Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Some predictions for 2009 (take these with a grain of salt.)

Some predictions for the New Year:

January: In his last act in office, President Bush will issue a full and unconditional pardon to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. A few days later, Burris will withdraw his name from consideration and Blago will name Karl Rove, who it is learned made a successful bid on a home on the foreclosure block in Cicero. All three of them will deny there was a deal.

Barack Obama will deliver a riveting inaugural speech. After that Joe Biden will rewind the teleprompter and give it again.

Also in January, Chip Saltsman will be elected as chair of the RNC, and the first thing he does after accepting his election will be to lead the assembled delegates in a chorus of, "Barack the Magic Negro," followed by the pledge of allegiance to the Confederate flag and a salute to the late Jesse Helms.

February: The unemployment rolls will swell with former members of the Bush administration. As part of his economic stimulus plan, Obama will offer them jobs earning $12 an hour welding steel girders as part of bridge replacement projects.

In February, card-check will pass and Wal-Mart will announce in a statement from their corporate headquarters they are officially having a hissy fit and closing all their stores.

March: Following slow sports book on the Super Bowl and March madness, the gaming industry becomes the latest American industry to ask for a bailout. They will ask for $20 billion. When Congress balks industry executives will offer 'double or nothing' over a game of craps. Congressional leaders will take them up on it, and roll boxcars.

Also in March there will be a move on to legalize marijuana. Astute White House observers saw this coming in January when Cheech Marin was introduced as the new Surgeon General.

April: Congress passes an amnesty bill making all undocumented immigrants who have not been convicted of a felony American citizens. They will avoid a filibuster by letting John McCain write the bill. The first fallout from this will occur almost immediately as a resolution is passed in the California legislature by a coalition that we quickly rehabilitate the image of the United States by renaming the country, "Los Estados Unidos."

Also in April, the booze industry will ask for a bailout. After sending a whole lot of free product to Capitol Hill for an all-night session, they will be approved for "twenty-shicksh hundred and a gazillion dollars."

Also in April, the Detroit Lions will draft Oklahoma Quarterback Sam Bradford first in the NFL draft. Bradford will refuse to play for the Lions unless they pay him $150 million up front and give him a car company. Desperate, Detroit agrees. Bradford takes over control of General Motors.

May: The U.S. Supreme Court upholds gay marriage. Almost immediately, pastor Ted Haggard will become the first pastor to officiate at his own wedding as he ties the knot with former Idaho Senator Larry Craig.

Also in May, as the price of oil stays under $50 a barrel and research on alternative fuels pushes ahead, Big Oil will ask for a bailout. They will be approved.

June: In order to shock people, Britney Spears will have her eyeballs pierced. Nobody will notice.

Also in June, the pharmaceutical industry will ask for a bailout. They don't need one but what the hey?-- they have the best lobbyists and they know they can get anything they want.

July: In order to shock people, Britney Spears will cut her ear off. Nobody will notice.

Also in July, the coffee industry will ask for a bailout. They will get it after congressional staffers realize that without it there might be no more cappucino.

August: In order to shock people, Britney Spears will have her face removed. Nobody will notice.

Also in August, American forces will capture Osama bin Laden in a cave along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. He will be caught when he steps outside during a rainstorm to take a shower.

September: Britney Spears will have the first face transplant for purely cosmetic purposes. People will notice-- mainly because the donor will be Jack Nicholson.

Also in September, a slow summer 'blockbuster' season will result in the movie industry asking for a bailout. They will be approved, and shortly thereafter a movie will open in theaters showing a bunch of politicians in suits and holding automatic weapons, heroically standing their ground and fighting off thousands of terrorists.

October: Robert Mugabe, running out of excuses and people to blame for his countries' ongoing economic crisis, will unleash a torrent of violence against the nation's animal population. Gangs of Mugabe thugs will beat
zebras for not being 'black enough.'

Also in October, the Obama administration will negotiate a comprehensive and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Combined with other peace intiatives the fallout will be immediate, as the arms industry asks for a bailout. They will be approved.

November: Alaska Governor Sarah Palin will pardon another turkey. Specifically, she will say she bears no ill feelings towards John McCain.

Also in November, a financially troubled American industry will ask for a bailout and finally be denied. Shortly thereafter Phillip Morris, Liggett and RJR will file for bankruptcy.

December: Christ will make his second appearance on earth. It will turn out that he grew up in meager surroundings, the son of undocumented immigrants in east L.A., living in the tenements and attending public schools. A lot of people will be saying, "uh-oh."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Keep it up, and bash your way to another loss, Losers!

Some years ago, Rush Limbaugh came up with the idea of parodying 'political correctness' by intentionally using insulting, outdated or derogatory terms to poke fun at various groups. The idea was to criticize the idea that in order to avoid offending any particular group of people we had come up with race/gender/sexual orientation/disability/ethnicity-neutral terms and in some cases some institutions had even tried to ban some of the less 'politically correct' terms out of a fear that someone might be offended. And in a very narrow way, I agree with him, in that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees me the right to use any term I want to describe someone, even one that is deeply offensive to them.

