Monday, December 31, 2007

The best baseball had to offer

Today, December 31, 2007, marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the death of Roberto Clemente. Let's look at why we must remember him, and what he meant, by looking at what happened in baseball this year:

In this steroid soaked year, when we saw Floyd Landis lose his final appeal of his disqualification for steroid use following last year's apparent Tour de France victory, Olympic medalist Marion Jones reverse years of denials and even a lawsuit alleging defamation to finally admit using steroids, and damning revelations involving many athletes in many sports, no sport was hit as hard as baseball. It was a year when Mark McGwire, just a decade removed from being named as the most admired man in America, couldn't even garner a quarter of the votes on Hall of Fame ballots-- suggesting that Big Mac won't ever make it to Cooperstown (since three quarters are needed.) It was a year that saw Barry Bonds break one of the greatest records in the game, and then not long after that get hit with an indictment for perjury in connection with his testimony to a federal grand jury investigating steroid use. And then it turned out that Bonds had a lot of company. A couple of weeks ago the Mitchell report came out and named scores of present and former players and slammed everyone from the commissioners office and the owners to the players union for fostering the use of performance-enhancing drugs at every level of the game.

Roberto Clemente was the opposite of all of that. To begin with, he was a great player. Probably nobody ever played better in right field. He could have played center, to be sure, but he was best in right and was a consistent gold glove winner. Clemente had a gun for an arm, and could throw strikes to home or to third base from anywhere in the outfield. In fact he rarely had to do so after the first few years because other teams learned that trying to run for the extra base was foolish if Clemente was fielding the ball. But when someone tried, they learned quickly that his arm didn't deteriorate, either in strength or in accuracy. He also got 3,000 hits. Unlike the fictional hero from the movie, Mr. 3000 (who gets 3000 hits, 'guaranteeing' his hall of fame induction and immediately retires with his team in a pennant race) Clemente finished with 3000 hits, but no one knew that his last regular season hit on the last day of the season was destined to be his last. His last game was a real disappointment-- in the 1972 playoff against the Reds, the winning run scored on a play that Clemente and the rest of the defending world champion Pirates could only watch helplessly, probably the least memorable ending ever to a thrilling playoff series--a wild pitch. But Clemente and the rest of the Pirates looked forward to getting back to the playoffs and trying to win another World Series in 1973. Clemente's 3000 hits would likely be higher if he hadn't missed a lot of games because of injuries (though he played hurt a lot too, and some of those injuries were caused by the fact that he wasn't a bit cautious about doing things like barreling into catchers if that was what he had to do to score or running into the outfield wall in order to make a catch.)

Ironically, in what is looked at more and more as another disappointment by many baseball fans, he just barely missed being voted onto baseball's all-century team in 2000. You may recall that that year it was all about Pete Rose. Rose, although he played before the steroids era, is banned from baseball for life because he gambled on himself (though always betting on his team to win.) Regardless of how anyone feels about Rose (and for the record I am a Reds fan) the fact is that the voting on the all-century team came down (thanks to the media looking for the 'big story') to a referendum on Rose. Now, Rose is a great player and there have been a lot of great outfielders but one has to wonder, given the fact that Rose barely edged Clemente for that final spot whether Clemente should have been on the team.

Certainly he should have, if baseball really means what it claims to mean about the character of players.

And that's where Clemente is really the greatest of players.

His code of ethics started with his family (where Roberto was the youngest of seven children). Both his parents worked very hard to support the family and taught Clemente about the value of work. They also taught him the value of honesty. He wrote in his biography (published just about the time of his death) that while playing for a Puerto Rican team for forty dollars a month, he was offered a contract in 1954 for $6000 by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He agreed verbally to accept it, and shortly thereafter got a phone call from the Braves organization offering him $20,000. This was a huge amount of money, especially in the early 1950's in Puerto Rico, and he called his mother for advice. Luisa Clemente had no doubts about what he should do. "You gave your word, you keep your word." Clemente signed with the Dodgers (though after one year in the minor leagues Clemente's contract was sent to the Pittsburgh organization via the draft, which worked differently then than it does today.)

But Clemente did a lot more than just show exemplary personal character. He realized he had been blessed to be in a very fortunate position, having the talent and having been given the opportunity to become an American baseball star, while others were not so fortunate. So he decided to give back, not only to his family and his community, but to the world.

His most famous quote was,

"Anytime you have an opportunity to make things better and you don't, then you are wasting your time on this Earth"

And more to the point he lived it. Clemente got involved in charity work, both in Pittsburgh and in his native Puerto Rico, before anyone expected baseball players to do that (remember he played while there was still a 'reserve clause' that essentially gave team owners the right to tell players what they would get paid with little recourse for the players other than to quit the team and even the highest paid ballplayers were paid less, even in real dollars than bench players make today.) Partly because of his charity work and partly because of his success as a Latino ballplayer, Clemente was idolized throughout Latin America, and it was for this reason that he would visit the area often for charitable work, knowing that his presence alone would lift the morale of millions (though he did a lot more than sign autographs.) He did the hard work, often working with his hands distributing food, medicine and other items to people who desperately needed them. He gave generously to those who were most in need.

And so it was hardly out of character for Roberto Clemente to do what he did on December 31, 1972. Most people who could were celebrating New Year's Eve festivities on that day. Clemente too was back home in Puerto Rico, where he would have been most welcome and honored at any celebration on the island. But he heard on the news about an earthquake that had struck Managua, Nicaragua. Thousands of people were injured or homeless. So instead of going to a party or enjoying a quiet evening at home he went to the airport in the middle of the night and helped load blankets, food and other relief supplies onto a rickety old airplane that was to fly to Nicaragua. And then he climbed onto the plane, to be there and help unload it when it landed.

The plane took off and a few minutes later it crashed into the sea.

And baseball has not been quite the same for thirty-five years.

Friday, December 28, 2007

President is doing the right thing by vetoing bill.

It is exceedingly rare that I agree with George W. Bush, and even more so that I agree with him or say he is right about anything pertaining to Iraq, but I will say that he is right in his statement that he will veto the defense spending bill, depsite provisions (which everyone agrees are sorely needed) increasing soldiers' pay and spending more on veterans funding.

At issue is a provision in the bill which would allow survivors or relatives of victims of atrocities committed by the regime of Saddam Hussein to sue the present Iraqi government. The provision would have frozen Iraqi assets as soon as a suit was filed. The Iraqi government had threatened to withdraw $25 billion in assets from American banks.

I have no problem with the concept that victims of Saddam's regime should be able to sue for damages and receive compensation for the horrible things that were done to them. And it is a longstanding international principle that the successor government (in this case the present Iraqi government) is responsible for settling matters attributable to the nation, including those charged to the previous government. Usually this applies to international debts and obligations (banknotes, for example) but it can apply to individual human rights cases (so for example the German government has set up a fund to help pay Holocaust victims.) It is also true that much of the Iraqi assets in question were accrued under Saddam's regime.

However, while I believe that it would be entirely appropriate for the present government of Iraq to set up a system to compensate Saddam's victims or their families and dedicate to that fund money which was accrued by Saddam's government, such settlements have to be set up in a structured and clearly defined manner. The bill the President is vetoing would simply have allowed lawsuits to proceed in a haphazard manner and result in the freezing of all the assets. Another closely related fact of the matter is that there are many thousands, maybe even millions of people who could file suit. However if this were simply pursued in U.S. courts, the likelihood is that those few who got in first would receive the lion's share of the cash (they, and their lawyers) in which case the assets would soon be used up and there would be nothing left for most of the victims.

I hope that the reason for the President's veto is because he understands this and recognizes that there should be a provision in place allowing victims of the former regime to collect damages, just that it has to be set up by the Iraqi government in a formal legal framework, as opposed to simply doing the bidding of the al-Maliki government and having no concern at all for the rights of those who did suffer.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

There are worse things than regulation. One of them is not enough regulation.

We saw more fallout from the mortgage crisis this week, as we find that home prices dropped 6.7% since this time last year. Many large metropolitan areas registered double digit declines in home prices since October of2006 with the highest being Miami, Florida where housing prices dropped 12.4% in that month. The rate of growth in housing prices began to decline in 2005 but it was not until late 2006 that prices themselves began to drop, slowly at first but with an accelerating trend.

This line sums up what part of the problem is:

The Case-Shiller report emerged as some economists and industry analysts are beginning to lower their expectations for housing markets, predicting a longer and deeper price slump than they had previously forecast.

NOW they figure out that this isn't just a minor hiccup? Tell that to a family who has been working hard and paying their bills but is now being foreclosed out of their house because their payments have doubled.

As we know, much of this was caused by unregulated or under-regulated or regulated but not enforced lending practices. Like the 1980's Savings and Loan debacle, this is the latest example of where lax government regulation and oversight has created problems that ultimately effect the economy as a whole and everyone in the country.

