Thursday, February 28, 2008

Australia, Aborigines, child abuse, and land grabbing

In a post on Australia last year, I mentioned how the Australian government had made a very odd response to high rates of child abuse reported in Aboriginal communities.

Steps recommended to the government included:

Educating children in school about sexual abuse, and making the schools a safe place for children

Taking action to reduce alcohol consumption in Aboriginal communities

Improve family and community support services, and have them work with police

Empower Aboriginal communities

Appoint a Commissioner for Children and Young People

Instead, John Howard's government did the following:

1. Restricted alcohol.

2. Quarantined part of welfare payments to ensure they were being used for necessities, not alcohol

3. Linked income support and family assistance payments to children's school attendance

4. Introducing compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children

5. Acquiring townships prescribed by the Australian Government through
five year leases including payment of just terms compensation

6. More police

7. Intensifying clean up efforts in communities ??

8. Improving housing and reforming community living arrangements in
prescribed communities including the introduction of market based rents and
normal tenancy arrangements

9. Banning the possession of X-rated pornography ??

10. Scrapping the permit system for common areas, road corridors and
airstrips for prescribed communities on Aboriginal land, and;

11. Improving governance by appointing managers of all government business in
prescribed communities??

12. Abolition of the CDEP scheme [a further key step in the Emergency Response
being implemented in the Northern Territory announced 23 July 2007]] ??

The bolded recommendations were not acted upon at all by Howard's administration.

Under actions, the ones with bolded question marks were actions that had absolutely nothing to do with the recommendations, and that in fact made no sense whatsoever. For example, why is watching acts of heterosexual sex likely to increase abusive behaviors towards children? Additionally, the CDEP scheme is, I think, some sort of community development scheme. I don't really have time to research that, though.

The bolded actions are not merely nonsensical. They are actions that in another context would be seen as a land grab. They could be a further act of dispossession, like the Stolen Generations that new PM Kevin Rudd just apologized for.

Oxfam Australia commissioned a report on the land rights reform, written by Professor Jon Altman, of the Australia National University.

First, Altman contends that land rights reforms have nothing to do with child abuse, that they are based on an ideological position that is opposed to the rights of Aboriginal Australians. Second, he contends the reforms could actually make the problem worse.

I am not familiar with Australian legislation. However, here is my reading. I believe that Aboriginal communities under the permit system require visitors to purchase permits, which provide an economic benefit to the community. It is, after all, Aboriginal land.

The Australian government alleges that the permit system has created closed communities that are hidden from outside scrutiny, and has enabled some insiders to create a climate of fear and intimidation. These allegations are unproven.

The government is also proposing that it use "constitutional powers to compulsorily acquire five-year leasehold interest in prescribed communities." This would be unprecedented. Some landowners have perceived this as a land grab, and might create a dangerous precedent, especially if minerals were to be discovered on Aboriginal land. The government also proposes to, after having grabbed the land, continue to negotiate 99-year leasing agreements. Altman points out that these negotiations would then be conducted under a severe power disparity: the government has stolen your land for at least five years, and now wants to negotiate a lease.

The government's stated rationale is they want to use the time to deliver better living environments for the residents. It's unclear that this would actually happen.

Altman's paper doesn't make for an easy read if you're not familiar with Australian government policy. He references the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976, which was amended around 2006.

Nonetheless, he makes it clear that this particular response would be severely inimical to the interests and rights of Aboriginal Australians. John Howard had consistently refused to apologize for the harm done to Aborigines. His government's actions here seem to say that Aborigines seem to want to abuse their children, so the government needs to stop them. I pray that Kevin Rudd's government has the wisdom to take a different, more cooperative path.

Yahoo! hit with second Chinese dissident lawsuit

Marketwatch has a report that a second group of Chinese dissidents has filed suit against Yahoo in U.S. court.

Human rights law is still in its developing phases. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

I will say that Yahoo is certainly in a bind. It has to operate according to Chinese law. It would be extremely distasteful for a foreign company to pressure a sovereign government to change its domestic laws, and China is too powerful to bow to that pressure anyway.

On the other hand, China's laws violate numerous principles of human rights. Human rights may be a (so far) mainly Western construct, but it is widely recognized as a valid framework.

We will be muddling through these issues for decades, but pro-democracy NGOs as well as Western governments need to engage China and other countries. Western nations should not be afraid to spread democracy ... but they should be afraid of spreading it by force.

Sovereign wealth funds, investing in the West, protectionism/xenophobia, transparency

Sovereign wealth funds have been in the news lately. They are government-run investment vehicles. Many oil-rich Middle Eastern countries have them. China, Norway, Singapore, and a few other countries also have SWFs. Singapore's wealth is mainly from its tax revenues as a financial hub.

A number of major Western banks took investments from SWFs, including Citi (U.S.) and UBS (Switzerland). These banks had made mistakes larger than most in the subprime debacle. There is little doubt they needed the cash.

And there has been much debate on how good this is, on whether Americans are selling their assets to foreigners.

Seeking Alpha has one such article. The author highlights the fact that SWFs are being invited to participate in a best-practices code, which would include promising not to invest to gain influence over companies' operations. He feels this is a sham, that holding large stakes automatically gains you influence. He says that an SWF could easily build a large stake without the intent to unduly influence the company, and then the company might make a misstep, and then the SWF could exert influence. For example, Prince Alaweed of Saudi Arabia owns around 3% of Citigroup. He exerted some influence to force Chuck Prince, the now ex CEO, out.

On one hand, this is xenophobia, plain and simple. The complainers would not be complaining if Westerners were buying up companies in the Middle East and Asia, and trying to run them. The World Bank is known to propagate a nakedly free-market ideology, and to exert undue influence over governments when it makes loans.

On the other hand, the concerns over unaccountable foreign investors are valid. Yes, they are. Many SWFs make very poor disclosure about their holdings and their objectives.

I can speak for Asians: we have much to learn about transparency, about doing things in the light of day to show we have nothing to hide. Yes, Westerners talk transparency but often don't follow through. That doesn't matter.

Transparency is integral to democracy. It ensures your accountability to the lives of those you influence. Those who have power must always be accountable. If you shy away from accountability, it is logical to conclude that you have something to hide.

One argument raised by SWFs is that disclosing their holdings would put them at a competitive disadvantage to other investors, like hedge funds. Tony Tan of Singapore raised this point. He doesn't know what the &^!# he's talking about. Warren Buffett is required to disclose his holdings. The Securities and Exchange Commission also allows him (and other investors) to do so on a quarterly basis, well after the trades are made. I think the SEC even allows investors like Buffett to not disclose their trades if they are still building a position.

In any case, it's really too bad that the SWF issue isn't making leaders in the West think about how they might be interfering with the sovereignty of other countries.