However, if you say something that is designed to offend people, then you should not be surprised if they take offense at it. And being offended, you should not be surprised if they also tune out whatever else you are saying, especially in the area of partisan politics. And that brings us up to today, in which a parody of Barack Obama which originally was played on the Limbaugh show, entitled, "Barack the Magic Negro" is now being handed out as a campaign song by a candidate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, prompting the current chair, Mike Duncan to issue a statement expressing shock at the use of the song, which was part of a larger collection on CD distributed by Chip Saltsman, formerly the campaign manager of the Huckabee campaign and now a candidate for RNC chairman. The exact text of Duncan's statement reads,

"The 2008 election was a wake-up call for Republicans to reach out and bring more people into our party. I am shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate as it clearly does not move us in the right direction."

It is true that the song is just one on a collection of parodies from the Limbaugh show to appear on the CD, but then someone somewhere had to make a conscious decision to include it instead of some other parody.

And therein lies the rub. I doubt if many Republicans will listen to much that Duncan, who led the party through two consecutive historic defeats, says, but he is right. And it's not limited to just offending African-Americans (who it is safe to say have already been cemented in place for the foreseeable future as a Democratic voting bloc.) In fact, earlier this decade the GOP had at least played lip service to trying to recruit African-American candidates and working with black evangelical leaders (those most likely to be receptive to a Republican message) but this year that was gone, replaced by "Barack the Magic Negro." Well, to paraphrase Caesar, I came, I saw, and what I saw wasn't worth hanging around.

The GOP has become the anti-gay party, supporting anti-gay marriage initiatives, opposing legislation designed to stop discrimination in areas like hospital visitation, inheritance and adoption, agreeing to support hate-crimes legislation (sometimes) only if sexual orientation is not included as a hate-crime motivation (despite the fact that it ranks ahead of religion, gender or disability as an actual motivation for hate crimes) and using gay-bashing rhetoric in a number of campaigns around the country (and we haven't even gotten into the whole 'gays in the military' argument.) Of course gay people are (other than gay issues) no different in their concerns than straight people, worrying about their communities, their taxes, their kids' schools and the safety of the country. Some of them are downright conservative. But conservatives have done their best to drive gay Americans straight to the Democratic party, even to the extent that when openly gay former congressman Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) spoke at the 2004 GOP convention a number of delegates openly turned their back on him in protest.

Then while casting around for an issue to 'galvanize' their base for the 2006 election, someone in the GOP brain trust hit on illegal immigration (an issue which has been with us ever since Congress in 1923 ended the open immigration policy and slammed the Golden Door shut for good.) Most of the time illegal immigration has remained on a low simmer, and most people when they stop and think about it realize that it is the accumulated difference between the number of jobs the market requires and the number Congress assigns to the job market via artificial immigration quotas. The recent attempt to politicize the issue has backfired however, as it cost the GOP three house seats in Texas and Arizona in the 2006 election and has cost the party the support of millions of Hispanic voters-- the nation's fastest growing electorate. Remember that in 2004, just four years ago, the GOP drew the support of 44% of Hispanic voters. In the 2006 midterms Republican support dropped to about half that. John McCain did a little better with Hispanics but not good enough to prevent a major loss of support. The reason for the loss of Hispanics by the GOP is clear: immigrant bashing has become Hispanic bashing, as some Latino Americans have suffered from racial profiling and guilt-by-association. More to the point, some Republicans have convinced themselves that they are only bashing "illegal" immigrants and it shouldn't have any effect on legal residents including legal Hispanic residents. This bit of self-denial depends on the assumption that somehow there is one gene pool of 'illegal' immigrants and another which includes everyone else. That is of course absurd. Many undocumented workers, especially those who've been here for awhile, have spouses, partners, children and other relatives who are not only legal but in many cases U.S. citizens and voters. Of course family, both immediate and extended is very important in the Hispanic community. The attack on 'illegal' immigrants is an attack on families, and once you've attacked someone's family you've pretty much lost their vote.

The GOP also suffers from a gender gap. They haven't openly attacked women as a group (limiting the bashing to women who happen to be feminists,) but at the same time they've not been very successfual at addressing women's issues. And it really shows up in Congress. After the 2006 elections, there were just as many male Republican members of the house as there were male Democrats. The difference was a 50-20 edge among female house members. Beyond that, most women, even those who don't consider themselves 'feminists' recognize that if it weren't for feminists they wouldn't have the opportunities they have today. So the whole feminist-bashing attack hasn't endeared the conservative movement to women, even those who themselves would never use that word as an adjective when writing a resume.

Beyond this, younger voters, those who have grown up in a 'politically correct' environment, don't (to their credit) have any taste for the prejudices and attitudes held by some of their elders. So the whole concept of ethnic or stereotypical 'bashing' just rubs them the wrong way, even when they themselves are not on the receiving end of it. And what we've seen lately is that unlike previous generations of young voters, the current generation is involved politically and they do show up and vote.

So go ahead, Republicans. Keep the 'bashing' coming. Make my day.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Sad episode (not) in Gilbert underlines the disconnect people have between taxes and services

Gilbert, Arizona is a typical suburban/exurban community (in this case a suburb of Phoenix.) Upscale but not identifiably wealthy (like Paradise Valley, for example) and with a mixture of neighborhoods but few or none that would be considered 'bad' it is politically conservative-- the kind of place in Maricopa county that provides reliable Republican majorities that keep the county tilting red even though the city of Phoenix has begun voting Democratic. Gilbert has been singed by the foreclosure crisis like the rest of metro Phoenix but it has escaped with less of a hit than a lot of other communities. And like in most conservative communities, people there don't particularly like paying taxes and they will tell you that.

