Saturday, January 14, 2012
Sunday, June 12, 2011
It was a story that any middle-class American would understand. If our family were wealthy or impoverished, society would be happy to meet our needs. But for those of us who are middle class, there is little help.Barbara Bush Turns 86: Aging in America is Easier when You're Rich - Yahoo! News
Barbara Bush turned 86 on June 8. She spent the day reading to 20 sick children at a hospital in Portland, Maine.
Bush is fortunate to be spry enough to fly between her homes in Texas and Maine. She's fortunate to be agile enough to do volunteer work. At her age, she's fortunate to still be a fully functioning person.
But there's another way Bush is fortunate: She's lucky her family is wealthy. Because when the time comes when she's no longer spry, agile, or mentally nimble, her family will have the resources to make sure she gets the best home nursing care available.
This isn't true for most of the 9 million seniors who have become so debilitated that their unpaid family members must now care for them. For these people and their families -- and the millions more who will soon be joining them due to our aging population -- elder care is a daily challenge that can strain emotions, family bonds and finances.
My life changed with one phone call in August 2008, when my 80-year-old mother suffered a stroke. I moved from Sacramento to San Diego to help my 81-year-old father care for her. Four months later, my father suffered a stroke, paralyzing him on the right side.
I was now responsible for caring for both my parents. Nothing in my previous experience as a college professor or writer had prepared me for this. Two and a half years later, I am still living in their home, caring for them every day.
All of this would be a lot easier if our family had the financial resources of the Bush family. Perversely, it would also be easier if our family were poor.
I learned this when I called In-Home Supportive Services, the California state agency that places caregivers in the homes of infirm seniors. This was my conversation with the caseworker:
"What is your parents' monthly income?"
I gave her the figure.
"I'm sorry, but they don't qualify. Their income is too high."
"But they're both disabled. Isn't there some way to get help?"
"Actually, I do know one thing people have tried. I wouldn't do it myself, but it might work for you."
"What is it?"
"They could get a divorce."
"Their individual incomes might be low enough if you split the amount by getting them divorced. Then they'd qualify for a caregiver."
I wasn't going to ask my parents to get a divorce. They are a loving couple who have been married for 53 years. Besides, if my parents got a divorce and my dad passed away, my mom would lose his pension, including the health insurance policy it provides.
It was a story that any middle-class American would understand. If our family were wealthy or impoverished, society would be happy to meet our needs. But for those of us who are middle class, there is little help.
We caregivers have made the personal sacrifices and we have stepped up. The work we do for free is worth $350 billion a year. If not for us, our parents would run through their assets and become dependent on society.
We and the people we care for need tax breaks, respite services, and government-screened home health attendants.
Barbara Bush is a human being. She deserves to live her final years in dignity and freedom in her own home. But you know what? So do my parents -- and so do yours.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
We've been reading this week about the folie de grandeur that has taken hold of Sarah Palin since she resigned as governor of Alaska to embark on a new and lucrative career as an all-purpose celebrity. She now reportedly gets paid up to $100,000 for a single speech – nearly as much as she used to earn as governor in a year – and is greeted everywhere with the fawning adulation of Republican activists. When John McCain made her his running mate in 2008, she was almost unknown, but made herself an instant hit with the party faithful by posing as a straight-talking, no-nonsense "hockey mom" and a fearless crusader on behalf of ordinary, hardworking Americans. This image was slightly dented during the campaign when it was revealed that she had spent $150,000 of Republican party funds on European designer clothes and a Louis Vuitton handbag. But that was nothing by comparison with the lavish treatment she now demands as a condition for accepting a speaking engagement.
Part of a contract rescued from a dustbin by students at the California State University, where Palin is due to give a speech in June, showed she had insisted on being flown there from her home in Alaska either first-class or on a private plane ("must be a Lear 60 or larger"), on being given a suite and two single rooms in a "deluxe hotel", on being provided with "all meals and incidentals", including a "laptop computer and printer (fully stocked with paper) and high-speed internet", and – no detail being too small for her consideration – unopened water bottles with bendy straws beside them. These are not normal demands. They are the demands of a person with a huge sense of her own entitlement, of someone who fears that she may not be treated with the deference she deserves. Palin would see no contradiction between her public posture as a salt-of-the-earth "pit bull with lipstick" and her aspirations to the lifestyle of a rock star. Fame, wealth and power have corrupted her.
