Xpatriated Texan - A Maverick Believer in the Garden State

Christian Liberal is not an oxymoron

Location: United States

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Fighting for the people (who donate)!

*Note of explanation - This is cross-posted from Blue Texas. Carole Keetan Strayhorn is a former Democrat who jumped to the Republican Party to run for Texas State Comptroller. She is now running as an "independent" for the Governorship of Texas. She began her "independent" bid by stating "I am a Republican." My personal feeling is that her connections to the Republican Party preclude any true independency and that she is nothing more than a stalking horse soaking up money and resources from true competitors of Rick Perry. I look for Strayhorn to lose, but miraculously pick up the US Senate seat to be vacated by current Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison when she drops out to run for Governor in 2010.*

Yeah, Carole Many Names is a real populist:

Between January of 1999, when Strayhorn assumed her role as Comptroller of Public Accounts, and August of 2004, there were 3,656 tax settlements for 775 distinct taxpayers, that occurred within a year of a related contribution to Strayhorn’s campaign; the report also identified 19, 858 other settlements with related campaign contributions made more than a year before or after the settlement date.

As Jed Clampett would say, "We-e-e-e-e-e-e-lll, Dogies!"

Now I understand why high-dollar Democrats are lying up to throw money at One-Tough(to catch) Grandma - they want to get some of these back-room tax abatements!

Of the 3,656 entities that made campaign contributions within a year of their settlement, 146 (associated with 90 distinct taxpayers) received amended audits for which the amended assessment was at least $10,000 less than the original audit. In all, those 90 taxpayers received a combined total of $227 million in decreased audit assessments.

Looks like a little dust has settled on the yella rock of Texas Party-jumpin':

Related campaign contributions made by taxpayer representatives alone accounted for the addition of around $1.7 million into Strayhorn’s campaign coffers. Further investigation revealed that campaign contributions from the 19 selected taxpayer representatives had increased by 294 percent (from $137,650 in 1998 to $542, 737 in 2004) since Strayhorn took office. One representative alone contributed over $812,000 to Strayhorn during the six-year time frame in question.

In addition, the report identified 448 “management halts” (whereby the Comptroller’s Office temporarily stops tax collection actions, issuance of tax overpayment notices or transfers of tax credits) that were granted to individuals who made contributions within one year of the management halt. Between 1999 and 2004, the reason for the management halts being listed as “Administrative Request” increased by more than twenty percent. In 1999, “Administrative Request” was the reason indicated for management halts in only five percent of the cases; between 2000 and 2004 “Administrative Requests” provided for 24 to 38 percent of management halts.

The report was also critical of the Comptroller’s Office for their poor documentation of why management halts were granted; in their review of 68 randomly selected management halts, the Auditor’s office could determine the reasons behind only 43 of the cases. Additional criticism came when the Auditor’s Office discovered that 11,699 management halts put into effect between 1998 and 2004 had not yet been concluded—meaning collection action on those cases remains at a standstill.

Looks like someone was planning on running for Governor for a long time - and it looks like they were lining up donors.

That's what it looks like.

While the Texas Legislature will inevitably take up the issues presented by the State Auditor’s Office, a potential Strayhorn scandal presents a much more imminent and interesting impact on Texas politics; Strayhorn’s campaign is characterizing the audit as a “political witch hunt” aimed at derailing her political aspirations, whereas Perry’s campaign has seized this opportunity to attack Strayhorn’s character and integrity.

Yep, she's a Republican. She remembers the Party line, "Every attack against your corruption is nothing more than a politically biased attack."

Seeing as how this is exactly how Rick Perry does business, that's likely true. However, a political attack that exposes someone as a corrupt piece of garbage is still based in reality.

Just ask Tom DeLay.

Get Them Carnivals Ready!

The Progressive Faith Carnival will set up shop at CrossLeft this week. Note the fancy new address to which submissions should be sent:progfaithcarnival - at - yahoo.com. Get them in by Saturday for inclusion.

Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006 Carnival

Also, the Carnival of NJ Bloggers is moving to Philomathean. NJ bloggers should submit to: EnlightenNJ - at - gmail.com.


Monday, January 30, 2006

Strayhorn: A Year Late and Fourteen Million Dollars Late

The Houston Chronicle is amazed that Carole Many Names has started reading their back issues.

When Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn issued a report last week criticizing the Texas Residential Construction Commission as a shield for politically-connected homebuilders, she could have been reading from a column the Chronicle's Clay Robison wrote last March.

Yeah, well, I'm sure it's been working well in the meantime, right?

Headlined "No place like home for this cuddly Austin lapdog," Robison's piece characterized the creation of the TRCC as a boon for homebuilders who had contributed millions of dollars to state lawmakers. In return, the law creating the commission required aggrieved homeowners to go through a costly, time-consuming arbitration before they could take legal action against contractors. It also limited damages that plaintiffs could receive.


According to Strayhorn, a survey of homeowners who brought complaints to the TRCC revealed that in 86 percent of the cases homebuilders failed to repair construction defects, despite the fact the problems were verified by mediators. "If our standard is giving all Texans a fair shake, then this agency falls far short of that goal," Strayhorn declared. Although the rationale for creating the TRCC was to eliminate costly and lengthy litigation, the comptroller blamed the commission's lack of enforcement power for forcing homeowners to do just that.

Strayhorn's recommendations parallel those of the consumer group Texas Watch: give the TRCC enforcement teeth, appoint unbiased public commissioners and stop imposing mediation fees on complainants instead of builders. The comptroller's report indicates that by 2008, the TRCC will have spent $12 million on operations while returning $14 million to the state general fund, all leveraged from homeowners rather than builders.

Oh. So, in other words, while Strayhorn was busy shining Rick Perry's boots for the last four years, homeowners were taking it in the backside to the tune of around $3.4 million a year.

Since one party controls all statewide offices, officials in recent elections have been loath to criticize each other and point out deficiencies so glaringly apparent to media and citizens. No matter how Strayhorn's gubernatorial charge turns out, it is already producing a healthy airing of issues long ignored by the lobby-dominated state political leadership.

Yeah. Except that Strayhorn has had FOUR YEARS to show some leadership. That tells me that she is interested in nothing beyond simply winning this election and then selling out every promise she's made.

Actions speak louder than words. Or, in this case IN-action screams inadequacy.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Carnival Time!

Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006 Carnival

The ProgFaithCarnival is up at Think Buddha. Tickets are free, so ride all the rides twice!

What a bargain! The Carnival of Jersey Bloggers is also in town! Woohoo! Ride 'em 'til you're sick! Thanks to Smadanek for setting up the shop.


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Not a Joke, But a Threat

Ann Coulter has gone too far.

"We need somebody to put rat poisoning in Justice Stevens' creme brulee," Coulter said. "That's just a joke, for you in the media."

No. It isn't a joke. It's a threat against a Supreme Court Justice that, because he doesn't toe her ideological line, she can openly call for his assassination.

According to federal law:

Whoever threatens to assault, kidnap, or murder, a United States official, a United States judge, a Federal law enforcement officer, or an official whose killing would be a crime under such section, with intent to impede, intimidate, or interfere with such official, judge, or law enforcement officer while engaged in the performance of official duties, or with intent to retaliate against such official, judge, or law enforcement officer on account of the performance of official duties, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).

And just to be clear:

“United States judge” means any judicial officer of the United States, and includes a justice of the Supreme Court and a United States magistrate judge;

But this isn't a law that people actually get sent to jail over, right?


THIS is only one such case that resulted in a conviction and jail time.

"Threats to members of the bench will never be tolerated," stated United States Attorney MAUSKOPF. "We will expend every resource to immediately apprehend any and all individuals responsible for such brazen attempts to interfere with the administration of justice. I would like to thank the United States Marshal's Service and the FBI for their extraordinary efforts in bringing this series of threats to a rapid conclusion."

