. However, I believe that time is on the side of equality even though there will be more disappointing days between now and then.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Book Review

Since my days in seminary, Nick Hornby has been one of favorite writers. A seminary roomate introduced me to Hornby first through Fever Pitch. From there I read High Fidelity and everything Hornby writes. What drew initially drew me to Hornby was the why he used music, sports, and pop culture to convey deep truths about the people in his stories.

With his book Juliet, Naked Hornby has returned to that formula and it works rather well. The story is about the devotion that many men have to an obscure pop culture figure and how that devotion affects their relationships. In a change in style for Hornby, he tells story not just from the perspective of the obsessive fan but also the pop "icon" and the love interest.

The obsessive fan resonated with me because I know many men like him who obsessively study every detail of the music and life of their favorite musician(Jeff Buckley and Glen Phillips were some of the more common targets of in-depth fandom). However the two characters that I like the most were the musician and the story's love interest. I though both of them were far more interesting and developed then the fan.

I'm not sure if it is the result of growing and maturing but Hornby's books increasingly deal with ambiguity and frustration. Due to this development, Hornby's book ends not with a happy ending but with a more ambigious one and in the end a more hopeful one.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

In recognition of the fact that good work done during a political career might not take effect until after a person leaves office, this week's Backbencher of the Week is retroactively awarded to former Senator Gordon Smith(R-OR). Smith served two terms in the Senate and earned a reputation as moderate Republican but last November he barely lost his bid for a third term.

In 2008, Sen. Smith worked Sen. John Kerry(D-MA) to include a provision in last year' President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief(PEPFAR) bill that overturned a 22 year old ban(the handiwork of Jesse Helms) on people with HIV/AIDS from traveling or immigrating to the United States. President Bush signed it into law last July, and on Friday President Obama announced that the ban wold be officially lifted 60 days from this coming Monday.

In recognition of his work leading to the bipartisan repeal of one of Jesse Helms longest standing acts of bigotry, we are glad to retroactively award this week's Backbencher of the Week to former Senator Gordon Smith. Congratulations.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Backbencher Institute of Christian History, Lesson 1

New York Time columnist Ross Douthat used the occasion of Pope Benedict's invitation to conservative Anglicans to join the Catholic Church to wish for a new crusade against Islam. Douthat's take is that "What's being interpreted, for now, as an intra-Christian Skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front-not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity's most enduring and impressive foe.

Actually, Christianity's most enduring and impressive foe is western imperialism. Western imperialism, either by brute force or through a subtle co-opting of the Church, has often come close to defeating Christianity. However, there has always been a group of Christians(sometimes small and sometimes opposed by the hierarchy of their church) who have continued to fight western imperialism. They have been do so since literaly day one and may they continue to do so.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book Review

I like to travel and I am always looking a way to add depth to my travel experience. In an effort to do so, I read Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act. Steves is most famous for his PBS travel show and a series of travel book he writes about visiting Europe.

The best part of the book is the large middle section where he goes to various countries and sees how they address certain issues. For example he goes to Switzerland and the Netherlands to study drug policy. Steves also goes to Morocco and Turkey to learn about moderate Islamic countries and he travels to Iran to learn about the United States' current enemy. While usually he usually concentrates on Europe, Steves' does detour to El Salvador to learn about libertation theology and the role that globalization and U.S. Foreign policy play in the developing world.

Steve's book does present a lot to think about and how travel can force to confront some delicate issues. While encouraging people to travel to begin the process of confronting long held beliefs, Steves is short on ways to do that in the specific countries he visited(perhaps that is what his travel books are for).

Even if I travel to only a few of the places that Steves visited, his book does encourage me to travel more and increase the opportunities to step out and learn directly from other cultures.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

We Might Need to Stop Using the Term Dog Pile

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great piece in the New Yorker comparing professional football with dog fighting. Gladwell's point is that dogfighting and football are like because both are predicated on fact that the participants court severe injury to please others. Football players are particularly susceptible to severe long term brian damage. Eventually society deemed dog fighting illegal and abhorrent because the culture at large could no longer stomach getting its entertainment at the price of suffering dogs. Gladwell wants society to look at the immense suffering professional football players go through and wants to consider if our entertainment is worth the suffering of other people.