From Kitty Kelley's new biography, Oprah Winfrey would appear to suffer from a similarly demented sense of entitlement on an even grander scale. Kelley claims that, flying twice- weekly on her private plane between Santa Barbara and Chicago, Winfrey requires that if she falls asleep en route, no one is to disturb her until she has slept at least eight hours, however long a wait on the ground that means for the crew. According to Kelley, she once even used to insist that the fuelling of planes in an airport hangar be suspended prior to her arrival so that she wouldn't have to endure any nasty smells during the 30ft walk from her plane to a security van. One never knows how much of Kelley to believe, but Palin and Winfrey could both be examples of people who think that their rise from obscurity – and in Winfrey's case, poverty – to riches and celebrity bestows on them a right to lord it over others in a way the people of more privileged backgrounds would never dare.
But it's not always so. JK Rowling is as rich and famous as can be, and she, too, was once poor – a single mother living mainly on benefits in a rented Edinburgh flat – but gives herself no airs at all. It would be impossible to imagine her demanding a private plane, let alone bendy straws. Instead, in a newspaper article this week she attacked David Cameron's plans to subsidise marriage as showing how ignorant he was of social realities. More than half of single mothers live below the breadline, and as formerly one herself, she remembered how indebted she had been to the British welfare state which, when her life had "hit rock bottom", had been "there to break the fall". So she has refused to be like Lord Ashcroft and go into tax exile because "it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first whiff of a seven-figure royalty cheque". Wealth and celebrity does not have to corrupt.
Children = happy old age
Yesterday's newspapers reported that, according to research carried out by Greenwich University, the possession of children or grandchildren had no bearing on the happiness of people over 60. This is such obvious nonsense that I am surprised any newspaper could bring itself to publish it. Everybody knows that to almost all old people, children and grandchildren are a source of great delight.
The research purported to show that having interests and a good circle of friends, not children, was the secret to a happy retirement. There is a valid point there. Relations between parents and children can be strained if children feel that their parents depend too much on them and have nothing else to keep them interested. The more parents show self-sufficiency and independence, the warmer their children feel towards them. I remember my mother, aged 95 and on her deathbed, telling my older brother: "Darling, you must go on neglecting your children. They love you so much."
There was more wisdom in that remark than in the conclusion of the university researchers that hobbies and a busy social life make old people happier than associating with their children. The point the researchers missed is that cheerful independence is a pre-condition for the greater happiness that children can bring.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
By David Cairns
After years of intense debate in the legislature, across the nation
and throughout the media, Barack Obama's healthcare reforms, which
have divided the US as nothing has since the Vietnam war, are to
A vote last night in the House of Representatives will take the
country closer than it has ever been to universal healthcare and
spells historic victory for the President and his Democrats - while
Republicans believe it will lead to their opponents' downfall at the
"This is what change looks like," said Obama late last night at the
White House, Vice President Joe Biden at his side. "Tonight, at a time
when the pundits said it was no longer possible, we rose above the
weight of our politics.
"This legislation will not fix everything that ails our healthcare
system, but it moves us decisively in the right direction," he added.
In a few hours' time, the President is expected to sign the bill into
law. The bill was passed by 219 votes to 212, with every Republican
voting against it – and 34 Democrats, some of whom feared it as a
vote-loser. When the ballot hit the 216 needed to ensure their
victory, Democrats hugged each other, cheered and chanted Obama's
campaign slogan: "Yes we can!"
What will the bill do?The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,
which will cost $940bn over 10 years, will bring healthcare to 32m
more of the USA's poorest people, taking coverage across the country
to 95 per cent.
