Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Where to Start? I know it's the day before Thanksgiving, but I've really got a lot to say. Seems like a hell of a lot is going on today. I'll try to keep each of my points brief:

1) On December 28, 2002 (that's three days after the Spirit of Giving has been put back in the attic with the rest of the decorations), 800,000 unemployed people will lose their unemployment benefits. For every week thereafter, approximately 90,000 more will lose theirs. Why? Because the House of Representatives neglected to extend unemployment benefits before they adjourned. The Democrat controlled Senate passed an extension with bipartisan support, and some Senate Republicans, to their credit, are as furious and disgusted with the House as I am.

Anyway, we can approach this from a number of different angles. First, the vicious callousness of it is appauling. Second, when you recall that the House of Representatives had plenty of time to smuggle a huge windfall for pharmaceutical companies into the Homeland Security bill, you really start to get angry. Third, this is precisely the wrong thing to do in this economy. I realize that talking about the economy when 800,000 people are about to be put in such a desperate situation is itself a little callous, but that doesn't change the fact that this is bad news, even for those of us with jobs (or who, like me, are fortunate to be full time students living with Mom and Dad, who have jobs). Think of it like this: how much holiday shopping would you do if you were one of those 800,000? Let's see, should I buy a bike for Junior or pay January's rent? This economy is absolutely desperate for a strong holiday shopping season, and leaving 800,000 people out in the cold is a step in the wrong direction.

Lastly, I can't help but be reminded of my own pet issue: economic/tax priorites of the Republican party. It doesn't get any clearer than this, friends. The Republicans care more about protecting corporate money than in taking even the most minimal steps to ease the burden of the poor and unemployed. For more on this outrage, see here.

2) The media is in a veritable tizzy over Al Gore's comments about the influence of the Republican party in the mainstream media. While your reading all this stuff, imagine what would have happened if John Edwards or Howard Dean had said this stuff. Would that have caused a media firestorm? Doubtful. Exhibit A in the case for nominating Gore.

Anyway: Step One: read the interview with Josh Benson in the latest New York Observer. Step Two: read Dan Kennedy's comments, which are the most thorough and on the mark I've yet seen. Step Three: read Joe Conason's reaction here. By the way, I wouldn't have found Kennedy's comments without Conason's link, so cheers for that, Joe! Keep reading, and follow the link to Conason's latest column for New York Observer, and that will take you to topic number....

3) Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. Sorry, I just had to say that. Of course, he's no more an idiot than he is fat. He's a bald-faced liar, a hypocrite, and an insufferably self-satisfied, smug, arrogant, petty, juvenile blowhard. But he's not an idiot. Anyway, Conason's column addresses the whole Daschle-Limbaugh flap, where Daschle didn't accuse Limbaugh of deliberately inciting violence and Limbaugh didn't retract any of the hideously inflammatory, innaccurate, and inciteful things he said about Daschle, which unintentionally resulted in a sharp uptick in lunatic threats of violence from the lunatic fringe of Limbaugh listeners. Conason cuts through the bullshit, nails the "librul" media for sucking Rush's cock, and provides one delectable example of irresponsible punditry resulting in real threats of violence (delectable because the perpetrator was Pat Buchanan's crazy brother... you just can't make this up). Conason also gives us, as a parting gift, a sublime quote from Senator McCain, abjectly apologizing for calling Limbaugh a "circus clown". It certainly was a low blow, and an apology was in order.

That's all for now. Enjoy your Thanksgiving, everybody!
Two For One. I rarely cite The Daily Howler directly. It's so good, every day, that I could easily cite it every day and call it a meta-blog. Rather, I urge my readers to look into for themselves whenever they feel so inclined. But today, it is especially good ("incomparably" good, I suppose I should say). Today, you're getting 2-for-1. Not only do we get a thorough take-down of the latest anti-Gore spin points coming out of the "librul" media, we also get a nice update on the state of the war in Afghanistan. Click here. If the 11/27 isn't on the main page when you check, just scroll down and "Visit [the] incomparable archives", as the button suggests.

