26 March 2010

Items in the News -

No, not THAT item in the news - here are some other things I've seen that have been interesting over the past week or so.

1. This is big. President Obama has made 15 recess appointments to overcome GOP obstructionism in the Senate, with nods to GLBT Americans with a gay Georgetown University professor appointed to the EEOC, and especially to Labor with two appointments to a stymied National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In what the NYTimes is calling "A muscular show," Mr. Obama is perhaps signalling that he knows that it's futile to attempt to reason with a minority party hell bent on thwarting his every move, and perhaps he should use the executive power that he has, and the Congressional majorities he has, while he has them. It is simply unbelievable that 15 months into his presidency with large Dem margins in both chambers that he has not done more in this vein. Perhaps the health care "debate" showed Mr. Obama that the lying and screaming elements on the right cannot be reasoned with, that the reasonable Republicans - Ray La Hood, Mr. Simpson and the women from Maine - are all he's got in the way of bipartisan working relationships, and that stuff needs to get done. Here's hoping.

2. Iceland has outlawed its sex industry, for feminist reasons. As reported in the Guardian, under the headline "Iceland: the world's most feminist country," a grass roots effort by women's groups and the support of the out lesbian prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir (which has to be the coolest name ever, especially considering she is the first out head of state in the world) to reduce sexual violence against women and sex trafficking has made it illegal "...for any business to profit from the nudity of its employees."

Given that gender has a power dimension, and that male objectification of women leads to violence and victimization, I understand the need for the law. Balancing that against the core value of liberty, however, is difficult. As a feminist ally I absolutely support those measures that reduce victimization of women; however, as a gay male I am deeply suspicious of state efforts to regulate sexual behavior. Discuss.

3. Oh, the Catholic Church. In a piece in the L.A. Times, Tim Rutten, one of my favorite Times writers, describes how the Church's response to the latest wave of sexual abuse scandals has shown they haven't learned a whole lot over the past scandal-filled decade. For those not keeping up at home, when the current Pope was still just Archbishop Ratzinger of Munich (and acutely focused on hunting down doctrinal errors - and, yes, predictably, gay folk), he was evidently too busy to handle "personnel matters." That is what his defenders are euphemistically calling the response to sexually predatory priests who, in Germany as in the United States, got bounced from parish to parish under Ratzinger's rule. "Personnel matters." That's nice. Ratzinger DID have time, in 1981, to notice and punish a priest for saying Mass at a peace rally, but DIDN'T have time, in 1980, to notice or punish a priest who was transferred to a parish in his diocese despite a record of child abuse. From the NYT:
"Vatican experts say there is little evidence that Benedict spent much time investigating more than 200 cases of 'problem priests' in the diocese, with issues including alcohol abuse, adultery and, now under the microscope, pedophilia."
So now that this has come to light, what has been the Church's response? Pastoral care? Reaching out to the victims? Heh. Yeah, right. It's two fold - one, blame the media, and two, as Rutten puts it, it's a "everybody-is-responsible-so-nobody-is-to-blame defense." And it's disgusting.

I had excellent teachers - both religious and lay - throughout my 16 years of formal Catholic education. They were inherently decent, humane, intelligent people who taught me to think critically and for myself, to question authority, and to work for justice. I never came close to experiencing any form of abuse from any priest or nun in my life. I'm very lucky in that regard, I know, and I'm grateful for it. I do remember one conversation with my religion teacher in high school, Fr. O'Keeffe, a mentor who came to be a friend, when he said (and I'm paraphrasing here, 25 years later) that many priests buy into the "cult of the priesthood" and begin to feel entitled. Some men by personality choose the profession for exactly these reasons, to be exalted in a way their natural talents couldn't achieve for them. Some choose the profession as a way to hide from their demons of personal guilt, and shame over their drinking, sexual proclivities, and/or their inability to be successful, or their fear of not being successful, with personal relationships. Not all, of course, or even most, but some. Some. And you'd have to be a deaf and dumb pig not to have seen that. And those in control of the institution not only looked the other way, in many cases, but nurtured that cult of the priesthood for their own self-aggrandizement and as a recruiting tool. To now pretend that they have no culpability for it is beyond comprehension. I repeat - it's disgusting.

