Thursday, July 31, 2008

Happy birthday, Uncle Milty!

Here's a recent invitation (not to Spot!) from the Minnesota Free Market Institute:

Spot is sure there will be decorations for the holiday, carols, and toasts, too! Just like Christmas! Here's the legacy being celebrated:

Milton Friedman, Nobel Economics Prize winner, has left a trail of death and destruction wherever he, his students or admirers advised countries to implement his plan that involved privatization, government deregulation and deep social spending cuts. Advocating a free market economy, he thought that an unregulated market would maximize freedom and prosperity. Although he wrote a book in 1962, Capitalism and Freedom, he found no democratically elected government, including President Richard Nixon’s administration, would implement his program. The Keynesian model including a safety net, unions, workers protections and government spending helped the United States and other countries recover from the Great Depression and continue prosperity after the Second World War. Milton Friedman and his Chicago Boys (former students at the University of Chicago economics department) found that they could only persuade dictatorships or democracies in crisis to adopt his planned misery program.

That's what the Viceroy of Iraq, Paul Bremer, and his young acolytes from the Heritage Foundation tried too, boys and girls, with disastrous results.

If, however, you have no especial desire to venerate the Maven of Misery, Spot suggests you swing by Drinking Liberally, meeting tonight from six to nine at the 331 Club in Minneapolis.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Still Stinko after all these years

From Calculated Risk:

If you haven't yet had a chance to read this article by John Gittelsohn in the Orange County Register about a real estate sale that was financed by Wells Fargo in January of this year, please do so now. And if you were, like most people, working on the assumption that lenders and other industry participants had at least cleaned up their acts in time for the 2008 mortgage vintage to be worth something, think again.

There isn't any significant fact about this transaction I can identify that isn't a red flag. A home in a foreclosure-wracked neighborhood was purchased at foreclosure auction in October of 2007 for $304,500, just over half what the defaulted buyer had paid in 2006. In January of 2008, the house was flipped to a non-English-speaking couple for an apparent sales price of $625,000 after some "sprucing up" by the property seller.

Ridiculous? Sure. It turns out that the seller provided the $125,000 down payment, and also executed an "addendum" to the sales contract agreeing to pay the buyers $30,000 in cash, cover the borrowers' first three mortgage payments, and toss in a 52-inch TV. Subtract out all that, and the true sales price of the property was $460,000. But apparently nobody did subtract out any of that, because Wells Fargo made a $500,000 loan to these buyers to purchase this property.

That's January of this year!

Gimme an "F," "R," "A," "U," "T." What does that spell, boys and girls?

Fraut, Spotty.

Oh, sorry. Spot meant "FRAUD," of course. But for potential investors who thought that mortgage-backed securities based on new pools of loans were going to be better, this is a cautionary tale, to put it mildly.

We can hope this is an isolated incident, but Spot wouldn't bet on it. The seminar business on how to get rich in real estate by flipping foreclosed properties is better than ever. Rows and rows of people furiously taking notes about buying low and selling high. This is not a source of optimism to Spot.

Interesting to Spot were the comments of some of the bright lights involved in this transaction:

From the mortgage broker who put the deal together: "Whatever agreement the buyer and seller made, it was between them."

From the appraiser who dutifully came up with a value of $625,000: "Like Sanchez, she had no knowledge of the terms of the sale."

From the escrow agent who closed this loan: "It sounds to me like the seller helped out," she said. "If someone gave them $125,000, what's the problem? That's a beautiful thing, if you ask me."

From Wells Fargo: "In many instances, borrowers are able to use gifts from family members or friends for a portion of their down payment, provided the amount and source of the gifts are documented."

Except, Wells Fargo, this wasn't a gift from family members or friends. It was a gift by the purchaser of a security based on this mortgage to the flipper.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Your Fringe Festival Guide

Here's a Find-a-Fringe guide in the Strib:

The Minnesota Fringe Festival starts Thursday, July 31 and includes more than 800 performances of 156 shows at 18 venues. How do you find a show that's right for you? Find-a-Fringe can help. Search for Fringe show by keyword(s) or browse by showtime, genre or theater.

Tickets are $12 per show for adults, and a $3 festival button is required. Tickets are sold 30 minutes before each show at the venue. Multishow passes are available. More information:

Matthew Foster, the Communications Director for the festival was at Drinking Liberally last Thursday to provide some publicity; the festival is so big that Spot couldn't figure out how to describe it. The Find-a-Fringe guide above does a good job of giving you the dimensions, boys and girls.

Technorati Tags:

Welcome to Saint Potemkin

Or rather, Saint Paul:
"In just 34 days from now, the world will descend on Minneapolis, St. Paul and the state of Minnesota," Lesher said. "We're helping Minnesotans get ready for company."

The boosters are asking homeowners and businesses to contribute by primping yards and gardens, washing windows, sweeping sidewalks and adding red, white and blue decorations, including American flags.

Besides planned Aug. 16 neighborhood cleanups — the first 100 volunteers in Minneapolis get free Minnesota Twins tickets — local convention and visitors groups are hosting an Aug. 5 "Cab Wash" at the Metrodome. Cab drivers will get free snacks while they watch their cabs get thorough scrubbings.

The efforts seem to pale to what some other cities have done. Of the $6.5 million spent in Boston, for example, $2.7 million was spent patching and repaving the city's famously tattered streets, the Boston Globe reported.

But there are more substantial ongoing efforts to give St. Paul a facelift. City workers have been resodding local parks, for example. The city's public works department has repainted 1,100 feet of ornamental railings outside the Xcel Energy Center. The stairs on the Wabasha Freedom Bridge have been spruced up, too.

"On Sept. 1, the eyes of the country and the world are going to be on St. Paul, Minnesota," said St. Paul marketing director Erin Dady. "This is a special occasion in the city of St. Paul."

There are other convention-related efforts under way, too. New signs and backlit maps are about to be installed in St. Paul's skyways, which are likely to draw curious guests who know little or nothing of Minnesota's frigid winters.

Actually, cooling the skyways in the summer and heating them in the winter would be a modest first step. The average temperature of a Saint Paul skyway yesterday must have been in the upper 80's. Especially those adjacent to the PiPress building.

As for other preparations for the convention, has anyone else been hearing rumblings about city permits that were issued months ago suddenly being yanked, or previously undisclosed conditions suddenly being imposed? It's a rumor that I've heard from several widely different sources just this week.

Update: The PiPress has an article about my last point here.

Mitch Shrugged, or maybe he Twitched

Ooooh, Mitch!

[tossing restlessly in fevered sleep] Who is it?

I am the author of "Atlas Shrugged."

[thinking to himself] It's that babe Pamela Geller! God, I can hardly believe it.

What do you want?

May I come in?

You want to come in my bedroom? Why? I mean yes, of course.

Thaank yoooou.

[in the dark, Mitch sees a form at the foot of his bed; he peeks out from under his sheet and addresses the form] What do you want? Can I get you something to drink? I think I have some Mogen David.

No thaank yoooou. But I need you, Mitch.

You need me? [Mitch is thinking a little more strategically now] Why don't you come a little closer so I can see you better?

Aaaaall riiight, but first you have to promise to help me!

[help Pamela Geller? I'm on it, thinks Mitch; maybe she wants a backrub] Of course I'll help you!

Promise? You'll do what ever I want?

[Mitch's mind is running wild with the possibilities; he says, practically panting] Oh God, yes, whatever you want! Come closer!

All right. [the form shuffles forward; Mitch thinks it is an odd gait for a woman a score of years his junior]

Pamela, are you all right?

Pamela? Pamela? I'm not some trollop Pamela; I'm the spirit of Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand? But you're dead!

Of course, I'm dead. How do you think I got through the three deadbolts and the security system?

