Quick Hits

Here are some other stories making the rounds today:

As I reported last week the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was looking at altering how it awards its Electors. Today, the Massachusetts Legislature approved a new law intended to bypass the Electoral College system and ensure that the winner of the presidential election is determined by the national popular vote. The full story in the Boston Globe.

In the wake of the largest leak of military-related documentation in history, the Congress approved funding for the wars in South & Central Asia. To his credit House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey, who had managed the $59 billion war funding bill, voted no in a final protest and helped to take another 101 Democrats with him but the bill still passed by a 308 to 114 margin. Twelve Republicans voted against the measure. As Politico reports "the scene was in stark contrast with just a year ago when but all but 32 Democrats supported a still larger $105.9 billion war funding measure for Afghanistan and Iraq operations." Still, the Obama Administration officials said the outcome showed that the classified leak had not jeopardized congressional support for the war and noted that the Senate had passed the money with no objection. The New York Times has more on the story.

The financial editor of The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes on how British bankers are buying up rare copies of an obscure book on the mechanics of Weimar inflation published in 1974 looking for clues on financial behaviour and the velocity of money. The great fear is really a deflationary asset spiral but these are preceded by inflationary spikes.

Over at The New Republic, Noam Scheiber does the calculus and finds that it points to the confirmation of Elizabeth Warren as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Yesterday, Matt Yglesias argued that nominating Elizabeth Warren would go a long way to breaching the gulf between many progressives and the Obama Administration.

Hail the size of golf balls fell across parts of South Dakota today. Pictures from the NOAA.

The Obama Race to the Top education program continues to move forward. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia were today named as finalists on Tuesday in the second round of a national competition for $3.4 billion in federal financing to support an overhaul of education policies. More from the New York Times.

Cigarette sales in California continue to plummet reports the Los Angeles Times. Californians bought 8.1% fewer cigarettes in fiscal 2009 — which ended June 30 — than in fiscal 2008.

President Pro Tempore Byrd Dies At 92

By now you likely know that Senator Robert Byrd passed away this morning. Other than pointing you to this article on West Virginia’s strange succession laws, I don’t have much to add to the news, but it would feel wrong not to mark it in some way. The natural death of a 92 year old man is never a tragedy, but our thoughts and condolences are with his family, friends, and colleagues today.

Byrd, who was raised in coal country and lost his mother when he was just one, was the longest serving Member in Congressional history and perhaps the greatest master of Parliamentarian rules in the country. The man served in the Senate for so long that when I gave tours of the Capitol Building as a Senate intern in 2008, I mentioned him by name at three points along the way: at an exhibit of an old-school subway car, the amendment room, and the Appropriations suite. No other Senator mattered along the tour that way – when you serve for that long, you become a part of the building itself.

I always admire a man who can admit his mistakes, and his was a doozy: he joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1942. But to his credit, he was renouncing it as early as 1952, well before membership in the Klan was a liability in a place like West Virginia and well before national civil rights laws were passed. Of course, a renouncement isn’t a denouncement – that would come much later, but come it did. “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened.” And, "My only explanation for the entire episode is that I was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision -- a jejune and immature outlook -- seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions.” Those were Byrd’s words in 2005. He didn’t need to say them; he did not face a serious re-election challenge in 2006. They were heart felt.

Here is part two of his floor speech regarding the Iraq War, from 2003.

Memorial Day open thread: Guns, not butter

Since Memorial Day was established a few years after the Civil War, Americans have marked the holiday every year by remembering our war dead (ok, almost all our war dead). In his weekly address, President Barack Obama asked Americans to honor "not just those who’ve worn this country’s uniform, but the men and women who’ve died in its service; who’ve laid down their lives in defense of their fellow citizens; who’ve given their last full measure of devotion to protect the United States of America."

Every so often I read the I Got The News Today profiles of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to an old Jewish teaching, saving one life is equivalent to saving the whole world. The IGTNT diaries, like "Six More Lost to All Who Loved Them," are a crushing reminder that the death of one person is like the death of the whole world to the people left behind.