4. From the science news, twenty five komodo dragons were born in captivity in Indonesia, as reported in the Singapore Straits Times. The endangered species (pictured below) is down to 2500 living animals in the world, so 25 in one go is pretty significant. The babies were 2.8 to 4.2 ounces, and significantly cuter, like most species, in their current form than they will be when they grow up (right). New research has shown that their bites are fatal because they have an anti-coagulant agent in their saliva that causes their victims to bleed out. Nasty way to go. (Their natural habitat is limited to a few islands in Indonesia, so you should be okay.)

16 March 2010

Items in the news -

1. Relating to a previous entry, here's evidence via the Singapore Straits Times that maybe someone in Congress does have a spine when it comes to China's currency manipulation:

'When Premier Wen said that China's currency is not overvalued two days ago, that was the last straw and here we are to tell them we are going to force you to do it - plain and simple,' said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer as he unveiled the legislation at a news conference.


2. And in another bit of news that references the same previous blog post, President Obama has announced a new initiative to increase US exports as a means to strengthen the economy and increase jobs. (I'm not going to take all the credit for these two items appearing the week after I wrote about these issues, but if you read it here on Bren'sLeftCoast then you read it here first.)

3. In a headline that really doesn't need a lot of add'l context, from the Times UK comes this:

Cardinal Schönborn says celibacy partly to blame for clerical sex abuse

I know, you're all shocked. What is interesting is that this observation is evidently from a conservative Austrian Cardinal who has the ear of the Pope. Nothing will come of it, of course, despite the fact that priestly celibacy isn't dogma, wasn't practiced in the Church until Augustine's time at the earliest, wasn't required in the Church until the Second Lateran Council in 1139, and didn't really become broad practice until 1322. Whatever. It's all made up anyway, but it's fascinating to me how some parts of the made up stuff are stickier than others.

(One favorite? When I was a kid, if I didn't go to Mass on New Year's Day and then got hit by a bus, I was going to go to hell - it was a Holy Day of Obligation, and not to go was a mortal sin. Nowadays, however, if I were to skip Mass on New Year's Day AND it fell on a Saturday or a Monday, then I wouldn't be committing a sin; IF it falls on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday and I skipped, well, then, I'd be sinning. In the U.S. But not in Australia. I'm not making this up, but wow, they sure are.)

4. Elections have consequences, item a.) - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC") have a new head, and he's, gasp, actually a person of science. From the NYT comes an article detailing how Dr. Thomas R. Frieden has restored science and scientific methods - and austerity - to the CDC, imbuing it with a sense of purpose and getting rid of the non-scientific (personnel) and the frivolous (swivel desk chairs with cup holders in conference rooms) approved by former President Bush.

5. Elections have consequences, item b.) Did you know that in the Doomsday Scenario that our Sec'y of Defence would be incapacitated, former President Bush changed the order of succession so that instead of going to the Army Chief it went to someone under Rumsfeld? I try to keep up on things, and I had no idea. There were so many outrages under former President Bush that it was impossible to keep track. Well, President Obama has fixed it. From the San Jose Mercury News (which I'm not happy with, but I read...), comes this:

Obama's little-noticed March 1 executive order reverses President George W. Bush's doomsday plan, which bumped the service secretaries and elevated the most loyal advisers to the defense secretary at the time, Donald Rumsfeld.

Doomsday Plan - so what would we do if the top layer of our government were to be wiped out. And former President Bush, in changing standing policy, booted the Sec'y of the Army from the #3 spot to #6 - and elevated Rumsfeld's lackey, a Mr. Cambone, to #3. From the NYTimes on the same topic:

The Bush order, issued in December 2005 ... booted the Army secretary
out of the No. 3 slot in the order of succession, in favor of the under
secretary of defense for intelligence... [T]op Rumsfeld aides acknowledged at the time that the decision had dual motivations: It was an official affirmation of their trust in Mr. Cambone’s experience and intellect — and a slap at the Army’s leadership at the time.

So in a plan to protect our nation at its most vulnerable, we were playing politics?! "I am going to stomp my foot and make a change because I can, and Union be damned!" How irresponsible! Can you imagine the hue and cry from the faux Chicken Hawks were the shoe reversed, and President Obama were to try something similar? I bet you can. Unbelievable! We are lucky we got off as lightly as we did with eight years of that mendacious, petty man in charge. Go CDC and President Obama!

6. And on a lighter note, from the Honolulu Advertiser, Manoa Valley has caught its invasive Coqui Tree Frog!

Happy St Patrick's Day, all - Erin Go Bragh!