I find myself torn. I played and continue to like football. However, I have long been aware of the brutal damage the game inflicts on its participants. As the article points out there are few good solutions to stop the brain damage football players endure. The NFL tries to modify its equipment and change its rules to keep its players safe. I applaud this effort and the intent to keep the players safe.

The problem, though, seems to be one of physics. NFL players are bigger and faster then were just a few years ago. When the collide they collide with great force. I once had the opportunity to watch an NFL game from the field, and the speed and violence of the game was frightening to behold. The only way to counter the inherent violence, and the damage it causes, is to shrink and slow down the game. Only by limiting the size and speed of the players can the basic physics of the game be changed.

Elections Have Consequences

The Senate joined the House and today passed the Matthew Shepherd hate crimes legislation. The bill was attached to a defense appropriations bill and 58 Democrats and 9 Republicans voted for the bill. Russ Feingold(D-WI) opposed the bill because of elements relating to Afghanistan in the defense appropriations section and Robert Byrd(D-WV) was not present to vote.

Also from the hill today comes word that the healthcare bill that goes to the Senate floor will probably have a public option. Most moderate Democrats appear mollified by the knowledge that they will have a chance to vote to strip the public option provision. If a public option is in the bill then its opponents need 60 votes to strip it out of the bill, and if it is not included proponents need 60 to insert it. This news makes it very possible that the final bill will include some form of a public option.

This is good news and a reminder of why many of us worked, contributed money, and voted for President Obama and the Democrats.

Book Review

My vacation reading was Richard Aldous' The Lion and the Unicorn. The Lion and the Unicorn tells the story of the rivalry of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. These two men dominated British politics during the Victorian era. During the second half of the Nineteenth Century, these two alternated power and the office of Prime Minister. Stoking their rivalry is the fact that the men were complete opposites and personally detested each other.

I found it fascinating to reed how two people can dominate a political scene for so long. It is impossible for the American political scene to experience such a thing as the rivalry between Disraeli and Gladstone. The idea of the separation of powers and term limits for President mean that the most powerful person in the country never has a consistent rival and is off the political scene within a decade. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil were the two most powerful rival politicans in the 1980's but they never faced off directly. All of their conflicts were indirectly through the press and through campaigns. Disraeli and Gladstone regularly faced each other in direct debate in the House of Commons. The closest American analogy that I can come up with is when Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun dominated debates in the Senate during the Antebellum period. However none of the three 3 ever became President.

Gladstone and Disraeli debated every major issue in British politics. The clashed over budget issues and the role of religion in public life. The two debated electoral reform and the questions surrounding Ireland. In foreign affairs, Gladstone and Disraeli had some of their most explosive clashes over issues regarding Turkey and the Middle East, and relations between the great powers of Europe.

Spicing up the political rivalry between the two is the personal qualities of both protagonists. Disraeli was a flamboyant dandy who also wrote popular novels. On one trip to the Middle East, Disraeli came back with a "butler, a pirate outfit, and a case of the clap." Gladstone, on the other hand, was a stern, upright, and pious man. His only weakness was that he frequented some of London's most notorious red light districts searching for what he called "rescue cases."

The book is well written and easy to read. Unless you just be happen to be a geek about British politics and history like I am then you don't need to view this book as vacation reading. However, it is one of the best books on the subject of British political history that I have read.

Liturgygeek was concerned on finding out who was the lion and who was the unicorn. The title is an illusion to a scene in Lewis Carroll"s Through the Looking Glass. William Gladstone is the lion and Benjamin Disraeli is the unicorn.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Catching up on Iowa

While I was on vacation, two major events occurred in Iowa politics. The first is the former Governor Terry Bransted left his position as president of Des Moines University and started the process of "fully exploring" the possibility of running for governor in 2010. Branstad's theme is going to be saving the state budget, which is currently in such terrible state that Governor Culver ordered 10% across the board cuts. Yet I am not sure what exactly Branstad offers to fix the situation. When he was Governor, Branstad worked with Democrats in the legislature to raise the state sales tax. However, I can't see anybody coming out of today's Republican party being willing to do anything about the budget. Culver already ordered cuts and I can't imagine any Republican doing anything more that the current governor is doing.