You mean you aren't Pamela Geller, the author of the blog Atlas Shrugs?

Her? The author of that drivel? It is deeply embarrassing to me that she is ripping off the franchise. I wrote the conservative feel-good classic "Atlas Shrugged."

What a horrible mistake! Get out of here, now!

You made me a promise, Mitch.

But that was when I thought you were somebody else.

That's your problem, Mitch. It's still a promise.

Oh yeah? What are you going to do about it? [as he starts to speak, Mitch feels a strange constriction in his throat, as though he was being strangled]

[with eyes bulging, he manages to squeak out] Okay! Okay!

[chuckling] That's what I thought. I want you to do a series of blog posts about a dystopian future with the liberals in charge, kind of like "Atlas Shrugged."

That sounds kind of sophomoric. [Mitch feels the constriction again] Okay! Okay!

[the spirit winks at Mitch and departs]

(And that, boys and girls, is the only way that Spot can figure out why Mitch wrote his 2050 series, the penultimate installment of which can be found here; apparently the blockbuster conclusion has yet to be written.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Drinking Liberally Thursday

On Thursday, the 31st, the creators of, a Norm Coleman satire site from 2002, will be at Drinking Liberally. They will tell us about their new venture,, and their message T-shirts for the Republican National Convention.

There may be a trivia contest and the give away of a shirt or two.

Spot is also trying to arrange a visit by the Don't Come Back girl who might be persuaded to autograph your shirt if you are a winner.

Remember, boys and girls, Drinking Liberally meets Thursday evenings from six to nine or so at the 331 Club in Minneapolis.

Covered bonds vs. mortgage-backed securities

That's a gripping title, Spot.

Don't be impertinent, grasshopper; just read the post:

From MarketWatch: Four big banks to kick-start covered bond market:

    Appearing alongside Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, representatives of the four largest U.S. banks agreed Monday to kick-start a market for covered bonds - an alternative way to provide mortgage loans - in the United States.
    Under the practice, a bank borrows funds to lend to homeowners and holds the mortgages on its books. It uses the proceeds of the mortgages to repay investors.
    Covered bonds are considered more secure than mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) because the purchasers of the bonds have a direct claim on the issuer's balance sheet.

A thump of the tail to Calculated Risk.

This may have some promise, boys and girls It would get the real parties at risk back closer together, and it would certainly encourage the bond issuers to appraise and monitor credit risks more carefully.

It is a little like one of the fictitious advertisers on A Prairie Home Companion: Bob's Bank. Bob wouldn't loan money against collateral that took longer than fifteen minutes to go and visit.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Spot absolutely cannot make this stuff up

A thump of the tail to Jesus General for this one:

And he did it with a brave little smile, too

John La Plante reports at the Minnesota Free Market Institute:

The Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) made news when it released a new report on charter schools in Minnesota. (The June 2008 report, simply titled “Charter Schools,” is available at

The finding that got pundits and journalists talking is the conclusion that students in charter schools “generally did not perform as well on standardized academic measures as students in Minnesota district schools.”

So where do we go from here?

If you believe that poverty is the fundamental obstacle to educational performance, you might use this as an occasion to dismiss the role of charter schools, call for a new “war on poverty” that also includes yet more increases in funding for district schools.

It is true that we expect schools to do too much, including saving the planet from environmental catastrophes and teaching parents how to be parents. But let’s not let schools off the hook, either. How a school is run can make a difference.

Couldn't resist a little climate change denial and a shot at schools' efforts to improve parenting skills while you were at it, could you, John? You'll have to forgive John, boys and girls; he's a little bitter right now.

After absorbing the blow from the bad news from the Legislative Auditor, La Plante offers an embarrassing explanation that the glass isn't empty, it just doesn't have any water in it.

It is perhaps unsurprising that John La Plante is not an educator by training or experience; he's a political scientist. And John admits that charter schools are a matter of belief:

If you believe that poverty is the fundamental obstacle to educational performance, you might use this as an occasion to dismiss the role of charter schools, call for a new “war on poverty” that also includes yet more increases in funding for district schools.

Yeah, you might do that, John, unless you invested in all the magical thinking behind the charter school movement. Obviously, John believes in other things, too. Like the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny.

John apparently believes in giving twenty-seven-year olds a pot of public money for a brave new adventure in education.

Let's be direct, boys and girls, people like John, Sticks and Davey Strom, perhaps the Snap, Crackle, and Pop over at the box of puffed cereal known as the Minnesota Free Market Institute, won't be happy until they have entirely wrecked the institution of public education.

Frankly, we've humored these clowns far too long. Bridges fall down, or sometimes pieces of them do; we can't seem to educate our kids - a task that the public handled pretty well for decades - well the list goes on. Why is this happening?

It's happening because people who believe in a value called the "common good" have let the scrubs and fools like John La Plante control the conversation. That needs to change; it starts by calling out the sociopaths at places like the Minnesota Free Market Institute for what they are: antisocial, selfish character defectives. And unfit to carry on the discussion of the common good.

Update: Phoenix Woman picked up Spot's little rant and fleshed it out with some good references. Go read it, please.

Is that a surface to air missile in your car?

The stories out of the Salim Hamdan "trial" have been interesting. Here's one from McClatchy that raises a couple of interesting questions.

The article notes that Hamdan has provided some cooperation, including identifying some of Sammy bin Laden's bodyguards, one of whom was inexplicably released without any charges. But that's not what Spotty wants to talk about. It's this:

This startling information [that the bodyguard was released] was revealed in the fourth day of the war crimes trial of Salim Hamdan, 37, facing conspiracy and material support for terror charges as an alleged member of bin Laden's inner circle.

Conspiracy? Material support? There are an awfully lot of people who better keep their fingers crossed that conspiracy and material support aren't war crimes.

Why Spotty?

Spot hoped you would ask, grasshopper.

You knew I would.


Spot has addressed these issues before. Quoting an article by Ambassador (and now law professor) David Scheffer, Spot posted:

Since the newly established military commission before which Mr. Hamdan is being prosecuted must, by its own terms, remain limited to adjudicating “violations of the law of war and other applicable laws by military tribunals,” the first requirement of any such judicial body must be to frame the charges correctly given its limited jurisdiction. That is why it has been so astonishing to see the government’s charge sheet against Mr. Hamdan repeatedly invokes a crime that does not exist - under U.S. or international law. There is no crime of conspiracy to commit war crimes.

Ambassador Scheffer also said this:

Neither the Uniform Code of Military Justice nor Title 18 of the U.S. Code, which includes the War Crimes Act of 1996 as amended, aligns the crime of conspiracy with the law of war. It is simply implausible, as the Nuremberg judges discovered, to sweep vast numbers of individuals into conspiracy theories about war crimes. A higher standard is required, and that standard is joint criminal enterprise - which of course is a standard for proving a specific crime, not a stand-alone theory of liability.

As Spot's linked post goes on to say, the Congress did some backing and filling and created the crime of conspiracy and material support, but did so long after Salim Hamdan and most everybody else had been rounded up.

What do we call it when conduct is made retroactively a crime?

An ex post facto law, Spotty?

Right, grasshopper.

Ambassador Scheffer is not the only one who has noticed this. In recent days, Spot has also quoted Professor Marty Lederman discussing the same thing:

The motion asks Judge Allred to either defer to an [sic] supposed finding of the CSRT [because the government tried to start tghe first trial against Hamdan without a CSRT finding against him] that Hamdan is an unlawful enemy combatant, or to make such a finding himself. The oddest thing about the Hamdan motion, however, is that the government never really gives a persuasive factual account of why Hamdan is an enemy combatant, let alone an "unlawful enemy combatant" as that term is defined in the MCA.

