2010 - %3, April

Plot Thickens in Sonoma Discrimination Case

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 9:14 AM PDT

I appear to be having my own personal little pride week over here. In part three of my recent gay-rights rampage, let's talk about the case of Harold Scull and Clay Greene.

Last week the story of Sonoma County's treatment of this elderly gay California couple came out: When Scull was hospitalized in 2008, county workers kept Greene from seeing him, despite the couple's legal medical directives, put Scull in a nursing home without consulting Greene, detained Greene against his will in a different nursing home, and seized and sold all of both men's belongings to pay for the care of Scull, who died a few months later. Greene, naturally, is suing. Sonoma County is saying it did what it did because it was afraid Scull was being abused.

I've made clear before that I have trouble being sympathetic toward spouse-abusers, but discrimination is discrimination, and discrimination is never right. Or as one of Greene's lawyers, Shannon Minter, more articulately put it, "The county was certainly right to take initial measures to investigate and determine whether there was abuse, which is a serious issue...But they did not treat this case as they would have for a heterosexual couple."

That last sentence is key, and it needs a little unpacking. What's the difference, I asked Minter, in the way the county would've handled the case were this a heterosexual couple dealing with allegations of abuse?

Ordinarily, they would have sought conservatorship of Harold's person. They did not. They sought conservativeship of Harold's estate only. That is peculiar right out of the box. Then what they did subsequently was just try to get rid of Clay [Greene], get Clay out of the picture, without any recognition that these two people had been together for so long.

Then they did something you see in nightmares and scary movies:

They had Clay put into a secure nursing facility and claimed that he had dementia when he did not. And they did not follow the legal procedure for putting someone in a secure nursing faciliity. You cannot do that without having the person evaluated by a doctor to determine whether they're capable of making their own decisions. He tried to leave. He tried to walk away, to climb over the fence, but they would physically prevent him from leaving.

Then the county sold all Greene's possessions, along with Scull's. Greene's pickup truck, his mementos from when he worked in the movie industry. When the county originally requested conservatorship of Scull's estate, a judge denied it. It's not clear whether it got legal control of his property eventually, but it certainly never had legal control of Greene's. So even if Greene had been abusive, it seems the county was alarmingly out of line. "If this had been a married heterosexual couple," Minter says, "they couldn't have done these things. And wouldn't have done these things."

In a recent twist, it's looking more than ever like Greene wasn't abusive, anyway. The DA had already come to the conclusion that there wasn't enough evidence of abuse to prosecute. It's not clear if the county investigated further before deciding to force Greene into a home and sell all his stuff, but if it did, it must not have consulted the allegedly-abused's best friend and executor of estate: Yesterday, she published an op-ed in the local Press Democrat saying that the allegations are totally unfounded. She's become a plaintiff in the case against Sonoma.

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Quote of the Day: Gordon Brown

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 9:04 AM PDT

From British prime minister Gordon Brown, forgetting to turn off his mike after chatting with constituent Gillian Duffy:

She was just a sort of bigoted woman. She said she used be Labour. I mean it's just ridiculous.

Poor Gordon. I mean, at some point you almost have to feel sorry for a guy so badly suited to politics. Nick Clegg must practically be cackling. You can watch the whole debacle on the right. The insults come at around the 4:30 mark.

Endgame in Greece

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 8:28 AM PDT

As I've mentioned several times before, I think that Greece is screwed. And if I think Greece is screwed, you can only imagine what Nouriel Roubini thinks. But now you don't have to imagine, because he was on a panel discussion about Greece yesterday and Felix Salmon was there to take notes:

Greece, which is already seeing riots at any hint of fiscal austerity, just isn’t the kind of nation which is likely to decide that five years of wage cuts in a painful and deflationary recession is a price worth paying to stay current on the national debt.

....Nouriel, of course, takes that kind of thinking to its logical conclusion, and kicked off the panel by announcing that it was just in time: “in a few days,” he said, “there might not be a eurozone for us to discuss.” There’s no way that Greece can implement the 10% spending cut it needs to do in order to stop its debt spiralling out of control at current interest rates — and even if it did, the economic effects would be disastrous.

