Friday, October 1, 2010

Opinion: Is it appropriate for the United States to apologize?

One meme in American foreign policy circles since the start of the Obama administration has been to label efforts by the president to reach out to members of the international community in a way that acknowledges what can sometimes only be called discomfiting history as an "Apology Tour." According to this group, it is inappropriate for the United States to apologize and such history should largely be ignored in attempts to craft a relevant foreign policy.

Parents teach their kids that when they do something wrong, especially when it results in harm to another person or their property, lying to cover it up, pretending you know nothing about it, or blaming someone else is generally unacceptable. It is a mark of maturity to learn to accept responsibility for our own actions. 

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius offered the first official apology for the United States government's intentional infection of hundreds of Guatemalans with STDs without their knowledge and consent from 1946-48. It's a horrendous episode in our history of which most Americans have little knowledge. 

As members of a global community, I'd assert that we're seeing an increasing shift away from states interacting purely through their regimes, a paradigm which established each country's rulers as the gateway of information to its people. In today's world, thanks to the spread of technology, information travels at the speed of light. At the same time, transnational organizations and corporations are now important non-state actors on the global stage. 

The Obama administration isn't just speaking to governments, it's speaking to people. It strikes me that this is an essential and important shift in international outlook. 

Given that fact, I'd imagine trying to influence people's hearts and minds is a bit more difficult when you ignore the fact that men and women bearing the same seals of government infected your grandfather with gonorrhea or provided weapons to the group that blew up your family home or backed more than one coup in your nation to remove a democratically elected leader.

Sometimes apologizing is the right thing to do.


Middle East/N. Africa: Shiites choose Maliki; Iraqi parliament stalemate may end

After more than six months since inconclusive parliamentary elections, an alliance of Iraq's Shiite parties has chosen incumbent Nuri al-Maliki as their nominee for prime minister.

Maliki is now expected to form a government in the near future.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Asia/Pacific: Pakistani military pushing for shake-up of civilian government

There is an oft repeated line about Pakistan: Most countries have a military; Pakistan's military has a country. 

Said to be frustrated with President Asif Ali Zardari's poor handling of the recent flooding of the Indus, the country's military leaders are becoming increasingly likely to pressure Zardari (pictured right) to shake-up his cabinet in the short term and to remove the administration itself in the medium term. At this stage, the generals have hinted at wanting to see the installation of a new civilian regime rather than a military dictatorship, a path they have taken at least four times in the 63 years since independence from India.

Zardari, who is now deeply unpopular with many Pakistanis, was elected two years ago after the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Despite supporting civilian and democratically-elected governments in Pakistan, Western countries have tended to maintain a strong relationship with the military as well as a safeguard against further instability within the nuclear-powered state and the Central Asian region as a whole.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Americas: Meet the (likely) next president of Brazil

I highly recommend this fascinating feature on Dilma Rousseff, the woman who will likely be elected the next president of Brazil, succeeding popular outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

"Not every president has a police mugshot, but it's not so surprising in Latin America.
"A special report out of Brazil today sheds new light on Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla leader who is likely to be elected the booming country's next president. She spent nearly three years in jail in the early 1970s and was tortured by her military captors. She's come a long way since then. 
"The product of more than a dozen interviews with Rousseff and her top advisers, the story gives a glimpse of how Rousseff could govern at the helm of a country that, with India, Russia and China, is among the worlds few economic bright spots."

Despite an ethics scandal involving a member of her party, Rousseff maintains a commanding lead ahead of the October 3 election.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Global: Russian wheat shortage fuels fear of potential food crisis

The effects of wildfires and drought that devastated wheat fields throughout much of rural Russia earlier this year threaten to spiral into a global food crisis as the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation today announced an emergency meeting in Rome on Friday.

Russia, a major world producer, reacted by temporarily banning all wheat exports in an attempt to instill market stability and ensure adequate food stuffs for the nation's 142 million people.

Despite high wheat yield in the U.S. this year, there is no sign that prices will fall anytime soon, an effect which could further exacerbate food shortages in much of the developing world.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

UNGA: Ahmadinejad addresses the UN General Assembly, blames capitalism for global economic disparities

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations General Assembly this morning and took the opportunity to lay the failures of the global economic system at the feet of capitalism and "big business." 

The Assembly is being attended by more than 140 heads-of-state and has been convened to focus on the global community's progress toward the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve global poverty by 2015 as well as meeting several quality of life reflective international development goals.

More from the Associated Press:

"[Ahmadinejad] took aim at capitalism and called for the overhaul of 'undemocratic and unjust' global decision-making bodies, which are dominated by the United States and other Western powers. While Ahmadinejad didn't single out any country, he said world leaders, thinkers and global reformers should 'spare no effort' to make practical plans for a new world order - reform of international economic and political institutions.
'It is my firm belief that in the new millennium, we need to revert to the divine mindset...based on the justice-seeking nature of mankind, and on the monotheistic world view...,' the Iranian leader said in a brief speech intertwining philosophy and religion with the current state of the world. 'Now that the discriminatory order of capitalism and the hegemonic approaches are facing defeat.'"
The Assembly today also featured addresses from Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the foreign ministers of Russia and Pakistan, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who espoused a neoliberal argument for more open markets in the developing world. 