There are those who have an 'economic libertarian' view, in which they argue that government regulation is always or almost always a bad thing because it restricts economic freedom, and oppose almost all regulation. In their view, essentially an extension of the now-discredited philosophy known as "Social Darwinism" the world is made up of essentially two kinds of people, 'sharks,' and 'marks.' The 'sharks' are those, like the great showman P.T. Barnum, who are somehow blessed to be smarter or otherwise better repositories for wealth, and so they have a natural advantage over the 'marks,' which means anyone the 'shark' can snooker out of their money. Barnum once had a famous way of describing the 'marks,' when he said in response to someone who questioned why people kept falling for his tricks even when they were publicized, "There's a sucker born every minute."

But every time the 'sharks' get their way (generally in a situation like this where unscrupulous people figure out a way to make money that the government doesn't catch up to, and usually during a time period when those in charge of the government don't want to catch up very quickly) in the end a few people make a lot of money, sometimes a few people go to prison (as in the Enron/insider trading scandal of the early part of this decade) and many, many people end up on the short end of the stick. And in the end that costs society as a whole, when we have to pay to prosecute the insider traders or bail out the S&L industry in order to save millions of people from losing their savings, or recently when the government had to intervene to get the banking industry to reduce payments for some homebuyers so there won't be even more foreclosures.

In the past, government has had to regulate, over the objections of those who did not want it eveything from legal working age to workplace safety to pollution standards. Before that, seven year olds could be forced to work for long hours for very little money, children and adults could work in filthy, dangerous conditions in which injuries and death in the workplace were commonplace (workers, after all, were easier to replace than expensive equipment) and there was little concern about toxic pollutants, either in products or what was dumped out into the enviroment for the rest of the world to drink, inhale or otherwise be exposed to. We got a dose of that recently with the discovery of unhealthy levels of lead in children's toys imported from China. In China the government does not consider consumer safety to be very important so not surprisingly, millions of kids in America yesterday opened presents that conform to Chinese standards, but not necessarily to American standards. Pray to God that they all do (because it is extremely optimistic to think that during the recent furor we caught all of them, with 80% of U.S. toys coming from China).

Which in turn points out that we need to consider how to regulate products that are made outside the U.S. and how to condition trade agreements on that (I once wrote a post about free trade agreements in which I suggested that the U.S. enter into trade agreements with other countries only contingent on upholding American labor and environmental standards, but as recent events have made clear, I should have added consumer safety to the list.

I'm not saying that Government regulation is the answer to everything, but clearly those who argue that they are not needed and that industries can 'police themselves,' have failed in their argument. Or perhaps the banking industry has made the case for them that there has to be more government oversight. Because we see here the great lesson that undid Social Darwinism, and reached its sickening climax during the Second World War: No matter how much freedom and how much power people have, human beings are still the same, and you won't create a 'better' kind of human by just letting things go. Government was originally designed to be an arbiter as to what people can do, and it is still needed in that role.

CORRECTION: As commenter IndyVoter points out I misread the report, the drop was between October 2006 and October 2007 (I had originally read it as a drop JUST in October 2007). That has been corrected.

That represents my tenth material error in 719 posts (four of which have been pointed out by the same commenter), representing a fielding percentage of .986

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The price of no insurance, or of Scrooge-like insurance companies:DEATH

A report has come out using data gathered by the American Cancer Society showing that lack of insurance is directly correlated with an increased number of deaths in cancer patients.

Not that this is surprising, as the lack of health insurance influences everything from the decision of people to seek treatment or get screenings that they may have a hard time paying for, to the decisions by hospitals and healthcare providers not to provide more than the minimum amount of care they can knowing they may not get paid for it.

ATLANTA: Uninsured cancer patients are nearly twice as likely to die within five years as those with private coverage, according to the first national study of its kind and one that sheds light on troubling medical care obstacles.

People without insurance are less likely to get recommended cancer screening tests, the study found, confirming earlier research. And when these patients finally do get diagnosed, their cancer is likely to have spread.

The new research, analyzing information from 1,500 U.S. hospitals that provide cancer care, is being published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

It is true that only about four percent of cancer deaths actually occur in patients who lack health insurance (whereas the overall percentage of Americans without health insurance is around sixteen percent and rising) but that figure is misleading since the vast majority of fatal cancers occur in people over 65, all of whom are covered by medicare.

Of course, as we tragically saw in the case last week of Natalie Sarkisyan*, a seventeen year old who died needing a liver transplant even though one was available because her HMO, Cigna health, refused to authorize payment until the case hit the national media and by then it was too late, even having health insurance may not save you if the insurance company simply decides that they'd rather have you dead than cut the check.

Now, there are those who will continue to advocate that we should have the system we have now, where people can 'choose' to buy (or not to buy) health insurance. They conveniently ignore the fact that most people who don't have health insurance are not without it because they don't want it, but because they can't afford it. It is still true that for those who can afford it, there are more high tech, specialized treatments available in America than elsewhere. For those who can't, it might as well be a trip to the moon. The truth is, we have no real options available for the uninsured to get adequate treatment, other than don't get the treatment, or go far into debt to pay for it (so far that most hospitals, when they see that a patient is uninsured, will automatically 'fast-track' them out of the hospital with the minimum treatment they can, knowing that the large majority of them won't be able to pay.)

However, you may be one of those who will defend to the hilt the present system and say that the choice not to buy insurance, for whatever it's drawbacks are, outweighs all other alternatives.

Fine. But be advised that we now have hard data, in the form of this cancer study, indicating that one of those drawbacks is the increased numbers of deaths in Americans without insurance. If the death of other Americans is an acceptable price for maintaining the system we have now, then go ahead and advocate for it. But don't pretend that it is a benign system, or is something that it is not.

*-- On a personal note, I might add that I am an organ donor, should that ever occur. But the circumstances surrounding the Sarkisyan case cause me to wonder whether I should be, or how I should discuss organ donation with my kids. I've always felt that if I (or one of my kids, one of whom has said she would be willing to be a donor) were ever in a position in which my organs could save a life, then to do so. But I feel uncomfortable now, given what happened in this case, knowing that my organs could simply become available, not based on need but based on who is insured and whether their insurance company would pay. That would be one criterion I would absolutely NOT want used to determine who received my liver or other organs, or those of my family members.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Why is the Republican establishment so afraid of Mike Huckabee?

This week, new GOP co-frontrunner (hard to say who is in front over there) Mike Huckabee has been taking a lot of flak from Republicans. Of course this is to be expected when it is from other candidates, who are competing for the same prize he is (and they have certainly gone after him, especially Mitt Romney, who has seen Huckabee come out of nowhere to suddenly be on the verge of snatching Iowa from Mitt.) One Romney commercial attacked Huckabee's record on pardons as Governor of Arkansas, saying "Huckabee granted more pardons than the previous three Governors of Arkansas combined." Them's fightin' words in a Republican primary, because they well know who one of those former Governors of Arkansas was. And Huckabee probably earned the barbs from Romney after making an anti-Mormon comment during an interview for the New York Times magazine.

What is really different though is that Huckabee has been getting a lot of flak from 'establishment' Republicans, such as Condi Rice (part of the Bush administration) and Rush Limbaugh, who usually either praise or say nothing about candidates in Republican primaries. While Rice was responding to a comment by Huckabee critical of the Bush policy in Iraq to be sure, some of the Bush administration's policies have come in for much harsher criticism during the campaign by other candidates and the administration has chosen to turn the other cheek, so the comment by Rice represents a change from how they've treated other candidates.

It is clear to me why they are suddenly treating Huckabee like a cat in a dog pound.

The truth is, that the GOP establishment has patronized the religious right and their millons of votes sort of like patronizing a crazy old uncle, but they have been careful not to let religious conservatives get too close to the tiller, afraid they will run the party onto the rocks. They promise them the moon, and give them enough bones to make them happy.

Originally the Republican establishment wanted John McCain. He was the early front-runner, and with his traditional appeal to independents they calculated he was the Republican most likely to hold the White House for the GOP. But then McCain ran his campaign into the ground, creating an organization that required more money than he was able to raise. "Mr. fiscal conservative" was embarrassed out of the lead, and dropped into the second tier during the summer as his campaign seemed to fly apart and was deep in debt. So then Rudy Giuliani jumped up as the apparent choice of the Republican establishment. As a social liberal with a base in the northeast, they figured he could be the one who could challenge the Democrats, on their home turf. They even tried hard to sell Rudy to social conservatives as a guy who 'could win,' and Rudy, the pro-choice Republican, promised to only appoint 'strict constructionist' judges. But social conservatives never warmed to Rudy (selling a guy with Rudy's positions and his personal history to the religious right is a little like trying to sell a package of ground beef to a vegetarian.) So then they brought out former Senator and lobbyist (about as 'establishment' as it gets) Fred Thompson to try and appeal to religious conservatives, but the former actor had all the appeal of one of those zombies from, "Night of the living dead." So they went back to trying to sell them on Rudy, even convincing social conservative Godfather Pat Robertson to endorse Giuliani.

