Facebook For Refugees

Facebook helped you reconnect with your ex, check up on your favorite band, and join Chesley Sullenberger's fan club, and sure, those things are fun. But what about helping the global diaspora of displaced persons figure out where their former neighbors are and what's become of them? A bit more important, you might say, and the goal of a new social networking site created by German NGO Refugees United. Der Spiegel reports that the site is already available in 23 languages, with developers currently putting together a Bhutanese version to serve the surging number of refugees arriving in the United States from Nepal; Washington recently agreed to take 60,000 of them.

From Der Spiegel:
The idea is actually a very simple one. Each year, millions of people are uprooted by war, famine or natural disaster. Escaping catastrophe, though, is not always an orderly process. Families can easily get separated and, once the displaced cross borders, often get sent to widely dispersed destinations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are over 1.5 million minors who have lost contact with their parents...
The Red Cross system, though -- as efficient as it may be -- requires refugees to apply for help from a third party. Requests are sent first to Red Cross headquarters in Geneva from where they are then sent to personnel working in the conflict zone in question. Should Refugees United, as the Mikkelsens call their organization, attract enough members, it could provide the displaced with a new way to search -- one that they control themselves.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from tracyhunter.

The Byrd Rule

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have never roused myself to understand the intricacies of the budget reconciliation process and the Byrd rule. The reconciliation process is basically designed to eliminate Senate filibusters on budget resolutions, but it's the Byrd rule that specifies what counts as a budget issue and what doesn't. But who decides what the Byrd rule itself says?  Ezra Klein:

The Byrd rule allows senators to challenge the acceptability of any provision (undefined) of a reconciliation bill based on whether or not its effect on government revenues is "merely incidental" (undefined). Thus, if you enter reconciliation with a health-reform bill, it's not clear what's left after each and every provision — however that is defined — is challenged and a certain number of them are deleted altogether: the tax portions, certainly. And the government subsidies. But is regulating insurers "merely incidental" to government revenues? How about reforming hospital delivery systems? How about incentives for preventive treatment? Or the construction of a public plan? An individual mandate?

It's hard to say. The ultimate decision is left up to the Senate parliamentarian, whose rulings are unpredictable. Under George W. Bush, Republicans managed to ram tax cuts, oil drilling, trade authority, and much else through reconciliation. But they were as often disappointed: The GOP leaders fired two successive Senate parliamentarians whose Byrd rule rulings angered them.

Ah, I see. The Senate parliamentarian will decide whether we get healthcare reform this year. That's comforting to know. Perhaps Ezra's next task should be an in-depth profile of Alan Frumin, apparently the people's representative for all things healthcare related.

Housing News

Looking for some good news?  Well, there isn't much, so this will have to do:

The National Association of Realtors said Monday that sales of existing homes increased 5.1 percent to an annual rate of 4.72 million last month, from 4.49 million units in January. It was the largest sales jump since July 2003.

Sales had been expected to fall to an annual pace of 4.45 million units, according to Thomson Reuters.

....February’s median sales price was up slightly from January, which recorded the lowest median price since September 2002. Prices are down about 28 percent from their peak in July 2006.

It's not clear what caused this, since home prices are almost certainly going to keep falling another 20% or so.  In fact, this might even be bad news in a way, since the faster we hit bottom and get back to trend growth, the faster we're likely to see the end of the recession.  But really, these days, who knows?

Exposing Torture

This is good news:

Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify — and publicly release — three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against "high value" Qaeda detainees....According to the administration official, ex-CIA director Michael Hayden was "furious" about the prospect of disclosure and tried to intervene directly with Obama officials. But the White House has sided with Holder.

