Saturday, August 29, 2009

Our Northland Trip


Earlier this week, we went to the Bay of Islands for what amounts to our honeymoon (it seems a little odd to call it that when we've been together more than 13 years). Our family gave us the trip for our Civil Union, and this was our first chance to go. The weather was a little iffy (it rained most of the time, though sometimes it was just drizzle). Still, we didn’t let that stop us from going out and seeing things.

I'll add a complete travelogue later, but in the meantime I've posted some of the photos to my Flicr Account, and created a set for them. The photo above, which is from that set, was taken from the side of the road, just as we were about to leave the area to head home. It's one of my favourites from the trip.

Still afraid of Kennedy

I finally figured out why the Republicans are being so weird about Democrats invoking Senator Kennedy’s name in the healthcare debate in the US. See, Teddy’s long history with and commitment to comprehensive healthcare reform is well-known, as was his assertion that healthcare is a right for all, not a privilege for the rich.

Everybody knows all that, so invoking Senator Kennedy’s name is entirely appropriate—and it scares the crap out of Republicans. They’re terrified that members of Congress will remember Senator Kennedy and do the right thing by him, and vote for real, comprehensive healthcare reform, and not allow the Republican scare campaign to succeed. So, I hope the Republicans are right, and comprehensive healthcare reform will now move through Congress and become law, nit just for Teddy, but for all Americans.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thank you, Teddy.

Today Senator Edward M. Kennedy died. An era has ended. But unlike most politicians, he died with the respect of even his opponents.

When I was young, I wasn’t exactly a fan. Growing up in a Republican household, I took for granted there was to be antipathy against Senator Kennedy. After all, demonising Kennedy was practically a requirement of the Republican Party. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to dislike him as much as my Republican colleagues claimed to.

One of my main memories is a purely local one, and one that had little to do with Kennedy himself. In 1980, Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Then-Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne endorsed Kennedy in what seemed to me to be a bad move (Kennedy lost the Illinois Democratic Primary to Carter, who went on to win the nomination, only to lose to Illinois-native, Ronald Regean). Actually, I also remember that Carter had been quoted as saying that he’d “whoop his [Kennedy’s] ass”, which was an uncharacteristically common thing to say, for the ex-Baptist Sunday School teacher.

Years later, after I’d become a Democrat, I grew into full-fledged admiration for Senator Kennedy. Part of the reason is that when I became a gay activist lobbying Congress on GLBT issues, his was the one vote we could always count on. There is, in fact, nothing pro-GLBT that passed the Senate without Senator Kennedy’s support. I saw firsthand that unlike so many liberals, Kennedy was steadfast in his commitment to full civil rights and equality for all Americans—including GLBT Americans—and we are in his debt.

I can think of no other Senator more deserving of the title of “statesman” than Senator Kennedy. To me, he was the ultimate patriot—someone who loved his country so much that he would endure anything to help make it the best it could possibly be, make it a “more perfect union”, and bring all Americans along.

His family summed it up best in a statement in which they said, in part: “We thank everyone… who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all. He loved this country and devoted his life to serving it. He always believed that our best days were still ahead, but it’s hard to imagine any of them without him.”

Obviously I give my condolences to the Kennedy family, but in a way we all share this with them: We have a lost a member of our collective American family.

Farewell, Teddy. Thank you for your service on behalf all Americans.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Small films of NZ life

I’m going to be busy for the next couple days, too busy to blog, so in the meantime here are a couple commercials I really like.

“The bach” – This ad manages to catch a bit of quintessential Kiwi culture, while also being a feel-good commercial that very subtly promotes the product.

“Snow” – I just think this one is sweet. Snowplanet, where this is shot, isn’t very far north of where we live.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lutherans' mighty focus

I write a lot about religion in the political sphere, but I seldom say much about religion generally. It’s safe to say that it’s not one of my areas of interest (I studied political science and history in university, not theology).

Even so, every once in awhile something happens that I have to comment on, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)* gave me such a reason when they voted to allow gay and lesbian pastors who are in a relationship to be included in the roster of pastors eligible for appointment to a church. They will also now allow, but not require, pastors to bless same-sex unions.

A little background: I was born, baptised and confirmed as a Lutheran. My father and his father were Lutheran ministers, so I quite literally grew up in the church. I never had a conflict between the Lutheran creed and my sexuality until I was already a gay political activist.

In the mid-1980s, I belonged to a gay Lutheran Group called Lutherans Concerned (most such religious groups had really dorky names). I remember at one of their get-togethers I met the Bishop (formerly called president) of the Illinois Synod (of the ELCA). At the same time, I was attending a church that was part of the Reconciled in Christ program (in which, basically, a church declares it’s embracing GLBT people as full and equal members).

About this time, conservatives in the denomination began moving against gay people, just as we were pushing for equality. The result, in typical Lutheran fashion, was that leaders agreed to “study” the situation. The rhetoric wasn’t encouraging, especially as the ELCA affirmed that only celibate gay people could serve as pastors.

