Friday, February 26, 2010

February 26, 2010--The Democrats' Four Choices

Because in the past I contributed money to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee I keep getting emails soliciting more. Almost every day. When something egregious happens in the House or Senate I get one, in effect saying “Can you believe what Senator Jim DeMint said about President Obama? In order to assure that the Democrats’ agenda passes, we need your support to elect more Democrats.”

Yesterday, I got the following from Jon Vogel, Executive Director of the DCCC:

This is our moment to finally make health care affordable for the American people.

The stakes are just too high for too many families for us to let up. Now is the time to let go of our frustration and complete the work we began. That is why Democrats proudly joined President Obama today for a historic bipartisan meeting and that is why I am asking for you to stand with me at this moment.

During the past couple of months when I received these I’ve written back to them in the following manner:

Get a health care bill passed by both houses and then I'll send you money. You had 60 votes in the Senate, you now have 59. Enough to get it done. How many Dems do you need? 70? Not another dime from me until I see that you can legislate.

So you can see I’m frustrated with my Democrats.

Here’s how I see things. Putting social justice and looming budgetary disaster aside, politically, health care reform is a very big deal. The president and the Congress are, to use a Texas hold ‘em term, all in with it. They either win with it or they get wiped out. Forget what the polls say about people’s skepticism about the Democrats’ plan. Politically, doing nothing is worse than doing something that is admittedly deeply flawed.

There are thus four possible scenarios. The Senate already passed its own version of health care reform. We tend to have forgotten this what with all the theatrics and the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts. On the other hand they did pass it. The one that’s 2,400 pages long and contains the special deals for Nebraska (to buy Ben Nelson’s vote), the special deal for Louisiana (to buy Mary Landrieu’s vote), and the other egregious baggage that cluttered it up and turned it into a political piñata. But it differs markedly from the House bill.

Typically this would mean that the legislation would go to a House-Senate committee to work out the differences and when that is done would go back to both houses for final votes. A bill only becomes a law if both houses pass identical versions.

This will never happen. Putting aside the challenges they would face reconciling the conflicting approaches, with Democrats now holding “only” 59 seats in the Senate, with 60 votes normally required to pass a bill that the Republicans would for certain filibuster, any new version, actually any bill at all proposed by Democrats, would die for lack of 60 votes.

Scenario number two is also unlikely, but a bit less so. Since the Senate voted for a bill, Democrats in the House could hold their collective noses and pass it. It would become law with the president’s signature and then through the years both houses could work to change and amend it. This has been done with all major legislation. Notably with Medicare and Medicaid. They were passed in 1965 and ever since have been significantly modified. Perhaps most dramatically was the addition of Medicare Part D passed in 2003 to provide some help with the cost of prescription drugs. It’s not paid for, will add more than a trillion dollars to our national deficit, but still it was approved and is of some help to seniors.

The third scenario hinges on my phrase “normally required.” 60 votes are more than normally required to overcome a determined filibuster, they are always required. That is, unless a bill in passed via an arcane Senate rule called Reconciliation. It is anything but “reconciliation”—it has come to represent a way to, frankly, ram something through the Senate with 51 votes. Actually, 50 would be enough with the vice president, in his one constitutionally-defined role, voting to break the tie.

This could happen. Actually, after yesterday’s frustrating meeting at Blair House it is more likely. Forget for the moment the Republican whining that it would be a disaster to attempt to pass something of this consequence through the use of a tricky Senate rule. As Obama and others pointed out it has been done quite a few times by both parties. Most of Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy were passed this way. Many who voted for them were in that room with Obama yesterday. And though it is true that Obama when he was a senator and other current Democratic senators do not like it as a basic way of doing business (our Founders structured the Senate in order to limit the power of the majority), again holding some noses, dodging the criticism that they are hypocrites (which they are—at least situational hypocrites), they could get a bill passed in the Senate in this way. And it could then be passable by the House since it could take into consideration some of the House members’ concerns and could get rid of some of the pay-offs and earmarks.

This is the Democrats’ best political bet because if they do not follow scenario number three, scenario four is looming--the Near-Death Scenario.

Doing nothing, having wasted more than a year on health care, would result in so many of them (appropriately) being voted out of office in November that the Senate for sure and likely the House would tip back into Republican control. And if there is one thing to get the attention of folks in Congress, and this is the only thing that is fully bipartisan, it is the desire to be reelected and to remain in the majority. Because to be in the majority means committee chairmanships and the power to spend money. Both parties’ two favorite things.

Knowing this, I suspect that was Obama’s hoped for outcome from yesterday—to seek to unify the Democrats more than any serious attempt, or hope, to find a bipartisan consensus. Even before the meeting started the Republicans issues press releases declaring it a failure. Talk about chutzpah!

If he can manage to bring more unity to the Democrats by taking the political heat for them (which may be why yesterday he absorbed most of the criticism and led the battle), holding up before them the specter of what will happen in November if they continue to dither and spat with each other and thus wind up doing nothing, maybe, just maybe something will get done that is politically advantageous and will actually over time bring about some urgent change to our substantially broken and bloated health care system.

Then when Jon Vogel writes asking for money, I’ll reach for my checkbook.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

February 25, 2010--Pulling the Plug

We had a difficult conversation the other day with my nearly 102-year-old mother. She is in as perfect shape as one could hope for someone her age. Or for that matter, for someone 10 to 15 years younger. But she and we know that the actuarial realities are closing in. So to talk with her about what to do when-and-if was not only emotionally difficult but realistic.

She is very thorough and thus for many years has had all her affairs in order, has a careful will, a DNR form to give to any hospital in which she might wind up, and lots of stories to tell about friends in the retirement community where she lives who are in terrible medical trouble--including incipient dementia, deep depression, and days of physical pain.

There is one friend with whom she is very close. They served together on the residents board of their building and worked closely together on a number of complicated projects, including gathering from all residents money for holiday gifts for the staff. This took a lot of time, political smarts (not everyone was equally generous), and lots of bookkeeping skills to manage the accounts.

Prior to retiring, my mother's friend was the principal of a public elementary school in south Florida. She was among the first in Dade County to hire African-American teachers and was so beloved that a group of her former colleagues would come each month to where she lives to take her out to lunch.

Now, she is lost in Alzheimer's. The only person she appears able to recognize and acknowledge is my mother. Beyond that she is confined to her wheelchair and apartment.

When my mother thinks about her and others she has known, she talks openly about what she would like us to do if she ever winds up in similar circumstances. And so the conversation the other afternoon was about that.

"I have had a good and full life," she said without a hint of sadness as she felt the encroachment of time, "But I also know that even tomorrow something could happen to render me helpless. Of course I would like to go to sleep one night and not wake up. That I suppose is what everyone would wish for. But I know enough to know that this may not happen." We didn't say anything. "So we need to talk about what I would like you to do if that occurs."

"Of course, mom," I managed to say. "Anything you want."

"I do not want to just be kept alive. For what purpose would that be?"

"Maybe for you and for us too to become ready for what will follow," Rona said. "For many people who do not want to be on life support it is still important, if granted the time, to prepare themselves."

"That I understand. But I am already prepared. You don't get to my age and not make preparations. Both practical and emotional ones."

"We will, I mean we would of course carry out your wishes," I said, "though it would be difficult to make that decision if . . ."

"But it is not your decision," my mother cut in, "but mine. And I have already made it. But let's talk about other, more pleasant things," she quickly added, "like what is happened in the Olympics. Did you the other night see . . ."

I had watched the Olympics but though I too sought distraction remained lost in thought. Complicated thoughts.

These matters are never easy to think about much less discuss. And they are more difficult when they move from the seemingly theoretical when one is younger to the more pressingly realistic as one ages. So it was helpful, but still complicating, to read a recent column in the New York Times about end-of-life care and decision making. (Linked below.)

