Friday, November 30, 2012

The UN welcomes Palestine as Observer State

As discussed the Palestinians want independence. They tried and failed to get the UN Security Council to recognize Palestine as a state. So roughly a year after this effort failed in the Security Council the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas tried again in the General Assembly where there is no veto. And this time despite threats of bad consequences from Israel, the United States and a few other nations, the bid for recognition as a state finally passed!

UNITED NATIONS — More than 130 countries voted on Thursday to upgrade Palestine to a nonmember observer state of the United Nations, a triumph for Palestinian diplomacy and a sharp rebuke to the United States and Israel.
But the vote, at least for now, did little to bring either the Palestinians or the Israelis closer to the goal they claim to seek: two states living side by side, or increased Palestinian unity. Israel and the militant group Hamas both responded critically to the day’s events, though for different reasons.
The new status will give the Palestinians more tools to challenge Israel in international legal forums for its occupation activities in the West Bank, including settlement-building, and it helped bolster the Palestinian Authority, weakened after eight days of battle between its rival Hamas and Israel.
But even as a small but determined crowd of 2,000 celebrated in central Ramallah in the West Bank, waving flags and dancing, there was an underlying sense of concerned resignation.

“I hope this is good,” said Munir Shafie, 36, an electrical engineer who was there. “But how are we going to benefit?”
Still, the General Assembly vote — 138 countries in favor, 9 opposed and 41 abstaining — showed impressive backing for the Palestinians at a difficult time. It was taken on the 65th anniversary of the vote to divide the former British mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, a vote Israel considers the international seal of approval for its birth.
“The question is, where do we go from here and what does it mean?” Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, who was in New York for the vote, said in an interview. “The sooner the tough rhetoric of this can subside and the more this is viewed as a logical consequence of many years of failure to move the process forward, the better.” He said nothing would change without deep American involvement.
Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, was dismissive of the entire exercise. “Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade,” she said. “And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.


Rice's contemptuous declaration is of a piece with other similar statements she's made in the past about the Palestinians and similar to what Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, had to say about consequences for the Palestinians seeking status upgrade. "As you know we also have money pending in the Congress for the Palestinian Authority, money that they need to support their regular endeavors and support administration of the territories. So obviously if they take this step it's going to complicate the way Congress looks at the Palestinians".

In other words...Nice little shop you got here Mahmoud.You've got a wife, some kids, a good little business. Now you wouldn't want any accidents to happen, right? So you'll wise up and do the right thing, right? The Don has always thought of you as a friend.

The US, Israel and some other countries tried to prevent the Palestinian Authority from receiving observer state status and having failed to do that then tried to extort assurances from the Palestinian Authority that it would not try to join the International Criminal Court or join other UN agencies or that it would reopen negotiations with the Israelis. The Palestinian Authority turned down all of those "requests". What the US and nations who voted against the resolution failed to realize is that for better or worse the Palestinians need a win. Pride and human dignity demand it. It is simply not possible to keep people under military occupation for 45 years and not have attempts at removing the occupation. Israel has refused to stop settlements in the West Bank or Jerusalem. And at the time of this writing Israel just announced plans for expanded settlements in East Jerusalem. This is of course punishment for the Palestinian Authority's move.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said on Friday that the decision was made late Thursday night to move forward on “preliminary zoning and planning preparations” for housing units in E1, which would connect the large settlement of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem and therefore make it impossible to connect the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem to Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Israel also authorized the construction of 3,000 housing units in other parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the official said.
As we've discussed before you simply can't have a two-state solution and have ongoing settlements. They cancel each other out. I still believe that a one-state solution, which no one will like initially, remains the best way out of a bad situation. If South Africa and Rhodesia could come to accept that the state included more than whites then the Israelis and Palestinians will as well. Eliminationist fantasies on either side will need to be put down. One state, equal rights for all, and special rights for none. What's wrong with that?

A more canny US and Israel would have welcomed a Palestinian "state" on the West Bank since as is obvious such a state would be one in name only. But the need to continually humiliate Abbas and the Palestinian Authority meant that Abbas had nothing to lose by going to the UN. This was especially important in recent times as the Palestinian Authority had nothing to show for "good behavior" except more settlements while Hamas was seen to be fighting back. If you tell people they're going to lose no matter what, often people would rather go down swinging. 

So what does this all mean? As new announcements of settlements show, not a whole lot right now. But whether it's through violence or non-violence, the Palestinians intend to resist the narrative that they don't matter or that they should just fade into irrelevance. There will be renewed spotlight on the occupation and increasing diplomatic pressure to create some sort of solution. The US has done itself a disservice by continuing to enable the most right-wing elements of the Israeli body politic. The Palestinian Authority will seek to make the occupation cost Israel more than it has in the past. Will they be successful? The future's a devious thing to predict. But things that can't go on forever don't. And the occupation is one of those things.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Obamacare, Tax Incentives and Patriotism

Now that Obamacare (PPACA) is being implemented we can see what the response to some of the law's incentives have been. Because the PPACA requires employers of a certain size to provide health care coverage to any full time worker, employers have an additional incentive to limit full time workers to only those who are absolutely necessary. If you happen not to be absolutely necessary or your employer's business model does not provide for a large number of full time workers, then your employer might decide to limit your hours so that you don't get full time work.

