Immigration Bill Moves Forward On Schedule To Die in House

Whoo Hoo!! The much needed Immigration Bill has leaped another hurdle on its way to being killed in the GOP dominated House.  It passed a cloture vote in the Senate by an 82-15 margin.

An anonymous staffer exclaimed, “Wow, was that a waste of time! Feels good to know nothing you’re doing will have any effect at all. I remember what it was like to work on important legislation that the House would actually seriously consider and pass. Too much pressure! This is more like being back in school and being on the student congress – nothing we do has any meaning at all! With this wind in our sails we should work next on some ambitious 21st century energy policy for the House to kill. Almost saving the planet, but not, would be an awesome way to kill the summer months.”*

*Not a real quote.

Did not watch the Tony’s last night, but I wish I did

The NYT says Chris Durang won his first Tony for best play. I made him laugh when I worked on a production of one of his plays back in 1984 and I will never forget that.

Andrea Martin, the comedy goddess of SCTV won a Tony for the revival of “Pippin.” 

And Cicely Tyson won a Tony at the AGE OF 88, for her work in “The Trip to Bountiful.” EIGHTY-FUCKIN’ EIGHT!

“It’s been 30 years since I stood onstage, and I really didn’t think it would happen again in my lifetime,” Ms. Tyson said of her role in “Bountiful,” a mixed-race production in which she plays a character conceived for white actresses. “Except I had this burning desire to do just one more — one more great role. I didn’t want to be greedy. I just wanted one more.”

I am just an old theater hack in my blood I guess because when I wrote this I got a thrill up my spine like when the orchestra begins the overture. Should have watched. Should never deny my  first love. (Even if Mad Men was really good last night).

35th Anniversary of the California Tax Revolt

Having spent 14 years in Cali, with a front row ticket to a lot of the Golden State’s descent into ka ka, I probably write about that state more than any other New Jersey based writer (is there an award for that?). But I write, usually, to (i) remind people that these problems went universal after California led the way, (ii) they are entirely self created, and (c) are not mysterious at all. This MoJo article by Kevin Drum recalls the proximate cause, 35 years ago this week, of California’s unfortunate effort to throw off the shackles of greatness in order to compete with friggin’ Mississippi.

The tax revolt has had a long run since Prop. 13 was passed, and it’s hardly over yet. But last year, for the first time since 1978, Californians voted to raise their own taxes after a decade of self-inflicted budget crises. Then, at the end of the year, Congress (under duress) agreed to raise taxes on the wealthy for the first time since 1993. In both cases, this was at least partly due to the kinds of problems that Prop. 13 made manifest: a growing realization that the tax revolt has benefited the rich far more than the rest of us and a grudging understanding that at some point you have to pay for the services you want. Californians want decent schools and Americans want to preserve their roads, their military, and their safety net.

NSA Domestic Spying/Homeland Protecting Flibbertygibbet – who the hell knows?

As I’ve said before once national security and anti-terrorism get inserted into a debate then everything gets weird and difficult, people get angry and strident and Ben Franklin quotes get mangled. With the issues raised by the Guardian, NYT and WaPo, chiefly  by constitutional gadfly Glenn Greenwald and his Deep Throat, and all the debate it has prompted, I am reminded of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” where he keeps debating going back and forth on an issue and saying “on the other hand” until he finally says “I’m running out of hands!”

Assuming the program is everything the authorities claim (and that’s a tough phrase to be writing for someone who grew up in the Watergate/Vietnam era), and it really is just a data mining algorithm looking for certain connections and no actual spying on individuals, then I guess it’s okay. 

On the other hand, I am disturbed by the potential of the information to be misused. I’d like to hear that the gathered information is destroyed in a short time period. 

On the other hand, the FISA court approvals for this program, apparently renewed every 3 months or so, kind of like changing your computer password, are so general as to truly twist the definition of “probable cause” into a legal pretzel. I’m pretty sure the founders thought probable cause was defined by a pretty specific behavior exhibited by a specific individual or group. It’s now been redefined into a perpetual assumption that somebody somewhere is doing something nasty, so that’s probable cause to check out everybody.

On the other hand, if it works and saves lives and no individual American citizen innocently going about their day is having their e-mails read, phones tapped or internet monitored then… geez Tevye’s right, this is hard stuff! 

The debate that I think this brings us back to is the updating of the constitution. Not just the 2nd amendment, but also the 4th might need an update to be relevant for the 21st century.

Just a note, I’ve been most disturbed by the venom that some narrow minded Obama supporters have turned on Glenn Greenwald, as if he was attacking the President personally by revealing (but not really, because we knew about most of this) the details of the program. You can criticize Greenwald all you want, hate him even, but don’t lie about him and claim he’s some libertarian Obama hater who supported the Iraq war – those are nonsensical lies. I’ve been reading Greenwald since he started writing publicly in 2005 and he has always come at the constitutional questions he raises from a progressive platform.