The brief version, for those on a tight schedule, is that pundits are spinning Gore's war criticism as "incoherent" without pointing out the highly credible sources he's citing, like the Director of the CIA and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What they say, which Gore has merely echoed and amplified, is that al Qaeda is no less a threat to the United States today than it was on September 10, 2001 (George Tenet, CIA), and that the war in Afghanistan is not going well, and requires a tremendous increase in both personnel and money in order to keep it from sliding back into the hands of the Taliban, and/or al Qaeda (Gen. Myers, Chm. of the Joint Chiefs).
The Bond Project: Die Another Day. Yes, I'm jumping ahead. I had hoped to complete my survey of the Bond franchise prior to seeing and reviewing this latest installment, but the pressures of law school, combined with my natural laziness and inability to follow through on my grand schemes, not to mention my extreme reluctance to sit through some of the more hideous films in the series, has slowed me down considerably. So, I've decided to hit the new Bond now and continue the rest of the project to eventually close the gap. I hope you don't mind. My comments on this film are based on only a single viewing (while I have or will have seen every other Bond film at least three times before writing the review). For this reason, the opinions expressed below are subject to change, even moreso than usual.

Die Another Day is the first Bond film of the 21st century, and it seems like the production team knew this and intentionally created a new Bond in a number of important ways. While I'm hesitant to call this or any Bond film "realistic" (for obvious reasons), this film did seem to be far more grounded in solid plausibility than most others in the franchise. First, it has a level of grit rare in the series history. For the first time in history, Bond is captured by his enemies and held prisoner for fourteen months. During that time, he is tortured mercilessly. It is impossible to imagine Roger Moore appearing in this film, because is makes such a huge departure away from the light-hearted fare of Moore's era. Not for the first time, Bond is working on his own, outside of the auspices of Her Majesty's Secret Service, and also not for the first time, there is some concern that MI6 might be working against him. While this tactic would quickly grow stale if overused, it instantly provides the film with a greater depth, and gives the character much more meat as well. It doesn't hurt that Pierce Brosnan and Judi Dench seem to be particularly capable of handling the complex relationship between Bond and M (did anyone else think they were getting a little too cozy in The World is Not Enough?).

But more importantly, the rules of thisfilm seem to have shifted slightly. Bond can be hurt, he can be vulnerable. Not since License to Kill have we seen Bond like this. And yet, there seems to be even more danger in this film, and certainly more action. The plot is fairly typical Bond fare, though, with one or two nice twists that mark it out as one of the more successful story-lines in the series. There are some minor plot problems. The identity of the traitor, whose betrayal resulted in Bond's captivity, is unguessable in the sense that the film provides absolutely no evidence on which the audience might have guessed the result. On one hand, this makes the revelation surprising and dramatically effective, but on the other hand, it looks pretty arbitrary (and a little unlikely, as well). Interestingly, what would normally be the principle plot of the film (the villains attempt to take over the world, or whatever) isn't really the main focus, which works wonderfully. It's a backdrop, it provides plenty of action (including a wonderful "Battle of the Bond Cars" sequence), and it's structured in such a way to keep the audience off-balance, never knowing until the climax what the relationships are between the parties.

Much publicity has been made about Jinx, the newest Bond girl, played by Oscar-winner Halle Berry. Unfortunately, neither the character nor the performance provide any justification for all the hype. Jinx is the perfect example of the modern Bond-girl cliche: tough, intelligent, an "equal" for Bond, but still functioning in a purely secondary capacity, and still requiring rescue from our gallant hero. A far more interesting female character in this film is Miranda Frost, played by the gorgeous Rosamund Pike. Halfway through the movie, I was thinking that this was a supporting character who was strong enough to become a recurring character. Of course, we haven't had a recurring Bond girl since From Russia With Love, so I knew that it was not to be. Shame.

I was particularly struck by Pierce Brosnan's preformance in the title role. It's the first time in his tenure that he's managed to give a performance better than "adequate". I've always thought that he was a good choice for the character, but that's simply about appearance, poise, physicality, and the ability to deliver the lines competently. This film is the first time Brosnan has managed to surprise me, to bring a new dimension to the character that I didn't expect to see. This obviously has a lot to do with the script, but Brosnan ably pulls off the most challenging Bond role since License to Kill.

My main complaint about the production is that it includes some seriously dodgy computer-generated effects. Laughably, really. I have CGI passionately. In most cases, it is extremely obtrusive, looks really fake, and totally destroys the illusion of reality that every film must rely on to succeed. The Bond series always distinguished itself by favoring reality over behind-the-scenes technical wizardry whenever possible, and I hope it will continue in that tradition.

Bottom-line: One of the most thoroughly enjoyable entries in the series, and I hope, an omen of a re-invigorated franchise. I definitely hope to see at least one more Brosnan Bond film before he hangs up his tuxedo, and on the basis of his performance in this one, he can stay as long as he wants to, as far as I'm concerned.
Bush vs. the World. No, I'm not talking about Bush-the-unilateralist using his supreme military might to take down an endless parade of enemies, beginning with Iraq and ending who knows where. No, I mean "Bush vs. the World" literally. That's right, boys and girls, it's time to talk about the environment, and all of the steps that Bush is taking to make sure that big polluters can go on polluting without interference from the "gubmint" or the "libruls".