It isn't funny and it isn't a joke.

Acting FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge KLOCHAN stated, "Threatening the life of any human being is a grave offense, but threatening a federal judge is also an assault on the rule of law...A free society cannot and will not tolerate such threats to its citizens or such an affront to its judiciary."

Join me in posting this banner:
Send Ann a Message...

Coulter's Column is syndicated by United Press Syndicate

Call UPS at (816) 932-6600 or write to Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main Street, Kansas City, Mo. 64111-7701.

To find out what this is all about, click here.

And in contacting both the UPS, who syndicates Coulter's column, and any local paper that carries her column and ask them to censure Coulter by pulling her column for no less than one full month. We can't tolerate such hatred and blatant disrespect for the law. We can't force the Bush Administration to enforce the law. But we can let the media know that feeding the cesspool from which Coulter crawled will not be supported.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Income Disparity, Profitability, Economic Growth, and Joblessness

Well, now that sounds like a happy topic!

First, to correctly give credit where it is due, the original thought behind this post lies with Socialist Butterfly's DailyKos Diary and with my post today at Blue Texas (also cross-posted to my DailyKos Diary). At times, things just come together where they openly dispell the lies that have been laid at your feet for years.

The lie, of course, is that by giving tax-breaks to the wealthy and to businesses that we will create a "growth engine". Yes, the rich may get richer, but a rising tide lifts all boats. The rich will eventually pull us great unwashed masses, kicking and screaming, into prosperity. Damn the poor people torpedoes! Full speed ahead Cut taxes even more!

If this theory was correct, then we would either create more jobs or better paying jobs or some combination of the two. Instead, as Socialist Butterfly points out, our economy is underproducing some six to seven million jobs. Cutting taxes on corporations sure hasn't helped Ford and Chevy, has it?

It would also seem that streamlining a company so that it was more profitable would mean that the jobs remaining might actually be able to get a raise. Apparently, that isn't true. Instead, record numbers of Americans are pushed even further away from the trough of luxury and prestige and are forced to exist on the gleanings left behind from a whirlwind of economics that impacts them, but somehow, never seems to touch them.

In all but two of the last seven Presidential elections, we have voted in the person hawking tax cuts for the wealthy as being beneficial. In six of eight, we voted in the man promising less regulation of industry, and in the other two we voted in the man promising to re-invent regulation. We have sown the wind.

And now, we are reaping the whirlwind. Corporate abuse, corporate compensation, union busting, in combination with cuts in every major domestic program have created a downward spiral for those at the bottom.

A land of opportunity does not stack the odds against those who are willing to work hard and sacrifice, nor does it provide unlimited reward for making immoral decisions without regard to the overall effect those decisions have on people. I don't care how you justify it, offering a person the promise of a ladder of achievement while sawing through the rungs on the ladder is cruel and ultimately destructive to all of society.

It took an economic avalanche in 1928 to wake America from the false sense of prosperity it had built during the Gilded Age and the Roarin' 20s. It took two decades to crawl out of the hole that corporatist politicians with sickly smiles of monetary gain had dug for us. It has taken almost three decades for corporatists of the same ilk to slowly dismantle the system set up to ensure de facto egalitarianism and provide a minimal acceptable level of existence. The path to a better life is slowly being stripped away by a political lie built on false promises based on heretic prophecy founded upon failed ideology.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

This Makes Me Sick

As a Texan in New Jersey, I've often been struck by some of the similarities between the two states. I wish I never found out about this one.

Guilty plea: I sent more than 20 women into Hudson club slavery
Saturday, January 21, 2006

A woman from Texas admitted in court yesterday she helped smuggle young women and girls from Honduras into this country, then forced them to work as prostitutes and dancers in bars in Union City and Guttenberg.

Elsa Consuelo Isuala-Meza, 44, of Houston - herself an illegal immigrant from Honduras - pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano to engaging in a conspiracy to commit forced labor.

Federal sentencing guidelines recommend a prison term of 30 months to 37 months for the crime, but she could receive less if she cooperates against other suspects. She is being held without bail and is scheduled to be sentenced April 25.

Isuala-Meza is the fourth person to admit playing a role in the scheme, which forced women and girls - at least one as young as 14 - to dance and drink with men in the bars in order to pay off debts of $10,000 to $20,000. But she is the first to say some ring members forced the girls to prostitute themselves to pay off their debts.

The victims told prosecutors they were forced to work in the bars up to seven days a week, from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., and were beaten if they didn't cooperate. Some of the women also said they were raped by male ringleaders, and forced to undergo abortions if they became pregnant.

Investigators said Isuala-Meza and her brother, Jose Arnaldo Isuala-Meza, helped transport dozens of women across the border into the United States and ultimately to New Jersey.

Authorities say Luisa Medrano, 50, of Cliffside Park, was in charge of the operation, putting the women to work at El Paisano Bar on 22nd Street and El Puerto de la Union II on Bergenline Avenue, both in Union City, and El Puerto de la Union II, on Bergenline Avenue in Guttenberg.

Speaking yesterday through a court interpreter, Isuala-Meza said she ran a safe house in Texas, where the immigrant girls, after crossing the border, would stay until they were driven or given a bus ticket to New York or New Jersey.

She said she was wired $250 to $300 for each woman she picked up, to cover food, clothing and bus tickets. She said she made arrangements for more than 20 women and girls between May 2003 and December 2004.

Often she sent the women to live in North Hudson with two sisters who allegedly worked as enforcers, Elvira and Ana Luz Rosales.

She said she thought she was just doing "a favor" for the women, but in court yesterday she admitted she began to suspect something was wrong when she got a call asking if "Elvira's little whores had arrived yet."

She continued to participate in the ring, however.

"Did you know what you were doing was wrong?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Gannett asked yesterday.

Isuala-Meza paused, then said, "Well, at the end, yes, I realized that."

Newhouse News Service staff writer John P. Martin contributed to this report.

This, more than anything, is the single most compelling reason why we need immigration reform. At least twenty women in Hudson County were used as sex slaves and whores because they had no recourse to the law that would have protected them.

If it were only twenty women (ONLY!); then the passing of each one into a life of rape and abuse is only worth 45 days in prison.

I don't know which is the greater travesty - that this occurred, or that the punishment for the participants is so light.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Vote for ME! (but not yet)

This blog is one of about a hundred or so that is being considered for the Koufax award for "Most Deserving of Wider Recognition". Stop in and vote for me! I'll really appreciate it, but so would those other folks listed. I suppose I should tell you to look around and vote for whoever you think deserves it.

So, you know, look around and vote for whoever you think deserves it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

State of the States

As we get ready for the President's annual State of the Union address, it's important to remember that Governors are also reporting on their accomplishments, or lack thereof. Here's a few snatches of conversation from various states:

Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin:

Three years ago, I stood in this building and put my hand on the Bible. I took an oath to lead this state during a time of challenge:
Our deficit was out of control.
Our economy was out of steam.
Too many of our citizens were out of work.
And for many people, government seemed out of touch.

While we still have a long way to go, just think how far we've come.

We cut spending and solved the worst fiscal crisis in our history...without raising taxes.
We invested in education while passing a property tax freeze...
We protected SeniorCare for more than 90,000 seniors...
And together, we created more than 140,000 new jobs.

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico:

We are pro-growth and pro-business: We've used our entrepreneurial spirit to create jobs, to cut taxes for every New Mexican and for small businesses, and to bring cutting edge industry to our state-such as film and media, aviation and aerospace, and groundbreaking high-tech businesses.