Gilbert isn't completely solidly contiguous however, containing several unincorporated 'county islands' surrounded by city. The people who live in those areas are generally a little more well off than the rest of the city, and they have steadfastly refused to be incorporated into the city, because then they would have to pay municipal taxes (though Gilbert's municipal taxes are not particularly high in comparison with other local cities.)

So a couple of years ago the issue of fire protection came up. The legislature passed a law in June stipulating that the residents of the 'county islands' pay a fee of $1.59 per $100 of secondary assessed valuation (a reduced tax, in other words) specifically for fire coverage. According to today's paper the city is being forced to 'eat' a significant loss at that, as the $1.59 only pays about half the cost of providing coverage in the expanded area.

Yesterday that was put to the test. And it failed badly. First of all, firefighters from three fire houses who responded to a residential fire discovered that residents of the 'island' had put 800 to 1000 pound concrete barricades up across the street they were coming down (apparently to keep out unwanted traffic from residents of the town of Gilbert; I guess being 'unincorporated' gives some idiots the right to think they can redraw the street map as they see fit without notifying emergency providers.) So the firefighters had to park their trucks, get out and spend several minutes dragging the barricades away while the fire was flaring out of control. Then they got there, and they discovered that since they were not within the city (where city law specifies that there must be a fire hydrant every five hundred feet) the nearest hydrant was nearly half a mile away. After patching together almost half a mile of fire hose, there was very little to do except put out the embers and make sure that the fire didn't spread to surrounding structures. The home was a total loss (though the good news is that no one was injured.)

A neighbor was interviewed in today's Arizona Republic, and she thought that the $1.59 'fire fee' should have covered the placement of hydrants. In fact it does not. It covers fire coverage-- and that's all. Essentially they paid the firefighters who responded to the call to remove their barricades, piece together a half mile fire hose and prevent the fire from spreading beyond that property. The cost of placing hydrants, a basic infrastructure item (and $15,000 per hydrant) is far more than the reduced tax they are paying will cover, even if the city got authorization to put them there, technically 'outside' of the city limits. But the people in the 'county island' seem to think they should be there-- in other words they refuse to join the city because they don't want to pay city taxes, but they want the city to use those city taxpayers' money to put an infrastructure improvement-- fire hydrants-- in their community that wasn't called for under the legislatively passed law (and recall the city of Gilbert has stated that the fee they are being forced to accept by the legislature only pays about half of the actual cost of coverage, and that's not including hydrants.)

What gets me here though is something that I've seen before. I remember living in a town where there was a municipal bond issue on the ballot to pay for basic services. A group of very vocal anti-tax people campaigned hard, and they succeeded. The measure lost. Fair enough. But then a couple of months later the town announced that it was cutting back on residential garbage collection, from every week to every other week, and all of a sudden the very same people who had been up in arms about the bond issue started complaining loudly about the cut in services. Apparently it didn't register on them that there was any kind of connection-- they must have been spoiled as kids, believing that the services they need will just materialize out of thin air without actually having to pay for it. Maybe they think that government is just awash in waste and fat, so that they can cut taxes and they will still find the money to maintain services by 'trimming fat.' I've talked to more than one person who's told me, after voting against a bond issue and expecting that things will be paid for, "They've got the money, you know they do." Well, in fact often they don't. Tax cuts = budget cuts = service cuts. A really simple equation.

Now, if you honestly believe in tax cuts, that's fine. But don't complain if services get cut. I believe the opposite-- I favor government providing quality service-- but I understand that the price I pay for it will be higher taxes.

Ironically, it is the more conservative regions of the country that most benefit from taxes, but apparently take that for granted. In fact, if you look at Federal spending on a state by state level (using 2005 figures, the most recent ones available) in terms of the amount of money received by the states per dollar of tax revenue collected within the state you will find for example that eight of the top ten states in return per tax dollar voted Republican in the 2008 election* while all ten of the bottom states for federal spending per tax dollar collected voted Democratic this year. In fact, it is even more stark than that. Texas, which gets back $0.94 in federal spending for every tax dollar collected in the state, is the only state that voted Republican this year that does not get a net benefit from federal largesse. Georgia, which barely comes out ahead (at $1.01) and Utah ($1.07) are the only other 'red' states that even come close to breaking even, while every other Republican state gets back at least 10% more in federal dollars than they put into the till. Or put another way, if conservatives got their dream and eliminated the IRS and handed everything back to the states that is now paid by the feds, most blue states could maintain the level of services they have now without having to collect as much as the feds are now collecting, while most red states would either have to drastically cut services, drastically raise taxes even above what their residents are paying in federal taxes now, or possibly do both of those things. Yes, the gospel of anti-big government, from those who most depend on continued big government spending.

But there are still people who think you can get something for nothing, that they can have their cake and eat it too. And until that delusion is addressed and people understand the connection between taxes and the services that are provided, I think we will continue to see more situations like the unfortunate one that happened yesterday not in Gilbert.

*-- yes, the District of Columbia in 2005 did benefit from $5.55 in federal spending in the district per tax dollar collected in the district, but that is neither surprising nor relevant since the District is the seat of the government and most of this was spent on the operation of the federal government. I don't have a figure on just what was spent on programs directly benefitting the district and its residents per tax dollar paid but I suspect it's only a fraction of this.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The perils of foot dragging

Governors in the position of having an opportunity to pick a Senate seat certainly do face a daunting decision. They can promote a political ally, or give a boost to someone who can in turn, either through their personal popularity or their fundraising prowess, help the Governor further his or her own political career.

