“Every generation needs a new revolution.”
-Thomas Jefferson

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
-Martin Luther King Jr.

Staceyann Chin, National Equality March 10/10/09 photo: Ed Needham

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Adding Insult to Injury: Afghani/Pakistani Schoolgirls, the Taliban and Greg Mortenson.

Unfortunate news came via CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday night. Greg Mortensen, author of "Three Cups of Tea" and founder of the charity "Central Asia Institute" whose mission it is to build schools for girls (and boys) in Pakistan and Afghanistan in spite of threat by the Taliban, is having his James Frey moment (remember, Million Little Pieces, Oprah..). Only for Mr. Mortensen, things are worse. Much worse. Besides being found fabricating entire accounts of his memoir recounting his experiences with the kind people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who live under fear of the one of the worlds most violent and repressive regimes, the Taliban; the author has also been found to be using funds from his charity for his own use while vastly exaggerating the work of the charity being done on building schools in these blighted areas. Consequently, Mr. Mortensen, a mountaineer turned writer/lecturer, has sullied an issue so compelling, so completely distilling of the good vs. evil plight of central asians under Taliban rule, he may have permanently set back the cause he has championed. Mr. Frey embarrassed Oprah (admittedly, no minor transgression), while Mr. Mortensen may have stolen the future of a portion of the hundreds of thousands of children whose best ideation of their future is survival at best. Hardly more than a metaphor in common.

Mortensen with schoolchildren.

Its a raw deal to be born a girl on Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. First, with the world's highest infant mortality rate, 25% of children die before they reach school age. Then there's the school thing. Traditional schooling is replaced by madrassas for boys. In some countries, these seminary-like schools teach the Koran just as American Christian schools might teach the bible. But not these Taliban madrasses, they teach the Koran like the KKK teach the bible. And, likely for the better, women are not allowed. 

What is worse, there are no alternatives other than home religious education for girls. For the Taliban, a girls education above the age of 8 is forbidden. And that is just the official version, as schools with younger students have been bombed, gassed or otherwise destroyed. In the 90's, when the Taliban held free reign over Afghanistan, it was decreed that woman would no longer work outside the home. As a result, nearly 7,800 women teachers were dismissed, leaving 148,000 boys and 106,000 girls without teachers.

Government troops inspect the completely demolished 21 room girls school, blown up by Taliban forces 25 miles west of Peshawar in 2009.

Since the fall of the Taliban government, the Taliban, in partial exile, mainly in the area of Waziristan and the Swat Valley in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, has enforced it's own interpretation of Sharia Law against those sinful enough to educate girls (or any children in a secular fashion). Their brave warriors have blown or otherwise demolished at least 185 schools  (an estimated 130, girls only) and gassed others, and on at least one occasion in 2006 at a girls school in Lakshar Gar, armed gunmen walked through the gates, shooting and killing several young women, forcing another 900 private schools to remain closed under threat. Following one such bombing in Swat Valley in January of '09 a local lawyer,  Shoukat Saleem, was quoted the British paper, The Independent, “Yesterday there was a bombing of a school in Mingora, the main city,” he added. “No one is giving any education. Girls preparing for their matriculation exams in March have had to abandon their education. Unless the government or the Taliban announce that the situation will be ok, no one will take the risk.”
Afghan schoolgirls suffering from suspected poisoning are taken to hospital in Kabul. Photograph: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The same Swat Valley lawyer is also credited with filming on his cel phone the flogging of a 17 year old girl and her fiance for allegedly being along in the boys house, a serious offense under the Taliban's Sharia Law. The video follows below. Please be advised, while grainy, it is nonetheless disturbing.

On the upside, this latest media meme has thrust the issue of the Taliban and human rights, especially in relation to young women, back into the spotlight for at least another 15 minutes of infamy. Let us hope, and give us momentum, that the situation becomes the better for it and that it doesn't merely flame brilliant and quick, leaving a generation in darkness.

The full segment, courtesy "60 Minutes":

For more on the Mortensen debacle see:
Mondays NYT article by Julie Bosman and Stephanie Styrom
todays WSJ Blog.
todays LA Times. 

The are still plenty of courageous people and organizations doing humanitarian work on behalf of the young women and children of Taliban-controlled Central Asia that need assistance and visibility. These laudable (and credible) charities include:
Help The Afghan Children is dedicated to improving the lives of children in Afghanistan through quality education and helping them become educated, healthy, productive citizens.
Green Village Schools is a Portland, Oregon, based non-profit organization committed to building a generation of hope in Afghanistan.
Women for Women International provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Deal on Spin: how the President will try to put a nice face on cuts to medicare, the elderly and children while the richest 2% of American to save 10 trillion on taxes.

Progressives, get ready to be brokenhearted as our President betrays his base. Again.

President Obama just addressed the nation today at Geo. Washington University describing his plan to cut 4 Trillion dollars from the deficit. It was a great inspirational speech. Undoubtedly, the most talented public speaker since Reagan (perhaps more so because he actually understands what is both saying and omitting) will not mention the cuts in Medicare which, should it proceed, will force a quarter million elderly people out of the program. He will claim the concessions on Medicare, low interest student loans, medical research, after-school programs, Head_Start and minute assistance to other nations in humanitarian crises and democratic transition (less that 1% of the budget), not by name, but as a good idea. A victory for reform.