Update: It helps when people I trust like Sen. Al Franken vouch for the program. Unless they sold out to the man!

California’s budget surplus now offers a lesson… rather than a cautionary tale

This piece by David Dayen in the New Republic is not new but bares review because California had a deficit as high as $42 billion and now has a surplus for the 2013-2014 fiscal year of $851 million. And while that is seemingly a miracle it is really the byproduct of smart politics and problem solving.

Actually the answer is quite simple. Progressive Democratic activists identified the straitjacket of rules that had the state tied up in knots, and devised a systematic plan to change them. Through massive organizing, they transformed the electorate and sidelined Republican obstructionists. Now, with surplus money on hand, they’re getting ready to fight a new battle over the next few years: whether to focus on budget balancing and debt reduction, or to continue to boldly invest in California’s future. National Democrats, mired in a series of endless fiscal showdowns in Washington, ought to pay attention: California suggests a way to overcome continual hostage-taking and government-by-crisis.

I lived in California during the worst of the budget paralysis, the Davis recall, Schwarzeneggar, rolling blackouts caused by Enron and Dynegy misdeeds, ie., the general rape of the state. Did not look at that time like there was any light at the end of the tunnel, but it goes to show what positives can happen when the monkey wrench in the system (the Republicans) are removed. Like the thorn removed from the lion’s foot, the effect is salutary. 

We want things fair and transparent, until we don’t.

Our hearts go out to a 12 year old girl and her family in PA as she waits for a healthy lung, in dire need of a transplant. She is on the UNOS system, a system set up to make sure that organs are distributed for transplant in a fair, equitable, blind and transparent manner entirely based on medical need and organ compatibility. Once on that system there is little one can do but wait and, if one is so inclined, pray. That will not stop desperate people from trying to goad the system to work better for them and that is understandable when someone you love is on the edge.

But the system works and has to be respected.

So when a court steps in to try to upend the system, besides being questionable interference in medical care, it’s a violation of a system that was set up to obviate such interference!

A federal judge has temporarily allowed a dying 10-year-old girl to move up the adult waiting list for a lung transplant, though an expert has questioned the decision on medical and ethical grounds.

“We are beyond thrilled,” Janet Murnaghan, the girl’s mother, told The Associated Press on Wednesday after U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson intervened in the case. “Obviously we still need a match.”

Baylson suspended an age factor in the nation’s transplant rules for 10 days for Sarah Murnaghan, who has been at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for three months with end-stage cystic fibrosis.

A court getting involved is an untenable violation of the system, no matter how well intentioned.

Lung transplants are the most difficult of organ transplants, and children fare worse than adults, which is one reason for the existing policy, said Dr. Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University Langone Medical Center.

He called it troubling, and perhaps precedent-setting, for a judge to overrule that medical judgment, and predicted a run to the courthouse by patients who don’t like their place on the waiting list.

“I’m not sure I want judges or congressmen or bureaucrats trying to decide what to do with organs at the bedside,” Caplan said.

What is truly disgusting would be if political operatives got involved to push their petty agenda, such as oh, right wing nut jobs using this little girl’s situation to attack HHS Secretary Sebelius for not just making a phone call and getting the girl a lung! (She’s a cabinet secretary, surely  she must have a spare girl lung at her disposal) 

This ridiculous Politico story implies that Sebelius is the person standing in the way of the girl getting a lung. While this one 2 days ago quotes Republican spokesmen unfairly saying that Secretary Sebelius has the power to change the system.  

While Sebelius can certainly order a policy review, as she did in a May 31 letter to the procurement network, her authority to intervene in a specific case is unclear.

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) told Sebelius that “[i]t simply takes your signature” to help this child.

Caplan said: “It isn’t clear no matter how many congressmen yell at Secretary Sebelius that she has the ability to do anything.”

This piece on the Fox News site is disgusting in its simplistic retelling of the story as a moral failure to save a little girl, and even worse a typical right wing victimization persecution story rather than the agonizing medical dilemma it is.

I agree with many who have said that this child is a victim of age discrimination.  But I also agree that Sarah has been ignored by our federal health leaders and has been placed in a bureaucratic Neverland.

Age discrimination?  Are you fucking kidding me?  

There are real issues involved in how the lists are created and those issues are medical issues that need to be dealt with unemotionally by the medical community. Because yeah, they can move pediatric patients onto the list and improve their odds, but that does push somebody else down the list with an equal and opposite reaction for those poor schlubs.

And further psychologizing ensued

Bad behavior on reality TV is a tested path to fame

“Reality TV normalizes narcissism,” said Audrey Longson, a New Jersey psychiatrist who recently presented research at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting linking bad behavior and reality TV viewership. “It’s alarming.”

Not sure if this seems contradictory to my earlier post on sociopaths, I’m not sure If Teresa Giudice (of the NJ Housewives) is a sociopath, I do know she and her husband are imbecilic troglodytes whose egocentric temper tantrums have made them famous and that shit… is… RIDICULOUS!