Complicating since when actually faced with what to do, often all the planning and previous decision-making is put to the ultimate test, literally the ultimate test, and searing emotions get in the way of well-crafted plans. The legal paperwork may all be in place, but then the stark confrontation with mortality and death can sweep all of that away.

The Times quotes one doctor whose grandmother, deeply demented, was admitted to her hospital with pneumonia. Her grandfather, also a physician, who though throughout his life called pneumonia "an old man's best friend" in that it can lead to a relatively painless death, when he saw his own aged wife taken with this "friendly," potentially life-ending illness, just what he had hoped would one day happen, wanted for his wife "nothing short of heroics."

They were administered, his beloved DeeDee was saved, and then returned home, still demented, still cared for by aides 24-hours a day.

DeeDee's granddaughter said, "My intellectual feeling is that [heroic methods] should not be permitted. We have to set limits. How is the health care system still standing? At some point something has to give."

"But," she then said, "if we don't think about the emotional nature of our decision-making, then no amount of data will change things."

On the other hand, more dispassionately, Dr. Norman Frost, a physician and ethicist at the University of Wisconsin, uttered a version of the unthinkable--"If you can't say no to things that won't work, God knows what the limit is." Again, he feels, extreme measures to prolong life are not only costly and thus threaten to bankrupt our health care system, but they are also, if administered for emotional reasons, "an extraordinarily expensive form of psychotherapy."

But then there is Deedee. And my mother.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

February 24, 2010--Poquito Problemo

The afternoon we arrived at our new flat in Spain, jet lagged and feeling nervous that perhaps we had done a foolish and extravagant thing by buying the casa, we immediately had reasons to feel at least some actual regret—the telephone line in the flat was dead. Really dead.

From all the evidence something was clearly wrong in the exterior wall where the line ran, a wall that had been repaired before the sale. “Spanish workers,” I muttered under my breath. “Everything here is mañana, mañana. It will take forever for Telephonica to get here to fix it. And in the meantime, how will we be able to communicate with the outside world?”

From her look, I could tell that Rona wasn’t feeling all that differently. “What will we do if something happens to one of us? Or if one of our elderly mothers has a problem? I’m not sure our cell phone will work.” I tried it and couldn’t seem to get an overseas line.

We wondered out loud if buying a place in Spain had been a good idea. If something like this could make us so upset, perhaps we shouldn’t have envisioned ourselves as constitutionally capable of spending months at a time this far from the comforts of home. Maybe we had overestimated our ability to live part of the year in a foreign culture.

While thinking that we should drive back into town (four miles away) to express our outrage to the real estate agent for selling us a place with infrastructure issues, and to put the place back on the market, Manolo, the groundskeeper, looked in on us. It was easy for him to see how agitated we were.

Using the little English he knew and using the less than little Spanish we at the time knew, plus much gesturing, we were able to make him understand our problem, frustration, and anxiety.

Pointing unhappily at the telephone, Rona finally said, “Problemo. Big problemo.”

Manolo smiled back at us as shook his head. “No, no,” he said, “Poquito problemo.”

Not understanding, our Spanish was that limited, I asked, “Poquito?

He extended his hand toward us, and, moving his thumb and index finger very close together, he smiled again, broader this time, and said, “Poquito.”

Through the years, during flood times, when the septic system backed up, when we found mold on one wall in the living room, when the power failed and it couldn’t be restored for days, what Manolo said, what he taught us, became our mantra—Poquito problemo.

We realized that first day, after we calmed down, that this was the very reason we had come to love Spain during many prior visits and why we had decided to spend part of every year there—what for us back in our “real” life were problems fraught with tension and agitation in Spain evaporated with the setting sun and the languid moon drifting over the sea and mountains.

More, these big city frustrations—How are we doing? Are our resumes looking good? Do we, will we have enough money? Do we have the right friends?—slipped more to the back of our consciousness over cortados in the morning and a glass (or more) of herbas seco in the evening. All sipped slowly while gathering, more importantly, insights about the Spanish was of living a life.

I was reminded of this the other day from an article in the New York Times about Cádiz, Europe’s oldest city situated in Andalusia on the windy Atlantic side of Gibraltar. Cádiz is now best known for two things—it raucous two-week carnival (just ending) and its chronic unemployment. While in the rest of Spain the unemployment rate is a staggering 19 percent, in Cádiz it is much worse—29 percent. And it has been in double digits for decades. (Story linked below.)

You would think, then, that other than the carnival weeks Cádiz is a despairing place. But not at all.

As poquito problemo became our mantra, in Cádiz they embrace another Spanish saying: “Life is four days long. On one day you are born. On another you die. And during the two in between you have to have fun.”


Of course Spain’s extensive social services help, but so does culture. It is for sure essential to poor Spaniards to have high quality, universal health care and extensive unemployment benefits, but at least as important is having a strong and supportive family. Most live in modest homes that have been in their families for centuries; and if even only one person has a job, that is enough. As Cádiz town official Juan Bouza put it, “If one person in the family works, he is a safety net for the whole family.”

And, yes, then there are the cortados and herbas.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

February 23, 2010--Voodoo

Haiti is slipping off our collective radar screen. Less than two months after one of the great natural cataclysms in recorded history, one right on our doorstep, we are left with stories in the media about how inappropriate it was when rerecording “We Are the World,” that a rapper was allowed to add his interpretation to the performance.

And then there is a small storm of controversy in the press about why Haiti, unlike neighboring islands, has for centuries been unable to overcome its unimaginable poverty.

Among other reasons, from his lofty perch as an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, the Times’ house conservative, David Brooks, in his January 15th column, attempting to understand why poverty is so intractable in Haiti, wrote that among other reason’s it’s because so many Haitians follow the teachings of Voodoo. He wrote:

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

Talk about a sophisticated way of blaming the victim.

This is a cleaned up version of what Pat Robertson saw to be the reason why Haiti was selected by God to be so devastated—because, he said, they “made a pact with the Devil.” Though nominally Christian (actually Catholic—another issue for Robertson), it is clear that he is referring to the fact that most Haitians, in addition to Catholicism, also incorporate Voodoo into their religious practices.

Robertson would unlikely not know this, but this kind of amalgam between traditional and imported religions is quite common. In fact, it is usually what happens when a people are voluntarily or forcefully converted to a new belief system.

Christianity itself is just such a blend of Judaism, Saint Paul’s version of the meaning of Jesus’ life, and the rituals of the local mystery cults that existed in regions where Paul and others went to spread the gospel. So what we see in Haiti is not substantially different than what we would have seen during the final century of the Roman Empire as Christianity took root by replacing and assimilating local religions.

Belief in a destiny outside oneself in and of itself is not fatalistic, or what Brooks labels “progress-resistant.” Nor is the accompanying pejorative implication valid that being fatalistic exposes a primitive orientation that dooms one to the vicissitudes of prevailing circumstances. In such cultural instances, planning, as he claims, is futile; and, if one requires evidence of this, the results of such futility are written in Haiti’s history of human misery.

But there are any number of other religions that have significant pre-deterministic beliefs. The founding versions of Protestant thought in this country, the early Calvinism of our Puritan ancestors, saw one’s eternal fate as preordained. But this did not lead to either superstition or futility. In fact, to determine if one was among God’s Elect, people were encouraged to work hard and seek material success in this world as evidence of one’s eternal salvation in the next. Max Weber was so impressed by this cultural imperative that he called this the Protestant Ethic. The ethic that motivated people to strive and the source of Western capitalism.

The Harrison book Brooks quotes is a study of how cultures have the capacity to change and takes its title and intellectual direction from a comment by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that "the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

Some truth here but also, as with Brooks, a hint of effete imperialism.

Further, in a subsequent article, from Saturday’s New York Times, perhaps as an amendment to or perhaps a muted apology for the incipient racism of Brooks’ op-ed piece, in an On Religion column, Samuel Freedman writes about Voodoo itself. Well, sort of writes about it. (See full article linked below.)