As the years went on, I realised that religion no longer mattered to me and, later still, I started calling myself an agnostic, which by that time had become pretty obvious, anyway. Still, I also never renounced my heritage. Here in New Zealand, the Lutheran church is a branch of the Australian Church, and it’s quite conservative. To me, it reads like it’s “Missouri Synod Lite” (a Lutheran joke; we call it “Misery Synod”).

And so now, at last—some 25 years later—the church has finally moved in an appropriate way, more or less. Its document on sexuality basically recognises that there are varying beliefs among Lutherans and tries to accommodate them. Permitting gay pastors to be in committed relationships is the only rational position they could take. Lutheran conservatives, like those in other mainstream protestant denominations, feel that nothing less than complete rejection is acceptable. They’re likely to cause problems in the future.

But all of that is a battle for Lutherans to fight. I stopped fighting, or even noticing, really, some 20 years ago. Still, no one wants to be locked out of their family home, even when they stopped living there a long time before. But what the hell took Lutherans so long? To them it may have been of serious import, demanding long deliberations. To some of us, however, it was our lives. They must do better.

* The word “evangelical” in the church’s name doesn’t mean the same thing as it does to conservatives. Apparently, Luther wanted his church called the “Evangelical” church, and that’s why it’s called that now. Lutherans are NOT necessarily conservative!

The first one to ignore

The leader of one of the far right NZ christianist groups behind the vanity referendum has threatened the prime minister with electoral retaliation if he doesn’t do their bidding. He’s the first one that Prime Minister John Key should ignore.

Bob McCoskrie, head of the far right christianist group “Family” First, said the result is the reason why Key must obey McCoskrie’s group. He declared, “John Key cannot ignore this result," because the National Party only received 45 percent of the vote in the 2008 general election. The clear implication is that if the prime minister doesn’t do as McCoskrie demands, he’ll be defeated in the next election.

Utter nonsense.

As I wrote yesterday, less than half of all enrolled New Zealand voters actually supported McCoskrie’s side in the campaign—not the 88% they claim. It would also be the height of ignorance or hubris to think that all those people would vote against National—or, for that matter, to assume that they were all National supporters in the first place.

It’s also worth remembering that no overtly christianist party has ever received 5% of the popular vote, the threshold to get into Parliament unless they win an electorate seat (which they've also never done):

1996 Election (This was New Zealand’s first election under MMP): The Christian Coalition, a joint effort by the Christian Democrats and Christian Heritage, received 4.33%. This remains the highest percentage a christianist party has ever achieved.

1999 Election: Christian Heritage received 2.38% and Christians Against Abortion received only 0.01%.

2002 Election: Christian Heritage Party received only 1.36%.

2005 Election: Christian Heritage Party received only 0.12% (largely because its leader in previous elections had been convicted of molesting a little girl). That year, all rightwing christianist parties combined won only 0.75%

2008 Election: Larry Baldock (one of the petition pushers) led his rightwing christianist party, Kiwi Party, and received only 0.54% of the party vote.

What election results show is that despite the bluff and bluster of McCoskrie and his cronies, rightwing christianists’ influence is declining. The results of the referendum don’t change that picture in the least, in part because it’s absurd to assume that every “no” voter in the referendum would support McCoskrie and his cronies or any party they supported.

As if all that weren’t enough, the next general election is more than two years away. Odds—and history—suggest that maintaining public interest in this for that long is nearly impossible.

Add it all up, and Prime Minister John Key can, in fact, “ignore this result”. So far, Key said, "What I am wanting to ensure is that parents have a level of comfort that the police and Child Youth and Family follow the intent of parliament, and that they can feel comfortable that in bringing up their children they are not going to be dragged before the courts for a minor or inconsequential smack."

The referendum results indicate that the prime minister’s stated approach is the correct one. They also show that, when combined with all the election results under MMP, the one thing that the Prime Minister does not need to do is pay any attention to the extremist groups who forced the referendum on New Zealand taxpayers.


Mainstream New Zealand newsmedia have FINALLY exposed the nefarious connections underpinning the far-right christianists behind New Zealand’s vanity referendum advocating smacking children. Today the New Zealand Herald reported on the money from American ultrafundamentalists which is propping up one of the main christianist groups behind the vanity referendum.

The Herald reported that the over the past six years, the New Zealand branch of Focus on the “Family” has received over $1 million in American money to prop up their activities—including foisting the referendum on New Zealand taxpayers. Their American home organisation has been active in extremist christianist politics for years, especially on behalf of the US Republican Party.

Dobson’s group is also especially noted for its virulently anti-gay agenda. Over the past 20 years, it’s been the source of many of the lies and smears repeated by the christianist right in America—and here in New Zealand.

The New Zealand branch office was involved in getting the referendum on the ballot and was apparently intimately involved in working out how to convolute the wording of the question. The other pusher of the petitions, Larry Baldock is now furiously backpedalling and distancing himself and his christianist political party. “They didn't do a great deal of the heavy lifting," he told the NZ Herald. "That was done by individual volunteers all over the country." Yeah, well, he would say that. Unfortunately for Baldock, his party has many if the same “principles” embedded in its party constitution (yes, I’ve read it), so how different are they really?