I believe that government has an obligation to be fiscally responsible, and be prepared for unforeseen events or economic downturns. That's why we need to put money away. I also believe that when government has the resources, it should return those resources to taxpayers, invest in people, and invest in the future.The budget I propose meets both of these critical goals.

t preserves the largest surplus in New Mexico history-more than $500 million dollars. It would keep our budget reserves at 10 percent, and strengthen our already terrific bond rating. And with this budget, I will continue to fight against reckless spending, and demand accountability for taxpayers' money.

Our budget will also invest in people, and in our future-towards education, health care, public safety, and job growth. We want to make our schools even better, make college more affordable, keep kids healthier and safer, and make our high-wage economy even stronger.

Governor John Lynch of New Hampshire:

Fuel costs are higher than ever, but Washington still has not met its responsibility to provide fuel assistance to vulnerable families and seniors. In New Hampshire we were not going to leave our citizens out in the cold. Together, we acted - and funded fuel assistance for our families.

The new federal prescription drug program got off to a disastrous start, leaving many seniors unable to get their prescriptions filled. In New Hampshire, we were not going to risk the health of our citizens. Together, we acted - and made sure our seniors could get the medication that they need.

While scandal dominates the national headlines, we in New Hampshire are working to ensure the highest standards of ethics and integrity in state government. We must come together to enact bipartisan ethics reform this year.


When we gathered last year, we faced a major budget deficit. Together, we balanced the budget without smoke and mirrors, while looking out for the needs of our citizens. We returned our state to sound financial footing, turning deficit to surplus, without new taxes.

Governor John Baldacci of Maine:

Tonight, I am proud to report that the state of this State is strong, secure and healthy.
More people are working than ever before.
More of our children are going to college.
More families are healthier and have health care.
More families are getting tax relief.

And - Empire Falls won two Golden Globes.

That's some of the good news.

But this past year, in fact the past three years, have not been short on challenges.
When I took office, we inherited a $1.2 billion revenue shortfall -- that's 20 percent of the state budget.
The rainy day fund had a zero balance.
When I came into office, we were borrowing $275 million to pay bills from one year to the next.

Governor Joe Manchin of West Virginia:

You, the Legislature, also approved a responsible one percent reduction in the state sales tax on groceries from six cents on the dollar to five cents, resulting in a savings to taxpayers of $25 million dollars. This one percent reduction is simply a starting point, and we will continue to reduce this tax in a fiscally responsible manner as the state's economy grows until we have eliminated it completely. These changes show that West Virginia is serious about getting our financial house in order and opening our doors to new businesses.

I also want to thank the Legislature, and the citizens of West Virginia, for their efforts on behalf of our state's veterans. As a result of a vote of the people, the Legislature activated a constitutional amendment in 2005 to pay bonuses to those who served in the conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. We gratefully acknowledge the service of these veterans and all of our veterans. We also say a prayer for the current Mountaineers who are fighting for our country at home and abroad, and for those families whose loved ones were lost during the past year while performing their military duty.

Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa:

A strong community also supports quality education and recognizes that we depend on well-educated citizens. In this grand capital, much of the work that we do seeks to improve learning opportunities in our state. When we work together to reduce class sizes and to focus on math and reading skills for our early learners, our children reverse in an eight-year decline in test scores under the Iowa Basic Skills Test. Today we probably speak of a five-year increase in scores and we can expect even better results as a result of our "Strong Start" initiative designed to ensure the parents, as their child's first and best teacher, to improve the quality of childcare and to expand preschool opportunities.

A strong community also recognizes that healthcare, access to healthcare, access to quality healthcare, should always be a right and never be regarded as a privilege. Our work together now means that more of our children, more of our seniors, more of our veterans, more of those struggling to make ends meet and more of those coping with mental illness now have access to healthcare as their right and not as a result of any privilege.

A strong community also creates opportunity. Our work together on the Values Fund and venture capital and utility regulatory reform designed to increase new jobs and to increase incomes. Today a record number of Iowans are at work. Incomes rose in our state at a rate higher than all but one state in the country last year, and Iowans should be encouraged by the fact that we have the fastest-growing economy in the Midwest and the eighth fastest-growing economy in the entire

State after state after state, a pattern emerges. Democrats are honoring the public trust granted them by the people. They are governing more effectively and presiding over a period of rising quality of life while meeting expectations for improvement in all areas of services. These are not Governors who believe in nothing and stand for nothing - they are Govenors that make hard and wise decisions in a responsible manner. They stand firm on principle and are clear about their values.

Of Carnivals, and such.

Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006 Carnival

The next edition of the Progressive Faith Carnival will be hosted by Think Buddha, so don't forget to submit your links.


The next edition of the Carnival of NJ Bloggers will be hosted by Smadanek - so, don't fuhgeddaboudit.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Kelo and the Limits of Government Power

I've spent most of the last week reviewing Constitutional Law for my comprehensive exam in American Politics. Oddly enough, during this last week, I also had a commenter on Tammany on the Hudson who was crowing about the Conservative members of the Supreme Court being the only ones who are willing to defend property rights, and gave the Kelo case as an example. Rah! Rah! Sis, boom, bah!

One of the most eye-opening aspects of Constitutional Law is understanding that the direction of the ruling is not the end-all of studying law. It matters how the Court arrived at that decision and what type of precedent was used to interpret the statute. In other words, it doesn't just matter what the answer is, it also matters how they got there. (You can read the actual decision here.)

For those who are simply scratching their heads at this point, here are the facts of the Kelo case. The "petitioners", the people bringing suit (Kelo), sought relief from a state court ruling that gave the city of New London, Connecticut the power to take the houses in which they lived through the use of emminent domain. New London wanted to develop the property as part of a revitalization program and several people refused to sell. The Court eventually ruled that New London could take the property through the use of emminent domain powers. Predictably, Conservatives went crazy, because, you know, all government is evil. Understandably, everyone (or at least, everyone whose blogs I read) focused entirely on the end result and not on the reasons the Court gave for its ruling.

To understand the case, we have to understand the Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

There are three terms bolded in that quote that need attention: "private property", "public use" and "just compensation".

Private property is self-explanatory enough that I don't feel the need to define it. Furthermore, it was not challenged in Kelo that the property in question belonged to the petitioners.

"Just compensation" is generally taken to mean something close to market value. If the city decides to pave over your house; then they must pay you the value of your house - though they will probably try to minimize the value of it.

It is the term "public use" upon which Kelo turns. What exact uses can be accepted as "public" and what exactly is "use", anyway?

The Conservatives of the Court - Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia, and Thomas - dissented from the majority based on the definition of "public use", so it turns out to be central to the story. Specifically:

The public use requirement, in turn, imposes a more basic limitation, circumscribing the very scope of the eminent domain power: Government may compel an individual to forfeit her property for the public's use, but not for the benefit of another private person.

There are times, however, when what looks like the taking of property from one for the benefit of another is considered "public use". In Hawaii Housing Authority vs. Midkiff, the Court allowed the private property of Midkiff to be expropriated from his possession and transferred to the ownership of the HHA, from where it was sold to the public. The reason behind this has to do with the exact nature of housing in Hawaii. Apparently, the vast majority of land in Hawaii was held by a few very powerful families. By cornering the real-estate market, they were able to charge prices for housing that were above what the natural market would have sustained. Thus, private ownership of land in Hawaii had become antithetical to the public interest.

The Court refused to second-guess the legislature of Hawaii as to whether or not there was social injustice in the case. It thus upheld the right of the State of Hawaii to determine its own destiny (so "state's rights" opponents would do well to take note). It also ruled that simply taking property from one person and giving it to another was not, de facto, taking it out of "public use". The Court had to look at the underlying facts of the case to determine if the use served some public interest or not.