If Branstad does win the GOP nomination then I think he is the clear favorite to win the Governor's Mansion. However, I think Branstad will be bloodied by the GOP primary. Branstad does have a moderate record as governor that included raising the sales tax and Branstad did have a pro-choice Lieutenant Governor for half of his time in office. The modern Iowa GOP does not tolerate either of those positions and Branstad's Republican opponents are already lining up to take shots.

The other big news is that Sen. Chuck Grassley(R-IA) might have a big name challenger. Former First Lady Christie Vilsack is exploring a possible run for Senate. Ms. Vilsack certainly gives off every intention of running by saying "I think I am well qualified to serve." Vilsack definitely has the policy chops and the popularity to be a formidable challenge to Grassley and Grassley's popularity has dipped over his role in the health care debate. I still think Grassley is the favorite to win but Vilsack is the most formidable person that Democrats can probably nominate.

As a personal note, Liturgygeek serves on the board of the Iowa Intiative, which is a program to reduce unintended pregnancies in the state of Iowa, and where Christie Vilsack serves as Executive Director . After Ms. Vilsack called Liturgygeek a couple of times, I tried to convince Liturgygeek to invite Christie Vilsack to our wedding but Liturgygeek was not as enamored with the idea as I was.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blogging by the Bay

I am back to blogging after spending some much needed time off on vacation. Liturgygeek and I celebrated our 1st anniversary by traveling to the Bay Area. I always enjoy visiting Northern California, and because I spent part of my boyhood in Marin County, I find that visiting the Bay Area is always special.

We spent the first part of our trip in Sonoma so that we could visit Liturgygeek's moms and family. Our big trip during this portion of our vacation was out to Point Reyes. As a boy, my family visited Point Reyes often and my dad liked it so much that he spent a couple of years searching for a Point Reyes lighthouse figurine. Unfortunately we visited on Tuesday and the lighthouse is closed on Tuesday. We did get some nice views of the ocean and the deer that live on the cliffs above the Pacific. Beside the deer, other wildlife that we could see from Point Reyes included some whales. The whales were a little ways off the coast but we could see them blow water when they surfaced.

The famous San Andreas fault runs right through the Point Reyes National Seashore. Even though the fault caused both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, I was not afraid to stand on the active fault line. The blue post I am standing beside marks the fault.

After a great first part of the week in Sonoma, we spent the last part of our trip in the city of San Francisco. I feel a little weird visiting San Francisco. In many ways I remember an idealized version of the city from boyhood, and I have to struggle to accept the reality that the city is great on its own merits and not as some fantasy from my childhood that never existed.

Perhaps it is because we spent a lot of time way from the usual tourist precincts but on this trip I found that I really became entranced by San Francisco. It began to move from the mythological city of my childhood to a city that I as an adult can appreciate and enjoy.

We explored the Mission District and we went down to the farmer's market at the ferry building. It is sad to report but the farmer's market in San Francisco far outclassed any type of market that I have seen in Iowa. We sampled a type of olive oil flavored with truffles that was absolutely fantastic. We have plans to order some to be shipped for us to have in Iowa.

As a cosmopolitan city, there are always major events. The President's Cup golf tournament was played during the week we there. Even though Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played, we did not see them. Our trip also coincided with fleet week and the sky above San Francisco roared as the Blue Angels thundered above the city. During the fleet week there is an air show and a parade of ships. The picture below shows an SFFD fireboat and a U.S. Navy ship.

No vacation is complete without a ballgame and this year's ballgame was the Atlanta Falcons vs. the San Francisco 49ers. It was not a fun game because the Flacons stomped the Niners 45-10. However, the experience was great. We had a good time with some wild fans and just hanging out. Candlestick Park is starting to show its age but in a league of ultra modern stadiums it is fun to visit an NFL stadium whose claim to fame is the greatness of the team that plays there and not the bells and whistles of the scoreboard.
We stayed at two great places. In Sonoma we stayed at the Jack London Lodge. The rooms had a quaint and rustic feel but they were nice and comfortable. The breakfasts on the patio was nice and the hot tub was very nice. In San Francisco, we stayed at the Cornell Hotel. The Cornell is located at the corner of Powell and Bush; Right on the cable car line. It is a small but comfortable hotel. While we stayed there, it felt like we were staying at an undiscovered gem in the heart of San Francisco.