....Of course, this being Nouriel, it goes downhill from there: if Greece is worse than Argentina, he says, then Spain is worse than Greece. Its housing bubble and bust has left the banking sector much weaker than Greece’s; its unemployment situation, especially with the under-30 crowd, is much worse than Greece’s; and the cost of any Spain bailout would be so much more enormous than the cost of a Greek bailout as to be almost unthinkable....There’s no good news here. The least bad course of action for Greece, in Nouriel’s eyes, is some kind of coercive yet orderly debt restructuring, which keeps the face value of the debt unchanged but which reduces coupons and pushes out maturities. And an exit from the euro.

One of the key takeaways from Reinhart and Rogoff's This Time is Different is that, historically, countries aren't forced into default, they choose to default. That is, they decide that the austerity measures it would take to pay down their debt simply aren't politically feasible, so they make the decision to default rather than pay off their loans. That's pretty much where Greece is.

That's bad enough on its own, but because Greece is stuck in the eurozone and can't devalue its currency or inflate away its debt, it's even worse for them. It's hard to see any non-disastrous ending for this. Financial markets may be hugely profitable right now, but they're still skittish as hell and completely unwilling to accept significant risk. So even if the IMF and the EU end up rescuing Greece, I'm not sure that will save them for even a few months, let alone a few years. And once the contagion spreads to Portugal and Spain, as it's almost certain to, what then? As Roubini says, it might effectively mean the end of the eurozone.

Or maybe not. I suppose that muddling through sometimes works better than anyone believes it will. But I wouldn't bet on it this time, and more to the point, neither will the world's financial markets. In fact, they're already betting against it pretty heavily, and they're only going to amp up the pressure as time goes by. The best case now is probably an immediate default followed by a bank rescue, and then a prayer that no other country needs the same treatment. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess. Pretty soon, we're likely to find out if some systemically important bank is overexposed to Greek debt, or to the euro, or to some derivative thereof. Buckle up.

Cape Wind Decision Coming Today

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 8:08 AM PDT

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is in Boston today, where at noon he is expected to announce the fate of the Cape Wind project. The announcement will bring an end to nearly a decade of debate over whether to build the 24-square-mile, 130-turbine wind farm in the Nantucket Sound.

The final decision comes after local Native American tribes requested that the entire sound be designated for protection as part of the National Register of Historic Places. The proposed wind farm would disrupt their ritual of greeting the sun rise and impose on ancestral burial grounds, the tribes have argued. But the latest spat comes after years of wrangling over the project, with dirty energy interests and wealthy local land owners (like the Kennedy family) working to kill the project. If approved, it will be the country's first offshore wind farm.

Salazar has been trying to mediate the situation, but pledged to make the final call this month if an agreement couldn't be reached. Advocates of the project are taking it as a positive sign that he's making today's announcement in Massachusetts. Will he weigh in favor of the farm? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The Boston Globe reports that Cape Wind has been approved. More to come following official announcement.

Scott Brown: Truck or Wall St. Limo?

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 6:50 AM PDT

Americans for Financial Reform, a group putting the heat on Republicans for blocking the Senate's Wall St. overhaul, has a new ad out today in the Boston area targeting Scott Brown, the junior senator from Massachusetts who won the late Ted Kennedy's former seat and took away the Democrats' senate 60-vote supermajority. In the past two days, Brown has twice voted against beginning full debate on the Senate floor on the financial regulatory bill, joining GOPers in stalling an inevitable vote on reform. In the ad, AFR highlights the fact that the financial services industry was a major donor for Brown (the finance, insurance, and real estate, or FIRE, sector was the largest giver to Brown's campaign at $972,800, according to the Center for Responsive Politics), and says, "The Wall Street banks got their money's worth with Senator Brown and bonus checks are no doubt in the mail."

Here's the ad in its entirety:

Clean Tech Guru Fights California GHG Law

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 6:15 AM PDT

California has more than geeks and greenies to thank for its transformation into a clean tech Mecca; it's also gotten a boost from the passage of AB32, the state's landmark global warming law, say Silicon Valley's tech leaders. Yesterday and today, many of these eco-execs have gathered at a clean technology conference held at the Silicon Valley campus of SRI International, an R&D and consulting firm that has earned its share of lucre from the green tech boom. But here's one weird thing Silicon Valley might not know about SRI CEO Curtis Carlson: He has given money to a controversial campaign to derail AB32 that's backed by major oil companies.