But a string of recent scandals has soured many Republicans, not just members of the religious right on Giuliani. So now, McCain (remember him) who has been hanging around on the edges of the race has re-emerged as the apparent choice of the 'establishment.' They don't want Mitt Romney, though they will get behind him if he muscles his way into the nomination (and being worth a quarter of a billion dollars and having shown himself willing to spend freely on his own campaign, Romney has the muscles, at least financially.)

But Huckabee is the guy who scares them to death. He puts exactly the face on the Republican party that they don't want. An ordained Baptist minister, he is wildly popular with social conservatives, but many of his positions (such as wanting to teach creationism in schools) are viewed with skepticism (to put it mildly) by the majority of Americans. Even on areas where he tends to the center he becomes less electable. I personally admire Huckabee for being willing to actually seriously consider his authority as a Governor to exercise pardons (he still did deny 90% of them) even when he runs the risk of what happened, that one of the many people he pardoned subsequently went to Missouri and committed a brutal murder. But it's a very risky position politically, because people will remember (or be reminded of, a la Willie Horton) the one failure and not of the dozens of people who turned their second chance into something good for themselves, their families and society. His record on taxes and spending irks fiscal conservatives (the reason his success elsewhere has not been mirrored in New Hampshire, a state where fiscal, not social conservatives dominate the Republican primary.) Unfortunately for the GOP, fiscal conservatives make the most inviting target for Democrats to appeal for crossover votes. Most national Democrats are diametrically opposed to the position of social conservatives on abortion, gay rights, creationism and other hot-button issues, but it is possible for a Democrat to be nominated who preaches or has a record of fiscal responsibility at least as good as that pushed by most Republicans. Fiscal conservatives are in many cases disillusioned by the Bush administration and GOP Congress that actually accelerated the rate of increase in Federal spending and ran up huge deficits in the process. A Huckabee nomination would make them ripe for the picking if a Democrat was ready to capitalize on this concern, and GOP insiders know it.

For these reasons, they fear Huckabee, or rather they fear that if he is the nominee he could well lead the GOP to a historic landslide defeat. Given that Congress is already firmly in control of the Democrats, and that Democrats will likely gain Senate seats this year, Republicans fear most that there could be a Democratic Presidential landslide, electing a President who had a lot of political capital to push for something like, say, national health care and who would sign all of the bills that Congress has been frustrated with this year, everything from a timetable for Iraq withdrawl to comprehensive immigration reform. There is even an outside chance (though they'd pretty much have to run the table in terms of winnable open seats and knocking off vulnerable GOP incumbents) that Democrats could next year win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. This is very unlikely but would become more likely if the GOP suffered a crushing landslide defeat in the Presidential race.

So Huckabee in fact scares the GOP establishment. That is why they tried to establish him early on as 'second tier.' And now that he is clearly up with the raft of candidates they've been pitching to the GOP faithful, they will do anything they can to try and prevent him from actually winning the nomination.

The only candidate that would scare the GOP establishment more than Mike Huckabee if he wins the nomination, is Ron Paul.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Building containing Dick Cheney's office is on fire

The Eisenhower Executive Building, which houses the Vice President's office is on fire. Hopefully no one is injured, but here are some explanations for how it might have happened:

1. With the clock running down on the Bush administration, they were going to build a bonfire to burn all those documents on Cheney's energy committee hearings, but with his penchant for secrecy he suggested that they hold it indoors.

2. After all those years of the CIA trying to get him with those exploding cigars, Fidel Castro finally got his revenge. He sent a box of them to Cheney, and Cheney, not knowing who they were from, lit one.

3. We now know where the 'secret, undisclosed underground location' is, and it's a hell of a long way down under the Eisenhower building, and quite hot down there.

4. Speaking of the devil, Dick Cheney forgot to extinguish himself this morning when he entered his office.

5. The ghost of Ike is sending a message that he doesn't like what Cheney and his crew have done to the military, the country and the Republican party.

6. With Congress withholding funding for Iraq, the Bush administration took out one of those risky subprime mortgages on the building and now they are also trying to collect the insurance money.

7. It is sort of cramped in there, so it was inevitable that they'd waterboard somebody too close to an electrical outlet.

8. We will find out who started the fire, because Scooter Libby will tell Bob Novak.

9. They just made the building non-smoking, so it started with Cheney sneaking a smoke in the bathroom. He accidentally caught the toilet paper on fire.

10. They experienced a short circuit in an electrical cattle prod during an interrogation session. After it melted one set of testicles, the fire really took off.

11. Dick Cheney is known to sometimes be a volcanic hothead. So this morning his temper got the better of him and the fire started in the room he was in due to spontaneous combustion.

12. The Vice President's answer to global warming: burn documents that were left in the office by the previous occupant.

13. On April 10, 2003 Dick Cheney said that the rioters who were burning all those government buildings in Baghdad were just 'blowing off steam.' So with tension rising in the Vice President's office, maybe he thought it was time to do the same.

14. With Congress passing the new energy bill, oilman Dick Cheney is doing his own research to try and develop a cleaner burning fuel.

15. While duck hunting in his office, Dick Cheney misfired with his shotgun and shot an electrical outlet.

16. The Vice President started a couch on fire with his rhetoric.

17. Congress and the Justice Department are looking into those destroyed CIA tapes. So they need to destroy the tapes of them destroying the tapes.

18. The Vice President had a meeting this morning with some space aliens from Altair-7, and the staff forgot to fireproof the room first.

19. Realizing that he was going to be leaving the office next year, Cheney wanted to make it clear which furniture was his. So remembering his old cattle ranching days he heated up the branding iron and tried to brand the sofa.

20. Never an advocate for civil liberties, Cheney was amusing himself by burning a copy of the Constitution.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Kisses and Hugs


endorses THE HUGGER

And the media is saying they are shocked! Shocked, I tell ya!

Boy, are they asleep at the switch, or maybe they want to be shocked.

Because the truth is, you could take the difference between Joe Lieberman and John McCain and put it on a butter knife and spread it thin on a cracker. An oyster cracker.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hillary's national co-chair takes a cheap shot at Obama. And misses the target.

In the wake of a tightening race that shows Barack Obama pulling into a tie with Hillary Clinton in his home state of New Hampshire, top Clinton advisor Bill Shaheen has raised concerns about Obama's past admissions of drug use.

CONCORD, N.H. - A top adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign said Wednesday that Democrats should give more thought to Sen. Barack Obama's admissions of illegal drug use before they pick a presidential candidate....

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said in response to Shaheen's remarks:

"Hillary Clinton said attacking other Democrats is the fun part of this campaign, and now she's moved from Barack Obama's kindergarten years to his teenage years in an increasingly desperate effort to slow her slide in the polls. Senator Clinton's campaign is recycling old news that Barack Obama has been candid about in a book he wrote years ago, and he's talked about the lessons he's learned from these mistakes with young people all across the country. He plans on winning this campaign by focusing on the issues that actually matter to the American people."

I agree that this is a desperation ploy by the Clinton campaign and they are worried they might (gasp) lose.

Here is the question: WHAT DOES WHAT SOMEONE DID AS A TEENAGER HAVE TO DO WITH HOW THEY WOULD CONDUCT THEMSELVES TODAY? Obama said he has learned from his mistakes, and that is as good an answer as the question has.

It's been years since Obama's acknowleged use of drugs, and the fact of the matter is that you probably will find very few people who were absolutely squeaky clean in every way when they were in high school.

And at least he admits that he inhaled.

Let me quote from a post I wrote recently, ironically defending a campaign advisor to Republican Fred Thompson who it turned out had served prison time for drug related crimes a quarter century ago:

First and foremost, it's a matter of time. I wrote a post once, called the prison that follows prison that dealt with how hard it is for a convicted felon in America to become a productive member of society, or for that matter to be anything other than a convicted felon in the eyes of most people. For that matter, unless he's had his rights restored, Philip Martin would not be allowed to vote in most states. But look, his last conviction was TWENTY-FOUR years ago! TWENTY-FOUR bloody years ago! Do we EVER forgive anybody, or let them move ahead with their lives? The man has kept out of trouble for nearly a quarter of a century, and some people want to haul up what he did in 1979 or 1983. Guess what? Besides it being a long time ago, he was also a lot younger then. Sometimes younger people do foolish things, and then they learn from them. All the evidence is that Philip Martin did learn from his mistakes.

Unfortunately after I wrote the post praising Thompson for standing by Martin and not pressuring him to resign, Martin did resign under pressure.

People make mistakes, especially when they are young. I've never thought that the mistakes that people made in their youth should be held against them when they get older, assuming of course that they straighten themselves out and stop making those mistakes. Obviously, Obama has done that.

And to be honest, I have a former co-worker who lives in Albuquerque and grew up in Chicago, and he knew Hillary's family and was a friend of her brother's. He's told me stories about that, but I won't choose to publish them here.

I won't, because they don't matter.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Armed guard shoots gunman to put a quick end to massacre

There is one area in which I do diverge from some of you on the left (though surprisingly many agree with me). That has to do with guns and second amendment issues. And events in the past 24 hours show why that is.

