Thursday, December 20, 2007

(Don't) Steal This Book


I've been thinking about doing this for more than 10 years. That might be a personal record for procrastination (in a lifetime of perfecting my technique). After much fiddling, I've finally complied recipes from my Great Grandmother Colarusso in an effort to preserve a small part of my family's history, and to keep tabs on the recipes.

The book is being carried by Lulu, an online self-publishing house. You can view, pre-view and order the book here. Here's a picture of the cover:

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans in my life

My Dad: US Army, Regular and Reserve, Corps of Engineers. Service in Canal Zone and Viet Nam, numerous domestic duty stations.

My Dad's Dad: US Navy. Service in WWII, stationed in Australia and New Zealand as part of a bomb squad (munitions detection and disarm), domestic ds in DC.

Uncle: US Navy. Ret'd from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard a few years ago.

Mom's Grandfather: US Army, WWI. Purple Heart.

Cousin Chris, USA Corps of Engineers, VA.

Family friend Margaret H., formerly JAG, now with the State Dept., I believe.

My buddies Jerry (US Army) and Pete (US Army). Jerry jumps out of planes for fun. Pete's a new dad just this past month. Pete's buddies Sam and Devil: I'm rooting for them.

My good friend and role model, Dr. John, USN.

Thank you.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Front-running with the Sox and Pats

I got a short email today from a good friend and replied with an avalanche. Let's share:
Congratulations again.

Boston wins another world series and the Pats hang 52 on the Redskins (without running up the score).

I can't help but ponder the existential effect this all has on The Brown Psyche -- to go from backing perennial down and out underdogs to supporting 800-pound gorillas can't be easy ...
My reply:

Odd. I was thinking about that very thing this morning on my walk to work. I was also thinking about what you'd be thinking about it, given our conversations around 2001 and then again in 2004.

When people brought up this (former) harmony between me and my teams, I used to say something like, "I don't know whether I'm a Red Sox fan because of the way I am, or I am the way I am because I'm a fan of the Red Sox." Well, things are changing. I'm not as much that way anymore, for one thing. And obviously, neither are the Sox or the Pats.

I can't really say what effect it's had on me personally, yet, but I can tell you that I care a lot less about MLB now than I used to. It's lost a lot of the romance I used to attach to it and I come face to face with an important truth: unless the game in question has some inherent drama to it, I don't much care to watch. Baseball on TV (especially regular season) is boring. That's all there is too it--turns out I'm just not a fan the way I am with football.

With the Pats, it's different. Now we're winning, but not like the last 6 years or so. This is out of the realm of experience for me and, I think, everyone who's a fan of the NFL. Depending very heavily on this tilt with the Colts, we could be seeing something that is historic. If this kind of thing continues throughout the season and the playoffs, we might find ourselves referring to this team, without hyperbole, as the greatest football team ever assembled since the invention of the forward pass. In some ways, this has gone beyond "fandom," team allegiances or anything like that. It doesn't matter if I root for them or against them. It doesn't matter if I'm worried about the game or not. It doesn't seem to matter whether they're playing at home or on the road, if there are fans or no fans, if it's grass or fieldturf, rain or shine, hot or cold.

Of course, that bit about my support has always been the case. But this team is a machine like no other I've ever seen on TV or on tape. It's impressive and a little scary. If they lose (not counting the last few games of the year -- the 'perfect season' is meaningless in the context of the modern NFL), I won't be disappointed just because we lost (unless it's the playoffs). I'll be disappointed because what I think I might be witnessing will have proven not to be.

But if this keeps up, it will be impossible to argue that this is anything less than the greatest football team ever assembled and still be thought in touch with reality. That would be something to see.

With both, there is another problem: you get saddled with a lot of people who need to identify themselves by the team they're rooting for--it really means something to them, says something about who they are. Or they desperately want it to. This is hugely annoying to me. I love the Pats, and love rooting for them. I used to hate rooting for them (but I still rooted for them). It still makes me down when they lose (more than winning brings me up). But I don't self-identify in the aggressive, in-your-face way that some people seem to do. When all you can think to do is chant "Yankees Suck" something's the matter with your psychology. A winning team seems to hatch these folks like a basement of horseshit sprouts mushrooms.

There's something funny about it. When I was a kid (I was thinking about this this morning as well), we had a short string of station wagons that led ineluctably to the Dodge Caravan. I was on the brink of early adolescence when my Dad was driving the Ford Zephyr. The Zephyr was a light tan on the outside and a dark tan on the inside. It had vinyl seats and manual everything and an AM radio and I couldn't understand how my father stood to drive it. I certainly hid my face riding in it. It was only much later that I realized he had moved past thinking of a car as an expression and into a world where it was a straight-up tool for getting his family from place to place. It didn't bother him to drive it because he didn't care what people thought about his car.

Now, rooting for a team is an extravagance for the ego in the first place. But it doesn't represent some reality where you are the team and the team is you. Or it shouldn't. But successful sports teams seem to draw people out of the woodwork who need that to be true. That used to be me, all the time. I used to be that guy. Oddly, the more successful my teams have become, the less "that guy" I am. I don't know if that's because I've gotten older as they've gotten better, or if it's because I only identify with near-misses and not actual successes. But the more a given team seems to win, the more people like that seem to appear around them, wearing their gear and getting in people's personal space. It's like they're waiting for some semblance of dominance before they'll come out of the closet, as if they identify so completely that any whiff of weakness in the team would expose them as a weakling. And they are supremely obnoxious and annoying.

With the the Sox and the Pats winning regularly, it's become obvious that my failures and mishaps aren't part of a cosmic scheme anymore. Clearly they're just mine. Which is actually kind of nice.

And rooting for lovable losers is overrated. Winning is way more fun.

Friday, October 26, 2007

"For the grapes’ sake, if they were all, Whose leaves already are burnt with frost, Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—"

Today was the apotheosis of autumn. It reached in me all of the things I love about this season: its crystalline beauty, its bold fragility, the sense of ending, receding, of time and light dwindling. The seduction of something fleeting, the exhilaration of perfection that cannot last.

I visited the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust at their offices, in a post-and-beam building on a dirt road in the middle of what was once a farm. It was a perfectly mellow autumn day. Brilliant, slanted light of the late year, air that would be cold if not for the sun. Apples from the tree behind the Trust building had fallen. The straw had been cut from the field. A steady breeze shivered the birch leaves and, from time to time, would sweep the field. When it did, I could smell dirt, the thick scents of decaying dead grass and leaves, the tart-sweet tang of rotting apples. Through now-naked branches, the sun sparkled off the brook.

A red-shouldered hawk was circling above the trees across the field. It seemed to be riding the updrafts, but not to a great height. Once or twice the hawk flexed its wings—just to maintain. I thought it would hunt. Finally, seeming to have lost interest in the land in front of me, or perhaps sensing greater luck in a different place, it took off on the wind. Barely a stirring of wing, but rather a silent, still coast; yet incredibly quickly he was gone, over the forest.

There is something about the light in fall, the way it strikes us obliquely, as if through clear water. The further north you go, the more marked is this phenomenon. Last year at this time I spent a couple of weeks working on an island in Penobscot Bay. So sharp those pines stood against the sky! The air was optically perfect—seeming to make my eyes sharper. I could see every needle, every cone, every brush of witches broom stood out like a spot on the sun.

That place and this time are achingly seductive. They beg to be lived in—that singular smell of dead and dying leaves bears no comparison, has no analogue. The smell of the earth is so sharp yet always seems just beyond sensing; shyly, adamantly present. The colors are truer, richer somehow than spring or summer ever could be.

Yet there is such weight in this time, like the unseen side of the basement door when you’re five years old. There is the certainty of winter. The shortness of the day, each day darker, sooner, and noticeably so. The earth seems to linger at a doorway, on a step by the churchyard. Time is whittled away, we are stripped down to what we are, beyond pretense. We find ourselves no longer drawn backward into the future, like Fitzgerald said, but suddenly facing it squarely, seeing it clearly. We look into time coming toward us as it blows the leaves from the trees, takes the hawk from the sky, and irresistibly reveals the pewter light of winter. Winter will cast its watery light on the bones of summer – the only truth is the bones – dark boles of maples, cold granite and schist, the faded straw of the stubble field.