The President has approved cuts in medical, educational, and social programs. Things sacrosanct to most Democrats and many Americans and, if you remember, Candidate Obama. Yet, he is has found the necessary gall and political hypocrisy to step out before the cameras and claim his defeat as a victory for the nation. As expected, the president spoke in broad strokes, never mentioning specific agreed to cuts or approximate dollar or percentage amounts in any program.

Wow, right?

Just last December, the President, betraying democrats, some republicans and his own defining campaign promise furthering Bushs' tax cuts for the most wealthy Americans, totaling 10 trillion dollars. The onus of these financial cuts falls to the middle class and loans from overseas (China, mainly). This puts the contribution from the wealthiest to the lowest levels since 1931. What is fair, let alone patriotic, about that?

At a time when CEO's, on average, make over 300 times more than their employees, when fortune 500 companies move their "official" headquarters overseas, all the while waving the American flag in the media, unions are facing the lost of collective bargaining across America. Saving trillions of dollars in taxes to the country that has made their rise possible. People will often point to these wealthiest Americans as necessary to the creation of new jobs. The opposite is true. Many of today's largest, most successful, most job creating companies started in simple garages or dorm rooms of colleges. The rich did manage to jump on the bandwagon when these companies went public, buying up shares and reaping huge dividends.

The President is currently railing against the prescription he has already agreed to. He has promised continued investments in education, job-training, medicare, medicaid, and other pillars of the Democratic, but will failed to mention that these funding levels will be dramatically cut. If one were unfamiliar with recent compromises between the President and the far right-leaning GOP, one might feel reassured, even inspired by the speech.

The question begging to be asked, how is it he can make such compelling argument to the American people, yet fall so desperately short in a room with a few Republican leaders?

Were the Bush tax cuts eliminated, with a tougher stance on corporate tax loopholes, we wouldn't be in this situation. We'd be increasing levels investment in our country's future. Not finding ways to slash them, then working hard to put the best political spin on it.

Let us hope, there will be those who will illuminate the crevice between the President's talk and the President's walk. If the party base, the activists and progressives want a win in '12, they must feel that the President is following the path he describes so eloquently, with such conviction. The conviction of the party regulars, the activists, the progressives must be shared if the President is to have the opportunity of a second term. The margin of the winning the election, this time, will be a very small fraction of voters. The dedication and the belief in their president to show leadership on his commitments will directly reflect the contribution of time and money by the folks who got him elected in '08., and consequently, barring any unexpected scandals or surprises, will most certainly decide the presidency in 2012.

For video of speech go here.

For great analysis by Sam Stein courtesy Huffington Post go here.

The following is President Barack Obama’s prepared speech on deficit reduction:

Good afternoon.  It’s great to be back at GW.  I want you to know that one of the reasons I kept the government open was so I could be here today with all of you.  I wanted to make sure you had one more excuse to skip class.  You’re welcome.

Of course, what we’ve been debating here in Washington for the last few weeks will affect your lives in ways that are potentially profound.  This debate over budgets and deficits is about more than just numbers on a page, more than just cutting and spending.  It’s about the kind of future we want.  It’s about the kind of country we believe in.  And that’s what I want to talk about today.

From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity.  More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.  We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.  And so we’ve built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens.  We’ve laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce.  We’ve supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire industries.  Each of us has benefitted from these investments, and we are a more prosperous country as a result.

Part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us.  “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities.  We are a better country because of these commitments.  I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.

For much of the last century, our nation found a way to afford these investments and priorities with the taxes paid by its citizens.  As a country that values fairness, wealthier individuals have traditionally born a greater share of this burden than the middle class or those less fortunate.  This is not because we begrudge those who’ve done well – we rightly celebrate their success.  Rather, it is a basic reflection of our belief that those who have benefitted most from our way of life can afford to give a bit more back.  Moreover, this belief has not hindered the success of those at the top of the income scale, who continue to do better and better with each passing year.

Now, at certain times – particularly during periods of war or recession – our nation has had to borrow money to pay for some of our priorities.  And as most families understand, a little credit card debt isn’t going to hurt if it’s temporary.

But as far back as the 1980s, America started amassing debt at more alarming levels, and our leaders began to realize that a larger challenge was on the horizon.  They knew that eventually, the Baby Boom generation would retire, which meant a much bigger portion of our citizens would be relying on programs like Medicare, Social Security, and possibly Medicaid.  Like parents with young children who know they have to start saving for the college years, America had to start borrowing less and saving more to prepare for the retirement of an entire generation.

To meet this challenge, our leaders came together three times during the 1990s to reduce our nation’s deficit.  They forged historic agreements that required tough decisions made by the first President Bush and President Clinton; by Democratic Congresses and a Republican Congress.  All three agreements asked for shared responsibility and shared sacrifice, but they largely protected the middle class, our commitments to seniors, and key investments in our future.