Key to the ruling was that Hawaii had not specifically set out to deprive Midkiff of his property. The statute was applicable to all landowners. It also set a means of ensuring just compensation. In other words, the only objection was that Midkiff wanted to keep his property so the rent rates could be inflated. The Court said, "No. You do not have the right to hold all of society hostage to your demands."

In Kelo, a similar situation was presented. The City Council of New London had commissioned an independent board to be in charge of revitalization - a common move used by municipalities to make sure that no one on the City Council plays politics with the development and planning of such projects. When Pfizer announced they were going to build a huge facility, New London decided that they would develop the land adjacent so as to make it easier for Pfizer to tie into city services and create a hub for revitalization. The New London Development Corporation set about acquiring the land - purchasing voluntarily when possible and exercising condemnation and emminent domain when nothing else worked.

At the point where the petitioners stalled procedings, NLDC had been entrusted with $15 million of the public's money through various bond issues. Part of the money had been used to buy up all of the remaining land and part in planning. The petitioners refused to sell, claiming their right of property ownership trumped the right of the City to develop property in the public's interest. In other words, the petitioners were saying that they hadn't approved of the $15 million bond issues and therefore they were not obliged to cooperate.

Based on the Midkiff ruling and the ruling in Berman v. Parker - where the Court held that Congress could, in fact, order that an entire block of slums be destroyed, even if one building was not a slum - the Court said that Kelo did not represent a capricious use of power (it was well-reasoned and planned) nor did it represent a personally antagonistic taking (the City had acquired ALL of the land, not just a few parcels). But was it going to be used for "public use"?

Conservatives say, "NO! They were going to give it to someone else to use! That's personal gain and that's wrong!" The majority on the Court, however, said, "The entire City will benefit from the development - not only in increased taxes (which is a tenuous statement, but the one most Conservatives scream) but in the creation of jobs and the rejuvenation of a historically run-down section of town.

Conservatives claimed, as did the petitioners, that this ruling would let any city give a parcel of land from group A to group B so long as B promised to make better use of it. The Court slapped aside that remark as not being at hand, and claimed that such a bald move would, indeed, be a violation of rights. Since that ruling, however, a wave of state laws have been passed in the hysteria that the Court was going to take everyone's house away from them.

It's hogwash, of course. The NLDC was a governmental body, imbued with governmental powers. It was appointed by the elected leaders of the City of New London. Apparently, the vast majority of New London residents didn't feel threatened by the NLDC making use of its powers and were sufficiently satisfied that it was, in fact, working in the public interest. Because the land is transferred to the governmental body, and used in a broad and general way, it is not giving land to any one person. In fact, allowing commercial development according to plan is more of a public use than was the case of Midkiff.

Compare a different case. In New York City, Rockefeller Square stands as a testiment to one man's ability to acquire some of the most expensive property in the country. Yet there is one piece of property that the Rockefeller family never owned - a small bar in the corner where the owner held onto his property in an effort to drive up the cost to Mr. Rockefeller. Instead, Rockefeller built around him. Mr. Rockefeller could not force the courts to give him the land simply because the current owner was an ass. That is simply because one individual has the right to be a complete ass to their neighbor.

For Kelo to have been decided the other way would have given a small group of landowners complete say over how and when and where the City had power to develop economic growth. I'm sure the petitioners spoke at the many public meetings. I'm sure there was every opportunity for them to mobilize public and political resistence. While the Court should always be a refuge for a minority targeted for brutal or injust treatment, this is simply not the case in Kelo. All of their neighbors had negotiated in good faith, and this group refused to accept a reasonable market value.

This country, every inch of it, belongs to the entire people of the United States of America. No one should ever be able to simply dig in and grind everything around them to a halt. Despite the fact that I never want my house to be taken for public use, I still understand that there are procedures for participating in the political decision to determine the public use. Ultimately, we are only a piece of the puzzle, and the puzzle doesn't exist so that our lives can have meaning. The Constitution does not list property rights as being inviolate - nor does the Declaration of Independence list them as "unalienable rights". That, too, is for good reason.

ProgFaithBlogCon Carnival is UP!

Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006 Carnival

Stop by and check it out!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

New Jersey Carnival


Check out this week's Carnival of NJ Bloggers. If you blog about or in NJ, sign up now.

Thanks to The Center of NJ Life for hosting.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Hero or Martyr: A Choice for Ocean County Freeholders

Most of us that work participate in some type of benefits program. Generally, that includes retirement benefits, health insurance, life insurance, and the like. But, whose benefits are they? Yours? Or the organization for which you work?

How about the American dream? To whom does it belong? Does the process of working hard to get ahead, enjoying the benefits of your efforts, and leaving your loved ones a bit better off, emotionally and financially, when you die belong to only one group of people? Does the government have the right or the power to cut some groups of people off from that dream?

For Lt. Laurel Hester, it isn't a theoretical question. Ms. Hester has spent her life in what can only be described as public service (you can read about that service here, here, and here). In a state rife with false prophets of public trust, not one person can be found that could level any hint of a charge against Ms. Hester that she did not fully uphold the faith entrusted in her by the public. To be blunt, Ms. Hester is a role-model and a hero. For every little girl who wants to fight for justice and to proudly serve society, she is an example of how to quietly overcome structural and social prejudice and become successful simply on the merits of the work you do.

At least, she should be. Unfortunately, a small group of men stand between Lt. Hester and fulfilling her American dream - even as that dream ends in a nightmare of suffering and pain. The Ocean County Board of Freeholders (New Jersey) has determined that Ms. Hester cannot pass on her survivor's benefits to the only person in her life that has a legitimate claim to that role in her life. Because the great love of Ms. Hester's life is a woman, she has been informed that the benefits for which she worked and set aside a portion of her wages will be confiscated from her and denied to her family. It's a travesty of justice that has legislators in Trenton whispering among themselves.

The false reasoning behind the decision of the Freeholders is that it would cost too much money to fulfill Lt. Hester's wishes. Nearby Camden County, however, shows the lie of such a statement. Having been exposed as having no real basis to stand upon, they have retreated to obfuscation and denial. (You can read an update of the news converage here.) Time is obviously on the side of the Freeholders. Once Ms. Hester loses her battle with cancer, no one will have the legal standing to file a claim in court. They will win by forcing a true and faithful public servant to become a martyr.

Any common sense of justice demands fair treatment. A dying person, who holds legitimate survivor benefits, should be able to assign them to whomever they determine to be the proper recipient. For the government, at any level, to step in and say this isn't so is governmental abuse and intrusion of the meanest sort. It is arbitrary and capricious and morally wrong.

I know that there are some who will rely on the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality as justification for the Freeholders actions. As a Christian, I can understand the concept of naming homosexuality as sin - and that is a personal matter of faith that should have no bearing on the legality of survivor benefits. After all, no public servant in New Jersey has EVER been denied benefits because of sin - in fact, several of them sitting in prison right now for official misconduct are still receiving full or abbreviated benefits. To add insult to injury, these criminals can designate that public funds go to support their designated family members when they die. Sin cannot be a grounds for opposing Lt. Hester's suvivor benefits.

There are two solutions to the problem. If Ms. Hester were not in love with another woman; then she could marry on her deathbed and her benefits would automatically accrue to her spouse. If Lt. Hester were a man leaving behind a grieving woman with whom she had spent years of her life, then the Freeholders would not hesitate to make an exception or change the laws. In short, this is simply a case where a woman has been reduced to second-class citizenship - a class where her property can be usurped, her rights denied, and dreams ignored. If our Constitution allows this to occur to Laurel Hester today; then there is nothing to say it cannot happen to everyone tomorrow.