Merkel's speech was strongly challenged by Oxfam, a leading aid organization, which slammed the Germans for not living up to expectations and "sidestepping their responsibility to make aid work by laying this at the door of the poorest countries."


Friday, September 17, 2010

Asia/Pacific: Major elections in Afghanistan tomorrow

Afghanistan is to hold lower parliamentary elections Saturday, only the second Afghan-led poll in the nation's history. Given the state of conflict in many areas, success will be perceived as the conduct of reasonably peaceful and fair voting for the general populace.

The last few days have seen significant insurgent-launched attacks, including the kidnapping of 20 individuals, including 2 parliamentary candidates. Additionally, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan's northeast region earlier today.

Despite the obstacles and threats, 76 percent of Afghans recently polled by a U.S. firm said they intend to go to the polls this weekend.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Asia/Pacific: China to intro stronger regulations to reduce pollution, import more from U.S.

Aileen Wang and Ben Lim have the details:

"China will introduce stricter rules to reduce industrial pollution, a senior economic planning official said on Tuesday.

"Zhang Xiaoqiang, a vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, also told a meeting of the World Economic Forum in this northern port city that China was willing to import more from the United States."

The most important financial reform news of the year

Almost certainly, the most important and most underreported story of the day is the clenching of a deal at Basel III, the international conference of regulators tasked with establishing financial oversight standards for much of the world. 

The quick and dirty is this: Basel has adopted surprisingly strong capital requirements (the amount of money financial institutions need to keep on hand). That's a major victory for U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner who faced opposition from many European countries. Given that the financial regulation bill passed by Congress earlier this year contained no hard capital requirements, this iteration of Basel is arguably a bigger achievement for supporters of stricter standards. 

Felix Salmon from Reuters explains the emerging deal: 

"Possibly the most important thing here is the existence of the first column, setting minimum standards for common equity -- which is also known as core Tier 1 capital. Such standards did exist in the past, but they were set extremely low, at just 2%, and so were generally ignored. As of now, common equity is the main thing that matters. No more throwing any old garbage into the Tier 1 bucket and calling it capital: the new standards for common equity are significantly tougher than the old standards for Tier 1 capital in total. The absolute bare minimum for core Tier 1 capital is 4.5%, and the new minimum for Tier 1 capital in general has now been raised to 6%. The minimum for Tier 2 remains at 8%. But that’s just the beginning."
If you understood that and want more, see Salmon's complete rundown here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Federal judge rules DADT unconstitutional

U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips has ruled the military's ban on openly gay service violates the first amendment rights of gays and lesbians and is therefore unconstitutional.

Phillips also issued an injunction stopping the military from enforcing the policy. Phillips may lack authority to impose a nation-wide injunction, however, and attorneys for the federal government are arguing the policy is better addressed by an act of Congress.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Economy: Obama proposes $50 bn in infrastructure spending, $100 bn R&D tax credit extension for businesses

Obama wants $50 billion for infrastructure investment, reports Peter Slevin: "White House officials said the $50 billion in new government spending would be the first installment of a six-year transportation strategy that would include investments in high-speed rail and air traffic control. To pay for it, the administration would raise taxes on oil and gas companies...If approved by Congress, the infrastructure money would be used to build or repair 150,000 miles of road, 4,000 miles of railroad track and 150 miles of runways, the officials said. The proposal includes creating an 'infrastructure bank' to prioritize projects and attract private funds."

Obama will also propose a $100 billion business tax credit this week -- but no payroll-tax holiday. Anne Kornblut and Lori Montgomery report : "The business proposal - what one aide called a key part of a limited economic package - would increase and permanently extend research and development tax credits for businesses, rewarding companies that develop new technologies domestically and preserve American jobs. It would be paid for by closing other corporate tax loopholes, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the policy has not yet been unveiled."

"The White House has decided to forgo a broad-based payroll-tax holiday at this point, officials have said. That proposal, which had been part of earlier discussions with key congressional officials, would have been an expensive measure, potentially costing hundreds of billions of dollars. It also could have deprived Social Security of needed cash even as Democrats are accusing the GOP of plotting the program's demise on the campaign trail."

And tax write-off for capital investments, reports Jackie Calmes: "It would cost an estimated $200 billion in revenues, though the ultimate net loss would be $30 billion over 10 years, administration officials say, since businesses would eventually deduct the depreciated value of the equipment in any case....A draft paper on the proposal permitting businesses to write off the full costs of capital spending in 2010 and 2011 said it 'would be the largest temporary investment incentive in American history.'"

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sub-Saharan Africa: South African mine workers go on strike

Eight-thousand workers at the Northam Platinum company are on strike in pursuit of a 15 percent pay raise after turning down management's 8 percent offer.