First, cut the EPA's budget. Bush already did this, drastically, but the Democratic Senate was having some success in getting at least a major portion of that funding restored. Not anymore. With the Republicans in charge of everything, the EPA budget cuts will remain. Why should anyone care about this? It's easy: less police funding means less cops, which means more crime. Right? The EPA is the enforcement agency for all of our environmental laws, which makes them analogous to environmental cops. Cut their funding, we get more environmental crime. This isn't a prediction, it's an inevitability. Also, increasing environmental crime isn't just a negative consequence of cutting the EPA's budget, it's the whole point.

Second, change the regulations implementing the Clean Air Act. We all know that Congress makes the laws, but as we saw with the Campaign Finance Reform bill, "regulators" have tremendous influence in determining whether or not those laws will have their intended effects. In the case of environmental laws, the EPA is charged with the duty of drafting regulations which govern the enforcement of the legislation. Last week, the EPA announced that it was changing the rules on the Clean Air Act. The details are not important. All you need to know is that corporate lobbyists have been pushing for this change for a long time, and that the benefactors of this change have contributed huge amounts of money to the Republicans from the White House on down. It's unlikely that even a Democratic controlled Senate could have done much about this, except subpoena some documents to show the shoddy nature of the science on which these changes have been based. But, with the Republicans in charge, there will be no oversight.

Especially when you put anti-environmentalist zealots in charge of the relevant committees. James Inhofe is radical right-wing extremist (and if you don't believe me, ask him... he'll tell you the same thing) with an abysmal record on environmental issues. The League of Conservation Voters gives him the lowest possible rating. He now chairs the Senate Environment Committee.

People, the 108th Congress hasn't even started yet. It's only going to get worse.

Monday, November 25, 2002

How Bad Is It? Accoding to this article in the New York Times, the states are collectively facing their worst fiscal crisis since World War II. Is that a problem? Read the article and see how bad it is.

Thanks to the floundering economy, tax receipts are down all over the country. Why? Simple: higher unemployment means fewer people paying payroll taxes, which means less tax revenue for the governments (local, state, and federal). Of course, with higher unemployment you also tend toward lower consumption, which means reduced sales tax revenues for those states which have a sales tax. This can also effect other business taxes. But the point to take away from all of this is that a bad economy results in lower tax revenues. The flipside, of course, is that a good economy increases tax revenues, and this is precisely how President Clinton erased the deficit faster than anyone thought possible, by focusing on the economy rather than on the deficit.

So what does Bush do when the economy starts slipping... he cuts taxes. As I've said before, this is in theory a sound decision, providing that your tax cuts will have a stimulative effect on the economy. If you've fashioned your tax cut correctly, you will have a short-term drop in tax revenues, which will be reversed (in part, or maybe in full) by the increased revenues brought in by the fully recovered economy. If your economy doesn't recover, that "short term" drop in tax revenues will stretch.

That's where we are now. Bush's economy hasn't recovered (because his tax cut wasn't stimulative). That, in a nutshell, is why we have deficits (and even without the so-called war on terror, we would still have deficits, albeit less severe). But again, this is not limited to the federal government. And again, deficits are a much bigger problem for the states which are constitutionally prohibited from running them. So, the money is tight on the state level. And yet, the federal government, which is allowed to run deficits, is refusing to help the states out of the jam it created for them. That is why this fiscal crisis is the worst since World War II.

What Bush should do is to immeidately pump massive federal assistance back into the states, not only to protect their budgets, but also (as an added bonus of no real relevance to anyone) to protect the millions of Americans who rely on aid from the states, such as Medicaid recipients. When people start crying about the deficit, and about how the federal government can't afford to help the states out of the mess it created (which they will), Bush could magnanimously offer to rescind the more egregious parts of the tax cut, such as the estate tax repeal, to name one completely at random. Now, I know that you're not supposed to raise taxes during a recession, but the same rule applies here as above. It is not a tax hike to rescind a future tax cut, and even if it were, it won't hurt the economy to rescind a future tax cut of no stimulative value.