Obama's record so far on the related issues of torture, civil liberties, detention, and surveillance has been mixed.  I hope that part of this is simply the caution of a new administration that doesn't want to make irreversible decisions before it's given them enough thought.  Releasing these memos is a small sign that perhaps once they've settled in they'll start unraveling the abuses of the Bush-era more thoroughly.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

More on the Dems' Quiet Oversight of Obama

On Thursday, Mother Jones broke the story that congressional Democrats had sent a private letter to the Obama administration asking key questions about what the president is doing to recover millions of White House emails that went missing during the Bush administration. The Democrats sent their letter a little over a week after the committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), wrote the administration asking about email issues, but the Dems did not make their letter public until today. What we had heard at the time, but could not confirm, was that one of the reasons the Democrats on the House oversight committee might have wanted to keep their letter private was that they had in fact copied-and-pasted their questions from Issa's letter. It turns out that the copy-and-paste story is true: Mother Jones has finally obtained a copy of the Democrats' letter (PDF of both letters). Two of the Democrats' four questions are word-for-word reproductions of questions Issa asked in the letter he sent to Gregory Craig, the White House counsel, a little over a week before. The other two questions in the Democrats' letter are very similar to ones in Issa's letter.

Republican staff members told the Washington Times on Saturday that they had asked the majority Democrats to sign onto Issa's letter. Jenny Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for committee Democrats, told the Times that emails from the Republicans asking the Democrats to sign on were "overlooked." But Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, claimed that the Dems were "clearly embarrassed... that they sent essentially the same letter to the White House that congressman Issa had already asked congressman Towns to sign on with him jointly."

Whatever the truth of the matter, Rosenberg promised the Times that the Dems will put their letter online today. They just did, but there's no explanation of why it took so long. The date on the Dems' letter is February 27.

Leverage

In Tim Geithner's Public-Private Investment Program for buying up toxic waste, just how much is public and how much is private?  The Washington Post seems to have the right answer:

With the government financial support, private investors could end up putting down only about 7 percent of the price of an asset, with the rest contributed by the government and by private lenders who receive government guarantees.

This appears to be based on TARP funds providing half the equity stake and the FDIC loaning money for the rest at leverage not to exceed 6:1.  But is this enough?

We'll see.  One of the key sources of tension in this plan is getting this number right.  If private investors have too low a stake, the opportunity for gaming the system is high.  They might overbid on assets, for example, because their stake is small enough that they can make more money on side bets than they can on the main investment.  Conversely, if the private investors are required to put up too much money, they won't participate.  Without some leverage, the projected returns just aren't good enough.

Overall, Geithner's plan provides leverage of about 12:1.  That strikes me as too high.  I'd rather see private investors having at least a 10-15% stake.  But I guess time will tell if Geithner got this component of the plan right.

Bat Mitzvahs for Seniors?

Ohio women from 90 to 97 are finally getting their bat mitzvahs. Apparently, the ritual for girls wasn't something with much Jewish cultural traction until the 50s and 60s when these women were already grown. Even a Southern Baptist apostate like myself knows how central the bar mitzvah is for Jewish males. Thankfully for them, these women have a rabbi who gives a damn. From the NYT:

A challenge, perhaps, but not all the women see it quite that way. "My first thought was boy, what a hoot!" said Millie Danziger Fromet, 90...A self-described "feminist all my life," Evelyn Bonder, 90, said she "always thought girls should have the chance to participate" in something that Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform congregations embraced in stages.
Ms. Agin said: "My daughter had a bat mitzvah. But it was on a Friday instead of a Saturday. It wasn't held inside the synagogue, and she wasn’t allowed to read from the Torah."
...Next came the speeches, which traditionally respond to the Torah passage read in synagogue that week. Rabbi Kutner had consulted old calendars to determine the week in which each woman would have spoken at age 12. He asked them to prepare messages based on the passages they would have addressed eight decades ago.
...Class members argued intensely over whether to limit each woman's speech to three minutes. The concern was not whether aging bladders could handle a ceremony that lasts an hour and a half, but whether relatives, some of whom are flying in from as far as Boston and California for the event, might be bored.

I've never been to either a bar or bat mitzvah, but I'd pay money to see this one.

Oops! Sometimes, We Fag Hags Just Make Things Worse

It's been so long since I hit the clubs that I didn't know women were choosing gay bars for their bachelorette parties. When I first read about the pheomenon today, I thought: Brilliant! I shudda thought of that, though my own was from rowdy (by choice). What a great idea! Turns out, not so much. 