For its part, the New Zealand branch office of Focus on the “Family” claims that “each office is autonomous." And to prove it, they distribute materials provided by the home office in America and promote the same rabidly anti-gay and hyper-masculine religious ideology. Don’t take my word for it: Look at their website (you’ll have to Google it: I have a policy of never linking to a wingnut site).

So far, no one is alleging anything illegal. Pesonally, I doubt they did anything illegal—they raise their own money locally too, after all. And, once the referendum was forced onto the ballot, they don’t seem to have taken a public role (their website didn’t even have a banner ad promoting the referendum the times I checked, a few days before the deadline). So, regardless of the source of their funds, they don’t seem to have spent much on the campaign itself, though we’ll know that for sure once campaign reports are filed.

The point is that these christianist groups aren’t being honest about who they are or who they’re connected to. In the case of this group, they failed to disclose how much they’re part of a foreign extremist organisation. Up until now, the New Zealand newsmedia has done little to expose who these groups really are and how their agenda is so radically different from what New Zealanders want. Kudos to the New Zealand Herald for finally shedding light on one of these extremist groups. Pity they didn’t do so sooner.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

On a clear day

Today is a bright, beautiful clear day in Auckland—the perfect sort of day to shed a little light and clarity on the New Zealand referendum. To be sure, I enjoyed yesterday’s rant—it was cathartic, but it was also sound and fury signifying nothing, and all that. Today, I start to put it into perspective.

The chart above shows the preliminary results of the referendum, and the figures actually say something very different from what the pushers of the referendum are claiming. It’s possible that when the final numbers are announced next week, this analysis may also change (and I’ll post about the final numbers after they’re out). The important thing here is that in this case, as in so many other political cases, reality and spin are two completely different things.

It was always a foregone conclusion that the pushers of the referendum would claim a huge victory, and it was also certain that the numbers of people selecting “No” would be greater than the number people selecting “Yes”. After all, the question was deliberately worded to get that result (and there are allegations that some voters who support the current law were confused into voting “No”).

So, the fact that the “No” side won is hardly a surprise, nor is the margin. Neither is it surprising that the pushers of the referendum are deliberately mischaracterising the results to make it seem like a bigger deal than it really is.

The smacking advocates say that “88%” backed their position, but this is the percentage of the votes cast. The problem is that only 54.07% of enrolled voters bothered to vote at all. That means that only 47.37% of all enrolled voters—less than half—actually voted “no”. That’s a completely different number than “88%”. It means that the majority of New Zealanders either voted “yes” or didn’t vote at all (nearly as many enrolled voters didn’t vote at all as voted “no”).

We can assume nothing whatsoever about the 45.93% of enrolled voters who didn’t vote, including how they would’ve voted if, say, they’d been forced to vote. All we can work with is the number of enrolled voters who actually voted.

This all matters because the radical christianists will be using the “88%” figure in their campaign to get the law repealed or changed (they don’t agree on what to do), and the media will likely let them get away with it.

In trying to appease the fanatics, Prime Minister John Key needs to remember that no one can say for sure what the majority of New Zealanders want—especially not the fanatics who organised the vanity poll in the first place, though they’ll try and bluff and bluster as if they have a “mandate”. Voting is part of democracy, and so is lying about the results of a vote. But none of us should allow the rightwing to get away with it.

Update: The Chief Electoral Office has released the final results of the referendum. The correct votes and the informal votes went up slightly, the wrong votes went down slightly, and the net result really doesn't change anything: YES 11.98 % (up from 11.81%), NO 87.4% (down from 87.6%)and informals were 0.62% (up from 0.60%). The final turnout was 56.09% of enrolled voters (up from 54.04%). The changes aren't big enough to justify re-calculating everything immediately, but I eventually will.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Voting correctly

There has never been a vote about which I’ve been more conflicted. For the first time in my life, I seriously considered NOT voting. The only ballots I ever missed were when there were problems with absentee ballot applications or when I was very sick.

The focus this time was an extremely stupid vanity poll shoved onto New Zealand taxpayers by a bunch of far right christianist extremists who forced us to spend at least $9 million on their vanity poll, money that would be better spent on, well, just about anything.

I have nothing but utter, complete and total contempt and disgust for the extremist christianist groups behind the vanity poll that New Zealand taxpayers have just paid for. For New Zealanders who’ve been living under a rock, that means the Kiwi Party (aka Larry Balldock), “Family” First NZ and Focus on the “Family” NZ—all far-right political extremist groups based on far right christianist religious ideology.

Let me be even clearer: The question they asked was utter bullshit, specifically and deliberately designed to sucker New Zealanders into voting the way the extremists wanted; it isn’t worth the paper it was printed on. I don’t think the ballot question could be more irrelevant. The fact that a mere 54% (so far) have bothered to vote shows the contempt that other ordinary New Zealanders have for this stupid referendum.

It was obvious that no matter what the result the extremists would demand action they alone dictate, and they designed the question to further their political agenda. The low turnout will strengthen the government’s hand in, as they said beforehand, ignoring this incredibly stupid referendum.