Employers from community colleges to Darden Group (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse) to Applebee's have indicated that workers' hours could be limited to avoid health care liability. Stryker, a medical device manufacturer, is not very happy about the new 2.3% medical device excise tax, paid regardless of a company's profits, and has announced that it is reducing staffing levels by 5%. Stryker had other problems already of course, but no one who makes medical devices is pleased with the new tax. Papa John's founder John Schnatter, said that while he was happy that everyone would be getting health care, nothing was for free and he couldn't predict what the independently owned and operated franchises might do.

One study claims that increased costs under Obamacare for small businesses will be negligible thanks to statutory exclusions and tax credits. The problem is that the real world data doesn't line up with the study. Only 170,000 small employers, not 1,000,000 or more, claimed a tax credit. Per the GAO report, this is far fewer employers than originally estimated. It may well turn out that the employers know their business needs and costs better than the federal government does. And if it doesn't make financial sense for them to purchase health insurance they won't do so. It may be cheaper for a company to pay a penalty or reduce staffing rather than to provide health care insurance.

Fewer small employers claimed the Small Employer Health Insurance Tax Credit in tax year 2010 than were estimated to be eligible. While 170,300 small employers claimed it, estimates of the eligible pool by government agencies and small business advocacy groups ranged from 1.4 million to 4 million. The cost of credits claimed was $468 million. Most claims were limited to partial rather than full percentage credits (35 percent for small businesses) because of the average wage or full-time equivalent (FTE) requirements. 28,100 employers claimed the full credit percentage. In addition, 30 percent of claims had the base premium limited by the state premium average.
One factor limiting the credit’s use is that most very small employers, 83 percent by one estimate, do not offer health insurance. According to employer representatives, tax preparers, and insurance brokers that GAO met with, the credit was not large enough to incentivize employers to begin offering insurance. 

In addition, since there is a good chance that taxes will increase in whatever deal the President and Congress work out, some people are making moves now to reduce their tax burden by all available legal means. This could backfire on these people because taking a smaller gain now with a lower tax rate might not net them as much as a larger future gain with a higher tax rate but each individual must make the financial decision that is right for them. If you think the future gains won't offset the higher taxes then recording income now while taxes are low could be the smart move.
Business owners and investors are rapidly maneuvering to shield themselves from the prospect of higher taxes next year, a strategy that is sending ripples across Wall Street and broad areas of the economy.Take Steve Wynn, the casino magnate, who has been a vocal critic of higher tax rates. He and his fellow shareholders in Wynn Resorts, the company announced, will collect a special dividend of $750 million on Tuesday, a payout timed to take advantage of current rates. Experts estimated that taking the payout this year instead of next could save Mr. Wynn, who owns a sizable stake in the company, more than $20 million. 
For the wealthy like Mr. Wynn, the overriding goal is to record as much of their future income this year as they can. This includes moves as diverse as sales of businesses, one-time dividends and the sale of stocks that have been big winners.“In my 30 years in practice, I’ve never seen such a flood of desire and action to transfer a business and cash out,” said Kenneth K. Bezozo, a partner in New York with the law firm Haynes and Boone. “We’re seeing a watershed event.”Whether small business owners or individuals saving for retirement, investors are being urged by their advisers to reconsider their holdings.
Along the way, many are shedding the very investments that have been the most popular over the last year, contributing to recent sell-offs in formerly high-flying shares like Apple and Amazon. Investors typically take profits in their own portfolio at year-end, but the selling appears to be more targeted this year. Stocks with large dividends, for instance, are seen as less attractive because of the perceived likelihood of a sharp increase in the tax rate on dividends.
These moves were thoroughly predictable. Some people who opposed the PPACA pointed these things out before hand but they were often ignored. These decisions seem to have incited some derision and anger among people who supported the PPACA and higher marginal tax rates. Some have argued that paying (higher) taxes is patriotic. Certainly the late NY Mafia Boss Frank Costello thought so. But regardless of your patriotism and love for your country, business is business. Nobody in their right mind sits down to do their taxes and then decides to pay more than what is owed to the Federal government. If the Federal government passes a law that says if you do x, y, and z then you owe this amount, it should not be surprised or upset if people do their best to avoid doing x, y, and z. The government might get less than what it expected to get in revenue because, ceteris paribus, people suddenly find incentives to change their behavior. If the behavior being taxed is not strictly speaking 100% necessary or otherwise unable to be changed, when you tax something you will generally get a little less of it.

And tax avoidance is 100% legal. It's tax evasion that will get you in trouble. If a state raises its income tax I can move. If the federal government tells me that capital gains are taxed more lightly than income, I can start buying more stocks, real estate and start or purchase a business. If a city tells me there is a toll involved in using a particular expressway, I can take another route. If the federal government tells me that I pay less in taxes by using an IRA or 401K to save for retirement, then I may well investigate doing so. If I am paying $2000/mth in rent and discover that I could pay the same amount for a mortgage and deduct local property taxes and interest from my federal taxes, you know I just might consider that move. And if the federal government tells me that hiring this person will cost more than I think the employee is worth, then I may do my best to get along without hiring that person. This is the essence of economics. People respond to incentives.

People supported the PPACA because they thought it was the just thing to do. And maybe it was. Time will tell. The costs involved and changes made may be quite small once all the dust settles. But that doesn't change the fact that it will cost. At the margins, some behaviors will change. I don't see this as especially surprising or troubling. What I do see as troubling is the outrage and bewilderment among supporters of the PPACA that people actually make decisions based in part on economic incentives. Just as there is an observer effect in physics, there is a taxing effect in economics. No one likes The Taxman.