As a result of these bipartisan efforts, America’s finances were in great shape by the year 2000. We went from deficit to surplus.  America was actually on track to becoming completely debt-free, and we were prepared for the retirement of the Baby Boomers.

But after Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed.  We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program – but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending.  Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts – tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade.

To give you an idea of how much damage this caused to our national checkbook, consider this:  in the last decade, if we had simply found a way to pay for the tax cuts and the prescription drug benefit, our deficit would currently be at low historical levels in the coming years.

Of course, that’s not what happened.  And so, by the time I took office, we once again found ourselves deeply in debt and unprepared for a Baby Boom retirement that is now starting to take place.  When I took office, our projected deficit was more than $1 trillion.  On top of that, we faced a terrible financial crisis and a recession that, like most recessions, led us to temporarily borrow even more.  In this case, we took a series of emergency steps that saved millions of jobs, kept credit flowing, and provided working families extra money in their pockets.  It was the right thing to do, but these steps were expensive, and added to our deficits in the short term.

So that’s how our fiscal challenge was created.  This is how we got here.  And now that our economic recovery is gaining strength, Democrats and Republicans must come together and restore the fiscal responsibility that served us so well in the 1990s.  We have to live within our means, reduce our deficit, and get back on a path that will allow us to pay down our debt.  And we have to do it in a way that protects the recovery, and protects the investments we need to grow, create jobs, and win the future.

Now, before I get into how we can achieve this goal, some of you might be wondering, “Why is this so important?  Why does this matter to me?”

Here’s why.  Even after our economy recovers, our government will still be on track to spend more money than it takes in throughout this decade and beyond.  That means we’ll have to keep borrowing more from countries like China.  And that means more of your tax dollars will go toward paying off the interest on all the loans we keep taking out.  By the end of this decade, the interest we owe on our debt could rise to nearly $1 trillion.  Just the interest payments.

Then, as the Baby Boomers start to retire and health care costs continue to rise, the situation will get even worse.  By 2025, the amount of taxes we currently pay will only be enough to finance our health care programs, Social Security, and the interest we owe on our debt.  That’s it.  Every other national priority – education, transportation, even national security – will have to be paid for with borrowed money.

Ultimately, all this rising debt will cost us jobs and damage our economy.  It will prevent us from making the investments we need to win the future.  We won’t be able to afford good schools, new research, or the repair of roads and bridges – all the things that will create new jobs and businesses here in America.  Businesses will be less likely to invest and open up shop in a country that seems unwilling or unable to balance its books.  And if our creditors start worrying that we may be unable to pay back our debts, it could drive up interest rates for everyone who borrows money – making it harder for businesses to expand and hire, or families to take out a mortgage.

The good news is, this doesn’t have to be our future.  This doesn’t have to be the country we leave to our children.  We can solve this problem.  We came together as Democrats and Republicans to meet this challenge before, and we can do it again.

But that starts by being honest about what’s causing our deficit.  You see, most Americans tend to dislike government spending in the abstract, but they like the stuff it buys.  Most of us, regardless of party affiliation, believe that we should have a strong military and a strong defense.  Most Americans believe we should invest in education and medical research.  Most Americans think we should protect commitments like Social Security and Medicare.  And without even looking at a poll, my finely honed political skills tell me that almost no one believes they should be paying higher taxes.

Because all this spending is popular with both Republicans and Democrats alike, and because nobody wants to pay higher taxes, politicians are often eager to feed the impression that solving the problem is just a matter of eliminating waste and abuse –that tackling the deficit issue won’t require tough choices.  Or they suggest that we can somehow close our entire deficit by eliminating things like foreign aid, even though foreign aid makes up about 1% of our entire budget.

So here’s the truth.  Around two-thirds of our budget is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national security.  Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and tax credits for working families take up another 20%.  What’s left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else. That’s 12 percent for all of our other national priorities like education and clean energy; medical research and transportation; food safety and keeping our air and water clean.

Up until now, the cuts proposed by a lot of folks in Washington have focused almost exclusively on that 12%.  But cuts to that 12% alone won’t solve the problem.  So any serious plan to tackle our deficit will require us to put everything on the table, and take on excess spending wherever it exists in the budget.  A serious plan doesn’t require us to balance our budget overnight – in fact, economists think that with the economy just starting to grow again, we will need a phased-in approach – but it does require tough decisions and support from leaders in both parties.  And above all, it will require us to choose a vision of the America we want to see five and ten and twenty years down the road.

One vision has been championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives and embraced by several of their party’s presidential candidates.  It’s a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next ten years, and one that addresses the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid in the years after that.

Those are both worthy goals for us to achieve.  But the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known throughout most of our history.

A 70% cut to clean energy.  A 25% cut in education.  A 30% cut in transportation.  Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year.  That’s what they’re proposing.  These aren’t the kind of cuts you make when you’re trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget.  These aren’t the kind of cuts that Republicans and Democrats on the Fiscal Commission proposed.  These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can’t afford the America we believe in.  And they paint a vision of our future that’s deeply pessimistic.

It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them.  If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them.  Go to China and you’ll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities.  South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science.  Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but biofuels.  And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the United States of America – the greatest nation on Earth – can’t afford any of this.