The IGTNT series will likely continue for many more years. The number of Americans killed in Afghanistan recently passed 1,000, and we are preparing to send an additional 30,000 troops there. Although we have fewer troops in Iraq now than we did for most of the past seven years, we have more troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined now than we did when Obama became president.

The price of these wars is also enormous in monetary terms. On May 30 the estimated cost of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq exceeded $1 trillion. We could have done lots of things with that kind of money. On May 27 the U.S. Senate passed yet another war supplemental funding bill, this time for $58.8 billion. On May 28 the House passed the $726 billion Defense Authorization Bill for 2011 (roll call here).

Meanwhile, Congress adjourned for the Memorial Day weekend without extending unemployment benefits or passing another jobs bill. This economic relief bill had already been watered down because of "concerns" about deficit spending. You'll notice few members of Congress are concerned about deficit spending to fund our endless war machine.

For some people, Memorial Day is first and foremost the unofficial beginning of summer. Feel free to share any fun plans or picnic recipes in the comments. We've been invited to a potluck today, and I haven't decided whether to make my favorite chick pea dish (from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking), a North African potato salad with olive oil and spices, or a pasta salad with a Chinese-style peanut butter sauce. I like to bring vegan dishes to potlucks so I don't worry if they sit outside for a few hours. Also, the party I'm attending may include some vegetarians and people who keep kosher (they don't mix meat with dairy in the same meal).

This is an open thread. What's on your mind?

UPDATE: Graphs showing number of days in Iraq and number of U.S. deaths in Iraq before and after President George W. Bush announced "Mission Accomplished."

Imagine if they hadn't lied

An addiction to Oil has come to undue this nation in more ways than one.

Over a Trillion wasted on Iraq and Afghanistan, over 5000 dead Americans, hundreds of thousands of others dead too.

That's $1,000,000,000,000 toward war. And now, as promised they wouldn't, its time for another supplemental war bill to fund the appetite for war.

Alan Grayson:

On May 30, 2010, at 10:06 a.m, the direct cost of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan will hit $1 trillion. And in a few weeks, the House of Representatives will be asked to vote for $33 billion of additional "emergency" supplemental spending to continue the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. There will be the pretense of debate - speeches on the floor of both chambers, stern requests for timetables or metrics or benchmarks - but this war money will get tossed in the wood chipper without difficulty, requested by a President who ran on an anti-war platform. Passing this legislation will mark the breaking of another promise to America, the promise that all war spending would be done through the regular budget process. Not through an off-budget swipe of our Chinese credit card.

The war money could be used for schools, bridges, or paying everyone's mortgage payments for a whole year. It could be used to end federal income taxes on every American's first $35,000 of income, as my bill, the War Is Making You Poor Act, does. It could be used to close the yawning deficit, supply health care to the unemployed, or for any other human and humane purpose.

Instead, it will be used for war. Because, as Orwell predicted in 1984, we've reached the point where everyone thinks that we've always been at war with Eastasia. Why?

Not because Al Qaeda was sheltered in Iraq. It wasn't. And not because Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan. It isn't. Bush could never explain why we went to war in Iraq, and Obama can't explain why we are 'escalating' in Afghanistan.

So, why? Why spend $1 trillion on a long, bloody nine-year campaign with no justifiable purpose?

Remember 9/11, the day that changed everything? That was almost a decade ago. Bush's response was to mire us in two bloody wars, wars in which we are still stuck today. Why?

Betrayal of principle.

Now, the Obama defenders will jump in here to defend him, saying that Obama actually ran on escalating the war in Afghanistan. They will ignore the fact that Obama ran on an escalation of about 10,000 troops at one time, and not the bait and switch of the equivalent of moving 100,000 troops from Iraq into Afghanistan.

The Obama-led strategy of the Democrats on the wars has been nothing short of an entire failrure of principle for the Democratic Party. What became of the Party, led by Reid, to cut funding off of the war in 2007?

That was clearly the Democratic opinion in 2007. Its what led to all of the 2008 primary candidates to endorse pulling out of Iraq with some sort of timetable. Obama's going into Afghanistan was mentioned a couple of times, and always in the context of "two brigades" of troops "and some helicopters" or the like. Never as a war the equivalent of the disaster that became of the invastion of Iraq.