1) Do companies have the right to investigate changing staffing and pricing in response to the PPACA? Are you surprised by these moves?

2) Are some companies and individuals blaming the PPACA for their own poor financial decisions? Are these just post-election temper tantrums?

3) Do you pay more taxes than you owe? Is it unpatriotic to limit your tax liability? 

Breaking News: Florida Stand Your Ground Shooting - Michael Dunn kills Jordan Davis

I don't like music that is audible at insanely high decibels outside of your vehicle. Not everyone is a fan of whatever your particular music may be. I think it's rude to make everyone else listen to your favorite music whether they like it or not. Were I an officer of the law I would be handing out numerous disorderly conduct tickets for such behavior.

But despite the fact that I am irritated by such behavior I've never had a desire to shoot people for playing their music loudly. See not only is shooting someone morally worse than playing music loudly, it would probably result in me going to prison for a very long time where chances are, I'd have to get used to much much more offensive behavior patterns than someone playing music at a level I found unpleasant.

But evidently some people aren't bothered by the possibility of going to prison.
From the same state that brought you the Trayvon Martin situation comes another case where a Caucasian or non-black man shot and killed an unarmed black teenager and then tried to say he was threatened.


Florida’s controversial ‘Stand Your Ground’ law is back on the national stage after the murder of yet another unarmed, black teenager. Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old Florida resident, is invoking the controversial law after a recent confrontation turned fatal, The Orlando Sentinel reports. According to authorities, 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis, a black teenager, and several friends were confronted by Dunn, a white man, who pulled alongside the teens' SUV in the parking lot of a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station. Dunn asked them to turn their music down, and after an exchange of words, he fired between 8 and 9 shots at the vehicle, several of which hit Davis, causing his death.
Dunn was arrested on Saturday and charged with murder and attempted murder. His lawyer said that her client acted "responsibly and in self defense." During a telephone interview with ABC 25, Dunn’s daughter Rebecca defended her father, saying he did not intend to kill anyone and was responding to a threat. "He got threatened and had to do what he had to do, and it's sad, so sad," Rebecca Dunn said. "A terrible tragedy on both sides. It really is. I don't know. What are you going to do in that situation? You don't know what you are going to do. He just reacted".
I am not offended by the defense attorney or Dunn's daughter making the statements they did. That's what I would expect them to do. I am offended that someone who isn't an officer of the law apparently feels it necessary to initiate a confrontation with someone, kill them and then claim self-defense. As usual, we should wait to see what other facts may arise but right now it doesn't look good for Dunn. I have had road rage. I get angry at people on a regular basis. If I shot everyone who ever annoyed me I would have run out of bullets by now. But somehow in my time on this planet I've managed not to murder anyone. That's because I have control over myself and know the difference between right and wrong. Unfortunately some people don't. Or worse, some people think that they don't have to control themselves around certain other people. I think that the public image of young black men, heck black men in general is so bad that independent of context, everything they do can be considered a threat by someone who sees them in a certain light.
A black musician responding in kind to a white comedian's nasty insults becomes a verbal rapist. A teen allegedly playing loud music becomes a threat to your life. For some people the mere existence of black people can be threatening, evidently. I don't know how to fix this. One way to start would be to repeal the Stand Your Ground law, but that's really an after the fact solution. Certainly it should be made clear to everyone that you can't start a confrontation and then kill someone in "self-defense". I fully expect that Dunn's defense team will try their best to find any dirt they can on Jordan Davis. Maybe he spit on the sidewalk once. Maybe he jaywalked when he was ten. Maybe he got into a fight in kindergarten. But his true crime was annoying Michael Dunn. And for that he received the death penalty.

**UPDATE. Our very own Leigh Owens aka The Godson discusses the case. Special thanks to Leigh and to the Storyteller for getting info out.


1) What is wrong with Florida?

2) Is it time to repeal the Stand your Ground Law?

3) Do you think Dunn was drunk?

4) How do we avoid these sorts of things in the future? 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Movie Reviews-Lincoln, The Campaign

directed by Steven Spielberg
Some people believe that Abraham Lincoln was the country's greatest President because he successfully kept the country intact during the bloodiest war the US experienced. Lincoln not only defeated the traitors but started the legal machinery to reduce and/or eliminate formal statutory support for white supremacy. However, though he opposed slavery, as Lincoln took pains to make clear throughout his life he wasn't necessarily overly fond of either abolitionists or black people and would have been content to keep the Southern states and slavery in the Union. It was the Southern states' intransigence, paranoia, arrogance and fatal inability to count that resulted in the Civil War, the effects of which still ripple throughout American society today. At some points Lincoln thought that "colonization", by which he meant the removal of Blacks from America and their placement in Africa, was the best solution to the race problem.

Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, isn't quite a hagiography but it's pretty doggone close. Often films like this can be problematic, especially if the subject is still living or has well known faults. With Abraham Lincoln neither of these things is true so Spielberg is free to paint Lincoln in broad heroic colors. He is much aided in this by the title role actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, who really ought to receive an Oscar right now. Day-Lewis becomes Lincoln. He is Lincoln. I think he will be Lincoln for anyone who sees this film. Method acting. It works. Like much of Spielberg's popular work , Lincoln has a gauzy, upbeat, optimistic message.