09 March 2010

What it costs to save a buck (Part 2)

I tried to buy a toilet brush the other day, and I walked out of the store with a bunch of sponges. They had toilet brushes, but they were all made in China and I do not buy things made in China if I can at all help it.

In addition to the environmental reasons, there are the realpolitik reasons. No one else on the international stage is a threat to the U.S. geopolitically except for China, and yet we - you and I, American consumers - keep transferring our national wealth there.

It's different than when we buy gas and transfer wealth to oil producing states in the Middle East, or to Nigeria, or to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. Each of those is problematic, for different reasons, but each is manageable from a national security standpoint.

The Arab states may be odious and our reliance on their natural resources may be morally troubling - unless you think that women shouldn't drive, have the ability to divorce abusive husbands or own property; or think that Israel should be wiped off the map; or think that private sex acts should land one in prison; or think any one of a number of things anathema to liberal Westerners - but the Arab states and their shadowy extra-governmental players are not a threat to Western Democracy or to the United State's standing in the world. They can harry us, and scare us, and cause our more cowardly leaders like former President Bush to cravenly sacrifice the values of centuries, but can you really imagine a multi-polar world in which Arab states are true rivals? Saudi Arabia as a threat to the United State's position as a global leader? It's implausible.

Nigeria cannot feed and educate its own people, and is a state riven by deep political, religious and ethnic divisions. Just this week there was bloody evidence that it is coming apart at the seams via yet another paroxysm of sectarian violence -it is not a threat to anyone but itself.

Venezuela has been somewhat successful in positioning itself as the head of Latin America's drift to the left, but even a coalition of very strong, united Latin American nations - which could perhaps be a counter balance to the United States - would take years to develop, and would not be led by Venezuela, it would be led by Brazil or Argentina. (And since I began this post the drift to the left seems to be slowing - Chile chose a rightist billionaire to succeed the center-left Ms. Bachelet.)

Despite all the billions and billions in national wealth that we are transferring out of this country for imported oil (and in 2005, we imported nearly 14 billion barrels a day at an average of $50/bbl, which is a metric crap-ton), squandering our national treasure for oil will have significant short- and medium-term implications, and it certainly has implications in terms of the environment and the capacity to fund domestic priorities, but it seems unlikely to have long term real-politik implications for the U.S. on the world stage.

When you think about China, can you imagine a realistic counterweight to the United States' role in the world? Do you see a rival? Is a bipolar world with those aligned with China and those aligned with the U.S. that difficult to conceive?

It's hard to believe how quickly this came about. My Aunt and Uncle visited China on some sort of farm exchange in the early 1980's, before visiting China was really done. They came back with pictures and impressions of poverty and crowds and a nation that was in no way in a position to challenge the U.S. (Everyone in the 80's was talking about Japan - remember? High schools couldn't offer Japanese classes quickly enough, and there was a general fear that a nation of 125 million people and no natural resources was going to buy up the United States.)

The trade deficit is the difference between what we sell and what we buy from another nation. According to the Census Bureau (source for all trade deficit figures), in 1989 our trade deficit with China was $6.234 billion. Sound like a lot? In 1999 it had increased to $68.68 billion. Ten times the amount, in ten years. In 2008, it was $71 billion - for one quarter of the year - for the whole year, it was $268 billion ($69.7 billion dollars in exports, $337 billion in imports).

We run a trade deficit with nearly everyone - by way of comparison, for 2008 we also had a trade deficit with Canada ($78 billion); Mexico ($64 billion); even Papua New Guinea ($35 million). (Nearly, but not everyone - Singapore buys nearly $12 billion more from us in bilateral trade. Makes me like Singapore even more.) One difference here is the size of the deficit in relation to the entire exchange. With Canada, our largest trading partner by far, our trade deficit is only 13% of the whole amount of goods exchanged. We sell them $261 billion worth of stuff, and we buy $340 billion worth of stuff. Our trade deficit is big, and growing bigger, but $80 billion on a total exchange of $600 billion - it's still pretty much a two way street. With China, it's a one way street: the trade deficit represents 60% of the total amount exchanged. For every buck of stuff they buy from us, we buy nearly FIVE bucks worth of stuff from them.