I voted “yes” on the referendum—holding my nose—because it was the only way I could say I want the law to stay as it is (thanks to the bullshit question written by the religious extremists). However, if I had it to do over again, I would have thrown thing in the rubbish, because that’s where it belonged all along.

Still, it's not all for nothing: I’ve been alerted now to the threat to our democracy posed by these religious extremists, and I won’t be so blasé again. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. I will do something.

Update August 22, 2009: The results are in.

Jon Stewart eviscerates Fox

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Fox News: The New Liberals

Once again, Jon Stewart tells the truth (I think this isn’t available in Canada—sorry!).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Assault rifle a publicity stunt

The guy carrying an assault rifle among “protestors” outside President Obama’s town hall meeting in Arizona, and the man who interviewed him, planned the whole thing with police. In other words, it was a stunt.

To me, the fact that this was a planned stunt doesn’t make them any less crazy. the guy behind it all has some truly nutty beliefs—a nut is a nut, I suppose. But what, exactly, did he accomplish with his stunt—beyond giving even crazier, actually violent people the idea that carrying weapons to a place where the president will be is a good idea?

A little time off

I’ve tried over the past couple days to write a follow-up to Monday’s post, but everything I started kind of devolved into either an angry rant, exasperated vent or massive, dense refutation. None of those worked (so, I got to add to my list of drafts…).

I was cheered today that the New York Times reported Democrats are preparing to ignore the Republicans and just go ahead with healthcare reform without them (since they’d never agree to anything, anyway). However, there’s conflicting opinion on whether the public option is or is not still part of the plan (it must be, I still say, for reform to mean anything).

So I’m just backing off the whole subject of healthcare reform for awhile until things are a little clearer. The whole thing is too confusing and keeping up with it requires that I pay attention to what the right wing is saying, and, quite frankly, I’m sick of getting mad at what I see or read. So, a little time off is in order.

The same doesn’t hold for other subjects, of course.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The end of reform?

It was only yesterday that I was talking about the number of “drafts” I’ve squirrelled away, things that may have been adapted for a post—or not. One such draft I was working on over the weekend was designed to call out the folks in Congress who are standing in the way of real healthcare reform in the US, especially Chuck Grassley and Max Baucus. I was going to point out how much money they received from the healthcare and insurance industries.

In that draft, I said, “The bill can never be amended or changed enough to get Republican votes In Congress, so why the pursuit of something that’s impossible?” The answer came today with news that the White House is apparently getting ready to drop the public option from the bill—the one thing I thought, based on the president’s previous statements, was sacrosanct.

To say the news hit me by surprise is a bit of an understatement— blindsided, might be a better word. Like a lot of liberal Democrats, I feel the public option is non-negotiable, the one thing that will make or break reform. But now it appears the administration is getting ready to chuck it aside, with the president declaring that it’s “just one sliver” of his reform agenda.

We were fighting tooth and nail over a sliver?!

The Republicans were absolutely, intractably and completely opposed to any form of public option—no negotiation, no accommodation, no Holy Bipartisanship. That was a given. But also opposed to it, apparently, were the Blue Dog Democrats, an actual caucus of conservative Democrats in the US House, a less formal grouping in the US Senate. Blue Dog Democrats in the House, not surprisingly, have the dishonour of being funded primarily by the healthcare and insurance industries.

So maybe the fix was in long before the bill was even introduced, in which case the left and right alike were at war over nothing. But if that’s true, is there anything left in the bill worth enacting?

Maybe. For example, if insurance companies are forbidden to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, that’s a teeny, tiny step (but you know that without regulation they’ll charge through the nose for that coverage). Compelling employers to provide basic insurance would be another small step, but one that Republicans and, one assumes, Blue Dogs will never agree to.

So, at the moment it looks like the US will get a slight tweaking of the system, a little tinkering around the edges. It’s tempting to say it’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, because real reform will be left to a future, hopefully wiser, and less bought-and-paid-for, Congress.

And that’s just sick.

Is the NZ Government crazy?

New Zealand is set to slash support for rehabilitation treatment in November, following moves by the National Party-led Government. ACC, the government-owned accident and rehabilitation insurance, will soon stop free rehabilitation treatment for injured New Zealanders.

Beginning November 16, injured New Zealanders will have to pay a “co-pay” for all rehabilitation treatment. This is happening because the National-led Government has refused to increase subsidies to ACC, and neither are they providing any payments for injured low income New Zealanders.

And, by the way, New Zealanders were never consulted on whether they wanted this.

The slashing of funding means that some people will no longer be able to afford rehabilitation for their injuries—how many we can’t know yet. And the fact that some New Zealanders won’t be able to afford rehabilitation will mean that they risk becoming permanently disabled, which will cost taxpayers far more than fully-funding their rehabilitation.

So, is the government crazy? Yes, but not just because it’s abandoning injured New Zealanders. It’s crazy because this is all part of their plan to privatise ACC.

A little over five months ago I wrote about how National was spinning a web of distortion about ACC, pretending that things are much worse than they really are—in fact, National was ignoring that things were actually far worse when they were last in power, until Labour fixed it.