* * *

[T]he government sets out the facts from which Judge Allred is urged to make his own finding that Hamdan is an unlawful enemy combatant. The alleged facts are these:

Hamdan served as Bin Laden's personal driver and as a "member" of bin Laden's body guard detatchment;

Hamdan "armed himself with a weapon";


Hamdan "was captured by Northern Alliance forces in the vicinity of Kandahar in possession of a weapon."

That's it.

It's not at all clear that such conduct described anything unlawful at the time it is alleged to have occurred. (Subsequent to the conduct, Congress passed a law making it unlawful to provide personal services to a terrorist organization; but I don't believe that was an operative crime at the time.)

There are a lot of people who participated in the preparation for and the execution of the war against Iraq. If that war is ever found to be an illegal aggressive war undertaken by George Bush,  there could also be a whole lot of people swept up by claims of conspiracy.

There is one other thing that Spot wanted to mention. What was it? Oh, yes - -

Based on the McClatchy report linked above, Hamdan's interrogators are mentioned as the principal, maybe only, witnesses against him. Most of the evidence is based on interrogations. Spot doesn't have a link right now, but Hamdan was certainly one of the detainees subject to "enhanced interrogation techniques," and Spot recalls that Hamdan is one of the detainees who was waterboarded.

How reliable is that?

Spot predicts that Salim Hamdan's name has not for the last time appeared in the caption for a US Supreme Court decision.

Friday, July 25, 2008

One Year Ago...

Last July was a busy month.

Senate Democrats threatened Republicans with all-night sessions:
Forcing his Republican colleagues to put up or shut up on the notion of an up-or-down vote, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) just moments ago announced that he will immediately file a cloture motion on the Reed-Levin troop redeployment bill and, if Republicans follow through with a filibuster, will place the Senate in a prolonged all-night session Tuesday to force a true continuation of debate.
Boy, that worked out well. Almost as well as when Reid put the Senate into a closed-door session to demand that the Senate Intel Committee follow through on its promise to fully investigate pre-war intel failures. One surge and a couple of Petraeus sessions later, I think the tires are still spinning in the mud on that one. (Perhaps one of the main reasons why it's getting harder and harder to maintain even a small level of emotional investment in the sort of entertainment Congress provides is because it's getting harder and harder to convince yourself that the hero is any better than the villain.)

Hot off her thrilling 2005 performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Harriet Miers spent her July of 2007 literally telling Congress to go screw themselves. One year later, House Democrats are still calling for her to appear in front of a congressional committee. They should consider all-night sessions. Those things work every time.

JK Rowling's last Harry Potter book came out last July.

The NBA reffing scandal broke during July of 2007.

Last July, the Washington Post reported that Alberto Gonzalez lied to Congress. At least he had the decency to show up. We should be thankful for that.

Arlen Specter spent last July going from this:
Today, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) noted that under Bush’s broad claim of executive privilege, “the president’s word stands and the constitutional authority and responsibility for congressional oversight is gone.”

He added that one alternative he has been “exploring” is the appointment of a special prosecutor. “The attorney general has the authority to appoint a special prosecutor,” said Specter.

To this:
Mr. Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, wandered back into the press cabin as the plane sat on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base before the president arrived from the White House.

According to a pool report of the encounter, Mr. Specter expressed anew his criticism of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales but said he saw no signs that Mr. Gonzales would be forced to resign. Mr. Specter attributed Mr. Gonzales’s job security to Mr. Bush’s “personal loyalty” to him.

Mr. Specter spoke derisively of Mr. Gonzales’s appearance Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he faced accusations that he misled Congress last year when he said there had been no disagreement within the administration over the National Security Administration’s domestic surveillance program.

To this:
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the top GOP member of the Judiciary Committee and a Gonzales critic, said he disagreed with the call for a special prosecutor.

"Sen. Schumer's not interested in looking at the record, he's interested in throwing down the gauntlet and making a story in tomorrow's newspapers," Specter said.

Bush and Specter met aboard Air Force One on Thursday as the president headed to Philadelphia for a speech. The White House and Specter declined to provide details on the discussion.

That's a busy 4 days (July 24th-27th).

What else do you remember from one year ago?

Looking back at last July's news, the thing that strikes me the most is how the entire 2008 Democratic electoral platform has been encased in amber for quite a while now. While I get the idea that you can't build an electoral strategy on the shifting sands of Iraq, I also get that it's morally bankrupt to build an electoral strategy on a false promise of withdrawal while people are dying. It's been a long, long time since Jack Murtha first made his call for an organized withdrawal (November of 2005 in case you are wondering). In the mean time, Democrats have managed to gain control of Congress while doing very little to stop their biggest electoral cash cow: Bush's War.

They now find themselves in a position where they may win the White House with a President that is on record as calling for more troops to be sent to the first of our two wars...which just happens to be in a country that is larger and more populous than Iraq (as well as having a population with experience fighting against super powers).

It's pretty easy to find yourself in places like this when you can hardly remember what happened only a year ago. How much unfinished business can pass under the bridge before it breaks the dam?

I fully expect that the 2010 election season will be filled to the brim with lovely Democratic talking points about what it will take to win in Iraq and/or Afghanistan and why they should be trusted with 2 more years of leading us all to victory.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A trip down habeas corpus lane

Boys and girls, your ol' friend Spot has blogged more about habeas corpus that he remembered. But after posting A blot on our escutcheon yesterday, he had cause to take a look back. And you know, the posts have held up pretty well, if Spot does say so himself. Here are a few of them:

Here's a post describing the briefs in the Boumediene case, noting that even the iguanas on Guantanamo are protected by US law. You may recall, or maybe you won't, but one of the arguments made by the government is that Guantanamo is not US sovereign territory, so the Constitution doesn't apply. Justice Kennedy wrote that permitting the Executive to "switch the Constitution on and off" depending on where people were held was an invitation to oppression.

Here's one about how the Combatant Status Review Tribunal cannot be called a kangaroo court without insulting kangaroos. Here's a quote from Scott Horton in that post:

But [detaining a large group of men who were turned in by bounty hunters] led to a dilemma. If the person was really a civilian noncombatant, and he had been seized and held for years, subjected to torture and other illegal interrogation techniques, then the U.S. had a problem. Then, of course, what had been done was a criminal act. Indeed, a felony under American law. It was therefore essential to juryrig a system which would guarantee the result they needed to protect themselves from criminal liability.

But Spot's favorite is Where is Mr. Gibbons when we need him? Spot quotes: Professor Marty Lederman at length, describing prosecutors trying to start a trial against detainee Salim Hamdan without a finding by the CSRT:

[M]ost importantly (it actually comes first in the motion -- p.3), the government sets out the facts from which Judge Allred is urged to make his own finding that Hamdan is an unlawful enemy combatant. The alleged facts are these:

Hamdan served as Bin Laden's personal driver and as a "member" of bin Laden's body guard detachment;

Hamdan "armed himself with a weapon";


Hamdan "was captured by Northern Alliance forces in the vicinity of Kandahar in possession of a weapon."

That's it.

It's not at all clear that such conduct described anything unlawful at the time it is alleged to have occurred. (Subsequent to the conduct, Congress passed a law making it unlawful to provide personal services to a terrorist organization; but I don't believe that was an operative crime at the time.)

More to the point, as I read it, those alleged facts simply do not establish, as the MCA requires, that Hamdan "purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States."

Here's the simple question the motion for reconsideration conspicuously fails to answer: What, exactly, is it that Hamdan is alleged to have done that proves he "purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents"? I don't know whether Hamdan did or did not do so. But if this is the best the government can do to make that case . . .

It would be like trying to start a criminal trial without a complaint or indictment against the defendant. Unbelievable, really. Oh, and Hamdan had a weapon? Too bad he wasn't in the US; we'd give him a medal.