For a brief few weeks, we have truth. Then, if we’re lucky, snow will fall.

FoxNews? We don't need no stinkin' FoxNews...

In 1787, Empress Catherine II of Russia visited the Crimea which was in the care of her ambitious minister Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin. As Catherine floated down the Dnieper River on her royal barge, she was favorably impressed with its bustling waterfront and prosperous-seeming settlements. Tradition holds that Potemkin had fabricated mere facades of buildings and had fires built at night to hold the illusion of prosperity: the banks of the Dnieper were, in reality, deserted. In his ambition, he deceived Catherine into thinking him a crackerjack administrator.

Fast-forward 220 years: In what promises to be a bold new strategy for this administration, FEMA will no longer rely solely on FOX to lob softball questions and provide Bush-friendly, right-ward spin to the news. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Potemkin Press:
[A]s the California wildfires raged Tuesday, Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy administrator [of FEMA], had a 1 p.m. news briefing.

Johnson stood behind a lectern and began with an overview before saying he would take a few questions. The first questions were about the "commodities" being shipped to Southern California and how officials are dealing with people who refuse to evacuate. He responded eloquently.


"And so I think what you're really seeing here is the benefit of experience, the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership," Johnson said, "none of which were present in Katrina." (Wasn't Michael Chertoff DHS chief then?) Very smooth, very professional. But something didn't seem right. The reporters were lobbing too many softballs. No one asked about trailers with formaldehyde for those made homeless by the fires. And the media seemed to be giving Johnson all day to wax on and on about FEMA's greatness.

Of course, that could be because the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters. We're told the questions were asked by Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of external affairs, and by "Mike" Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs. Director of External Affairs John "Pat" Philbin asked a question, and another came, we understand, from someone who sounds like press aide Ali Kirin.
This "press conference" was carried live by MSNBC and FOX, looking for all intents and purposes like the real thing. This is so much better than flogging a Press Secretary! It won't be long before they're using this technique at Pennsylvania avenue, methinks. Simply call a press conference on short notice, like 30 seconds. Close the doors, fill the seats with staff, and you could even have W up there, basically reading off a teleprompter. Why rely on outsourcing the production of propaganda when you can just do it yourself?

Of course, this gives a bad name to Potemkin, who actually did good work for the Empress in Crimea. It does make one thing pretty clear, however. FEMA isn't actually interested in doing a good job. No, that would require competence, some level of experience and money that could otherwise be spent on denying children healthcare or hiring mercenaries to kill civilians with impunity. No, clearly the lesson of Katrina is not that FEMA should be fixed, but that it should be sheltered in its criminal inefficiency from the prying eyes of what has been (let's face it) and almost completely complicit press.

FEMA must be set free to tell its own lies directly to the American public without the pesky filter of Sean Hannity or some other minion of Murdoch! Long live the revolution!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Final Adventure of Fat Man and Chubby, or, How Not to Prepare for a Half-Marathon

It’s been a short summer for our dynamic duo, who have found myriad ways to avoid preparing for the Big Day. But the day dawned, as days do, regardless of our steadfast procrastination. And it dawned with a vengeance. Would our heroes survive?

Fat Man had been circling Portland’s Back Cove like a dog prepping its bed for most of the summer. Now intimately acquainted with every pothole, washout and linden tree on the route, he finally turned 7 miles at 9:20 per, and added longer runs of 10 and 12 miles. He was feeling reasonably prepared until the Monday before the race, when a fateful telephone call informed him that he was to be without his race partner.

Chubby’s plantar faciitis had put her on the back foot (pun intended) since the beginning of the summer. What with one thing and another, she simply didn’t feel ready to tackle the full 13.1 miles of running in Hanover. “I’ve tried to run a half-marathon before I was ready, once. I’m not going to do it again. But you can still come and stay with us, and I’ll pass you gu during the race.” OK.

Now alone in his quest, Fat Man commenced a final week of training: A solid 9.5-mile jog near Squam Lake in New Hampshire on Saturday. Back to Portland for a 3 mile Monday, a 5 mile Wednesday and a 7 mile Thursday. It was a beautiful week, with clear skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. My times were right on target. I was feeling so good about my preparation that I left work early on Friday and wrecked my motorcyle.

There’s really nothing like rolling along an entrance ramp to pack a whole afternoon of rugby fun into about 10 seconds. When your soft brain hits your hard skull, you see stars. That’s a minor concussion.

Instead of an early start to Vermont, I had to wrangle with two of Portland’s finest, who were hell bent on telling me that what I said happened couldn’t possibly have happened. They were pissed that they couldn’t write me a ticket, so they compromised by insisting that I either move the bike immediately or let them call a wrecker. Here’s the picture: I’m standing on a median, bleeding from my arms and talking with my insurer on the phone while a motorcycle (!) cop insists that I get my bike out of the median RIGHT NOW or I’ll call a wrecker and then stare you down until you get off the phone and MOVE THAT BIKE OFF THE MEDIAN, YOU CAN’T LEAVE IT HERE. Well no shit, buddy. Give me five minutes to stop bleeding and rent a truck at the U-Haul (a 2 minute walk away) and I’ll move the wreckage anywhere you want it.

2 hours and a U-Haul later, I was on my bloody way to Vermont. (Many thanks to my colleague Wolfe, who babysat me by the side of the road whilst I sorted the mess out, and let me have his Vitamin Water after I asked him for iced tea and then changed my mind.)

Alas, my relations with the Boys In Blue were just beginning. Driving through Moultonborough, NH, I was pulled over for having a headlight out. “Why is your hand bloody?”

“I was in a motorcycle accident this afternoon.”

“Then why isn’t that covered up?”

“Well, it isn’t bleeding, so I thought I’d let it air out a bit.”

“Where was the accident?”

“Portland, Maine.”

“Wait right here.”



“Where did you say the accident was?

“It was in Portland, Maine, at about 2:30 this afternoon.”

“Was an officer called to the scene?”

“Not by me, but yes, there were two. No public or private property, except for my bike, was harmed, and no one but me was involved.”

“Wait here.”


“Well, Portland PD has no record of that. Where was it specifically?”

“I don’t know why they have no record; there were two officers there: an officer in a cruiser and a motorcycle cop. The younger officer, the one in the cruiser, was filing the report. The accident occurred at about 2:30 on the Washington Avenue on-ramp to I-295 North –“

“Alright, well, I can’t hold you here. Get that headlight looked at.”

Oh, you can’t hold me here for, what? Public bleeding? Go figure.

About an hour later, I was pulled over in Vershire, VT, for the same reason. Those guys were pretty nice, though.

After spending the night with Chubby and Husband Mick, the day of the race dawned.

Actually, it didn’t dawn so much as it oozed over the horizon and covered the world with gooey, sticky humidity. The sun struggled to shine through air that was positively chewy. The temperature began to rise. And rise. By the time of the race, humidity was at 75% and the air temperature was 94 degrees. Here’s a picture of me before the start of the race, looking like the victim of an accident involving an electric loofa and a tube of toothpaste:

And they’re off! No one looked really excited to be out in this heat, but there were about 520 of us there anyway. That's me -- in the back...

Chubby and Mick met me at two places along the course with (mercifully) cold water and gu. The water supplied by the race staff was about as warm as my sweat, singularly unrefreshing and slow to leave my stomach. Bad news. Worse yet, after a week of race prep in mild Casco Bay breezes, the temperature continued to climb. After meeting me at mile 6, Chubby and Mick headed over to mile 10. Along the way, the outside temperature thermometer in their Jeep, which is mounted under the front bumper, read 100 degrees.