Its main provisions are to make health insurance almost mandatory,
targeting individuals and employers; to vastly increase the threshold
that determines who is eligible for financial healthcare support from
the state; to reduce the price of drugs available to them and to
prevent insurers from refusing to cover people with pre-existing
How are the American public reacting?As the bill came closer to law
over the weekend, thousands of protesters gathered in Washington DC to
heckle congressmen. Some hurled racist and otherwise derogatory
remarks at African-American members including one of the 1960s civil
rights veterans, John Lewis. A congressman was spat on, and another
was calleda "faggot".
It is no exaggeration to say the reforms have split America. While the
anti-Obama 'Tea Party movement' (some say it is less a movement and
more a Republican-orchestrated campaign) might still have come into
being with or without the reforms, they have provided a focus for it -
and for all Obama's opponents. The Republicans believe their staunch
opposition to reform will hand them power at this year's mid-term
elections, though Democrats argue that once the bill is law it would
be political suicide for anybody to attempt to withdraw it. And the
bill will certainly silence critics of Obama as a 'do nothing
Is the bill now certain to become law?Yes, it is - but a second bill,
containing amendments to the first, still has to be passed. It's
thought it easily will be, because of a deal between Democrats in the
US's two legislatures – the lower 'House of Representatives' (or
'House') and the upper 'Senate'. But Republican voices have already
been raised in complaint that this deal is "unconstitutional".
Last night's vote in the House was on a version of the healthcare
reform bill already passed by the senators, who have made changes that
Democrats in the House don't like. They agreed not to argue about
those changes when Senate leader (and Democrat) Harry Reid promised
that if they instead submitted a second bill with their amendments,
his senators would pass that unopposed. This second "reconciliation"
bill will go before the Senate later this week and could be wrangled
over for weeks – but will almost certainly become law.
What about truck-driving reform-killer Scott Brown?Many observers
thought Obama's healthcare reforms bill had been scuppered by the
shock election victory in January of Republican former male model and
self-proclaimed truck driver Scott Brown. Brown took the veteran
uber-Democrat Ted Kennedy's seat in the Senate on the latter's death,
busting the Democrats' majority of 60 out of 100 seats. To pass
without incident, a Senate bill needs a 60 to 40 majority, not 51 to
49, so this looked disastrous for Obama.
Obama's great escape was via the reconciliation bill deal. By couching
their amendments to the healthcare bill in a separate,
'reconciliation' bill, the Democrats found a procedural loophole: this
type of bill only needs a simple (51 to 49) majority to pass, and
their 59 Senators should manage that without upset.
Has the bill been watered down?As the BBC's North America editor, Mark
Mardell, writes in his blog today: "Many liberals feel there have been
so many compromises the bill is hardly worth it." Some wanted to go
much further, instituting an NHS-style system. But Obama's supporters
say he has achieved reforms which eluded Presidents including Teddy
Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
In January, the Democrats almost withdrew the bill in its current
form. After the news came in that they had lost their 60-seat Senate
majority, some in the party wanted to amend the bill to a safer
version more likely to be passed. But, after some internal wrangling,
the idea was rejected and they pushed ahead with the bill as it stood.
The bill's final victory was only assured after Obama cut a deal with
anti-abortionist representatives, including a proviso that prevents
federal money being spent to "encourage" abortion. An exception was
made for forced or incestuous pregnancies.
Friday, January 22, 2010
AUSTRALIAN special forces soldiers are using gunsights with biblical references etched on to them as they fight the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
The ADF has several hundred of the sights, which are prized by elite troops for their accuracy over long range.
Their use by US, British and New Zealand troops has raised alarm among military leaders that it could reinforce views among extremists that the West is waging a crusade against Islam.
The Australian Defence Force is investigating how to remove biblical references etched on to gunsights, without damaging the weapons.
The ADF and military authorities in the US, Britain and elsewhere thought the letters and numbers on the sights were simply stock or model numbers until a US soldier in Afghanistan complained to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that the initials referred to passage from the Bible. One example was JN8:12 which turned out to be a reference to chapter eight, verse 12 in the Book of John: "When Jesus spoke again to the people he said 'I am the light of the world.
" 'Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life'."
While coalition soldiers were unaware of the significance of the initials, military officials quickly became alarmed that religious extremists could take some propaganda advantage from them being proof the West was waging a crusader war against Islam.