Lt. Hester has lived a life of a good and faithful public servant. Ms. Hester has lived a life of quiet dignity and honorable patience to gain her full rights of citizenship. At the moment of her death, she will either be rightfully honored for this life or she will be shamefully martyred for it. No one deserves to be a martyr (that is, after all, part of the definition of the word). The Ocean County Freeholders should act immediately to ensure that the outcome of this case is the former rather than the latter. Laurel Hester has earned it. She deserves better treatment from her employers.

It's the right thing to do.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Just Thought You Should Know

Your results:
You are Iron Man
Iron Man
Green Lantern
The Flash
Wonder Woman
Inventor. Businessman. Genius.
Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz

Hmmmm, I always did think Iron Man was cool - especially with all the nifty gadgets. I have NO idea how Catwoman (who is technically a villain) ended up in this mix, and especially so high (maybe it's because I'm beautiful...).

Anyway, I thought it might be time to have a bit of fun around here.

Now you know why I'm tilting at windmills all the time - I'm a bona fide superhero

Narrow Majorities, Mean Majorities

Almost everyone I hearing talking about politics agrees that it is somehow meaner, nastier, and generally tougher than it used to be. Generally, I tend to dismiss such observations. Very few people actually know how politics works today - much less how it worked years ago. Comparing campaigns doesn't seem very valuable, either - after all, how much can you learn from comparing the campaigns of Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, and George W. Bush (or even Bill Clinton)? Technology, party structure, the literacy rate among adults, and countless other factors tend to render such comparisons invalid. Besides, how do we know that George Washington didn't consider John Adams to be a pompous ass or a sissified townie or maybe just fat and ugly?

But still, in my brief life span, I believe politics has become meaner. The first Presidential debate I remember seeing was Carter-Reagan and, though I can't find any text to link to the commentary that followed, I do remember hearing people comment about how rude Reagan was to Carter, how dismissive he was of the office Carter represented. "There you go again," was a crippling blow to Carter's reality-based campaign style, but it was also a slash at the veneer of civility that had marked Carter and Ford's debates.

Of course, coming from Texas, I simply can't talk about politics getting meaner without contrasting Lloyd Bentsen with Phil Gramm. Although they were contemporaries, I think they stand fairly well as a staple of what has passed - the gentility of Bentsen - and a template of what has come - the sharp-tongued thinly-veiled contempt of Gramm. Compare what is considered the essence of Lloyd Bentson:
I have never forgotten my days as an Eagle Scout. I didn't know it at the time, but what really came out of my Scouting was learning how to lead and serve the community. It has come in handy in my career in government.

with the essence of Phil Gramm:

He regularly jokes about his reputation for being mean. He cites the evident affection of his wife, his staff and his dog. And at least once he told a dinner audience that he really did have a heart, adding after the requisite pause, "I keep it in a quart jar on my desk."

But to simply say that we are meaner is to simply whine that we should be a kinder, gentler nation without giving any specific recommendations as to how we should accomplish that goal. It is to say, "We need to be better people," which is true, but not very helpful. A prerequisite for any recommendation must be some grounding in evidence. To that end, I present you with my hypothesis:

Politics is growing meaner because the ruling mandate - the difference between being a majority party and being a minority party - is, in historical terms, razor thin. This raises the stakes for every vote and for every politician. It also forces partisan differences to the fore.

Currently, in the House of Representatives, the Republicans hold a thirty-seat majority (232-202). In statistical terms, they hold 53.3% of the House. This is actually the strongest majority mustered by the Republicans since they gained control of the House in 1995 (elections in 1994). To find a time when the Democrats had such a slender majority, you must travel all the way back to 1955, when they held only 232 seats.(You can look at the raw data here.)

If we examine the history of Congress since 1913, when the 435 seat arrangement first appeared, you will find very few times when a majority party held less than 55% of the seats. 13 Congresses out of 47 have had a majority of less than 55% - that includes the six consecutive slender-majority Congresses since the 104th took office in 1995. The average majority is 58.6% and the median (right in the middle) is 56.8%.

It is also true in Presidential elections. George W. Bush won 53% of the popular vote - the highest percentage since Ronald Reagan won 58% in 1984. But Reagan, and Carter before him, barely managed to break 50%. It has to be noted, though, that Presidential elections are historically much more competitive than the Congressional majority. If we examine the popular vote since 1912, Woodrow Wilson failed to gain 50% of the vote in two successive elections. However, no winning candidate failed to reach that mark again until Harry Truman won with only 49.6% in 1948. The next was Kennedy, who won with 49.3% in 1960 , and Richard Nixon, who won with 43.4% in 1968. The pattern suggests a growing trend for narrow decisions. (Information taken from Wikipedia pages.)

From Wilson to Truman, there were seven Presidential elections with clear majorities. Between Truman and Kennedy, there were two (Eisenhower won them both). Johnson won over 60% of the votes in 1964 between the narrow elections of Kennedy and Nixon. Since Nixon's re-election in 1972, though, only one candidate has pulled in more than 55% of the vote.

With a majority status comes great power to determine the direction of the government. Quite simply, the stakes cannot be higher in electoral politics. With a large Congressional majority and a Presidential mandate, the majority party can afford to be somewhat magnanimous with minority party members that play along with their rules. With a slender majority, that luxury must be put away. The minority becomes more fully shut-out of government, which makes that party more hostile to the majority party. If one party holds both a slender Presidential mandate and a slender Congressional majority; then there is simply no room to set aside partisanship. Minority party members are still welcomed to assist the majority, but it is the terms set by the majority. Thus, Joe Lieberman sounds too much like a Republican because he wants to have input, and he is pulled to the right by the majority by his desire. That makes him the Republicans favorite Democrat.

Of course, elections are only ten months away, so we shall see how the Congressional majority changes. If it strengthens the Republican majority; then there will likely be a slight softening of attitude towards Democrats. If Democrats get a slender majority, then expect them to dig in and fight the President hard and dirty. If Democrats can somehow manage a significant majority; then they can still fight the President, but they can afford to be a bit nicer about it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Nagin - Robertson or King?

In all things, there is a balance. Apparently, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is attempting to be the balance for the vocal Right.

CNN reports:

In his speech, Nagin also said "God is mad at America," in part because he does not approve "of us being in Iraq under false pretenses."

"He is sending hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it is destroying and putting stress on this country," Nagin said.

This is a theological belief I grew up with - that a vengeful God will strike us down if we disobey him. It has led to all sorts of places being called "modern day Sodom and Gomorrah". As far as I know, however, none of these modern cities of sin has ever been destroyed by a rain of burning sulfur.

Far be it from me to disagree with Biblical history (I'll leave that to people who actually study it). However, I believe it is also an unsound theology (you can read a discussion of the story here). It simply doesn't hold up to common observations. Is there anyone who believes that a single city in the United States lives up to the Biblical standards of perfection?

Let's, for the moment, say that God did want to strike New Orleans. The city sits below sea level all the time - there was simply no need for the widespread destruction that reached far beyond New Orleans. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, it is important to see that ONLY Soddom and Gomorrah were destroyed because Lot escaped to the nearby city of Zoar.

Of course, Lot intervened for Zoar - so to call Katrina the "wrath of God" is to also say that not one Godly man asked for his city to be spared. That simply defies belief. I'm sure there was no shortage of prayers before, during, and after Katrina hit.

I simply don't believe that God takes an active interventionary role in our world. To say that he does is to undermine the concept of free will. If you have the choice to obey or die; then you don't have much of a choice at all. It isn't free will, but coerced will, at that point.

Similarly, if God were to punish us for invading Iraq, then the Biblical model of God's wrath would be the complete and utter destruction of our forces by a much smaller and poorly equipped resistance. At this point, the resistance is not poorly equipped ("poorly equipped", in my decision, does not include access to shoulder-fired missiles and mortars) and we are not facing utter destruction (more like slow attrition).