A man murdered two unarmed people at a missionary training center in Arvada, Colorado.

The New Life Church in Colorado Springs had developed a 'security plan' that involved parishoners volunteering to serve as security guards during church services, when as many as 7,000 people can be in the building on a Sunday. After the shooting at the missionary center, the volunteers were contacted and asked to serve as security during Sunday services the next day.

Sure enough, the gunman, identifed as Matthew Murray, showed up for Sunday services. He murdered two teenage sisters in the parking lot and injured several other people. He then entered the building where he was confronted by the security guards. He ignored them and fired at everyone around him instead. There was only one guard, a woman, who had a gun. When it became clear that he was intent on mowing down anyone in his way, she shot him and wounded him. He reached for a weapon, and she fired again, shooting him dead.

Police determined that Murray had hundreds of rounds of ammunition on him, along with a number of smoke grenades and possibly some explosive devices. Had none of the guards been armed, it is likely, in fact probable, that we would be looking at another Columbine or Virginia Tech, with dozens or perhaps even scores of dead people murdered by the hand of a lone gunman. We saw a taste of it last week in Omaha, and that was a man with relatively little ammunition, not the arsenal that Murray had with him.

Gun laws would not have deterred this guy since he was bound and determined to do what he was going to do, having clearly planned it for some time. Those who suggest banning guns completely, well all I have to say about that is that marijuana has been illegal since the 1940's, and guns aren't all that hard to make. Show me anyplace in the country where nobody can get illegal drugs, and I might believe it is possible to prevent anyone who is up to nefarious ends from getting guns illegally.

There was one thing and one thing only that saved dozens of people. One armed guard who knew how to use a gun, had one with her and knew that she was the only person who could prevent a massacre.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Fumbling, Bumbling, Stumbling

In my last post I pointed out how the Bush administration took what had been a successful program of sex education that had reduced the incidence of teen pregnancies and STD's and replaced it with abstinence-only education which has in turn resulted in the first actual increase in teen pregnancies in years.

Now we find out in regard to the CIA interrogation tapes which were destroyed that this happened directly contrary to the direct orders of White House Deputy counsel Harriet Miers. So in other words the CIA is now (and in 2005 was) running its own show, ignoring direct orders from White House officials.

We've also seen such extreme incompetence and ineptitude as our stumbling into the Iraq war without any planning for what to do after the fall of Baghdad, the botched response (and continuing failure to fully respond) to Katrina, and turning a record surplus into an enormous deficit. Nothing has been done about heatlhcare for eight years except for the prescription drug giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies, with the effect that we now have the most expensive health care system in the world and it still isn't working. The housing crisis is likely to drag down the economy for at least the foreseeable future.

Our reputation internationally is as bad as its ever been, the myth of American military invincibility has been thrown to the wind, and with our army being stuck in the quicksand of Iraq, North Korea has been free to develop and build nuclear weapons and even if you believe the CIA report last week (which I am personally very skeptical of) there is no question that the real winners of the Iraq war have been the Iranians, who have gone from at best an annoying irritant in the middle east to a regional power that threatens to dominate the region.

We've seen how after crime went way down nationally during the 1990's that it is now going back up again, and how after a decade in which SAT scores and the performance of American students against international competition was improving, it is now declining again. The dollar has declined from $.66 to a euro to over $1.20 for one euro. Prices for gasoline have more than doubled, and by next summer may hit $4.00 per gallon, which will represent a tripling of the price in just seven years.

In short, pretty much everything that the Bush administration has touched, has turned to garbage.

Whatever else will be written about this adminstration, it is clear that it will be considered the most incompetent Presidency since at least Jimmy Carter's.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Like clockwork, another prediction comes true.

Last year, the teen birth-rate, which had been falling steadily during the 1990's and then leveled off to a slow decline the past few years, rose, by about 3 percent.

When the Bush administration and the GOP Congress started cutting funds for comprehensive sexual education courses in schools and spending more on 'abstinence only' the rate of decline started to slow, the slowdown accelerated and finally, after several years of pushing this policy it has now reversed and become an increase. This is exactly what experts in the field of sex education predicted would happen when traditional sex ed was replaced with 'abstinence only.'

This wasn't just a matter of 'if it ain't broke then don't fix it.' The Bush administration took something that was working, and while trying to 'fix' it, they broke it.

I have no problem with including the fact that abstinence is the only 100% effective method of preventing pregnancy and the spread of STD's in a broader discussion of birth control (as it had been in the past), but the Bush administration's insistence on abstinence-only education is now starting to bear fruit. And the fruit is lemons, not cherries.

What comes next? A rise in STD's among teens? More abortions? More AIDS cases? Will the doctrinaire officials who reversed the success that sex ed had had since 1991 by replacing what had been working with abstinence-only take the blame if that happens too?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

A critical component to any health care reform plan: Mental Health Coverage.

I am, like everybody else, glad that the hostage situation involving a mentally ill man at Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire headquarters is over, and that it ended without any bloodshed. New Hampshire law enforcement officials did a superb job of bringing it to a peaceful resolution, and the Senator was right not to negotiate with the man, identified as Leland Eisenberg. Eisenberg had asked to speak to Clinton about the difficulty he was having with getting treatment for his mental health issues.

However, while Senator Clinton was right not to negotiate or accede to the demands of someone who was holding hostages, now that it is over we must pressure her or whoever the Democratic nominee is (and I am still supporting Bill Richardson, for the record) to include mental health in any comprehensive healthcare reform bill. The brain is an organ in the body, and it is just as susceptible to disease and dysfunction as any other organ in the body. Yet people are far more likely to get fully covered by their insurance plans for treatment for heart disease, digestive disease, bone disease or pretty much any other part of the body than they are to get fully covered for treatment for mental disease.

The health insurance industry has gone to great lengths to avoid treating mental illness with the seriousness it should be, of course for the reason that it is an easy way to cut corners. Patients who have cancer, AIDS, diabetes or other ailments can sometimes embarrass the health insurance industry by speaking out about their problems in the national or local media. Mental health patients however cannot as easily speak out if they get screwed over by their insurance providers. One reason is because of the stigma still attached to mental illness, a second is that the glare of the spotlight and the publicity may in fact be exactly what they don't need if they are suffering from mental illness, and the third and most damning reason why they cannot speak out is because just by virtue of their having a mental illness, many people will consider them 'crazy' and won't take them seriously, including many in the media.

Yet mental illness strikes millions of Americans every year, ranging from mild depression to completely disabling conditions that destroy otherwise healthy human beings.

Now that mental illness is in fact recognized as a real illness (and it took a couple of generations just to get that far, which it did thanks to biochemistry and some tireless advocates) the health insurance industry has changed their tactics, but not their goal of trying to dodge coverage for mental health treatment. At the moment they are opposing H.R. 1424, the 'Mental Health Parity Act of 2007,' with the goal of preventing passage of a bill that will require insurance companies to cover treatment for a number of well-defined and recognized mental health disorders.

I once wrote a post about 'favors' that Arizona legislators receive from a variety of lobbyists and while researching that post I discovered that if not openly allied, the insurance industry has been getting some help with their dirty work from the Church of Scientology (a cult that opposes clinical treatment for mental health care) I wrote:

Others have been wined and dined by a group calling itself by the appealing sounding name, 'Citizens' Commission on Human Rights.' A check of the group's web site reveals something less appealing. They are affiliated with the Church of Scientology. If you don't know who the Church of Scientology is, they are the group that Tom Cruise belongs to, that was founded by former science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and believes in 'dianetics,' a medicine-free path to good health, and in particular to good mental health (and at a higher level to a release of untapped mental energy). That is the fundamental cornerstone of their belief system, so by necessity they also believe in all sorts of conspiracy plots, mostly involving psychiatrists and the mental health system. By forming CCHR, they have moved beyond the fringe and have tried to get their views accepted by people who make laws, not just in Arizona but around the country. In fact, this is a strange case of where big business and a loony religious cult have come together to shaft the little guy (as represented by a person who has a mental illness and needs affordable treatment that works). For a long time, health insurance companies have not reimbursed mental health providers or reimbursed them at much lower rates than other health care providers. Once their justification for doing so, that mental conditions were in general not diseases but purely were voluntary conditions or conditions which were produced by voluntary actions (such as drug or alcohol abuse), was proven false by biochemical researchers, they had to change their reasoning. In fact, the brain is just like any other organ in the body, subject to disease (as evidenced by chemical imbalance, even in otherwise healthy people) and psychiatrists (my father was one before he died fifteen years ago) are simply trained medical doctors who went to the same medical schools as other doctors, and specialized in the treatment of diseases of this organ. Because scientologists believe as an absolute truth and matter of religious conviction that mental illness is something that can be treated by their own (non-medical) methods, much like the old view of it, the insurance industry, while still taking mental illness less seriously (in terms of payment) than they do other kinds of illnesses, have been able to step back and let the religious cult do their dirty work for them. In fact, I have to wonder why CCHR has been so well funded. I know that Tom Cruise gets a pretty good paycheck and undoubtedly donates quite a bit of it, but the rate that this organization (CCHR) has grown is very suggestive that they may be getting some serious behind the scenes money, and if so.... well I can suggest a conspiracy theory just as well as they can.