D'you see, boys and girls, why a real hearing for many of these detainees in a real court is such a nightmare for the White House, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon? You can see why they beat the shit out of people hoping they would confess to something.

Update: Here's a couple more.

Dissing the Great Writ

Dissing the Great Writ II

Drinking, er, Fringerally?

Don't blame Spot; he got that from REW. Anyway, at Drinking Liberally tomorrow night, we will host Matthew Foster, the Communications Director for the Fringe Festival.

Spot's question is: how fringe-y can it be if it has a communications director? Apparently Matthew may have a couple of artists along, and maybe tickets for at least some of the DL denizens. It should be fun.

Remember, boys and girls, Drinking Liberally meets Thursday nights, six to nine, or thereabouts, at the 331 Club in Minneapolis.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A blot on our escutcheon

There has been a lot of right wing braying about the Supreme Court's decision in Boumediene v. U.S. which held that detainees at Guantanamo Bay's Camp Delta do have the right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. courts. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion contains a lengthy recounting of the history of the Great Writ, one of the foundational principles of Anglo-American law, and its first principle against arbitrary incarceration.

In his dissent, Justice Scalia (or Justice Scallion as Spot's spell checker would have it) said that we will come to rue the day that Boumediene was decided. When Spot looks back on his life, he may regret opportunities missed, loves lost, and snappy come backs not made, but he doubts very seriously that he will regret the decision in Boumediene.

Here's just a sentence picked out of Scalia's dissent by the Power Line Boys:

Today, for the first time in our Nation's history, the Court confers a constitutional right to habeas corpus on alien enemies detained abroad by our military forces in the course of an ongoing war.

There's a lot of question begging and mischaracterization in that single sentence. But Tony's good; you have to give him that. No wonder Power Line picked it up!

Also for the first time, we have thrown detainees in a hole, without any judicial process, and without a prospect of ever letting them out. So maybe it was time for a new direction. But let's parse Tony's sentence.

As the majority opinions says, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments have been found by the Supreme Court to apply to extraterritorial proceedings by U.S. authorities. So while Scalia is narrowly correct with respect to the writ of habeas corpus specifically, the Court didn't do anything entirely novel. Moreover, Justice Kennedy observes that the Supreme Court in Rasul v. Bush, the first time that the Court addressed the detainee issues, that it held that statutory habeas corpus did apply.

Congress sought to strip the courts of statutory habeas corpus in the Detainee Treatment Act and the Military Commissions Act, but the Boumediene court found that the detainees had a constitutional, or judicial, right to habeas corpus that could not be stripped by the political branches of the government.

Scalia calls them all "alien enemies." That's where the question gets begged. How do we know they are all enemies? Under the DTA and the MCA, detainees are only entitled to a hearing before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal. A hearing in which hearsay evidence is admitted and the detainee has therefore little opportunity to actually confront his accusers, some of the evidence is not even revealed to the detainee so that he has a chance to rebut it, the detainee has no counsel, nor the practical ability to produce witnesses who may have exculpatory evidence.

To add insult to injury, under the CSRT scheme, an appeal is only permitted to the D.C. Court of Appeals, and it really isn't an appeal at all: merely a "review" of the procedural aspects of the CSRT hearing.

But Spot, these guys were all detained on the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq, right?

Sadly, no, grasshopper. A lot of them weren't even originally detained by U.S. forces, and they come from as far away as Bosnia and Gambia.

But we'll let most of them go when the war is over, right Spotty?

When will the global war on terror be over? Are we really in a state of war? In any event, according to the majority opinion, none of the petitioners in Boumediene are citizens of a country that we're at war with. The prospect is for the detainees to sit for a long time, maybe the rest of their lives. A few of them have already died.

Bob Herbert of the New York Times had a column today about this shameful episode in American history:

Donald Rumsfeld described the detainees at Guantánamo as "the worst of the worst." A more sober assessment has since been reached by many respected observers. Ms. Mayer [author of the recent book The Dark Side] mentioned a study conducted by attorneys and law students at the Seton Hall University Law School.

"After reviewing 517 of the Guantánamo detainees' cases in depth," she said, "they concluded that only 8 percent were alleged to have associated with Al Qaeda. Fifty-five percent were not alleged to have engaged in any hostile act against the United States at all, and the remainder were charged with dubious wrongdoing, including having tried to flee U.S. bombs. The overwhelming majority — all but 5 percent — had been captured by non-U.S. players, many of whom were bounty hunters."

The really scary thing for the White House, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon is now the detainee cases will start to be heard before U.S. Constitution Article III courts of record. Detainees will be able to start summoning witnesses on their behalf, to have a meaningful opportunity to confront the evidence against them, and to be represented by lawyers, not merely assisted by docents.

Some of the detainees deserve to be where they are, but clearly some of them don't. And it's going to be huge stain on the political branches of government - indeed on us all - as we begin to find out.

Monday, July 21, 2008

As ye sow, so shall ye reap

Yesterday, Katie continued her patrol of the ugly depths of her sociopathic soul in a column titled Monsters who beat dad come straight out of today's culture. Spot will leave it to others to discuss more fully the not-so-subtle racism of Katie and some of her, well, followers. From the column:

The savage attack at Valleyfair on the night of July 4 horrified Minnesotans. A father was beaten and kicked unconscious as he tried to protect his 12-year-old daughter from being sexually groped by two men.

After the father intervened, the men used a cell phone to summon six others to "get these bitches," according to a complaint filed in Scott County District Court. Eight males assaulted the father as his wife and daughters strove frantically to help him.

"We see assaults, but that's brutal," one police officer said.

Did these monsters descend out of nowhere on Valleyfair, a place we associate with wholesome family fun? Hardly. The attitudes they acted out in extreme fashion are part of a culture that is all around us and flourishes with our blessing.

Katie goes on to blame hip-hop culture for the assault. Let's be clear: these were  vicious, cowardly, and loathsome acts by these men. Acts that need to be punished.

Katie cannot resist mentioning one rapper in particular:

[Pharrell] Williams is lionized by our tastemakers, opinion leaders, media and entertainment moguls. In 2005, Esquire magazine named him "best-dressed man in the world." Louis Vuitton has signed a deal with him for a jewelry line. In August, Williams' band, N*E*R*D, will appear in connection with the Democratic National Convention in Denver, according to

The Democratic National Convention, can you imagine!

But it's not Katie's bigotry that Spot wants to talk about today. Rather, he wants to visit Katie's assumptions about culture. Katie thinks that culture creates the people - the society - who do stuff like this.

Spot thinks that is more or less backwards. It is society that creates culture. Sure, the two are mutually reinforcing, but for the most part, culture is the consequence, not the cause.

In Katie's World, all you have to do is eliminate hip-hop culture to make the world a safer place. Parenthetically, weren't Elvis Presley, rock 'n roll, and jazz all decried as degenerate in their own time?

Young men who commit acts like the assault at Valley Fair come from some place deeper than superficial, popular culture. They, or at least many of them, come out of a society that failed to provide any nuturance or realistic promise of reward to an entire - and growing -  segment of that society. Young men who were raised in homelessness, poverty, and illiteracy. The Wal-Mart society that Katie loves so much.

They come out of a national society that rewards throwing your weight around in just about every way possible: economically and militarily, to cite just a couple of examples. The social Darwinism that has held sway all of Spot's adult life has more to do with the assault at Valley Fair than hip-hop culture does.

But Spot, what about personal responsibility? Isn't that important?

Of course it is, grasshopper. But you know, human nature is pretty immutable. You can take any group you want and marginalize them, and a certain percentage of them will become violent, vengeful, nihilistic. The more people you marginalize, the more nihilists you get. It really is about that simple. And believe Spot when he says it is true of Katie's crowd, too.