The miners are members of South Africa's National Union of Mine Workers. Their decision to strike follows a series of other high-visibility walk-outs in South Africa this year.

More from the BBC:

"Public sector employees, including nurses, police officers, teachers and immigration staff, have been on strike, demanding an 8.5% rise in pay - they have been offered 7.5%.

Unions representing these 1.3m state workers are expected to announce later whether they will accept government wage offer.

Last month, the Automobile Manufacturers Employers Organisation (Ameo) and the metal workers union, Numsa, accepted a 10% pay rise after an eight-day strike.

Earlier in the summer, workers at the electricity company Eskom took action which lead to a 9% pay offer and a housing allowance."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Americas: Chilean workers begin drilling shaft to free trapped miners

The Associated Press' Bradley Brooks reports:
An enormous drill began preliminary work Monday on carving a half-mile chimney through solid rock to free the 33 men trapped in a Chilean mine, their ordeal now having equaled the longest known survival in an underground disaster. 
The 31-ton drill bored 50 feet into the rock, the first step in the weeklong digging of a "pilot hole" to guide the way for the rescue. Later the drill will be outfitted with larger bits to expand the hole and pull the men through - a process that could take four months. 
The men were trapped Aug. 5 in the San Jose mine in Chile's northern Atacama Desert. Before rescuers dug bore holes to reach them, they survived 17 days without contact with the outside world by rationing a 48-hour supply of food and digging for water in the ground. 
The miners are now being funneled food and chlorine to disinfect the underground water through an "umbilical cord" connecting them to the surface. They've also received vaccinations and rubber boots to help prevent diphtheria and tetanus and a video camera, which they're using to film their injuries so a doctor on the surface can provide advice for spot treatment.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Opinion: On mosque near 'Ground Zero', a distinction without a difference

Last week, The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart proposed the idea that "you can't divorce the right to do something from the ability to exercise that right."

He was referring to the debate over whether Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf should go ahead with plans to build a mosque on private property a short distance from the former site of the World Trade Center. 

Among those opposed to such action, a distinction has emerged. Some argue either that Muslims do not have a right to build a place of worship in the United States or that other citizens have a right which supersedes that freedom of religious expression. Another, ostensibly more reasonable, group acknowledges the right certainly exists but argues that the spiritual leader should scrap the plans anyway. Their assertion is that having the right to do something does not necessarily mean one should exercise that right.

Although it is certainly an inexact analogy, this reminds me a bit of women's rights in Iran. The law of the Islamic Republic does allow women to run for and hold elected offices. Somehow, despite hundreds of attempts and an apparent lack of legal obstacles though, no woman has ever been certified by the Guardian Council to run for President. A contradiction seems to exist between what is legally permissible and what is socially allowable.

There are times when the liberties enshrined in our Constitution afford rights to people that make us uncomfortable. Standing up for those rights anyway is a true expression of patriotism. Legally allowing an action while using popular opinion to effectively forbid it is a specious way to honor a fundamental American value.


Sub-Saharan African: Kenya adopts a new constitution after two decades of struggle

Prime Minister Raila Odinga accepts the new oath of office.
The new Kenyan constitution was promulgated on Friday in Uhuru park in Nairobi. The east African country has been working to adopt a new governing document since 1990, when opposition groups began protesting across the country in support of a multi-party political system.

In the two decades that followed, Kenyans have ridden a roller coaster of false starts and ethnic tension, a relatively uncommon occurrence in Kenya, which prides itself on being a bulwark of stability in a region prone to conflict.

After the 2007 presidential elections, riddled with allegations of vote-rigging and aggression between communities, a peace deal was signed which led to a determination and resolve to finally institute change. It was for this reason that millions of Kenyans stood in line for hours to vote for the new constitution earlier this month. Sixty of the nation's two-hundred ten constituencies had turnout numbers greater than eighty percent.

The constitution itself seems worthy of high hopes. It could ensure the nation's survival long-term by reforming a political establishment prone to corrupt and abusive governance and the skewed distribution of resources and land.

The challenge now facing Kenyans is to continue to hold their leaders accountable, ensuring a faithful implementation of the document they so deserve.


Middle East/N. Africa: Vice-President Biden in Iraq

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit this morning, a day before the formal end of combat operations in Iraq.

President Obama is to address the nation on Tuesday on Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are now fewer than 50,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, down from 160,000 at the end of President George W. Bush's administration. The remaining troops will focus on providing assistance and training to the Iraqi military.

Biden will also meet with Iraqi officials who have been struggling to form a government after elections in March resulted in a hung parliament, including
 Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Vice President Tariq Hashimi, Vice President Adil Abd Mahdi and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.


Economy: Paul Volcker-headed advisory board releases report on tax code

WaPo's Lori Montgomery has details:

"In an exhaustive 18-month review, the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board found that the complexity of the nation's tax laws has increased dramatically in recent years. Lawmakers have changed the code more than 15,000 times since the last major overhaul in 1986. Meanwhile, instruction booklets for the standard Form 1040 have swelled from 14 pages to 44 pages last year.