But the pitfalls are many as well. Choose poorly the reverse can happen. A Governor can turn an ally into an enemy, or suffer in terms of his or her own popularity because some people may disagree with the Senate selection.

What is clear though, is that the longer a Governor takes, the more intensely the spotlight shines, and the bigger the risks become.

We've obviously seen the Blagojevich scandal in Illinois, but even that is now taking a backseat to the intense and growing pressure that New York Governor David Paterson is under to alternately select Caroline Kennedy or not to select Caroline Kennedy (and if not Caroline Kennedy then all kinds of contradictory pressures as to who other than her to select.)

In contrast, outgoing Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner is leaving office without much heat. Granted, she is apparently retiring anyway, but despite questions that have been raised over her selection of an obscure aide to Joe Biden who is apparently just going to serve two years and keep the seat warm for Beau Biden, Joe's son who will run as soon as he gets back from Iraq, Minner isn't the focus of much media heat.

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter is starting to face a similar spotlight. The biggest question is whether he will appoint Ken Salazar's older brother, Congressman John Salazar to the Senate seat, or whether it will be someone with a different surname. My advice to Governor Ritter is this: If he doesn't want to end up in the same position as Governor Paterson, where virtually anything he does is sure to tick off a majority of the public and make some powerful enemies, he should act quickly and decisively and put a name out there.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

California court nullifies most of the state's 'Good Samaritan' law

I'm not anti-lawyer or anti-lawsuit. I've only had to originate a lawsuit once in my life, when I was rear-ended while stopped for an emergency vehicle (I was clearly in the right on that one), and the other driver's insurance company kept giving me the runaround, re-assigning my case to somebody else and somebody else and somebody else (who were always out when I called) until I finally said the heck with it and called a lawyer. Last year I thought I had a fairly strong case that I could have sued a hospital over, but I was able to resolve it without doing that.

So I'm not anti-lawyer. There is a saying that it's easy to dislike lawyers until you need one. And I think that a lot of the so-called 'frivilous' lawsuits turn out to not be all that frivilous. A good example was the infamous McDonald's hot coffee case, in which a woman got second degree burns when she spilled some coffee on herself and won a lawsuit against McDonald's for three million dollars. At least that's the part that got reported in the media. Of course the media left out two crucial details: first that McDonald's knew that their coffee had burned other people in the past (including a two year old who spilled someone else's coffee on himself) and had been warned about its temperature by at least one state health department, and second that the judge in the case decided that three million dollars was an excessive amount for punitive damages and knocked it down to $400,000 (probably fair for a problem they'd known about for a long time and chose to ignore.)

Sometimes the courts are the last and only recourse for ordinary people when they are being pushed around by 'Mr. Big' (whether that means the government, a corporation or simply Mr. Big.)

However, I believe that the California Supreme Court erred yesterday when it allowed a lawsuit to go forward against a 'good samaritan.'

At issue was a woman who was paralyzed after being pulled from her car. The rescuer thought that the car might explode. It didn't. However, the rescuer used her best judgment at the time. If she had not pulled her friend out and the car had exploded, then would she have been liable for murder? Probably not, but clearly this is a judgment call and there are going to be times when people using their best judgment get things wrong.

Far more chilling though is that this opens up the system to lawsuits in which everyone who is not directly 'providing medical help' (the words the court used) can be sued for what help they do give. So for example, if you see a car broken down on the side of the road, find a lost child in the mall or see someone trapped in a burning vehicle (as was the case here) your best option may be to do nothing.

Some years ago I was coming back late at night from working in St. Johns, a town in the mountains in eastern Arizona, down a lonely two lane road (so lonely that you can drive for an hour on that road sometimes at night and never see a car coming the other way.) This was on a cold night in February, and the cold wind was blowing. I saw a truck broken down on the side of the road. A woman was in it, and she said that she felt safe enough in the truck but asked if I could pick up her husband (who had started walking home so he could get their other car). She said if I kept on going, I'd see him walking a mile or two down the road. I did, and I gave him a ride. Twelve miles, I gave him a ride. It was frankly cold enough out there that he might have frozen before he got home. Plus, his wife would sooner or later have frozen in the truck. There are no police out there because there is no traffic out there at that time of the night, and I didn't have a cell with me (even if I did, I doubt if it would have been in range out there.) Now, was I rendering 'medical assistance' (as the California court says I should be)? Absolutely not. So according to the court, I was a fool to let him in the car because if anything had happened (suppose he claimed that he wrenched his shoulder putting on the seatbelt?) then I could be sued.

This ruling is chilling to me, because it is exactly the kind of thing that deters people from rendering help where help is needed.

According to he California Supreme Court, the biblical 'Good Samaritan' was a fool. The rich man who walked on by the injured man and the priest were wise. And true, while he was binding up the wounds the 'Good Samaritan' was 'rendering medical assistance' but when he took the man to the inn and paid for his room, he was not directly doing so, and as such the man could have sued him.

So the rich man and the priest are now the smarter ones, and the Good Samaritan was a fool. Is this the kind of society we want?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Republicans shoot themselves in the shorts.

When things are going well, even when you appear to lose, they end up going the way you wanted. Hence the situation for Democrats on Capitol Hill and the auto industry bailout.

A couple of weeks ago, Democrats in Congress were adamant that the auto bailout should come from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the $700 billion bailout mainly targeted towards the financial industry that Congress passed earlier this year, or if not from that source then in the form of a loan from the Federal Reserve.