It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors.  It says that ten years from now, if you’re a 65 year old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today.  It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher.  And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck – you’re on your own.  Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit.  And who are those 50 million Americans?  Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid.  Many are poor children.  Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome.  Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care.  These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.

Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy.  Think about it.  In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined.  The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each.  And that’s who needs to pay less taxes?  They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs?   That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.

The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.  As Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan.  There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.  There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.  And this is not a vision of the America I know.

The America I know is generous and compassionate; a land of opportunity and optimism.  We take responsibility for ourselves and each other; for the country we want and the future we share.  We are the nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness.  We sent a generation to college on the GI bill and saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare.  We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives.

This is who we are.  This is the America I know.  We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit investments in our people and our country.  To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms.  We will all need to make sacrifices.  But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in.  And as long as I’m President, we won’t.

Today, I’m proposing a more balanced approach to achieve $4 trillion in deficit reduction over twelve years.  It’s an approach that borrows from the recommendations of the bipartisan Fiscal Commission I appointed last year, and builds on the roughly $1 trillion in deficit reduction I already proposed in my 2012 budget.  It’s an approach that puts every kind of spending on the table, but one that protects the middle-class, our promise to seniors, and our investments in the future.

The first step in our approach is to keep annual domestic spending low by building on the savings that both parties agreed to last week – a step that will save us about $750 billion over twelve years.  We will make the tough cuts necessary to achieve these savings, including in programs I care about, but I will not sacrifice the core investments we need to grow and create jobs.  We’ll invest in medical research and clean energy technology.  We’ll invest in new roads and airports and broadband access.  We will invest in education and job training.  We will do what we need to compete and we will win the future.

The second step in our approach is to find additional savings in our defense budget.  As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than protecting our national security, and I will never accept cuts that compromise our ability to defend our homeland or America’s interests around the world.  But as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, has said, the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security is America’s debt.

Just as we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense.   Over the last two years, Secretary Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending.  I believe we can do that again.  We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world.  I intend to work with Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs on this review, and I will make specific decisions about spending after it’s complete.

The third step in our approach is to further reduce health care spending in our budget.  Here, the difference with the House Republican plan could not be clearer:  their plan lowers the government’s health care bills by asking seniors and poor families to pay them instead.  Our approach lowers the government’s health care bills by reducing the cost of health care itself.

Already, the reforms we passed in the health care law will reduce our deficit by $1 trillion.  My approach would build on these reforms.  We will reduce wasteful subsidies and erroneous payments.  We will cut spending on prescription drugs by using Medicare’s purchasing power to drive greater efficiency and speed generic brands of medicine onto the market.  We will work with governors of both parties to demand more efficiency and accountability from Medicaid.  We will change the way we pay for health care – not by procedure or the number of days spent in a hospital, but with new incentives for doctors and hospitals to prevent injuries and improve results.  And we will slow the growth of Medicare costs by strengthening an independent commission of doctors, nurses, medical experts and consumers who will look at all the evidence and recommend the best ways to reduce unnecessary spending while protecting access to the services seniors need.

Now, we believe the reforms we’ve proposed to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid will enable us to keep these commitments to our citizens while saving us $500 billion by 2023, and an additional one trillion dollars in the decade after that.  And if we’re wrong, and Medicare costs rise faster than we expect, this approach will give the independent commission the authority to make additional savings by further improving Medicare.

But let me be absolutely clear:  I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society.  I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs.  I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves.  We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.

That includes, by the way, our commitment to Social Security.  While Social Security is not the cause of our deficit, it faces real long-term challenges in a country that is growing older.  As I said in the State of the Union, both parties should work together now to strengthen Social Security for future generations.  But we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

The fourth step in our approach is to reduce spending in the tax code.  In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans.  But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society.  And I refuse to renew them again.

Beyond that, the tax code is also loaded up with spending on things like itemized deductions.  And while I agree with the goals of many of these deductions, like homeownership or charitable giving, we cannot ignore the fact that they provide millionaires an average tax break of $75,000 while doing nothing for the typical middle-class family that doesn’t itemize.

My budget calls for limiting itemized deductions for the wealthiest 2% of Americans – a reform that would reduce the deficit by $320 billion over ten years.  But to reduce the deficit, I believe we should go further.  That’s why I’m calling on Congress to reform our individual tax code so that it is fair and simple – so that the amount of taxes you pay isn’t determined by what kind of accountant you can afford.  I believe reform should protect the middle class, promote economic growth, and build on the Fiscal Commission’s model of reducing tax expenditures so that there is enough savings to both lower rates and lower the deficit.  And as I called for in the State of the Union, we should reform our corporate tax code as well, to make our businesses and our economy more competitive.

This is my approach to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next twelve years.  It’s an approach that achieves about $2 trillion in spending cuts across the budget.  It will lower our interest payments on the debt by $1 trillion. It calls for tax reform to cut about $1 trillion in spending from the tax code.  And it achieves these goals while protecting the middle class, our commitment to seniors, and our investments in the future.