I like food and we ate out well. We ate at Guy Fieri's restaurant Johnny Garlics. It had the feel of a chain restaurant and was kitchy because it was an outlet for the Fieri empire but the food was good. Liturgygeek has a friend that owns a restaurant in Sonoma called Maya. The pork chop was amazing and one of the most flavorful pieces of meat I have ever eaten. We ate supper twice in the Mission District. The first place was an Indian place called Dosa. I am not a big fan of Indian food but it was very good. The other place is called Foreign Cinema and it was great. It is the type of place that can only be found in San Francisco. The food was fantastic and they play movies on the wall while you eat. Finally, the best breakfast I had was at Brenda's French Soul Food. The had beignets to start and then large servings of New Orleans style breakfasts.

Well, that does for my summary. There was too much we did on the trip to give an adequate summary. Oh well, I guess I will have to make another trip.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

Liturgygeek and I are celebrating our wedding anniversary today. While this is a happy day for us, we remember that gay and lesbian couples are prevented from enjoying the full rights and responsibilities of marriage.

98 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are seeking to change this unjust reality. To ensure that U.S. law recognizes full and equal marriage rights for all couple the have introduced The Respect for Marriage Act. Rep. Jerald Nadler(D-NY-8) is the lead sponsor of this act.

The Backbencher recognizes Rep. Nadler and all 97 of his colleagues as this week's Backbencher of the Week for their work in giving full marriage rights to all Americans.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Debate is On

Prime Minister Gordon Brown agreed to debate Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in a televised debate before next year's general election. If this debate would occur this would be a new development for British politics. Televised debates, though common in many other countries, are not a part of British campaigns.

I don't really like this development. I think it cheapens the debates in the House of Commons where the party leaders clash weekly during Question Time. Also, every major government initiative is debated is Parliament. The government presents its agenda and the opposition parties critique the government and offer its alternatives. In the UK, Parliament is supreme and I fear that a televised debate will further reduce Parliament's relevance.

I am also not a fan of televised debates. I have watched American style televised debates since I became politically aware in my teens. Rarely are the debates edifying. The goal in an American debate is to avoid a campaign killing gaffe and deliver a glib and snappy put down to the opponent. Positions and issues are not clarified and the debates are not very informative.

My criticisms not withstanding, I do hope they show the debate on C-SPAN.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Justice in America

Legal authorities in Switzerland caught film director Roman Polanski and are holding him for extradition back to the United States. After pleading guilty to raping a 13 year old girl, Polanski fled after a plea deal fell through. A strange combination of Hollywood types and neo-con columnists in the Washington Post are defending Polanski. In bit of glaring obliviousness Woody Allen is among those defending Polanski.

There may be legal reason that might mitigate the issues that surround Polanski's sentence. That is why we have lawyers and appellate courts; to argue and decide these cases. However, we should not lose sight of what he confessed to doing. Polanski admitted that he gave a 13 year old girl a combination of wine and quaaludes and then raped her. Not only is this illegal but it is morally reprehensible. There could very well have been misconduct on the part of the judge and prosecutor, and if there is then Polanski's lawyers have a professional and legal obligation to bring any possible misconduct before the court in an effort to defend him. What is not needed is a bunch of morally oblivious Hollywood and Washington elite defending the indefensible.

Meanwhile in Texas, Governor Rick Perry(R-TX) fired 3 members of the State Forensic Commission. The commission was scheduled to listen to evidence related to the case of Cameron T. Willingham but the meeting had to be cancelled. In an article in the New Yorker, David Gann makes a very compelling case that when the state of Texas executed Willingham they executed an innocent man.

In Washington D.C., Federal District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly granted a habeas petition filed by a Kuwati citizen named Fouad al-Rabiah. In her ruling, Judge Kollar-Kotelly declared that American interrogators tortured al-Rabiah even though they had no evidence that he was guilty of anything more then being in Afghanistan during the U.S. invasion. In fact her ruling seems to indicate that U.S. officials knew his torture induced confession was unreliable but they held him in custody anyway. In other words, we tortured a man we knew was innocent.

In the U.S., if you are rich, powerful, and famous then there are plenty of rich, powerful, and famous people who will defend you. However, if you poor or of the wrong skin pigmentation then there is no greater crime you can commit then to be innocent when the government thinks you are guilty.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Book Review

I was educated by professors and mentors who were steeped in the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible. Most of what I learned about understanding the Bible came through the lens of the historical-critical method. Marc Zvi Brettler attempts to make the insights of the historical-critical method accessible in his book How to Read the Bible. Brettler is Jewish and his book only deals with the Jewish Scriptures or what Christians know as the Old Testament.