PS: in the investing world, a fund's performance is compared to a benchmark, such as the S&P 500 index, which is an index of large US companies like Microsoft, General Electric, Wal-Mart (urk), Altria (urk!) Exxon Mobil (urk!!), etc. Alpha is a numerical measure that tries to quantify consistent returns by a fund over the benchmark. Basically, every fund that isn't an index-tracking fund seeks alpha. By the way, most of them fail.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Supreme Court considers reducing or eliminating punitive damages in 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill case

CNN Money has a report today indicating that the U.S. Supreme Court seemed inclined to reduce the punitive damages that were awarded against Exxon Mobil nearly 20 years ago, for the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Exxon was assessed $2.5 billion in punitive damages. This is about $75,000 for each of the 33,000 plaintiffs, whose lives were "destroyed." The original award was $5 billion. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals cut the award in half but let it stand otherwise. Exxon appealed the verdict, and they have been consistently fighting the damages despite promising to make Alaskans whole. The economic damages part of the award was $287 million.

The present Supreme Court has taken a solidly pro-business stance. However, one conservative justice, Samuel Alito, owns Exxon stock and has recused himself. A 4-4 verdict would let the Appeals Court verdict stand.

To be sure, the numbers being tossed around sound very large.

However, there is evidence that the environment has not recovered from the damage. Another CNN Money report details how the fishing industry has failed to recover. This affects livelihoods, and the tax base for the municipalities involved. It also affects a large number of Alaska Native residents for whom fishing is their livelihood, as well as commercial fishers. The report details tales of mental illness, substance abuse, divorce, and suicide in the wake of the spill. It wasn't just that someone spilled a bit of oil on someone's coast. Exxon Valdez spilled an immense amount of oil. Oil is toxic. It has destroyed livelihoods.

Exxon has in fact maintained that it shouldn't have to pay punitive damages at all. They have so far paid $3.4 billion in other fines, plus cleaning costs. However, the spill was so severe that they have not made the affected residents whole.

To eliminate or reduce the punitive damages award would be a blow to vulnerable Alaskans whose lives were destroyed by the spill. It would mean that America is letting criminals get away scot-free with her laws.

Both Democrat candidates have won tax breaks for their campaign contributors

USA Today had this bit of news yesterday. Hillary and Barack both took campaign money from parties that benefited through their legislative actions. Here, they won some fairly specialized tax breaks.

Both candidates and John McCain, have criticized the campaign finance system. Frankly, in many other contexts, we'd wonder if they had taken a bribe.

WASHINGTON — Both Democratic presidential candidates, who promise to curb the influence of corporate lobbyists in Washington, helped enact narrowly tailored tax breaks sought by major campaign contributors.

Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign has accepted $54,350 from members of a law firm that in 2006 lobbied him to introduce a tax provision for a Japanese drug company with operations in Illinois, according to public records and interviews. The government estimates the provision, which became law in December 2006, will cost the treasury $800,000.

In 2002, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton introduced legislation at the request of Rienzi & Sons, a Queens, N.Y., food importer, according to company president Michael Rienzi. The provision, which became law in December 2004, required the government to refund tens of thousands of dollars in duty charged on imported tomato products, Rienzi told USA TODAY.

Rienzi gave $110,000 to committees set up to support Clinton's 2000 Senate race, records show. Rienzi family members contributed an additional $52,800 to her campaigns since 2000. Michael Rienzi also said he donated to Bill Clinton's presidential foundation, but he declined to say how much.

At issue is a little-known congressional practice of suspending import taxes on specific products at the request of companies. Typically, Congress passes a tariff bill every two years that includes a variety of such measures.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, says the provisions are part of a corporate favor factory that rewards lobbyists and fuels fundraising. "It's a make-work money-making cycle for all involved," Ellis said.

It's legal and common for members of Congress to accept campaign money from people who have benefited from their actions. Nonetheless, both Democrats have promised to reduce the influence of corporate interests in Washington, even as they have each raised more than $130 million.

Clinton accepts money from lobbyists, but she recently has stepped up her criticism of what she called, in a Feb. 14 speech, "a government of, by, and for the special interests."

Obama touts his refusal to take donations from Washington lobbyists though he accepts money from their co-workers who are not registered to lobby. Speaking after the Feb. 12 primary, he decried a "Washington game" where "lobbyists write check after check and Exxon makes record profits."

Obama declined to be interviewed for this story. His campaign said in a statement that Obama "introduced these bills to help Illinois companies get products they need that aren't available in the U.S. so they can lower costs for customers and create jobs."

Clinton's campaign also declined to make her available. "This type of routine legislation was introduced jointly by New York's senators to help companies throughout their state," Clinton spokesman Philipe Reines said by e-mail. Of the contributions, he said, "One thing had nothing to do with the other."

John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, does not introduce tariff suspension bills under "a longstanding policy — no private relief bills or any bills for one person," spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said in an e-mail.

In May 2006, after the finance committee invited senators to put forward tariff suspension proposals, Obama introduced a bill requested by Astellas Pharma, which was seeking a break on an ingredient it imports from Switzerland.

Astellas employed two lobbyists with the Chicago firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman, Senate records show. Another Katten lawyer had helped the senator set up a blind trust in 2005, campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

The two lobbyists have not contributed to Obama. But their law partners and associates at Katten gave $77,000 to his campaigns since 1999, according to the non-partisan CQ Moneyline.

Mark Zolno, a Katten partner who represents Astellas, said in a statement that the tariff suspension was a routine matter that arose long before Obama decided to run for president. "Katten's individual attorneys are free to contribute to political campaigns of their choosing," the statement says.

Clinton's 2002 tomato legislation stemmed from a court decision that sided with food importers who successfully sued the government, arguing their products had been improperly taxed, Michael Rienzi said. He said that he became a Clinton contributor because he admired how she handled herself during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and that his contributions were unrelated to the tariff bill.

He said he never discussed the proposed tax relief with Clinton, leaving that task to his lobbyists, from the firm of Grunfeld, Desiderio, Lebowitz, Silverman & Klestadt. Members of that firm have contributed $58,200 to Sen. Clinton since 2001, records show.

"We won this in court. The judge decided that the government was wrong," Rienzi said. "Customs didn't want to listen. That's why the bill."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Americans are financially illiterate

I hate to be rude to my hosts. But a survey released by Harvard Business School and Dartmouth (synopsized on CNN's website) shows that Americans don't understand the mechanics of debt. Shown a hypothetical scenario about credit card debt, 36% couldn't figure out how long it would take their debt to double. 32% overestimated the time frame. 18% didn't know how to respond. The survey also revealed that Americans aren't saving enough for retirement.

In a country where debt is very easily available, this is very dangerous.

A good estimator, by the way, is the rule of 72. Divide 72 by the interest rate you are paying, or the rate at which you expect your investment to compound. The result is the number of years it takes your debt or investment to double. If you are earning 8% above the rate of inflation annually (that's a rather high rate of return for a portfolio that isn't all stocks), your investment's purchasing power will double in about 9 years. If you are paying 24% on your credit card, which isn't out of line these days, your debt will double in 3 years if you don't pay anything back.