The Bush administration and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson balked at that and refused to spend money from the program, asking instead the Congress pass a separate bailout for the auto industry. And after making that clear, President Bush threatened to veto any bailout that took money from the TARP program (even future funds from it), and instead insisted that it should come from $25 billion already appropriated and earmarked to go to the Detroit automakers under a seperate bill to finance research and development of new cleaner and more fuel efficient vehicles.

After several days of negotiations with the White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid backed down and agreed to tap the research and development money. They agreed to a $14 billion package, which would keep the automakers solvent until January, when the next Congress and President can develop a longer term plan.

So then members of Congress started questioning union contracts. And the union made some concessions on payment to laid off workers and health care.

Once those were in, Harry Reid made another concession and agreed to not give Federal judges a pay raise in order to rope in wayward Democrat Clair McCaskill of Missouri.

So then Senate Republicans started demanding that the bill included a new wage structure in which union workers in Michigan would be paid on the same wage scale as non-union workers in Alabama. The union refused.

So then they launched a filibuster that garnered 43 votes, enough to block the measure. It died in the Senate.

So yesterday White House spokeswoman Dana Perrino said that the Bush administration will look at using TARP funds, or if not that then a loan from the Treasury Department. Heck, by the end of the day yesterday the White House announcement even had GM stock almost all the way back where it started the day.

Either way, whether TARP funds are used or it comes from the Treasury Department, this is where Democrats began on this whole thing. The $25 billion fund for cleaner vehicles will remain intact, there will be very few strings attached relating to union benefits, and the judges will get their pay raise.

Which is exactly what the Democratic leadership's position was in the first place.

It's great when your opponent is a party as leaderless, as directionless and as tied in knots as today's GOP. Even when they beat you, the result is that you actually get what you wanted to begin with.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Top three I''m glad to see go.

Now that the election (including runoffs, delayed elections, etc.) is over, I'm ready (once again) to publish my post on the top three departures (yeah, I know that the Minnesota recount is still technically going on but even if things really turn around and Franken wins, Coleman isn't really a Republican who I can't stand.) This year's list was a little harder to assemble than 2006 (when I picked Don Rumsfeld, Rick Santorum and J.D. Hayworth), but then most of the really 'low hanging fruit' was gone. But not all of it. I might also add that this list is only a 'feet first' list-- those who actually are leaving because they lost an election (or in the case of Rumsfeld in 2006, were forced to leave not on their own accord.) Hence, although I'd love to include my departing congressman Rick Renzi (who is departing to federal court where he will face trial on charges of extortion, money laundering and embezzlement) he at least chose to not seek re-election, which makes him ineligible for this list.

So here is the 2008 list.

3. (tie) Ted Stevens/William Jefferson

No, Blago isn't gone yet. And as I just noted Renzi (and also indicted California Republican John Doolittle) at least are leaving on their feet by retiring instead of having the office ripped away from them directly by the voters. Not so with Ted Stevens, the longest serving Republican in the Senate (and also the king of pork), who last year was convicted on bribery charges and who still almost pulled out a win in Alaska (must be something in the water up there.) "Almost" is the operative word though. Stevens lost to Anchorage mayor Mark Begich, and for that we can all be thankful. Then last week, the same thing happened to William Jefferson. Despite running in a heavily African-American and Democratic district in New Orleans (a place where politicians have long been synonymous with corruption,) voters got rid of Jefferson and elected a Republican, Anh "Joseph" Cao (who in this year of firsts, is the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress.) As you may recall, Jefferson is the indicted Congressman who tried to hide $90,000 in cash in his refrigerator. He managed to eke out a win in 2006 when he was involved in a runoff against a very controversial Democrat, but against a guy who was supposed to be a token opponent (Cao) and where the pundits hadn't even bothered to make a projection, he lost in an election that was delayed because of Hurricane Gustav. As I wrote last week, I am very happy about this outcome. Corruption is a problem that stretches across partisanship. Barack Obama had pointedly refused to endorse Jefferson this year (the only Democratic member of Congress who had sought Obama's endorsement that he turned down). So good riddance to Mr. Stevens and Mr. Jefferson. Maybe they can share something else in the future besides just being tied on this list. Like, maybe a cell, a bunk and a toilet.

2. Robin Hayes

"liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God."

-- Rep. Robin Hayes, (R-NC).

Yeah, just feel the love and warmth around this guy. This kind of speech may go over well with talk radio listeners and right wing loonies, but Hayes apparently forgot that he had to win more votes than that. Talk radio nuts and right-wingers who think liberals are evil and malicious don't make up the majority of the electorate, not even in Jesse Helms' home state. Hayes, through a spokeswoman at first denied saying this, until he was confronted with an audiotape. Hayes had, until he made this comment had been leading in a competitive race that was leaning his way, but ended up losing solidly to Democratic challenger Larry Kissell. It is worth noting that this occurred in North Carolina, where Senator Liddy Dole also stumbled late by poisoning the water and trying to tie rival Kay Hagan to an atheist group, even to the point of hiring someone to mimic Hagan's voice saying something she never said. It is also worth noting that though Barack Obama, thanks to intensive voter registration drives and an excellent ground game won the state, Kissell (in his district) and Hagan (statewide) did even better than Obama, indicating that there were some North Carolinians who voted for John McCain but couldn't handle the kind of rhetoric that they heard coming from Hayes and Dole.