Ultimately, Brettler fails in his attempt to make the historical-critical method relevant. The problem is not with Brettler but with the historical-critical method itself. I must first admit that I am a strong believer in interpreting the Bible in the light of insights gained by modern scholarship. I think it is important to understand the sources that lay behind the text because in doing so illuminates hard to understand passages and gives insight to the original purposes of a particular text.

I do not reject the historical-critical method but I feel I have moved beyond it. What makes the Bible the Bible is what it does. It provokes, it questions, it comforts, and it confronts. It tells a story about God, humanity and the interaction between the two. The Bible invites us into a dialogue with the it; a dialogue that at times can be very argumentative. It is a dialogue that occurs in the present and draws our attention to the future. The critical method of interpreting the Bible can help clear away some of the clutter to hear the voice of the text but it is not the message of the text itself.

I define myth as a story whose truth is greater then sum of its facts. The Bible is a myth. However, the historical-critical method is not a substitute for a real engagement with the text because the historical-critical method often ends up making the Bible to be no more than the sum of its sources.

Lugging Towards Competence

This time next year Iowa will be in the middle of election season. Among the races that will attract attention, the one getting the most will be Governor Chet Culver's attempt to win a second term. The Des Moines Register featured an article on Sunday assessing Culver's performance.

The gist of the article is that Culver had done a good job dealing with crisis situations like the floods and tornados of last sumer. However, Culver's ability to manage the government and his agenda are mixed. He did well his first year but the past couple of legislative saw tensions between Culver and Democratic legislators that stalled much of Culver's agenda over the past couple of years.

I don't really know if Culver can do anything to improve his chances for reelection. The state's economy is in the tank and as a result the state budget is facing a serious shortfall. There is no way to address that and earn political capital. A more harmonious legislative session will not make the budget cutting any easier to swallow.

As an Iowan I feel like Culver has sort of stumbled along and he has not given me any reason to feel excited about his stewardship of the state. However, I think the state is in as good a shape as it can be given the circumstances. One of my history professors in college said that a credible interpretation of Napoleon is that he "bumbled towards greatness." In watching Culver, known as the "Big Lug", I feel like I am watching someone lug toward competence. Lugging toward competence is far more deserving of winning an election then Republican efficient gutting of state government.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Losing Our Team

The Jaguars earned their first victory of the season today but the big story in the Times Union dealt with the possibility of the Jaguars one day leaving Jacksonville for another city. The reasons for a possible move are the usual ones of low attendance, tight economy, and TV blackouts.

Jacksonville is not the only city having trouble selling out their games. The Vikings signed Brett Favre in part because they needed a way to drum up sales. Play-off contender San Diego has also experienced problems selling all their tickets. In the past couple of years I have had no trouble buying tickets to games in such such stalwart NFL cities as San Francisco and Kansas City.

I have attended pro football games throughout the South and if the team is anywhere from mediocre to bad it is no problem to get seats for any game. When Tampa was horrible they rarely if ever sold out and unless the Dolphins are really good then there are often plenty of seats available in Miami. In New Orleans I once bought seats on the 40 from a scalper for face value. When I was in seminary the Falcons had a buy 1 get 1 free sale for a game against an NFC champion Rams team that was called "the greatest show on turf." This was normal in Atlanta where fan loyalty runs first to the Georgia Bulldogs and then to everyone else. In Jacksonville, loyalty goes from Florida and FSU and then down to the Jags. The reason people assume the Jags are about to move is because many NFL people believe that Jacksonville does not deserve a team.

The people who run the NFL tend to view its component parts as things to be exploited. They exploit players through use of non-guaranteed contracts and they exploit fan bases and cities by threatening to move in an effort to wring concessions to get more money. The NFL has shown no problems leaving cities with long football traditions like Cleveland, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. The only way to fight this is to exploit the league right back. Every city that I mentioned above would be fine if they no longer had a team. I don't doubt the feelings of grief would immense but the cities would survive.