To take one simple example of the lack of nuturance and promise that Spot is talking about. Last week, Katie had a column extolling the virtues of a new school coming to town:

Six years ago, Mike Spangenberg was just a typical college kid who wanted to change the world. "I was big on social justice issues," he says. "I wanted to go to law school, because I thought that was the way to gain access to power."

Social inequality was what fired him most. "It seemed so clearly wrong to me that your ZIP code has such a profound impact on your chances in life," he says.

Then one day, during his senior year at the University of Connecticut, Spangenberg was paging through the campus newspaper while waiting for an English class to begin. An ad for Teach for America caught his eye. In a moment, his law school plans evaporated. "I thought, 'Here's my chance -- here's how I can do all the things I care about," he says. A few months later, he began what became four years of teaching in gritty, inner-city Philadelphia.

Now Spangenberg, who grew up in Maple Grove, is back in the Twin Cities. At age 27, he's continuing his crusade for educational equality as director of Stand Academy, a new charter school in downtown Minneapolis.

Mike sounds like a admirable kid, but the key word is kid. Mike would undoubtedly get carded at the 331 Club where Drinking Liberally meets, yet he is apparently going to be put in charge of public resources coming right out of public school budgets. And people like Katie think this is good. And all the while, as we build more big box retailers and chip away at our social institutions like the public schools, the ranks of the feral children, the nihilists, grow.

Mike's got one thing right: your zip code shouldn't determine your chances in life. But charter schools aren't the answer; they are admission of defeat. Or maybe an incitement to defeat in Katie's case.

There was a plaintive letter from Harry Davis, Jr. in the Strib last Friday. Spot reproduces it in full:

The increase in the number of charter schools and the opportunity for students to have alternative choices for education is a great development for parents and students.

However, let us not forget that 77 percent of all U.S. students are educated in school districts. We cannot let our school district schools fail. There is not a backup plan to educate our masses.

Public schools have challenges and can improve -- and they will.

Spot will put it even stronger, Harry; they must improve, because that's where most kids go to school. The alternative is to slide into the Latin American model, where the wealthy live in gated enclaves, guarded by private security guards with shotguns. That's a pattern that's beginning to emerge already.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The cracker speaks

If you've been held incommunicado for a week and your router is out, it is possible that you don't know about PZ Myers and William Donohue starring in Crackers, The True Story of Transubstantiation.

MNO gave a good account of the incident, but here's the soap opera digest: A college student has a Catholic communion wafer put in his mouth in church; he doesn't swallow it, but somehow manages to take it back to his room. It doesn't seem all that, well, transubstantiated. Word gets out; the Catholic Church goes ballistic, and the student is forced to, er, cough up the wafer.

PZ gets the news and says, in effect, "That's nothing compared to what I would do with one of those crackers!" Spot thinks he means a wafer, not a Catholic!

Enter William Donohue, a bulky Catholic knight whose job it is to remind Catholics how put upon they really are. Sir William wants PZ's head.

Spot has no desire to rehash the debate further. He does have a hypothetical question based on the dust up, though:

Let's say that the college student described above had not returned the communion wafer, but had instead sent it, by registered mail, to PZ. PZ performs all kinds of experiments, and maybe even rituals, on the wafer, and ultimately feeds it to his zebra fish, even though they are thought not to fancy human flesh. What are the legal consequences to PZ?

I'm gonna go out on a limb here, Spot, and say that PZ can probably be prosecuted for destroying what Sir William believes is a venerated object.

Oh callow grasshopper, seldom have you been so far from the mark.

"Venerated object" is the term that a Texas (where else) statute used to describe the kind of stuff for which you could be prosecuted if you "desecrated." The statute was addressed primarily to buildings, including houses of worship, public monuments, cemeteries, and to state and national flags. Now, desecrate is an interesting verb:

1. to divest of sacred or hallowed character or office.

2. to divert from a sacred to a profane use or purpose.

3. to treat with sacrilege; profane.

From the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006.

Under this statute, a protester in Dallas, one Gregory Lee Johnson, was charged and convicted for burning a US flag at the 1984 Republican National Convention.

Ultimately the US. Supreme Court, by the distressingly narrow margin of five to four, affirmed a Texas appeals court's reversal of the conviction, saying that the flag burning was "symbolic speech" or "expressive conduct."

So the flag was talking, so to speak, just as the cracker in PZ's experiments would be.

Spot, they should have charged Johnson with violating the opening burning law!

Right you are grasshopper. That probably would have stuck.

The principal that symbolic speech is protected under the First Amendment was affirmed in U.S. v. Eichman in 1990, also by the same margin, holding the Flag Protection Act of 1989 unconstitutional. You are urged, boys and girls, to follow the link to see who lined up on which side in that one. It may surprise you.

In Texas v. Johnson, linked above, the Supreme Court addressed, and rejected, arguments that the statute was directed to preserving the peace, as onlookers would likely - and there was evidence they were; they were Republicans, after all - be enraged and incited to beat the perpetrator of a desecration into the pavement.

Here, the fact that William Donohue has incited some drooling cretins to make death threats against PZ, makes no difference to the 1st Amendment analysis, either.

As long as you get your hands on them legally, PZ, defile away.

Going to the movies with Sigmund Spot

Liebschen, you remember Siggy talking about za experiments of Stanley Milgram? Und how he vound zat over half of za people vould be villing to kill on command? Really scary, ya?

Vell, here's a moviefilm of one of Stanley's zubjects:

A thump of za tail to John Cole of Balloon Juice.

Reading the Pop Bottles

First of all, I would like to thank Spotty for inviting me to write here on the Cucking Stool. Before I get into the normal cycle of posting, I have a few things that I would like to get out of the way in terms of a reintroduction:

I'm not sure I have the stomach for political blogging anymore. When I was at Minvolved, the political idealism of my college years was fueled by a hefty dose of good ol' fashioned snark. Having just left the military after OEF I was a bit angry with the way things were going and my immediate response to politics was to address issues with a bit of dismissiveness, a dash of humor, and a pinch of holier-than-thouism.

Since that time, I have focused on going back to school, delaying school so my wife can get an advanced degree, entering the business world until her school is finished, and trying to be a productive member of society by not defaulting on my mortgage or getting thrown in the pokey. The bottom line here is that my leisure time has transformed from snark about President Bush into genuine moments with my family and profession. I no longer have a switch that I feel comfortable turning on and off between the two ways of viewing the world. It's funny how quickly repetition and entertainment can switch places when you take a moment or two to step outside of yourself...if that makes any sense at all.

Cutting to the chase, I honestly haven't paid a lick of attention to politics in the past year. I don't subscribe to any newspapers or magazines nor do I plan on getting politically involved in the upcoming election. I'm not even going to vote. During the moments where I do happen to come across any remnants from the political world (usually in the form of reading material on business trips), I find the words and stories lacking in any context and connection to the world I have found by my own experience and intuition. The Cucking Stool is one of the very few places where I do not get the sense of being politically disjointed, and this, along with knowing Spotty, is the only reason why I have any interest in blogging about these sorts of things again.

There have been many moments which have brought me around to this point. Without putting you through the agony of having to read through a list of trifling complaints and concerns, the most poignant transformational moment in the development of my apathy cocoon was when my wife asked me who I was supporting in the Democratic primary. I honestly didn't have an answer to this question. Barack or Hillary...I couldn't differentiate between the two on the basis of actual substance. I had a few outbursts of righteous indignation concerning what I believed to be some heavy racial undertones from the Clinton camp, but I couldn't comprehend, let alone explain, any differences between the 2 candidates anymore than I could tell my wife why I preferred Coke to Pepsi. It's a sad day when you realize that your political idealism has been effectively reduced to nothing more than brand loyalty. (The disjointed nature of it all really hit home when I caught a brief CNN clip of Hillary talking about the importance of multiple consumer choices in the mass media.)