I don’t do well with heat. Too big, too fair, too northern European. Through mile 7 I was right on time for such a hot day, but by mile 8 I was toast. Even when the humidity was relieved by a violent thunderstorm, I couldn’t get it back. The wind blew sand into my mouth, so I chewed on that for about a mile. It also blew down several trees along the course. After the rain passed through, the temperature remained high but the humidity lessened slightly. Not that I noticed. Check out my David Marcus Memorial Racing Stripes:

Embarrassingly personal detail: I’ve been wearing little round band-aids on my nipples to keep this from happening, and they work well. But with the weather, my shirt stuck to my chest enough to wear through the small amount of skin not covered by the band-aids.

Finally, some 2 hours and 43 minutes after I started, I finished, and was finished. I had been shooting for 2:11, but that’ll have to wait until next time. Plenty of lessons from this, my first long running event (and only my 3rd event ever).

My very sincere thanks to everyone who contributed by sponsoring me. Together, we raised $1088.70 – an impressive figure! The special efforts at CHaD are well worth supporting. Chubby, who has had a chance to work there from time to time, reports that CHaD focuses relentlessly on improving the experience from a child’s point of view. The work they do is critical to children in the upper valley. Thanks for chipping in.

Altogether, the race raised over $142,000 for CHaD. Thanks to you all, and remember: Always wear your helmet.

Monday, June 4, 2007


Yes, we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion. ...

...Like household dogs they came snuffing round us, right up to our gunwales, and touching them; till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance; but fearful of the consequences, for the time refrained from darting it.

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers.

...Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep.

...But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

--Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Ch. 87 "The Grand Armada"
A long time had passed since my lady and I had a chance to sneak away together, when we finally made it happen this past weekend. With the Memorial Day blowout behind it Cape Cod takes a three week's breath to prepare for the summer onslaught, and we took advantage of the slack to make a long weekend trip to Provincetown.

We had a really wonderful time. We stayed at The Gallery Inn, where we were made to feel very welcome. This guesthouse is squarely in the middle of the Commercial Street strip, with the majority of artist galleries to the east and the majority of bars, restaurants and shops-of-nothing (and nothing-to-mention) to the west. We spent most of the time on foot, with a half-day spent exploring the bike paths of the National Seashore. Much drinking and eating, though I did get up for an early-morning jog two days.

Those early mornings threatened rain, and I enjoyed empty streets shrouded in fog and mist, and lonesome views of the salt flats behind the breakwater. That land is blessedly useless to us. Still pools of salt water reflect the sand and stubborn plants that hold it all in place, gradually giving way to the dunes of the Province Lands. On those mornings, the pools were silvery mirrors to low clouds and beyond them the sky came down to touch the sea.

The dramatic highlight for both of us, however, was a whale-watching trip with the Dolphin Fleet company. Words cannot capture the amazement, the child-like wonder, that seems to thrill anyone who has had a lucky whale-watching cruise. I've been on two before this one, with limited results. Last Friday, however, we were given a real gift.

It is the beginning of the feeding season for Humpback whales. They've been breeding in the warm waters of the Dominican Republic all winter (a past-time seemingly enjoyed by most mammals who have the chance to winter there). The clear Caribbean waters are nutritional deserts, however. The whales make their way north to Stellwagen Bank just off the tip of the Cape to feed on tiny krill all summer. Almost all of the great fishing banks in the Gulf of Maine enjoy some whale presence at this time; Stellwagen Bank just happens to be very close to Provincetown and to Boston, making it an ideal whale-watching destination. Even with that advantage, it takes a bit of luck:

That particular show, the breaching whale, was repeated many times by the same individual -- a very rare treat. We also saw several whales lazing idly on their backs and sides, repeatedly slapping the water with their pectoral fins. We witnessed a mother and calf, swimming close to the surface and breifly accompanied by another whale, slowly cruising the feeding grounds.

The humpback is one of four great whale species that populate the Gulf of Maine and like both the Right and Fin Whales, is endangered. (The Minke enjoys a population of some 3-4000 and is, for the moment, safe from extinction.) The humpback, so named for the distinctive dorsal not-quite-fin, is the most playful on the surface of the water, slapping its tail, rolling, breaching. Although all these behaviors are well-known to the naturalists who track individuals for years and years, no one has yet figured out why they do it.

They should be exhausted. They've just reached the bank after a starving winter and a prodigious journey. On the other hand, I've been known to react similarly to the sudden availability of food. So I think they're just happy to be back in New England waters.

Humpback whales are distinguished by the unique markings on their tails--a "tailprint" as unique as the whorls on your thumb. Our showoff is known as "Wave." The whale pictured with fins in the air was "Eruption." The mother of the calf we saw is "Black Hole." When her calf is one year old and the pigment in its tail has finally settled, the calf will be given a name as well.

Stellwagen Bank National Maritime Sanctuary
offers limited protection. There's still shipping and fishing and pleasure boating. Commercial and military shipping poses by far the greatest threat to the whales in these waters. Scientists reckon that collisions with a ship traveling less than 13 knots would not be fatal. The reduced speed also gives the whales a chance to get out of the way. The military strikes more whales than anyone else (they have more ships and they zip about and they aren't willing to not zip about). The military are not subject to the regulations and of course the shipping industry is averse to anything that would slow down their "just in time" supply chain.

The World Shipping Council (Partner's in America's Trade) is primarily concerned with the way a reduced speed over whale routes would affect the timing of their constituents' ships' arrival in port. Of course, once the limit is in place, the timing is easily adjustable to match the tides. It's pretty much a simple math problem - the same problem, in fact, that they've already solved based on a constant rate of speed.

Their stronger argument is that the evidence for reduced speed is "inconclusive." But that's the standard industry response to all regulation, no matter the industry or the regulation. Find one scientist or study with a varying opinion and you've got "inconclusive." This is what happens when you substitute legal reasoning for scientific reasoning. It is the perennial bugaboo of the conservation lobby, as scientists will never evince unanimity. Because rules and regulations are black-and-white, lawyers like the evidence in support of those rules to reflect certainty, rather than probability.

What is not up for debate is that unless we take care, we will kill off the right whale. At least when we were harvesting them for oil, there was some justification for the carnage. Now, we're just being indifferent.

There are approximately 8-900 humpback whales left.

There are maybe 300 right whales left.

When all the shipments are on time, will we be glad we killed the whales?

Whale-watching itself is ambiguous. The ambient noise of the boats creates a constant wash of noise in the water. That noise has been shown to disorient the animals, although not all of the time. The crew of the Dolphin Fleet follow a series of guidelines promulgated by NOAA (not a lot on the site--I have a pamphlet if you're interested in more). But there's little enforcement; the guidelines are largely voluntary (although there are penalties in the unlikely event a violator is caught).

No one really knows, and that's the terrible paradox: there is so much we have yet to learn, but we're irredeemably clumsy sometimes, even when we're trying our best.

But when we fail even to try, we're positively lethal.

Monday, May 28, 2007

On Memorial Day: Why we don't fight

May 28, 2007 and the list of those we're called to honor and remember continues to grow. Like many people, I needn't search for soldiers to honor. Both of my grandfathers (US Army, US Navy), my uncle (USN) and my father (US Army and Army Reserve) have worn the uniform of my country.

I have deep admiration for my father's service. But in the example he offered to me was a lesson of ambivalence and caution and, ultimately, the reason I've never signed on the line: you cannot trust this government to use honorable men honorably. There is always the chance that you will be sent to kill for a mistake, or a lie.

I've been tempted more than once. Often, in fact. I regret not serving as often as I know it was the right choice for me. My father also taught me by his example that there are many ways to serve your country. Perhaps the best way is by being an active citizen. Take an interest in your community, your city, your state and your nation. His father lived that way, and he does as well. And I'm trying.

My Dad's legacy to me, on this day that is reserved for memory of service in war, is this: let us never spend the blood of our fellow citizens for any but the most righteous and unavoidable reasons. Let us value the blood of the stranger as highly, and let violence be our last, regrettable option.

This is my Memorial Day post, dedicated to my Dad and to everyone who has served our Nation. It is a long post, but incomplete. I will return to its themes again, particularly those I raise at the end of this entry. For the moment, this is a small expression of one of my obligations as a citizen: to see that our men and women are never wrongly or vainly used. To ask, "Have we set ourselves to violence and war in service of our Nation, or only of the government?"