In the coming years, if the recovery speeds up and our economy grows faster than our current projections, we can make even greater progress than I have pledged here.  But just to hold Washington – and me – accountable and make sure that the debt burden continues to decline, my plan includes a debt failsafe.  If, by 2014, our debt is not projected to fall as a share of the economy – or if Congress has failed to act – my plan will require us to come together and make up the additional savings with more spending cuts and more spending reductions in the tax code.  That should be an incentive for us to act boldly now, instead of kicking our problems further down the road.

So this is our vision for America – a vision where we live within our means while still investing in our future; where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all the burden; where we provide a basic measure of security for our citizens and rising opportunity for our children.

Of course, there will be those who disagree with my approach.  Some will argue we shouldn’t even consider raising taxes, even if only on the wealthiest Americans.  It’s just an article of faith for them.  I say that at a time when the tax burden on the wealthy is at its lowest level in half a century, the most fortunate among us can afford to pay a little more.  I don’t need another tax cut.  Warren Buffett doesn’t need another tax cut.  Not if we have to pay for it by making seniors pay more for Medicare.  Or by cutting kids from Head Start.  Or by taking away college scholarships that I wouldn’t be here without.  That some of you wouldn’t be here without.  And I believe that most wealthy Americans would agree with me.  They want to give back to the country that’s done so much for them.  Washington just hasn’t asked them to.

Others will say that we shouldn’t even talk about cutting spending until the economy is fully recovered.  I’m sympathetic to this view, which is one of the reasons I supported the payroll tax cuts we passed in December.  It’s also why we have to use a scalpel and not a machete to reduce the deficit – so that we can keep making the investments that create jobs.  But doing nothing on the deficit is just not an option.  Our debt has grown so large that we could do real damage to the economy if we don’t begin a process now to get our fiscal house in order.

Finally, there are those who believe we shouldn’t make any reforms to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security out of a fear that any talk of change to these programs will usher in the sort of radical steps that House Republicans have proposed.  I understand these fears.  But I guarantee that if we don’t make any changes at all, we won’t be able to keep our commitments to a retiring generation that will live longer and face higher health care costs than those who came before.

Indeed, to those in my own party, I say that if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have the obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments.  If we believe that government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works – by making government smarter, leaner and more effective.

Of course, there are those who will simply say that there’s no way we can come together and agree on a solution to this challenge.  They’ll say the politics of this city are just too broken; that the choices are just too hard; that the parties are just too far apart.  And after a few years in this job, I certainly have some sympathy for this view.

But I also know that we’ve come together and met big challenges before.  Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill came together to save Social Security for future generations.  The first President Bush and a Democratic Congress came together to reduce the deficit.  President Clinton and a Republican Congress battled each other ferociously and still found a way to balance the budget.  In the last few months, both parties have come together to pass historic tax relief and spending cuts.  And I know there are Republicans and Democrats in Congress who want to see a balanced approach to deficit reduction.

I believe we can and must come together again.  This morning, I met with Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress to discuss the approach I laid out today.  And in early May, the Vice President will begin regular meetings with leaders in both parties with the aim of reaching a final agreement on a plan to reduce the deficit by the end of June.

I don’t expect the details in any final agreement to look exactly like the approach I laid out today.  I’m eager to hear other ideas from all ends of the political spectrum.  And though I’m sure the criticism of what I’ve said here today will be fierce in some quarters, and my critique of the House Republican approach has been strong, Americans deserve and will demand that we all bridge our differences, and find common ground.

This larger debate we’re having, about the size and role of government, has been with us since our founding days.  And during moments of great challenge and change, like the one we’re living through now, the debate gets sharper and more vigorous.  That’s a good thing.  As a country that prizes both our individual freedom and our obligations to one another, this is one of the most important debates we can have.

But no matter what we argue or where we stand, we’ve always held certain beliefs as Americans.  We believe that in order to preserve our own freedoms and pursue our own happiness, we can’t just think about ourselves.  We have to think about the country that made those liberties possible.  We have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community.  And we have to think about what’s required to preserve the American Dream for future generations.

This sense of responsibility – to each other and to our country – this isn’t a partisan feeling.  It isn’t a Democratic or Republican idea.  It’s patriotism.

The other day I received a letter from a man in Florida.  He started off by telling me he didn’t vote for me and he hasn’t always agreed with me.  But even though he’s worried about our economy and the state of our politics, he said,

“I still believe.  I believe in that great country that my grandfather told me about.   I believe that somewhere lost in this quagmire of petty bickering on every news station, the ‘American Dream’ is still alive…

We need to use our dollars here rebuilding, refurbishing and restoring all that our ancestors struggled to create and maintain…We as a people must do this together, no matter the color of the state one comes from or the side of the aisle one might sit on.”

I still believe as well.  And I know that if we can come together, and uphold our responsibilities to one another and to this larger enterprise that is America, we will keep the dream of our founding alive in our time, and pass on to our children the country we believe in.  Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Assassination of Arab-Jewish peace activist, Juliano Mer.

Courtesy of our friend Andrew Sullivan and The Dish.