As a form of validation, he speaks about how Voodoo is “a New World version of ancestral African faiths.” Good enough. But then Freedman fails utterly to say another word about those faiths. He tells us nothing more about their central meanings or their amalgamation with Haitian Catholicism.

The rest of the column is about how “Voodoo” has entered the vernacular as a kind of cartoonish pop culture point of racist reference. Have you looked recently at any of those Zombie movies of the 1930s and 40s? Not a pretty picture of how ancestral African faiths made their way to the New World.

More recently not many blanched when George H. W. Bush, during his fierce primary battle with Ronald Reagan, in 1980 referred to Reagan’s supply-side economic assertions as “Voodoo economics.” Bush was right about the failures of supply-side thinking to trickle down as promised but not very culturally sensitive when he labeled it as such. What a ruckus he would have caused if he had referred to it as Hindu or Buddhist or, worse, Jewish economics.

The principal belief in Haitian Vodou is that deities called Lwa (or Loa) are subordinates to a god called Bondyè, This supreme being does not intercede in human affairs.

Sound familiar? In traditional Judaism and Christianity we pray to a supreme deity who, like the Lwa or Bondyè, does not intercede in our affairs.

And David Brooks should take a lesson from this and like them also stay out of Haitian affairs. They have enough problems as it is.

Monday, February 22, 2010

February 22, 2010--The Very, Very Rich

What's wrong with this scenario and why isn't this on the front page?

I know, I know, Tiger Woods finally spoke, and we need to read all about that. Then there's that Militia guy who crashed his plane into the IRS building in Austin. This got us halfway through the weekend and all along, of course, there's been much to delight in coming from the Olympics in Vancouver.

OK, I get it, if in our current entertainment-saturated era you can't put it above the fold and sell papers, than how about at least placing it below?

The "it" in this case is a report, buried in the business section of the New York Times (linked below), about how much America's top-earners earned in 2007, the latest year from which data are available.

Take a guess. How much on average did our 400 wealthiest families report to the IRS? $50 million? $100 million? Not even close. All right then, a quarter of a billion? Wrong again and this time by $95 million.

They each earned, again on average, a cool $345 million. In the aggregate the top-earning 400 took in a total of $138 billion, substantially up from the year before when they earned "only" $105 billion. This was 31 percent more than the year before and well above the rate of inflation, as if inflation means anything to these folks. Do they care what a gallon of gas costs or an average house or a face-lift?

And after taxes they had a lot left over to do whatever they wished. I won’t lure you again into guessing what percentage of their income they paid in taxes. But do at least take one guess. The top marginal tax rate for income in 2007 was 35 percent so a guess of, say, 30 percent probably wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Right? Since they do have the money to hire good accountants.

Well, no. They paid the federal government about half that amount—just 16.6 percent. They pocketed the rest.

This low rate suggests they stashed almost all of their money in passive investments such as stocks and bonds so they could take full advantage of the fact that the capital gains tax rate that year on stock growth and dividends was only 15 percent. It had been lowered to that rate in 2003 as part of the tax cuts enacted by Congress during George W. Bush’s presidency.

The justification for this cut, as well as for other forms of tax reductions for America’s richest citizens, and we are hearing it right now from Republicans, is that by allowing the “most productive” to keep more of “their” money they will use that retained money to invest in ways to create jobs. This in turn will not just put more people to work but also increase national income so that we will be able to reduce our debt. This plus spending cuts such as eliminating the Department of Education and the IRS is pretty much the current economic recovery program advocated by the GOP.

It is easy to test this trickle-down assertion.

There have been three major tax cuts since 1982, the second year of the Reagan administration. In that year the massive Economic Recovery Tax Act (Kemp-Roth) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Reagan, and then the following year there were further tax decreases embedded in the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act. Note the clever, and deceptive, official names of these bills—they neither led to an economic recovery nor was there anything much about equity or responsibility in either of them.

In fact, by the time Ronald Reagan left office the national debt had ballooned by 189 percent! The largest percentage increase in the national debt in all of American history.

When I point this out to Republican friends, they tell me this is because Congress did not reign in spending. All right, let’s assume that Reagan could have gotten his way and eliminated the Department of Education. This would have meant that he would have piled up a national deficit increase of about 185 percent. And that is only if he eliminated student loans as well as Ed Department bureaucrats.

During his own presidential campaign in 1980, when he was challenging Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, it was George H. W. Bush who called this Voodoo Economics. This was unfair to the tradition of Voodoo but, since he meant it as a slur, was ironically accurate. Later that year he became Reagan’s vice president, but Bush’s characterization of Reagan domestic policy was not a bad description of the myths that lay behind and attempted to rationalize Reaganomics.

How then did the even larger tax cuts enacted during the administration of George W. Bush affect the nation’s economic well-being? Again, as with Reagan there were two tax cuts and again those who disproportionately benefited were the wealthiest Americans. The cuts passed by Congress (take note by Reconciliation, in order to avoid a Democratic filibuster!) reduced the top marginal tax rate from 39.6 percent, where it was set by the Clinton administration, to only 35 percent.

With this 35 percent rate, how then did those who earned $345 million each in 2007 manage to pay only 16.6 percent in taxes? That is because the second of the Bush tax cuts in 2003 cut the capital gains rate from 20 to 15 percent.

And how did the nation as a whole fare during the eight years of the second Bush administration? Just looking around at unemployment rates and home foreclosures provides that answer.

Also, calculating the amount of debt amassed during the Bush presidency gives a further lie to trickle-down. He comes in second only to Reagan when looking at the percentage increase in the national debt. As noted, Regan increased it by 189 percent while Bush saw the debt increase by 89 percent.

To put these whopping increases into recent historical perspective, recall that during the three presidencies that immediately preceded and followed Reagan, the debt increased but at much, much slower rates—during the otherwise failed presidency of Jimmy Carter the debt rose 42 percent; during the first Bush presidency it increased 55 percent; and during the Clinton years, when he was allegedly preoccupied with other matters, it increased by just 36 percent over eight years.

One thing, by the way, characterized all three of these presidencies, one Republican and two Democrat: taxes were increased slightly and during the Clinton years. at least, we had an economic boom.

So perhaps Obama is right. Maybe the top 400 earners and the others making a quarter of a million dollars or more a year should, to quote Obama, “pay a little more.” It’s hard from history to make the case that this wouldn’t be a good thing for the country.

But when I point this history out to Republican friends I get back only silence. Especially when raising any questions about their great hero, Ronald Reagan. He did many good things, but for the economy he was a disaster.

Friday, February 19, 2010

February 19, 2010--The Pope's Top 10

Until not too long ago the Vatican published its list of banned books. Books Catholics were "forbidden" to read. The Index Libororum Prohibitorum. It contained thousands of titles. Just from the A's alone listed were every one of Jane Austen's novels; all of Issac Azimov's books; all novels by father and son Kingsley and Martin Amis; everything from one of my favorites, Paul Auster; and even Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. God only knows, sorry, the Pope only knows why Catholics couldn't read about little Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

Of course the Index carried into the modern era only incentivized many trangressive-minded believers to try to get their hands on these works. And I suspect that is one reason the Vatican decided to stop publishing it. They did not want inadvertently to encourage the reading of these salacious books. Too bad. Anything that gets people reading Pride and Prejudice is a good thing.

This then left me wondering why the Vatican the other day (see linked New York Times article) published its list of favorite pop record albums. The Holy See's official newspaper, L'Osservatore, came up with its top 10. At the top of their charts is the Beatles' Revolver. Next was David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name. Also touted was Michael Jackson's Thriller, Paul Simon's Graceland, U2's (What's the Story) Morning Glory, and Carlos Sanata's Supernatural. This latter title alone in the past would have led to its being banned.