Upon further reflection, I found that this sort of marketing-based processing extended well beyond my feelings towards members of the Democratic party. I've said many times that I'd never vote for a Republican in a million years but I've never really thought through exactly why that was or what it would take to change that point of view.

I know what you are thinking at this point. "But Mr. Sponge, there are real issues and real philosophical differences at play here." I have an answer for this: of course there are fundamental differences between this, that, and the other candidate and/or party. I am especially worried that our judicial branch has been irreparably damaged by an influx of right wing judges who hide their radicalism behind the cloak of originalism or strict constructionism. The problem here is that issues like SCOTUS jurisprudence are as far removed from the way in which the vast majority of our public interacts with the political process as is the proper ratio of phosphoric acid is from the reason why I think Coke is so much more tasty than Pepsi...or why Barack Obama's Change You Can Believe In is a whole lot better than John McCain's Leadership You Can Trust.

The truly sad thing here is that the ideological underpinnings of what it means to be a Democrat or Republican or conservative or liberal (yes, these terms have been co-opted too) keep getting pushed further and further back into their own identities, and finding them is an increasingly troublesome task that is akin to reading the nutritional information on the back of a bottle of pop.

Soooooo...where does this leave me in regards to political blogging? Starting with the negative, I am not interested in the brand-based slog of Franken v. Coleman or McCain v. Obama. I'm not interested in commenting on daily links from hard news sources where people actually work on their stories; I'm neither the peanut gallery nor a heckler, and as much as I think that most of the modern media's wounds are self-inflicted, I don't want to piggyback for free on work that I did not create and upon which the livelihood of what few journalists we have left depends. I'm not interested in blog-gazing "across the isle" by finding the most ridiculous post from the most ridiculous local righty blogger and taking pot-shots at it (for old time's sake, this is Mitch Berg in case you are wondering). I'm really not interested in giving a post-drink live-blog from a pre-election MDE/Publius love fest. I'll leave that sort of thing to Mary Lahammer and the good folks at MPR or the Strib's Blog House...if that silly thing still exists.

More seriously, this approach is neither cynicism nor a sleight against anyone else who holds a different political philosophy than mine. My current political stance has less to do with burnout than with wanting to try something new that is outside the scope of electoral politics. If electoral politics are what interests each his own; I claim no special knowledge or superiority over your point of view.

Moving onward and upward, I'd like to write about policy and how it relates to political philosophy. I want to address questions like 'What can the War on Drugs teach us about the War on Terror?' , 'What are the real-world implications of having 2 political parties whose presidential candidates support faith based initiatives?' , and 'What responsibilities do bloggers have to the crumbling newspaper industry?' I want to focus on the breakdown of our modern media apparatus and how its descent has mirrored the downward trajectory of marketing-based politics.

The reason why I'm putting this out as a first post is because I'm going to ask y'all for a little bit of patience before I can find the right voice for this sort of subject matter. I don't want it to be boring or (gasp) not amusing. Like any other online character, it may take a few posts to get this damn thing going (if it goes at all...I'm not sure if it will) and I just wanted to let you all know where I'm starting from, what my goals are, and what you can generally expect when you see a Mr. Sponge post here at the Cucking Stool. It took a while for Clever Peasantry to turn into Minvolved, and an equally long time for cp to morph into Mr. Sponge, and it may take a while for whatever happens here to develop into a character that is worthwhile and real. It's one thing to register one of these experiments under a new blog; it's quite another to start from scratch with a built-in readership. Hopefully, I will be more interesting than the nutritional label on the back of your beverage of choice.

Thanks again to Spotty for letting me post here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Drinking Liberally Thursday night

Come to DL this week and meet a man who has set a tall order for himself: unseating incumbent Keith Ellison in the Fifth Congressional District. Bill McGaugey is an Independence Party candidate, although Spot can't tell from the website of the party whether McGaughey has received the party's endorsement.

We expect the candidate to arrive around seven for a meet and greet.

Drinking Liberally meets at the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis from six to nine.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wile E. Coyote Nation

Today, boys and girls, we can discuss Katie's latest column, a paean to Wal-Mart, or we can discuss the financial industry's impression of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in the "I'm melting!" scene.

Let's go with Katie, yea! Katie! Katie! Katie!

Oh, grasshopper, you are such a philistine sometimes. We'll discuss the financial meltdown, a subject more important in the long run, and the short run for that matter, than Katie. Besides, the "Farian did a nice job on Katie already, including this paragraph, first a quote from Katie, then the response:

Wal-Mart is the world's largest nongovernment employer, because it's the world's most popular retailer. [Coca Cola is the world's most popular beverage, but not because it's good for you. Each day Wal-Mart presents consumers with the same challenge: will you stab your neighbors in the back by supporting a wage-cutting ruthless employer just to save a nickel a package on infant formula? And each day increasingly broke and desperate American workers say, yes, just save me a few nickels so I can put shoes on my childrens' feet and maybe they won't die from the illnesses we can't afford medicine for]

Turning now to the financial situation, apparently Henry Paulson got out of church early on Sunday to deliver this statement:

... I have consulted with the Federal Reserve, OFHEO, the SEC, Congressional leaders of both parties and with the two companies to develop a three-part plan for immediate action. The President has asked me to work with Congress to act on this plan immediately.

First, as a liquidity backstop, the plan includes a temporary increase in the line of credit the GSEs have with Treasury. Treasury would determine the terms and conditions for accessing the line of credit and the amount to be drawn.

Second, to ensure the GSEs have access to sufficient capital to continue to serve their mission, the plan includes temporary authority for Treasury to purchase equity in either of the two GSEs if needed.

Use of either the line of credit or the equity investment would carry terms and conditions necessary to protect the taxpayer. Third, to protect the financial system from systemic risk going forward, the plan strengthens the GSE regulatory reform legislation currently moving through Congress by giving the Federal Reserve a consultative role in the new GSE regulator's process for setting capital requirements and other prudential standards. ...

Well, hey, that's great Hank! Spot hopes you negotiate for a good price on the stock you buy for us all.

But Spot has to ask: Why would you buy stock in a bankrupt concern and put your (our) good money behind all the other bad money sunk into these corpses by current lenders and investors? Why not take the position of a post-petition creditor in a bankruptcy?

James Kunstler thinks last weekend may have been a Wile E. Coyote moment for America:

There's a particular moment known to all Baby Boomers when Wile E. Coyote, in a rapture of over-reaching, has run past the edge of the mesa and, still licking his chops and rubbing his front paws in anticipation of fricasseed roadrunner, discovers that he is suspended in thin air by nothing more than momentum. Grin becomes chagrin. He turns a nauseating shade of green, and drops, whistling, back to earth thousands of feet below, with a distant, dismal, barely audible thud at the end of his journey. We are Wile E. Coyote Nation.

Is there anyone in the known universe who thinks that the US financial system is not fifty feet beyond the edge of the mesa of credibility?

Nothing will avail now. Not even if Sirhan Sirhan were paroled at noon today and transported directly to the West Wing with a .44 magnum in each hand (and a taxi driven by the Devil waiting outside to take him to the US Treasury and the offices of the Federal Reserve).

It's hard to imagine what kind of melodramas were unspooling on the Hamptons lawns this weekend, while everybody else in America was watching Nascar, or plying the aisles of BJs Discount Warehouse for next week's supply of mesquite-and-guacamole flavored Doritos, or having flames and chains tattooed on their necks, or lost in a haze of valium and methedrine.