In Singapore, you need to make about US$20,000 a year (at current exchange rates) before a bank can legally issue you a credit card. That means that students can't get credit cards. Younger workers also tend to stay with their parents, since housing is at a premium. Tempers may flare, but they save money. Singaporeans are probably about as financially illiterate as Americans, but it's also harder for them to get credit cards.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Photo of African-American presidential candidate in African garb causes controversy

Snippets of an article from the International Herald Tribune:

A flap erupted when some Internet sites on Monday posted a photo of Obama in Somalian garb, including a white turban. When the Obama campaign charged that Clinton aides had leaked the photo - taken during a 2006 trip to Africa - the Clinton campaign manager, Maggie Williams, tried to turn the matter back at the Obama team, even though her camp has not denied any role in distributing the photo.

"If Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed," Williams said in a statement. "Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely."


The attacks on Obama's patriotism took flight again recently, when his wife said that this campaign had made her proud of the country for the first time. Senator McCain's wife, Cindy, made a point of saying that she had always been proud of the country. Obama later said that his wife was talking about the nation's politics.

Obama suggested the outline of his counterattack to the patriotism questions in a general election. He said he would be glad to compare his patriotism with that of a Republican Party whose president failed to get troops enough body armor in Iraq, that did not give proper benefits to wounded veterans and that has engaged in "illegal wiretapping."


Editor: To some extent, Americans of color will always be considered foreigners, especially if they don't act White, or if they criticize their country's policies. Asian Americans tend to get this a bit more, I think, but it's interesting to see an African-American presidential candidate get it.

And so, I encourage Americans of European descent to vigorously criticize their country's policies where they go wrong, and to learn more about non-European cultures.

David Walker, comptroller general of US Government Accountability Office resigns - that's a bad sign

Bill Donoghue, writing for Marketwatch, says that the US government is spending the country into oblivion. He advises investors to sell US stocks. More relevant to readers of this blog, he advises that profligate US government spending is going to create enormous challenges for the country. It cannot continue. For people like me, that means that any universal health care plans, or plans to expand health care, will never be as expansive as they should (in my opinion) be. It will mean that increased health care must be financially sustainable in a deteriorating situation.

David Walker, comptroller general of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has since 1998 been the objectively informed and outspoken critic of America's balance sheet. He has criticized supporting Iraq's dysfunctional government, pork barrel spending by Congress, unrealistic "universal health care plans" we can ill-afford or support, the escalating risks of huge deficits, fiscal vulnerability to hostile foreign governments, and a lack of will to reform our government

"David Walker has proven that one person can make a difference," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said in a release. "As Comptroller General for the last decade, he has been a tireless and effective advocate for the need to make our nation's long-term fiscal situation a priority."

Facing indifference on the Hill and unrealistic spending promises, Walker is resigning with five years still remaining in his term to head the newly formed Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Peterson, senior chairman of The Blackstone Group and Commerce secretary in the Nixon administration, has pledged an astounding startup budget for the foundation of $1 billion.

That money will attack what the foundation considers "the most substantial economic, fiscal and other sustainability challenges of our current age" -- including federal entitlement programs, health care, unprecedented trade and budget deficits, low savings rates, mounting foreign debt, soaring energy consumption, an uncompetitive educational system, and the proliferation of nuclear warfare materials. Maybe Congress will listen this time.

"I have been around a very long time, and I have never seen so many simultaneous challenges that I would describe as undeniable, unsustainable and virtually untouchable politically," Peterson said in a prepared statement.


I'm optimistic for our country long-term because of the potential of the Peterson foundation, but disturbed about the plight of investors whose advisers will preach the out-of-date stay-the-course story and lead them into yet another bear market from which to recover.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Leviticus, the book so many of us love to hate: understand it as a public health code

The good old book Leviticus is the bit where God, speaking through His ancient Israelite editor, says you shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.

First, I understand that Conservative Jewish synagogues and rabbis these days may, if they choose, maintain a prohibition on anal sex between men, in keeping with that bit of Leviticus. Oral sex is, well, kosher for some Conservative Jews. Oh, and some rabbinical schools may admit lesbian and gay candidates.

Second, the word translated as abomination is toevah. It is used to indicate ritual uncleanliness. Now, Biblical-era Jews probably had antipahty towards homosexual activity. We shouldn't play that down. As David Plotz puts it, "There is no Brokeback Mount Sinai." However, handling the skin of a pig, eating lobster, working on the Sabbath, all these were also toevah. Christian priests do a considerable amount of activity to prepare for services on Sunday. Surely that counts as work?

Leviticus is about ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness. It is a holiness code. And actually, it is also a public health code. Chapter 13, instructions for people with leprosy, can be understood as an attempt to deal with an infectious disease. Lepers were expelled from camp, their clothes torn. "He shall cover over his upper lip, and he shall call out, 'Impure! Impure!' " Priests were to quarantine those with skin diseases. Later chapters describe how to deal with clothes and houses that are infected with fungus.

And then, of course, there were the laws condemning sex with consanguineous relatives. Humans have known for quite some time that inbreeding increases the risk of genetic defects.

Regular readers of this blog probably already know not to take Leviticus literally. But, how many of you had thought of it as a set of public health codes?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Anglican Communion falling apart: Archbishops of Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Southern Cone give up Anglican Communion for Lent

This is slightly belated news. But the Archbishops of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and the Southern Cone (which contains a number of Dioceses in Latin America) have given up the Anglican Communion for Lent, and will not be attending the Lambeth Conference, a signature Anglican event.

As an aside, I gave up meat for Lent, myself.

Mark Harrishas more coverage on his blog.

While these are only five of 44 provinces, the first four are rather large ones. Nigeria is the largest province in the Communion. The thinking is that these folks, and perhaps some others, will split off permanently from the Anglican Communion.

My chaplain likened it to the situation of a married couple who are better off divorcing.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "Anglicanism is very, very untidy; but very, very lovable."

Friday, February 22, 2008

In America, you can buy democracy

In the United States, democracy has a price.

Discover Financial, a credit card issuer, spent $400,000 on lobbying related to legislation that would affect credit card fees.

Numerous other companies spend equivalent sums on lobbying.

Money buys you access to legislators.

If you're rich enough, you can buy democracy.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Formaldehyde fumes found in temporary shelters for Katrina victims

One might wonder why, in the richest nation on earth, people displaced after Hurricane Katrina (which struck Louisiana and Mississippi) are still living in temporary trailer shelters two years later. In any case, the CDC has found high levels of formaldehyde fumes in those trailers, and sees an immediate need to re-evacuate the residents. Please pray for their safety. The Associated Press has a report.