Ultimately it does not matter what the justification is, while I do not agree with Mr. Eisenberg's methods, he does have a valid point that many people who need it don't get the mental health care they need. With the likelihood that the next President will include health care reform as part of his or her agenda, we must make it clear that mental health is just as important, if not more important, than making sure that we cover health problems involving other parts of the body.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Some thoughts on Mitt Romney, Mormons and abortion.

I've been watching the recent news involving Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the whole 'Mormon question' with a lot of interest.

For one thing, like Romney, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (colloquially known as the 'Mormon church.') I disagree with Romney about virtually everything in his political platform, and the one thing that he did that I could support if he proposed it nationally, his universal health coverage plan in Massachusetts, he hardly ever talks about as he campaigns for the Republican nomination.

But the news has shifted to more and more coverage of the problems that some members of the 'Christian Right' have voiced with Romney's faith. That matters because they represent a group of voters which Romney had been courting and hoping they would choose him because of a desire not to see the GOP nomination go to the most socially liberal Republican, Rudy Giuliani. Instead, they appear to have found their candidate in Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, who claimed last week that his most unique qualification for the job was a degree in Bible studies from Ouachita Baptist College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Interviews with many individual voters in Iowa who have recently opted for Huckabee over Romney make it clear that faith is a major reason why.

So pressure has been mounting on Romney to give a 'Mormon' speech, similar to the one that John F. Kennedy gave in 1960 to put to rest concerns about his Catholicism.

One thing the media has gotten wrong though: Romney is NOT the first Mormon to be a major candidate for a Presidential nomination. That would be Morris Udall, who was the runner-up to Jimmy Carter for the 1976 Democratic nomination. The error is understandable though, as most rabid anti-Mormons reside in the Republican party and among Democrats Udall's religion was never an issue. For that matter, after Al Sharpton made some intemperate comments about Romney and Mormons earlier this year, he backtracked quickly and apologized to anyone who had gotten the misimpression that he was biased against Mormons. That is in contrast to the anti-Mormon stuff that you hear from some fundamentalists on the right, which is never retracted but instead reinforced.

I don't know honestly whether giving such a speech would help Mitt or not, but I will say a few things here, primarily about Mormons and politics, not specifically about Mitt.

First, before every election a letter is read from the First Presidency (which consists of the President of the Church and his counselors) in which they reiterate that the Church is a religious, not a political organization. Church buildings, lists, and other Church properties or resources are not to be used for political purposes, and the letter makes it clear that the Church does not endorse political parties or candidates. The Church does, however, push for involvement in civic affairs and encourages members to vote, run for office and otherwise be involved in their communities. Though the Church does not endorse parties or candidates, it does occasionally take a stand on issues, such as opposition to abortion and to casino gambling.

Probably about 80-90% or more of active Mormons are Republicans, however. I have a friend who once said that Mormon Democrats are 'like a recessive gene-- it tends to run in families (like the Udalls, where Morris succeeded his brother in Congress and since Morris have had other members of their extended family elected to Congress in other states), and it sometimes pops up where least expected. But that is still only about 10-20% of active church members. And whether because it is a matter of what the Church encourages or otherwise, they do get out and vote. Since 80-90% of active Mormons vote for Republicans in most elections, and as part of the 'civic involvement' ideal includes running for office it goes without saying that the Udalls (and Senate majority leader Harry Reid) are exceptions-- nearly all church members who hold public office are Republicans. I am a Democrat and a Precinct Committeeman (and soon-to-be-former County Vice-Chair) but that is relatively rare among members of the church.

It was not always this way though. Early in the history of the Church, almost all of the members were Democrats (since the Democrats in states like Missouri and Illinois had generally been more tolerant towards the church in its early days than had their opponents.) In fact, in the late 1880's and early 1890's as Utah prepared for statehood, Church leaders encouraged some families to become Republicans because the prospect of a state with only Democrats was causing some hesitiation among Republicans in Congress who would have had to approve the creation of a new state. This pattern was replicated in Idaho, Arizona and other areas where there were a lot of church members. As recently as 1948, Utah joined the rest of the west in providing the critical flood of late votes that elected Harry Truman in an election where Thomas Dewey had swept most of the Northeast and produced the now-famous headline in the Chicago Tribune. Of course in 1964 Utah and Idaho went with most of the rest of the country during the Johnson landslide.

So what happened since? Two things have caused most active LDS members to become Republicans.

The first is that (like in the rest of the west) people who had supported FDR and the New Deal began to see the Federal Government as less of a friend for ordinary people and more of a bottomless pit for taxes. I don't myself subscribe to this view, believing that Government can be productive and helpful for solving problems. But in the west, where the Federal Government owns over 90% of the land in many counties, and then various environmental laws (some of which were ironically authored by Morris Udall) blocked or limited access to most of it, the whole rhetoric of the so-called 'sagebrush rebellion' got through to a lot of people. It may have been a phony 'rebellion' spurred by advertising financed by logging, mining and other industries but it hit a very real nerve-- and it doesn't help that Washington is a speck way out on the other end of the country. So the whole 'anti-Federal government' rhetoric that Republicans made their living on in the 1980's (with Ronald Reagan the exemplar of it) did help turn a lot of people in the west to the right. Though land use issues have become less of the focal point over the years, guns have replaced it as a way to keep voters Republican in small towns in the west. If you don't live in one, you wouldn't understand it, but I do and I can tell you that if you tell someone out here you want to take their gun away you might as well be telling them you want to take their kids away. Recently though other issues have caused most of the west to begin swinging back to the left.

But not Utah, and not LDS voters. Which brings us to the second reason why Mormons have moved to the right since the days of Truman. Social conservatism. The 'Christian conservative' movement which is now refusing to support Romney because he is a Mormon may be strongest in the deep south and may have a southern flavor, but it plays well in Utah and in small LDS communities throughout the west, such as the Arizona town I live in. For people who pray daily, are opposed to abortion and try to live a life free from sin, rhetoric which castigates the ACLU for 'driving God out in favor of Satanic humanism,' attacks supporters of keeping abortion legal as 'murderers' and bashes 'wicked gays, teenage sex and booze,' if shallow and hateful rhetoric which aims for the lowest of human emotions, does hold an appeal for those who are already disposed to thinking that way. And LDS people are no different than people anywhere else, a deceptively simple sounding way to wrap hate has been good enough to justify all manner of human persecutions in the long and tortured course of human history, including the persecution that early members of the Church suffered at the hands of mobs in Missouri and Illinois. I don't suggest that the rhetoric we hear on talk radio or from Republican politicians is going to bring out mobs with pitchforks and torches, but it is certainly sufficient to stir up people to support all kinds of laws against other people who are in some way 'different' that might not be supported in the absence of such rhetoric.

It is possible to reason with people of course, starting with pointing out just how hateful some of the rhetoric is. The west is not the south, and the west has a history and a tradition of tolerance. That is especially true of the LDS; it is a fact that Brigham Young, as governor of the Utah territory (which at the time was pretty much synonymous with President of the Church,) made and signed a number of agreements with neighboring tribes and he and his successors are the only major American leaders to sign treaties with native American tribes who stood behind their words and made sure that none were ever violated. But that history of tolerance has to be appealed to directly, not defensively. Tolerance does not mean liking someone or something, or even approving of it, but rather of deciding not to punish or intentionally cause problems for people who are not like we are or like we want to be.

On the issue of abortion, instead of looking like a zero-sum game (either you win and I lose or my side wins and you lose) we are today in a unique position to move beyond the debate. Bill Clinton was on to something when he said he wanted to see abortion 'legal but rare.' As I alluded to once before, liberals have since Clinton took office reduced the number of abortions quietly but efficiently by about 30% since the early 1990's. This involved a combination of education and the availabilty of birth control. Being against something does not mean that the only way to be against it is to ban it. The fact is this:

The number of abortions that liberals have prevented by pushing sex ed, family planning and birth control: Hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions.

The number of abortions that conservatives have prevented by quixotic attempts to ban it: zero. (but they have made some lawyers very rich, at taxpayer expense.)

The obvious example of how to oppose something without banning it is smoking. Nobody has suggested that we make tobacco illegal, but a combination of education (especially in schools), aggressive support for smoking cessation programs (largely financed by taxing cigarettes, which taxes also discourage people from smoking) and reasonable restrictions on smoking have combined to 1. preserve the CHOICE people have to smoke, but 2. acknowlege that smoking is not good for society as a whole and therefore do what we can to encourage people to make the choice to not smoke.