Who thinks Bush will actually do this? No one in their right mind. Does anyone have any idea what Bush actually will do, or do you think he'll continue to ignore the problem? It's an honest question. He can't ignore it forever, but he didn't earn much political capital from that dog-and-pony show in Texas last summer, and he's ideologically incapable of proposing any measures which might help the situation, so what will he do? If anyone has any thoughts on this, let me know.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Bankruptcy and Republican Rule. How many people have you talked to who believed that it really didn't matter who the president was. Have you ever met someone who literally didn't care? That's my friend Duke. Oh, he thinks Bush is an awful president, and (bless his naivete) he's confident that the voters will wise up and kick him out in 2004, but he won't kick him out, because he literally couldn't care less.

It's hard to talk to a guy like that, especially being someone who feels so strongly about politics, and obviously cares enormously. But, he's my friend, so I've had to learn to get along. [Honestly, in some ways it's harder dealing with apolitical duke than it is dealing with conservative Tucker.] But I always think of Duke whenever I hear or read a story that cuts to the core of how much politics really does matter.

Take a look a this frightening story about home forclosures being on the rise. The headline says it all: "Easy Credit and Hard Times Bring a Flood of Foreclosures". Read the story and you find out why. But, before you do that, would anyone care to guess? Think about it for a minute: you've got a situationwhere a basic, essential function of commerce which has worked well since time immemorial is starting to go wrong, and poor people are getting screwed whilke banks are laughing all the way to the... uh.... right. What might cause that to happen? Anyone? That's right: the loosening of banking regulations.

Raise yourhand everybody who gets loads of unsolicited credit cards. I do. Loads of the things. And you know what? I have awful, awful credit. It's getting better, slowly, but any responsible lender who looked by credit would pass out in a dead faint. And yet, these people are falling over themselves to extend me credit. Why? Because that's how they make their money. With their finance charges and their late fees. If I pay off my full balance every month, they don't make a penny on me, do they? But I've got terrible credit... I won't pay it all off right away, and I won't pay it ontime, but I most likely will pay it all off eventually, or at least keeping it going for several years. That's a lot of money in finance charges and late fees.

But what might happen is I might get into so much trouble that I'm forced to declare bankruptcy. Then, the credit card companies would be screwed, because my debts would be cancelled. Then, the credit card companies would lose not only the monthly payments but the total balance as well. That would be bad. But, bankruptcies among middle-class and lower-class consumers aren't all that high, so it's a risk the credit card company can allow for in setting its interest rate. That's why you pay interest, after all, to compensate the bank for the risk it's taking (and also to compensate the bank for the loss of the use of its own money).

But now, the risk of bankruptcy has been going up and up and up. More and more people are doing, and the credit card companies are not happy. Why did it happen? Loosening of lending regulations, allowing credit card companies to lend willy-nilly to people like me who just shouldn't be getting that much credit, constrained only by their own fear of consumer bankruptcies. So, now that bankruptcy is becoming a more serious concern, what is the solution? Tightening lending restrictions? No. The solution is to have Congress change the bankruptcy legislation so that middle and lower-class people can't use it to get out of debt. I know, there's an element of fairness involved here... if you have debts, you should pay them. I agree completely. But think about what this would mean.

Basically, the risk to the bank of extending credit would be slashed. Even if their customer declares bankruptcy, they still have to pay off the debt. So, why not extend credit to everybody? Well, that's a little extreme, but certainly companies will be a lot bloder in offering more and more credit to worse and worse candidates. What does that mean to the credit card company? More money. What does it mean to the consumers? More debt. What is that going to mean to America in just a few years? More poverty, more hunger, more homeless, more crime, more drug use, more prostitution. I'm not joking.

These things are linked. Economic and social problems in this country are linked, and Republicans refuse to acknowledge this fact. You foreclose on more homes, you have more homelessness, which will lead to more acts of desperation from poor, defeated people who have been pushed to the margins of society by a cruel, pro-business policy. It's a caricature that Republicans hate poor people, but there's some truth to it, because their policies create poverty and offer no hope of alleviating it. Poverty rates in this country grew under Reagan and Bush I, and they are growing now. Under Clinton, poverty rates went down. The Republicans are going to further stack the decks against people in favor of corporations, and the results are going to be more and more people who can't continue fighting an uphill battle against the entrenched forces of corporate wealth.

There's nothing we can do about this now. Just no that this is happening. And when you see articles like the one linked to above, read between the lines to see what's really happening. As you can see, that particular article, printed in the extremely radical left-wing New York Times, neglects to mention why foreclosures are up, and who benefits from this arrangement, or what the full impact on society will be, or how the Republicans already plan to make it worse in the next two years.