1. Marilyn Musgrave

Without a doubt, Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO) was the biggest target for progressives this year. For starters, she has been the most conservative member of Congress according to the American Conservative Union, which gave her a 99 percent liftime rating. Musgrave worked hard to change comprehensive sex education to abstinence-only (as a school board member, then a state legislator and then as a congresswoman.) She also took a very hardline against any kind of recognition of rights for gays, arguing that homosexuality was a disease. She also tried to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage. Musgrave was also one of Congress' most vocal opponents of abortion, and sponsored several anti-abortion initiatives. Musgrave also proposed sponsored legislation designed to outlaw online gambling, especially internet poker.

Musgrave is more than just a social conservative however. She is conservative all the way down the line, getting support from the National Taxpayers Union, the Club for Growth and a number of anti-tax organizations. She has pushed hard for the elimination of all estate (inheritance) taxes. She is a staunch supporter of various initiatives to drive down wages, from Right to Work legislation to her working to convince President Bush to suspend the Davis-Bacon wage protection act in the gulf coast following Hurricane Katrina (which Bush had to do a U-turn on following a public outcry, including from gulf coast residents who questioned why a representative from Colorado was giving advice to the President on how to pay people who were working to rebuild after the hurricane.)

Musgrave was running in a district that is a classic swing district. It includes a number of Republican-leaning rural counties, Larimer county, home of Colorado State University and reliably liberal, and Weld county, a suburban Denver county where she had won in the past. Musgrave has been remarkably scandal-free, so as an incumbent, even in a Democratic year, in theory she should have been able to win. Her opponent was Betsy Markey.

Markey's line was very simple and direct: Musgrave was too conservative. And it worked, as Markey won. And won big, by a double digit margin. So the message is clear. Conservatives for years made a living off of attacking liberals for being liberals. But if you're too conservative, that alone may be enough to beat you in the future.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

This political clown is right out of the 1920's. And he needs to go to prison

I'm still having trouble absorbing the absolutely shocking news involving Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and the degree and breadth of his corruption 'spree' (to quote U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald.) Among the most shocking allegations are that he tried to sell his appointment to fill the Senate seat formerly occupied by Barack Obama (or appoint himself if no one would pay his price), and also that he worked to block the Chicago Tribune from selling Wrigley Field until they fired editorial writers who had been critical of him and replaced them with 'editorial support' (presumably meaning editorial writers who were willing to write nicer things about Blagojevich.) The transcripts of Blagojevich's own words are all over the internet by now, and they are pretty damning-- though those on the right side of the blogsphere who want to try and spin this into an attack on Obama are tripping over themselves since Blagojevich profanely complained that the Obama people 'wouldn't give him anything.' In fact, Valerie Jarrett, who was known to be Obama's choice for the job, abruptly removed her name from consideration, apparently right away once she found out that Blagojevich was going to make the appointment based on what he could get out of it instead of more wholesome considerations. It is even being reported that Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel may have tipped off Fitzgerald about the potential sale of the Senate seat so he could add it to the long list of investigations he had ongoing involving the Illinois Governor.

I wrote a couple of days ago regarding Louisiana Democratic congressman William Jefferson, who is facing a court date after being indicted on bribery and corruption charges that I was glad to see him go.

As in the case of Jefferson, I refuse to support Blagojevich just because he is a Democrat. My sense of partisan loyalty ends when it comes to felony corruption. If he does not resign immediately there is no question that he should be impeached by the Illinois legislature. Even before that though the Illinois legislature should immediately act on Senator Dick Durbin's recommendation and take the power to fill this seat away from the Governor and schedule a special election.

Remember how as Democrats we held the high moral ground during the Abramoff scandal, the Plame scandal and other scandals that rocked the previous Republican congress and administration. But we should not claim that our public servants are less susceptible to scandal. Instead we must maintain that high moral ground by drawing a sharp contrast to the 'hanging-on-until-the-last' attitude that characterized the Tom Delay/Scooter Libby Republicans. We have to speak out and take a strong stance against corruption.

And for that matter, that includes ongoing ethical questions. Right now Charlie Rangel, a Democrat who I've always admired, is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee. While I agree that he deserves to have the investigation run its course before any action is taken, I believe that it would be appropriate for him to step aside as the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee until he is either cleared by the Ethics Committee, or the charges are sustained in which case it will be up to the House what action to take.

Political corruption can show up in politicians of any political stripe. And it is never acceptable.

Monday, December 08, 2008

English-- our national languish

In 1947, as he was pondering how best to create a new nation that would last, thrive and prosper, one of the biggest problems that Mahatma Gandhi had to consider was that of language. In India, there were literally hundreds of different languages and dialects spoken, by dozens of distinct ethnic groups. Hindi speakers wanted Hindi for the national language, Urdu speakers wanted it to be Urdu and speakers of other languages, while conceding that their local tongues didn't lay claim to as many speakers as Hindi or Urdu, hoped that each region of India would be able to choose its own official language. Each option offered risks which bordered on unacceptable. If Ghandi chose Hindi or Urdu then he risked creating a two tier society (even while working to rid India of the ancient but oppressive caste system) in which native speakers would have an advantage in business, schools and other competitive fields, and as such might naturally come to assume that they were somehow naturally advantaged while speakers of other languages might become similarly resentful. If he allowed each region to select its own language then he risked creating deep regional divisions that might eventually lead to the rise of nationalism among ethnic minorities and the further division of the country (Gandhi's worst nightmare had already occurred, when the British had partitioned the country into a predominantly hindu India and a predominantly muslim Pakistan.)