With the death of the IndyMac Bank last week, and the GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac laying [shouldn't that be lying, Jim?] side-by-side in the EMT van on IV drips, headed for the Federal Reserve's ever more crowded intensive care unit, there was a sense of the American Dream having passed through the event horizon that denotes the opening of a black hole.

Here was the Treasury Secretary just last week:

Just three days earlier, Mr. Paulson was the picture of calm when he told a Congressional committee that there was no need for any new or additional legislation beyond what he had previously sought because, he said, there “isn’t a silver bullet” to restore the markets.

“I have grown up in a world where you don’t always have all the tools you’d like to have and where I’ve very seldom seen a perfect hand that someone has to play,” he told the members of the House Financial Services Committee, noting that it was better to do things right than to rush through legislation that did not correctly address bigger systemic issues.

But by Sunday afternoon, Mr. Paulson was telling lawmakers that the plan he was about to make public in a few hours would arm him, and his successors, with “a bazooka in my pocket to pull out when we need it to shoot down” problems that the companies might face in the financial markets, several lawmakers recalled.

Is that a bazooka in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me, Hank?

One of the best discussions of the role of Fannie and Freddie, and how they got to where they are, that Spot has seen was in a post today at Calculated Risk:

I think we can give Fannie and Freddie their due share of responsibility for the mess we're in, while acknowledging that they were nowhere near the biggest culprits in the recent credit bubble. They may finance most of the home loans in America, but most of the home loans in America aren't the problem; the problem is that very substantial slice of home loans that went outside the Fannie and Freddie box. But Krugman [in his column today] is right to focus on the fact that it was the regulatory and charter constraints of the GSEs that kept that box closed. In the schizoid reality of the GSEs, when they had their "shareholder-owned private company" hats on they did plenty of envelope-pushing. When they had their "affordable housing" hats on, they rationalized dubious theories of credit quality--like the fervent belief that low or no down payment can be fully offset by a pretty FICO score--to beef up their affordable housing goals, often at the expense not of the poor put-upon "private sector" but of FHA, whose traditional borrower pool they pretty thoroughly cherry-picked. Nonetheless, the immovable objects of the conforming loan limits and the charter limitation of taking only loans with a maximum LTV of 80% unless a well-capitalized mortgage insurer took the first loss position, plus all their other regulatory strictures, managed fairly well against the irresistible force of "innovation." If there has ever been an argument for serious regulation of the mortgage markets, the GSEs are it.

Krugman asks the question: Well then, how did the GSEs get into trouble? Calculated Risk's reply:

Well, that [that the GSEs were too-highly leveraged] and the fact that the minute it looked like the party was over, Congress and the administration both fell all over themselves to push the GSEs into jumbo markets they had at least managed to stay out of during the worst of the boom, cheerfully lifting their portfolio caps at the same time. How do you go on a stock-selling binge at the same time you have just become the official lender of last resort (along with FHA), handed the mandate to take out all those toxic ARMs with too-large loan balances into "safe" 30-year fixed that the borrowers in question still can't afford? If credit risk wasn't, heretofore, mostly the GSEs' problems, it will be now.

In other words, boys and girls, we've turned a private loss problem into a public one.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Spot was a police dog!

Well, just for one night, though. But it was a very illuminating experience.

One weekend evening recently, well okay, it was last Friday night, Spot rode along with a Minneapolis police officer for an evening shift that ended after bar closing in downtown Minneapolis at 2 AM. Boys and girls, it has been a long, long time since Spot was in downtown Minneapolis at bar closing. And boy, has it changed!

Years ago, if you walked in downtown Minneapolis late at night, you could hear your footfalls echo through the canyons between the buildings, but no longer. And the cops' job is immeasurably tougher than it used to be.

The officers for this shift in the downtown precinct are almost all young - men and women. They're fit - although several smoke - and they banter with a combination of locker room humor - the women included, complaints about the department, snide remarks about some of the people - the "perps" - they've run into, and a sort of gallows humor, the latter partly intended for the benefit of the "ride along," no doubt.

These men and women seem like a group of people whose memory recalls easily a time when they were the same age as most of the entertainment district patrons milling on the street or pouring out of the bars at closing time. Perhaps, in addition to their fitness, that's why they're there.

The officer that Spot is with is assigned a wide-ranging patrol that night, which includes the Cedar-Riverside area.

The first part of the shift passes, according to the officer that Spot is with, routinely. Traffic stops, license checks of cars on the computer terminal in the squad car, a driver with a suspended license winds up having the car he was driving towed while he winds up waiting for someone to come and give him a ride home. There was also the transport of one man to the jail who had been detained on a warrant by a couple of Hennepin County Sheriff's deputies who were riding bicycles. They man with the suspended license says "thank you" for a lift to a nearby service station to wait for his ride; the jail transport delivers a stream of abuse and invective toward the officer for most of the trip.

Five of the officers meet for a quick dinner about mid-shift. More banter, more gallows humor for the "ride along," and a pretty good discount from the menu price, too. Some things never change.

There is also a discussion of the Republican National Convention (partly prompted by the "ride along") and what each officer thinks he may be doing during the convention. The training is specialized.

The pace quickens after dinner and seems to accelerate until the end of the shift. We're hardly back in the car, cruising east on Washington Avenue, when there is a burst of radio chatter. The siren and the blue and white lightbar go on, and the officer makes a U turn with the car, tires squealing in protest. He guns the engine, which must be a big sucker, and we head west on Washington to back up a foot chase after an assault suspect. The intersections are especially scary, but all of the vehicles on the road do what they can to get out of the way.

The car speeds along for several blocks, and then it is over as quickly as it started. The suspect is apprehended before we got there. But it sets the stage for the rest of the shift. Calls over the radio come a little more quickly now, and they are for more violent things: fights in front of bars and assaults.

We answer a call for an assault on 2nd Avenue North. The victim says that he was approached by a couple of young men who demanded his backpack. When he wouldn't give it up, a scuffle ensued. The victim keeps his backpack but loses his glasses, so he can't drive home.

The description of one of the suspects is a young black man, of slight build and medium height, wearing an oversized white T-shirt and baggy shorts or pants. This describes, of course, hundreds of the people on the street that night. The other suspect was dressed a little more distinctly. The officer takes the victim's cell phone number, and promises to call if the suspects can be located right away in the vicinity. Since the victim can't identify the victims any better - without his glasses, apparently - he doesn't see any purpose in making a report; he's right.

We slowly cruise around the area for a while, looking for a couple of guys together, one with a white shirt and one with a yellow shirt. No luck.

About thirty minutes from bar closing, we park the squad car in an alley near the precinct station and walk to the pre-assigned spot on Hennepin Avenue and join a little knot of cops already there. Tension is in the air; the officers are very alert. There are police in squad cars, police on bikes, police on foot, and over on 1st Avenue North there are police mounted on horses. Sheriff's deputies are around, too. All in all, a lot of law enforcement.

The "ride along" is introduced around, both to be sociable, and also to make sure the other officers understand that it's a friendly hanging around them.

At about 1:45, there are a lot of people on the sidewalk, and the din of cell phone chatter, spiked heels, and conversation, both friendly and argumentative, is considerable. One of the officers assures the "ride along" that it will get a lot more crowded and noisy when the bars actually empty out.

The officers are standing on a sidewalk next to a street-level parking lot between two bars. A trickle of what looks like urine comes out from under one of the cars nearest the sidewalk. Everyone looks up, but the source is already gone.

Then, the officer the "ride along" came with suddenly separates himself from the little group, running to the curb and yelling, "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" He runs up to a young woman, really wobbly on impossibly high heels, who is just about to step off the curb. He put his hands on her shoulders to steady her; her speech is very slurred. She tells him she wants to get a cab and go home. The officer raises his hand and beckons to a passing cab; it stops and the officer assists the woman in getting into the cab.

