Dumb parents, unconstitutional ruling

I’m the first to make fun of parents who, for the life of me I don’t know why, decide to give their children the dumbest names. I don’t have to name off a list, everyone knows what I’m talking about.

But mocking and ridicule are a giant leap away from ruling that someone, under penalty of law, must change their baby’s name. Cue the crazy judge from Tennessee who just crossed that line, from the local NBC station:

A Newport mother is appealing a court’s decision after a judge ordered her son’s name be changed from “Messiah.”

. . .

“The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ,” Judge Ballew said.

Martin [the father] responded saying, “I was shocked. I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God and I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.”

According to Judge Ballew, it is the first time she has ordered a first name change. She said the decision is best for the child, especially while growing up in a county with a large Christian population.

I agree that strange names can cause problems for children as they grow up. But as much as I hate the name, it isn’t our place to force the parents to change it. From a legal stand point this Judge doesn’t have a pulpit to stand on. I don’t know if she missed the day the First Amendment was covered in law school, but she may want to take a refresher course.

It is also worthwhile to know that, according to Slate, 700 children where named Messiah in 2012, and the world didn’t come to an end. I guess when some people speak of the freedom of religion, what they really mean is the freedom to impose their religion on you. I find this also comes with an amendment; they get to make up the rules as they go along.

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Being outside the bubble makes the world a better place

I don’t think I can accurately convey the immense difference in mind set from working inside the political bubble to now functioning, for the most part, outside of it. The only remaining bond is the fact that I live in DC.

The recent “scandals” are a prime example.

While the economy continues to sputter, Wall Street criminals continue to feed off taxpayers and homeowners, and children struggle to get a meal and get an education, Congress and the media are obsessed with the IRS doing its job, trumped up hearings on a terrorist attack in Libya, and the government investigating the leak of “classified” information to the Associated Press.

Each of these stories has a touch of importance, but you wouldn’t be able to figure that out from the coverage or the political yappers on TV. Each story deserves its own post and a careful examination of the facts.

As for my experience, thank god I’m no longer working on the hill getting caught up in this. It reminds of the experience my sister had while at home with her oldest child. She watched a great deal of TV, it was a companion.  Suddenly the world was a very dangerous and dark place. The news kept telling her about all the murders, kidnappings, and crime in the world. She didn’t want Emily to leave the house, let alone play with her friends outside. Then, as her other children were born and got older, and TV time diminished, the world grew brighter. Instead of listening to the observations of others, and away from the stories told to garner ratings, she was actually living in the world again. And guess what, that world was much safer than what the screen inside was trying to sell her.

Leaving politics is very much the same. All of the arguments now make no sense to me. All the time and energy spent creating fake outrage is that more regrettable. There are still big issues at play, still important differences to discuss and debate. But trust me, almost none of that is taking place. Just ginned up anger to fuel donations and media coverage.

It makes you wonder how much we could be accomplishing instead.

As long as the crime is big enough, you don’t have to worry about doing time

Since the financial collapse of 2008 a Jean Rostand quote keeps coming to mind (the quote was also used in the song “Captive Honour” by Megadeth, which is where I first heard it):

“Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”

In terms of what Wall Street has been doing, it might now be re-worded as:

“Rob one man, and your a criminal. Rob millions of people, you’re a success. Rob them all, and you’re a big bank.” (maybe robbing them all makes you Goldman Sachs)

Last year the federal government, 49 state attorneys general, and the banking and mortgage industry struck a $26 billion settlement on charges of mortgage and foreclosure fraud.  The banks who signed onto the deal are Bank of America, JPMOrgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Co., Citigroup Inc, and Ally Financial Inc. The agreement protected banks and lenders from criminal prosecution, meaning once again no one on Wall Street would spend a day in prison. If you smoke a joint in the vast majority of the country, you will do time if caught. Rob millions of people, including taxpayers through bailouts, you won’t even be indicted.

But this week it got worse. The minuscule checks sent to some victims, part of a measly $3.6 billion in restitution, bounced. Yep, you read that right, they bounced. From the New York Times:

Many struggling homeowners got exactly that this week when they lined up to take their cut of a $3.6 billion settlement with the nation’s largest banks — lenders accused of wrongful evictions and other abuses.

Ronnie Edward, whose home was sold in a foreclosure auction, waited three years for his $3,000 check. When it arrived on Tuesday, he raced to his local bank in Tennessee, only to learn that the funds “were not available.”

Mr. Edward, 38, was taken aback. “Is this for real?” he asked.