"So what?" you may be asking. "So what's the big deal about running a trade deficit?" With Canada, when it's relatively small (compared to the total of the bilateral trade amounts) - there is no big deal. It's a good deal, many would say - the markets are working, and we are buying stuff from them that they produce more cheaply or better, like cars, car parts, paper goods, electricity, aluminum, maple syrup; they buy from us stuff that we make more cheaply or better like cars (number one on both lists), car parts, plastics, computers. Consumers in both countries come out ahead - we save money, we stimulate each other's economy more or less equally, and no one, really, on either side of the border, is going to worry about the other foisting values that we don't share onto the other, or starting a war, or blowing each other's shit up. Win-win.

With China? Well, a couple of things. First, it's not a fair game. China manipulates their currency. The yuan (a/k/a "renminbi" or "RMB") is not traded on international currency markets the way that the Euro, yen, baht, pound, and other currencies are. This allows the Chinese government to keep it undervalued, meaning:

... China’s currency policy has made the RMB significantly undervalued vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar (with estimates ranging from 15% to 40%) and this makes Chinese exports to the United States cheaper, and U.S. exports to China more expensive, than they would be if exchange rates were determined by market forces.

from: China-U.S. Trade Issues by Wayne M. Morrison; Specialist in Asian Trade and Finance (Congressional Research Service, 23 Jun 2009

The result is that some sectors of the US economy are not competing on a level playing field with Chinese manufacturers - that there is, in effect, a 15% to 40% tariff on our own goods made in the US. Try to buy a sock made in the U.S., for example. No, go ahead... I'll wait. I tried, this week, with no luck. Four stores. I finally bought some made in El Salvador (2008 bilateral trade surplus of $234 million, by the way). Try to buy steel made in this country. Or furniture that's not Amish. Or plastics. Or shoes.

So we've lost whole manufacturing sectors because we didn't want to pay more for goods that have been dumped on our market by Chinese manufacturers getting a 15 to 40% discount because the yuan is artificially low. And drive through a textile town in North Carolina or Tennessee or Pennsylvania, and you can see the results of our decision to save a buck.

We lose manufacturing jobs, we lose towns, we lose families. And China gains jobs, and towns, and a surplus. And what does China - one party ruling, free speech fearing, dissident locking, Tibet cleansing, Taiwan scaring, missile firing, jet downing China - do with its surplus? It buys US debt.

So, we buy socks made in China that, because of currency manipulation, are 15-40% cheaper when they are imported to your local Target store. A sock manufacturer in Schuylkill County, PA, can't sell as many socks because the market is flooded with cheap Chinese goods (and NOT because American worker's wages are too high or because of unions, but because we've allowed a trading partner to have a huge built-in competitive advantage over domestically produced stuff. This isn't the market's fictitious "invisible hand" - this is goods dumping). Factory workers are laid off. The U.S. government needs to pay unemployment insurance to the laid off factory workers. To pay for that in a time of economic contraction, we need to go into deficit spending, selling bonds. China, flush with dollars, buys our bonds. They hold our debt. This isn't some benign Fowler State Bank who has no particular agenda with how you spend your money - this is a foreign power.

Rather than hold dollars (which earn no interest), China has sought to invest its dollars in U.S. assets, primarily U.S. government debt securities... [S]ome policymakers have expressed concern that growing Chinese holdings of U.S. debt may increase its leverage over the United States on a number of economic and non-economic issues, and some contend that China’s currency policy was a contributing factor to the current global economic crisis.

The salient point? "China may increase its leverage over the United States on a number of economic and non-economic issues..."

Our everyday decisions in the marketplace - our economic decisions about what we buy and where it's made - result in lost sovereignty, and what's more, lost sovereignty to the nation that looms as a most likely rival and one that doesn't share our values.

That's a steep price to pay for cheap consumer goods. We can't afford it.


Hypocrisy, both religious AND political, #3,412...

No way. Just... no way.

As reported in the LA Times and other outlets, California State Senator Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), divorced and father of four, is gay.

Care to make a guess about his record on gay issues? It's perfect - anti, every time.
Gay marriage? No (2005)
Designation of May 22 as Harvey Milk Day? No (three times)
Hosted - HOSTED - anti-gay marriage rallies? Yes (2005)
The beat goes on.

How do we know he's gay, and why is he coming out now? Because he got busted for a DUI after leaving a gay bar in Sacramento. On Latin night. With a young Latino man in the passenger seat.