Friends hang a poster of Arab-Jewish actor and director Juliano Mer-Khamis outside The Almidan Theatre on April 5, 2011 in Haifa, Israel. The 52-year-old and director of the theatre was shot dead by unknown gunmen in the West Bank city of Jenin. By Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

"I don’t understand the murder. He was a man who was totally there to deal with the things he believed in and I find it hard to understand the twisted rational of the people who did this. He was a special person, brave but crazy to do what he did," - actor Alon Abutbul, speaking of a remarkable Israeli peace activist, Juliano Mer, who was assassinated by a masked gunman at close range in Jenin. More on this horrible news at the Guardian. A reader writes from Israel:

People I know here in Israel just can’t stop crying. Juliano Mer was the Nazareth-born and bred son of an Israeli Jewish mother and an Israeli Christian Arab father, both lefty activists, and they clearly did something right because instead of losing his mind, he tried to quietly and with dignity remake the world we live in.

It’s not Libya, but it’s a bone-chilling night here too.

[we think so too. r.i.p. Mr. Mer, and thank you Mr. Sullivan]

A Few Bad Men: What do Terry Jones, Fred Phelps and Osama bin Laden have in common?

Afghans carry a wounded man following an attack on the UN office during a protest against the burning of a copy of the Quran by a Florida pastor, Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, Friday, April. 1, 2011. Photo courtesy AP

"I would hope that Pastor Terry Jones and his supporters will consider the ramifications of their planned book-burning event. It will feed the fire of caustic rhetoric and appear as nothing more than mean-spirited religious intolerance. Don't feed that fire. If your ultimate point is to prove that the Christian teachings of mercy, justice, freedom, and equality provide the foundation on which our country stands, then your tactic to prove this point is totally counter-productive." Sarah Palin, from her Facebook page prior to the event.

As a direct result of Terry Jones' well-publicized burning of the Koran on March 20th outside his church, the ironically named Dove World Outreach Center (designated as one of the 18 leading "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010 for his attacks on homosexuality), riots occurred in the Muslim world. One of these riots, as pictured above, led to the deaths of at least 12 people (including 8 UN employees) and left nearly 100 injured.

Mr. Jones has the right to burn any book he wishes. It is a freedom of speech. One of the many freedoms the country has fought to protect for over the past two centuries. Yet, with rights come responsibilities, and his actions are the antithesis of responsible. He has sent teens to school with t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase "Islam is the Devil" and distributed lawn signs of the same verbiage. He has joined with the infamous Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church of the godhatesfags.com infamy for an anti-gay rally, saying last April “[h]omosexuality makes God throw up.”

Just as the invasion of Iraq following 9/11 became al-Qaeda's best recruiting tool, Mr. Jones' actions only solidify the rhetoric of the equally extreme fundamentalists in the Muslim world.

Neither the Dove World Outreach Center, the Westboro Baptist Church, al-Qaeda or the Taliban have any true connection to the faiths they invoke save for the self-serving fictions created and fanned by the likes of Jones, Phelps and bin Laden. What they do share is intolerance, hate and violence; the very opposite of the most basic theology of the world's many faiths.

The onus then falls to the rest of us to do our best to undue the damage done by the promoters of hate. To speak out against such actions as the Koran burning last month. To speak to the vastly greater bulk of similarities between faiths than the differences. To proclaim, even evangelize, and live the most shared edict, the distillation of all of our faiths: the golden rule, to treat others as we would wish to be treated. History teaches that truth, eventually, prevails as Christianity teaches "blessed are the peacemakers" and the Koran teaches that respect for the lives of all is sacred.  We ask that you, the reader, join us in putting our collective shoulder against the side of truth and the golden rule, to move it along so that's it's momentum may never know the slightest restraint as a result of the actions of a few bad men.

Below, an excellent commentary by Cathleen Falsani.

Terry Jones: Holy Hand Grenade Outreach Center
By Cathleen Falsani

courtesy Religion News Service 6 April 2011

(RNS) The website of the Dove World Outreach Center describes the tiny church in Gainesville, Fla., as “a New Testament church based on the Bible, the Word of God.”

Someone might want to tell them that they missed that whole “Blessed are the peacemakers” part.

While there is great debate about what, exactly, Jesus meant by many things he is quoted as saying in the New Testament, the “peacemakers” passage is not one of them. It is eminently clear that Jesus was talking not just about being peaceful, but also creating peace in the world.

As we’re all too painfully aware by now, the church, led by Pastor Terry Jones, put the Quran on trial on March 20 and set it aflame as punishment. That act, in turn, sparked deadly riots in Afghanistan that killed nearly two dozen people, including several United Nations peacekeepers.

To lob a religious grenade into the fragile tinderbox that is the Islamic world is the opposite of what Jesus described.

“We do not feel responsible — no,” Jones said in an interview with ABC News. “We feel more that the Muslims and radical Islam uses that as an excuse. If they didn’t use us as an excuse, they would use a different excuse.”

Whether the kind of violent response witnessed in Afghanistan over the past week was Jones’ intention or not, it is precisely what his actions have wrought.

That is not peaceable. It is wrong. It is sinful. It flies in the face of the message that the Prince of Peace brought to the world, and makes a mockery of the white dove referenced in the very name of Jones’ horribly misled church.

When Jesus said that “peacemakers” would be blessed and called the “children of God,” he wasn’t just talking about people who are peaceful or hope for peace. Jesus was talking specifically about those who “make” peace, those who work for harmony in conflict and unity in divisions.