America is a can-do place. Anyone standing in the way of freedom and doing what's right is just a temporary and probably misguided obstacle. Such people should be more pitied than hated. The film's music soundtrack, by John Williams, suitably tears at the heartstrings or makes one want to pump their fist in the air where appropriate. This is of course manipulative, but all the same it's good film making if you know what you're doing and obviously that's the case with Spielberg. 
Lincoln has a lot of exposition. Be aware that this is a LONG film. It is 2.5 hrs. Very little of this is battle scenes, with the exception of the intro which shows Black US troops engaged in a desperate struggle with Confederates who had recently massacred other black troops. As a black soldier later explains to the President "We decided we weren't taking any prisoners that day". Black soldiers are also displayed prominently throughout the film. This is historically accurate but has been so rare in Civil War movies that one wonders if Spielberg wasn't taking a subtle shot at the still common myth that white men alone fought and died for Black people's freedom. No there were a lot of Black men fighting, something that infuriated the Confederates, as their entire casus belli was that blacks were an inferior cowardly race that couldn't fight and were only suited for slavery. The Confederacy generally refused to take black soldiers prisoner or treat them as POW's instead of escaped slaves, something that hindered prisoner exchanges, increased brutality toward POW's and lengthened the war.
The struggles in the movie Lincoln are not primarily on the battlefield but within Lincoln's family, his cabinet and the House of Representatives.
As Lincoln explains, the Emancipation Proclamation could be legally justified as a war act but it might not necessarily pass legal muster post-war, especially in slave owning Union border states. No, what Lincoln wanted was the Thirteenth Amendment, to outlaw slavery for once and for all. In this he is fiercely opposed by the Congressional Democrats, who coalesce around Ohio Representative George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie). Lincoln's own cabinet is lukewarm to the idea. It appears the amendment lacks the votes needed to pass. As Lincoln's Secretary of State and close friend William Seward (David Strathairn) reminds him there are plenty of Northern whites who dislike slavery but don't want free blacks living in their state. Other white leaders like NY Congressman Wood (Lee Pace) fear that any sort of anti-slavery legislation is just a Trojan Horse that will cause mandatory black voters, black representatives, black educators and most disgusting of all, black intermarriage with whites. In Wood's view to tolerate is to require.

Wood spends a great deal of time baiting Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who as a "radical Republican" really does believe in what was called "social equality" between black and white. Other Lincoln advisers want him to go slow on the whole anti-slavery thing as there are back door negotiations for Southern surrender with Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley).
Mrs. Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) combines a fierce sharp tongued public loyalty to her husband with emotional volatility and vicious grief derived guilt tripping behind closed doors. She is determined to prevent their oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from enlisting in the Army. And as she calmly explains to her husband she had better get what she wants or he'll have no peace. So as you can see the President has many issues to resolve. Lincoln deals with this stress by listening to everyone and then telling a story or joke from his frontier days. This provides some of the film's comic relief. Many of Lincoln's jokes are slightly offensive or simply not funny. People get bored with his stories. As legislative debate is mundane Spielberg tries to spice this up with cutaways to the attempts to "influence" legislators by the 1865 equivalent of lobbyists, who then as now, are professionally and personally offended by a man who won't stay bought.

There's no drama in the outcome since, as you know we DO have a Thirteenth Amendment. The drama is in the process. Spielberg takes some liberties with history but it's a movie not a documentary. Watching people as they might have been in 1865 I am of course quite happy that I didn't live then. This is not only for the obvious but also for less apparent items or behavior that we take for granted, like refrigeration, anti-perspirant, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, sterile dentistry, medical treatment that goes beyond amputation, and less visible body hair (on BOTH genders).
Lincoln makes a play at straddling the line between approving principled and unyielding opposition to evil (as embodied by Thaddeus Stevens) and pragmatic actions to get most of what you want when faced with real world difficulties and opposition (as embodied by Abraham Lincoln). Unsurprisingly the film comes down on the side of pragmatism. There have been few men who never compromised at some point, especially in a democratic system. But I would also point out that often, societal changes are brought about by men who generally eschewed compromise. Your views may vary on this. Should a representative reflect the views of his constituents or lead them as his conscience requires? This tension between purism and pragmatism will never go away. Without pragmatism, purists can fall into a cold white light or empty black hole that makes no allowances for human frailties or needs. So purism can be rejected. But without purists pushing and kicking them, pragmatic politicians become undistinguished grey men who have no other beliefs other than the pursuit of money and re-election. They do things like vote present on the great issues of the day so that they don't jeopardize future presidential bids, say they voted for the war before they voted against it or claim in public that they want every American's vote while privately dismissing 47% of voters as lazy leeches.
Lincoln did a great job of capturing the flowery and precise high language of the day as well as some of the earthier slang. Thaddeus Stevens certainly knew how to insult a man. Other actors/actresses in this film include John Hawkes, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Gloria Reuben, Lukas Haas, David Oyelowo, Tim Blake Nelson, Julie White, Wayne Duvall and many many more. This was the best movie, or at least the best acting I've seen in a while. Day-Lewis knocks the ball out of the park but Tommy Lee Jones shows that Day-Lewis wasn't the only heavyweight actor in the film. As mentioned, Lincoln has only a few scenes of violence. It's PG-13 not R. There are some long views of battlefields after a skirmish has been concluded and some visits to a blood spattered field hospital. 

The Campaign
directed by Jay Roach
I thought this comedy film was very funny but it is not a subtle satire like Election. It's really more slapstick. In fact it's probably best understood as a collection of skits, most of which hit but a few of which miss. So if you don't occasionally mind something that wears its silliness on its sleeve and doesn't try to hide it, you will probably enjoy this movie. It's quite predictable but sometimes knowing where you're going doesn't matter as long as you enjoy the ride. 

Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a rather dim North Carolina Democratic congressman. He's running for election unopposed though as many of his constituents are either just as dim as he or simply turned off from the political process. Although Brady talks in broad generalities of Jesus, football and America he's really forgotten why he entered politics in the first place. The only thing he cares about now are the side benefits of political office, such as adulation from flunkies and intimate one on one meetings with dedicated supportive female voters. 

This last causes a problem for Cam as possibly drunk he left a remarkably detailed message on what he thought was his girlfriend's home phone detailing his erotic plans for her, some of which are still illegal in the state. But Cam dialed the wrong number and actually left his sexual fantasies and instructions on the voicemail of a born again Christian couple while they were eating dinner with their children. The voicemail goes viral.
Although Brady has always played ball with corporate interests, two prominent and rather unethical businessmen, the Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd) think that it might be time to hedge their bets. They decide to run a candidate on the Republican ticket against Brady. They choose the naive, pudgy and somewhat less than masculine Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) who is the town tourism director. Marty is the son of a  Motch Brothers' employee. Marty is a source of continual disappointment to his hard driving father Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox), a unreconstructed bigot who satisfies his longings for the bygone days of segregation by having his Asian-American housekeeper speak as if she walked in from an Amos-N-Andy casting call circa 1946. YMMV as to whether this is funny. I didn't think so.
Cam quickly patches things up with his icily attractive blonde hypocritical wife, Rose (Katherine LaNasa) who doesn't care what Cam does as long as he wins and moves on to higher office. Cam can't really take Marty's challenge seriously. Cam thinks Marty will fade into irrelevance once Cam shares some pictures of the rather fey Marty working out at the women's gym Curves and doing some other things which don't fit into a virile image. But Marty has some unseen strengths that he derives mostly from his sweet, supportive and overweight wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) and somewhat less so from the ruthless Motch approved Sith Knight campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott). Marty finds that nice guy or not, he wants to win and after a few reservations, starts to get just as negative as Cam. Cam turns to his good old boy campaign manager Mitch Wilson (Jason Sudeikis) for more ammo and the fight descends to new depths.

You can probably tell where this all ends up but as I wrote, it's the journey which is funny. I enjoyed this movie but then again I like slapstick. If you like slapstick you will probably like this as well.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Gender Quotas for US Elected Offices?

There will be 20 women in the US Senate in 2013. This is a record. But if you're anxious to smash the patriarchy and make everything "equal" this isn't anywhere near good enough. Thus some people wonder if the time hasn't come to dust off Title IX. Instead of applying it to college or high school sports or ridiculously threatening to expand its jurisdiction to the scientific classroom, some think the US should have political gender quotas for elected seats. Some people would want women to be guaranteed at least 30% representation in elected bodies while others demand 50% representation in the US Senate.  Each state would have to have one man and one woman as its Senator. 

It is a source of constant amusement to me that Harrison Bergeron, a dystopic satire by a left-leaning writer, has instead become a virtual guidebook for some earnest current left-wingers (and a bete noire for right-wingers) who really are obsessed with trying to enforce equality of results no matter what. 

You don't have to be a fervent racist or chauvinist to understand that people aren't the same and have different interests. Looking at the state of the world today I wouldn't argue that men are better at leadership but they definitely seem to be more interested in leadership. Should we pretend that the gender that is literally awash in testosterone and aggression and gets certain (ahem) benefits from the other gender for seeking, holding and expressing status and power would not then on average show greater interest in obtaining formal leadership positions? Every single American man who's been elected to office in the past ninety two years has had to appeal to women voters. What we see is what the electorate, men and women, want. Maybe the electorate is wrong, bigoted, behind the times, etc. Maybe. But ultimately power resides in the people.

It may well be a feminist truism that men and women are roughly identical and interchangeable and thus any societal differences are solely an example of invidious discrimination. But just believing something doesn't make it so. We still have a legal and constitutional system that would, I hope, make it difficult for gender quotas to be used. I don't think that such quotas could be reconciled with equal protection concerns or the right to freedom of association. How can we tell voters that their choice will be limited by gender? 

And enforcement would be unpleasant if not impossible. Let's say that a insurgent political movement led by a honest, hardworking charismatic man arises and defeats the moribund ineffective Democratic (woman) Senator. But as the state's Republican Senator, who's not up for re-election this year is a man, that would mean that the state would then be sending two men to the Senate. No good. All those votes for the new guy were thus meaningless. Are we going to tell the rising star that sorry, he can't serve in the US Senate because he has an outie instead of an innie? Does that sound remotely American?

Bad policy arises from bad ideas. There are two bad ideas here. The first is that you can only or best be politically represented by someone who shares your immutable physical traits. If everyone felt that way then we'd not have the President we have nor would a decent politician like Steve Cohen ever have served. What matters is not so much what you look like but what you do. 
The second bad idea is that men and women are interchangeable and ought to be doing the exact same things in the same proportion. That's never been and never will be the case in human society. Men and women are of equal value but they are rather obviously not identical. And women can be just as mean, greedy, short-sighted, ignorant and bigoted as men. There is certainly no guarantee that having more women making or executing law will produce better results. Would you enjoy a President Palin? Michele Bachmann as head of HHS? Is it better for South Carolina pro-choice women that right wing pro-life Nikki Haley is governor instead of a right wing pro-life man? There is no law preventing interested women from running for office.
There is no law preventing political parties and interest groups from encouraging women candidates, donating to women candidates or even leaning on male potential candidates to sit an election out because the party wants more women to run. 
There is no law preventing current women (or men) elected officials from identifying and mentoring potential women candidates. 