The board also found that the profusion of credits, deductions, phaseouts and conflicting eligibility requirements frays the sanity of ordinary taxpayers just as surely as it complicates the calculations of wealthy families and business owners. Tax provisions affecting families and children were among the most frequently cited sources of confusion."

Read the full report here.


Americas-Europe/Russia: U.S. and Europe fighting over capital requirements in international banking regulations

Negotiators have made significant progress as the unofficial September deadline for the Basel III Accord nears. The accord consists of international recommendations on banking laws and regulations issued by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in Switzerland. The third of the Basel Accords is being written in response to the recent global financial crisis.

The current sticking point is over the amount of "safety capital" financial institutions should be required to maintain as a buffer for risk. Basel officials have recommended the level be set at 5% of assets, i.e., loans and investments, with an additional 2.5% buffer accessible to banks during periods of difficulty. 

A deal seems likely to conclude with the level set at 7 or 8% including the additional buffer. Since most U.S. firms already keep a larger percentage of safety capital on hand than most European banks, the new requirements are likely to be more onerous for the latter.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

'Global Affairs' coverage to begin, website revamped

The Briefing is pleased to announce some major changes to our mission and design.

The most aesthetically obvious of these changes is our reworked website and new logo. This shift reflects our new commitment to expanding our coverage and analysis to international issues.

If you've been following us for the breaking political news and policy information, don't worry. That content isn't going anywhere. We're just adding a larger world perspective to encourage each of us to be productive and informed global citizens. We hope this new focus will lead to many conversations about the nature of the issues we face in the world today and a constructive dialogue about how we can work together as an international community to address those issues.

As a helpful reference, you'll notice all posts now have a policy area (Immigration, National Intelligence, etc.) or world region (The Middle East & Northern Africa, Europe/Russia, etc.) tags before the headline.

Additionally, you'll see a larger percentage of our news updates on Facebook containing links to a quick write-up with a few additional details and some brief analysis. You can often expect a headline and three to five sentences of detail here on The Briefing site.

As always, we hope these new features are helpful and interesting to you. Please know that we always appreciate comments and questions.

Asia/Pacific: Australia gets first indigenous MP

Ken Wyatt was elected to a seat representing a Western Australian district as a member of the center-right Liberal Party.

Ethnic tension continues to exist in the country, as evidenced by Wyatt's receipt of racist hate mail, but the election of an indigenous person is a welcome and historic step forward for Australia.

Last week's parliamentary elections resulted in both major parties falling three to four votes short of a majority, forcing the Liberals and Labor to reach out to the Independents who now hold the balance of power.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

One-Third of Pakistan Is Under Water, Have You Heard?

Imagine the entire population of our largest metropolitan area, New York City, were made homeless over night and a third of them were starving. Now double that.

For most in the United States, the country of Pakistan holds a checkered reputation. 

First, there's the evidence of past duplicitous relations with our nation's military and collusion with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Then there's the less-than-predictable politico-military power balance in a nation with a stockpile of roughly 150 nuclear warheads. Add to that volatile relations stemming from three separate wars with India which have seemed to distract the nation's foreign policy establishment to the near-total exclusion of threats in the north and it's generally true that those in the States who know much of anything about Pakistani current affairs tend to not like what they've heard. 

It's possible that it's for this reason that so few of us have been moved to help a nation that's been devastated in the last three weeks by widespread floods; in truth, I'm guessing few have even heard of the crisis. 

But, a crisis it most surely is, already having afflicted disaster on more human beings than the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and that which struck Haiti earlier this year. The flooding of the Indus River, which stretches across the entire length of Pakistan, has killed more than 2,000, left over 700,000 families homeless, and affected more than 20 million people, reducing entire towns to muddy rubble.
Some 17 million acres of agricultural land have been submerged, and more than 100,000 animals have perished. Six million people are in need of food aid. 

In some areas, the waters have begun to recede, leaving unusable farm land and pools of stagnant water which threaten to cause widespread outbreaks of disease. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warns of a "second wave of death" unless aid comes quickly, with the World Health Organization declaring six million people, including 3.5 million children, at risk from diseases like cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and E, and dysentery.

In other areas, most notably the southern Sindh province, rain fall continues to exacerbate the Indus, threatening even further breaches of the river banks.

The United Nations estimates $460 million is needed to deal with immediate humanitarian needs and the Pakistani government estimates the total reconstruction cost at nearly $15 billion. So far the world has pledged or donated just $125 million.

It should be pointed out that the U.S. Department of State has mobilized more emergency aid than any other country, including tons of food aid and the dispatching of Navy helicopters to assist with search and rescue missions. It's also true that the Pakistani army has reacted swiftly and competently. But neither of those truths has multiplied the aid actually available to make a difference.

Some worry the money could fall into the hands of the Taliban, but while international aid agencies and non-governmental organizations have taken steps to prevent such a possibility, that reticence to help the militants has unintentionally opened a dangerous door. While the U.N., Red Cross, Care, and others have pleaded for more aid, the Taliban hasn't focused on siphoning it off, but rather on actually assisting the victims themselves. Especially in strategic areas like the Swat valley, this has left many rural Pakistanis with the impression that the international community and their own government have abandoned them while the Taliban come to their aid.