I personally completely agree that abortion must remain legal (as Mitt Romney used to, not so many years ago) because let's face it-- if you don't own your own body, then do you own anything at all that somebody can't legislate away from you someday? Wasn't that what the Civil War was fought over? Now, there's a 'property rights' issue that might appeal to people in the rural west. That said, with the advent of the over-the-counter 'morning after pill,' I believe it will be less and less frequent anyway. We can, if we recognize that having another generation is beneficial to society, do as many countries in Europe have done and actively enhance social programs that promote childbirth (the French have been a model for this, and actually increased their birthrate, which had declined for decades.) For that matter, at one point, after reading a Guttmacher Institute study that made it clear that the cost of a hospital delivery, together with a lack of healthcare insurance and/or low income was a major reason why many women are forced to choose abortions that they don't even want, I've even proposed a program to pay for childbirth expenses for poor women, financed by a tax on abortions. This is pro-choice for two reasons: 1. it really does give all women a choice, while right now the study I linked to makes it clear that many poor and uninsured women are forced to have abortions by the financial realities of America's healthcare system (so there is effectively no choice), and 2. if you tax something, then you are acknowledging as a premise that it is legal (though conservatives have little choice, because in fact it is legal.) At the same time it is a measure which should appeal to the pro-life crowd because after all it does have the effect of reducing abortion by one of the same mechanisms that has helped reduce smoking.

But since that makes sense, I'm sure that everyone will be against it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The BEST CASE scenario in Iraq: A Pyrrhic victory.

In 281 B.C., king Pyrrhus of Epirus (an island off the coast of Greece) landed in Tarentum with an army of about 30,000 men and 20 elephants. He was trying to defeat Rome, which was then threatening to conquer the southeastern end of the Italian peninsula, which had been colonized by Greek settlers. In 280 B.C., he won the battle of Heroclea, but according to the historian Dionysus at the cost of about 13,000 men including many of his best soldiers. The next year, he invaded Apulia and defeated the Romans in the battle of Asculum. He lost another 3,500 soldiers, including many of his best officers, from his already depleted army. After winning the battle, Pyrrhus is reputed to have said, "One more such victory will undo me!" In fact, after an unsuccessful foray into Sicily, Pyrrhus' army was no longer strong enough to even administer what he had conquered in Italy and he was forced to return to Epirus. He had simply taken too many casualties to be worth the relatively small tactical victories they had produced.

A victory of this type, in which the costs outweigh the gains has ever since been known as a 'Pyrrhic victory.' It is not limited to military battles (though the Germans won one famously in the Second World War, when they sacrificed their most dangerous unit, their airborne unit, in return for capturing the island of Crete from the British and the Greeks.) Other examples of what might be considered a Pyrrhic victory could be a football team that wins a regular season game but does so at the cost of an injury to a star quarterback who will be sorely missed come playoff time, a businessman who irretrievably damages his reputation by lying in order to close a business deal or perhaps a bidder at an auction who outbids his or her rivals but soon finds that the article is not worth at all what has been paid for it.

Lately we've heard the right claiming that the recent downturn in violence in Iraq portends some great 'victory.'

First, I'm not a bit convinced that the downturn is more than a temporary lull. We've seen downturns in violence there several times in the past, such as after the early 2005 offensive that retook Fallujah, and in the end it has proven a fleeting moment of relief. Other than al-Qaeda (which has however proven resilient in the past) all the other major players in Iraq-- Iran, the Shiite and Sunni militias, are still present and armed, and the Iraqi government has done absolutely nothing during the present 'breather' to make a breakthrough that will prevent a future civil war.

But let's even entertain for a moment the possibility that the right is right (I know, I know, but even a broken clock is right twice a day.) Suppose that in fact, everything does work out, that the Shiites and Sunnis do figure out their problems and that Iraq becomes stable. Let's even imagine a situation in which the Iraqi government comes together exactly as the Bush administration hopes it will.

Then let's consider what in this best case scenario the U.S. will have gained and lost from the Iraq war:


* Saddam Hussein is gone. He would be seventy years old right now if we hadn't invaded.

* We inflict a military defeat on Al-Qaeda and reduce their numbers to maybe just a handful hiding out in a country where there only were a handful hiding out in 2003 anyway.

* American companies make a lot of money rebuilding Iraq and from exploiting Iraqi oil.

* We know for sure that there are no WMD in Iraq, and we didn't even need Hans Blix to finish looking for them to find that out.

* After a five year struggle, we can say that we won.


* About 4,000 American troops dead, tens of thousands injured.

* $1.6 - 2 trillion (depending on the estimate) in combined actual outlays for the war and the effect of the cost of the war on our economy.

* Iran has become the most influential power in the region, and they get rid of their archenemy Saddam without firing a shot; an Iraqi government with close ties to Tehran, something the Iranians fought for a decade to achieve in the 1980's without success.

* Iran has become increasingly belligerent and been able to make substantial progress towards developing real WMD (nukes) while our army is tied down in Iraq and unable to seriously threaten Iran (as it will be for the foreseeable future even if this is a 'win'.)

* The aura of American military invincibility has been cast to the wind, guaranteeing more future challenges from who knows where (but we will be tested, of that you can be sure).

* Al-Qaeda given time and a chance to regroup (together with the Taliban) in the country where they were present before, because we shifted our focus to Iraq before the job was done in Afghanistan.

* The unquestioned international support for America which existed after 9/11 long since gone.

* With torture and other rights abuses practiced, America no longer has the moral authority to lead the world.

* Except for the 2001 tax cuts and the medicare drug giveaway, virtually none of the Bush administration and GOP domestic agenda realized as the administration spent virtually its entire political capital on stampeding into Iraq; for that matter even the tax cuts are still due to expire on schedule after the Republican Congress was unable to make them permanent. Now, granted I am a Democrat and don't mind seeing Republicans fail, but with it having been three quarters of a century since the previous time when the GOP had a majority in both houses of Congress and the White House (the 1952-1954 Senate was 50-50 with the GOP nominally in control by virtue of the Vice Presidency) they clearly sacrificed a great deal for getting us fixated on Iraq. Are you a Republican who voted for the GOP because you wanted to see Republicans reduce the size of government, for example? Then Wait another LIFETIME, Buddy!

In other words, even if conservatives were for a change 100% right, and the reduction in violence we see right now in Iraq is a real 'victory' and not just another temporary lull in a continuing cycle, the best they can claim is a Pyrrhic victory.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

How much official outrage should we show?

There have been in the news recently two horrifying news stories involving rape that show how differently the rights of women are viewed in other parts of the world when compared with the United States.

In the first of these cases, a nineteen year old Saudi woman was brutally gang-raped. Initially, she was sentenced to ninety lashes and six months in prison; that's right, SHE was sentenced to this, for the crime of being in a vehicle with an unrelated male (a friend of hers). When she appealed her sentence, it was increased to 200 lashes, for daring to speak out (her lawyer, who spoke to Saudi media about the case, faces disbarment.) Her attackers, while they have been sentenced to prison, initially received sentences of between 10 months and five years; subsequently those have been increased but still they have received much shorters sentences than rapists typically get in the United States.

In the second case, a fifteen year old girl in Brazil who was arrested on suspicion of petty theft was placed in a jail cell with 20 adult male inmates, who raped and tortured her, while the local police ignored her screams for help and kept her there for three weeks, during which time she was burned as well as being raped multiple times. The police then pressured her father to falsify her birth certificate (presumably to claim her age was older than it was) and then threatened to have his paternity rights revoked when he refused to do so.

Both cases have provoked international outrage. The Brazilians have at least acknowleged that there is a problem (especially since the case has led to revelations of other women being put into male prison cells and raped) and they have appointed two commissions to investigate. The Saudis, in contrast, have proven particularly intransigent, justifying their sentencing by saying the woman in the case was involved in 'an illegal relationship.'

Of course, everyone including Presidential candidates have jumped on the cases and condemned them. Then again, it is easy for someone who is simply a candidate to do so, since there are no real consequences for whatever (s)he might say.

But what of the administration which does have to deal with the consequences?

If I were President, I'd be tempted to recall my ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as well as letting Brazil know I'd be keeping a real close eye on their investigation and would expect to see some heads roll. But then maybe it's a good thing I'm not the President.

On the other hand, I've been very, very disappointed at the complete lack of outrage expressed by the Bush administration. Other than some muted statements expressing disappointment they have said pretty much nothing.

First, let's make one thing clear-- there is public outrage (for public consumption) and there is actual outrage (behind the scenes). The textbook example of the difference came just after the Tianenmen Square massacre, when the first Bush administration publicaly expressed shock and anger at the massacre of unarmed demonstrators in the square by the Chinese army, while simultaneously dispatching Brent Scrowcroft to Beijing with a message that the statements were for American public consumption only, and should not be construed otherwise by the Chinese government.