The ADF confirmed yesterday it had been unaware of the meaning of the inscription when the sights were issued to troops.
"The Department of Defence was unaware of the significance of the manufacturer's serial number," the spokesman said. "The sights were procured because they provide mature technology which is highly reliable, in wide use by our allies and best meet Defence requirements. Soldiers are confident in the utility of the sight and the positive and proven effect which it is having on operations."
The spokesman said Defence was conscious of the sensitivities over this issue and was assessing how to address them.
Another inscription was 2COR4:6, which is an apparent reference to Second Corinthians 4:6 of the New Testament. The passage reads: "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."
US military rules prohibit religious proselytising in Iraq or Afghanistan and were drawn to prevent criticism that the US was on a religious crusade in its war against al-Qa'ida and Iraqi insurgents.
The sights are used by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the training of Iraqi and Afghan soldiers.
The maker of the sights, Trijicon, has a $US660 million ($725m) multi-year contract to provide up to 800,000 sights to the US Marine Corps, and additional contracts to provide sights to the American Army.
Trijicon issued a statement saying: "As part of our faith and our belief in service to our country, Trijicon has put scripture references on our products for more than two decades.
"As long as we have men and women in danger, we will continue to do everything we can to provide them with both state-of-the-art technology and the never-ending support and prayers of a grateful nation."
Monday, January 18, 2010
President Barack Obama is mixing lessons from the work of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with reminders that those pushing for change must take heart and recognize progress when it comes.
The president stood in the pulpit of Washington's Vermont Avenue Baptist Church on Sunday, the eve of the federal holiday marking King's birthday.
Calling King and those who fought for civil rights the "Moses generation," Obama urged his audience - those he called the "Joshua generation" - to "get back to basics" as Americans face the challenges of a new age.
King himself spoke in 1956 at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, located less than 2 miles north of the White House. Freed slaves founded the church the year after the Civil War.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
The success of banking, more so than any other industry, is based on privilege rather than performance
You'll be hearing a lot about banker bonuses in the coming weeks. Big banks will officially report "the number," or the average total compensation per employee for 2009.
How much money are we talking about? At trading banks Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS), this number could be ridiculous -- perhaps $700,000 per employee. It isn't as shocking at commercial banks like Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) and Citigroup (NYSE: C) because the total workforce is substantially larger, made up of tens of thousands of lowly paid tellers and back-office staff. In either case, average compensation masks that a few traders, executives, and department heads can literally make tens of millions of dollars (in some cases upward of $100 million). There's a good amount of skewing here.
For Goldman and Morgan Stanley, here are a few numbers to chew on:
Earnings per Share
Sources: Company filings, author's calculations.
Earnings per Share
Sources: Company filings, author's calculations.
In all likelihood, 2009's compensation will eclipse 2007's record. That makes people want to scream. That bankers get record pay a year after essentially failing and being saved by taxpayers seems completely absurd. And it is.
Here's my view
Prior to joining The Motley Fool, I did brief (thankfully) stints in investment banking and private equity. This was 2006-2007, when cheap money bubbled out of the drinking fountains.
At the investment bank, compensation for mid-to-upper level employees was based on deal volume generated. If you put together a $50 million merger, add that to your scorecard. Same with private equity. Private equity firms rarely sell their portfolio holdings, so yearly compensation was typically based on the size of companies purchased. If you helped acquire a $100 million business, add it to your scorecard.
In both cases, you ate what you killed. Employees were paid for performance. This is the argument bankers use to defend their pay: "Yes, we make ungodly amounts of money, but we earn it. Capitalism, my friends."
The problem with this argument is that it doesn't consider what percentage of the "scorecard" comes from bankers' skill and hard work versus factors outside their control, like monetary policy and favorable regulations.
Here's an example: 2006 and 2007 were golden years at the private equity firm. You could finance anything -- anything -- you wanted at ridiculously low interest rates. So-called "deal flow" was endless. Many, many large acquisitions were made, and record compensation followed accordingly.