An excerpt:

The CDC, working with FEMA, hired a contractor. The firm — Bureau Veritas North America — tested air samples from 358 travel trailers, 82 park model and 79 mobile homes.

Analysis of the samples, taken from Dec. 21 through Jan. 23, came back last week, McGeehin said.

They found average levels of 77 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air, significantly higher than the 10 to 17 parts per billion concentration seen in newer homes. Levels were as high as 590 parts per billion.

The highest concentrations were in travel trailers, which are smaller and more poorly ventilated, McGeehin said.

Indoor air temperature was a significant factor in raising formaldehyde levels, independent of trailer make or model, CDC officials said. McGeehin said that's why the CDC would like residents out before summer.

A broader-based children's health study is also in the works, McGeehin said.

Last week, congressional Democrats accused FEMA of manipulating scientific research in order to play down the danger posed by formaldehyde in the trailers.

In its initial round of testing, FEMA took samples from unoccupied trailers that had been aired out for days and compared them with federal standards for short-term exposure, according to the lawmakers.

Legislators also said the CDC ignored research from — and then demoted — one of its own experts, who concluded any level of exposure to formaldehyde may pose a cancer risk. A CDC spokesman has denied the allegations.

Race and gender in the American elections

Maureen Dowd, writing for the New York Times, says to feminists that "If Hillary fails, it will be her failure, not ours."

As a possible first Madame President, Hillary is a flawed science experiment because you can’t take Bill out of the equation. Her story is wrapped up in her marriage, and her marriage is wrapped up in a series of unappetizing compromises, arrangements and dependencies.

Instead of carving out a separate identity for herself, she has become more entwined with Bill. She is running bolstered by his record and his muscle. She touts her experience as first lady, even though her judgment during those years on issue after issue was poor. She says she’s learned from her mistakes, but that’s not a compelling pitch.

As a senator, she was not a leading voice on important issues, and her Iraq vote was about her political viability.

She told New York magazine’s John Heilemann that before Iowa taught her that she had to show her soft side, “I really believed I had to prove in this race from the very beginning that a woman could be president and a woman could be commander in chief. I thought that was my primary mission.”

Hillary, however, is no fool. She does have what it takes to run the country, and seems to be no more corrupt than anyone else. Sure she plays the gender card, but some of her opponents are still playing the gender card against her.

Many women I talk to, even those who aren’t particularly fond of Hillary, feel empathy for her, knowing that any woman in a world dominated by men has to walk a tightrope between femininity and masculinity, strength and vulnerability.

They see double standards they hate — when male reporters described Hillary’s laugh as “a cackle” or her voice as “grating,” when Rush Limbaugh goes off on her wrinkles or when male pundits seem gleeful to write her political obituary. Several women I know, who argue with their husbands about Hillary, refer with a shudder to the “Kill the Witch” syndrome.

In a webcast, prestidigitator Penn Jillette talks about a joke he has begun telling in his show. He thinks the thunderous reaction it gets from audiences shows that Hillary no longer has a shot.

The joke goes: “Obama is just creaming Hillary. You know, all these primaries, you know. And Hillary says it’s not fair, because they’re being held in February, and February is Black History Month. And unfortunately for Hillary, there’s no White Bitch Month.”

Of course, jokes like that — even Jillette admits it’s offensive — are exactly what may give Hillary a shot. When the usually invulnerable Hillary seems vulnerable, many women, even ones who don’t want her to win, cringe at the idea of seeing her publicly humiliated — again.

And just because she's so closely tied to Bill shouldn't disqualify her. Americans have a distaste for dynasties ... but why elect George Bush? Why not vote the Kennedys out of their various House and Senate seats? If political talent and leadership ability cluster in families, that per se is not a bad thing.

Jake Tapper has an article on his ABC News blog detailing how one Black superdelegate feels that Hillary has been wrongly playing the race card.

As Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, was telling the New York Times that despite having endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, he will cast his superdelegate vote for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, we were talking to a neutral superdelegate who had an interesting take on it all.

The highest-ranking African-American in Congress told us for our Good Morning America report this morning that the racially-tinged way in which critics charge the Clintons conducted their campaign in South Carolina is driving black superdelegates into Obama's arms.

"The surge -- if I may use that word -- occurred in direct correlation to the way that campaign had been ratcheted up," said Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-SC, the House Majority Whip who has not endorsed a candidate. "Those of us who live in the South especially, we know the code words when we hear them and we understand the tone. People felt some of that was going on and they reacted to it in a very bitter way."

Clyburn said that he had heard from many black lawmakers who thought the Clintons played the race card. Clyburn said of particular offense were former President Bill Clinton's comparison of Obama with Rev. Jesse Jackson. "It was an attempt to isolate the ethnicity of the candidate," Clyburn said.

On Capitol Hill, the lobbying from both campaigns has taken on an emotional and dramatic air. "I've seen a superdelegate driven to tears over this," Clyburn said. "It's a very emotional thing. People who have been waiting for years to vote for a woman or a black find themselves conflicted having to make a choice between the two at one time. That's very, very tough, especially on African American women."

What do you think?

I don't know what I think. Barack's campaign took far too long to respond to the reasonable requests of 80-20 PAC, an Asian-American political action campaign. In fact, it seemed that he finally responded only when he was behind Hillary.

I in fact would prefer Barack to Hillary. But, as I've previously said, I trust no politician.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

It's a new day in Australia

New Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has apologized to Aborigines for years of mistreatment, especially over the Stolen Generation of mixed-race children who were forcibly separated from their families. The justification was often that their families were abusive. However, this is a grave violation of human rights; further, there is evidence that the system itself was abusive.

Watch a video of part of his speech in Parliament.

CNN has a report here.

To symbolize what the government hopes will be a fresh approach to the future, a group of indigenous Australians performed a traditional welcome ceremony Tuesday of dancing and singing to mark the start of parliament's new session. As the traditional owners of the land which parliament sits on, the performers "welcomed" the lawmakers onto it.

"For thousands of years, our peoples have observed this protocol," said Matilda House, an Aboriginal elder at the ceremony. "It is a good and honest and decent and very human act to reach out to make sure everyone has a place and is welcome."

This may open the way to compensation claims by Aborigines. Pray that Australians can find a way towards healing and reconciliation. Sorry, by the way, is necessary but not sufficient to justice for Indigenous peoples.

Turn the thermostats down

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Will Democratic Party voters decide Hillary vs Barack, or will the party elite? Plus, Barack snubs Gavin Newsome over gay marriage

ABC News has a special that covers the role of Super Delegates in the Democratic Party. Broadly speaking, in each state, candidates run against each other. Each district in each state has a number of delegates assigned by proportion. Candidates get 'assigned' delegates roughly in proportion to the percentage of the votes they get. The delegates go to the Democratic National Convention when all the shouting is over to nominate a candidate.