That is because the cities have been able to deliver diverse offerings of activities to people with different interest. These cities could develop these diverse offerings because an NFL team gave them the aura of being "major league." Since Atlanta got the Falcons they have become a major international city. The Falcons could close up shop tomorrow and Atlanta would be fine.

What Jacksonville should do is quit worrying about the Jags leaving. Right now use the existence of the Jags as leverage to develop diverse attractions. Miami can ignore the Dolphins and be fine because of what South Beach offers. New Orleans often ignored the Saints and didn't care because they have the French Quarter.

The years of the Jacksonville Jaguars parallels the years I have been gone. When I return it is easy to see that Jacksonville has changed and it is no longer a provincial backwater. I am sure that having the Jaguars is a major impetus behind the development. I hope the city leaders of Jacksonville seek not to grow with the Jags but grow beyond needing the Jags.

I guess what I am saying is use the NFL because they sure will use you.

Backbencher of the Week

For the first time in Backbencher history we have a repeat winner of Backbencher of the Week. A conservative group used a hidden video camera to conduct a sting on ACORN. The resulting firestorm attracted Congressional attention. Since Congress is comprised of many bigoted Republicans and even more spineless Democrats, they voted to strip ACORN of all federal funding.

However, Congress wrote the legislative language in a very broad manner, and one enterprising Congressman saw an opportunity. Rep Alan Grayson(D-FL-8) intially made a name for himself by going after fraud in Iraq War contracts. Rep Grayson realized that the legislative language could apply to the military-industrial complex. The Congressman then allied himself with the Project on Government Oversight(POGO) and together they went through government files. They quickly discovered that large military contractors like Lockheed and Northrop Grumman qualify for defunding . Not only do military contractors qualify to be stripped of federal funding but many financial institutions and even Catholic Charities also fall under this legislation.

Glenn Greenwald interviews Alan Grayson here.

For exposing Congressional hypocrisy, and hoisting Congress and the military industrial complex on their pitard, we are glad to award Rep, Alan Grayson this week's Backbencher of the Week.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review

Over the past couple of weeks I have read two books about historical presidential elections. The first is Lynn Hudson Parson's The Birth of Modern Politics and the second is James Chace's 1912. A first I thought the books might be a little boring but instead I found both of them very readable and enjoyable. If anything, I wanted them to go into even more depth.

What I found most interesting about both books is m=how much the issues is the campaign of 1828 and 1912 parallel current issues. In 1828 one of the major issues was banking and specifically, the 2nd Bank of the United States. The 1912 election centered on the best way to rein a corporate sector that had run amuck. The parallels between those elections and the current political debates over regulating the financial sector and Wall Street were fascinating. It is clear that almost since the earliest days of the republic, the idea of effectively dealing with banks and large corporations has a long history of political viability in our elections. It is alao worth noting that both victors campaigned in opposition banks and big business and then governed in a manner closely aligned with their campaign promises. Populism, even if co-opted, has a long history of being politically successful.

It is also true that the big issues of the American political debate have not changed much over the years. The questions of the size and role of government dominated the eras covered by both books. In 1828 the question was on using government money on internal improvements and in 1912 the debate centered on the regulatory role of the federal government. While it is clear that our political systems has made progress, it has done so within defined limits of the American political system. I am not sure if this is a good thing or not.

What both books point out is that if you are unwilling to fight and defend your beliefs in the political arena then you don't deserve to be there. John Quincy Adams had a defensible record as President but his failure to use the leverage of his office to build political support ensured his defeat. William Howard Taft is a little different case. He never wanted to be, and never enjoyed being, the President; his life's dream was to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This lack of desire when coupled with his distress over a very public rupture with Theodore Roosevelt led Taft to not fight very hard to remain as President.

I once heard someone say that "history does not repeat but it rhymes." If that is indeed the case then both of these books provide a good basic understanding of where our country's politics have come from and what we can learn from our past when it rhymes with our current situation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It's Funny Because It's True

And because it stars Dr. Chris Turk

Why Healthcare Reform is So Hard

Rep. Mike Ross(D-AR-4), who is the leading Blue Dog healthcare spokesman, received a sweetheart deal from an Arkansas based pharmacy chain to sell a piece of commercial property. Oh, and the health industry donated $342, 475 to Rep. Ross. The practice of legalized bribery is alive and well in Washington.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week we recognize a long time advocate of universal health care. Sen Ron Wyden(D-OR) is the co-author with Sen. Bob Bennett(R-UT) of the Healthy Americans Act. This bill is a bi-partisan bill designed to end the employer based health insurance system and replace it with a regulated and subsidized private health care market to achieve universality and affordability.