A while ago, I stuck up a post titled, Remind Me: This was necessary why?. Well, I got an answer. It's free of snark, sarcasm or superiority. Here it is in full:
Because all men and woman deserve a right to be free of tyranny. To have the right to speak, protest live and die of their own accord. It is too easy to forget the evil that existed before free men did something to act. It is easy to take for granted that freedom isn't free. That Iraqis will one day have a choice to post a blog on the internet without fear of torture. If I had died in that country or go back and die there it will have been my honor. If the commander in chief be he or she black or white republican whig or democrat want to bring freedom and democracy to those who need, then I say suit up, it's time to go. To defend an idea or make a statement of our own convictions, sometimes we need action. Is it hard? Your goddammn right it's hard. Is it often unfair, will the ends justify the means? Time will tell but in the meantime because of these actions throughout history we have the right to debate it. What you don't see on the news are the millions of pictures depicting minor victories. You want to see some ask any soldier.
A man who had gone and returned -- and may yet have to do so again -- deserves a thorough airing of my position. Progressives and liberals who spend a lot of time talking and thinking about the war in Iraq work under a series of conclusions that aren't always represented in the commentary we write. Using this comment as a jumping-off point, I want to walk through many of the arguments that underlie how I feel and think about Iraq.

I couldn't agree more strongly with the basic philosophy of my commenter. You do have to fight for freedom, sometimes with bullets and always with vigilance. And sometimes it is morally necessary to take up your gun and fight for someone else's freedom -- even if they haven't asked for your help. British soldiers in Sierra Leone, for example. Of course, the Kurds begged for our help after the first Gulf War. Instead, we let Saddam gas them (with gas we had sold to him in the 80's). But when we invaded Iraq this time, it wasn't to liberate the Iraqis or to bring democracy. That reason got tacked on after the fact. Long after the fact.

When I asked the question, "why was this necessary," it was posted above a photo of an anguished man who had been searching the morgue for his brother, and above a story about a man whose children are slowly dying from starvation and dehydration. The question has two levels: why was this (the Iraq war) necessary, and why was this (murder and anarchy on an unprecedented scale; starvation and the creation of refugees) necessary?

The first thing I have in mind when I think about the war in Iraq is this: we chose it. Iraq and Saddam Hussein had no hand in planning or supporting the attacks of September 11. This is so well recognized that Dick Cheney and George Bush are both on record to that effect. In fact, they were more interested in making a case for invasion than actually targeting known terrorists. We were told by the President and the Vice President and the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraq constituted an imminent threat to the safety of the United States. We were told that if we waited for evidence of that fact, "the smoking gun would come in the shape of a mushroom cloud."

At the time, UN weapons inspector Hans Blix (whose name has become a punch-line) was saying a) that there was no evidence that this was so, and b) that it would take a couple of months to prove it: "It will take not years, nor weeks, but months." In spite of Blix's excellent reputation, we, with the support of Great Britain, declined to give him the time he needed. We created an arbitrary deadline for a process that was ongoing, and then we went to war. As we know, Blix has been proven right. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and there was no ongoing weapons program. (Although that did not stop the President from making a big joke about it -- right about the time, I think, that my commenter had his boots in the sand.)

So those were the two big themes: Iraq poses a threat to the US, and Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. This wasn't a war for freedom, in the beginning. It was a war of self-defense. That's how it was sold to us. This is the beginning of my anger: If the administration had come to the American people and said, "Saddam Hussein is a terrible tyrant. He is oppressing his people, jailing and torturing them on the basis of their religion (Shiites) and their ethnicity (Kurds). The Iraqi people are so beaten down that they need a hand up, and we're the ones to give it to them," I think that would have worked. Not only that, but working through the United Nations and other diplomatic channels, I think the administration could have marshaled the significant coalition that would be necessary to topple a dictator and occupy a country -- a much larger force than we have ever committed to Iraq.

International support would have fallen away quickly, of course, once other nations started researching Iraq and its history of internal violence and strife. We would have quickly been forced to see that this would be a much more complicated task than we thought. But when yours is the only voice that matters, you believe your own propaganda.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq was never about freedom for Iraqis -- at least not for their sake. If the Iraqi people obtain freedom, we'll be very happy about that, but we didn't go there to deliver them from tyranny. It is important to distinguish between why we said we went and the real reasons for going. If it is your belief that the President always tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the following argument will not have much weight for you. But since I don't think you honestly believe that, here it is. He didn't go with "freedom for Iraqis." He went with "our freedom is threatened by Iraq." It was only much later, when the weapons and weapons programs hadn't been found, that he fell back on the 'liberators' theme.

Had those arguments been true, or even supportable, perhaps I could understand the decision. But for some reason, the rest of the world wasn't buying it. Not even after Colin Powell did his thing at the UN. Sure, Britain signed up. At the time, their interests seemed indistinguishable from ours (at least to Jack Straw and Tony Blair). And there were a few countries that offered aid in transport and rear-echelon support (and billed for it). But where was the coalition, really? If Saddam was such a threat, regionally and globally, why weren't the Arab nations lining up behind us as they had done in the first Gulf War? And why were the chief military powers of Europe and the Soviet Union so against this?

Obviously, one answer is oil. I'll discuss that in a bit. But the other answer is that there was no real evidence of the things Bush claimed. There was no evidence of a nuclear program. There was no evidence of a chemical weapons program. There was no indication that Saddam was a threat outside his own borders. Why then did the US seem to have this great case? If the evidence was there and we failed to act (as happened on 9/11), then that would be a crime. But how is it that we had this evidence that no one else had? And were our intelligence agencies really that bad? How could they have gotten this wrong?

Well, the truth is that they didn't. As George Tenet has finally seen fit to reveal in a book basically designed to redeem himself from the firey pit, good intelligence was ignored, censored and thrown in the trash in order to make the case for war. As the Baltimore Sun has explained in a scathing editorial [ed. note: original link, now dead, replaced w/copy of editorial cached at Common Dreams]:
Because Mr. Tenet lacked a background in intelligence analysis, he relied heavily on a deputy, John McLaughlin, who was a career intelligence analyst. But instead of giving Mr. Tenet proper guidance, Mr. McLaughlin relied on single-source and poorly sourced intelligence to make the case for war, and he ignored credible intelligence that pointed to an absence of WMD in Iraq.

The claim that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear capability was based upon a single source - an intelligence fabrication. Similarly, the sole source for claims about mobile biological laboratories was unstable and untrustworthy. And the sole source for links between Iraq and al-Qaida had been tortured and abused in his interrogations and eventually recanted.

How is it that the chief deputy of the director of the CIA came to rely on only one source? Bad information, fed directly to the administration without any vetting by the people who had the most to gain by a US invasion, people like Ahmed Chalabi. Our 1997 intelligence budget is larger than the 2006 GDP of Qatar (106 world wide). More money than 123 countries and only one source on Iraqi nuclear capacity?

The point is not that the President and his senior aides were consciously lying. What was taking place was much more systematic—and potentially just as troublesome. Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council expert on Iraq, whose book “The Threatening Storm” generally supported the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein, told me that what the Bush people did was “dismantle the existing filtering process that for fifty years had been preventing the policymakers from getting bad information. They created stovepipes to get the information they wanted directly to the top leadership. Their position is that the professional bureaucracy is deliberately and maliciously keeping information from them.

“They always had information to back up their public claims, but it was often very bad information,” Pollack continued. “They were forcing the intelligence community to defend its good information and good analysis so aggressively that the intelligence analysts didn’t have the time or the energy to go after the bad information.”

The Administration eventually got its way, a former C.I.A. official said. “The analysts at the C.I.A. were beaten down defending their assessments. And they blame George Tenet”—the C.I.A. director—“for not protecting them. I’ve never seen a government like this.”
If you read nothing else on this blog, ever, please read that article.