However, the Democratic Party is ironically not that democratic. There are a number of Super Delegates, comprised of the party elite, who will also vote. There are almost 800 super delegates compared with about 1300 regular ones. This Byzantine structure was only recently put in place.

There have been assertions made that the Democratic elites wanted Hillary to get the nomination, and raised a significant amount of money for her. Barack essentially came out of nowhere and raised his own funds. My political science professor said that it could very well be that the Democratic Party wants Hillary, but the voters choose Barack. The Super Delegates in the Party could very well give Hillary the nomination despite Barack getting the popular vote. However, that would disenchant a large number of voters, who might not turn out ... and give the election away to the Republicans. As I said, I could possibly live with McCain. But he would not be my first choice for President.

Hillary is a competent stateswoman. She will make a good President. But she has been in the system for a long time, and the system is tainted. I do not trust her, and I do not trust the Democratic Party. If Democratic voters elect Barack, but the Party elects Hillary, I will trust the Party even less.

I will not trust Barack, either. Mayor Gavin Newsome of San Francisco once allowed same-sex couples to legally marry. He was later overriden, but the marriages stood. He also held fundraisers for Barack. And he alleges in this SFGate article that Barack Obama snubbed him, afraid of being seen with him after his controversial actions.

In fact, early last year, Newsom alluded to the incident in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Speaking to Reuters on Jan. 26, 2007, Newsom was asked about three potential Democratic candidates: Obama, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore.

He was asked about the flak he took after announcing that San Francisco would allow same-sex marriages - flak that included claims he had helped Republicans by handing them a wedge issue heading into a presidential election year. In the interview, Newsom admitted he'd been hammered over the decision. "And I'm not just saying from Republicans," he added at the time.

"One of the three Democrats you mentioned as presidential candidates, as God is my witness, will not be photographed with me, will not be in the same room with me," Newsom told Reuters, "even though I've done fundraisers for that particular person - not once, but twice - because of this issue."

80-20 PAC, an Asian American political action campaign, also asked presidential candidates to take actions to increase the number of Asian American federal judges; Asian Americans are woefully underrepresented, for no good reason, in the Federal judiciary. Barack Obama refused to answer until very recently. Hillary and John Edwards answered in the affirmative pretty early on.

After I got out of my last political science class, where we covered the dynamics of the American electoral system, I felt soiled. Do not be fooled by Hillary's alleged feminist credentials, or by Barack's charisma, or even by John McCain's occasional moderate stances. No politician is to be trusted. Citizens must stand ready to demand an accounting from all of them.

Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.
Psalm 20:7, NRSV

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.
2 Peter 2:1, NRSV

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Rowan Williams to impose Sharia law in Britain

OK, that's NOT what Rowan said at all: he wants to allow Muslims to be able to choose Sharia law for certain civil matters, as is done in some other countries. But it makes for a better headline.

The BBCa report. Thinking Anglicans has reactions here and here. I wonder what Big Pete (as in, Peter Akinola, the notorious homophobe) will think?

Williams under fire in Sharia row

Dr Williams interview
The Archbishop of Canterbury has attracted widespread criticism after appearing to back the adoption of some aspects of Sharia law in the UK.

Dr Rowan Williams said the UK had to "face up to the fact" some citizens did not relate to the UK legal system.

Culture Secretary Andy Burnham said such moves would create "social chaos."

But Bishop of Hulme, the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, criticised the "disgraceful" way in which the archbishop had been "ridiculed" and "lampooned" by some.

"We have probably one of the greatest and the brightest archbishops of Canterbury we have had for many a long day," he said.

Taken aback

The robust defence follows criticism of Dr Williams in some circles.

The BBC understands from sources who work on Christian-Muslim interfaith issues that the Dr Williams has faced a barrage of criticism from within the Church and has been genuinely taken aback by how his words were received.

Islamic Sharia law is a legal and social code designed to help Muslims live their daily lives, but it has proved controversial in the West for the extreme nature of some of its punishments.

[The] implication that British courts should treat people differently based on their faith is divisive and dangerous
Trevor Phillips
Equality and Human Rights Commission

Dr Rowan Williams told BBC Radio 4 on Thursday that he believed the adoption of some Sharia law in the UK seemed "unavoidable".

He said adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law could help social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

But Gordon Brown's spokesman said the prime minister "believes that British laws should be based on British values".

He added that Mr Brown had a good relationship with the archbishop, who was perfectly entitled to express his views.

Shaista Gohir, a government advisor on Muslim women and director of Muslim Voice UK, said she did not believe there was a need for Sharia courts because "the majority of Muslims do not want it".

Sharia law is Islam's legal system
It is derived from the Koran and the life of the prophet Mohammed
Sharia rulings help Muslims understand how they should lead their lives
A formal legal ruling is called a fatwa
In the West, Sharia courts deal mainly with family and business issues
English law recognises religious courts as a means of arbitration

She told BBC News: "Many Muslim commentators and the media are wrongly assuming that all Muslims want Sharia law in the UK.

"Various polls have so far indicated that around 40% want Sharia law. Although this is a significant percentage, why ignore the views of the other 60%?"

Following the archbishop's comments, Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said: "To ask us to fundamentally change the rule of law and to adopt Sharia law, I think, is fundamentally wrong."

Shadow community cohesion minister Baroness Warsi told BBC News 24: "Dr Williams seems to be suggesting that there should be two systems of law, running alongside each other, almost parallel, and for people to be offered the choice of opting into one or the other. That is unacceptable."

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said he had "an enormous amount of respect" for Dr Williams, but could not agree with him on this issue.

He said: "Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another."

Trevor Phillips, who chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said the "implication that British courts should treat people differently based on their faith is divisive and dangerous".

In an interview with BBC correspondent Christopher Landau, Dr Williams said Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".

He stressed "nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well".

'Respect and tolerance'

But Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is" was dangerous.

Under English law, people may devise their own way to settle a dispute in front of an agreed third party as long as both sides agree to the process.

There is, and should only be, one law which covers all people and to suggest it can be otherwise is to seriously damage our rights

Patricia London, UK

Muslim Sharia courts and Orthodox Jewish courts which already exist in the UK come into this category.

Dilwar Hussain of the Islamic Foundation, an influential think-tank on Muslims in Europe, said non-Muslims needed to be reassured that nobody wanted to invent a new legal system.

He said: "Most Muslims are perfectly happy with the legal system as it exists in the UK. They support it. It protects them, it includes provisions for Halal food and for banking services. In other words, some of the most important things that concern people are already there in the system.

"We are not seeking the introduction of a new system - absolutely not. But there are some areas, issues around families for example, where many Muslims would like to be able to find solutions according to what they believe. That is not incompatible with our law."

Ibrahim Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "We're looking at a very small aspect of Sharia for Muslim families when they choose to be governed with regards to their marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody of children and so forth.

"Let's debate this issue. It is very complex. It is not as straight forward as saying that we will have a system here."

Friday, February 08, 2008

What is the purpose of skilled worker visas?