In brief, what the bill does is create state level insurance exchanges that would allow insurance companies offer a variety of coverage plans. The standard plan would be based on the plans offered through federal exchanges that members of Congress and federal employees are eligible for. Health care would no longer be paid for by the employer but would be subsidized by the federal government. The government would get the money by means of a payroll tax. However, the cost to taxpayers would offset by some other tax deductions. Also, the law would mandate that the money employers would have used on employee health benefits would go to the employee in the form of a wage increase. The insurance would also be portable across state lines. Under the Healthy Americans Act insurance companies would be regulated and many of their more perverse acts would be curtailed. The bill would also end many federal plans such as Medicaid and the children's health care system known as SCHIP. Even though I favor a single payer system, I could be satisfied if the final bill resembled this Healthy Americans Act.

Sen. Wyden sits on the Senate Finance Committee. This week the chair of the Finance Committee, Sen. Max Baucus(D-MT), released the version of the healthcare bill that the committee will consider this week. This version of the bill, known as the chairman's mark, can be found here. Even though Sen. Wyden has done a lot of work on healthcare, he was locked out of the process that produced the Finance Committee's bill. As would be expected from a process that locked out the committee's experts, Sen. Baucus' bill was widely criticized. Sen. Wyden has filed a number of amendments to make the Finance Committee bill better. One of the amendments is basically Wyden's Free Choice Act which would open up the insurance exchanges to everyone and not just small business or individuals who don't get their insurance through their employer.

Read an interview with Sen. Wyden here.

For sheer dogged determination that might soon be rewarded with a healthcare bill that might actually become law we award this week's Backbencher of the Week to Sen. Ron Wyden. Congratulations.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Obama and Race

Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives decided to take some school bus bullying and use it to ratchet up racial tension in an effort to discredit President Obama. Limbaugh said, "In Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering."

In the 7th grade I was the victim of bullying by some African American kids and I do think that race was a factor in the bullying. Due to court ordered busing, in 7th grade I attended a largely African American school located in a largely African American part of Jacksonville. At the time, I was a small, studious, shy white kid. What I think happened is these African American boys, like all bullies, felt comfortable enough to use physical violence on those they perceived as weaker or out of place. Those boys were on their home turf and they know how to maneuver around what was probably a badly administered school. They were, in effect, African-American boys who bullied white kids because in that environment being white marked people as a potential victim. Race was not the reason for the bullying but it played a factor in why people felt like they could bully and why certain other people were targeted for bullying.

By the way, this happened 20 years ago in the United States of George Herbert Walker Bush. I also know that in the administration of just about every President in American history, black people faced the very real possibility of being hung from a tree for any number of supposed transgressions against white people. The trajectory of American history is filled with racial tensions, and the majority of those tensions come from whites using threats and violence against people with black skin. Whatever violent talk or violent acts African Americans committed against white people came in large part as a response to a long history of whites using violence to prevent African Americans from gaining even a shred of basic human rights. I know that racial tensions exist and have exited throughout our nation's history.

I also know that conservatives will use racial tensions to benefit their own cause. This use of racial tensions is a long staple of southern politics and has been used on the national level since Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy." From Ronald Reagan's talk of "state's rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi to Geroge H. W. Bush's use of Willie Horton to all the talk about welfare queens, conservatives have used racial tensions to achieve political power.

In my own memory, I can recall people I knew when I was in college in Mississippi during the mid 90s calling African Americans Democrats as a racial epitaph because all the white people voted Republican. I know the Republicans used the fact that Democrats removed the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia state flag to gain full political power in 2002. I know that conservative Republicans in Augusta, Georgia supported a Democratic challenger for State Senate because the incumbent Republican supported the flag change.

Just in the past year, Rep. Lynn Westmorland(R-GA-3) called Obama "uppity." Just before President Obama spoke before Congress on healthcare Sen. Saxby Chambliss(R-GA), who during the 2008 election all but admitted that the core of his support came from white people opposed to African Americans gaining political power, said that Obama needed to express humility during his address. It is no wonder then that Rep. Joe Wilson(R-SC-2), a former aide to Strom Thurmond and who voted to keep the Confederate flag on top of the South Carolina Statehouse, would heckle Obama over a provision regarding illegal aliens.