Make no mistake, the victims of this disaster are farmers and shopkeepers and schoolteachers, men and woman and children.

They say that Americans, blessed with so much, are some of the most giving people on the planet and that economic hard times actually lead to an increase in charitable giving as we come closer to what really matters and reconnect with the empathy that defines our humanity. 

On Monday, several hundred people blocked the main highway linking Punjab province with the city of Karachi in protest. "We have no food and no shelter," they cried. "We need immediate help."

As a human being, I implore you to help in any way you can. Please, give generously.


To help, text 'SWAT' to 50555 on your mobile phone to donate $10 directly to the UNHCR or give to one of these organizations working to mobilize relief workers and supplies and combat disease on the ground:

American Red Cross

Doctors Without Borders

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Note on Census Hiring

I'll be back later with some more analysis of this morning's rather dismal jobs report, but wanted to share a quick though on the temporary census positions that accounted for most of this morning's reported job losses.

You'll remember that in May the U.S. Census Bureau added 411,000 temporary positions to execute the decennial counting of Americans for representation and apportionment. A number of sources, most notably many conservatives, cried foul, saying these positions, because they were temporary and public sector, did not count. Only private sector jobs, of which there was a net gain of 41,000 in May, should be accepted as actual progress.

In June, we lost 225,000 of those temporary, public sector positions as the census presumably went forward fairly smoothly and more than half the work was finished in less than a month. The private sector added 83,000 jobs. Surprisingly, the same individuals who cried foul at counting the addition of census jobs last month are those advocating most loudly for this morning's numbers reflecting the loss of those jobs to be the most important story of the month.

To me, this smacks of hypocrisy. You can't have it both ways. Either the positions should be completely discounted or they should be viewed as what they are: jobs held by real people that offered a brief, limited reprieve from joblessness.

Either way you slice it, two things are clear: those workers are now back in the ranks of the unemployed, which is bad news, and we should expect more of these losses in the coming months as the nearly 200,000 remaining census workers also wrap up their work.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why Are Brown, Collins, and Snowe Threatening to Jump Ship on Financial Reform?

Inside the beltway, panic started to set in this morning as the prospects for passing financial regulatory reform legislation before July 4th hit a patch of turbulence with Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Scott Brown (R-MA) all threatening to vote against the conference report merging the House and Senate bills.

The offending language for all three Republicans is a $19 billion tax on large banks and hedge funds added at the last minute to keep the legislation from adding to the deficit. Brown wants that gap to be paid for through spending cuts instead, believing the tax would be harmful to the financial institutions.

After an afternoon of trying to convince the three to change their minds, Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) announced the conference committee would reconvene this evening to make the changes necessary to win enough votes in the Senate.

Obviously, this is a headache (reopening conference almost guarantees the bill won't be sent to the president before the July 4th break), but it could have been a lot worse. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) were smart to keep the report from the floor of the House and Senate until both chambers were sure they had the votes. If the House had already accepted the report, the conference couldn't be reopened.

Back-tracking at this stage to make some sort of deal which will likely include cuts to other government programs is certainly less than desirable, but it could be much worse. Without Pelosi and Reid's smart management, this would be a much larger setback.

As it is, financial reform is still almost certain to pass with relatively minor changes, it'll just be a week later than expected.

Frankly, the 24-hour widespread hysteria of pundits sounding the death knell of a major Obama policy objective seem a bit silly now. Actually, they seemed silly at the time too.

Adaptability: one. Conventional wisdom: zero.

The House-Senate conference has added an $8 billion increase in FDIC premiums paid by commercial banks and $11 billion of rerouted TARP funds to the report to replace the $19 billion tax on large commercial banks and hedge funds opposed by Senators Brown, Collins, and Snowe.

Senator John Ensign Denies Benefits to Nevadans Facing Highest Unemployment Rate in Nation, Chuckles

As a fourth vote to extend unemployment benefits seems likely to come up before the week is out, Senator John Ensign (R-NV) notified his constituents that even though his state leads in unemployment, home foreclosures, and bankruptcies, he will not be supporting legislation to ensure the continued income of brow-beaten Nevadans.

"I recognize," said the senator in a press conference Monday, "that folks in Nevada have been crushed under the weight of a recession they didn't cause. Homelessness, dire poverty, and the worst education system in America have all conspired to leave the people of my state hopeless and broken. Our fragile economy is on the brink of disaster and many families are living on credit and payday loans just to stay in their homes and keep food on their tables. The people of Nevada are working class folks, the sort that have paid into the unemployment system for years and now, when they need help the most, I am pleased to announce that I will be voting against the extension of that support."

Bewildered members of the press asked the senator to clarify, noting that it seemed preposterous to deny Nevadans the benefits they need to survive in the wake of such crippling circumstances. Ensign acknowledged the confusion and was happy to explain.