But were employees earning this pay due to superior intelligence and sophisticated market insight? Ha … ha … ha. Hardly. They were riding a speculative wave of cheap money largely engineered by the Federal Reserve. A large portion of pay was based on factors they had nothing to do with.
This isn't to say bankers aren't hardworking people. There's truth to the saying, "If you don't show up on Saturday, don't bother coming back on Sunday."
But solely attributing their stupendous pay to hard work and skill is fantasy. One columnist recently opined that those decrying banker bonuses "rarely have the numerical skills necessary to put together mergers and trades." Maybe so. But do all bankers themselves have these skills? How about the highly paid mortgage traders whose 2005 models didn't even allow the possibility of declining real estate prices? We can debate whether that took "skill." In many cases, they were simply in the right place at the right time.
That brings us to 2009
Over the past year, substantially all of Wall Street's profits came from fixed-income trading. See for yourself here, here, and here. Moreover, nearly every bank's earnings came from this segment, not just a smart few.
This happened for one of two reasons: (a) Every fixed-income trader suddenly woke up in early 2009 with newfound brilliance; or (b) they're riding the largest wave of cheap money in history, financed by the Fed lending money at 0% that traders then use to buy ultra-safe government securities yielding 2%-4%. Guess which one. Furthermore, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were allowed to die while others seemed chosen at random to be saved, eroding competition for the lucky survivors.
How are these factors -- all completely outside bankers' control -- accounted for when determining compensation? They aren't.
That's what's infuriating about banker pay. It isn't that they're earning mountains of money. It's that they're earning mountains of money based on factors they had nothing to do with. Other companies that employ equally intelligent and driven workers -- Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) -- never see that kind of advantage. The success of banking, more so than any other industry, is based on privilege rather than performance.
Monday, June 01, 2009
In May, the U.S. dollar index cracked important support. This affects all Americans, because we are all speculating in the U.S. dollar.
If you don't think so, open your wallet. Do you see dollars there? Then you're speculating on the dollar by holding on to it. Probably most of your investments are dollar-denominated as well. Another leg down in the dollar could translate into tough times for your portfolio -- and you.
Now for the good news -- there are ways to cushion yourself against the dollar's pain. I'll give you some ideas in just a bit.
First, why is the U.S. dollar in such trouble? U.S. government deficits are ballooning, and turning a deeper shade of red -- about $1.8 trillion this year alone, and up $500 billion in two months. In fact, the U.S. government is going into debt so fast that the Fed is buying Treasuries, which is like a snake eating its own tail.
The government is doing this with good intentions, to try and keep the economy from running off the rails. But our debt is increasing so fast that the U.S. may lose its Triple-A credit rating. Losing that rating would start a downward spiral of higher rates and more debt. The Treasury thinks it can just print dollars to paper over the mess; traders are showing their displeasure by sending the dollar lower.
You know who else is getting disgusted? China. According to U.S. Treasury data, from August 2008 to March 2009, China shifted more of its purchases to short-dated U.S. Treasuries from long-term agency debt. The general trend is for less buying of long-term U.S. Treasuries. It's as if China is giving Uncle Sam a vote of no confidence.
So if China is moving away from the dollar, what does it want to use instead? China has signed $95 billion in swap agreements with Argentina, Indonesia, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Belarus in recent months. The more that countries trade in their own currencies, the less they have to rely on the U.S. dollar. Other countries besides China are making similar agreements.
Even a slow, gradual turn away from the dollar will put ever more pressure on our currency and debt. It seems the writing is on the wall for the greenback.
So where should you put your money? Here are three ideas:
One is agricultural commodity exchange-traded funds. Commodities are priced in dollars, so as the value of the dollar goes down, the value of commodities usually go up. I'll leave talking about gold, silver and oil ETFs to others - let's talk about the huge potential in agricultural commodities.
Everybody needs to eat, and people in Asia want to eat more like big, fat Americans every day. Throw in the vagaries of weather, fuel prices and disease, and you have some powerful forces in a commodity that must be constantly replaced.
And this year, the pressures on harvests could be extreme.
"The 2009 growing season has gotten off to a rough start, and farmers could face their toughest year yet," says commodity trader Kevin Kerr. He's finding that a lot of farmers are bedeviled by weather that made it tough to get crops in the ground in May.