I thought it cynical politics at the time, not believing that Obama was a  really a believer in Bush's military solution of nation-building through billions of dollars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But, it's clearly a continuation of policy.

This is not the first betrayal, that came in 2009 already, the War Funding off the books. So we have another vote of principle upcoming. We'll see who shows up.

Oily Politics Led to Environmental Disaster

by Walter Brasch

           Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) had a good idea to slow or stop the Gulf Coast oil spill from reaching shore. Build artificial barrier islands, he told the federal government. He wanted the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River to strengthen and connect the existing barrier islands. The $350 million plan, which Jindal demanded be paid for by BP Oil, would establish an 80–85 mile barrier, about 200 feet wide and six feet high. The barriers would also protect the marshlands, the federal wildlife preserves, and a fragile ecosystem.

           When the federal government didn't respond, he threatened to have Louisiana do the job itself, and had his attorney general notify the Corps of Engineers that under the 10th Amendment the state had a right to protect itself during an emergency. After two weeks of discussion and analysis by the Corps, President Obama ordered the first of six islands to be built. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, the on-scene commander, said the first island would be a prototype; if it worked, five more would be built.  Jindal wants 24 islands, but believes the first six are a good start.

           The oil spill, more than 200,000 gallons a day and entering its sixth week, is now the size of Delaware and Maryland combined. Eleven workers are dead, 17 are injured, from the explosion of BP's Deep Water Horizon, April 20. Several hundred thousand marine mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles have been killed by the spill. Even those oil-soaked birds and mammals that hundreds of volunteers have helped clean may be only days from death. About 34,000 Brown Pelicans, recently taken off the endangered species list, and seagulls continue to dive through the oil-soaked ocean to get to the food supply. Thousands of migratory birds, during a two to three week rest in the Gulf Coast barrier islands on their flight north from South America, are dying. Sea Turtles, manatees, and dolphins still need to come up through the oil slick for air; eye irritations are the least of the problems they encounter. For about 5,000 dolphins, this is also their birthing season; mothers who survive may have oil on their teats; their calves may die from lack of nutrition or from ingesting the oil. The affected areas of the Gulf are also the spawning grounds for tuna, marlin, and swordfish. Even the fish, which may survive by staying below the spill, are affected by the oil. The coral reefs are being destroyed by the oil and what is needed to be done to break up that oil. More than 700,000 gallons of chemical dispersants, used to help break up the oil, add to the destruction of the balance of nature. Its toxicity may affect sea life for at least a decade.

           The $2.5 billion fishing industry, a major part of the life of the Gulf, has been devastated. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has closed about 46,000 square miles of fishing fields, about one-fourth of all fishing waters in the Gulf. The lucrative shrimp, oyster, and clam industries are not only closed, but the effects will last for more than one season. Boat captains and their crews are idle. Tourism at the beginning of what is normally a lucrative summer season is almost non-existent.

           Had the barrier islands been in place several years ago, the effects of the spill would have been significantly less. Erosion, combined with deep water oil drilling long before the Horizon explosion, had destroyed natural barrier islands and wetlands. A $14 billion proposal by the Corps of Engineers, supported by Louisiana, environmentalists and the oil industry to restore the area levees, wetlands, and barrier islands was rejected by President George W. Bush. Both he and Vice-President Dick Cheney, former oil company executives, were more concerned about protecting the oil industry than the people who would be affected by Big Oil.  Besides, they had a war to wage in Iraq, and $14 billion was too much to spend on domestic protections.

           Much of the $100 billion damage from Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, was not from the wind and rain but from the failure to provide adequate protection.

           It is that same protection, those same barrier islands that were destroyed by the oil industry years ago, that would have significantly slowed or stopped the nation's worst environmental disaster, one caused not by nature but the incompetence of mankind.

           "Drill, Baby, Drill" was once an in-our-face slogan of certain politicians and the oil industry that feeds them. It is now but a reminder that when mankind destroys the environment, there will be tragic consequences.

           [For more information about the barrier islands as protection for the environment, read Walter Brasch's critically-acclaimed book, 'Unacceptable': The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, available at amazon.com and other bookstores.]




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