Last month, Carlson wrote a $5,000 check to the California Jobs Initiative Committee, the backer of a November ballot initiative that would prevent AB32 from going into effect until the state's unemployment rate is cut in half. Other funders include Valero and six other oil companies, a coal front group, truckers, and the libertarian Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. They claim that AB 32 would cost the average small business in California $50,000, lead to the loss of 1.1 million jobs in the state, and "devastate the budgets of California social service agencies." AB32's supporters strongly disagree, pointing to competing studies that show the law would cost little and actually create jobs by incubating the kind of clean tech research that helped SRI earn nearly $500 million last year. SRI didn't respond to a request for comment.

Carson's opposition to AB32 is perplexing, to say the least. SRI is currently developing fuel cells, materials for solar cells, powerful batteries, and technologies for hydrogen storage, the smart grid, and nuclear power plants. It also earns money helping government agencies design environmental rules. "In the 1970s, our groundbreaking research into the environmental causes of lung disease led to regulatory guidelines for air pollution," its website says. "In the 1980s, we demonstrated how chlorofluorocarbons contribute to the ozone hole, and developed protocols for the EPA's regulation of pesticides."

The conference that SRI is hosting this week, Nordic Green II, has attracted a who's who of clean tech start-ups and investors, including Khosla Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Better Place, and Google. The latter two, along with SRI, are members of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which in turn is an official supporter of Stop the Texas Oil Companies' Dirty Energy Proposition, the campaign against the campaign against AB32.

Rather than speculate on what Carson is thinking, I'll leave you with this intriguing list of SRI's business clients:

 

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Everybody Draw Mohammed...Oops!

| Wed Apr. 28, 2010 2:00 AM PDT

Cartoonist Molly Norris took a principled, tongue-in-cheek stand, and now she's getting some rather cold feet.

The Seattle artist was irked by Comedy Central's recent refusal to air a South Park episode depicting the prophet Mohammed—a big no-no in Islamic circles. The censorship came in response to threats against South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone by the website Revolution Muslim, which according to the Internet rumor mill is run by an Israeli Jew named Joseph Cohen.

Actually, South Park has depicted the prophet in the past with little fanfare—see Boing Boing's interview with Parker and Stone—but that was before the European cartoon-contest uproar, and before Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh was murdered for his work on the short film Submission.

By Molly NorrisIn any case, to protest the censorship, Norris created the satirical poster at left (which needs some copyediting) and put it on her website. She then sent it to Dan Savage, the always-provocative editor of Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, who posted it without comment last Friday on the paper's Slog blog.

Somehow, Norris thought it would remain local.

Savage told me he agreed with the sentiment, so he posted the artwork. "Now it's all over the world," he said.By Molly Norris "She was trying to start something, but now she's running scared and freaked out."

That's in part because her work—yes—depicts the prophet. As a cup of tea, a domino, a box of pasta, and—hey, you have eyes, read it yourself! (UPDATE: Norris writes that these figures don't depict Mohammed; they just claim to.) This probably didn't win her many Muslim fans—Islam forbids any representations of Allah and Mohammed, especially as a dog-shaped purse. (Then again, some Muslims weren't too happy about the threats against Parker and Stone.)

Norris' poster went viral, even inspiring a Facebook group and counter-group. And Reason magazine promptly joined in, asking readers to submit drawings of the prophet, which it promised to publish on May 20.

All this attention left Morris feeling, well, pretty damn nervous. She joined the group "Ban Everyone Draw Mohammed Day," took the poster down from her website—a move akin to trying to put toothpaste back in its tube—and replaced it with an explanatory cartoon:

"I have hit some kind of gigantic nerve!...I have let people down!...I am so freaked out that I am not even drinking my regular 4 pots of coffee a day...Good think I'm married to a sumo wrestler!"

And so on.

She may find some solace in the fact that America is on her side. While I was writing this post, the results of a new Zogby poll appeared in my inbox. (Me just loves this Interweb thing!) And here's what Zogby found:

Generally speaking, do you agree or disagree with Comedy Central's decision to censor parts of a South Park episode deemed offensive to some Muslims?

Agree
Overall: 19%
Democrats: 27%
Republicans: 9%
Independents: 19%

Disagree
Overall: 71%
Dems: 60%
Republicans: 87%
Indies: 68%

Sorry, but I'm so with the the Republicans and the South Park guys on this one. Muslims and Christians and Jews—and, for that matter, unbelievers—have every right to be angry, to carry picket signs, to write letters to the editor, rant in the blog comments, or change the channel when somebody disrespects their object of reverence.

