Sunday, March 29, 2009

Movies With Jacqui

One of the ongoing sagas in British politics is a scandal involving MPs abusing their expense accounts to overcharge for items that are supposed to be related to their job.  The scandal reminds me of the early 90s House Bank and Congressional Post Office Scandals.   Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, is in some trouble because she claimed in her household costs expense report the price of two adult movies that her husband rented.  Ms. Smith's husband quickly apologized and said he mistakenly put in the claim when he was putting in some legitimate claims.

Things are not going well for the Home Secretary.  She was the public face during the government's attempt to increase the amount of days the police can hold a terror suspect without charges.  She also approved the police raid on Conservative MP Damian Green's Westminster office.  The Home Secretary might also be subject to investigation over whether UK government officials are complicit in the torture of Binyam Mohamed.

Not only will Jacqui Smith lose her job of Home Secretary if the Conservatives form the next government but some polls place her in danger of losing her seat in Parliament.  I don't think these revelations will help.

The Fruits of Torture...

...are apparently nothing.  According to this Washington Post article the CIA used waterboarding and other forms of torture at the behest of top White House and CIA officials on a al-Qaeda supporter named Abu Zubaida.  Under torture, Zabaida confessed to all sorts of plots that didn't exist.  The Post quotes an intelligence official saying, "we spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms."

The fact that torture does not work is the least of the problems with using it as a tool.  Torture is first and foremost a moral outrage and a crime against humanity.  Reports are now coming out that the same Spanish prosecutor that convicted Augusto Pinochet is investigating Bush administration officials William Haynes, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Douglas Feith, and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.  Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon is investigating the six for creating the legal justification for President Bush's torture program.

The world now views the U.S. as being on par with the Pinochet regime.  Thank you George Bush and Dick Cheney for nothing but making us equal to Augusto Pinochet. 

Safety Net or Stimulus?

Thanks to Ezra Klein, I read this New York Times article  about how European countries, led by Germany are using their expansive social safety net to weather the recession instead of economic stimulus packages like the United States.  This could lead to some conflict at the upcoming G20 summit as the Obama administration pushes for a coordinated global stimulus.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel famously said that we should never waste a crisis.  I hope as part of the recovery projects there is increased investments in the safety net.  Th article points out that even though the German economy is contracting at a shocking rate, many Germans do not feel the squeeze as much as many Americans.  Due to the large social programs, German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that Germany's "social systems are not in decline now, pensions are not cut, unemployment insurance is not reduced."

In the U.S., governments are cutting social programs left and right, and individual pensions and retirement savings disappeared with the fall of the markets.   As the U.S. works its way out this economic mess, not only should take steps to regulate the market but we should also find ways to build a stronger safety net that can withstand an economic downturn.

Backbencher of the Week

Even though I am not the only blog to send kudos his way, Senator Jim Webb(D-VA) is this week's Backbencher of the Week.  Webb is in his first term as a Senator after defeating GOP rising star Sen. George Allen.

One of Sen. Webb's projects in the Senate is prison reform.  This week he introduced a bill to create a commission to study prison reform.  Pointing out uncomfortable facts like even though the U.S. has '5% of the world's population the U.S. has 25% of the world's known prison population," Webb sets the stage for calling for much needed reform.  He also points out the racial disparity in the prison population and how the skyrocketing rate of incarceration is based on non-violent drug offenders.

It's not just the rate of incarceration that Webb addresses.  He also addresses the conditions in our prisons.  According to Senator Webb, rates of physical and sexual violence are "off the charts."  Prisons are also filled with people Senator Webb calls the "criminally ill," and webb discusses how woeful medical care is for inmates even though HIV and Hepatitis rate are high.

Sen. Webb seeks to not just reform our prison system but the entire criminal justice system and especially how the system handles drugs.  For too long politicians have played a game of top this with regard to our criminal justice system.  The result is an increasing militarized and brutal system done in the name of "law-and order," and "the war on drugs."    

For having the political courage to question and push to reform criminal justice in the United States, Senator Jim Webb is this week's Backbencher of the Week. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

John Hope Franklin, RIP

John Hope Franklin, the esteemed historian if the African-American experience, died today.  I first came across Franklin's work when I took History of the American South in college.  Later in seminary I again encountered when I took History of the African American Church at the Interdenominational Theological Center as part of a consortium program at the McAfee School of Theology.  I quickly learned that if you wanted to study Southern history or African-American history then you needed to read Dr. Franklin.