It seems like the word “infamous” is no longer operative, there’s only just famous now and that encompasses good behavior and very, very stupid and bad behavior. No one can think that’s a good thing. 

Confessions of a Sociopath – recognize anybody you know? you maybe?

Human behavior is endlessly fascinating. That’s why reality TV and real crime documentary shows are here to stay and not just another broadcasting trend. I’ve always disdained most formulaic action movie drivel (Michael Bay), because I find the real emotional pyrotechnics of human interaction, love, hate, ego, sexual desire, loyalty, betrayal (especially when it’s in French and directed by Eric Rohmer or in English by John Sayles) way more entertaining than explosions and chases.

We’re all amateur psychiatrists, aren’t we?  Analyzing our friends, neighbors, loved ones and the stranger who cut us off in traffic. I’ve worked in law firms most of my adult life and I have known people, very successful people, that I felt sure were either undiagnosed autistics (usually  aspergers) or in some cases even sociopaths (I have a sister-in-law I strongly suspect). They are great at the unemotional stuff, but lacking at basic human connections like recognizing complex emotional cues and are often frustrating people to deal with because of it. I know that “sociopath” word is very strong and denotes violent antisocial behavior, but the author explains that that is a  misconception.  

Recent estimates say that one in every 25 people is a sociopath. But you’re not a serial killer, never imprisoned? Most of us aren’t. Only 20 percent of male and female prison inmates are sociopaths, although we are probably responsible for about half of all serious crimes committed. Nor are most sociopaths incarcerated. In fact, the silent majority of sociopaths live freely and anonymously, holding down jobs, getting married, having children. We are legion and diverse.

This brutally honest self examination from Psychology Today are the Confessions of a Sociopath and I absolutely recognize the behaviors of other people I’ve known in her self-revelations. 

My sociopathic traits make me a particularly excellent trial lawyer. I’m cool under pressure. I feel no guilt or compunction, which is handy in such a dirty business… The thing with sociopaths is that we are largely unaffected by fear.

Which totally explains the ability of some people to lie to your face (salesmen, Bill O’Reilly).

But I am functionally a good person—I bought a house for my closest friend, I gave my brother $10,000, and I am considered a helpful professor. I love my family and friends. Yet I am not motivated or constrained by the same things that most good people are.

I don’t mean to give the impression that you shouldn’t worry about sociopaths. Just because I’m high-functioning and nonviolent doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of stupid, uninhibited, or dangerous sociopaths out there. (emphasis added)

I am fascinated by the idea that she thinks of herself as a “high-functioning sociopath,” meaning she functions in society without slitting people’s throats. Holy crap!

My secret is that I wish I was more like her. I wish I was more obsessive and less (rationally) fearful. Some days it feels like the people like the author run the world, for better or worse.

Tax Policy Fuels Inequality – Hello!!!

Thank God for Wonks and Wonkblog!  Two pieces caught my eye.  

This one by Dylan Matthews is about how only one third of the charitable deduction, largely taken by the wealthiest people mind you, goes to help the poor in the U.S. This is tough to nail down so the information here is from 2005 and one would hope with the economic meltdown of 2008 and the explosion of need for the homeless and hungry that there was some corresponding increase in giving.



Now, maybe helping the poor isn’t the only, or even the main purpose of the charitable deduction. Maybe part of being a liberal society that tolerates a variety of religious traditions is giving religious people tax breaks on what they give to their churches. Maybe donations to higher educational institutions, even donations that are poorly disguised bribes to get the donors’ children admitted, are worth subsidizing.

Art too and music, very worthy.  What gets me is that even the richest of the rich don’t give more than about 1.5% of their after tax income to charity. That’s depressing. I’d like to think that if I had millions at my disposal I’d be dispensing more than 1.5% of it. Geez, at least round up to 2% richies!!

Also, The Tax Break State by Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute examines who gets the tax expenditures (tax breaks) given out by Congress. No surprise, it’s overwhelmingly tilted to those stingy charity givers.


Luckily, the CBO released a major report this week breaking down tax expenditures (which is the boring, but more precise, term for tax breaks). Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews already went through the major charts of the report (with other, slower Web sites catching up later). But to get a sense of the size and importance of these things, consider this: The top 10 tax expenditures total about $900 billion a year. Over half of them go to the top 20 percent of households. About a third go to the top 1 percent.

The easiest way to understand the tax break state is to think of it in three clusters: (1) tax credits that boost the earnings of those in the bottom half of the income distribution, (2) tax deductions and exclusions that boost the middle class and upper-middle class, and (3) the exclusion of capital gains and dividends from income taxation, which goes to the top 1 percent.

This, then, is the fight in American politics. Democrats want to expand the tax break state for the poor and cut it for the rich. Republicans want to keep it for the rich, or possibly use it to lower tax rates on the rich, but they’re uncomfortable with the part of the tax break state that benefits the poor. Although shrouded in arcane tax terminology, this is one of the most important battles over who will benefit from our economic progress, and how.