Gandhi made his decision. And when he did it confounded everyone and angered many. Gandhi decided that the official language of India would be English, the hated tongue of the colonial masters. Gandhi however saw the logic in this decision. First, it did not give anyone an innate advantage, as the colonial language was equally detested everywhere. Second, by decreeing that governmental communications would be published in English and that school children would study it, he guaranteed the basic solvency of India because it meant that an Indian from anywhere in the country could sit and talk to an Indian from anywhere else in the country. Third, he believed that by educating students in English, India would develop faster and develop stronger business ties with the English speaking world (though I doubt if he foresaw the use of call centers in his country by American credit card companies.)

History has shown it to have been a wise decision however. And I do see the logic and agree with it that in the United States it is good to have everyone learn to speak English so that we can all communicate with each other.

However, we have gone too far in the direction of 'English only,' and to the point where it is becoming harmful not only to our citizenry but to our economic standing in the world. Our education model, which is essentially hased on nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about how to study linguistics, assumes that children should not learn a foreign language until they are old enough to conjugate a verb. Generally this is in high school. In fact, some years ago I tried to enroll my then nine-year old daughters to audit a Spanish class at the local community college (along with myself, we were all going to audit the class together.) The official response however was that they could not enroll because they had to be fourteen. However, this is a very wrong-headed approach to the problem. Children learn languages best at a young age. Recent research has even showed that during puberty the brains of children change, and it appears that one of the changes is that the brain is less adept and learning new language skills. So the crux of the argument is this-- it's OK if a student learns bad grammar in another language. Kids learn bad grammar in English, and we are able to work on fixing the double negatives, the slang and the poor writing skills in junior high and high school. But the basic knowlege of the English language is there by then. So there is precedent for the idea that learning a language early doesn't preclude the study of word structure and other more advanced language skills later.

That doesn't mean of course that people can't learn one or more second languages later on in life, but it is and will always be that-- a 'second' language. Your basic thought processes will always be in your first language, so that you will always be at least at a slight disadvantage when speaking to someone who grew up speaking the language that you studied all those long hours out of books and audiocassettes to try and perfect. You may remember how to say something, but they don't have to remember. It's a part of their thought process and comes out naturally.

The truth is, that in today's world knowing more than one language is important. In Europe it's always been that way, as European countries are about the size of U.S. states on average and it is necessary to know more than one language if one wants to travel anywhere. Even in America, let's just say that if you apply for a job in Los Angeles and know one language and the other applicant is bilingual then guess who gets the job? Businesses are there to make money, and they won't hire someone who can't communicate with some of their potential customers when someone else applies who can. But the real problem is when it comes to trade. In an increasingly globalized world, international trade is itself an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year. And the people who manage and drive that industry are those who can communicate with the people on both ends of the line. In general, they is not Americans. For example, nearly all of the hundreds of billions of dollars in trade between the U.S. and China is directed and managed by Chinese middlemen. That's because millions of Chinese kids are taught at a young age to speak English as well as Chinese, while very few Americans are fluent in Mandarin. So when it comes time to arrange a deal then the power broker that someone calls is most probably Chinese.

In contrast, I'd like to talk about my cousin's daughter (I'll call her Alice). My cousin is on my father's side, and our family is American all the way back to the Mayflower (I had an ancestor who outfitted the Mayflower and rented it to the pilgrims, and he himself came over ten years later, in 1630.) She is married to a man from central America. So Alice grew up speaking both English and Spanish. She can easily switch back and forth between the two languages and carry on a conversation in either one without having to stop and think about how to say something. She is also an excellent student.

Alice is an prime example of what we could have-- IF we changed 'English only' to 'English and' then we would with one shot both guarantee that we could all speak to each other AND give people the language skills that they will need, and that we collectively need for them to have in an increasingly interconnected and global world. We could also do away with some of the sillier controversies we have in schools today. If we required all kids to learn in elementary school two languages, one of which would be English and the other of which would be something else with the goal that by the end of sixth grade all kids would be fluent in at least two languages, then all kids would also be on an equal footing. Those whose native language was not English would have to learn English. The rest would know English but would have to learn something else (which would be a matter of choice-- and yes, I'd include sign language as a valid choice.)

But it's time we quit debating with ourselves about teaching and learning languages and instead realized that we must move forward on it. In a world of global business, our economic future depends on it. If we do not, and assume that the status quo is good enough then we will languish on the vine as others pass us up. And therein is a thought for the title of this essay.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

About the only time I'm congratulating a Republican for beating a Democrat

Very, very rarely would you ever see me express any satisfaction about a Republican beating a Democrat, especially a Democratic incumbent.

But I am happy about a huge upset win in a runoff in New Orleans tonight, in which Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao upset Democratic incument congressman William Jefferson.

Jefferson, of course, is facing a trial after being indicted on federal corruption charges after FBI agents found, among other evidence, $90,000 in cash in his refrigerator. Just as a lot of Republicans were not so secretly happy when the Alaska vote count finally resulted in the departure of convicted felon Ted Stevens from the Senate, a lot of Democrats (and I count myself as one of those) are happy to see Jefferson go. In fact, I don't think I've ever said anything nice about my own indicted congressman, Rick Renzi but I will say that I congratulate Renzi on at least being smart enough to not run for re-election this year. Ann Kirkpatrick (yes, I finally have a REPRESENTATIVE who actually does REPRESENT me!) beat someone else instead, sparing Renzi the final bit of humiliation that were the lot of Stevens and Jefferson this year.