But free speech, when tested, is never pretty. It pays to remember that Supreme Court free-speech cases don't involve polite Midwesterners and the like, but rather people like Hustler's Larry Flynt or Westboro Baptist's Reverend Fred Phelps—people who say and do and print extremely offensive things. And if they offend you, well, don't buy their magazines—or try and sue them if you like. But nobody should be allowed to use religion to take away other peoples' right to self-expression. Least of all here. Because, you know, in addition to Yahweh and Jesus and Allah, we Americans also worship a 223-year-old document that strongly implies something to this effect.

UPDATE: Norris has added a quote to her home page that I couldn't agree with more, and that also applies perfectly to things like flag-burning: "Fight for the right to draw Mohammed, but then decline doing so."

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 28, 2010

Wed Apr. 28, 2010 2:00 AM PDT

 

U.S. Army Soldiers jump from a hovering CH-47 Chinook helicopter during the helo-cast event on day two of the Best Sapper Competition, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., on April 20, 2010. Photo via the Defense Department by Benjamin Faske.

To Fed Or Not To Fed?

| Tue Apr. 27, 2010 8:32 PM PDT

Should the proposed Consumer Finance Protection Agency be part of the Fed? Or should it be a standalone agency? The general lefty view is that a standalone agency would be more powerful and more independent, and conservatives seem to agree. That's why liberals mostly like the idea of a standalone CFPA and conservatives don't.

But is this true? After reviewing Reputation and Power, a monumental history of the FDA, Steven Teles says the conventional wisdom just might be wrong:

The Fed is taken seriously by the financial industry itself, and because of its reputation and more attractive salary schedule it is substantially more able to attract talent than other federal regulatory agencies. If placed inside the Fed, the CFPA would be able to build a strong, clear organizational image (especially if it were given the insulation from the rest of the Fed that Senator Dodd’s bill would provide, including near-complete control over its own budget). This would help foster the political will to grant the agency the autonomy it needs to effectively regulate the financial industry.

....Second, in building an agency with the kind of power that the FDA had at its height, personnel matters. An agency with the ability to control, at least to some degree, its political destiny and strike fear into the hearts of those it regulates requires not only high-quality people, but also people possessed of a particular regulatory spirit. The FDA encouraged the development of the nascent field of clinical pharmacology and then recruited adherents to the agency. This gave the FDA a built-in coherence, and thus the ability to develop a strong organizational culture. The CFPA would need to do the same thing, perhaps by hiring the best behavioral economists from academia to lead the agency, and sponsoring research by those on the outside. This, again, might be easier to do from within the Fed, with its preexisting reputation and more generous salaries, than it would be in a brand-new agency.

Hmmm. Clearly the Fed has lots of expertise in the financial markets, and in theory that could help a newly formed CFPA to hit the ground running. On the other hand, the Fed is, pretty clearly, already a victim of regulatory capture. What's more, its expertise and respect is almost entirely in the area of macroeconomic management, not regulation. A CFPA inside the Fed would never be more than a redheaded stepchild to the big wheels setting monetary policy.

Still, I notice that the first of Teles's reasons for endorsing the Fed approach includes the fact that it would allow the CFPA to inherit its "more attractive salary schedule." And the second of his reasons includes the fact that a Fed agency could offer "more generous salaries." These are magic words, and I gather from this that salary schedules at the Fed are higher than standard federal GS schedules. I didn't know that. Everything else aside, that might be reason enough to prefer a Fed-based CFPA.

Reid: Energy Will Come Next

| Tue Apr. 27, 2010 2:15 PM PDT

First, Lindsey Graham signaled that he is pissed that Democrats might move to immigration legislation before taking up the climate and energy package he's working on. Pissed enough to walk away if Majority Leader Harry Reid didn't commit to moving climate first. Then last night he told reporters that he doesn't want immigration coming up this year at all—no way, no how.

Today Reid signaled that climate will move first. "The energy bill is much further down the road ... Common sense dictates that if you have a bill that's ready to go, that's the one I'm going to go to," Reid told reporters today (via TPMDC). "The energy bill is ready and we'll move that more quickly than the bill we don't have. I don't have an immigration bill."

Will that satisfy Graham? Not clear. As I reported last night, he seemed to move the goal posts on the issue, arguing that immigration won't be ready at all this year and he wants confirmation that it won't be pushed. But Graham co-wrote an op-ed last month calling for bipartisan work on immigration reform. He also called on President Obama "to step it up" on immigration. So it's hard to say where he is right now and whether he'll come back to the table on climate and energy.