My favorite story about Dr. Franklin is his refusal to serve in World War 2.  As a person with P.hD., Franklin was shocked to learn that in the segregated military all he could be was as an enlisted office aide.  Franklin thought that the U.S. Navy thought so little of his abilities and what he had to offer then the U.S. could win the war without him.

Dr. John Hope Franklin will be missed by all of us who love to study history.

Traffic Accident Blogging

On Monday night I was the hittie in a hit-and-run collision.  At about 8:00 p.m. I was traveling home after work.  I went down the hill on Summit and prepared to turn on left onto 8th St.  I slowed down and turned on my blinker.  I noticed headlights in my rearview mirror and I had a split second realization that I was about to be hit.  There was a hard collision and my car rolled to a stop against a raised median.  As I got out of the car I noticed a pick-up truck pulled onto the side of 8th St.  All of a sudden the truck took off.  

Aside from a little soreness in my neck and forearms, I felt fine but I was shook up.  My car was a different story.  The back bumper was almost completely torn off, the trunk was crunched up into the backseat, and the rear windshield was shattered into a million pieces.  When I called the police my voice trembled and I had trouble communicating the location of the accident.  The people in the house at the intersection came running out.  They said that they saw the truck and had a description.  Brian and Shauna Roberts are their name and the provided me with an umbrella, a glass of water and some needed companionship.  A van pulled up and a woman named Lea Craig said that she had the license plate number of the truck that hit me.  We called the police again to give them that information.

The police were delayed because they had two fights going on at the same time as my accident.  I stayed over at the Roberts to wait for the police.  When the police arrived Brian and I gave statements and the officer went to go look at the car.  A few minutes later the officer came back and asked Brian for precise description of the truck.  The officer said he had an idea of the culprit was and left to track him/her down.  Meanwhile Shauna left to get liturgygeek from the bowling alley and bring her to where I was.  When liturgygeek arrived we moved the car out of the median and put a tarp over the back window to keep out the rain.

On the advice of the police officer, liturgygeek drove me to the ER as a precaution.  After a battery of tests, they gave me a shot of valium and a muscle relaxer to help me sleep that night.  Liturgygeek drove me home and I had a good night's sleep.

I would like to thank the Roberts family and Lea Craig for helping me during the accident and getting a description and license information to help the police track down the person who hit me.   I was also impressed by Officer Houston from the Red Oak Police Department who acted immediately to track down the truck that hit me.  The ER staff at the Montgomery County Hospital was efficient and compassionate.  Last but not least I am grateful to liturgygeek for being a good wife and taking good care of me.

I didn't particularly like being in a hit-and-run collision but thanks to some good people in Red Oak the experience was was a lot less terrifying and a lot easier to handle than it could have been.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week's Backbencher of the Week is Rep. Alan Grayson(D-FL-8).  The freshman from Florida is already making a name for himself by pushing corporate and government officials for more transparency over the corporate bailouts.

Rep. Grayson first gained notice as lawyer going after government fraud and abuse in Iraq War contracts.  Grayson then used his work going after fraud as a springboard to launch a campaign for Congress.  In 2008 Grayson defeated Republican incumbent Rep. Ric Keller to become the second Democrat since 1970 to hold this seat.

Rep. Grayson is a member of the House Financial Services Committee .  He has used this seat to demand answers about where the Federal Reserve is spending its money and pressure AIG CEO Edward Liddy to name those responsible for AIG's failure.

We are glad that Rep. Grayson is in congress and he is pushing for more accountability in financial and economic institutions.  For this week we award Rep. Alan Grayson this week's Backbencher of the week.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

NCAA Predicitions

With March Madness starting today here are my predictions.

Upsets: Western Kentucky(12) over Illinois(5), Butler(9) over LSU(8), VCU(11) over UCLA(6), Tennessee(9) over Oklahoma State(8), USC(10) over Boston College(7)

Final Four: Louisville, Pitt, North Carolina, Memphis

Champion: North Carolina

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Book Review

As a graduate of a seminary that tries to bridge a gap between the evangelical world and the world of traditional mainstream Protestantism I read a lot of Reinhold Niebuhr during seminary.  Though he was quite influential in the religious world I was surprised to learn about his influence in certain foreign policy circles.  Niebuhr's book The Irony of American History is popular among certain foreign policy realists like Andrew Bacevich who even wrote the forward to the new edition of Niebuhr's book.