And we well know that both Brazil and especially Saudi Arabia are very important to American foreign policy. We get nearly half of our oil from Saudi Arabia, and they also hold enormous amounts of American debt. So a real sudden and complete break with Saudi Arabia would be a severe, perhaps even deadly blow to the American economy. Like it or not, that is an unquestioned fact, as of today. Brazil doesn't send a lot of oil to the U.S., but with Latin America increasingly hostile to America, and with the most powerful politician in the region arguably Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, America needs Brazil as the dominant economic power in South America to provide a balance to Chavez.

That said, there are two things that the Bush administration should be doing but are not:

1. they should publically, in the STRONGEST terms condemn both sets of rapes. They must make it clear that the way these women were treated by the judicial systems in those countries is repugnant and that as civilized Americans we reject it completely. This is necessary because inasfar as the President speaks for all Americans, we must make it clear as a nation that we won't accept this; if we are as a nation silent on this kind of treatment of victims, do we retain any moral authority at alL?

2. behind the scenes if it is necessary to offer the Saudis a way out of their quandry it should be this: offer to grant the woman, her husband (a man she was engaged to at the time of the rape and who she has since married) and her lawyer (unless they will reconsider the actions they took against him) political refugee status in the United States and suggest that the Saudis commute the sentence to exile (which should be good enough to placate some of the hotheaded fundamentalists at home).

I don't claim to have all the facts about what we should do privately, but publically, to not condemn these actions is to condone them, and I as an American demand that my government condemn them. Because such behavior should never be condoned.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Hate crimes up nationally, lowest in a surprising place.

The FBI released statistics showing that hate crimes rose nationally by 7% over the previous year.

Nationally, 7722 hate crimes were reported. Hate crimes are defined as crimes in which the motivation is the victim's race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

The majority of the hate crimes reported were racially motivated. Of these, 2/3 of them involved a black victim. 20% of them involved a white victim, and the remainder involved a victim who was targetted for being of some other race.

19% of hate crimes involved religion. Of these, nearly 2/3 involved attacks against Jews.

Approximately the same percentage as religion being the motivation were carried out against victims based on sexual orientation, with male homosexuals the most frequent targets.

There is one silver lining in all of this, and it is a most unexpected one. The states with the fewest reported hate crimes, in fact none in one and only one in the other for the whole year, were Mississippi with no hate crimes reported, and Alabama with one.

Yes, you read that right. Mississippi and Alabama.

Mississippi was the state whose racism was famously associated with the movie 'Mississippi Burning,' about the murders of three civil rights workers by the Klan in 1964. It was the home state of such notable racists as depression era Governor Theodore G. Bilbo, who liked to write books comparing blacks with monkeys.

Alabama has always been associated by most of us with racial intolerance, of the most violent and malignant variety. The home state of George Wallace was the state where marchers were brutally beaten at the Edmund Pettis bridge, the state where Bull Conner's police dogs attacked peaceful demonstrators, and the state where klansman murdered four black girls by bombing a Baptist church in 1964.

Mississippi and Alabama have always been considered backwards, racist and a hotbed of racial hatred. Hardly the kind of place you'd expect to see setting a national standard for tolerance.

But that's what we see. Let's recall the words of Dr. King in his 'I have a Dream' speech:

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice...

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I'm sure there are still some racists around in Mississippi and Alabama, as there are every place. I'm sure there are still a few klansmen there, just as for that matter there are some klansmen here in Arizona. But for whatever reason, they have become more tolerant, at least when it comes to resorting to violence, than the rest of the country.

And I call that a miracle. Maybe the rest of the country should see what has changed there.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bush doctrine: we support democracy-- except where we don't.

Today the Supreme Court of Pakistan threw out five of the six complaints that had been lodged against the election last month of General Pervez Musharrif as President of Pakistan.

Of course, the whole thing is a sham. The 'election' was carefully conducted only among three hundred or so assembly members, virtually assuring that Muharrif would be re-elected. However the opposition to Musharrif, who seized power in a coup nearly a decade ago and has steadfastly refused to give any of it up, complained to Pakistan's Supreme Court and asked that the election be declared illegal. On the eve of the ruling, which would have gone against Musharrif, he declared 'emergency law' and summarily dismissed all of the Supreme Court justices who refused to sign a loyalty oath to him. He then filled the vacancies with his hand-picked replacements, so that the decision rendered today might as well have been written by Musharrif personally.

President Bush has asked that Musharrif leave the army. So he will. That doesn't make him any less of a dictator, nor does it do any more to legitimize his 'election' than the rump Supreme Court decision we saw today. (I could add an acerbic comment here about Bush and elections and Supreme Court decisions, but you all know what I'd say, so I won't.)

What it does is point out in stark relief two things.

1, The support of 'democracy' everywhere that Bush pledged in his second inaugural speech is null and void in countries where the dictator kisses up to us.

2. Bush was a fool for fashioning our whole policy in Pakistan around Pervez Musharrif. There is no 'plan B,' and now State Department officials are feverishly trying to craft one in case someone other than Musharrif emerges from the present crisis as being in control in Pakistan. Sound familiar?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

FOX News owners sued by publisher who said they ordered her to lie.

We already know that Rudy Giuliani wants to keep as much distance as he can from Bernard Kerik. We already know that in 2000 he was briefed on Kerik's ties to known mobsters and chose to hire him as police commissioner anyway.

We also well know that Rupert Murdoch's 'fair and balanced' FOX News network tilts strongly to the right.

But we learned today about just how far they are willing to go to keep the Giuliani-Kerik link out of the news.

A publisher was ordered by network executives to lie to Federal investigators to protect him. Of course, lying to Federal investigators is a felony, as we recently saw in the case of Olympic sprinter Marion Jones who is facing prison time for lying to investigators during a steroid investigation.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Senior executives at News Corp. urged publisher Judith Regan to lie to investigators about ex-New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik in order to protect Rudy Giuliani's presidential ambitions, Regan alleges in a lawsuit filed this week.

The lawsuit does not name the executives or cite any documents to back up her allegation. News Corp., which is led by Rupert Murdoch and is the parent company of the Fox television network and cable news channel, called the suit's claims "preposterous" Wednesday.

But Regan says she was the victim of a smear campaign "to save the reputation of Kerik and, by association, Rudy Giuliani."

Regan says she had an affair with Kerik that began in 2001.

The 70-page lawsuit was filed in a state court in New York just days after Kerik's indictment on federal corruption charges in a case that has fueled criticism of Giuliani, his longtime patron.

We will see how this plays out. But we've already seen multiple instances of FOX being willing to lie or stretch the truth on a story on the air in order to help Republicans. So this is hardly a surprise, unfortunately.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Turns out that there may be something real about the 'Da Vinci Code.'

In the book and the movie "The Da Vinci Code," a secret code is hidden within paintings created by the Renaissance master which hold the keys to deadly secrets that are protected by a fanatical secret society.

There may be no such deep and dark secret at work here, but an Italian musician named Giovanni Maria Pala appears to have uncovered a musical code within one of Da Vinci's most famous paintings, "The Last Supper" (pictured above). The painting depicts the last Passover meal shared by Christ and the twelve disciples before his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve.

Pala discovered that if he put five parallel lines in the mode of a musical staff across the picture and looked at the positions of the hands of the people in the picure and the bread on the table, and replaced them with musical notes, they fit exactly into the scale. When he tried to play it, it did not make any sense, until he remembered that Da Vinci, a lefthander, wrote sometimes from right to left instead of left to right. When he read it backwards, the music formed a tune remiscent of requiems played at the time. In other words, Da Vinci, if he put it in there on purpose, must have figured that someday someone would figure out the code, and play the music with the picture.

It is perhaps most amazing that after waiting for four hundred years to be discovered, this would be discovered within a couple of years after a movie came out speculating on the possibility of Da Vinci hiding clues in his paintings.

Sometimes reality does mirror fiction, more than we think.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The first brick in the wall.

Last night Democrats took control of the Virginia State Senate for the first time in twelve years.

The victory is significant because it is the first elected individual or group who will help redistrict Congress after the 2010 census (Republicans though their majority was cut in half retained control of Virginia's House of Delegates, but unlike the Senate members of that body serve two year terms so Democrats will have another crack at that one in 2009 along with trying to win re-election for Governor Tim Kaine.)

After the 2000 census, Republicans controlled redistricting in most large states (including Virginia.) How districts are drawn is of critical importance.

To give you an idea of how much the control of Congress is dictated by gerrymandering, consider what happened last year in the twenty districts which are not gerrymandered (eight in Arizona and five in Iowa drawn by citizens redistricting commissions and seven at-large districts that cover entire states.) In those twenty districts, four changed partisan hands (actually five, since Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont was replaced by a Democrat, but I'm not even counting that as a party change since Sanders caucused with the Democrats anyway.) If this rate is projected to the entire house, last year Democrats would have picked up 87 seats instead of thirty. So clearly gerrymandering, based on this admittedly small sample (and we have our issues with redistricting here in Arizona too) limited the turnover in Congress.

And the truth is, Tom Delay and the Republicans built themselves a pretty effective wall during the early part of the decade. That wall is now crumbling for a variety of reasons, but it underscores how important it is for Democrats to control the redistricting process in as many states as possible (or at least prevent Republicans from having total control).