On the other hand, evoking the good-old-days of the Index, everything by Bob Dylan was excluded because, as L'Osservatore observed, though liking his "great poetic vein," he influenced a generation of other performers, "dilettante singer-songwriters," who have "harshly tested the ears and patience of listeners, thinking that their tortured meanderings might interest somebody." Talk about the sins of the father . . .

So I looked up the tracks on the Supernatural album and saw that one song is called "The Calling." I thought might this have caught the Vatican's eye. Here are lyrics from the chorus. Judge for yourself:

So I'll say why don't you and I get together and take on the world
and be together forever
Heads we will and tails we'll try again
So I say why don't you and I hold each other and fly to the moon
and straight on to heaven
Cause without you they're never going to let me in

Thursday, February 18, 2010

February 18, 2010--"Guys, You're Rewriting History"

In fact, in Texas, in a number of ways they are rewriting history. Some in a widely reported way, others more under the radar.

Most prominently in the public eye, Governor Rick Perry who is engaged in a tough primary race, last August, in order to shore up his ultra-conservative credentials, at a meeting with Tea Party folks expressed so much faux frustration with anything having to do with Washington that he even trotted out the S-word--secession. He said, "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose [sic] at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."

He also alluded to his version of the history of the deal that was struck when Texas applied for statehood, claiming that it included a promise that Texas had the right to withdraw from the United States. He said that this was part of the agreement in 1845 when Texas joined the union. However, according to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Texas negotiated with the federal government only the power to propose it be divided into four additional states if it desired, but not the right to secede.

This point was made apparent in 1861 when The Lone Star State did in fact withdraw from the union so it could join the Confederacy in the hope that this would enable them to preserve their "right" to own slaves. But the North's victory in the Civil War resolved that. Clearly, Rick needs to restudy his Texas history.

The good news--only one in three Texans believe they have the right to secede; and fewer than one in five would like to do so.

Less in the public eye, but much more significant, is another attempt to rewrite history. And this one is succeeding.

It is occurring under the direction of the majority of the members of the Texas State Board of Education. They are passionately engaged in redrawing the state's social studies guidelines; and what they decide to include will not only affect all Texas public school students but most others around the country since what Texas requires will find its way into other states' textbooks. This is because Texas purchases or distributes 48 million school books a year and no publisher will produce a version for Texas and then other variants for the rest of the states. Texas has such buying power that what it wants and gets will determine what everyone else gets even though they may not want it. It is simply a matter of money--textbook publishers' economy of scale is such that Texas' one-size will fit all.

What then is going on with the Board of Education in Austin? if you believe in a non-partisan approach to history or want public schools to stay out of the business of promoting one form of religious belief over another, nothing good.

According to an article in the Sunday New York Times (linked below), here's what's happening in regard to the new curricular guidelines and political correctness Texas style. One influential member moved that . . .

Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer, be included because she “and her followers promoted eugenics,” that language be inserted about Ronald Reagan’s “leadership in restoring national confidence” following Jimmy Carter’s presidency and that students be instructed to “describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”

The injection of partisan politics into education went so far that at one point another Republican board member burst out in seemingly embarrassed exasperation, “Guys, you’re rewriting history now!”

Nevertheless, these and most of the other similar motions were approved by a show of hands and will for the next ten years constitute a part of the new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) social studies guidelines.

And then in regard to how to deal with religion in American history, things get even worse. As more Christian conservatives have gotten themselves elected to the Texas board, they have been pushing an agenda that will require all American history texts in Texas to show how our founders established the United States as a "Christian nation." Again from the Times:

It isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders.

So it comes as no surprise that Pat Robertson's protege Ralph Reed once famously said, "I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school-board members."

Who else was it back in the 1930s who said that those who control the minds of the young control the future?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

February 17, 2010--Evan, Sarah, and Hillary?

Evan Bayh's joining Sarah Palin in retirement from political office in order, like her (wink), to serve the American people better from out of office, made me think about what he might really be up to.

Actually, also like her, maybe he is quitting the fray in order to serve his own personal political ambitions while freed from being tied down to a day job. It is widely thought in Indiana that he will run for governor in 2012 and after winning (the Bayh name there is revered) gin up a campaign for the 2016 presidential race. He is still brooding that Barack Obama didn't pick him to be his vice presidential running mate and, who knows, rather than pursuing the governorship in two years maybe he'll try to get even with Obama by attempting to wrest the nomination from him.

It has happened before--a sitting president having to take on challengers in order to secure a second-term nomination. In 1968, for example, anti-Vietnam-War candidate Eugene McCarthy challenged President Lyndon Johnson and did well enough in the early primaries to force LBJ to declare that he wouldn't seek reelection. And then more recently, in 1976, Ronald Reagan mounted an almost-successful effort to deny the Republican nomination to then sitting president Gerald Ford.

So keep an eye on Evan.

And while you're at it, keep an eye on Hillary. Yes, her.

Though after Obama was elected, assuming he would win reelection in 2012, she indicated that she would not be a candidate eight years later in 2016. By that time, she said, she would be 68 and that was too old to mount another grueling campaign. And then, when he named her to be his Secretary of State, she announced that this would be her last political job.

But then a month or two ago, she let it be known that if Barack Obama is reelected she would not serve during his second term. Everyone assumed that she was already feeling the weight of her impossible assignment and was looking forward to a less demanding life. Who could blame her.

Then two days ago, while in Saudi Arabia, she was quoted as saying that she didn't fear a Sarah Palin presidency and wouldn't move to Canada if she were elected.

This caused me to wonder if maybe Hillary is still thinking about the presidency. She could have held off announcing after just one year as Secretary of State that she was in effect a lame duck and she could easily have dodged the Sarah Palin question, saying it isn't proper to talk about American politics while out of the country.

If I were Sigmund Freud I would think that maybe she has the presidency very much in mind. At least somewhat subconsciously.

She might very well be thinking, when considering Sarah Palin's prospects, "I'll be damned if I let that empty dress become the first female president. It's bad enough that Madeleine Albright beat me to becoming the first women to serve as Secretary of State."

And if she confided this to me I would ask, "You mean that though you'd be 68 in 2016 you would be again willing to run around Iowa and New Hampshire?"

And if she were being completely honest with me, she might say, "Well, how does running for the nomination at 64 sound to you?"

"You mean," I would incredulously say, "You are thinking about running against Barack Obama in 2012?" She would likely just smile back at me. "And if you did, what would your campaign look like? I mean, what would be your case to unseat him?"

"We're talking very theoretically, right?" I would nod. "Well, I might say that it grieves me to say this but I was the one in White House discussions who had to push him to take a tough line against Iran and pressed for the surge in Afghanistan. He was committed to dealing with these issues diplomatically. He is inclined that way, and that doesn't work in the dangerous world in which we find ourselves. You need someone tougher in the White House. And that's me. I'm the one still better prepared for those 3:00 AM phone calls."

Clearly she would be warming to the subject. "And on the domestic front?"

"Well, with a touch of disappointment and sadness, I would say that here too he has not been as effective as I and the country hoped. What significant legislation got passed by Congress? We have no health care reform, unemployment is still unacceptably high, nothing got accomplished about the energy or the environment or education. I too believe in a bipartisan approach but clearly this hasn't worked. Look how polarized we have become. And he, as nice as he is, didn't have the necessary toughness to twist arms and threaten members of his own party to get them to vote for things he and Americans cared about. I am someone who can do that.

"And remember, toward the end of the primary campaign the last time around, I was the one who did well in Ohio and Pennsylvania where the economic situation was hitting people the hardest, and that's where even an unfriendly press said I found my voice. Remember that? And do you remember who won those final primaries? I did. And I can do it again. That is, if I decide to run."

From the way she sounded to me, if she had confessed her inner thoughts, it appears that she is at least half way there. She could be the Gene McCarthy of 2012. And might be the best one to take on the Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

February 16, 2010--Tampa to Orlando In 4 Years

On the day after his State of the Union address Barack Obama came down to Florida to deliver a $1.25 billion job stimulus check to fund the construction of a high speed rail line that would connect Tampa and Orlando. Spare no expense, it seemed, to get folks to Disney World as fast as possible.