In his 2009 Agriculture Report, Kerr added: "Statistics and research show that corn yields as well as soybeans yields may drop dramatically if crops are not planted by the middle of May."
An easy way to play this move is the PowerShares DB Agriculture Fund. /quotes/comstock/13*!dba/quotes/nls/dba (DBA 27.89, +0.13, +0.47%) It tracks an index composed of futures contracts on corn, wheat, soy beans and sugar.
Other funds let you specialize in various parts of the agriculture sector - the Dow Jones AIG Grains Total Return /quotes/comstock/13*!jjg/quotes/nls/jjg (JJG 45.67, +0.45, +1.00%) is another example. However, some agriculture funds in that same family like cotton /quotes/comstock/13*!bal/quotes/nls/bal (BAL 32.06, +1.12, +3.62%) , coffee /quotes/comstock/13*!jo/quotes/nls/jo (JO 41.38, -0.12, -0.29%) and cocoa /quotes/comstock/13*!nib/quotes/nls/nib (NIB 40.23, -0.09, -0.22%) have low volume, so be very careful.
Treasuries are another way to go. The ProShares UltraShort 20+ Year Treasury fund /quotes/comstock/13*!tbt/quotes/nls/tbt (TBT 52.64, -3.13, -5.61%) is an ETF that aims to track twice the inverse of long-dated Treasuries -- the ones from which China is shying away. Leveraged funds can move against you with brutal speed, so be careful here as well. But if you think Treasuries are cruising for a bruising, the TBT is a good way to play that move.
Finally, you can go short on the dollar. The PowerShares DB Dollar Index Bearish Fund /quotes/comstock/13*!udn/quotes/nls/udn (UDN 26.94, +0.30, +1.13%) tries to track being short the U.S. dollar versus a basket of leading currencies. This one doesn't move a lot, but it fairly consistently goes up as the dollar goes down, and vice versa.
In this wild and crazy market, there are three important things you must do: Buy on pullbacks -- don't chase anything, no matter how tempting. Use a protective stop in case this rally gives up the ghost and the bear rears its ugly head again. And use a profit target and don't be greedy -- bag those gains and get out.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Not a Transnationalist. Some (Really) Early Thoughts on Judge Sotomayor
by Julian Ku
As a judge in the New York federal courts over the past 15 years, both at the district and appellate level, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has had a fair number of cases involving the application of international law. She has never ruled on an Alien Tort Statute case, but my very quick scan suggests that, whatever else her critics can say, her judicial record does not suggest she will be a particularly “transnationalist” justice.
United States v. Ni Fa Yi, 951 F. Supp. 42 (S.D.N.Y. 1997), involved a defendant’s challenge to his prosecution under the Hostage Taking Act, and the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages. While ruling for the government, Judge Sotomayor went out of her way to reject the government’s argument that the fact that the criminal statute was enacted to implement treaty obligations should automatically satisfy judicial scrutiny of the statute’s constitutionality. ”The Court agrees with defendant, however, that this begs the question: “[N]o agreement with a foreign nation can confer power on the Congress, or on any branch of Government, which is free from the constraints of the Constitution.” (Citing Reid v. Covert, 353 1, 16 (1957)).
Deferential to Executive Foreign Affairs Power?
European Commission v. RJR Nabisco, 355 F.3d 123 (2d Cir. 2004) involved an attempt by the European Commission to bring a RICO action in U.S. courts against tobacco companies for lost tax revenues. Invoking the common law “revenue rule”, Judge Sotomayor barred the action on the grounds that the suit essentially requires US courts to enforce European tax laws. In barring the action, though, she did leave open the possibility of executive intervention in the litigation as a mechanism to lift the bar imposed by the revenue rule. Interestingly, this was also part of the theory for the Supreme Court’s eventual decision to relax the revenue in another context, in an opinion by Justice Thomas. And it was the lack of intervention by the executive that led her to continue to bar the suit, even after the Supreme Court had remanded her earlier decision.