While National has “promised” not to sell any state-owned assets in its first term, they also have said they’ll open up ACC to “competition” (which is privatisation by another name). The draconian changes to ACC are part of National’s plan: They want to make ACC so awful, so useless that people will flock to private companies, thereby allowing them to claim that “market conditions” have “forced their hand” in selling-off ACC.

Does it sound like I don’t trust the National Party? Given their recent behaviour, why on earth should I? And yes, the National-led government is crazy—crazy like a fox.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Word alignment

Lately, I’ve been more aware of the process of blogging than I am usually. That’s mostly because lately I’ve sometimes been unable to write a post, or started ones that I never completed. That got me to thinking about how all these words aligned themselves.

So I was kind of surprised when fellow blogger Roger Green wrote recently about his blogging and something I’ve experienced, too, that the blog basically “writes itself”. He said, “I have a vague notion of what I want to say, where I want to go, but as often as not, something I write surprises me. ‘I didn't know I was going to write THAT; hmm, that's interesting.’” In my case, that’s at least usually a good thing.

Roger went on to say, “But lately, there have been a half dozen different topics that have just refused to write themselves.” That happens to me all the time, especially lately. Usually it’s that the words won’t arrange themselves, sometimes I lose interest in the topic and a few times it just goes on too long.

Which led me to a quick tally: In the nearly three years that I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve written 1,130 posts, not counting this one (pedants might point out that some of those posts have been YouTube or similar videos, or other things that I’ve found elsewhere; true enough, but I usually add a comment to it). Over that same period, I’ve written 213 “drafts”. Many of those drafts were just early versions of things I later posted, but most have remained “drafts”.

So, despite appearances to the contrary, I don’t just slap this blog together—not usually, anyway. This is also the main reason I’ve sometimes skipped days lately. When the words don’t align, they just don’t.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Truth Squad: The lie underneath healthcare opposition

Over the coming weeks and months I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about the campaign to reform healthcare in America. Part of that will mean taking on the lies, distortions, smears and disinformation campaign from the Republican Party and the corporate elites in the insurance and healthcare industries.

To understand what’s behind all the lies and astroturfing, it’s important to understand one thing that’s underneath it all: The Republican Party, its corporate elites and the various extremists they’re stirring up all believe that the existing healthcare system is just about perfect as it as.

Here’s the truth:

If the system was working, everyone would have access to healthcare, no one would go bankrupt for getting healthcare and no one would die because they didn’t have insurance. By those measures alone, the system in the United States is not working.

While it’s frequently said that some 48 million Americans have no health insurance, the National Association of Community Health Centers reports that 60 million Americans have no access to basic healthcare—that’s an increase of 2 million over the past two years.

And what of people who do have access to healthcare? According to “Medical Bankruptcy in the United States, 2007: Results of a National Study”, published by The American Journal of Medicine:

Using a conservative definition, 62.1% of all bankruptcies in 2007 were medical; 92% of these medical debtors had medical debts over $5000, or 10% of pretax family income. The rest met criteria for medical bankruptcy because they had lost significant income due to illness or mortgaged a home to pay medical bills. Most medical debtors were well educated, owned homes, and had middle-class occupations. Three quarters had health insurance. Using identical definitions in 2001 and 2007, the share of bankruptcies attributable to medical problems rose by 49.6%. In logistic regression analysis controlling for demographic factors, the odds that a bankruptcy had a medical cause was 2.38-fold higher in 2007 than in 2001. [emphasis added]

Their conclusion is obvious and alarming: “Illness and medical bills contribute to a large and increasing share of US bankruptcies.”

What are the consequences of all this? According to estimates by the Urban Institute, “137,000 people died from 2000 through 2006 because they lacked health insurance, including 22,000 people in 2006.”

These statistics are both shocking and shameful. But between 2000-2007, basically the same period in which 137,000 people died because they lacked health insurance, the profits of health insurance companies quintupled. During the period the insurance companies were raking in cash, the percentage of Americans without insurance grew by 19%.

So: 60 million Americans have no access to basic healthcare, some 22,000 people a year die because they have no health insurance and 62.1% of all bankruptcies are caused by medical debts—including even people with insurance.

The American healthcare system is a disaster, diminishing quality of life and costing lives and livelihoods. It attacks ordinary businesses of all sorts. The facts clearly show that the only ones who benefit under the current system are the corporate elites in the insurance and healthcare industries.

So when the Republican Party and its corporate elites ague against healthcare reform, when the “Party of No” refuses to offer an alternative, then they are saying that the current system is perfect, and that’s a lie. It is, in fact, the lie on which all their other lies are built.

I originally found some of this material in Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn’s “Change of Subject” blog.

New Zealand Short Takes

The lights are on, but…

The National-led Government plans on “reforming” the electricity sector. Among the more unusual proposals are that consumers get a rebate if they’re asked to conserve power due to low hydro-lake levels. The idea is that power generators will want to avoid payouts and will “invest” so they don’t have to pay. Maybe…

The government also wants to allow electricity lines companies to sell electricity directly. They believe that increased competition will lead to lower prices.