Governor Charlie Crist was nowhere to be seen--God forbid he should be caught in the same photo with Obama when he faces a tough primary battle with an ultra-conservative Tea Bag candidate.

Everyone else was excited. At long last the U.S. was getting into the bullet train business decades after Japan and much of Western Europe. And we were finally doing so after China began making a huge investment in trains of this kind. Little noticed was the fact that the $1.25 billion was only a small portion of the $8.0 billion needed to lay the tracks and purchase the trains themselves (probably from an overseas manufacturer) and not pointed out was the fact the eventual line was to be only 84 miles in length, and that "eventual" in this case was to be at least four years in the coming.

84 miles divided by 4 years equals about 21 miles of track a year. At this rate, if we were to rebuild just half of our current 21,000 mile Amtrak system it would take 500 years to get the job done and would cost at least $4-5 trillion. So it's good to see us getting started on this half-a-millennium-long project.

China, on the other hand, is rampaging along. They already have one line completed. The 664 mile long high-speed rail line between Guangzhou and Wuhan. According to the New York Times (article linked below), it takes about three hours at over 200 MPH to get from one city to the other. About how long it takes the Acela to lumber and rattle the 210 miles from Boston to New York City.

664 miles already completed compared to just the 84 planned in Florida is to an American humbling enough. But then when we learn that China has 41 other high-speed lines either operating or scheduled for completion in just two years (as compared to four years in Florida), it is more than humbling--it feels both shortsighted on our part and humiliating to our national pride.

To get the job done the Chinese have made it a national priority and deployed enough government funds to enable them to work on all of these projects at the same time. It is also a terrific public works program that is creating many hundreds of thousands of jobs. For example, they mobilized 110,000 laborers to build the 820 mile rail link from Beijjing to Shanghai, which is set to open next year. It will take passengers only five hours to make that trip. Of course in China to get something like this underway they do not have to cajole and pay off a 60 senator super majority to vote for the enabling legislation.

They are also building the trains themselves in China. That is a bit of a sordid story. The prototype for their version of a bullet train was manufactured in Europe and the Chinese bought the trains they needed from them. But rather than putting them onto the tracks and into use they had engineers and technicians swarm all over them to dissect the locomotives into their component parts. They did this so that they could make their own bootleg copies and not have to pay any license fees. They nearly got away with that act of industrial piracy but since it was exposed and created an international outcry they backed off and agreed to pay a modest fee.

Again, this is an advantage that the Chinese have over the rest of us who more or less choose to play by the rules. Bottom line though--they will have thousands of miles of high speed rail lines and we'll have ours between Tampa and Orlando. Theirs will be for commerce; ours for entertainment. They'll use theirs to get to work; we'll use ours to get to see Mickey.

This makes me think that we should impose an Empire State Building Rule. During the early years of the Depression a plan was announced to build a 102-story building--to be the tallest in the world. Plans for it were ready in two weeks (the architects cleverly based them upon drawings for another structure, the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem) and 3,400 men were quickly put to work. It took them just 16 months to get the job done--from ground breaking to ribbon cutting.

So how about imposing this rule in Florida--let's get the 84-mile line built in, OK, 18 months. Then it would take us only 200 years to rebuild half of Amtrak.

Monday, February 15, 2010

February 15, 2010--Inuk: The 4,000 Year-Old Man

Even older than Mel Brooks' 2,000 Year-Old Man, though for sure not as funny, the 4,000 year-old man from western Greenland is still impressive. Some of his hair and a few bones were discovered halfway down that coast, on Qeqertasussuk Island, frozen in the permafrost; and now from these remains they have decoded his genome and a remarkable picture emerges of early man.

And I am not talking about his hair from which they extracted the DNA that was analyzed and which was so thick that at first scientists thought it was from a bear, or the color of his eyes (brown), or his shovel-shaped teeth, or the fact that if he had lived longer he likely would have gone bald (the science is that specific); but rather the remarkable story about where his own ancestors originated. They came from extreme northeastern Siberia, many thousands of miles away, and it makes one wonder why the came to Greenland in the first place. Forget for the moment why they wanted to go to that dark and cold and forbidding place, but think about the extraordinary story that migration represents and what it says about him, them, and most importantly about us. About human daring and the arduous struggle to survive.

The story of this journey about 5,500 years ago is not a relatively "simple" one with Inuk, the 4,000 year-old man's progenitors crossing the land bridge that linked Siberia with Alaska, the dry causeway that enabled the ancestors of North and South America's indigenous people, it is thought, to come west and then turn south between 25,000 and 40,000 years ago when global cooling during that ancient era caused shelves of pack ice to form at both poles and sea levels to drop exposing more land than at present.

Rather, scientists are saying, based on the global climactic conditions at the time, the genome's findings, and the age of the man and his people, the only way to get from Siberia to Greenland at that time was by the long route--over ice flows and tundra in the most northern of latitudes.

To quote from the New York Times of late last week:

The Greenlander belonged to a Paleo-Eskimo culture called the Saqqaq by archaeologists. Using his genome as a basis, a team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen determined that the Saqqaq man’s closest living relatives were the Chukchis, people who live at the easternmost tip of Siberia. His ancestors split apart from Chukchis some 5,500 years ago, according to genetic calculations, implying that the Saqqaq people’s ancestors must have traveled across the northern edges of North America until they reached Greenland. (Full story linked below.)

Let us attempt imagine that more than 3,000 mile trip across the upper edges of North America, all above the Arctic Circle, to Qeqertasussuk halfway down the western coast of today's Greenland where the remains of Inuk were found. Perhaps his people left the village of Uelen on the tip of Siberia's Chukotka Peninsular and headed east just off the coast of present day Alaska, by today's Barrow, and then across or above what is now known as the Northwest and Nunavut Territories of Canada. After about 1,000 miles of this trekking through the region of the Beaufort Sea they sighted the first of the Queen Elizabeth Islands in Resolute or Qausuittuq Bay and then, keeping Devon Island on their north, now in Baffin Bay, passing through the Barrow Strait they reached the western coast of Greenland. Then after another 300 miles they finally arrived at Qeqertasussuk where they settled and lived for an unknown time. Perhaps for another thousand years until Inuk died. Thus far, other than his hair and a scattering of small bones, nothing else remains to mark their presence or how they managed to live. It is till a forbidding, rocky place.

And of course nothing is known about what motivated those who became the Saqqaq to leave Uelen, the "black thawed patch" in the indigenous language. Was it, as with most other hunters and gatherers, that they were following their protein supply? Was it because whatever migrating animals they fished for or hunted may have left that thawed patch never to return? And thus, hoping to survive, did Inuk's ancestors then reluctantly head east into the unknown seeking to catch up with them? That is most likely. On the other hand, was there some fierce dispute among the Chukchis people? It would not be either the first or last time that a battle for tribal or political supremacy or some religious or ideological dispute sent the defeated or the dissenters off into new territory.

Or perhaps there were some who were especially adventurous and eager to see what was over the horizon. And since that horizon endlessly receded before them, they kept moving, ever toward the rising sun, until they reached some place that felt like home or they simply ran out of resources or motivation, deciding they would leave the exploring and adventuring for the next generation and ultimately the rest of us. And there it resides. As an opportunity.

I wonder what Mel Brooks' 2,000 Year-Old Man would have to say about this. After all, in his day he witnessed many remarkable things. I suspect he might be concerned about what they could find to eat. Ice is not good as a steady diet. For example, where along the way would they have been able to stop for Chinese food? It is not easy to travel so far from home and not be assured that on Sunday afternoon you can get a shrimp with lobster sauce combination plate. He would probably sigh, shrug his shoulders, and say, "Who ever said that life would be easy. Or that you could find egg rolls in Greenland."

