Friday, March 28, 2008


Mr. Bush informs us today that "Normalcy is returning back to Iraq."

On the same page in my newspaper, articles describe Basra and Baghdad both in flames, open warfare between the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi army, and the Green Zone in Baghdad, supposedly our "secure" headquarters, under continual rocket and mortar attack. Green Zone residents have been advised to sleep only in fortified buildings, not in trailers.

This is beyond Orwellian. In what alternate universe can a state like this be described as "normal?"

The trouble is, of course, since we invaded Iraq in 2003 and overthrew Saddam Hussein, this condition has been normalcy for Iraqis. The state of relative calm which followed the troop surge last year is abnormal.

What is it about the word "normalcy" that makes only the worst presidents use it? The last president to call for a "return to normalcy" was Warren Harding...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Double Standard

Once again I'm astounded at the way the U.S. Government allows itself to function. Today's cause for amazement is an article with this delightful title:
Pentagon accidentally sent nuclear missile parts to Taiwan
Seems that, back in 2006, Taiwan ordered some spare batteries for helicopters from the Defense Logistics Agency, a separate government unit which has a warehouse in Utah for unclassified material. This seems normal. However, the shipping containers they actually got contained four electrical fuses for ICBM nose cones. These are the triggers that make a nuclear missile go "boom" (they're not nuclear themselves).

What bothers me is that the DLA doesn't seem to know how this happened. The Air Force had shipped the fuses to the DLA for storage, in 2005. The fuses, being part of a nuclear weapon, should have been stored in a classified warehouse. Also, they should have been accounted for in regular quarterly audits. Helicopter batteries, of course, are not classified and should have been in a different warehouse. And yet, when the time came to ship copter batteries to Taiwan, the boxes they pulled out had classified nuclear weapons parts in them. I think this constitutes having "lost" the nuclear triggers.

Any business that operated like this would have been toast years ago; but apparently the U.S. Government can continue to bumble on uninterrupted. Can these people even count??

Gas Tax

Yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle informed us that the skyrocketing price of gasoline is driving up the income the state gets from the gasoline tax; no surprise there. However, the state legislature is squabbling over how to spend this "windfall," given that the economy is in a major recession and the state is facing a whacking deficit, which the Governator has managed to bring down to "only" $8 billion.

But they have a problem: gas tax revenues are legally earmarked to be spent on - surprise! - transportation issues. The Lege, however, sees an opportunity to plug some financial holes without having to do any actual work - all they have to do is suspend the transportation requirement, or "borrow" the funds.

I have a suggestion for our brilliant legislators: you have a surplus in transportation funds. How about fixing some roads? Upgrading some bridges? How many bridges and overpasses in California are in the same bad state as the one that collapsed last year in Minneapolis? Do you even know how many??

We need the infrastructure repairs - many roads are in a disastrous condition. Fixing roads involves hiring people for construction jobs, which would put money back into local economies.

The Assembly's position on this is pretty much summed up by this quote:

"This will be a huge issue because there aren't many moving parts of the budget that are moving up in revenue," said Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, chairman of the Budget Committee.

While as a matter of public policy it makes most sense to keep gasoline sales tax receipts for transportation projects, "we have an $8 billion hole. And if the governor is proposing cutting dental care for adults in California, how does that weigh?" Laird said.

Well, Mr. Laird, I thought that was why we paid all you legislators the big bucks. You're expected to make difficult decisions, and frankly, I thought you were expected to run the state on the money you know will come in, not on the money you think might come in if everything goes well and the economy keeps going up.

If the California Legislature will quit playing prima donna and devote some actual energy and thought to the process called "budgeting" (which most of us mortals have to do all the time), maybe we can get to a point where
a drop in the economy won't cause the state to leap immediately to cut health care for poor people and their children. We might have to make do with a lower level of services in general, but if that level were stable, it would be a whole lot better than we have now.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Market Meltdown, or, The Fed Is Even Crazier

I feel the need to rant.

What in the name of sweet benevolent JESUS ON A BICYCLE does the Federal Reserve think it's doing?

Unless you live in a cave and read papyrus manuscripts by candlelight, you know that over the weekend, investment banking house Bear Sterns collapsed under the weight of its illiquid mortgage-backed securities positions and was kindly "rescued" by JP Morgan Chase, who bought it for $2 a share. (Do not weep for JP Morgan Chase. This amounts to less than the market value of the Bear Sterns headquarters building, which they now own.)

This was a straight run on the bank: Bear Sterns' customers started pulling out funds, and the firm couldn't unwind their positions fast enough to get the cash to cover.
It's probably a good thing that the Fed brokered the deal; if Bear Sterns had been allowed to go entirely Tango Uniform, a lot of their counterparties would have followed them down.

It's also more or less understandable, I suppose, that JP Morgan Chase didn't want Bear Sterns' portfolio of mortgage-backed dreck. They wouldn't be able to sell it either.

I do NOT find it understandable that the Federal Reserve chose to say, in effect, "Oh, don't worry about all those nasty subprime-based securities; we'll take them off your hands." The Fed is taking on thirty BILLION dollars worth of Bear Sterns' bum portfolios!! Bear Sterns (obviously) didn't understand them; what makes the Fed think it understands them?? Do they actually think they can hold this stuff long enough for it to be worth something?