"A few years back I sold my soul to Satan and consequently owe my allegiance to the Dark Lord. As it turns out, it serves his purposes to stabilize the national debt at the expense of American families, especially Nevadans who will soon be homeless in the 110 degree inferno that surrounds their under-valued houses outlying our vacuous, job-deprived city centers." Ensign added, with a wink and a nod, "I'm just remembering who sent me to Washington in the first place."

Administration officials in the netherworld were unavailable for comment, but Mr. Satan took to his Twitter account just after the announcement.

"H8 2 C Sen. Ensign blaming me 4 block on benefits vote; I do not assoC8 w him, and he has no soul to my knwldge. #JohnEnsighIsADouche"

Jimi Jobin is a spiritual wanderer and teaches Religion and Philosophy in a private school. He, his wife and son live in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Of Pundits and Pastors: An Open Letter to Pastor H. Wayne Williams

What follows is a response to the actions of Rev. H. Wayne Williams who, in defiance of the IRS Law denying churches the ability to publicly support political candidates, has chosen to endorse Gordon Howie for Governor of South Dakota from the pulpit. Howie has asked for pastoral support and in return has promised to assist those pastors in taking their inevitable IRS trials to the supreme court in an effort to end separation of church and state in America.

Of Pastors and Pundits
An Open Letter to Pastor H. Wayne Williams

Pastor, I recognize your frustration, and I see how things have come to this. For years America has only shrugged at religion, and recently Christianity has been caught in a violent tug of war between Republicans and Democrats. We feel, as leaders, entitled to make political endorsements. Why shouldn't we, especially in a democracy where endorsements translate directly to power, take up our biblically informed opinion, get behind a pulpit, and urge our people to support a candidate? Why shouldn't we support the rulers we stand to benefit the most from, and give them a divine leg up?

For the historically minded among us, the reasons for not bringing our spiritual authority into political campaigns are blood red. For nearly 2,000 years our faith fore-fathers were persecuted and oppressed, not always by the irreligious, but more often by competing tribes in Christianity. Clerics would jockey for favor in the kingdoms of men, then use any clout gained to suppress the views of their theological enemies. Over and again we stamped out those who did not fit into our au currant idea of orthodoxy and we entrenched ourselves into division, using the steel of our ruler's swords to proclaim our theological certainty. Christians have killed and tortured more of their own than any other group in history, and this was possible solely because of the unholy union of church and state. Pastors gave rulers their blessing, and rulers returned the favor by silencing the pastor's critics, a fantastic deal for the pastor who courts the powers, but a dangerous and painful reality for any others who do not.

There isn't a Christian denomination in existence who has not been slaughtered by their theological opponents. The Pope used his political power in Spain to warrant the inquisition. Bloody Mary earned her moniker by burning 300 dissenters of Catholicism at the stake. The Calvinists and Lutherans used their influence over the German Princes to commit near genocide of Catholics all over Europe during the 30 years war. Catholics in the 3rd Crusade almost exterminated the Orthodox Church in Constantinople. Anabaptists have been drowned, burned, and exiled under each of the other major sects. For almost 1500 years Christians wielded political power to slay one another, until the founding of America. America was the first country without a designated faith, here was the only place in the world where Catholics and Protestants, Radical Reformationists and Orthodox could live as neighbors. An accomplishment not won by better theology nor a love of peace, but because each lacked the ability to oppress one another by controlling the government.

We have created a land where church and state are separated to protect them from one another, not to diminish the role of either. The integrity of the church is jeopardized when politicians can appeal to spiritual leaders and gain their endorsement because the opportunities for abuse and ambition are too rampant. The same quid pro quo corruption that taints those tempted by lobbyists will await pastors when their support can yield inexhaustible American power. This is why America has passed laws to preserve the dignity and purity of the pastoral office, exchanging tax exemption (a unique phenomenon in the world) with the trust that the nation's charitable goodwill can't be used as a political force. Christianity has flourished in America, due in large part to the inability of any one religious sect to silence the others by electing one of their own. Consider how different things would be if all along pastors had the ability to endorse candidates, if the elected then changed the social landscape to keep the favor of the pastors -like Mr. Howie is promising to do today. What if JFK had been endorsed by the Pope, what might he have done to protestants? What if Billy Graham had used his crusades to call for the reelection of his close friend, Richard Nixon?

Pastors needn't remain neutral when it comes to social change. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., championed civil rights, Rev. Charles Finney fought to abolish slavery, and many more contributed to all the progressive reforms of the 19th century, from Women's Suffrage to Child Labor Laws. But we stir change by stinging the national conscience, by being a prophetic witness for biblical values and obedience to Christ from the pulpit, not by taking the dangerous short cut of merely electing somebody to make a sweeping change in our favor. Pastors are here to bring the optimism of a better world, a Kingdom of God where it can be on Earth as it is in Heaven. We aren't here to arbitrate the national discussion, or be some sort of referee who awards polling points to one side while punishing the other using our immense spiritual clout. Are we willing to compromise our ability to provide hope for the chance to pronounce judgment? Will we use the cross as Caesar did- to dominate political foes- or as Jesus' did, to liberate the unseen?