Friday, February 12, 2010

February 12, 2010--The Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

One would think it unlikely that the fifth edition of the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders would ignite much controversy. Sarah Plain’s Going Rogue is not in any danger of being bumped off the best sellers list.

If you haven’t had a chance yet to work your way through the fourth edition—I know, I know, it came out 10 years ago and you’ve been busy—allow me to remind you that the Manual is the one authoritative place where every conceivable mental disorder gets listed and described. From the various forms of schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to eating disorders to sleep disorders to, a new one for 2010, hypersexuality.

To be listed (or not listed as the case might be—more about this in a moment) is not just of academic interest. If, for example, obsessive-compulsive behavior makes it into print (it does), there are huge implications for the pharmaceutical industry—it becomes worth their while to find new drugs to treat it knowing that if O-CB is classified as an official mental disorder doctors will be able to prescribe them and insurance companies will likely reimburse patients who seek treatment and buy their drugs.

If homosexuality, as another example, were classified as a mental disorder (it isn’t but in the past, through the third edition in 1973 it was--and there are still people today who want it restored to the list), you can only imagine the justifiable clamor. Rather than being viewed as just a “normal” manifestation of human behavior, if it was still labeled “abnormal,” by this classification homosexuals would continue to be officially and formally stigmatized and in some instances, as in the past, forced into treatment.

So the Manual’s lists and classifications in effect have a virtual monopoly on defining what is normal and what isn’t. In addition to many legal implications (it is frequently referred to when lawyers mount criminal defenses based on claims of “limited mental capacity”), there are others, as the New York Times reported the other day when noting the publication of the new edition (linked below).

One important change that was fought for by advocates for more accurate diagnoses for children with behavior issues is the addition of a new listing, “temper dysregulation disorder with dysphoria.” It replaces the previous diagnosis of childhood bipolar disorder, which led to the administration of certain meds that not only didn’t work but also frequently had serious side effects. The new description sees this behavior as “behavioral” and as such calls for it to be treated behaviorally and not pharmacologically. This is a big deal as it affects hundreds of thousands of children.

There also has been on-going criticism that the list of mental disorders has a Western cultural bias. In other words, though it appears to be based on an objective approach that attempts to look closely at what constitutes human nature, it fails to do so. If the Manual purports to define what is normal and what isn’t, it is not supposed to reflect a European or American culturally-determined version of human nature but something much more universal—Human Nature writ larger. In spite of this aspiration, critics of the book’s “science” (with “science” in quotation marks since the science behind the Manual has also frequently been called into question), some assert that even the way in which it deals with “culture” gives away its bias: disorders or concepts from non-Western or non-mainstream cultures are described as "culture-bound", whereas standard (Western) psychiatric diagnoses are given no cultural qualification whatsoever.

And so although this is very important work--effective treatments for legitimate disorders need to be sought (and for the most part the list is benign and helpful)--it is still very complicated and in places not without error or lacks precision.

As an example of this latter point, a final comment about the new syndrome of hypersexuality. In the Manual it is described as present when “a great deal of time in consumed by sexual fantasies and urges; and in planning for and engaging in sexual behavior.” Unless they provide more detail as to what constitutes “a great deal of time,” which they do not, than from my non-clinical, non-professional experience nearly all the men I know require whatever the treatment is that is suggested.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

February 11, 2010--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Congressional Jujitsu

Did you do like I said and check with the funeral home about my pre-paid arrangements?” It was my nearly 102-year-old mother calling.

“Is everything all right?” Any mention by her about funerals, especially her own, was cause for concern.

“I’m fine, thank you. But I’m not getting any younger and want to make sure everything’s in order for when the time comes.” She is very organized and fastidious and for decades making plans for her own passing has been at the top of her agenda.

“Yes, mom, you asked me to and I did.”

“So what did you find out? Will they still honor the contract even though I paid them for it 20 years ago? There’s been inflation and the original funeral parlor is no longer in business and I believe they transferred their contracts to someone else. Star of Israel I think.”

“You’re right about that and, yes, the new place has your contract, knows what you want, and will do everything for the original price. No need to do anything or give them more money. So you’re all set.” As these last words were spoken I realized, in this somber context, I didn’t mean them literally, and so I quickly added, “I mean everything has been taken care of. There is nothing for you to worry about.”

“I am not worried, at least not about this, but I am also, as you put it, ‘all set’ even if it happens tonight.”

Wanting to change the subject, though I was not eager to hear about other worries, I have a few of my own at the moment that are preoccupying me, still I asked, “If not that, then what are you worried about?”

“To tell you the truth, I’m not worried. I’m concerned.”

“OK then, what is concerning you?”

“You know me well enough by now, the girls here and I are concerned about what is going on in Washington.”

“What is it this time?”

“Don’t be exasperated with me. What’s wrong with being concerned? There’s a lot to be concerned about. I assume you’ve been reading your favorite New York Times and watching television, though why you spend so much time listening to that Keith person you keep telling me about is beyond me.”

“Keith Olbermann. On MSNBC. I like him.”

“Sometimes I watch him. I used to like him but lately he’s beginning to resemble that person on Fox he’s always attacking. Reilly. He’s just as strident and biased, though of course in a different direction.”

Wanting to change this subject as well, with some trepidation, I asked, “So tell me what you’re so concerned about.”

“Not so concerned. Just concerned. Which is enough.”

“Please, I have an appointment,” which wasn’t true, I frankly wanted to preserve my peaceful afternoon, “just tell me.”

“I hear how you’re annoyed with me,” after all these years I am incapable of getting away with anything when it comes to her, “so I’ll be brief.” I thought to say I was fine with whatever she wanted to discuss but restrained myself. “Have you been following the Republican shenanigans?”

“There are so many. Which ones are you referring to?”

“The Congress. With the Congress.”

“Again, mom, there are so many to choose from so why not just tell me which one is concerning you.”

“Over breakfast the other morning some of the ladies I eat with were saying they think they’re winning. And I agree. We’re all very upset.”

“With what? And who’s winning? The Republicans? Really? All the polls show that the Republicans in Congress are even more unfavorably viewed than the Democrats. I forget the exact numbers, but they’re perceived, aren’t they, as being very negative?”

“Our point exactly. They are doing worse than the Democrats but still they’re winning.”

“Now you have me completely confused.”

“Let me unconfuse you. Do you have a minute? Or are you running off somewhere?” I didn’t respond. “Good. Here’s what I’m thinking. We both agree, don’t we, that they really don’t want to work with the Democrats. In a bipartisan way I mean. We agree with this, no?” Again I said nothing. “Good. But this is not working for them. At least in regard to their poll numbers. The public feels the Republicans are not cooperating and the public wants to see the Congress and the president get some things done for the good of the country. Agreed?” Still silence from me. “Good. So why then if not cooperating is harming them in the poll numbers, why then do they still not want to work with Obama and the Democrats? Isn’t this, how do you say it, like shooting themselves in the leg?”



“Foot, mom. That’s where they’re shooting themselves.”

“Leg. Foot. Arm. Who cares? This is what they’re doing to themselves. We agree, yes?” Once more I didn’t say anything. “Good. That is not making any sense. At least that’s what you would think.” She paused and then added, “Maybe not you, but that’s what I think. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Feeling a little insulted, I muttered, “You’ve lost me.”

“That I would never want to do. But this is not what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is why the Republicans continue to do things that are bringing them down in the eyes of the public. Are they simply oblivious in that cocoon up there in Washington or are they maybe crazy like a fox.”

I confessed, “I’m still lost.”

“Look, they don’t have any power except to make a mess of things. So this they have chosen to do. Make a mess. I saw what you had to say about why that senator from wherever he’s from is holding up all of Obama’s appointments.”

“That’s Richard Shelby from Alabama. He wants money for some pet projects of his own and until he gets it he’s holding about 70 Obama appointments hostage.”