Sorry, Ray, but your theology just doesn't hold up - though it does make a good sound bite. Of course, that's what any mayor facing re-election would want. Lots of free press that can be played off of both sides of the political spectrum.

The report continues:

He [Nagin] said God is "upset at black America also."

"We are not taking care of ourselves. We are not taking care of our women, and we are not taking care of our children when you have a community where 70 percent of its children are being born to one parent."

I won't deny these are serious problems that call for serious solutions - both in the personal acceptance of responsibility and in the social structure that fosters such behavior - but you're going to have to show me that this is more of a problem in New Orleans than it is in New York, Detroit, Chicago, or any other major city in the nation. It's nothing more than the worst kind of opportunism to say anything to the contrary. When the larger remarks are taken into account, it's obvious that this is what Nagin is doing:

"I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day," Nagin said in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech. "This city will be a majority African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be."

A lot of people are upset over the use of the word "chocolate" or Nagin's explanation - played ad naseum today on CNN (sorry, no link):

When you take dark chocolate and mix it with white milk, you get a delicious drink. That's the kind of chocolate I'm talking about.

That car you see heading north out of New Orleans would be Nagin's campaign manager, car-pooling with his communications director. I could care less about the use of "chocolate" as a synonym for "black". I don't even care that Nagin said the city would be re-built as a black city - though it does make me wonder what would happen to a white southern mayor who said a town would be "white because that's the way God wants it".

What bothers me most is saying "that's the way God wants it". Look, I've read the Bible from cover to cover and I can assure you that New Orleans is not mentioned at all. What Nagin is doing is claiming some divine revelation about population density and demographics. Either that, or he is basing his claim on God wanting New Orleans to be black on what it was prior to the hurricane - which he said was punishment for the way the city was. I don't believe there's any divine message in Hurricane Katrina - except perhaps the common sense injunction against building below sea level when surrounded by water. However, it would make more sense to say that God wants black people to live somewhere else than it does to say he wants them to come back and wait for another tragedy - but that's my reading of the situation.

It also bothers me, though to a much lesser extent, that these remarks were made on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Nagin does a disservice to Dr. King's theology by speaking about a hurricane being punishment, but even more so by saying that God wants New Orleans to be black.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I don't buy Nagin's spin that he wanted to say "chocolate milk" instead of just "chocolate". That's a politician trying to change his words after they left his mouth. I don't think Nagin intended to make a racially insensitve statement, he was just trying to make sure that the black people of New Orleans had a voice. His mishandling of the moment, however, hurts his cause. It only shows how far we are from realizing Dr. King's dream:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

We, alas, are still not free. There is much work to do.

Come, Let Us Reason Together

Monday, January 16, 2006

More than an Apology

Okay, by now you've heard that Pat Robertson said some incredibly stupid things about Prime Minister Sharon. In case you don't keep up with it, The Pat has now apologized.

Fine. He should. However...

The Pat's spokeswoman (apparently, women can't teach men, but they can allow men to hide behind them) said, point blank:

"This is what the word of God says," Watts told the AP. "This is nothing new to the Christian community."

Now, she is referring to The Pat's original stupid statement that Sharon's stroke was direct punishment from God. Now, let's look at the apology:

''My concern for the future safety of your nation led me to make remarks which I can now view in retrospect as inappropriate and insensitive in light of a national grief," the letter said.

Look, either you are speaking from the Word of God or you are not. If you are; then you don't apologize afterwards for stepping on someone's toes.

The truth is, The Pat was talking out of his butt and the wrong orrifice was caught revealing his real feelings on the matter. The Pat may be a "friend" of Israel - but only as it suits his own designs.

Of course, FOX News is the last to get this bulletin - Pat Robertson, I fear, has fallen off the deep end.

Nor am I alone in thinking that The Pat hasn't a clue when it comes to scripture (albeit on a separate matter):

Such a statement is "ignorant of simple biblical hermeneutics," asserted Currie, who, like Patterson, holds a seminary doctor of philosophy degree. "It is a perversion of the gospel to say women can't do that stuff."

David Currie, by the way, is the executive director of Texas Baptists Committed. Even the conservative Southern Baptist Convention disagrees with The Pat on the Sharon statement.

But here's the thing: If Pat Robertson truly believed he was carrying a warning from God; then the last thing he would do is retract it in the face of criticism. Instead, his fast retreat shows that he isn't speaking the Word of God and he knows it.

THAT is the best reason The Pat should step down and remain silent.

Alito Beyond Our Fingertips

Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States is all but assured. Much will be said about his supposed belief in the doctrine of "original meaning". In general, liberals have consistently opposed this doctrine as being inherently in opposition to their concept of the Constitution as a "living document". This is based, largely, on the voices of the chief champions of "original meaning" - Justice Antonin Scalia and Constitutional scholar Robert Bork.

Dahlia Lithwick writes:

Many prominent liberal thinkers have retreated from William Brennan's soaring language about the need for a "living Constitution," because, I think, it embarrasses them. The idea that, as Brennan wrote, "It is arrogant to pretend that from our vantage we can gauge accurately the intent of the Framers on the application of principle to specific, contemporary questions," has been rebutted roundly with the notion that it's even more arrogant for nine unelected officials to gauge anything at all. Calls for minimalism or pragmatism or incrementalism are now in vogue for progressives. That has all the taste of penumbras and emanations, but only half the calories.

The problem is that liberals - from Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, to Lithwick and every Senator of the Judicial Committee - can't see any way around the intellectual trap laid by Bork and Scalia that the "Living Constitution" is the exact opposite of "Original Meaning". Of course, they aren't alone in this blindness - even the moderate pro-choice Arlen Specter didn't seem to truly understand what Judge Alito meant when he said:
a living thing in the sense that it protects rights by setting out principles to be applied in changing circumstances

That was obviously not what Specter - or anyone else who has every used the term "Living Constitution" - meant. Yet, at the same time, it is. This is true because to a large extent, the idea of "Original Meaning" is exactly the same as the idea of a "Living Constitution". By refusing to embrace methodology (claiming it is inherently unfair), liberals have lost the greatest chance to take back the language of the Court.

There is no Constitutional Scholar that would enforce a simple word-for-word reading of the Constitution. Scalia, Thomas, and Rehnquist all have found nuances in the wording of the Constitution that allowed them to rule on cases in ways that were not immediately obvious - the fact that Scalia upheld the right to burn the American flag should give everyone sufficient cause to examine that. After all, the word "flag" doesn't appear at all in the Constitution.

Complaints about a Living Constitution, however, are largely unfounded. This is especially true in the Brown v. Board of Education case.

Here is an excerpt from the Brown case:

To separate them [children in grade and high schools] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone. . . . Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. . . .

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and other similarly situated . . . are . . . deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

How is this reasoning differently from that urged by Justice Scalia in the article linked above in his name when he claims:

The Constitution should be interpreted neither strictly, nor sloppily, but reasonably

Is it not "reasonable" to expect that, as blacks are considered an equal part of society, that they should have an equal share in the facilities paid for by the government that serves them?

As well, how is the use of "psychological knowledge" in Brown different from calls by conservatives to utilize more advanced medical knowledge in interpreting Roe v. Wade?

If one is unreasonable; then surely both are.

The fact is that "Original Meaning" can as easily come to the defense of Brown as "Living Constitution" did. How? The Constitution declares all citizens are exactly equal - not roughly equal and not somewhat equal, but equal without moderfier. Since it is impossible for two schools to be equal - and that should be obvious enough to not need a defense - then it is impossible to create an education system that is equal for all involved unless all involved have access to the same schools.