Reportedly, Consumer NZ backs the proposals. I’m sceptical, however, because I think New Zealand is too small for real competition. The bigger reason I’m sceptical is the fact that the last time National led government they “deregulated” the sector causing prices to soar into the stratosphere.

Sell-off state assets on the sly?

During the last campaign, I said that if elected National would probably find a way to break its promise not to sell any state-owned assets, and that most likely that would happen by diluting the people’s share of ownership. Finance Minister Bill English is promoting a possible way to do that.

English wants “public-private partnerships” to build infrastructure and run core government services. Already the government has announced that private companies will build and run new prisons. Over the next five years, the government plans to spend $7.5 billion to build and upgrade schools, roads, housing, hospitals and telecommunications—all with private companies “partnering”. This will mean transferring ownership of at least some assets to private companies (in the campaign, National proposed that all school buildings be privately owned and leased back to schools).

English believes that these “partnerships” will "maximise economic efficiency". Sounds to me more like a way to transfer ownership of the people’s property to private business, English’s openly-stated goal (not presently shared by the Prime Minister). Even so, I expect he’ll get his way.

Tax and spend

The National-led Government is also looking at possible radical change to New Zealand’s tax system. Among ideas being considered is reducing income tax and raising consumption tax, or GST, which is currently 12.5%.

The ideology behind this is a belief that income taxes “punish” hard work and that consumption can be reduced. Both beliefs are wrong: NO ONE turns down advancement because they might be paying higher taxes; any largely imaginary disincentive that income taxes create is offset by other factors that make people want to advance and move forward.

Consumption taxes affect the poor and working classes much harder than the rich. Just as a $4 loaf of bread costs someone making $15,000 a year a lot more as a percent of income than someone making $150,000 a year, consumption taxes similarly hit lower incomes harder than higher incomes. They also have fewer opportunities to cut their consumption.

This may only be a trial proposal, though, to see what opposition it creates or to make other proposals seem better. Like the other two items today, this will bear watching.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

2 Minutes of hate and insanity

This is two minutes that demonstrates how insane the rightwing in America has become. There isn’t enough space in this blog to point out how crazy these people are—how they lie, how they distort facts, now they simply make stuff up to promote a far right agenda. These are the people—or ones similar to them—who are calling the shots in the Republican Party. And this is why America is still at risk.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Through the words slowly

I’m a slow reader. That doesn’t mean that my reading speed is slow, just that it can take me a long time to finish books. At any given point I have probably half a dozen books at varying points of completion.

I blame television—well, I suppose I should blame all non-printed media. Collectively, they’ve helped to shorten, not my attention span, but my “patience span”: I simply get bored with books at some stage and stop reading. Sometimes I pick them up again, mostly I don’t.

Many, many years ago, I thought that having several books on the go was a good thing; I said it was like television—being able to “change the channel” to whatever I was in the mood for. Maybe that was true, maybe I was kidding myself, but in any case, if a book ends up on that pile now, there’s a good chance it won’t emerge until I put it back on the bookshelf.

This is the main reason I don’t have a “What I’m reading” thing on this blog. I’m sure that I’d get embarrassed, more often than not, by how long a book stayed there, or the book might suddenly disappear from view without another word from me.

None of which is to suggest that I don’t finish books, because I do. I don’t mention them all here, necessarily, but I hope to mention more. To do that, I need to actually finish more books, but this may take some time. I’m a slow reader, you see.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Weekend Diversion: Tourism New Zealand video

The Prime Minister recently asked us all to invite friends and family to visit New Zealand. It’s a great idea. So how about the latest Tourism New Zealand video as this week’s Weekend Diversion?

This video features John Kirwan, who was an All Black form 1984-1994 (he's now Head Coach of the Japanese national rugby team). He talks a bit about his New Zealand, and I can’t fault any of it. As for his goal of getting Japan into the top 8 of rugby-playing nations for the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, well, we’ll see.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Fake protestors exposed

In this video, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC dispatches the right wing nut jobs and their phoney “protests” about healthcare reform far better than I could ever hope to do. In particular, Rachel outlines all the connections between various corporate elites and the usual rightwing groups. The connections veer far into the territory of conspiracy.

Friday, August 07, 2009

¡Enhorabuena, Sonia!

I was glad to get up this morning and read that the US Senate had confirmed Sonia Sotomayor as a US Supreme Court justice. It’s historic—she’s the first Hispanic and only the third woman in the court’s history. She’s also a perfectly competent jurist who will probably be among the moderates.

Still, three things bother me about this. The first is the blatant racism of the Republicans both in the US Senate and those calling the shots outside Congress. They sometimes tried to hide their racism, but it oozed out anyway.

The second thing that bothered me was that for the first time ever the gun lobby took a stand on a nominee, threatening Senators with retaliation if they dared to defy the gun lobby’s edict. The threat was apparently enough to convince some Republicans to switch from supporting Sotomayor to opposing her. Democrats, of course, were unswayed. Naturally even gun nuts have the right to express their opinion, but using intimidation is not the way to do that.