Any guesses on Senator Ashburn's voting record on Latino Issues? Equally neaderthalic. From akawilliam.com (thanks, Landis):

... when he votes against immigrants as often and as viciously as he voted against gay people, when Ashburn votes against brown people, dehumanizes them (us, really) by voting to deny them access to education and voting to keep them from having government-recognized identities and even voting to prevent other Californians from learning about the contributions of immigrants to the state of California, Ashburn moves from a pathetic confusion and into a plantation mentality.

And what does he now ask? For prayers. From a man who is so Christian as to follow in Jesus' example and clothe the naked and comfort the afflicted... oh, wait. He didn't do that, so much. Maybe if the afflicted are white? It seems that if the naked are brown, he particularly doesn't want them clothed.

And, the infantile "god as switchboard operator" school of theology. Dude, seriously. If you believe god exists, and IF you believe that he is omnipotent and overseer of all creation - how small are you making him (or her, clearly, but i'd be willing to bet a kidney that this jackhole prays to a white male god) to worry about your interest in hooking up with another dude? And presumably, like most mos, you didn't wake up one day after a marriage with four kids and think "I wonder what gay sex is like? Think I'll try that..." No, you came this way, out of the womb, like mos do, as the way your creator made you. And due to an effed up theology based on spurious and highly selective extrapolation from a thousands-year-old verbal tradition from a band of nomads who believed in slavery, stoning your children and incest, you made yourself, literally, crazy about liking other guys. And that led you to second guess the creator.

AND that led you to foist your self-loathing and neuroses onto the state of California, and to me.

What the hell do you do with these people?!

The fixation on gays and immigrants as fundraising tools and vote-getters for some on the right in this country is despicable. Behind in an election? Blame the Mexis (Hello, Governor Wilson?). Need to get out the vote? Spread lies about queer folk. Need a grabby headline for a fundraising mailer? Pick one. And then go to a gay bar and try to pick one up.

Disgusting, and beneath contempt.

And you can heed his request to pray all you want to help Senator Ashburn... what, exactly? Not dig brown dudes? Not drive drunk? Not be a complete and utter d-bag? All of the above?

How does one go through life with such self-loathing? Does that increase the frisson of the hook-up, buying in (and reinforcing) the illicitness of the act?

Sen. Ashburn drove drunk in a tax-payer car. Shockingly poor judgment that put the health and lives of himself, his date and others in danger.

But if he weren't termed out, do you think the good voters of his district would be more willing to look past a.) the DUI or b.) the fact that he was driving away from a gay bar with a young Latino male companion?

My money is on a. Disgusting.

05 March 2010

How could you pass up a headline like this?

As reported in the Guardian (and others, including CNN which gives excerpts from transcripts):

"Vatican hit by gay sex scandal"
I mean... this is just too good not to read.

I'm not proud of my schadenfreude, I'm really not. But when someone in the Church - a married someone - is so highly placed as to be a member of the Pope's personal entourage as a "Gentleman of His Holiness" and "a senior adviser to the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples," and Carbonieri wire taps, which were originally procured for an investigation into corruption and bribery, yield evidence of that supposed corruption, yes, but also of male prostitution on this someone's part - I mean, come ON! There's only so much self-restraint I can be expected to demonstrate.

Evidently, "Gentlemen of His Holiness" have been around since Pope Leo I in 440 CE. How much you wanna wager that since roughly 440 CE there have been "Gentlemen of His Holiness" who have been interested in other "Gentlemen of His Holiness"?

Too bad it's not the Prada-wearing PapaNazi who was himself embroglioed in such a matter, for there's nothing more appreciated here at Bren'sLeftCoast then religious hypocrisy, but this is still pretty amusing.

It's sad, though, too, of course. This poor guy's life is over. The Chorister from the story who has been hooking this well placed Vaticanite up with company has already been fired. I hope the two Cuban lads, the former rugby player and the former male model from Milan who all consorted with the Vaticanite don't have experience any blowback from their association and get to keep their earnings.

I also hope for a time when the Vatican has better things to do - correction, when the Vatican realizes that it has better things to do - than myopically focus on groinal politics.

At some point don't you just throw in the towel and say "Look, some dudes are just gonna dig other dudes. We can't stop it. Let's talk some more about the work with poor people (or sweatshop workers or, or, or) that our people are doing..." ?

Until then, scandals will occur, choristers will catch the eyes of "Gentlemen of His Holiness," bad decisions will get made, and human nature will be denied.

And that stained glass curtain they're hiding behind,
Well, it never lets in the sun...