“I know that’s what they’re saying on TV. And one part of me believes that. He’s just another hypocrite complaining about the deficit and spending but he wants to spend billions in his own home state. Yes he should be exposed for doing that. That’s important. But I think what he’s doing is part of a larger plan. You know me, I’m from Russia originally and all Russians see everything to be a conspiracy. Well, you know sometimes there really is a conspiracy. Like in this case. And the girls agree. To Bertha it’s still Russia here.”

“Go on,” this was beginning to be interesting.

“As I said the only power they have is to stop Obama and the Democrats from completing their agenda. And at the moment the polls seem to be saying that it’s the Republican’s fault. Primarily their fault. But the polls are also saying that since the Democrats have big majorities it’s also their fault that nothing is being accomplished. They are saying a plague on both of your houses!

“But here’s why the Republican’s plan is so smart. They are risking falling lower and lower in the polls to the point that it looks like they will lose all the seats they now have. But you know almost all of them are from safe districts. I heard Wolf call them that on CNN, and so they’ll all get reelected. At least almost all of them. And though they are today seen as being obstructionists, and this is my main point, ultimately won’t the Democrat’s with their big majorities, and President Obama, with his big majority, be blamed?”

“I am understanding you. And maybe even coming to agree with you. It’s like jujitsu where you . . .”

“Like what? What do the Jews have to do with this?”

“Not the Jews, mom, but jujitsu, the Japanese form of combat, of fighting, where you turn your opponents strength against him. You need to put new batteries in your hearing aids. In Japan they call it ‘the art of softness.’ So what they are doing are like jujitsu. As you’re saying, the Republicans are absorbing the Democrats power—their majorities—and turning it back upon them. Brilliant. I hate it but it’s brilliant.”

“Thank you for the compliment,” I chose not to correct her to say that I was referring to the Republicans, not her, “but this is not exactly what I mean. Though I like the Japanese story. This is more like sacrificing yourself in order to gain an advantage. You know how your father liked to play checkers. Well, didn’t he tell us how at times you make a sacrifice to gain strength?”

“I think, mom, he told us about that as a chess strategy.”

“Chess. Checkers. Who cares which? With all due respects to your father, we’re talking here about more important things than games.”

“Well, mom, to make your point, while we were talking, I just saw on the Internet the results of a new poll. By Rasmussen.”

“I knew you weren’t listening to me. You and that computer of yours. You always have your head in it.”

“That’s not true,” though it basically is, “I was listening. Very intently. But please listen now to me. To this. Their new poll, something they call a ‘Generic Congressional Ballot,’ shows that if the public were to vote today for a new Congress, Republicans would beat the Democrats by eight points. Forty-four percent would vote for Republican candidates for Congress but only 36 percent would vote for Democrats. Call it jujitsu; call it a Queen Sacrifice, but it appears to be working. For the Republicans that is. Just as you said.”

“And this is supposed to make me happy? That the ladies and I are right about such a terrible thing?” She sounded depressed at the news and her own validation. But in the next instant she returned to her optimistic self. At least as optimistic as someone born in Russia is capable of being.

“So here’s what we have to do. What they have to do. Obama and the Democrats. They have to do some jujitsuing of their own. Have that meeting at the end of the month—the president and leaders from both parties. The Democrats have to show that they want to work together with the Republicans. That they want to reach compromises for the sake of the American people. If the Republicans continue to block everything, it will reveal what they are really up to. So their basic strategy and strength will be turned against them. Their ability to say no. But then if they cooperate and they allow legislation to be approved, who will get the credit? Just as I said, and your Rasmussen shows, the Democrats are now getting the blame for nothing happening because they have the majority even though the Republicans are the ones mainly responsible for this. But, by the same token, if things do get accomplished the Democrats will get the credit as they are now getting the blame. For the same reason.”

I could sense her smiling at her own insight. “Another thing I know: the current situation can be turned into a two-edged sword. And you know how quickly things like poll numbers can turn around. One thing is for sure, about this we also agree, am I correct?” I returned to not responding. “Good. What we agree about is that nobody in the country any more likes anyone in Washington. The public is fickle and everything is subject to change and can swing first in one direction and then quickly in another. It’s a long time between now and November, and if the economy gets a little better, well, as I approach 103 there will be many things to feel good about. And I don't just mean things that will benefit Democrats, but rather all of us.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Well, at least what I’m saying is possible. But as I said they have to be smart. And since I want to be here to see how things work out, please tell that funeral parlor of yours that I’m not ready to avail myself of their services.”

“About that,” I said, “we surely agree.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

February 10, 2010--Black Enough?

In addition to having to figure out what to do about the economy, the financial institutions, unemployment, the deficit, health care, the environment, two wars, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Haitian relief, North Korea’s nukes, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, childhood obesity, and how to work with Republicans in a bipartisan way, Barack Obama also has to figure out how black to be. And while he’s at that, how white.

According to a report in yesterday’s New York Times (linked below), his struggles with is own racial political identity as well as how he relates and responds to the African-American community, like all the other issues confronting him, is heavily fraught.

To some in the black community he is not doing enough in a targeted and dedicated way to call for and do things to address the special needs of African Americans who are unemployed disproportionately, not covered by health insurance at the same rate as whites, and not faring as well in school as Caucasians.

To others, including Al Sharpton, he is playing it just right. The reverend is working with the Obama administration and Newt Gingrich on approaches to closing the academic achievement gap. He says that it is smart not to promote this as part of “a black agenda.” That would stigmatize and doom it. Obama, he says, for the most part is doing well by seeing so-called “black issues” as American issues. In education, for example, far too many whites are also being shortchanged by the public schools they attend and thus to see this as a problem just for African Americans is neither accurate nor politically smart. Too many white folks are unemployed and in danger of losing their homes to justify a special initiative for inner-city homeowners.

And yet, and yet Obama is our first African-American president and, like it or not, this puts him under unique pressures and assures the kind of scrutiny no president has ever had to experience.

Whites, too, are also keeping a close eye on him. The radicals on the right, the out-and-out Tea Party racists, are convinced that not only is he a socialist who was not born in America but also a black militant disguised in a chic suit; but many others who are fair-minded and not deluded wonder if at some point he will tilt his agenda to unduly favor affirmative action and special carve-out programs for the benefit of only minorities.

Some of the resistance to expanding health care coverage to the uninsured, at the expense, it is claimed, of “the rest of us,” is viewed in part as an approach that would benefit primarily minorities. This in spite of Obama’s (accurate) claim that it is essential to do this not only for reasons of social justice but also because the system we have, if unmodified, will ultimately bankrupt all of us. White and black. But still suspicions linger.

Obama hasn’t said this explicitly, but he is hoping to be, or become, the first post-racial president. In a country still haunted by its racist past, wouldn’t this be an extraordinary irony, and a wonderful thing, if he, an African American, literally half-African, could help bring this about?

So he continues his delicate balancing act. On one foot attempting to do enough to maintain good relations with the black community that was so essential to his election; while balancing on the other foot, governing as an American (more irony) to acknowledge that this is not only the right way for all presidents to act but to demonstrate to the white ethnic and independent voters who also were and hopefully will continue to support him that he in fact is the person they elected.


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

February 9, 2010--The Ninth Circle

I agree with Paul Krugman about half the time, and his op-ed column in yesterday's New York Times was one with which I am in total harmony. It is linked below.

It has a nervous-making title, "America Is Not Yet Lost," with that "yet" hanging over it ominously.

He notes that as with every great empire, decline is inevitable. American is/will not be an exception. The only question to him, and to me, is the nature of that decline. And its timing. Will it be something that only our Gibbon will be able to capture--a grand tale of overreaching, classically tragic cultural fracture, and economic disintegration that stretches majestically over, say, a full century? Something Shakespearean, ending with a bang? Not a Eliotic whimper proceeded by a pathetic failure to even struggle in a glorious lost effort to maintain our standing.