People in all stages of inebriation are pouring out of the bars now. A fight between two women breaks out; they are pushing and swinging at each other. As if it was choreographed, one cop steps between them, and one cop comes up behind and restrains each of the, well, assailants. Both women are obviously drunk.

One of the women, restrained by a female police officer, doesn't like being restrained; she shoves at and swings at the officer. This is a mistake. The officer pushes back and backs the woman up about ten feet. When she regains her balance, she looks at the officer with some surprise, and summoning all the dignity she can muster, says to the police officer, "Don't you touch me!"

The officer replies, "You just get outta here now!" The drunken woman considers her options for a moment, and then turns and wobbles away. No arrest for assaulting a police officer, which the woman clearly did. Why not? A couple of reasons, probably, one of them being that it would have meant one or two fewer cops on the street for a while to process an arrestee.

Some one calls out, "Officers, a fight over there!" Sure enough, another fight had broken out and attracts a crowd. The police wade into the scrum of inebriated onlookers and break this one up, too. Again, no arrests.

After a while the sidewalk begins to empty, except for a couple of knots of loud young men. The same female officer says, "Come on fellas, we have to clear them out before we can go home." Now, there are several officers around, but they are still substantially outnumbered. One crowd doesn't want to leave; just a few of the cops approach them and spray, not so much the crowd as the area, with Mace, and it has the intended effect.

This is where the "ride along" takes his leave, around 2:30, with the cops still urging, cajoling, and ordering groups of people to disperse.

Spot witnessed what he thought was a high level of professionalism and competence - and restraint - on the part of the cops. He also believes the officers had empathy for the crowd. Some of the people out and about were known to the police, a few of them perhaps known regrettably well. People asked the officers for directions and seemed not to have any reticence about approaching them.

Because of their location and experience handling crowds, it occurs to Spot that the group of officers that Spot observed will probably have a role in handling the crowds and any disorder that may result during the Republican National Convention.

More about that later.

In which I foretell the future

Wow. I think I know what Katie's going to take up this week. None other than our friend and infrequent Drinking Liberally attendee Professor PZ Myers, who has been causing quite a stir up there in Morris with his refusal to bow to a tidal wave of Catholic pressure regarding his comments about communion wafers.

He's been vilified in the Washington Times. He's received far more than his usual level of hate mail and death threats. He's apparently so angered Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights President Bill Donohue that Donahue has been issuing press releases in which he plays the Christian-as-victim card so transparently as to suggest that PZ will be responsible for any death threats against Donahue:
“Myers went on Houston radio station KPFT last night saying that Bill Donohue has ‘declared a fatwa’ against him. He should know better—I don’t need others to do the fighting for me. I’m quite good at it myself. But he’d better be careful what he says, because if I get any death threats, it won’t be hard to connect the dots.

Why, PZ is such a threat to Life As We Know It that at least one GOP doofus has called for further steps be taken to ensure that our RNC visitors in September can trek down to St. Stan's without fear of being hit by sniper fire from the top of Mancini's:

Thomas E. Foley is chairman of Virginia’s First Congressional District Republican Committee, a delegate to the Republican National Convention and one of two Republican at large nominees for Virginia’s Electoral College. His concern is for the safety of Catholics attending this year’s Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, Myers’ backyard. Accordingly, Foley has asked the top GOP brass to provide additional security while in the Twin Cities so that Catholics can worship without fear of violence. Given the vitriol we have experienced for simply exercising our First Amendment right to freedom of speech, we support Foley’s request.

What, pray tell, has so angered the self-appointed bulldogs of American Catholicism? Donahue's initial condemnation of the good professor can be seen here. PZ's post that set this religious war in motion can be found here.

But now for the predicting the future part: We can fully expect that Katie's next column (or certainly one within a week or two) will (a) parrot the words of Bill Donahue; (b) express shock and outrage at this latest insult to that most downtrodden of religious sects, American Christians; (c) argue how awful it is that PZ has brought this upon himself; (d) never actually speak with PZ, but rather will include copious incendiary quotes from his blog; (e) wax poetic about the days the church could just haul off and burn guys like this at the stake; and (f) remind us that our tax dollars pay this man's salary.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Fore! Timber! Fire in the Hole!

From today's NYT:

WASHINGTON — Alarmed by the growing financial stress at the nation's two largest mortgage finance companies, senior Bush administration officials are considering a plan to have the government take over one or both of the companies and place them in a conservatorship if their problems worsen, people briefed about the plan said on Thursday.

The companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have been hit hard by the mortgage foreclosure crisis. Their shares are plummeting and their borrowing costs are rising as investors worry that the companies will suffer losses far larger than the $11 billion they have already lost in recent months. Now, as housing prices decline further and foreclosures grow, the markets are worried that Fannie and Freddie themselves may default on their debt.

Under a conservatorship, the shares of Fannie and Freddie would be worth little or nothing, and any losses on mortgages they own or guarantee — which could be staggering — would be paid by taxpayers.

Why would the shares be of little or no value in a conservatorship, Spotty?

Because Fannie and Freddie have no real worth. We've talked about this before in Spot's post about level 3 assets:

If you say so grasshopper, but consider this story from Bloomberg (a thump of the tail to reader Jim for the link):

May 14 (Bloomberg) -- Freddie Mac, the second-largest U.S. mortgage-finance company, reported a smaller loss than analysts estimated after accounting changes reduced charges by at least $2.6 billion.

Without the use of two new accounting rules, Freddie Mac would have posted a loss of at least $1.7 billion, analysts said. A change in the way the company values some assets that aren't traded reduced credit losses by $1.3 billion, while a separate rule that lets the company pick and choose which assets to measure contributed an equal amount, Freddie Mac said.

``They put a lot of lipstick on this pig including several accounting changes that have given them a one time step-up,'' said Josh Rosner, an analyst at independent research firm Graham Fisher & Co. in New York.

The article continues:

The new accounting had a ``significant positive effect,'' reducing volatility in the value of the company's $738 billion in mortgage holdings, as well as for securities and derivatives used to hedge against credit and interest-rate risk, Freddie Mac said.

Freddie Mac spokesman Michael Cosgrove said, ``clearly, based on the comments and reports this morning by the real, substantive analysts who follow this company, the Street is comfortable with our accounting and reporting, and encouraged by the results we presented today.''

Exactly what did they do, Spotty?

Again, from the Bloomberg article:

Financial Accounting Standard 157 allows companies to estimate a value on holdings that aren't traded. Freddie Mac used FAS 157 to list $156.7 billion in so-called Level 3 assets, a category that indicates the holdings are so illiquid that they can only be priced using the firm's own valuation models.

The Level 3 holdings represent 23 percent of assets and are up from $31.9 billion as of December.

The first-quarter results also benefited from a change in policy for buying seriously delinquent loans, those at least 120 days past due, out of the mortgage pools Freddie Mac guarantees. The company must book the decline in value on loans bought from pools at the time of purchase. It ended that practice, cutting losses to $51 million from $736 million in the fourth quarter.

In other words grasshopper, they took the sewage that nobody would buy and decided themselves what it was worth.  And changed the way they count. And you know what happened, grasshopper?

The stock went up?

Bingo. This is the genius of the stock market to which our Chief Economics Correspondent [MPR's Chris Farrell] refers. It is also worth noting that Freddie's level 3 assets are within spitting distance of its surplus:

The company said its core regulatory capital rose to $38.3 billion at the end of the quarter, about $6 billion above the 20 percent mandatory surplus.

So, maybe ol' Freddie isn't worth much, huh, Spot?

A conservator would have to wipe all that lipstick off, right Spotty?

That's right grasshopper. Aren't you glad that you aren't one of the investors who helped bid the price of Freddie up after these recent accounting shenanigans?