The military strategist von Clauswitz famously described war as "the continuation of policy by other means." (A phrase fraught with substantial ambiguity. See here.) As an observation, perhaps this is true. But there is a piece missing: why must policy that leads to war be continued at all? The answer is supplied by Tony Benn who, on the last day of the Gulf War said to the House of Commons, "All war represents a failure of diplomacy."

Ten years later, as Bush mounted the war horse, Benn didn't get a chance to be right. Diplomacy didn't fail -- it ceased. Hussein was contained. We didn't even get to manufacture our own "Gulf of Tonkin incident." The Iraqis couldn't -- or didn't -- even shoot down one of our planes. Instead, we simply called off the weapons inspections and invaded.

People who want to argue this point often point to the failure of the UN "Oil for food" program as evidence that diplomatic means would never work. But why did Oil-for-food fail? It failed because it enriched Saddam Hussein, rather than starving him. How? Because American oil companies paid he and his government substantial kick-backs on the oil he sold them. As Condoleeza Rice has said:
Now, we understood when we came to power here in Washington several months ago that we had a problem, for instance, on Iraqi sanctions; that people believed, or that Saddam Hussein was claiming that the sanctions that were in place were somehow harming the Iraqi people. We do not believe that they were harming the Iraqi people because in the north, where the U.N. administers the oil-for-food program, Iraqi people are doing well. It's only where Saddam Hussein administers oil-for-food that there is a problem with the Iraqi people.
Of course, she probably knew about the kickbacks for some time. Iraq started asking for the grease back in 2000. Rice was a member of the Chevron Board of Directors for 10 years -- until she resigned to join the Bush administration in 2001. I think it's at least even money that the Board was aware of the cash flow, because it wasn't small change: Former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, has determined that Chevron paid Saddam Hussein a tip of $20 million from 2000-2002. But they weren't alone: the Coastal Corporation, a subsidiary of El Paso; Texaco; BayOil, and Mobil. All American companies, all on the hook for big bucks.

So how did oil-for-food fail? Oil companies subverted it. Did we go to war to free Iraqis? Or did we go to war to free their oil? Or do we just not give a shit? After all, these are the very same companies who wrote our energy policy.

Last year, a man named Kevin Phillips wrote a book called American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. I confess that I haven't finished it yet. It's hard to take 400 pages of relentlessly rational and documented bad news. Phillips is an interesting cat: He was a young hot-shot political strategist who helped elect Nixon. He penned "The Emerging Republican Majority" in 1969. He also authored one of the more cynical political tactics ever: the Republic party's "southern strategy." Just a refresher on that:

The "southern strategy" was to exploit racial hatred to raise Republicans. Phillips, in 1970:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
Phillips has changed a little since then, but not too much. Instead what has happened is that the GoP has moved steadily to the right on social issues, while becoming more and more "big government" in support of business -- particularly the military support business. His account of neo-conservatism as practiced by Bush and Cheney is an education, as follows:
The Bush-Cheney administration, on taking office, embraced and oil "forward strategy" with instant intensity: Plans were discussed in the spring and summer of 2001 -- well before the events of September -- for hamstringing Iraq and convincing the Taliban in Afghanistan to accept construction of an American (Unocal) pipeline from Turkmenistan through Kabul to Karachi, Pakistan. Talks with the Taliban continued in the summer of 2001 but apparently soon collapsed. (p. 83)
Until the towers came down, the US was negotiating with the Taliban for oil rights in Afghanistan. What more evidence do you need to believe that ideology, that human rights, that democracy are simply not that important? We weren't looking to leverage them out, we were looking to work with them.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, in the words of oil historian Anthony Sampson, the reorganized Middle East had "two kinds of maps: some showing the names and outlines of nations, most of them comparatively new; and others showing the region cut up into squares along the coast, marked with the initials -- IPC, KOC, ARAMCO, AOC -- representing the consortia of oil companies, nearly always including some of the Seven Sisters. To the companies, it was these squares which were the real geography: Saudi Arabia was Aramco-land; Iran meant all seven; Kuwait was Gulf and BP.

The oil maps, in short, had long been the ones that mattered. For the US and British oil companies, losing these concessions to the nationalizations of the 1970s was infuriating. The irony with respect to Iraq was that for one reason or another, the 1970s were the only decade of heavy pumping and large oil revenues. Production had been kept low during the glutted thirties, and it then stagnated during WWII. ...Over the last decade or so this chronology of Iraq's surprisingly limited oil production had become relevant again for a simple reason: given that relatively little of Iraq's oil has been pumped, most of it is still in the ground." p. 75-76
"As the dust of the first Gulf War settled ... if Saddam Hussein could escape UN sanctions and give Iraq's lush concessions to non-Anglo-American companies, he could realign the global oil business.

In the meantime, UN sanctions were essential in preventing Iraq from exporting oil beyond the middling amount allowed and also in preventing competitive foreign investments. So long as the United States and Britain could keep these sanctions in place, using allegations concerning weapons of mass destruction, Saddam could not implement his own plan to extend large-scale oil concessions (estimated to be worth $1.1 trillion) to the French, Russian, Chinese, and other oil companies. ...

...This brings us to the next critical set of maps, the ones used in 2001 by Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group [the one visited so frequently by oil company exec's] to mesh America's energy needs with a twenty-first century national-security blueprint. ...

Never intended for public scrutiny, the three Middle East maps and their supporting documents came to light in the summer of 2003 under a federal court order. The most pertinent displayed Iraq's oil fields, pipelines, and refineries, with a supporting list of 'Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts.' As of 2001, more than sixty firms from thirty countries -- most prominently France, Russia, and China, but also India, Japan, Indonesia, Canada and Germany -- had projects either agreed upon or under discussion with Baghdad. Nothing could have been less popular in Washington or London" pp.76-7
But as we have already seen, the oil companies weren't just relying on the good graces and efforts of the government: they were supplying Saddam with serious cash in the form of kick-backs. This cash was clearly meant to woo the dictator to their side in this desperate race to secure Iraqi oil-field contracts. But they were losing. As Phillips details, the Russians and the French were in the lead.

For his part, Saddam was playing both ends against the middle: dangling contracts in front of all comers to squeeze cash out of them up front. Concessions that lingered with non-US names on them were insurance against the day when the Chevrons and Exxons of the world tired of paying the vig. A backstop at the end of the streak that would leverage Saddam's position by threatening the complete upheaval of the global oil game. But the US oil companies had something the French and Russians didn't: a government composed of oilmen.

But not just oilmen: oilmen with a new religion.

The church these men worship in is better known as the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Here is the sum of their statement of Principles:

• we need to increase defense spending significantly if we are to carry out our global
responsibilities today and modernize our armed forces for the future;

• we need to strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values;

• we need to promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad;

• we need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.

If you read the whole thing, on the website linked to above, you may find yourself in agreement with many of the ideas expressed therein. I do. But when we break out some of these things, and lay them next to the policy decisions of the Bush administration, things get spooky:
"challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values"

"promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad"

"accept responsibility for ... preserving and extending an international order to our security, our prosperity, and our principles."
Whose prosperity? Whose principles? What does it mean to "challenge" regimes hostile to our interests and values? The prosperity is the prosperity of the obscenely rich. The principles are those of oilgarchy. It means preemptive war. That is, war without provocation. War of choice:
We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. ...If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.

...[T]he war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.

2001 is not some new dawn. This isn't the first time we've lived in a world that seeks to harm us. But it is the first time that we've claimed the right to attack not just those that threaten us, but those that might threaten us.

Yet, somehow, we didn't attack Iran, which had a nuclear development program at the time. Nor did we attack North Korea, which had an indisputably advanced nuclear armament program at the time. We attacked the country with the most oil. Even though they had nothing to do with 9/11 and they had no significant regular military and no WMDs or program to develop WMDs. Even though they did not harbor al-Queda, nor al-Zarqawi. What constitutes a threat that justifies invasion and occupation? I promise you, we weren't there to liberate Iraqis.

How do I know that the doctrines outlined by PNAC on their website informed our decision to invade Iraq? On that same page is a list of the signatory members to PNAC's prinicples, including Elliot Abrams, Bill Bennett, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Steve Forbes, Donald Kagan (architect of the "surge"), Scooter Libby (convicted of lying to a grand jury and obstruction of justice), Dan Quayle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney.