Jones told ABC that he presided at the “International Judge the Quran Day” event and the subsequent burning to raise “awareness of this dangerous religion and this dangerous element” within Islam.

The irony that his asinine actions portrayed his own Christian faith and values as pretty dangerous themselves seems to be lost on Jones. But it’s not lost on many other Christians, Muslims and people of good faith around the globe: the British government deemed Jones such a danger that in January it barred him from entering the U.K. to protect “the public

Theologically speaking, Jones shouted “Fire!” in a crowded theater. He caused a riot. Lives were lost. And their blood is on his hands.

The deadly potential of Jones’ Quran burning was something he was well aware of before he lit the match. Jones first threatened to burn the Muslim holy book last fall on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. President Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and a host of international political and religious leaders publicly urged Jones to abandon his plans. And for a time, he did.

But six months later, ignoring political, religious and military warnings about the clear and present danger of his plans, Jones brazenly carried them out anyway.

Although Jones shares culpability for the deaths in Afghanistan with his fellow religious extremists (in this case Muslim rather than Christian fundamentalists) whose insane rage physically took so many lives, Jones was the catalyst, the chief provoker and inciter.

While Jones claims it was within his civil and constitutional rights to burn the Quran, some legal experts, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, are seriously questioning whether the First Amendment should protect speech that directly incites violence at home or abroad.

In a 1919 Supreme Court decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that even the “most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” The question to be answered, Holmes said, “is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

Breyer, in an interview last September, is trying to figure out what that means in the 21st century.

“Holmes said it doesn’t mean you can shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” Breyer said. “Well, what is it? Why? Because people will be trampled to death. And what is the crowded theater today? What is the being trampled to death?”

Whether Jones’ words and actions are or should be protected by the Constitution is a matter for the courts to decide. But in the court of public opinion and in the realm of religious ethics, Jones stands in violation of all that is right and just.

Jones should remove the dove from his church name and replace it with a more accurate symbol of what it stands for. A holy hand grenade, perhaps?

For the original article go here.

He's talking about the GOP Primary, people, so just relax...

An interesting, brief analysis of a possible (not, mind you, probable) path to the GOP nod for the curious woman from Minnesota. It still strikes us as inconceivable that all these pieces would fall into place, but one cannot deny: a) she's out-raised Mitt Romney in the first quarter, b) she has Huckabee's very capable former political director, Wes Enos, to head up her team, and c) she is THE Tea Party Candidate, i.e. she has the most motivated and energetic political, grassroots semi-organization on the ground at the moment in the U.S.

And, lest we forget, at one time it was a given that a) Howard Dean stood no chance outside VT, b) there was no way G.W. Bush would beat Gore in '00, and c) there was no was no way G.W. Bush would beat ANYONE in '04.

Still, for Bachmann to bag the nomination, it means she and her pitchfork-partisans would need to successfully storm the GOP convention in Tampa next year. We think there are still enough moderate/sane Republicans out there who wouldn't let that happen as they realize, while the disaffected and disillusioned Tea Partiers would be dancing down the Main Streets of America, the Democrats would be dancing right alongside them.

How Michele Bachmann Could Win
by Jonathan Chait

April 5, 2011
article and photo courtesy of The New Republic

Michelle Bachmann is starting to make a move in the GOP primary. She's drawing strong reviews for her public appearances. She out-raised Mitt Romney in the first quarter. She's hired Mike Huckabee's well-regarded political director. And yet most reporters still believe she has no chance to win the nomination. The most bullish assessment I've seen, by Ed Kilgore, concedes, "it’s hard to imagine someone as radical as her actually winning the nomination." But I think Bachmann is a legitimate dark-horse possibility to win the nomination.

Now, my model of how the nomination works presumes the nominee will probably be someone who's acceptable to both the activist base and the party elites. That argument took me, by process of elimination, to Tim Pawlenty, the only candidate who 1) the base won't disqualify, 2) the elites won't disqualify, and 3) actually seems to want to run. But, as Josh Marshall points out, if Bachmann wins in Iowa, she could knock Pawlenty out of the race.

Then what happens? Well, you'd see the GOP establishment scrambling to unify behind a non-insane alternative. But as I've argued ad nauseum, I don't think that will be Mitt Romney. Or, if it is Romney, I think Bachmann could probably beat him. She'd carve him to pieces over health care, not to mention general inauthenticity issues. Haley Barbour? Perhaps. I could also very well envision some kind of effort to draft a young right-wing heartthrob like Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio into the race.

The best parallel I think consider is Howard Dean. No, Dean is not anywhere near as crazy as Bachmann. That's not the point. Both tap deeply into a well of activist anger against a sitting president that is not being fully satisfied by other candidates. Both inspire passionate activist volunteers, and make their rivals look phony by comparison. And both inspire terror among the party leadership -- Democrats in 2003 considered Dean just as unelectable as Republicans now consider Bachmann.