I strongly suspect that in this overwelmingly Democratic and African-American district in New Orleans, Cao will be a one-term congressman and will be beaten in two years by a Democrat (just by one who thinks that refrigerators are for storing groceries.)

But in the meantime, Ted Stevens will be able to appeal his conviction, and Rick Renzi, William Jefferson and retiring California Republican John DooLittle will be able to focus on their upcoming corruption trials all without the distraction of carrying out congressional business.

And it's about time.

Friday, December 05, 2008

75th anniversary of the 21st amendment-- and a time to talk about marijuana

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the 21st amendment, or in other words it's been three quarters of a century since we repealed the only amendment to the United States Constitution which was clearly a mistake.

The eighteenth amendment, Prohibition, expressly forbad the sale, trafficking and production of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

During the 1920's, the illegal alcohol industry fueled the rise of Capone and other alcohol kingpins, which eventually coalesced around a violent gang imported from Sicily, a.k.a. the Mafia. Of course not every two bit bathtub gin operator had ties to gangs or organized crime to be sure. There were plenty of bootleggers outrunning the 'revenooers' or shooting them down in places like the hills and hollows of Appalachia or small border towns along the Canadian border (liquor was legal and Canada and that country was a major source of it). Are you a NASCAR fan? Great. But the origin of modern stock car racing came straight out of prohibition. Win, and you got a paycheck. Lose and you'd see the inside of a cell for a good long time. In fact some of the early stock car racing champions were former bootleggers.

And what fueled the whole industry was a simple fact. If there are both suppliers (i.e. bootleggers) and consumers (millions of Americans who still wanted a drink) then there was a market, and markets are like a river-- it may be possible to manage them or channel them, but you won't be able to end them simply by passing a law mandating that they take themselves out of existence.

After spending tens of millions of dollars tracking down, arresting and putting bootleggers in prison during the 1920's, the country discovered this themselves. There were always more bootleggers, more speakeasies, more stills out in the woods, and more hooch. And there were always more customers to buy the hooch.

Further, that deadly Sicilian virus that had taken root in America probably decades earlier, but which was nourished and fed by Prohibition had by then used the power it gained to branch out and infect many, many other fields-- gambling, trash collection, labor, shipping, politics and even organizing street crime to name a few. It took decades of dedicated and very dangerous police work to finally neuter the Mafia.

And then the Great Depression hit. Tax collections went way down, and the demand for Government services went way up. In many states a significant proportion of the prison population was there for crimes related to the production, transport or sale of alcohol and the states were being bled dry by the need to house all of them. So something had to give.

And it did. America finally decided that the experiment of Prohibition was not only a failure, but a very expensive failure which we could no longer afford. So, the Congress of the day quickly, at the behest of the Roosevelt administration, passed another amendment (the only way to revoke a Constitutional amendment is with another amendment) and it was soon ratified by the states.

OK. So now let me pitch something to you.

Other than the fact that it is a different drug, and that the Constitution does not discuss it at all, why couldn't you make all these points about alcohol, at least as clearly for marijuana?

I will concede that yes, there are drugs that are so dangerous to individuals as well as to society that it is worth the cost of keeping them illegal (methamphetamine springs immedately to mind.) But as one of my college professors used to like to say, "an overdose of marijuana is a 200 lb bale dropped from 10 feet over your head." That isn't to say that marijuana isn't dangerous. It is dangerous. So what? It's no more dangerous than alcohol, which kills many more people every year from everthing from cirrhosis of the liver to autombile accidents. And while you can't overdose on marijuana, dozens of people die every year from alcohol poisoning after drinking too much, too fast.

OK, so why else should it stay illegal? Because it's a gateway to other drugs? That seems to me to be a self-fulfilling argument. Precisely because it's illegal, pushers sell marijuana to people and then have their clientele ready for and waiting when they decide it's time to make the move up to meth.

Why else? Morality? I agree that any drug use is not 'moral.' Again, does that justify making something illegal in the absence of any other reason? There was for example a time when adulterers were stoned to death, and more recently when they could be sent to prison or otherwise punished by the law. But today, they are tried in civil, not criminal courts. And that's appropriate. Adultery is just as immoral as it always has been, but it's not a crime. We've come to recognize that. So morality in and of itself is not a reason to criminalize a behavior.

But there are at least two reasons to consider legalization of marijuana, and they are both reasons that ultimately contributed (in a somehwat different but still recognizably similar form) to reaching the conclusion that prohibition was a failure:

1. Violent criminal organizations do indeed fight for control of marijuana distribution. And yes, that includes in the United States as well as other countries. And certainly if marijuana is legalized, it wouldn't put those gangs out of business-- they'd still have meth, cocaine and all kinds of other drugs. But at the same time marijuana is still their basic drug 'currency.' If it were legalized there is no doubt that it would put a serious crimp in their business. And in the meantime, during hard economic times legitimate businesses, everyone from convenience stores to shipping companies, would get a boost to their business.

2. The expense of trying so many drug cases which clog up our court system and then housing all those prisoners (up to half of all defendants are there on drug related charges, and almost half of them on marijuana) is crippling. True that a lot of police departments partially finance themselves based on what they seize in drug cases, but that is hardly a reason in and of itself to keep something illegal.
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