I think that answers the first level of the question: why was this necessary. It wasn't. This war wasn't about freeing the Iraqi people. It was about some combination of preserving our perceived right to the oil under the sand and a desire to protect American hegemony by attacking an unstable dictatorship that wouldn't get with the program. We didn't bargain for the hornet's nest.

The second level of the question is "why is the incredible suffering of the Iraqi people necessary?" And if you've come this far, doubtless you know my answer to that question is also "it wasn't."

This isn't just "hard." This is unconscionable:
Every day local police haul bodies from the Tigris bearing signs of torture. Locals who live near the river constantly see floating bodies.

The situation is even worse in Suwayrah, a southern area of the capital, where the government has built barriers with huge iron nets to trap plants and garbage dropped in the river but now this is also a barrier for bodies.

"Since January 2006 at least 800 bodies have been dragged from those iron nets, and this figure does not include those collected from the central section of the river. Most of the bodies are unidentified and buried without family claims," said Col Abdel-Waheed Azzam, a senior officer in the investigation department of the Ministry of Interior.

According to Azzam, 90 percent of the bodies found in the river show signs of serious torture.
But those are the people that stay.

What would it take to make you leave the United States? How bad would things have to get before you would beg to be allowed to leave this land?

The invasion of Iraq has caused a deeper humanitarian crisis than the simple death and torturing of thousands of Iraqi civilians. It has created over two million refugees:
The UN estimates that 2.6 million Iraqis have fled violence in their country since 2003 and at least 40-50,000 more Iraqis are leaving their homes every month. Two million have fled to surrounding countries, while some 1.8 million have vacated their homes for safer areas within Iraq. ...

"Iraqis who are unable to flee the country are now in a queue, waiting their turn to die," is how one Iraqi journalist summarizes conditions in Iraq today. While the U.S. debates whether a civil war is raging in Iraq, thousands of Iraqis face the possibility of death every day all over the country. All Iraqis, whether Sunni, Shi'a, Christian, or other groups such as the Palestinian, are threatened by armed actors.
2 million refugees is not normal. This isn't just par for the course when it comes to nation-building. It bespeaks a dramatic failure to plan, coupled with a depraved unwillingness to acknowledge reality and alter course accordingly. In other words: 1. It didn't have to be this way. 2. It is this way. Failure to address this state of affairs isn't just unbecoming to a nation that claims the values we claim; it is actually depraved. We are the cause of a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions, and we aren't doing anything to fix it.

Let me say this again: Forming a democracy does not require this. It does not require torture. It does not require refugees. It does not require Haditha. It does not require Abu Ghraib.

What ends will ever justify these means?


A great deal has been written about the way we prepared for an executed our post-invasion behavior. Perhaps one of the more readable accounts is Rajiv CHandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City. I'm not going to delve too deeply into it here. Suffice it to say that you wouldn't want these guys planning a tea-party, much less the occupation and rehabilitation of an entire country. But there was more to it than that: The inherited factionalism of Iraq went completely unplanned-for. The fact that we expected Iraq to transition instantly from a soviet-style command economy into a full-blown free-market capitalistic society (such that doesn't even exist in America) was taken for granted. No preparations were made for employment, few for healthcare, none for provisioning. No one seems to have entertained the idea that the power vacuum we created would invite exploitation by any number of warlords and ex-pat terrorists.

I've summed his book before, saying:
The scope of ignorance is so broad one can only assume incompetence or criminal intent. Based on a few tidbits I'm leaning toward the latter: 1. the few competent people who found their way to Iraq were overborne by the weight and volume of useless information and people they were forced to accomodate, and 2. the vast (and by vast I mean 99%) majority of contracts and appointments were handed out not based on competence or suitability, but on connections and a neoconservative litmus test.

What's sad is that the remaining 1% appear to have been genuinely talented and dedicated individuals. What's tragic is the cost of this cock-up. What's criminal is that it appears to have been intentional.

We pay for the results every day. But out casualties have only barely outstripped all the dead from 9/11 (though there are more every day and over 100 this May). The Iraqis have died by the tens of thousands.

Now we come to the hard part, as a nation, the deeply personal part.

You are a soldier. Your duty is to go when ordered and to "stay in your lane." To back up the man to your right and your left and fulfill the mission. How can I ask you to risk your life and the lives of your squad by allowing even a sliver of doubt?

And what right do I have to risk your honor by questioning the use to which it has been put?

And here we find the difference between the civilian and the soldier.

My father served in Vietnam. My grandfather served in World War II. I used to dress up in dad's old fatigues and run through the woods. I wore out my school's supply of books on WWII and WWI and all the "Colby's" catalogs of armaments. Jane's on planes and ships and helicopters. I practiced my salute in the mirror and crept up to his office on rainy Saturday afternoons to scrabble in the deep back of the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet to find the boxes of his medals and his service ribbons. Later I read Clauswitz "On War" and Keegan on the "Face of Command." And on and on.

In spite of that, I never enlisted in the armed forces, although there have been times when the temptation has been very strong. Even lately. And the reason was (and is) this: I knew, from Vietnam, that if I did, there was a chance I would be sent where I didn't belong and asked to kill a man that shouldn't be killed and for all the wrong reasons. It wouldn't be up to me. And I wouldn't have a say in it. And I don't trust my government enough to believe they wouldn't do that to me.

They would. In a heartbeat.

It is my deepest obligation as a citizen of the United States of America to do everything in my power to ensure that my government never asks my fellow citizens in uniform to die or to kill for anything other than the highest moral aim in just and righteous combat. Anything less erodes the glory of my nation.

My nation's glory has taken a savage beating over the last four years. There's not much left.

Senator Webb made the point bluntly in his State of the Union response: “We owed [our leaders] our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us…sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it. The president took us into this war recklessly.”

What we haven't spent in foreign fields we have, incomprehensibly, corroded and attacked from within: law-breaking surveillance of our own citizens, the evisceration of the Writ of Habeas Corpus -- the Great Writ -- being only two examples. I have, and will, go on at length about these things elsewhere. And this post is far too long already. But for today, Memorial Day, I ask for more than memory of our servicemen and women. I ask for help remembering who We are: I can scarcely recognize us now.

Columbia, so disfigured! Only fear, hate and deceit can yield such a face.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Soak the Poor! Down with the People!

Social Security is a compact between generations. For more than 70 years, America has kept the promise of security for its workers and their families. But now, the Social Security system is facing serious future financial problems, and action is needed soon to make sure that the system is sound when today's younger workers are ready for retirement.

...Without changes, by 2040 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted. By then, the number of Americans 65 or older is expected to have doubled. There won't be enough younger people working to pay all of the benefits owed to those who are retiring. At that point, there will be enough money to pay only about 74 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits. We will need to resolve these issues soon to make sure Social Security continues to provide a foundation of protection for future generations as it has done in the past.
That's off the front page of my "Your Social Security Statement," which I got in the mail just last week. Chances are you've gotten one too, or soon will. "OH MY HEAVENS, WHATEVER SHALL WE DO?" is sort of what I said. Sort of.

On the inside of this nice letter, after first informing me that there'll be about 25% less for me than they're about to tell me I'll have, and after telling me that if that wasn't true, I'd get the equivalent of one week's 2007 pay per month (if it was going to be possible, which it isn't), I read the following:
You currently pay 6.2 percent of your salary, up to $97,500, in Social Security taxes and 1.45 percent in Medicare taxes on your entire salary. Your employer also pays 6.2 percent in Social Security taxes and 1.45 percent in Medicare taxes for you.
Here's a concept I wish that congress could embrace: the marginal value of money. Everybody understands this concept completely, most of us without realizing it. To quickly demonstrate:

Johnny and Tommy are 10 years old. Johnny's Dad is an attorney. He went to work for Big Law in 2002, where they offered him 140,000 dollars a year starting salary not including benefits and bonuses. Five years later, he's making 210,000 per year, and gets a Christmastime bonus of about 10,000 if he meets his billable hours requirements. He's a tough but fair father, and every week, if Johnny does his chores and cleans his room and doesn't smart off to his mom (Dad is rarely home), Johnny's dad gives his son an allowance of $10. Pretty good, for a 10-year-old!