Of course, Dean imploded right before the Iowa caucus. But he could have won, and he was on the verge of sweeping right through the primaries, as he picked up steam through 2003 and the opposition fractured. Republican elites will mount a determined opposition to Bachmann. While the effort may be successful -- the way GOP leaders rallied around Bob Dole to fend off Pat Buchanan in 1996 -- it may be a failure, like the effort to draft Wes Clark.

I think Bachmann has a genuine outside shot to win the nomination.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

More on AG Holder and the 9/11 Trial from our friends at the NYT

Cowardice Blocks the 9/11 Trial

Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. described a federal court trial for the self-professed mastermind of Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, as “the defining event of my time as attorney general.” On Monday, Mr. Holder’s dream for demonstrating the power of the American court system crumbled when he announced that the trial would take place not in New York City or anywhere in the United States but before a military commission at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp.

That retreat was a victory for Congressional pandering and an embarrassment for the Obama administration, which failed to stand up to it.

The wound inflicted on New York City from Mr. Mohammed’s plot nearly a decade ago will not heal for many lifetimes, yet the city, while still grieving, has thrived. How fitting it would have been to put the plot’s architect on trial a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, to force him to submit to the justice of a dozen chosen New Yorkers, to demonstrate to the world that we will not allow fear of terrorism to alter our rule of law.

But, apparently, there are many who continue to cower, who view terrorists as much more fearsome than homegrown American mass murderers and the American civilian jury system as too “soft” to impose needed justice. The administration of George W. Bush encouraged this view for more than seven years, spreading a notion that terror suspects only could be safely held and tried far from our shores at Guantánamo and brought nowhere near an American courthouse. The federal courts have, in fact, convicted hundreds of terrorists since 9/11. And federal prisons safely hold more than 350 of them.

The pandering toward this mentality began as soon as Mr. Holder announced his plan in 2009 to try Mr. Mohammed in Lower Manhattan. A group of senators, including Joseph Lieberman, an independent of Connecticut, complained that it would give terrorists a platform to rally others to their cause. Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, said the trial should be moved elsewhere because New Yorkers didn’t want it, as if prosecutors needed opinion polls to determine where to seek justice.

The final blow came from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who originally accepted the trial but then gave in to downtown business interests that opposed it for reasons of inconvenience. His office promulgated the absurd notion that security would cost $1 billion. Congress then made the trial impossible last year with a measure prohibiting any spending to move prisoners from Guantánamo to the United States.

Mr. Holder was right to sound bitter about the decision at his news conference on Monday. But the Obama administration must shoulder some of the blame. As The New Yorker reported last year, it did little to prepare the political groundwork for a local trial and barely defended the idea after the unfounded attacks began.

Given the circumstances, Mr. Holder is right to push for a military trial for Mr. Mohammed, rather than let him linger in indefinite limbo. His decision will test whether reforms to the military commission system will allow for both a fair prosecution and a vigorous defense. But Monday’s announcement represents a huge missed opportunity to prove the fairness of the federal court system and restore the nation’s reputation for providing justice for all.

Four More Years?

It is both fitting and ironic that the President doesn't really appear in his video released yesterday officially launching his 2012 campaign. The man who ran for president in 2008, Candidate Obama, has similarly not appeared in public or the oval office since his inauguration.

The video is intended to reach out to the grassroots network of progressives that handed him victory last time around. The trouble is that network is presently consumed fighting for collective bargaining rights for unions, fighting for equal rights for the GLTB community, fighting for a responsible tax policy, fighting for clean elections and stricter revolving door lobbying policies, and a whole host of issues we thought we'd have the President's back on. Instead, it is us out on a limb, waiting for the President to show us some love. It has been a very lonely couple years as the man who we saw leading a dawning of a new day, instead, stepped back and allowed for a twilight of the Bush Administration by extending the bulk of his predecessor's domestic and foreign policies.

The same day the video was released, AG Eric Holder announced Khalid Shaikh Mohammed would be tried before a military tribunal at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, allowing the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks to have yet another, more profound victory over the American people: the resignation of our civil liberties in the face of fear and intolerance.

Progressives are locked in heated discussion and have been for some time now. Where do we go? What do we do? What is our role in the current environment? As would be typical for Democrats, there is no consensus to be had. Some froth at the mouth at the slightest rebuke of their knight in shining armor. Some have pledged hard and fast to "Draft Dean" and "Draft Kucinich" campaigns, while the majority, presently entrenched fighting the battles they never expected to fight, let alone lead, are waiting. Waiting for what, specifically, no one seems to know.

The President will not be re-elected without the fierce loyalty and 'get out the vote' of grassroots progressives.  In the end, we believe, he shall have them if only because of fear of the alternative. But it is far more effective to be fighting for a belief than fighting against one. So until then, progressives must continue to be, as AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka put it, Obama's "troublesome ally."

Candidate Obama insisted his supporters call him out when he makes a mistake or wanders off the reservation. He has and we have. Repeatedly. Time and again with little to show for it. We may be ready to walk through hot coals for him as November '12 draws near. Until then, it is our responsibility to hold his feet to that fire. Our voices need to be as loud and compelling and more intelligent than the other side. Not a tall order? The voices must be as one. Unified and on message and on the streets. That is our challenge, our tall order. That is what will decide the next election for President of the United States.