Niebuhr identifies two problems with how the U.S. views itself that can lead the country into foreign policy mistakes.  The first is the U.S. is blind when it acts in its own interests but instead credits its actions to some higher morality.  Niebuhr identifies this problem as being "innocent."  The second danger that Niebuhr identifies is the U.S believing that it is a master of its own destiny and that it controls events instead of being subject to them.  Not only does Niebuhr identify these problems he predicts that these problems may lead U.S. to launch a "preventive war."

Niebuhr's solution is not for the U.S. to retreat into isolation but to act in the world.  However, it must act knowing that are limits to what the U.S. can do but it must act.  Hence the U.S. is in an ironic circumstances.

The book was written in 1952 and in places it is definitely dated.  It spends a large section of the book comparing the U.S. to the communist system.  It is also blind the the tumultuous current running beneath American society in 1952.  There is no acknowledgment of the civil rights movement that is about about to get started or the sometimes violent backlash that wold result.

In all humility I do differ with Niebuhr in one respect.  I think renunciation of power is in keeping in both the American tradition and Christian teaching.  Since George Washington voluntarily giving up power is not an act irresponsibility but an act of protecting the republic from the danger on entrenched power.  The Apostle Paul also believes in renouncing power is an important part of Christ's example.  I think an engagement with these two traditions would enhance Niebuhr's point.

Reading Niebuhr is always work but putting in the work will give the reader a prophetic insight into the deep seated and long standing contradictions that bedevil U.S. foreign policy.  Knowing what the traps are and how they were placed is the first but most important step in finding our way out of this mess. 


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Obama's Preachers

The New York Times has an article  about the 5 men who serve as President Obama's spiritual advisors.  The 5 men are either centrist or evangelical with a concern for social justice issues.  One of the men is Otis Moss whose son is now the pastor of Trinity UCC where Obama was a member.  There does not appear to be anyone with a strong connection to the religious right.

However, there are no women and no strongly progressive Christians.  I am afraid that these omissions will reinforce Obama's centrist and conformists tendencies.  I can see Obama making  a strong stand on poverty issues but I can also see a cautious stance on cultural issues like abortion and especially GLBT equality.  I am also sad that this will continue to reinforce the popular image that there are no progressive Christians and evangelicals with a social justice bent are the true "religious left."

The absence of progressive Christians does give those of us religious left the chance to use our outsider status to continue to speak truth to and pressure those in power.  Without being in the center of power I hope progressive Christians will use their voice to continue to critique the dominant culture even if someone we consider one of us is leading it.  

Backbencher of the Week

This week we recognize two members for their work to lift Don't Ask Don't Tell.  The first is Rep. Jim Moran(D-VA-8).  Rep. Moran regularly asks the Defense Department for information about the number of discharged under the provisions of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy.  The Defense Department said it discharged 11 soldiers during January and Rep. Moran issued a press release detailing the positions left open by the discharges.  Rep. Moran said that he will continue to request and make this information available every month until DADT is repealed. 

We also recognize Rep. Ellen Tauscher(D-CA-10.)  Rep. Tauchser is the lead sponsor of a bill to eliminate DADT.  The bill, which is H.R. 1283, would repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell and already as 130 cosponsors.  President Obama said he favors repeal of DADT but appears to want to go slow.  Perhaps legislative action will cause him to move quickly to repeal DADT.

Congratulations to Rep. Moran and Rep. Tauscher for their work on the issue of equality for all Americans and for being Backbencher of the Week.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Gordon's Bad Day

In preliminary meetings before the G20 economic summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ruled out Prime Minister Gordon Brown's idea for a full integrated international economic recovery plan.  Chancellor Merkel believes that time is needed for a 50 billion euro stimulus package passed by the Bundestag to work and that any further stimulus package needs to be done by national governments and not international bodies.  This is a minor setback for President Obama and Treasury Secretary Geithner who support an integrates stimulus plan.

However, this is a huge setback for Gordon Brown and his Labour government.  With an election due within a year and the Conservatives holding double digit leads in most polls, Brown saw financial recovery as the key to his reelection.  This lead to a bit of unintentional parliamentary humor when Brown claimed to save the world.

Brown's popularity briefly saw a leap in the fall when he first launched his effort to save the world's financial markets but as the British economy has tanked and Labour's popularity continues to fall.  Brown is already unpopular because he inherited Tony Blair's unpopularity over the Iraq War.  Brown is also unpopular because as Chancellor of the Exchequer he designed many of the policies that are viewed as leading to the economic meltdown.  Add to this Brown's reputation for being indecisive and you have the recipe for a major electoral defeat.