It desecrates our pulpit to yield it to politics. We are called to something higher than to meddle in the affairs of ambitious men. We are not so Holy that we can merely baptize a candidate, and never drink the poison of his words. We do not stump for Senators, we do not campaign for Congressman, we do not preach for Presidents, because the name of Christ is too precious to risk on a common election, no matter how important the issues at stake may seem. We cannot allow Jesus to become a political puppet, a sock on the arm of the statesman. Our role is to translate the values of scripture into the hearts and minds of every American, not to rule those Americans or force our values on them by manipulating the vote. The humble witness of Jesus is weakened when it is communicated through the edicts of rulers rather than the powerful persuasion of changed lives, hearts, and minds. The Kingdom of God cannot be voted into existence.

Pastor H. Wayne Williams, I beg you to take your opinion to the poll and not the pulpit. Encourage your church to lobby their convictions, b
ut don't let a lobbyist lead your church. Your vote belongs to a Candidate,  but your pulpit belongs to Christ, so “give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and give unto God what is God's.”

Jimi Jobin is a spiritual wanderer and teaches Religion and Philosophy in a private school. He, his wife and son live in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Separating Energy and Climate Legislation

Wondering what it means to go with an energy-only bill? You can expect the Bingaman proposal (from Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico) to focus mostly on providing for alternative energy sources, new nuclear power plants, and some research and development funding. As iterated by Majority Leader Reid (D-NV), it will also include some new language to address the oil leak in the Gulf like a lifting of the oil company liability cap and some reforms of the oversight and regulatory process.

What it won't have is a pricing collar on carbon, which is really desperately needed to address our country's contributions to global climate change. The conventional thinking is that we absolutely must reduce our emissions by about 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. That's not far away, and it doesn't take into consideration the likelihood that developing countries, like China and India, won't move until after we have.

It's certainly possible that the Kerry-Lieberman cap-and-trade proposal could meet the 60-vote threshold needed to be attached as an amendment if we could keep most Dems onboard (around ten are seen as possible or likely no votes) and count on environmentally-friendly Republicans to stick their necks out for a system their own party has decried as "cap-and-tax" during an election year, but somehow I imagine leadership would just include it in the bill if that were seen as a likelihood.

Assuming for a moment that Kerry-Lieberman fails, it's obviously preferable for the Senate to get the ball rolling on alternative energy sources than to do nothing right now, but it is certainly less than we need them to do.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

It's Summertime in an Election Year, Do You Know Where Your Senators Are?

The answer, apparently, is doing their jobs.* 

After close to two months of doubt at whether the White House and Congressional Dems were up to tackling yet another major progressive policy priority, some serious rumblings are being heard inside the beltway as President Obama and Majority Leader Reid begin sounding the clarion call for Senate passage of a comprehensive energy and climate bill.

Just days ago, President Obama told reporters at a news conference on the Gulf oil leak, "
If nothing else this disaster should serve as a wake-up call that it's time to move forward with this legislation." 

Yesterday, during a speech in Pittsburgh, the president laid out the case more fully. "T
he time has come to aggressively accelerate that transition," he said.  "The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future."

Specifically calling for a new carbon pricing system, Obama praised the House for the action they took last year and called on the Senate to do the same, declaring that, "the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months."

Read the President's full remarks here.

Many were quick to criticize the White House for not seizing the moment sooner, but I've long argued that the Obama administration's legislative strategy often involves small, behind-the-scenes actions methodically done in preparation of the right time for major action. I think that time is upon us.

We've known for weeks that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been meeting with remaining climate bill authors John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and that he had promised to meet with relevant committee chairs after returning from break, but Reid and Obama seem to be moving in lock-step now on the impetus of the crisis in the Gulf.

Earlier today, POLITICO reported on a letter Reid sent to eight committee chairs asking them to report any language they wanted considered as part of the energy and climate bill out before July 4th, setting the Senate up for floor debate in July. Reid also asked them to attach language dealing swiftly with "the existing situation [in the Gulf] and to reduce the risks of such a catastrophe happening again.” The bill is likely to include a lifting of the liability cap for oil companies, stricter oversight, and major reforms of the Mineral Management Service.

Kerry and Lieberman were quick to praise the move, but it should be mentioned that it is unclear whether their American Power Act would provide the framework for the bill or if Reid is looking to move in another direction.

That said, it seems clearer that the Senate will try to address our nation's energy crisis and global climate change this year. Now if we could just get that leak under control.


*I say this with tongue in cheek as this Congress has already set itself apart as one of the most productive in U.S. history.

For background on this issue, see our earlier post here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Space Aliens make contact, apologize for spill of dark-matter that will soon destroy Earth

NASA confirmed Tuesday what scientists have been saying for decades, we are not alone. Aliens made contact with the international space station early this week and then spoke directly to the assembly of world leaders in the U.N.