Tommy's Dad is also a lawyer, in fact he was a classmate of Johnny's Dad and they're still good friends (though they don't see each other as much as they wish they could). They would study together and made a great team--top of the class. Tommy's Dad went to work for Dogooders NGO in 2002 at a starting salary of 30,000 dollars a year, less benefits. Five years later, he's making $45,000 per year (more than a teacher but less than a plumber). He gets home at 6p, most nights, but there's no bonus in it for him other than the time he gets to spend with Tommy. Tommy's Dad is also tough but fair. If Tommy holds up his end of the deal, he gets $5 in allowance.

Tommy and Johnny are good friends, too. (Being a socially conscious, civic-minded guy, Johnny's Dad sends him to public school.) One Saturday, they go to Megalo Books to pick up remaindered copies of Das Kapital Horatio Alger's "Collected Tales of Plucky Young Bootstrappers." A complete collection is $4 (a ripoff at $.03 a book); there are two editions left. With Maine sales tax, $4.20.

Here is what the marginal value of money is: Tommy's dollar number 5 is his last dollar. If you take $.20 from his last dollar, you've put him eighty cents away from complete bankruptcy. If you take 20 cents from Johnny's dollar number five, he still has dollars 6,7,8,9 and 10 in his pocket. You'd have to take five more dollars from Johnny to put him in the same position.

And on the other hand, if Tommy got just one more dollar in allowance, that would mean a huge raise: a 20 percent raise! Woo Hoo! If you gave Johnny just one more dollar, that's just a %10 raise. Still not bad. But not nearly as exciting. Half as exciting, actually.

Under our current Social Security System, Tommy's Dad (TD), who makes less than 1/4 of what Johnny's Dad (JD) makes, pays $2790 in SS taxes per year. But because you stop paying social security taxes above 97,500 (seemingly arbitrary number), JD pays $6,045. More than four-and-a-half times base pay, but only twice as much in SS tax.

But here's the real pinch: That $2790 that TD pays hurts a lot more than JD's $6045. Why? The marginal value of money. $2790 is 6.2% of what TD makes every year. Because he makes so much less money than JD, the marginal value of money makes sure that that hurts him in many other ways: He gets less healthcare. He lives in a more dangerous neighborhood. He can't save as much for retirement. He can barely afford his house; thankfully his wife works. (JD's wife can stay home with J. She's deeply involved in the PTA and a local land trust, too.) When Tommy needs new glasses or shoes or a haircut or $200 for a field trip to the Science Museum in Boston, the vise tightens a little more. That vise is simply the marginal value of money. The closer your checkbook comes to zero, the more the remaining money is worth to you.

In contrast, $6045 is only about 2.9% of JD's base pay. The 97,500 cut-off means that even though his dollar figure is higher, he actually pays half as much in SS taxes as a percentage of his income. And because he has many times as much income, it pinches much, much less. In fact, even if JD paid 6.2% SS tax on all his income, he'd be much further away from feeling the same vise TD does.

That very reason is why we have a graduated income tax.
...for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. Acts 4, 34-35
Social Security was authored as a supplement, not the whole (as "Your Social Security Statement" makes very clear). But for a program designed as a safety net, helping to buoy those among us least able to secure savings for retirement, there isn't a whole lot of equity in evidence. A flat tax is hardest on those on the bottom and easiest for those on top. But we didn't stop there: we actually cut off the top. It naturally gets easier the more you make. But under this regime, if you make a tremendous amount, it gets even easier -- artificially easier, exponentially easier. We take an already advantaged situation and increase its advantage.

And if someone falls through the cracks? We all pay even more in medicare costs, insurance costs, social services, jails, etc. and etc. Except for the very rich: they continue to float along the top, enjoying preferential treatment for the income they get from capital gains -- a blessing those of us with no money to invest will never receive.

So here's a quick fix: make the 6.2% payroll tax applicable to all payroll salary. Here's the real beauty behind that plan: It honors the rich for their success by recognizing and multiplying their worth to society. Here's an example:

Let's say average household income is $46,000 (about what it was in 2006). That's $2852 in Social Security Taxes.

Under that assumption, with taxing for all payroll, JD is worth four and a half average guys! He's 4.5 times the man you are! He gives $13,020 in payroll taxes to Social Security every year. We'd solve the problem quickly just by taking that simple step.

Not only that, but it's more than fair. Life's still a lot easier for JD than the rest of us, the average guys who support his existence and make his job both necessary and profitable. He's still feeling less of a bite than the average working man. Why? Chorus: The Marginal Value of Money.

This makes too much sense, though. We'll have to keep shouting about this for a while--just like lobbying and campaign finance reform. They're so much more useful to the GoP and the DLC as problems that remain unsolved.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Stand to the Left

I really can't figure out Edgar Allen Beem. (And if you don't know who that is or you're not from the Portland area, I'm sorry. This post is barely going to have entertainment value for you.)

The guy is clearly a liberal (though perhaps not a progressive). Yet he persists in knocking down the Maine Greens every chance he gets. And while I agree that they've certainly had their share of characters and missteps (and characters who make missteps), he's doing it to take cuts at a couple of guys who don't fit the mold.

David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue got themselves elected to the Portland City Council by busting tail, connecting with voters, and promising movement on a whole slate of issues. And they've done a damn good job of delivering. It can't be easy. The city council has nine (9) seats, and they're just a couple of guys who are barely 30 years old, and have about $5 between them.

Yet for some reason, they seem to be about the only Councillors with any interest in preserving public process or with helping the city get the best deal out of its own resources. Take, for example, the Portland State Pier development deal. This excellent interview with John Anton (local workforce housing financier) lays out a lot of the problems with the process.

The big problem is that the Pre-DavidandKevin City Council sent out a Request for Proposals (RFP) after basically being goaded into the idea by Ocean Properities (one of the two companies in the running). OP's access to the council comes via tight Democratic connections to Governor Baldacci (through his brother, an OP bigshot) and through the Democratic party to the office of Councillor Cloutier.

After the proposals were submitted, OP realized that its competitor had done a better job conceptually (even though OP had known about the project for a longer time). In response, OP has submitted two further revisions. Now the council is debating the merits of a shifting bid. Unsurprisingly, Kevin Donoghue wants to put on the brakes and establish a legitimate process for soliciting and then judging the bids.

Watch this video (link on the right). Kevin's words here really sum up his position and his and David's basic approach to city government:
I am worried about the direction of this...We have a responsibility to the public and the public has no idea what's going on. ...a rudiment of that public process should be that we should stick to the rules that a deadline was set...
Cloutier clearly took offense to Donoghue and Marshall's insistence on a process that would muck up the sweetheart deal he's set up for Ocean Properties. I can transcribe his words, but I can't do justice to his temper when he said
You don't have the right to say to anyone...this is how you're going to evaluate this to come to a decision.
Or his smiling condescension when he said
...some of our new members weren't even on the council when we actually issued it, so they don't have the benefit of that background, and it is kind of confusing and hard to follow...
You really need to watch it for yourself. If you're really interested in the background of the process, also check out the Bollard's archives.

So, citizens of Portland can be thankful that they have at least two vigilant and independent voices looking out for them. Unfortunately and for some reason, they've come into columnist Beem's sights. I took him to task once already, in a column that got picked up by Beem's publication, the Portland Forecaster. But he's at it again, and again, I can't really figure it out.

This week, he made it his business to dredge up all the crap the Green Independent Party has laid down in order to lay it at Kevin Donoghue's feet with a warning: "Better keep your nose clean."

Now don't get me wrong. There's been some absolutely absurdist behavior by a couple of Greens on the school committee lately.
The arrest last month of Green Party and Portland School Committee member Benjamin Meiklejohn for driving after suspension is just the latest in long run of bad publicity for the Maine Greens. Meiklejohn was apparently being a Good Samaritan by driving a drunken friend home when he got pulled over for having a taillight out. Kudos for that.