Right now, if you've got the guts, intelligence and the heart to do it you can run for political office. There should not be a federal law preventing you from doing so because of your gender. Period. Gender quotas are the political equivalent of giving everyone in a sports event a trophy. It's a silly idea and debases the challenge. This idea also shows a nasty hostility to the voter's choice.

I believe in equality of opportunity. I don't believe in legally requiring equality of results. I think our system can occasionally get away with a small thumb on the scale where there is historical or ongoing discrimination. But quotas go way beyond that. There is a tension between freedom and equality just as there is between freedom and safety. The US body politic has mostly tended towards freedom. Our constitution is set up that way. However there are some powerful currents that tend toward equality and safety at the expense of freedom. 

The voters must be able to choose the best woman or man for a particular job without being prevented from doing so by a particular interest group that decides it doesn't like current gender (or any other kind of) political demographics. Black people are roughly 13% of the population and have no Senate seats. Jewish people are about 3% of the population and have eleven Senate seats. Hispanic people are about 15% of the population and have three Senate seats. Left-handed redheaded bisexual agnostics are 2% of the population and on and on and on. If you go down the path of political quotas, pack a lunch because it's gonna be a long haul.


1) Do you think there will ever be proportional gender representation in Congress and the Senate?

2) Do quotas have any place in American politics? Do you think they're legal?

3) Have you ever read Harrison Bergeron?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Book Reviews-The Book of Cthulhu, Inside HBO's Game of Thrones, Hard Feelings, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack

The Book of Cthulhu
edited by Ross E. Lockhart
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was one of the greatest fantastic fiction authors of all time. Although he was influenced very much by Poe, Dunsany and Machen among others he created his own mostly original mythos, much of which was set in his beloved New England and drew equally as much on his nightmares and dreams as previous authors and American myths. Lovecraft never made the big time during his life and died in an impoverished state from stomach cancer. He was mildly popular as a pulp writer but that barely paid his bills. As Lovecraft was also an intense nativist and racist for most of his life, his financial situation was especially galling to him. He thought a man of his origins and intelligence deserved better from life. He would no doubt be amused then to learn that in the years since his death his writings, stories, musings and letters have created an ever growing genre of fiction and long list of admirers. When Stephen King writes "H.P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale" that means something.

Ross Lockhart is an author and editor of Night Shade books who evidently discovered H.P. Lovecraft the same way I did, thru a since discontinued and now collectible 1980 edition of Dungeons and Dragons Deities and Demigods. This edition (which in good condition sells for $139-$200) contains game versions of various H.P. Lovecraft created monsters, aliens and deities. It evidently piqued Lockhart's interest to seek out H.P. Lovecraft derived or created fiction just as it did mine and who knows how many other countless people.

This anthology contains twenty seven short stories that are in set in for lack of a better word the Cthulhu Mythos. Cthulhu was probably Lovecraft's best known creation. He was an alien being of godlike powers and malign intent who was trapped beneath the ocean in a dead city. Fun fact: Cthulhu also happens to have been the inspiration for the god worshipped by George R.R. Martin's Iron Islanders. When the stars are right Cthulhu will awake from the dead and rule the earth. But even his dreams are dangerous to humans. And Cthulhu is not the only entity that wants to get back on the earth or into this dimension. There are other creatures of greater power who are either hostile or indifferent to humanity in the same way you are indifferent to most of your skin flora.

Some of the standout stories contained include "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins"  by Molly Tanzer in which a feckless wizard tries to steal his cousin's wife only to wind up in worse trouble than he could have imagined when her children are born; "A Colder War" by Charles Stross, in which the great powers of the world compete to harness not just nuclear weapons, but the far greater destructive capacity of the Great Old Ones; "Bad Sushi" by Cherie Priest, where a Japanese War veteran and sushi chef extraordinaire, discovers something is definitely wrong with the new sushi supplier; "Jeroboam Henley's Debt" by Charles R. Saunders in which an 1930's African-American finds some links between voudun and even older magic; "The Crawling Sky" by Joe R. Lansdale where a Reverend who hunts things that should not be has to battle hostile small town sheriffs and bad meat to get a fix on his latest target. These were all good reads. Many of the stories are set in small towns or the country.
I heartily recommend this book. If you are already a Lovecraft fan you will be amazed and amused to see how different writers use his influence. If you never heard of Lovecraft the stories very much stand on their own. This book could be your gateway drug to Lovecraft's works. Most of the stories are very realistic in their way.

Inside HBO's Game of Thrones
by Bryan Cogman
I received this as a gift from someone whom I had earlier convinced to read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Paying it forward works sometimes, what do you know. This is a lavishly bound padded hardcover book that clocks in at just under 200 glossy pages. It's not quite coffee table sized but it is nonetheless something that would excite interest on your coffee table.

It is just what it sounds like and then some. It features a preface by Martin himself who details his own work in Hollywood and his skepticism about the plausibility of turning his series into a televised series. He thought it was impossible, in no small part because he deliberately wrote A Game of Thrones and its sequels to be masterworks of prose, creations that had to be read, not watched to be fully appreciated and enjoyed. Then Martin met David Benioff and Dan Weiss and found they were convinced they could bring his literary creation to visual life at HBO. Martin thought them mad but they persisted and the rest you know. Benioff and Weiss provide the foreword-a short interview.