Not only are women getting drunk and handing out the same kind of pawings they passed on hetero-bars for, they're (we're) just rubbing salt in the wounds of our fellow citizens who can't marry. From the Chicago Tribune (via Salon's Broadsheet):

"The women are a hoot, and some can be just delightful," said Geno Zaharakis, the owner of Cocktail, a gay bar on North Halsted Street. "But because not everybody can get married, watching them celebrate, it's such a slap in the face. Prop 8 just reopened the wound."
Zaharakis told me that Cocktail stopped hosting bachelorette parties a couple of years ago when he noticed his gay patrons weren't just complaining about the women being minor irritants but about them "flaunting" their right to marry. So Zaharakis hung a sign on the front door of his establishment that says, "Bachelorette Parties Are Not Allowed."
If that message isn't resonant enough, he offers a written statement: "Until same-sex marriage is legal everywhere and same-sex couples are allowed the rights as every heterosexual couple worldwide, we simply do not think it's fair or just for a female bride-to-be to celebrate her upcoming nuptials here at Cocktail. We are entitled to an opinion, this is ours."...Indeed some gay men and straight women have a friendship that's reminiscent of the old television show "Will & Grace." And many men make the distinction between their "girlfriends" who frequent gay bars and are sensitive to the marriage issue and other women who are merely seeking good music and "go-go boys" (translation: nearly naked male dancers) for a bachelorette party.
"We appreciate that these women are not homophobic and … want to party with us," said Jens Hussey, a gay man who's in a four-year relationship and worries about being able to make medical and other decisions regarding his partner. "But with all that's going on [in] the media about us not being able to marry, are [these women] willing to march with us or raise money with us or work to change somebody's attitude to help us get equal rights?"

Just goes to show, no matter how well-intentioned you might be, there's always something to be learned. I wouldn't have given a second thought to attending a bachelorette party at a gay bar. I'd try to talk them out of it now. Sorry guys.

On a different point though, in my younger days I did hit the gay bars with gay friends and did indeed enjoy the go-go boys. But I never wondered if they'd rather not have to 'tend' to the female guests, many of whom were quite...uninhibited with them. I gave my gay friends the bills to 'offer' to the dancers but lots of women don't. From what I understand, female 'dancers' don't mind tending to women clubbers.

I'll have to call "my gays." I don't have as many as Kathy Griffin, but I got a couple that'll do.

You Say You Want a Revolution?

Is class warfare — the real kind, not the phony conservative talking point kind — close to becoming reality? Felix Salmon has a short post on the subject that's worth reading.

The Road to Nationalization?

I've already made my semi-defense of Tim Geithner's toxic waste buyup plan, and I won't repeat myself here. But there is one point that I think deserves a post of its own.

It's this: Do supporters of bank nationalization really think it's either legally or politically feasible at this point in time? I'm skeptical on both counts. Legally, I'm not sure Obama has the statutory authority to take over a big bank. He may well need congressional authorization of some kind first. And even if he doesn't, does anyone really think it would be wise to go down this road without broad congressional support anyway? I don't.

Like it or not, there's only one way to get this support: show that (a) one or more of the big banks really is insolvent and (b) every other option for rescuing them has been exhausted. Geithner's plan does both.  If it works — well and good. But if it fails — if nobody is willing to participate, or if the auction demonstrates that the market price for toxic assets really is accurate — then banks will be forced to mark their assets to those prices. Plug in those marks to Geithner's stress tests and it's likely to prove to everyone's satisfaction that some of our big banks really are insolvent. At that point, even skeptics will be forced to accept nationalization as the only remaining alternative.

Politically, I don't see any other way forward. Bank nationalization will be complex, costly, and contentious. To work, it will almost certainly have to include a broad guarantee of all bank system obligations, something the public won't be happy about.  Congressional support won't be easy to come by. Geithner's plan will either work or else it will pave the road for that support. It might not be pretty, but that makes it a plan worth trying.