Turns out, however, that unknown to him, Meiklejohn’s license had been suspended for failure to pay a speeding ticket. Plausible and understandable. Could happen to anyone. But then Meiklejohn started making wild accusations about a politically motivated bail commissioner making him stay in jail an hour or two too long. Then, when the arrest of an elected official naturally brought some scrutiny of his character and it was reported that Meiklejohn’s Web site featured a link to the alt-porn site, he charged that writers and editors at The Forecaster were “media prudes.”
Meiklejohn’s arrest, of course, followed the December arrest of his fellow Green Party and Portland School Committee member Jason Toothaker for skipping out on a taxi fare after a night of drinking. Toothaker, who was found hiding under the deck of a home, sobered up and had the good sense to resign from the School Committee in January, having embarrassed himself, the committee and the Green Party.

True and true. And ol' Zen Ben doesn't strike me as a particularly realistic evangelist for alternative living. But Beem just can't resist piling it on. He picks up the fact that local whack-job Dorothy Lafortune hijacked the Green Party nomination in Biddeford, and he digs back to a 1999 DUI conviction for Pat LaMarche, and an acquittal (that is to say, not a conviction) to raise the smell of rot.

The trouble with that kind of approach is that it cuts both ways. Observe:

Just last fall, Democrat Ellen Alcorn, was ticketed for speeding in a school zone – an admission that was laughed off as a harmless mistake. Except that she was the Chair of the School Committee at the time. Still looking out for kids, Ellen? Speaking of driving, Mayor Mavodones recently admitted to a conviction for driving after suspension. Luckily, he doesn't have a MySpace page. Finally, Democratic State Senator Bruce Bryant was recently convicted of OUI after getting drunk on a break in the middle of the legislative session.

Patrick Colwell, while head of the Maine Democratic Party, laundered campaign contributions for Rhode Islander Matt Brown's campaign. He was cleared, not because what he did was right, but because there wasn't enough evidence to convict him. If the appearance of impropriety is enough for Beem to indict Ben Chipman, certainly there's room in the Beem jailhouse for Colwell.

And let's not forget Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Tom Connolly, in whose judgment it was a smart idea to dress up like Osama Bin Laden and wave a toy gun at people. That added up to an arrest for criminal threatening.

By Beem's logic, the Maine Democratic Party is probably one arrest away from folding the tent.

Ridiculous, of course. The Dems, and these Dems, are alive and well and doing good work.

But why even bother? If the Greens are so ridiculous, why sling the mud? They're clearly ready to self-destruct as a party, right?

Well, no. In fact, the Maine Green Independent Party is getting stronger. Thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Portland's two youngest city Councillors. And Beem tips his hand at the very end, when we finally see what all his muck-raking is coming to: Kevin Donoghue better keep his nose clean.

Beem dug up every piece of garbage he could find about the Maine Greens only to hold it over the head of one of our most effective City Councillors. I find that very interesting.

The Maine Green Independent Party has nearly 30,000 registered members, and it's growing. It is the most vital Green Party of any state in the country and there's a reason for that: If you want to be a progressive in Maine, you've got to go Green. This is especially true in Portland, where the Democratic Party has locked up the city for so long that they're suffering the malaise to which all single-party systems eventually succumb: With no motive to remain sharp, they've inevitably become dull.

But Beem is right in pegging Kevin Donoghue as a harbinger of things to come. He and his council-mate David Marshall have proven to be serious, process-oriented administrator's of the people's business. Do not be deceived by Marshall's and Donoghue's youth. There is a right way and a wrong way to run a government and those guys do it the right way. Their work on the City Council has displayed a level of maturity and a deep respect for the public interest – and the public's intelligence – that should be a wake-up call to some of their longer-serving co-Councilors.

With 25% more Green voters this year than last and a full slate of candidates due for this November, the Green Party in Maine is vital and getting stronger. If Beem is truly looking for a Party in Danger, well, nobody's talking about the real Elephant in the room. Yet.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

His lips were moving, so...

Yesterday, Congress passed an emergency supplemental spending bill to continue funding the occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. The billion-dollar appropriation to continue the war included a hard date in October to begin pulling out troops from Iraq. The rest of the withdrawal was to be phased, with those phases keyed to benchmarks for the Iraqi government (such as it is).

Exactly four years after declaring "mission accomplished" in full flightsuit/codpiece regalia, Bush refused to offer a horizon for this never-ending journey. For just the second time in his two-term Presidency, Bush pulled out the veto pen. (The only other veto was to block American science and medicine from exploring, with the rest of the civilized world, stem-cell research.) In doing so, he uttered two of the more blatant hypocrisies in a career rife with them. (There were more, of course, but these two stuck out.)
First, "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq."
Factually untrue, of course, since the pullout proceeds only as the Iraqi government meets various goals. Only once a given goal is met would we know when a certain draw-down would occur. But that's not hypocrisy in itself -- just misleading. What makes it hypocritical is this:

On April 20 of this year, W defended the surge in a speech before a group of high school kids and an international affairs civic group.
Like a general outlining his battle plan, the president delivered a step-by-step analysis of the conflict in Baghdad, Anbar Province and the outskirts of Baghdad. He began with a map that used red triangles to pinpoint the location of joint security stations, posts in Baghdad where American and Iraqi forces are supposed to work to root out terrorists.
What's the difference between saying "we might leave, eventually, sometime in the future but not before next year," and saying, "see these little triangles? Well, that's exactly where our troops are." Here's a hint: one gets troops killed. Rightnow.

Here's the other biggie: Bush said, "members of the House and the Senate passed a bill that substitutes the opinions of politicians for the judgment of our military commanders." The phrase "cognitive dissonance" has lost its meaning. (Hey, first they killed satire. It was only a matter of time.)

Substituting the requirements of politics for the judgement of the military is Bush's stock-in-trade. From the moment Powell took his cooked intelligence before the UN, through the forced resignations of tens of his leading generals and the merry-go-round that is the seat on which Petraeus now sits, forcing the military (and every branch of the civil service as well) to ignore reality and toe his line is W's only legacy. But don't take my word for it.
Dear Mr. President,

Today, in your veto message regarding the bipartisan legislation just passed on Operation Iraqi Freedom, you asserted that you so decided because you listen to your commanders on the ground.

Respectfully, as your former commander on the ground, your administration did not listen to our best advice. In fact, a number of my fellow Generals were forced out of their jobs, because they did not tell you what you wanted to hear -- most notably General Eric Shinseki, whose foresight regarding troop levels was advice you rejected, at our troops' peril.

Those are the opening lines of an open letter from Major General Paul D. Eaton, USA, Retired. Click, read, and be edified. You've got to hand it to Bush, though. He's getting a lot better at letting this bullshit trip lightly from his tongue. His conscience hasn't improved, but I'd say his diction is getting a little better.

It'd be enough to boggle the mind, but after six years of this crap, my boggle is broken.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Relative Merits

As you might suspect, the invasion and occupation of Iraq is none too popular with the populace of the other half of the coalition. Nevertheless, the leaders of that country do actually, well, lead. And not just through cooked audiences at air-force bases, either.

Prince Harry is headed to the sandbox.

Say what you like about Harry. He likes a pint, it's said. Likes to party. But he's not into favoritism and he's not about to join the Texas Air National Guard. What's Jenna up to again? Oh yeah.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Look Out

I know this has been a largely political blog of late. But if you look into my archives, you'll see that I indulge in writing about the New England Patriots with some frequency. There's a lot to think and talk about in the wider world, but nothing has quickened my pulse lately as much as this tidbit about my favorite sports franchise:

This man is now a Patriot:
We got him straight up for a fourth round draft pick.

Later I'll go into more detail about all the off-season moves surrounding the Pats. In the meantime, let this sink in: For the first time in his career, Tom Brady will be throwing to a premier wide-receiver. Not just a "good number one," but rather, potentially the greatest wide receiver ever to play professional football.