The same is true for a liberal defense - on Original Meaning grounds - for Roe v. Wade. There is no need to "invent" a "Living" right to privacy or anything other than to point to the Constitution itself. The unborn simply have no legal standing in the Constitution - if anyone wants to create that standing, then they must pass an amendment to create that standing.

Scalia is right - judges have always made excuses for ruling the way they believe is the most just. What has changed is that those lined up with Scalia and Bork (and perhaps Rehnquist and Thomas - maybe Roberts and Alito, though only time will tell) have simply excused their activism while accusing the activism with which they don't agree. Rather than digging in and avoiding the subject, liberals should simply take up the terminology and methodology being used against it and show it for the farce it is. Anytime you find yourself on the opposite side of liberty for people and restraint for government, you are apt to find yourself on the losing side of the argument.

That is the soaring rhetoric that Thurgood and John Marshall were accustomed to using. Until liberals discover how to reclaim it, they will be doomed to minority status and ineffective, frustrated reaches for power that remains elusively beyond their fingertips.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

ProgFaithBlogCon Carnival

Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006

If you got up really, really, really early; then you could have heard AirAmerica Radio's first nod toward the religious left. It's too early to tell what "State of Belief" will turn into - but the timeslot won't help. Oh, well, at least they have a blog - so maybe we can get them to join the Carnival.

Tikun Olam is looking at the Abramoff scandal and its implications among the Jewish community. There's also a bit to say about Pat Robertson.

Feminary makes up in length what is missing in quantity with one rather long post - and it's worth the read.

Poor Mad Peter wonders about the Heart of the Matter.

Pause a moment at the Springhouse. If you must ponder something, consider the power of the tongue.

Father Jake takes issue with the Religious Right (which is neither) giving lessons to the Religious Left. Meanwhile, CrossLeft takes aim at war.

Apparently, bloggings is a threat to Southern Baptists. Some, however, are even more interested in blogging. Some just want to understand the will to blog. Others just want to examine how technology can effect churchwork. Lord knows, there's no shortage of problems.

Also in the news - Velveteen Rabbi discovers falafel! Next - babaganoush!

Meanwhile, I head back home and look at the gubernatorial contest. I'm not the only one looking at politics - the politics of the bookstore.

Is humor based on religion?

Sometimes, even dead chipmunks have a reason for existence.

Beware the snow ghosts!

Howie looks at the continuing self-estrangement of the Southern Baptists.

Bad news for flu sufferers.

It's De-Lurker Month.

Is the minimum wage immoral? What about the Wikipedia entry for woman?

And now, a new Southern Strategy.

A patriarch blesses and remembers.

Is it possible to get an Islamic dinner while eating Muslim?

Surrender. Love or Truth?

Take a spin on the Wheel of Life.

If you want to be included in the ProgFaithBlog Carnival, leave a comment and I'll send along an email. To anyone who was left out - I apologize and I fully blame the cable company for supplying internet service that is less than 100% reliable.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Commonsense Ethics Reforms

As I mentioned yesterday, Jon Corzine has publically stated that ethics is job one. As a resident of Hudson County, I can only say that it's way past due.

The problem is that ethical problems like Hudson County (and, to be honest, every other county in New Jersey) faces are not the result of a few bad apples being in position to enrich themselves. The problem is that a system has developed that encourages back-room dealing and underhanded contributions. Even a two year old expects to get something in return when they part with money, so it shouldn't be shocking that so many politicians end up falling prey to greed and graft.

And, yes, the DeLay-Abramoff scandal is symptomatic of the same problem at the federal level.

Changing the system is much more difficult than locking up a few pieces of fruit here and there. A big reason is that it requires that the people who benefit from the system actually work against their best interest to change the rules of the game. People do sometimes work against their best interests, but generally not in big groups and not intentionally.

Regardless, here are my suggestions for creating a more ethical system:

1) Only registered voters can donate to political campaigns. Currently, individual donations are already limited. However, I can max out my donation (in theory - I don't actually have that kind of money laying around) and then max out my wife's donation as well. If we had eighteen kids; then I could max out donations for them, too. I actually don't have a problem with my wife making donations. However, children are not able to vote - why should they be able to have donations made in their names?

This would also cut out all of the corporate and special interest money in elections. Corporations and non-profit organizations, quite simply, do not vote. Therefore, they should not have the ability to influence the election through their use of greed and graft. I simply don't buy the idea that a corporation - a legal entity created to protect its owners from liability - has a right to free speech. Corporations don't have any rights. They are actually given permission to exist by the state - which is why so many financial corporations are housed in Delaware. Get them out of elections. Period.

2) No out-of-district contributions. When I vote for my State Assemblyperson, I am voting for them to represent the interests of this district - not the district next door to ours and definitely not any interest from other states or countries. A politician cannot serve two masters - either you are vested in this district or you are taking cash from somewhere else. I simply cannot believe that you can do both and never have a conflict of interests - and I have no illusion over who would lose when such a conflict came up.

3) Personal contributions limited to $100 total per office per year Currently, people may contribute several thousands of dollars to both sides in any election contest. Obviously, the reason for supporting both sides is to be able to influence whoever wins, no matter who wins. Knocking the donation limit down to a reasonable limit - $100 is ridiculously low for millionaires, but for the most of us, it would mean that our donation would be of more note to the campaign. It strengthens the voice of the people while not cutting out the voice of the wealthy. Pick a side, give a moderate amount - and then volunteer your time personally if you want to make a difference. You have a right to speak, but you do not have the right to influence the election with your donations.

4) Public posting of all governmental budgets and contract bids and proposals. Each level of government should make public every source of revenue and where every single penny is spent. Quite simply, the public cannot adequately conduct oversight of the government unless it has access to governmental records. At the federal level, there are things that need to be kept secret - but not at state and local levels. An honest government has nothing to hide and should be willing to go to reasonable lengths to prove it. Posting all competing bid proposals would allow the public to review the choices their offiicals are making.

5) Ban one-on-one lobbying Require that any meeting between a registered lobbyist and a member of the government be attended by an equal number of people from the opposition party. Such meetings must be publicized at least three days in advance and must be open for members of the public to attend. The effects of such a move should be fairly obvious - opposition parties would keep the meetings on the honest side of the law and attendance by the public would make sure that no lobbyist could speak unopposed.

I don't think anyone will ever ban corruption in politics. What you can do, however, is design a system where the burden of the decision is placed fully upon the individual in question. Currently, so much political buying and selling occurs behind the scenes that corrupt politicians and power brokers seem genuinely surprised that anyone would think they are doing something wrong. The system is broken - and it draws broken people into it (or, alternately, breaks people to fit it). Until that is changed, nothing else will change either.

The Twelve Step definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The people of New Jersey, indeed, of all the United States, deserves better than an insane system of government.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Nominations: Identity or Quality

One of Jon Corzine's strongest campaign planks was his stance on reforming ethics in New Jersey. His appointment of Congressman Bob Menendez as his replacement proved a disappointment for many, including myself, on this matter (although I will stress that there is no hard evidence known to the public that Mr. Menendez has ever been unethical - there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence, though). I understand the politics behind his decision and the Machiavellian strategist part of me can go along with it. Such is politics - idealism has its limits in reality.

Corzine's second major pick is his nominee for State Attorney General - and we now know that pick is Zulima Farber. Since I'm still a relatively new transplant in New Jersey, I had to do a bit of homework on Ms. Farber - and I have to say that I'm impressed with his pick. In this case, I have to also say that her public support for the Governor should not impact anyone's ability to support her.