Utilizing advanced translation software, the glowing, tentacled humanoids delivered a memorable first address: “Greetings people of Earth. You have not been aware of our existence, but we have known of you for generations and considered your primitive lives our responsibility. Unfortunately, one of our energy-producing inter-stellar drilling ships has pierced a hole in the space-time continuum which is now unstoppably leaking crude dark-matter, our civilization's major energy source, into your part of the galaxy. Your entire habitat will soon be destroyed and all life on Earth along with it.”

Amidst screams of horror from world leaders, the aliens were kind enough to explain that it was in their economic self interest to mine for the destructive energy source, and while they were taking the responsibility of the clean up very seriously, their best efforts would not be enough to prevent the forth-coming Armageddon.

“But, we are deeply sorry for this quite preventable tragedy,” added the alien's spokeperson, “we just needed to get that dark-matter to refinement mills so we could power our society. You wouldn't expect us to stall our progress, even for your sake. We have to mill, baby, mill.”

Jimi Jobin is a spiritual wanderer and teaches Religion and Philosophy in a private school. He, his wife and son live in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Oil Spill in the Gulf and the Prospects for Senate Action on Energy & Climate Legislation

By now we're all aware of the massive oil leak into the waters of the Gulf. In the past few days, pundits have been spending a fair amount of time trying to predict what this crisis will do to the already-strained prospects for legislative energy and climate action this year.

In the days before the explosion even took place, a rivalry had developed involving the possible moving up of immigration reform on the legislative calendar at the expense of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill. That led to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) threatening to bail as the sole Republican attached to the bill he'd been helping to write for months and the indefinite delaying of the bill's scheduled introduction.

After a rocky week, environmentalists saw the horrible events in the Gulf as further evidence of the desperate need for major legislative action. The leak might even have been seen as a potential catalyst, allowing a seamless transition from financial regulatory reform to the energy and climate bill. Despite that, most talking heads have concluded that the leak has done the opposite: making legislative success even less likely. It's easy to see the rationale for this pessimism. In recent days, Democratic Senators Bill Nelson (FL), Bob Menendez (NJ), and Frank Lautenberg (NJ) announced their complete opposition to any further offshore drilling. Nelson even went as far as to suggest he would filibuster any bill expanding the controversial practice, saying, "Any proposal for offshore drilling is dead on arrival."

Given the consensus approach Graham, Kerry (D-MA), and Lieberman (I-CT) had taken and had hoped would pave the way to passage, a bloc of needed Democratic members opposing one of the provisions most likely to attract GOP votes is a major problem. On top of that, many have pointed out the crisis could be used by the president to advocate for the legislation and see President Obama's relative silence on the issue politically as evidence of his reticence to call for bold action. Though that analysis may end up being correct, we can't know that this soon. It is very possible President Obama is trying to take the classy road by not hijacking a national tragedy that saw eleven lives lost and a likely devastation of already-struggling coastal communities for political purposes before there's even time to mourn. It's also arguable that Americans want to see their government addressing the immediate problem first, by trying to collect and disperse the leaked oil, cap and stanch the leak itself, and offset the damage to the affected communities, which is what they've been doing. Such action does not preclude future use of the crisis as a "teachable moment" once the immediate disaster has subsided somewhat.

Matt Ygelsias also
offers a better source onto which enviro-anger can be focused:
"In some ways the larger issue here is the continued loyalty to Big Oil of Gulf Coast politicians like Mary Landrieu who’s trying to leverage this disaster into bolstering support for more drilling. The point of the Obama administration going soft on drilling in the first place was that the iron math of the Senate makes it impossible to do anything without the support of the Landrieus (”Landrieux”?) of the world. And if the politicians’ whose states are going to be devastated by this are responding by hewing even more tightly to the Big Oil line, then the situation is just hopeless."
All that said, as the consummate optimist, I am not yet willing to write the obituary for Kerry-Graham-Lieberman. Giving me cause for continued hope are statements from some key members of the upper chamber. In the same breath as his statement of opposition to offshore drilling, Menendez took the opportunity to say the leak “should be an impetus for the Senate to act on climate and energy, rather than a barrier.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) added, "I think it should spur us on. Alternative energy is what we need to do as rapidly as we can, so I think rather than slow us up, I think it should expedite our doing energy legislation.”

Even more than that, experience tells me two things: that members of Congress are suprisingly fickle and often change their minds rather quickly, and that few things will stand in the way of Barack Obama when he's committed to getting something done. Accordingly to his last statements, President Obama is dedicated to tackling the energy and climate crisis this year. Until he changes that tune, I will remain cautiously optimistic.

As of today, Senator John Kerry has committed to moving forward on the bill and confirmed that it will be rolled out early next week.

"I know what the conventional wisdom is out there," Kerry said, "that with all the election-year jitters, a looming Supreme Court confirmation and a difficult legislative schedule, that Congress is going to avoid tough choices as November nears. But I believe this is the year – perhaps our last, best chance – to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation."

Let's get to work.