The book is divided into five sections (The Wall, Winterfell, King's Landing, Westeros, Essos) In each section the various actors, directors, writers, producers and other personnel give their impression of the part they helped create, how they understood Martin's work or Benioff's and Weiss' subcreation and if their part is over, what they learned or if they are still around what they expect for the future. Don't worry there are no spoilers contained within. This book goes over both HBO seasons. There is judicious background from the books provided to answer any questions you might have had if you have only watched the show.  There are oodles of set photos, insider stories, jokes, prank scripts that were never used, storyboards, etc.  A favorite seems to be writing a character's (fake) death in a particularly humiliating or ridiculous manner and then giving the script to the actor/actress to get their reaction. One thing which I never thought of but which could make sense is that Jack Gleeson, who plays King Joffrey, says that Joffrey's only role models are Robert and Cersei, who are each bad parents and quite morally challenged. Some of Joffrey's behavior is that of a brat who needs a stern but loving father figure. Maybe. I really enjoyed all the behind the scenes discussion concerning the Battle of Blackwater. Good stuff.

Hard Feelings
by Jason Starr
Often I'm not a fan of first person narratives because nothing ever happens unless the narrator is there to tell you about it and you never get to see what anyone else thinks. But for this book, first person is not only the best way to tell the story it's difficult to imagine any other choice the author could have made. This is a incredible and yet simple piece of writing that is concise without being abrupt. Much like the movie The Man Who Wasn't There, the protagonist in Hard Feelings makes some choices that seem rational if you look at each choice separately but taken together the decisions put him in a bad spot. I guess you could call this neo-noir writing. There are also some pretty funny elements in the story. It has a lot of cynical black humor.

Richie Segal is a mid thirties computer infrastructure New York salesman. He's not having the best life. He jumped ship to a new job for a greater base salary and more responsibility but it looks like that was a bad decision. He hasn't made a sale since he arrived. His peers are starting to make fun of him. His bosses are calling him into office for pep talks and later thinly disguised threats to shape up or ship out. To make matters worse, his attractive wife Paula is not only making more money than Richie in her financial services job, but their marriage and sex life is starting to suffer. Richie's wondering if Paula is getting her biscuits rolled somewhere else. The company's top salesman, Steve Ferguson, has been assigned to "mentor" Richie. Richie doesn't like Steve at all. Richie is fearful that this is just the last step before termination. He's probably right about that. When people start talking about "action plans" and checking what time someone arrives to and leaves from work, the person they're discussing is on thin ice. At a previous job I knew one guy that used to roll in around 9:30~10:00 when regular start time was 6:30~8:30. He was sadly surprised when the business team agitated to get him fired and the IT boss finally acceded to their wishes. But I digress..

A lot of Richie's anxiety, sexual dysfunction and work problems stem from flashbacks of his abuse, physical and sexual, at the hands of a childhood bully, Michael Rudnick. In a strange coincidence Richie bumps into Michael on the street. Richie takes steps to erase those bad memories. It seems as if things are looking up for old Richie. He may yet be the Alpha Male he always thought he could be. Of course it wouldn't be much of a story if that were the case. This is really intense claustrophobic story that you will zoom through. It's just over 200 pages but you can finish it in a couple of hours. Starr is an entertaining writer who really knows how to draw the reader into his world. I can't overemphasize how well paced this book was. There are times when you will be screaming at Richie not to do something but of course he goes ahead and does it anyway.

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack
by M.E. Kerr
Did you ever see the ABC Afterschool Special that was based on this book? If not then you missed a treat. The book is aimed at young adults but can certainly be understood and enjoyed by people at any stage of life. It was written in the early seventies. Cynicism hadn't become required or passe at that time so some of the irony and cynicism on display in the book actually feels fresh. If I remember correctly it was actually a shout out to Kurt Vonnegut by a character in this book that made me pull down a Vonnegut book from my parents' library and start reading. Maybe. That was a long time ago.

Anyway the book has a lot to say about parental-child relationships, family ties, addiction, first loves, toxic behavior and how people ask for help when they don't know how. It does all this in less than 200 pages so there's no bloat here and very few wasted words.

Tucker Woolf is a fifteen year old who has to give his cat away because his father, who has lost his job as a professional fundraiser, has suddenly gained an allergy to cats. He gives the cat away to one Susan "Dinky" Hocker, a fat girl a year younger than Tucker. Dinky likes to eat and as a result Tucker's cat starts to get as fat as Dinky. Tucker still visits the cat as often as he can and one day decides to go give Dinky a piece of his mind about overfeeding his cat and for that matter herself. But Dinky's parents have a new houseguest, one Natalia Line, Dinky's cousin, a girl of exquisite beauty, who once tried to kill herself. Tucker is smitten and starts finding excuses to go visit Natalia. Tucker's parents, especially his mother, a magazine columnist, find this incredibly amusing.
Dinky's parents are socially liberal professional do-gooders who are always railing about social responsibility to drug addicts, the impoverished, the minorities, etc but are either indifferent to or downright cruel to their daughter. Dinky gets a "friend" of her own, the fiercely intelligent and extremely overweight P. John, who also has an extremely liberal father who also is more interested in the masses of people than he is in his own son. Out of teen rebellion and a cry for help P. John takes up quite reactionary views. As Dinky can't get the attention and love she needs from her parents she takes some steps that can't be undone. I really liked this book. It brought back some good memories. If you are a New Yorker, the city is lovingly described.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Israel Attack on Gaza: Same Story Different Day in Palestine