It is unclear how many of the 1.4 million homeowners who were mailed the first round of payments covered under the foreclosure settlement have had problems with their checks. But housing advocates from California to New York and even regulators say that in recent days frustrated homeowners have bombarded them with complaints and questions.

This is in addition to the many reports of banks not abiding by rules and consumer protections laid out in the settlement. The Los Angeles Times reported two weeks ago that:

Banks aren’t living up to pledges they made as part of a $26-billion settlement of government investigations into mortgage servicing and foreclosure abuses, according to an advocacy group’s survey of California housing counselors and lawyers.

The survey, the ninth in a series conducted by the California Reinvestment Coalition, also found that providers of mortgage customer service are violating consumer-protection provisions in the California Homeowner Bill of Rights, the package of foreclosure-prevention laws sponsored last year by state Atty. Gen.Kamala Harris.

To top it all off you have the incredible scene of Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts, nailing federal regulators, getting them to admit that they are hiding information from victims, and the public, that describes the criminal behavior of banks:

Only a few members of Congress are asking the right questions and seeking to make information public on what is going on. Members and their staff are hearing it from lobbyists, on a daily basis, that efforts to more strictly regulate or hold them accountable will devastate the financial markets, destroy thousands of jobs, and wreck the economy.

We have to change this paradigm and the best way is to free elected officials from ever having to raise a dime. That would be something.

Huge explosion, many casualties, and a town nearly destroyed. Not terrorism, just possibly lax regulations

Late last night/early this morning, a fire erupted at a fertilizer plant in West, a small town just north of Waco, Texas. The fire is suspected in a subsequent explosion, which was so large it was measured as 2.1 earthquake by the USGS, that has killed 5-15 people, wounding around 160 and destroying many homes, apartments, and businesses. Danger is still present as toxic fumes are drifting across the area, threatening the lives and health of residents. After all of this I was stunned to read this passage from the New York Times this morning:

Because it was built in 1962, the facility was grandfathered into state regulations, Mr. Covar said. The company was supposed to get reauthorized in 2004, but failed to do so. Mr. Covar would not speculate on the reason they failed to do it.

He also said that currently the agency did not detect health concerns in the air near the facility.

Governor Perry, in response to questions, declined to speculate about whether the regulatory financing and oversight was adequate.

Records from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration record that the agency’s last inspection of the facility occurred 28 years ago, in 1985. The agency found five violations that were considered “serious,” including some improper handling of anhydrous ammonia. The company was fined $30.

So this company was producing highly dangerous fertilizer without a permit? And it was doing so in close proximity to homes and schools?

Oh, wait, the company said something like this could never happen. The Dallas Morning News dug into the company’s EPA filing and here is what they reported:

West Fertilizer Co. reported having as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

But the report, reviewed Wednesday night by The Dallas Morning News, stated “no” under fire or explosive risks. The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.

The second worst possibility projected was a leak from a broken hose used to transfer the product, again causing no injuries.

The plan says the facility did not have any other dangerous chemicals on hand. It says that the plan was on file with the local fire department and that the company had implemented proper safety rules.

It appears the volunteer fire fighters who were killed at the scene died because they didn’t know what chemicals were being used and stored at the plant. Again, according to the Dallas Morning News:

Advisories on safe handling of anhydrous ammonia generally state that the chemical is not considered an explosion risk when in the air as a gas. They add, however, that it can explode in certain concentrations inside a container.

“Emergency responders should not mix water used for firefighting directly with anhydrous ammonia as this will result in warming of the product, causing the liquid to turn into a vapor cloud,” says the website of Calamco, a growers’ cooperative in California.Explosive hazards with fertilizer are more commonly linked to ammonium nitrate, which is widely used both in agriculture and as an explosive in construction and mining. A mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil was used to make the bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City 18 years ago Friday.

President Ronald Reagan was fond of a phrase first coined by Vladimir Lenin, “trust but verify”, and used it to describe how he dealt with Soviet leadership during the 1980’s. It seems to me no one from the EPA or the state of Texas verified what was on this site. An inspection might have verified they were full of it. Most companies do the right thing, but regulation and thorough inspections are necessary because of the dangerous few who don’t care about safety and human life, just profits.

I’m holding out hope that reporters continue to dig into this story and grill local, state, and federal officials about what happened here.

*Update: this extraordinary video of the explosion was just put up:

Gohmert Strikes Again. Is he pulling an Andy Kaufman?