The thing that bothered me the most, however, is the attacks from Republicans who bizarrely claimed that Sotomayor is a liberal when she's clearly—obviously—a moderate. Here’s why this bothered me: What the hell is wrong with having a liberal on the Court? Basically, the rightwing is saying that having rightwingers on the bench is good and proper, but there can be no liberals. Excuse me? How is that in any way democratic, let alone fair? The majority of the Court is more or less conservative (and four are hard-core rightwing), so why shouldn’t liberals get a Justice, too—especially when the retiring justice is from the more or less liberal group of Justices?

Chances are good that one or more of the remaining liberal justices will retire during President Obama’s first term. If so, you can bet on Republicans trashing the nominee for being a “liberal”, even if they’re not, as if there'd be something sinister or evil about replacing a liberal with a liberal.

That’ll be then. For now, congratulations to Judge Sotomayor—and to the US.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

No more mob rule

This ad from the Democratic National Committee takes about a minute to show the gist of the current phoney campaign against healthcare reform in America. It’s been well-documented that the Republican Party has been deeply involved in a corporate marketing campaign designed to try and fool people into believing that protests against healthcare reform are real. The truth is, it’s a fake PR campaign paid for by healthcare and insurance industry lobbying companies with deep ties to the Republican Party (and at least one has a very unsavoury history).

The last time the Republicans tried this was the “tea bagging” phoney PR stunt a few months ago. They first tried it during the 2000 vote recount in Florida, though that time they used a lot of aides to Republican Members of Congress pretending to be real people.

The practice of trying to fake a grassroots campaign is called “astroturfing” (because fake grass has fake grass roots). The right in general, and the Republican Party in particular, has made astroturfing into a high art form and have succeeded in grabbing attention for themselves and fooling people who don’t know that business elites are behind it all.

The whole point of the rightwing marketing campaign is to shut down debate, to prevent real citizens from having a discussion on issues like healthcare and to try and make it appear that ordinary voters oppose reforms. It is completely anti-democratic to its core precisely because the mobs attempt to bully their opponents into silence. We’ve seen this sort of attempt at mob rule throughout modern history, but America deserves better.

Perhaps one way to shut down astroturfing would be for normal people at these events to demand to see the voter registration cards of the bussed-in “protestors”—make them prove they really live in the Congressional District whose “town hall meeting” they’re trying to disrupt and shut down. The people who DO live there would no doubt like to have their meeting and wouldn’t mind establishing their “bonafides”, especially if it made the mobs behave themselves. To be honest, I don’t think anything can make the people in these mobs act like real humans, let alone behave like real citizens.

These corporate-sponsored mobs aren’t going away any time soon. But anyone who has a commitment to democracy has a duty to call them out for being the anti-democratic goons they are.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Truth Squad: ‘Cash for Clunkers’

The Republicans don’t tell the truth about many things these days, and the “Cash for Clunkers” program is no exception. Republicans claim the program is a “failure”. They say that the very idea is wrong because it’s “wrong” to “pick winners”. They belittle it as spending that will result in no benefit.

The bit about “picking winners” is interesting: If the programme is open to anyone buying a car from any carmaker, how is it “picking a winner”? Well, it IS picking a winner: America.

Consider the top ten clunkers traded in so far, according to the Department of Transportation: 1. 1998 Ford Explorer, 2. 1997 Ford Explorer, 3. 1996 Ford Explorer, 4. 1999 Ford Explorer, 5. Jeep Grand Cherokee, 6. Jeep Cherokee, 7. 1995 Ford Explorer, 8. 1994 Ford Explorer, 9. 1997 Ford Windstar, 10. 1999 Dodge Caravan. Notice anything about those vehicles? Like, oh, their size, for example? 83% of traded-in vehicles have been trucks.

The top ten purchased vehicles are: 1. Ford Focus, 2. Honda Civic, 3. Toyota Corolla, 4. Toyota Prius, 5. Ford Escape, 6. Toyota Camry, 7. Dodge Caliber, 8. Hyundai Elantra, 9. Honda Fit, 10. Chevy Cobalt. So far, 60% of the vehicles purchased have been cars.

This shift from old, bigger vehicles to newer and smaller ones means that the average fuel economy increase so far is 9.4 mpg—a 61% improvement. The newer vehicles also run more cleanly than the old vehicles.

The Republicans sneer that much of the money is going to Japanese manufacturers, because “only” four out of ten of the cars sold are from the “Big Three” American car manufacturers. The problem for Republicans is that according to the Transportation Department, so far more than half of the new vehicles not built by the “Big Three” were, in fact, manufactured in the United States.

Here’s another little fact that Republicans may not realise: Cars made overseas don’t materialise on the dealers’ showroom floors. There are a lot of Americans involved in that business, too.

So, what do we have? Old, dirty, less-efficient, often heavier vehicles replaced by newer, cleaner more fuel efficient and often smaller vehicles. The savings on fuel will be returning benefits to the owners, and America, for years—and it’ll help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. The reduced emissions will help reduce air pollution. The lighter vehicles produce less wear and tear on roads, meaning less cost for road maintenance over time. Which one is a bad thing?

We already know the cash infusion the auto industry has had is something they’re certainly not complaining about. It’ll help secure American jobs in the industry. That’s supposed to be a bad thing, too?