BBC correspondent Jihad Misharawi holds his son's body
There are some elements which are wholly predictable in the world. Israeli-Palestinian violence is one of those things. Israel recently assassinated the military head of Hamas, Ahmed Jabari, in the Gaza Strip. This of course led to a coordinated violent response from Hamas which in turn caused an even more violent response from Israel. There has been the normal kabuki dance in which Israeli political leaders say that they won't tolerate acts of violence from Palestinians and reserve the right to defend themselves. And US political leaders have condemned violence from Hamas, and also strongly defended Israel's right to defend itself, while insulting Hamas as cowardly. It is totally predictable that the US mainstream media has wholly accepted the Israeli point of view about the latest violence, which is that Israel was peaceably minding its own business when out of nowhere a bunch of anti-semitic religious nutball Third World savages started to shoot rockets into Israel. And anyone who doesn't conform to that pov will be attacked as anti-semitic or biased. 

Well I have no plans to join any mainstream media or think tanks anytime in the near future. So I can write what I like. And you can call me what you like. As I have written before I think the only fair and possible long term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an unitary state with equal rights for all and special rights for none. That's not perfect, as South Africa is discovering, but given the circumstances I think it's a baseline. That that solution is becoming less and less likely is a tragedy not only for Palestinians but for Israelis and ultimately Americans who are currently wedded to a bipartisan foreign policy that supports the most right-wing elements of Israeli politics no matter what.

Israel, as its leaders and US partisans emphasize, does have the right to defend itself. If I lived in Texas and Mexicans were constantly lobbying rockets over the border I would expect the US military to show them a little love. But, and you will never ever ever see this concept expressed in any mainstream media or government statement, Palestinians also have the right to defend themselves. If I lived in Mexico and US aircraft were constantly bombarding me I would hope that the Mexican military, no matter how understaffed, inept and outgunned, would try to fight back.
So let's just not freeze frame the last week and look at what Hamas does. You have to look at the past months and even years. There was an informal truce between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Egypt. I'm going to bet that you may not have heard about these events, which are the proximate cause for the latest violence.

On November 4, Israeli soldiers killed an unarmed, possibly mentally ill man who was allegedly walking too close to their buffer zone. On November 8, during another Israeli incursion in the Gaza strip, Israeli soldiers killed a 13 year boy playing soccer near his home. The following day there were rockets fired into Israel. There was another Israeli incursion which resulted in the deaths of Palestinian women and children and the path of escalation was set. One final attempt at a truce was set. Jabari actually received a peace proposal but evidently it was simply a ruse to lure him out into the open. Hamas can not win a military confrontation with Israel. Israel knows this. And despite the bluster about "opening the gates of hell" (Does that sound better in Arabic? Who talks like that???)  Hamas knows it too which explains its attempts to hold to a truce. Of course when you put people in a position where they have literally nothing to lose they will lash out. Gaza is a blockaded hellhole of 1.5-1.6 million impoverished refugees. Noam Chomsky recently visited and described it as an open air prison. This isn't surprising given that a survey showed that a majority of Israelis want preferences for Jews over Arabs in jobs, and would not be in favor of letting West Bank Arabs vote if Israel formally annexed the West Bank.

So why would Israel ignore a truce and then assassinate an opposition's leader, knowing that this would likely lead to an escalation? I think there are a couple of reasons. 
There are upcoming Israeli elections in January 2013. Certainly Netanyahu wants to ensure his party can form a government and outflank any more right-wing parties (or ministers).The other reason is that, as pointed out by the Tehran bureau chief for the NYT , this new violence will greatly complicate any attempt by the US and Iran to reach some consensus on Iran's nuclear program as neither the US nor Iran will want to make deals or even be talking to each other while their proxies are killing and dying. Could a deal with Iran have been possible? Maybe, maybe not. But this report of deals and concessions with Iran certainly would have irritated and worried some of the more right-wing elements in the Israeli body politic. And with the US under President Obama having turned to a kill list and enthusiastically supported the illegal tactic of extrajudicial assassinations there is no way that the US President could do anything other than support the Israeli Prime Minister, even if Israeli actions run counter to US interests. There is a piece by dissident US journalist and civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald that is a must read.

Mira Scharf and family
The latest round of Hamas rocket attacks on Israel have revealed a disturbing (from an Israeli POV) capacity and one that though still militarily pathetic have killed Israeli citizens, including a pregnant woman. So what's the answer? The only short term solution is for the UN security council to force Israel and Hamas to stand down. Beyond that there would need to be UN armed observers in the West Bank and Gaza. But since the UN security council will never act to condemn or restrain Israel I expect that the region will suffer continued. It is ironic that while Israel is bombing people who in the US mindset, do not have the right to defend themselves, Syria is bombing people, who despite having turned to violence in an attempt to overthrow a dictator, have every right to defend themselves. The Syrian rebels have committed some ugly massacres and human rights violations but they (unlike Hamas) happen to be fighting against someone that the US and its European allies don't like. They are thus eligible to receive US support under the table . They've received French recognition and may soon receive open French and US direct arms shipments.
The moral of this story is choose your enemies wisely.


1) How would you fix this latest mideast crisis?

2) Is there a long term solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict?

3) Should the US stop supporting one side?