My favorite crazy member of Congress is at it again, positing the notion on CSPAN that radical islamic terrorists have set up camps in Mexico, working with drug cartels, and have been trained to act “hispanic” and cross the border into the United States. The video and a transcript were posted by the Huffington Post:

“We know Al Qaeda has camps over with the drug cartels on the other side of the Mexican border,” he said Wednesday on C-Span. “We know that people that are now being trained to come in and act like Hispanic [sic] when they are radical Islamists. We know these things are happening. It is just insane not to protect ourselves, to make sure that people come in as most people do … They want the freedoms we have.”

Sometimes I think Congressman Louie Gohmert’s comments and claims are so ridiculous that he can’t possibly believe them. I’ve recently come to the conclusion he is simply pulling off a political Andy Kaufman.

For those of you who don’t know, Andy Kaufman was a comedian and actor who specialized in performance art as comedic entertainment. He is famous for wrestling women and getting into a fight with professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler on the David Letterman Show. It was performance art at its finest.

I hope to learn one day that Gohmert was pulling our leg all along.

Terror in the new media age. Is all the coverage good for us?

I have and will continue to refrain from discussing the details of yesterday’s despicable bombing attack in Boston. We don’t know who did it or why, and media coverage is doing little except stoking fear and misinformation.

What I’m pondering, as an observer and participant in media, is the intersection of media and terrorism in our age of instant news and social networks. Watching the news, reading Facebook, and following Twitter the last 36 hours, I’m left to ponder a difficult question: Must terrorist acts inflict large numbers of casualties to be effective?

There is little chance that an act of death and destruction perpetrated by foreign or domestic terrorists could bring our country to its knees. However, how we react to such an event could. Yesterday it was reported the United States has indeed tortured people after 9/11. According to Reuters, the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment investigation found:

“It is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” the 11-member task force, assembled by the nonpartisan Constitution Project think tank, said in their 577-page report.

The scathing critique of methods used under the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush also sharpened the focus on the plight of inmates at Guantanamo, which Bush opened and his Democratic successor has failed to close.

Obama banned abusive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding when he took office in early 2009, but the widely condemned military prison at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba has remained an object of condemnation by human rights advocates.

Following the media coverage the last 24 hours closely, one can see how the fear behind these actions becomes possible. We are bombarded with graphic and disturbing images while talking heads describe how dangerous the world is, how people should avoid crowds, and how any event could become a target.

The media seems completely oblivious to the impact they are having in the populace, at the same time amplifying the message of terror these attacks are designed to convey. To me this prompts a thought experiment; what if no one covered these events? If the media reported it, then moved on, would terror attacks be as effective?

And as I talked about here, our society doesn’t do well evaluating real versus perceived threats. Ross Pomeroy puts it this way:

In the last decade, you’d be hard-pressed to go one day without hearing about it. However, as Reason‘s Ronald Bailey wrote in 2011, an American’s chances of being killed by a terrorist are approximately one in 20 million. Heck, even if all of the thwarted terrorist attacks over the last 10 years were carried out, that still would translate to a risk of one in 1.7 million. Compare that to an infinitely more dangerous activity you may undertake every morning: climbing into a car. The annual risk of dying in a motor vehicle crash is one in 19,000.

I can’t say enough about the people at the race, the staff, the emergency personal, police, fire fighters, doctors, and nurses who showed all the good humanity is capable of.  Terrorist attacks, or the subsequent media coverage, should not cause us to live in fear. We are too good for that.

We like war, we better because we aren’t good at anything else

George Carlin, among his many astute observations, made this one about the United States shortly after the first Gulf War:

We like war, we are war like people. We like war, because we are good at it. You know why we are good at it? Because we get a lot of practice. This country is only 200 years old and already we have had 10 major wars. We average a major war every 20 years in this country, so we are good at it! And it’s good thing we are, we aren’t very good at anything else anymore. Can’t built a decent car, can’t make a TV set or VCR worth a fuck. Got no steel industry left, can’t educate our young people can’t get health care for our old people, but we can bomb the shit out of your country alright?!

This bit comes back to me today because of a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute explaining that global military spending fell for the first time in 15 years to $1.75 trillion. And who leads the world in this orgy of bombs and missiles? The United States of course, spending more than the next 10 countries combined, or 39% of all military spending on earth.

Here is an illustration of US Defense spending, circa 2011, from the Washington Post’s Wonkblog:

What could the world do with $1.75 trillion that may be more productive? Added to the $1.6 trillion the rich and powerful are able to avoid in taxes each year you have a nice pot of funds to feed, shelter, educate, and care for people. I’m not a peacenik, but if this doesn’t make you shake your head I don’t know what will.