Much of the vitriol directed as Obama is because of his race and considering the role race plays in American life and politics this should not be a surprise. That is the reality and it will be so as long as it pays off for public figures and politicians. The path to conservative power has for decades been through the use of racial tensions, and they will continue to stoke racial fears until it no longer works for them. Anyone claiming ignorance of this fact is being deliberately ignorant.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

With Congress back in session we return to our practice of rewarding unheralded action of Congressmen/women and Senators.

The August break was marked with several confrontations between members of Congress and angry constituents. Senator Al Franken(D-MN) demonstrated the best way to handle angry protesters when he was confronted by some tea party activists. Later during the recess, Sen. Franken drew a map of the United States using nothing but his memory.

For handling the August recess like a seasoned veteran, Sen. Al Franken is this week's Backbencher of the Week.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Review

I like Graham Greene and this week I finally read Our Man in Havana. Our Man in Havana tells the the story of a Mr. Wormold; a vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited to be British intelligence's man in Havana. Wormold has no idea to run a spy network and decides to make things up including passing off a drawing of a vacuum cleaner as secret weapon. Things begin to spin out of control when everyone assumes that what Wormold reports is true.

The easy parallel is to The Quiet American and there are quite a few similarities. They are both satires of Cold War adventurism and both aim to criticize western interference in other countries. However, Our Man in Havana is not nearly as scathing and it does not attempt to take sides in the way The Quiet American does.

The real them of Our Man in Havana is love. Womold is both motivated and haunted by his love for his teenage daughter and for the wife who left him. In fact, Wormold's scheme is an attempt to gain enough money to provide his daughter a better life. Later Wormold realizes he is in love with the Beatrice; the aid British intelligence sent to him. Beatrice gives the theme of the book when she tells the assembled military and intelligence chiefs that "a country is more a family than a Parliamentary system."

I always enjoy reading Greene and Our Man in Havana is a quick, enjoyable and fun read.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Political SAT

Elizabeth R. Dilley is to Red Oak as

A) Richard Daley is to Chicago

B) James M. Curley is to Boston

C) Tom Pendergast is to Kansas City

D) Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall are to New York

E) All of the Above

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Healthcare Reform to the Max

Sen. Max Baucus(D-MN) finally is circulating his idea for healthcare reform and moderates appear to be gathering around a public option with a trigger that would go into effect if insurance companies fail to meet certain targets.  It now appears that the outlines of a healthcare deal appear to be in place.  After the craziness of August it is hard to believe that we are close to some type of deal but Jonathan Cohn explains how August affected the the political situation and how the odds of a bill being passed are unchanged and perhaps more likely.

Based on my studying of the issue, this is my guess as to what will happen.  A bill with a public option that has a trigger will pass.  The bill will increase Medicaid eligibility and will include an individual mandate.  To help people pay for the mandated insurance there will be subsidies of about 350% of poverty level.  There will also be an employer mandate and some type of insurance exchange that will allow individuals who don't get insurance from their employers, and small businesses, to have access to reasonably priced insurance.

I am not the first to suggest this but President Obama strikes me as someone who uses conservative means to achieve progressive ends.  As The American Prospect pointed out earlier this summer, Obama maintains a strong belief in the ability of American institutions to solve our country's problems.  As far as I can tell this belief includes the medical establishment in the U.S. 

The current reform proposals seek to keep the basics of our the employer based health insurance system but it wants to make the system achieve universal coverage and do it in a more efficient manor.

This is a far from perfect bill and it feels like a colossal disappointment when compared with what seemed possible at the beginning of the debate.  However if a bill like the one described above passes then it will be the most progressive legislation in a generation.  More important a bill that is successful and popular will set the stage for further progression towards public based universal healthcare.

The reality is that not all Democrats are liberal progressives.  Even though the Reagan era looks over, the Democrats are still struggling to posit a positive message about governments role in our society.  The most important thing this bill might do is to reverse the "government is the problem" mentality that marked the last 3 decades of political debate and restore the public's trust in the government's ability to pursue collective action for the public good  If the bill does that then it will be easier to move from this bill to an even more substantial reform of our healthcare system.