Many countries allow visas for skilled foreign workers. Singapore, for example, makes it pretty easy to get such visas. It is also fairly easy in Europe. In the United States, if you have a masters degree, you can expect to be offered a skilled worker visa if you want one. However, the filing requirement are enormously complex. There is a quota of 65,000 visas for for-profit companies, which is always oversubscribed.

Additionally, companies where than 15% of the workforce are non-Americans must prove that American workers weren't displaced. On the face of things, I find that a bit xenophobic. Whether we like it or not, we are all competing globally. Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google, got here on an H1B visa. Additionally, who's to say that Americans seeking work abroad aren't in some way displacing equally-qualified local talent? Finally, there are American politicians, like the otherwise progressive Dennis Kucinich, who would end the H1B (skilled worker) visa program, because it allegedly displaces Americans.

There is evidence that the H1B visa is being used as as "outsourcing visa". See this International Herald Tribune article:

But the H-1B visa is being put to a starkly different use: It is now a critical tool for Indian outsourcing vendors to gain expertise and win contracts from Western companies to transfer critical operations to places like Bangalore.

"It has become the outsourcing visa," the Indian commerce minister, Kamal Nath, said by telephone this week while attending global trade talks in New Delhi, at which India is pushing the United States for a larger H-1B quota.

"If at one point you had X amount of outsourcing," he said, "and now you have a much higher quantum of outsourcing, you need that many more visas."

This month, the annual quota of 65,000 H-1B visas evaporated in a single day after U.S. officials received more than 133,000 applications. Last year, the quota lasted nearly 60 days.

If the past is any guide, many of those applications were for people with no intention of staying in the United States for the long term. Eight of the 10 largest H-1B applicants last year were outsourcing firms with major operations in India, according to a tabulation of U.S. Labor Department statistics by Ronil Hira, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, and a critic of the visas. A year earlier, the figure was four in ten.

As Indian outsourcing companies have become the leading consumers of the visa, they have used it to further their primary mission, which is to gain the expertise necessary to take on critical tasks performed by Western companies, and perform them in India at a fraction of the cost. Thousands of H-1B visas every year are being won by individuals acting as outsourcing ambassadors. Highly skilled and easily meeting the objective standards for excellence that the law requires, the employees interact with U.S. companies like Morgan Stanley and Boeing, gathering an outsourcing mandate and lubricating the flow of tasks to an Indian back office.

"To deliver the solutions from a remote environment," said B. Ramalinga Raju, chairman of Satyam Computer Services, a leading Indian vendor, "you need a certain number of people being with a customer, understanding his needs and collecting the requirements."

Indian vendors have helped lift the proportion of H-1Bs going to Indian nationals to more than half in 2006 from 7.5 percent in 1992. Last year, Indians received 43,167 of the 65,000 visas allotted.

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois (and a Democrat), said "Our immigration policy should seek to complement our US workforce, not replace it." He has proposed legislation that would limit the number of H1B visas. Frankly, I can see why.

However, it isn't exactly a simple job for H1B visa holders to get permanent residency, either. The wait times are interminable. An immigration lawyer could explain this better, but many countries have exceeded their quotas of permanent residents. Applicants from these countries have to years before being considered for residency. Does America really want to attract skilled workers to stay here? If so, why not make it easier to achieve permanent residency? The current immigration laws are saying that America is pretty ambivalent about letting skilled workers stay here, and is not particularly distressed if they leave. (By the way, skilled workers are taxed in the same manner as US citizens, and pay all the payroll taxes, even though they may leave.)

Consider the deployment of Atul Pevekar, a 29-year-old Indian engineer for Tata Consultancy Services, an outsourcing vendor. A year ago, and five years out of college, he was sent to Minnesota on an H-1B. His assignment: to work with a U.S. retailer to relay its information technology needs back to TCS's Indian staff, to which the retailer has outsourced scores of jobs.

"I am a link between the people who are doing coding in India and the client," Pevekar said by telephone.

He earns $60,000 a year, five times his pay in India. But he must leave the country within a year or two. Like many Indian vendors, TCS does not seek permanent residency for most employees, even though the H-1B lets companies do so.

And so he will not join, at least not now, that narrative of the industrious outsider who makes a fresh start in the United States, brings his zeal and drive, invents something grand, creates jobs and pays taxes. Instead, he will empty his bank account, take his savings home and vanish from the country as quietly as he arrived.

I think a lot of Americans are more welcoming of skilled workers coming here to stay and contribute to the country, despite what their country's laws say.

The rules around nonprofit corporations hiring H1B workers are more relaxed. They're not subject to the quota. Although USCIS (citizenship and immigration services) has been progressively hiking the filing fees, posting another barrier to people staying here, I think nonprofits are exempt from those. They will, however, have to hire the lawyers, which are costly. Nonetheless, its easier for large nonprofits to hire workers. Most hospitals in the States are nonprofits, which does mean its easier for them to hire health professionals (although hiring doctors who aren't citizens may present some other challenges I'm not clear about).

Thursday, February 07, 2008

John McCain: a moderate conservative I might be able to live with, except for his foreign policy

John McCain, the Republican Senator from Arizona and presumptive nominee for the Republican presidential candidate, is not well liked by "very conservative" Republicans. He is a relative moderate in many areas. He is a far more honorable man than George Bush.

The Republican party (not necessarily Republicans in the US) is dominated by social and religious conservatives. The ones currently running the party are warmongers and imperialists. They would also outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage. As you can see here, McCain is opposed to reproductive choice and gay rights. All told, he is only a moderate relative to this incarnation of the Republican party. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both from Maine, are the true moderates, but they look liberal compared to most Republican Congresspeople.

The one thing that troubles me about McCain is that he has basically said he wants the US in Iraq for as long as it takes to finish the job. You broke it, you fix it. On some level, that seems fair. Except that American soldiers are an extremely unwelcome occupying army. The war is also costing us trillions of dollars, and an untold amount of global goodwill.

There are plenty of checks and balances on the President in a domestic setting. It is very difficult to get anything done. This is a story for another time, but this is in fact exactly the situation the founders of the nation wanted. However, Presidents are very unconstrained when it comes to foreign policy. These days, they don't even need Congress to declare war. Both Republican and Democrat Presidents have been guilty of crimes against humanity, and have got off scot-free.

In some sense, the party of the next American President does not matter. America as a country has much to learn about relating to other countries.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday

Remember, o mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Monday, February 04, 2008

US Department of the Interior botched accounting for Native American trust fund

Posted on CNN Money

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that the Interior Department has "unreasonably delayed" its accounting for billions of dollars owed to Indian landholders.

The federal agency "has not, and cannot, remedy the breach" of its responsibilities to account for the Indian money, U.S. District Judge James Robertson said in a 165-page decision in a long-running federal lawsuit alleging mismanagement of Indian trust funds.