Staying Neutral on the Relationship Between International law and the Supremacy Clause
In Beharry v. Ashcroft, 339 F.3d 51 (2d Cir 2003), Judge Sotomayor went out of her way to avoid opining on a lower court decision (by Judge Jack Weinstein) that casually gave customary international law the same status as federal legislation under the Supremacy Clause. In reversing the lower court on statutory grounds, Judge Sotomayor offered this gentle non-opinion: “Nothing in our decision to reverse on other grounds the judgment of the district court should be seen as an endorsement of the district court’s holding that interpretation of the INA in this case is influenced or controlled by international law.”
Similarly, in Center for Reproductive Law v. Bush, 304 F 3d. 183 (2d Cir. 2002), in rejecting a lawsuit challenging the ban on funding for overseas abortions under constitutional and customary international law, Judge Sotomayor disposed of the customary international law argument in a single footnote: “As plaintiffs’ claims based on customary international law are substantively indistinguishable from their First Amendment claims, they are dismissed on the same ground. We express no view as to whether those claims are otherwise viable.”
Friday, May 22, 2009
For the past several years, I've been harboring a fantasy, a last political crusade for the baby-boom generation. We, who started on the path of righteousness, marching for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, need to find an appropriately high-minded approach to life's exit ramp. In this case, I mean the high-minded part literally. And so, a deal: give us drugs, after a certain age — say, 80 — all drugs, any drugs we want. In return, we will give you our driver's licenses. (I mean, can you imagine how terrifying a nation of decrepit, solipsistic 90-year-old boomers behind the wheel would be?) We'll let you proceed with your lives — much of which will be spent paying for our retirement, in any case — without having to hear us complain about our every ache and reflux. We'll be too busy exploring altered states of consciousness. I even have a slogan for the campaign: "Tune in, turn on, drop dead."
A fantasy, I suppose. But, beneath the furious roil of the economic crisis, a national conversation has quietly begun about the irrationality of our drug laws. It is going on in state legislatures, like New York's, where the draconian Rockefeller drug laws are up for review; in other states, from California to Massachusetts, various forms of marijuana decriminalization are being enacted. And it has reached the floor of Congress, where Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter have proposed a major prison-reform package, which would directly address drug-sentencing policy. (See pictures of stoner cinema.)
There are also more puckish signs of a zeitgeist shift. A few weeks ago, the White House decided to stage a forum in which the President would answer questions submitted by the public; 92,000 people responded — and most of them seemed obsessed with the legalization of marijuana. The two most popular questions about "green jobs and energy," for example, were about pot. The President dismissed the outpouring — appropriately, I guess — as online ballot-stuffing and dismissed the legalization question with a simple: "No." (Read "Can Marijuana Help Rescue California's Economy?")
This was a rare instance of Barack Obama reacting reflexively, without attempting to think creatively, about a serious policy question. He was, in fact, taking the traditional path of least resistance: an unexpected answer on marijuana would have launched a tabloid firestorm, diverting attention from the budget fight and all those bailouts. In fact, the default fate of any politician who publicly considers the legalization of marijuana is to be cast into the outer darkness. Such a person is assumed to be stoned all the time, unworthy of being taken seriously. Such a person would be lacerated by the assorted boozehounds and pill poppers of talk radio. The hypocrisy inherent in the American conversation about stimulants is staggering.
But there are big issues here, issues of economy and simple justice, especially on the sentencing side. As Webb pointed out in a cover story in Parade magazine, the U.S. is, by far, the most "criminal" country in the world, with 5% of the world's population and 25% of its prisoners. We spend $68 billion per year on corrections, and one-third of those being corrected are serving time for nonviolent drug crimes. We spend about $150 billion on policing and courts, and 47.5% of all drug arrests are marijuana-related. That is an awful lot of money, most of it nonfederal, that could be spent on better schools or infrastructure — or simply returned to the public. (See the top 10 ballot measures.)
At the same time, there is an enormous potential windfall in the taxation of marijuana. It is estimated that pot is the largest cash crop in California, with annual revenues approaching $14 billion. A 10% pot tax would yield $1.4 billion in California alone. And that's probably a fraction of the revenues that would be available — and of the economic impact, with thousands of new jobs in agriculture, packaging, marketing and advertising. A veritable marijuana economic-stimulus package! (Read "Is Pot Good For You?")