If you are a Gordon Brown fan(like liturgygeek) then pay close attention to him during the next year because it looks like that is all he has before he moves off the world political stage and David Cameron moves on.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

You Need to Listen to my Wife, Vol. III

Liturgygeek has a great post about the case in Brazil where the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated a 9 year old girl for getting an abortion after being raped by her stepfather.


Please read my friend Lucky Fresh.  The Gentlelady from Alabama is doing some good blogging on Labor issues and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Read the Backbencher...

because topics first talked about here will one day be talked about on more popular blogs.

Omnibus Blogging

This week President Obama signed the omnibus budget bill which will fund government operations for the rest of the fiscal year.  The bill included some 9,000 earmarks, and there was usual crying about "wasteful spending."

It should be noted that earmarks are not by definition wasteful.  All earmarks do is direct federal spending towards towards  specific project.  Without a specific earmark, the money would be spent anyway but it would be spent at the discretion of an executive branch agency.  Members of Congress use earmarks to fund projects that are important to their constituents and these projects are often locally useful but have no other means of funding.

Senator John McCain(R-AZ) can always be counted on to do a lot of crying when it comes to wasteful spending and earmarks.  One of his targets was an earmark inserted by Sen. Tom Harkin(D-IA) appropriating 1.7 million dollar for efforts to control the odor created by hog farming.  Senator McCain called the earmark one of the 10 pokiest earmarks in the omnibus bill.

As someone who lives in Iowa , and near a few hog farms, I can tell you this is a needed project.  Iowa is the nation's largest pork producing state and the 20 million hogs in the state creates a lot of manure and odor.  It is a public health issue and a quality of life issue of the greatest importance.  In state based around agriculture as much as Iowa is it is important to find a way to control farm waste so that people can be healthy and enjoy a high quality of life.

Senator McCain is not known for his intellectual depth or his desire to have a greater understanding of issues he knows little about.  He finished near the bottom of his Naval Academy class, and his presidential campaign was proof that his claim not to know much about economics was true.  

One day perhaps there will be a hole the size of the gap between what Senator McCain talks about and what he actually knows that we can use to dispose of hog waste.  Until that day we will just have to relay on government funding to address the issue.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Book Review

In an effort to come to terms and explain what went wrong with American foreign policy many people wrote books to give their views on the problem.  One of the best of these is Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power.

Bacevich bases much of his thought on the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr and Niebuhr's book The Irony of American History.  He identifies the U.S.' problem as following an economic policy of rampant consumerism based on the exploitation of fossil fuels and an unthinking faith in American military power.  These twin beliefs lead U.S. policy makers to get tangled up in troublesome places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The only problem is that the U.S. lacks the economic, political, and military resources to fight endless war.

Bacevich recommends that the U.S. return to more modest foreign and military policy goals.  H sees the answer to the economic problems to move from an economy fueled by fossil fuels to investin in alternative energy.  He also believes that the U.S. should return to a more realist international posture when it comes to diplomacy, and that the military should only used in limited circumstances.

I recommend this book and encourage people who want a thought provoking diagnosis to the American dilemma to invest the time to read this book.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week's Backbencher of the Week goes to Rep. Brian Baird(D-WA-3).  Rep. Baird was one of three members of Congress to recently visit Gaza.  The other two were Rep. Keith Ellison(D-MN-5) and Sen. John Kerry.  While touring the destruction, Rep. Baird noticed that Lentils were among the items not permitted to enter Gaza.  Rep. Baird investigated and made comments that helped convince the Israeli government to allow lentils brought into Gaza.  Kudos also go out to Senator Kerry for his work to convince Israeli officials to allow in Pasta.

For this bit of humanitarian work we present Rep. Brian Baird with the Backbencher of the Week.

Biblical Question

Is it just me or does anyone else think that the real reason the Apostle Paul became a Christian was that he flunked out of rabbi school? 

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week's Backbencher of the Week goes to Rep. Yvette Clark(D-NY-11) for work is restoring a little bit of sanity to homeland security.

Rep. Clark is the lead sponsor of H.R. 559 which is a bill designed to make it easier to remove people wrongly placed on the no-fly list.  For a long time the government and the airlines sent people who wanted to clear their names after being wrongly placed on the no-fly list around in circles.  This bill would streamline the appeals process and create a list of cleared flyers, and allow a way for innocent people to travel without being hassled by airport security

The House passed the bill in early February and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is considering the bill.

For bringing back a little sanity to domestic security, and for pulling the curtain back a little on security theatre, we award Rep. Yvette Clark Backbencher of the Week.