"Indeed, it is now clear that completion of the required accounting is an impossible task" for the department, Robertson said, adding that he would schedule a hearing next month to discuss ways to solve the problem. He added that his conclusion that Interior is unable to perform an adequate accounting does not mean that the task is hopeless.

"It does mean that a remedy must be found for the department's unrepaired, and irreparable, breach of its fiduciary duty over the last century. And it does mean that the time has come to bring this suit to a close," he said.

The suit, first filed in 1996 by Blackfeet Indian Elouise Cobell, claims the government has mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil, gas, timber and other royalties held in trust from Indian lands dating back to 1887.

Cobell said in a statement Wednesday that "this is a great day in Indian Country."

"We've argued for over 10 years that the government is unable to fulfill its duty to render an adequate historical accounting, much less redress the historical wrongs heaped upon the individual Indian trust beneficiaries," Cobell said.

An Interior Department spokeswoman said officials were reviewing Robertson's decision and had no immediate comment.

Robertson said that although department officials had attempted and continued to attempt to "cure the breach of their fiduciary duty" they have not succeeded in doing so and "have unreasonably delayed the completion of the required accounting."

Robertson also blamed Congress for the lack of money appropriated for the cause, citing the "tension between the expense of an adequate accounting and congressional unwillingness to fund such an enterprise."

Interior Department officials argued during the October trial that their job was difficult with limited money from Congress. The judge agreed, saying the department deserves credit for trying to strike a balance between "exactitude and cost."

He said he did not agree with the Indian plaintiffs' assertion that an adequate accounting is not possible because of missing records. The record is inconclusive on that point, he said.

The lawsuit deals with individual Indians' lands. Several tribes have sued separately, claiming mismanagement of their lands.

The government proposed paying $7 billion partly to settle the Cobell lawsuit in March 2007, but that was rejected by the plaintiffs, who estimate the government's liability could exceed $100 billion. The Interior Department estimates that it has spent $127 million on its accounting in the past five years.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that he hopes the judge's decision is a catalyst for a settlement.

"Ultimately the question is going to be for the administration and the Justice Department, are they willing to settle for all of these years of mismanagement," he said.

Robertson took over the case after Judge Royce Lamberth was removed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which said he had lost his objectivity.

The government had asked that Lamberth be replaced after the judge lambasted the Interior Department, writing in a decision that it "is a dinosaur - the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago." [editor: emphasis mine]

In his decision, Robertson detailed the extensive background of the case, saying that it would "stretch the limits of understatement" to say the case's history has been exhaustively chronicled in district court. He noted there are 3,504 entries on the case's docket and 10 circuit judges have been engaged in the case. His opinion will have the shorthand of "Cobell XX," he noted.

Throughout his conclusion, Robertson quoted Charles Dickens' "Bleak House," which chronicles a never-ending legal suit. Using passages from that novel, he notes that the "suit has, in course of time, become so complicated" that "no two lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises."

"'Innumerable children have been born into the cause,' and, as plaintiffs have reminded us on occasion, 'innumerable old [plaintiffs] have died out of it,"' Robertson said.

Abortion is under siege (in the UK)

By Rachel Johnson, writing for the Times

I am sitting with an abortionist in a counselling room in a central London clinic. Downstairs, on a padded surgical bed covered with blue paper, 5,000 pregnancies a year are ended. In the waiting room sit women and their male lovers. None of them is leafing through the magazines provided, but some are clutching Kleenex.

All look haunted. Don’t panic. This isn’t going to be a Me and My Abortion article, a grim Tracey Eminish journey through my harrowing gynaecological history.

I’m here because it’s the 35th anniversary of Roe v Wade in the US, a country where a woman’s right to choose is far from constitutional and remains under constant attack from the pro-life, evangelical Christian Bible Belt and the Catholic church; a country where schoolchildren are encouraged to adopt, name and pray for the souls of blastocytes destined for termination, and where a bill signed by Governor Mike Rounds, in South Dakota almost two years ago, made abortion illegal in most cases, including rape or incest.

I’m here because the pro-life lobby is also making hay in Britain. Antiabortion lobby groups are attempting to hijack the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill currently going through the Lords, in the hope of introducing an amendment that would chop the time limit on legal abortion from the current 24 weeks down to 20 weeks. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act last year, there was a rally in Westminster and a ghoulish “service of remembrance” for the estimated 6.7m foetuses destroyed since 1967.

There are also upsetting stories around that women are airily opting to abort for abnormalities as minor as cleft palates, webbed toes and club feet, stories that do not stand up on examination, but are designed to add to the impression that our abortion rate is immorally high; that women are treating abortion, even at advanced stages of pregnancy, as a form of contraception; and that women are choosing to kill their own babies because of some minor, indeed cosmetic, defect.

But I am here, above all, because there has been a war of attrition between the pro-life and the pro-choice campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic for decades, and if I am going to discover what is really going on, I need to report from the front line of this war – the abortion clinic.

So here goes, taking each of those three charges in turn.

Yes, the abortion rate here is high (though curiously it’s even higher in the US). But the fastest rising rate of abortion is for under18s. Deanna, who manages the Marie Stopes clinic I am in, says: “Business is growing all the time, really, because of binge drinking and teenage pregnancy, coupled with the fact that lots of girls are simply clueless about contraception.” So it would seem that the protesters should not be tough on abortion, but the causes of abortion.

Two, women choose abortion as a form of contraception. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who would choose foeticide as their preferred form of birth control. I do know lots of women, however, who have taken responsibility for not bringing another baby into the world when the resources – emotional, psychological and physical – sadly aren’t there for it.

And as for late-term abortions, there is no evidence that these are being sought for trifles such as webbed toes alone. There were 136 terminations beyond 24 weeks in 2006. All of them were for what is called a “ground E” case – meaning if the child was born, it would be seriously handicapped.

Meanwhile, about 1,100 women had an abortion between 22 and 24 weeks: teenagers who panicked and hid their pregnancy; women who had no idea they were pregnant because they were on the contraceptive pill. One wonders what on earth these girls and women would have done if safe, legal procedures weren’t available for them.

“I didn’t go through uni and med school thinking, ‘Yes! I want to be an abortionist’,” says Dr Kate Worsley of Marie Stopes International, who has carried out many. “But it’s a small aspect of medicine that’s most needed to be done well.” According to the World Health Organisation, unsafe abortions kill more than 66,000 women worldwide every year. The Lancet has called it one of the most neglected public health issues of our time.

British women are lucky. The law gives us strength and legitimacy to decide what is best for us and our families, and control over our reproductive destinies. Any changes to return that power to MPs or lords (few of whom will face the experience of abortion themselves) will erode trust in women to take responsible decisions about their own pregnancies. As the American feminist Florynce Kennedy said: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

I came away from the clinic with nothing but respect for the doctors – trained, after all, not to take away life but preserve it – sympathy for their patients and more than ever convinced that the decision to end a pregnancy, whether wanted or unwanted, is never undertaken lightly by the woman who needs the termination or the doctor who performs it.