But at least for right now, one thing is certain. And that is that Democrats will control the Virginia state Senate in three and a half years.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Thompson can tell the difference between a crook and a former crook; Rudy can't.

It's very rare that I am complimentary towards a Republican. It's even rarer that I would be complimentary towards a Republican running for President. It's most vanishingly rare that I would be complimentary towards a rabid right-wing Republican running for President like Fred Thompson. In fact in my only post specifically devoted to Thompson, back when he was higher in the polls as a not-yet-announced candidate than he has been since he announced, I poked some fun at him while pointing out his deficiencies.

But I'm going to say he is doing the right thing today. And it's not about any laughing matter. Specifically, he is standing by Philip Martin, who is the co-chair of his campaign. It was reported over the weekend by the Washington Post that Martin has a criminal past, which between 1979 and 1983 included convictions or guilty pleas for selling marijuana and cocaine.

In today's 'gotcha' environment, many politicians would immediately sever all ties with Martin. But I'm glad that Thompson is taking a stand and not severing them, especially now that the campaign is entering a critical stage. We will see how intense the heat is and whether he continues to stay with Martin, but it does speak well that at least Thompson's initial reaction was to stand behind Martin.

So why am I applauding Thompson for standing by Martin, especially when I've been very critical of Rudy Giuliani's decisions to hire mob associate Bernard Kerik, coke dealer Thomas Ravenel or child molester Alan Placa?

First and foremost, it's a matter of time. I wrote a post once, called the prison that follows prison that dealt with how hard it is for a convicted felon in America to become a productive member of society, or for that matter to be anything other than a convicted felon in the eyes of most people. For that matter, unless he's had his rights restored, Philip Martin would not be allowed to vote in most states. But look, his last conviction was TWENTY-FOUR years ago! TWENTY-FOUR bloody years ago! Do we EVER forgive anybody, or let them move ahead with their lives? The man has kept out of trouble for nearly a quarter of a century, and some people want to haul up what he did in 1979 or 1983. Guess what? Besides it being a long time ago, he was also a lot younger then. Sometimes younger people do foolish things, and then they learn from them. All the evidence is that Philip Martin did learn from his mistakes. I'd expect that the Thompson campaign probably did a background check on him (or maybe he's known Thompson for some time) so what this says is that Fred Thompson actually can recognize that people can change if they have the opportunity (now if only that would give rise to a progressive social policy when it comes to prison reform and rehab programs.)

In stark contrast, as was reported in the March 30 New York Times, Giuliani hired Kerik as police commissioner in 2000, shortly after he was advised that Kerik was very closely associated with known mobsters (and as we now know he was getting 'free' work done by them for him while he was police commissioner.) It is true that Rudy may not have known about Ravenel (who resigned from Rudy's campaign after being busted for dealing coke), but Placa, whose association with Rudy goes back to high school, was hired by Rudy's law firm after he was suspended by the Catholic Church from continuing to practice as a priest following the 2002-2003 investigation by the Suffolk County Grand Jury into child molestation in the Diocese of Rockville Center, in which Placa figured prominently. Unfortunately the statute of limitations has run out on many of the crimes which Placa was tied to in the investigation (you can read more in the link I provided above if your stomach is strong enough) but that is hardly the same thing as Martin having plead guilty on the cocaine charge and paid his debt to society.

With the recency of the crimes, and in particular Rudy's being willing to hire a guy with known mob ties as police commissioner, it seems as if Rudy Giuliani just doesn't care about whether he hired criminals or not, and it raises some serious judgement issues.

And that's where it is also an issue. Giuliani has demonstrated poor judgement by continuing to hire criminals who have committed crimes in the very recent past (or are under suspicion at the time of continuing to commit them, as the March 30 Times article made clear in the case of Kerik) while Thompson is giving a second chance to a guy who has kept his nose clean for 24 years. I call that compassionate, and that's very, very rarely a word I'd ever put in a sentence with Fred Thompson.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

New GOP strategy is to attack Congress for inaction-- but how accurate is it?

Recently the Republicans have begun claiming that this Congress is a 'do-nothing' Congress, in an attempt to undermine the Congressmen and Congresswomen that we have worked very hard to elect.

That is however, absolutely false.

This Congress has passed and the President has signed at least three major pieces of legislation, all on issues that had been languishing and unattended to since the beginning of his administration:

1. Minimum wage increase. This represented the first increase in the minimum wage since 1998. Previous attempts in the GOP Congress had failed every single year.

2. College financial aid bill. With skyrocketing tuition costs and students leaving school tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they even have their first full-time job, this bill cuts interest rates in half and helps school boards with limited budgets recruit qualified teachers by giving college graduates a way to be forgiven of some or all of their debt if they step into the classroom for a few years, and it will cost the local school boards nothing.

3. Ethics reform bill. We saw the 'culture of corruption' last year in Washington, and as we've seen this year some of it still has to be rooted out. So Congress passed the most sweeping ethics reform bill since the Watergate era. Critics like to point out the loopholes that still remain. Sure, but those which remain also remained when the GOP Congress did absolutely nothing about ethics reform (other than DeLay's attempts to 'fix' the problem by packing the ethics oversight committee with his cronies).

There are also three other important pieces of legislation that haven't gotten passed mainly due to the President's veto and/or Republican-led filibusters and opposition in the Senate:

1. An Iraq bill which mandates withdrawal deadlines. The American people are quite bluntly put sick and tired of pouring hundreds of billions of dollars down this rat-hole when there are crying needs to pay for here. And on top of that, we are borrowing money to pay for it, but the GOP members of Congress won't even consider a supplemental tax to pay for Iraq, preferring instead to pass the debt on to future generations (with interest, of course.)

2. A stem-cell funding bill. Our policy restricting research in this area is just one of many examples of the administration's disdain for science and scientific research. Other examples include cuts to alternative fuel programs and backing the teaching of creationism in public schools. The result is that the pace of progress for American science, which had effectively lapped the rest of field by the end of the Cold War, has slowed down considerably so that we are now living on 'borrowed time' until the rest of the world catches up (and they are not so far back anymore.) The stem-cell bill was of course only a piece of this whole but it is the piece where the battleground was drawn with Congress. In fact, even last year's Republican Congress realized how important this was and passed a stem-cell funding bill, but the President, who seems to live in a world of his own where science plays second fiddle to dogma, vetoed it.

3. SCHIP. The GOP has been misleading about this from the get go. SCHIP is not a Federal program except for residents of the District of Columbia, but rather a bunch of 'block grants' to states (recall that is something that the Republican Congress did with many Federal programs in the 1990's). Congress must give some guidelines to make sure the money is being spent appropriately, but it sets intentionally broad parameters as to what those limits are in order to allow the states the flexibility to tailor their programs to the specific needs within their state. Keep in mind this is a Republican reform. But opponents of SCHIP renewal are now implying that it is the federal government that would be paying for it (i.e. 'national' healthcare) and quote the maximum allowable limits for any state (intentionally set high to allow states to cover high-cost of living cities like NY and SF if they exist within the state) and imply that would be the limit for everybody. Of course if you live in most places, $81 thousand for a family of four sounds like a ridiculously high limit and in most places it is, but it would not be in, for example, downtown San Francisco where even small economy apartments can run upwards of $2500 per month plus utilities. In a place like where I live that would be two or three times the typical mortgage, so there is little comparison. But count on Republicans to take a good idea like flexibility to the states which they should be taking credit for and twist it into a way to deny funding for kids health insurance (at current levels, Maine and several other states will soon begin running out of funds as health care costs have continued to accelerate rapidly).

4. Comprehensive mmigration reform. We can't get a handle on the problem without including a market based solution that addresses the reason why illegal border crossers keep coming-- our own job market (unemployment is at historic lows, so the idea that they are taking jobs from Americans is just not true.) This was one bill that the President would have signed, but it was blocked primarily by Republicans in the Senate (though with the misguided defections of a handful of Democrats.)

So on these bills, the Democratic Congress passed six out of seven, and three of those were signed. Not good enough, but certainly not the 'do-nothing' title that GOP strategists are claiming (that title would belong to the previous GOP Congress which failed even to pass nine out of eleven spending bills in 2006, virtually guaranteeing that this Congress would get off to a slow start as they had to finish last year's work.*)

What needs to be done now? Well, getting larger Democratic majorities in Congress would be a very good start, especially in the Senate where the balance of power hangs by a thread. A veto-proof majority would be nice but probably a very high hill to climb (but not absolutely impossible-- on SCHIP 44 Republicans voted to override, leaving about fifteen short.) And this should make it absolutely clear that we will need a Democratic President next year, someone who will sign these bills if Congress passes them.

*-- the more conspiratorially minded among us might even wonder, given the current assault on Congress in the right-wing media, whether this was actually part of a grand strategy that began last year to gum up the works and lay the foundation for the kinds of charges we are now seeing.
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