So why not do it? There are serious moral arguments, both secular and religious. There are those who believe — with some good reason — that the accretion of legalized vices is debilitating, that we are a less virtuous society since gambling spilled out from Las Vegas to "riverboats" and state lotteries across the country. There is a medical argument, though not a very convincing one: alcohol is more dangerous in a variety of ways, including the tendency of some drunks to get violent. One could argue that the abuse of McDonald's has a greater potential health-care cost than the abuse of marijuana. (Although it's true that with legalization, those two might not be unrelated.) Obviously, marijuana can be abused. But the costs of criminalization have proved to be enormous, perhaps unsustainable. Would legalization be any worse?
In any case, the drug-reform discussion comes just at the right moment. We boomers are getting older every day. You're not going to want us on the highways. Make us your best offer.
Friday, February 20, 2009
THE US had embarked on a new era of a "robust partnership with Indonesia", which would help Washington "reach out to the Muslim world", Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Jakarta last night.
After meeting Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda for about 90 minutes, Ms Clinton affirmed that Indonesia was a place where "Islam, democracy and modernity can not only co-exist but can thrive" and drove home the importance of the relationship to the Barack Obama administration.
She also announced that the two countries would be undertaking a review of strategies to encourage democracy in Burma, including working through the medium of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member and whose secretariat is in Jakarta.
Declaring that she brought "greetings from President Obama", Ms Clinton will also take home with her a message for her new boss from Mr Wirajuda: the Indonesian Government's fervent hope that the US leader will schedule a trip to Jakarta soon.
"President Obama has a very strong constituency here in Indonesia, and the Government and people of Indonesia would like very much to welcome President Obama on his trip to Indonesia," the Foreign Minister said.
"I will say we cannot wait too long and I wish that Hillary Clinton conveys this to President Obama."
The US President, who attended primary school for several years in the Indonesian capital, has indicated his enthusiasm for a trip to the country and last year told his counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, how he fondly recalled nasi goreng (fried rice) and bakso (meatball soup) from that time.
And an Obama donor recalled in December that Mr Obama had promised an early trip to Indonesia, the donor telling the respected Politico blog that the then presidential candidate had said his first words, on disembarking from Air Force One in Jakarta, would be the Indonesian for "I am back, dudes".
Ms Clinton's visit to the Indonesian capital, after Japan and ahead of stopovers in South Korea and China, also included a symbolically important meeting late yesterday with ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan.
Indonesia is hoping for a stronger US engagement with the grouping, whose constituent states boast a total population of 575 million. There were expectations the Obama administration could even sign up to ASEAN's 1976 Treaty of Amity and
Co-operation, allowing it to take part in the next East Asia Summit, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said.
Noting that the trip was her "first as Secretary of State but not my first to Indonesia", Ms Clinton said it was "wonderful to be back" and that she had "very high hopes for the United States-Indonesia relationship" -- a relationship she went on to describe as entering a new form of "comprehensive partnership".
As well as the fraught issue of Burma, on which she acknowledged neither "sanctions (nor) reaching out to" the military junta had had any effect, the pair discussed climate change, the global financial crisis, the middle east situation in general and Palestine in particular, as well as disarmament issues.
"I'm very committed to the relationship between the two countries," Ms Clinton said. "The Obama administration wants to reach out to the entire world. The United States and Asia have a common future -- the question is, how will we share it?"
She is due to meet Dr Yudhoyono at the presidential palace this morning to carry Mr Obama's greetings directly to the Indonesian leader, after accepting a declaration from the Foreign Minister that the country was "honoured and humbled" by her visit.
With national parliamentary elections less than two months away, and presidential polls to follow, Indonesia's political landscape is wide open, giving Ms Clinton's robust defence of its progress towards democracy an added edge.
The US-based Asia analyst Walter Lohman wrote yesterday that Indonesia was "a developing democracy under assault from a determined Islamist minority", noting that the Secretary of State's visit could help balance this tendency.