“Every day, women leave the procedure room,” says Worsley, “and they always turn and say, ‘Thank you’.”

I understand why.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

St. Brigid of Kildare

Feb 1 is the feast day of St. Brigid of Kildare, a famous Irish saint. While history is usually written by the victors, history also does show that Christianity met Pagan culture in Ireland, way back when ... and the cultures seem to have become integrated in a manner strikingly less violent than, say, Christianity plus the Aztecs or the Hawaiians. Brigid was at the center of this fusion of two cultures.

Even today, Celtic Christianity has a distinct flavor. Some Celtic influence can be felt in the Episcopal Church in the US. We are an Anglican church, and our first bishop was ordained by Scottish bishops. The nine St. George's crosses in the top left of the flag represent those nine Scottish bishops.

One of the legends around Brigid is that she was transported back in time to be a midwife at the time of Jesus' birth.

I might catch some flak for linking this site, but Goddess Gift has a page on Brigid.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Mississippi bill would make it illegal to feed the obese

Just for kicks: USA Today has this article:

Three legislators want to make it illegal for restaurants to serve obese customers in Mississippi.

House Bill No. 282, which was introduced this month, says: Any food establishment to which this section applies shall not be allowed to serve food to any person who is obese, based on criteria prescribed by the State Department of Health after consultation with the Mississippi Council on Obesity Prevention and Management established under Section 41-101-1 or its successor. The State Department of Health shall prepare written materials that describe and explain the criteria for determining whether a person is obese, and shall provide those materials to all food establishments to which this section applies. A food establishment shall be entitled to rely on the criteria for obesity in those written materials when determining whether or not it is allowed to serve food to any person.

The proposal would allow health inspectors to yank the permit from any restaurant that "repeatedly" feeds extremely overweight customers.

The bill, written by GOP Rep. W. T. Mayhall Jr., was referred to the Judiciary and Public Health committees, but The Jackson Free Press doesn't expect it to garner much support in the statehouse.

About two-third of Mississippians are considered overweight or obese, according to a recent analysis of federal health data.

Anglican Communion: it's all over but the shouting

And there's going to be a lot of shouting. Peter Akinola is behind GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Conference, which is to be held parallel to Lambeth Conference. Lambeth is a time for bishops to consult, and it is one of the four instruments of the Communion. Pete wants to hold it in Jerusalem. The Bishop of Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, strongly opposes this. The Episcopal News Service has an article. Here is the first half:

[Episcopal News Service] Two organizers of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), planned for June 14-22 in the Holy Land, have held separate meetings with Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani who has been critical of the event and urged its planners to reconsider.

Bishop Peter Jensen of Sydney, Australia, and Nigeria Archbishop Peter Akinola met January 12 and 15 respectively with Dawani in Jerusalem after he said he was "deeply troubled" that the GAFCON meeting, of which he had no prior knowledge, "will import inter-Anglican conflict" into his diocese.

The minutes of the meetings, which were emailed to Episcopal News Service, noted that the Most Rev. Mouneer Hanna Anis, Primate of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, is also concerned about the event and that his advice to the organizers -- that this was neither the right time nor place for such a meeting -- had been ignored.

GAFCON is due to be held one month prior to the Lambeth Conference when more than 800 of the Anglican Communion's bishops will descend on the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, for more than two weeks of spiritual reflection, learning, sharing and discerning.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, was asked January 21 at a Lambeth Palace media briefing what he thought of the GAFCON event. "I think it's important to remember that before the last Lambeth, and indeed on other occasions, there have been major international gatherings -- regionally or in other ways constructed -- preparing for Lambeth, and I am very happy to see such regional events going forward," he said. "But I do have real concerns that in this case there are unresolved issues for the local church, for the Church in Jerusalem, which has pinpointed some anxieties about having such a conference at this time in the Holy Land. I really hope they can be addressed."

Describing itself as "a pilgrimage back to the roots of the Church's faith," the GAFCON event is exclusive to "Anglicans from both the Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic wings of the church," a December 24 news release announcing the conference says. This release was the first Dawani had heard about the conference. He told Akinola at the January 15 meeting that the conference "would raise many issues, politically, ecumenically, and in the area of interfaith dialogue," according to the minutes of the meeting.

Akinola said he "could not see how this conference could become a 'political problem'" and stressed that "liberty was important for Africa and that he could not allow anyone to tell his community what to do and to say."

Also present at the January 15 meeting were Canon Chris Sugden, executive secretary of Anglican Mainstream and one of GAFCON's organizers, the Very Rev. Michael Sellors, coordinator to the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, and the Rev. Canon Hosam Naoum, acting dean of St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem.

Naoum, who referred to his studies in Africa and acknowledged that he has a good idea of what Africans have gone through in the past, stressed that "the indigenous Christians of the Holy Land also did not want to see themselves being told what to do and what to say. They do not want to be forced to deal with issues that are not on their agenda yet and that could create serious disputes on the level of the local churches in general and the Diocese of Jerusalem in particular, as well as ecumenically, theologically, and socially."

Responding to the question of unity within the Anglican Communion, Akinola said that in 2003 there had already been "a huge eruption leading to the divide within the Anglican Communion," referring to the election and consecration of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. Akinola added that meeting in the Holy Land "would help them to find the road map."

Sugden posed the question "in what way is the conference imposing on the diocese?"

Single-issue Christians will end up disgracing their faith. Peter and his brethren are going to throw gasoline on the fire, and they do not know what they are doing. Please pray that they see the error of their ways. In the Anglican tradition, bishops control their own diocese ... and other bishops always ask permission before coming.

Suheil said that Peter and co would be welcome as pilgrims, but please go elsewhere to hold the conference. Perhaps if they are willing to humble themselves as pilgrims, they will learn.

The greening of Waste Management

Waste Management is one of the nation's landfill operators. Go to your dumpster. It will likely have a sticker that says Waste Management, or Republic Services. Landfill operators have long got a bad environmental rap. Waste Management may be trying to clean its act up.

POMPANO BEACH, Florida (Fortune) -- Most people who travel to Florida in winter visit the beach or Disney World. I spent a day looking at garbage.

Have you noticed that Waste Management, the nation's largest waste disposal company, has adopted "Think Green" as its slogan? The $14-billion-a-year firm gave me a guided tour of a landfill, a waste-to-energy plant and a recycling facility to learn more about "Think Green" - and so I could see for myself what happens to our garbage when we throw it away.

There's no such place as "away," of course. Although big-city waste is sometimes trucked hundreds of miles to its final resting place in an out-of-the-way locale, all garbage ends up somewhere. Here's a report on my trash tour:

Read the rest here.

We cannot get by without landfills ... but the subtitle for this article should be: Reuse.