The only thing Republicans hate more than a programme from the Democratic Party is a successful programme from the Democratic Party. So it’s probably not surprising they can’t tell the truth about this programme. The “Party of No” can’t do anything positive.

This is the first in a serious of occasional posts in which I’ll take on the lies, distortions and smears of the right.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Beachgoers banned from our house

Anyone who goes to a beach in North Shore City isn’t welcome at our house. We’re not being unfriendly, just cautious.

Two dogs have died after being walked on area beaches, and more than a dozen others became ill but survived. No one knows what’s causing the problem, so that’s why we have to ban anyone who’s been to the beach.

Dead penguins, seagulls and fish have been washing up, but it’s unknown if there’s a link or if it’s mere coincidence. The North Shore City Council has pointed to poisonous algae as a possible cause, but tests are incomplete. Until the results come in, along with the pathology reports on the dogs, it pays to be cautious.

Authorities are advising people to keep their dogs away from beaches. We’re just going one step farther and keeping the beach away from our dog.

Update 05/08/09: With the cause of the deaths and illnesses not yet identified, authorities are now urging people to avoid eastern Auckland and Hauraki Gulf beaches. They also shouldn’t contact seawater or sea life, shouldn’t take children or pets to the beach and shouldn’t gather shellfish in the Hauraki Gulf.

Tests on the first dead dog found no evidence of toxic algae. Some people have suggested 1080 poisoning, but that is slow-acting, which the current poison is not. Also, 1080 poison hasn’t been used on Hauraki Gulf islands since 1996.

The NZ Herald today reported that “five years ago a virus killed large numbers of fish in the Waitemata Harbour, mainly pilchards, and there were similar reports of dead fish in 1998 and 1993.” The investigations continue.

The post above was changed from the original version to include the current number of dogs made sick.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Weekend Diversion: Old New Zealand films

Archives New Zealand has a YouTube Channel where they post some of the short films made by the National Film Unit (which I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist anymore). The films were meant to show ordinary life in New Zealand, and were pretty similar to films in other countries.

It was common in the days before television, and even in the early days of TV, for announcers to speak with a “frightfully posh” accent. They were trained to imitate English announcers, regardless of how they spoke naturally. By all accounts, the people in charge of these films, as well as radio and early television, thought the New Zealand accent was too course and even too common. They felt they were helping to raise the standards of New Zealand.

In any case, that started crumbling when the “pirates” behind Radio Hauraki started transmitting a radio station from a boat at sea, anchored just outside New Zealand’s territorial limits. Listeners started hearing real New Zealand voices, and nothing was every the same.

Today, the only English accents heard on New Zealand’s airwaves belong to people who are actually from England, and the various flavours of New Zealand accents now dominate, as they should.

I picked this film, not the most recently posted one, because it’s Sunday and a film about “little churches” seemed appropriate. Without looking it up, can you guess what year this film is from? Feel free to answer in the comments.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Republicans are 58% crazy

A new Daily Kos/Research 2000 Poll has found that 58% of Republicans are crazy. Well, it didn’t, actually, but that’s the implication of the results.

According to the poll, 58% of Republicans think that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States (28 percent) or they’re not sure if he was (30 percent). Only 42% of Republicans said yes, they did believe it. This could explain why Republican leaders haven’t challenged the so-called “birthers” on their obsession with this myth.

77% of all Americans know that Obama was born in the US, while 11% choose to believe he wasn’t and 12% claim to be “not sure”. When the results are broken down by geographic region, things start to clarify. It won’t surprise many to learn that the region of the US with the biggest number of “birthers” is the South: Only 47% said yes, Obama was born in the US, while 23 percent thought he wasn’t and 30% said they “don’t know”; the South is the only region in the US were the majority didn’t believe or weren’t sure of Obama’s citizenship. By contrast, 93% of those in the Northeast knew he was born in the US, as did 90% of those in the Midwest and 87% of those in the West.

Age differences were also striking: 88% of those 18-29 were correct, and a tiny 12% doubted Obama was born in the US (4% said he wasn’t, 8% didn’t know). A similar spread was found among those 45-59 (82% yes, 8% no and 10% don’t know). Those 30-44 and over 60 were most likely to believe the myth of Obama being foreign-born, but even in those age groups people who answered yes vastly outnumbered those who believed the myth or weren’t sure.

Why do people persist in believing what’s so obviously a myth? It’s really pretty obvious that there’s a deep-seated racism at work here; most of these “birthers” don’t believe an African American should be president, but in 2009 they really can’t say that out loud. Perpetually questioning Obama’s place of birth gives them a way to express their racism less obviously, and in a way that’s fully supported and validated by the leadership of the Republican Party. Those Southerners who are over 60 have a much better chance of having personal memories of the “Old South”, the time before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Most Republicans are now older Southerners, which helps explain the poll numbers in those regional and age groups—essentially, Republicans dragged down the results for both groups and the country as a whole. This poll gives us a way to quantify the craziness of the Republican Party.

Actually, if you add this poll to other things the Republican Party has been doing, it’s probably more accurate to say that the party is 100% crazy.