Everyone is saying, Oh, the Fed has Saved The Day! It looks to me as if the Fed has just added a gratuitous $30 billion to the Federal debt that is already coming out of my personal taxpaying pockets, and I don't appreciate it at all. Especially in light of the fact that the Fed seems to be hell-bent on lowering interest rates again, just as soon as they can. With everybody underwater in debt, making it easier to borrow is not going to help. And I don't see any of this helping the financial markets, because they're all afraid to borrow from each other because they don't understand their mortgage-backed securities either. I explained this back in September, in Too Smart For Their Own Good, and frankly, I'd rather have been wrong. I wish I'd been exaggerating. But I wasn't.

Paul Krugman is saying on that he thinks the economy will be in the tank at least until 2010. I'm just wondering how much of my retirement money will be left when it's over.


I don't usually expect philosophy from the San Francisco Chronicle, but on today's I saw a column with the arresting title: No Offense, but You Don't Deserve Your Salary.

Kind of catches your eye, doesn't it?

I strongly recommend the piece. I've actually considered writing something on this subject, spurred by disgust at the absurd salaries paid to CEOs and baseball players, but the columnist, Chris Colin, has really said it all much better than I could.

The reader comments are fairly interesting, too.

Friday, March 14, 2008

What the ??

The disconnects in this story are so bad that I can't even think of a coherent title for the story. But here's how it goes:

Last April, that, is almost one entire year ago, a young man was murdered, shot, in San Francisco's Tenderloin. Call him The Victim. On information from another young man, whom we will call The Witness, a third young man, The Suspect, was thrown in jail and charged; The Witness claimed that The Suspect was the shooter and that he, The Witness, had watched the whole thing. Oh, goody, an eyewitness. The court finally scheduled a preliminary hearing yesterday for the case; The Suspect has been in jail this entire time.

The Suspect, however, is now out of jail and free for the foreseeable future; the prosecutors had to drop the case. They had to drop the case because - wait for it - The Witness was deported to Honduras, from whence he came, in December. He was convicted on drug charges in November; and since he was now a felon as well as an illegal immigrant, the authorities handed him over to ICE, who sent him back to enrich the community in Honduras.

My first impulse is to ask whether the federal and local law enforcement communities do not talk to each other, except that it's so obvious on the face of it that they don't. On consideration, though, I can't really argue with ICE deporting The Witness; he was illegal in at least two positions. But: wasn't it the same court who turned The Witness over for deportation, who was eventually going to hear the case in which he was the only eyewitness??

Wouldn't it have been possible to leave The Witness here, in jail, until he could testify in the murder trial??

Does the right hand talk to the left hand, or even acknowledge that it exists??

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Same-sex Marriage

I've been reading with interest the coverage of the California Supreme Court's review of Prop. 22 and the "right" of same sex couples to marry. First, I want to give Justice Moreno a huge round of applause for his simple question: "Are you saying that separate is equal here?"

Second, let's all agree that it is absolute balderdash to suggest that heterosexual marriage is somehow "threatened" by the possibility that people of the same sex might marry. People decide to marry or not for a very wide range of reasons, many of which are totally irrational, but the possibility that people of the same gender might be able to marry is just not on the table in that process. I mean, imagine the conversation: "Gee, Harry, I can't marry you, because your brother Joe just married his boyfriend Ed." Give me a break.

The real objection to same-sex marriage, which nobody wants to discuss, goes back to the fact that a lot of people still think that homosexuality is some kind of warped personal choice, which can't be accepted because "the things those people do" are so revolting. This is a personal opinion and has no business in public policy; it's just another facet of the fact that Americans as a group can't deal rationally with sex. As far as I can tell from the research, homosexuality is not a choice, it's a basic predisposition, like blue eyes or left-handedness or the inability to smell the chemical you make when you pee after eating asparagus.

Let me come down here on the side of the people (I've read several user comments to this effect on who say that marriage should not be a consideration of the state. Marriage is a religious sacrament, and in the United States we have a legal separation of church and state. The state should only approve civil unions; any two people should be able to join in a civil union; and if a couple wants to go to the Catholic Church and argue that their same-sex union should be solemnized in the marriage ceremony, that's their private problem.

State approval of marriages goes back to English common law, under which the church is an arm of the state; but our Constitution forbids that. The real problem with civil unions is the fact that the federal government also has this confusion; no matter what the California court decides, unless something is done at the federal level, same-sex partners in civil unions still won't be able to have the privileges under Social Security that people who are "married" get. I've been married twice, both to men; neither function took place in a church or involved a minister of religion. In both my marriages, I had full rights to my husband's Social Security (which was moot the first time because I've made, over my lifetime, probably more money than he has...). But a same-sex couple who also has a civil ceremony not involving a minister doesn't have those rights; and they aren't necessarily recognized as "family" in the health system; and so on.

Justice Moreno is dead right: this is separate, but not equal.

And since neither of my marriages produced any children, let's also dismiss the absurd argument that marriage is "for the procreation of children." Marriage is and has been for centuries a legal arrangement for the disposal and transmission of property, generally but not exclusively through children, since until recently, no one could be sure that the children would survive. This whole romantic love business was invented in the 19th century by the Romantic movement.