Interestingly enough, if our former Governor, Jim McGreevey, had not been so ethically challenged, Ms. Farber would not even be available to be AG. By all accounts, she should be sitting on the State Supreme Court right now. McGreevey used a paper-thin (actually a traffic-ticket-thin) excuse to withdraw support from Ms. Farber's nomination. While I will be the last to give public officials carte blanche to ignore the law, the details of this incident simply don't indicate anything of the sort took place.

To the side of one unpaid traffic ticket, Ms. Farber was the last appointed Public Advocate - a position designed to represent the interests of the people against state government powers (oddly enough, this anti-government position was eliminated by a Republican Administration). Her experience highlights the insanity of what is referred to as the "politics of identity". Despite having served faithfully, carrying cases against the state for the citizens of New Jersey - with no indication that she ignored any group - she was determined to not be "Black enough" to replace the first Black State Supreme Court Justice. So, one of the most qualified people was disqualified on a flimsy excuse and the color of her skin - big surprise! it became a divisive issue for the state. In that sense, Ms. Farber's life has much to say about the direction of American politics as a whole.

I'm not Black - so I obviously can't explain what it means to be Black. Nor can I adequately explain what it means to be Asian, female, or foreign-born. To some extent, I do believe that matters. We need, desperately, a more inclusive public voice for all people - and as long as some groups face issues that others don't, or to a greater extent than others, we will need to work to ensure their voices are heard.

However, Mr. Farber is not being nominated to be the Black Attorney General, nor the Hispanic Attorney General, nor the female Attorney General, nor the foreign-born Attorney General - she is nominated to be the New Jersey Attorney General. As such, her gender, the color of her skin, place of birth, or whether or not English was her first language simply shouldn't matter. Those are things wholly beyond her control, and while they may give her story more personality or make it more compelling, they should not be seen as a credit towards her job-worthiness. What makes her a good nomination is her previous work experience and the fact that she has always maintained a strong voice for ethics in government and public trust.

We see the same problem with the nomination of Samuel Alito. His religion should be no reason at all in the decision to support his nomination or not. Nor should his parents immigration or his family heritage. There is only one reason for such a move - to elevate the opposition's arguments to hysteria based on what a person is, rather than who they are. It is a move to detract from legitimate lines of questioning and to attack the credibility of anyone who dares raise a voice in opposition. (Let me say that the Democratic Party is not above stooping to this lowest common denominator, either - it wasn't Republicans who pulled down Ms. Farber from the State Supreme Court.)

The deciding factor to determine whether or not a person should be approved as a nominee - at the state or federal level - is whether or not their history indicates the ability to faithfully carry out the duties of their position. As much as I hate to say it, because it amounts to half-hearted support for Sam Alito, philosophical differences cannot be used as the sole reason for opposition - because there will always be philosophical differences between the majority and minority parties. If those philosophical differences lead to real concerns about their ability to faithfully conduct their job; then that should be explored. It could then be the basis for objection, but it cannot be the sole measure of it.

To say otherwise is to advocate for something less than the highest quality nominee. That doesn't serve the best interests of New Jersey or of the rest of the United States.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Pokin' Around the Blogosphere

The odd thing about blogging - or, more specifically, looking for blogs - is that you can miss some really good stuff that's right in front of you.

Thanks to Kety for pointing out this missed gem - and it isn't just because I took up the same subject/object.

I also found a very thoughtful blog dealing with the academia of Christianity.

Also the amusingly named Virushead

From north of the border comes Creative Conviction.

A "former" blog that is now a "magazine".

Also, Tennessee Guerilla Woman, Comments from Left Field, Black Feminism, and State of Qusan.

There are just so many blogs out there that it's impossible to find the best of the best (and I don't think traffic is a good indication of a good blog). So, here's my contribution for you guys to point you to a few that I didn't know were out there that I think are worth stopping by. I'm sure most of them get more traffic than I do, but that doesn't mean they don't need a few new readers, does it?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Future Dollars and Current Fears

The Washington Post reports today that China is selling dollars. How much of our money belongs to China? About $800 billion.

Big fat hairy deal. What does that have to do with us?

In recent years, the value of the dollar has been buoyed by major purchases of U.S. Treasury bills by Japan, China and oil-exporting countries -- a flow of capital that has kept interests rates relatively low in the United States and allowed Americans to keep spending even as debts mount. Some economists have long warned that if foreigners lose their appetite for American debt, the dollar would fall, interest rates would rise and the housing boom could burst, sending real estate prices lower.

You have to understand a bit about how the value of the dollar is maintained to understand why this is mildly alarming (and potentially more than mildly so).

Think of a dollar bill as being backed by a portion of the American economy. When you hold a dollar bill, you aren't guaranteed a dollar's worth of gold, but only a dollar's worth of the economy. As long as the number of dollar bills grows at the same rate as the economy, that remains true. However, if the economy grows faster than the dollar bill; then your dollar rises in value and is worth more. If the economy grows slower than the stock of dollars; then your dollar is worth less and it declines in value.

Now, we'll jump a bit. Let's say the government passes a budget with no deficit and no surplus - they spend exactly as much as they bring in. There is no net effect from that budget upon the stock of dollars, but there is some effect on the economy (because the government spends the money it brings in). If the government spent less than it brought in (theoretically, it's never actually happened); then it would be removing money from the supply of capital - and that would make your money increase in value. When the government spends in deficit, as it has every year that George W. Bush has been in the White House, it does the reverse - it increases the total capital available, and thereby, reduces the value of your money.

This is true because the government cannot simply create money out of nothing - despite what some people say. If the government spends more than they bring in; then they must sell bonds in order to close the shortfall. Those bonds are actually claims against future dollars. In other words, we tell a buyer (in this case, China) that we will give them a certain number of dollars at some point in the future in return for a smaller value of their currency today. We then convert their currency into dollars and the government spends them. This shuffle is an attempt at keeping the value of your dollar roughly the same (because the devaluation of more money is offset by revaluation of the currency due to greater economic growth).

So, if everything goes just right - and enough foreign buyers are willing to trade today's money for tomorrow's - then the value of our money is safe.

China's decision threatens that balance. It is entirely dependent on the sellers they find to determine to what extent our currency is effected. If the bonds they sell are accepted at roughly the save value as they were bought, then it simply amounts to a shuffling of papers. However...

Remember that the dollars bought with bonds represent legitimate future dollars. If we run out of future dollars, then our bonds become worth less - and that means that we have to offer more future dollars in return for the same amount of current money. That is reflected in a higher interest rate.

If China's buyers believe we have spent too many of our future dollars, they may begin to believe that we don't have enough future money to pay all of our promises. That represents future default on our debts, which means that fewer people will want to buy our bonds. That translates into an inability to finance our deficit spending, resulting in drastic, across-the-board spending cuts.

That's in the future. What it means to us today is that these demands for future dollars could turn into demands for current dollars. That means that our market is flooded with cheap dollars. Woohoo! Money for everyone!

Except that cheap money is worthless money. It causes inflation - and the only tool we have for rising inflation is to choke off the money supply by raising interest rates. That means you're about to pay more for everything you buy as corporations rachet the effect of higher costs of business through the economy.

Except real estate. Real estate values have an oppositional relationship with interest rates. As interest rates rise, property values decline. The reason is simple: when people buy a house, they look at how much they can pay per month. If more money goes to the interest, then less can go to the value of the house. As people are unable to pay top-dollar for a house, they buy cheaper houses - and that drives property values down. See: the real estate boom in the last decade was caused almost entirely by low interest rates.

The only thing working in our favor is that China holds so many future dollars that if it sells too many too fast at too steep a discount, it will cause its own economy to crumble. If, however, it can pull off a grab for some other currency (Euros, for instance); then it might be able to shield itself from the negative effects - and that could cause a spiraling effect where selling US bonds drives their value down, which in turn makes them more attractive to sell.

eXTReMe Tracker