There is something noble about such a decline and fall. It generates poetry, important national myths that are sustaining even in reduced circumstances, and practical lessons that are essential to future generations.

Instead we have the specter of mindless, self-serving division. Full of sound and fury ultimately signifying less than nothing.

A couple of metaphoric cases in point. Again, from Krugman. Though to even refer to them as metaphors, as figures of speech puffs them beyond their reality and mundane meaning.

Both are examples of intentional, self-induced Congressional paralysis. Not for courageous ends but rather to seek partisan, no, trivial personal political gain. Again, in literary terms, these deeds are more Danteesque than merely pathetic; and both are clear examples of officials who are right now engaged in betraying the public trust. And we know where Dante ultimately located these kinds of miscreants.

U.S. Senate rules not only require that filibusters can only be ended with 60 of 100 member votes, a super majority, but also, as a measure of self-importance, as an act of “senatorial courtesy,” they allow a single senator to stall the confirmation of any presidential appointee who requires confirmation by the Senate. These “holds” are in effect like filibusters since unless and until they are withdrawn in order to move a blocked confirmation to a vote again 60 votes are required.

In our current gridlocked Senate, Republicans have been filibustering virtually all pieces of legislation and blocking, via the courtesy rule, almost all of Barack Obama’s nominees.

Last week, after Senator Christopher Bond, Republican from Missouri, was able to hold up the confirmation process of Martha Johnson to serve as head of the General Services Administration, an agency if run well that can save taxpayers billions of dollars. He did so for nine months; but when the votes were finally marshaled, she was confirmed by a vote of 94 to 2, suggesting that hers was not a controversial appointment.

What is the reason you ask why the good Senator blocked the vote? Because Bond was attempting to hold the administration and his colleagues up for an expensive earmark—he was seeking our money for a building project in Kansas City.

Perhaps inspired by Bond’s example, Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, a senior member of that august body, a favorite of talk show hosts because of his steadfast resistance to the Obama budget, stimulus plan, and pork barrel legislation (earmarks), thus inspired, Shelby has placed holds on all other high-level Obama appointments. 70 of them. Including some essential to making our country secure from terrorism, another of Shelby’s favorite subjects—he is a consistent voice railing against Obama’s alleged weakness in protecting the homeland.

Again you ask why is Shelby doing this. Undoubtedly, you assume, out of some ideological or patriotic principal. Obama’s people must either be socialists or capitulators. You would be wrong. Again like his inspiration Chris Bond, his motivation is much more parochial—though he rants daily against excess government spending this clamor pertains only to projects and programs everyone else favors. In his case he is attempting to hold the Senate and the White House up for, literally, ransom. For venial things for which he wants our money. Unless they agree to spend sacred taxpayer money on two of his pet projects he will not release these 70 nominee-captives. To do so he insists that a contract to build tanker aircraft be awarded to home state and a counterterrorism center built in, of all places, the Yellowhammer State. I suppose because al Qaeda has Calhoun County’s Arab, Alabama targeted. (Arab does exist—look it up.)

In other words, though he voted against Obama’s stimulus plan, saying that the government should not artificially assist the economy, we all misunderstood him. He meant it was wrong to do so in the other 49 states.

I wonder if the Tea Bag folks will go after him (I doubt it) and what Gibbon and Eliot and Dante and Shakespeare would have to say. Nothing good.

Monday, February 08, 2010

January 8, 2010--Fannie, Freddie, and Now Sallie

How does this deal sound to you?

You’re a huge bank and the government gives you all the money you need to make 10 million loans that average about $6,000 each. For every loan, the person borrowing the money pays you a 1% “origination fee.” That totals about $6.0 million. You keep the 6 mill.

Because the government advances the entire $60 billion that you need to make these loans, they also set the annual interest rate. Let’s say they allow you to charge 5%. Then, when all the loans are paid back, your bank will net $3.0 billion.

To sweeten the deal, so as to shelter your bank from risk, if any of the 10 million borrowers default on their loans, the government would guarantee them. That is, make sure you get paid back all the principal and all the interest so as to guarantee your profit.

But then, at some point, the government asks the following question—we’re running a big deficit and so why should we continue to do this? Why should we supply your bank with the money required to make these loans and then shelter you from all risks? Doesn’t capitalism say that you must assume some risk in order to justify your profit?

Otherwise, this sounds like socialism, doesn’t it? And since the government believes in capitalism it should want to end this taxpayer-paid-for giveaway. Who would oppose this since it’s the public who is paying for all of this, including the guarantees and the bank’s annual $6.0+ billion profit?

But there are members of Congress who want to protect the current practice. No surprisingly, members who get all sorts of campaign contributions from the bank. Members and their staffs who are subject to heavy lobbying in support of the status quo.

If you are politically minded, you would probably assume that it’s the Democrats who would be advocating anything that smacks of socialism. They are led by a president, aren’t they, who many see as a closest socialist or worse. Listen to what the Tea Party folks said about him over the weekend.

Well, you would be mistaken.

The theoretical situation I just described is anything but theoretical. It is a reasonably accurate summary of the way the current Guaranteed Student Loan Program works.

The U.S. government makes the loan money available, farms the loan making out to banks, and then guarantees the 10 million existing loans against default. For the banks it’s win-win-win. That’s what the “guaranteed” means—the banks are guaranteed a no-risk income that actually totals at least $8.0 billion a year.

Quite a deal.

Obama the socialist is trying to get Congress to end this federal funny business. He wants to cut the banks out of the picture and thereby save the $8.0 billion a year. But the banks, no surprise, are crying foul. And members of Congress are responding to their cries of pain. Mainly Republicans. They are being led by House Minority Leader John Boehner who calls himself a deficit hawk. (See the linked New York Times article for the ugly details.)

Included among the phony claims that are being trumpeted to justify leaving things as they are is the assertion that if the banks are cut out of the picture students will mss the careful guidance they currently offer and thus will no longer be sure of getting the best loan deals for themselves.

The truth of the matter is that college students get their advice about loans from their colleges, not from the banks. From their financial aid offices. And that advice is almost always totally impersonal since there is not much reason to shop around—the specifics of the loans (the origination fee, the interest rate, the pay-back terms) are the same at every bank in every state. So one bank is as good as any other.

(And this includes Sallie Mae, the largest of student loan providers. So now we don’t just have a Fannie Mae and a Freddie Mae problem, but a Sallie one as well. Among other things, we need some new acronyms.)

In fact, the little due-diligence that does take place happens at the college. The FA office there tells each student how much he or she is eligible to borrow, gives them a simple form to fill out, and passes it along to the banks the students choose from which to receive the loan. The bank merely cuts the check. So much for their cost of doing business.

And if a student at some point defaults the bank doesn’t even have to undertake the collection work—it is done via the college and the U.S. Department of Education.

There is one further crooked wrinkle. Typically, the loan form that students receive from their FA offices has pre-printed on it a list of three or four “preferred lenders.” From this it would appear that the college took students’ best interest into consideration when making these recommendations.

Well, it turns out, in most cases for a bank to get listed they have had to make “contributions” to the colleges. Not quite a bribe, but . . . Help me, please, I can’t think of an appropriate way to describe this.

For example, my old institution, New York University, for years listed Citibank as one of its preferred lenders. Three years ago the New York Attorney General caught NYU and other colleges banking money they received from Citibank; and though the university didn’t admit they were participating in pay-for-play hanky-panky, they still agreed, quoting the Times, to “make payments of more than $3.2 million to student borrowers who received loans from banks that paid money to the institutions to steer students their way.”

Say no more.

Friday, February 05, 2010

February 5, 2010--While We Were Away

While the voters of Massachusetts were firing a shot across the national political bow, while Barack Obama was meeting and jousting with Republican House members and then Democratic Senators, while he released his red-ink budget for FY 2011 and beyond, while we were beginning a new debate about Don't Ask, Don't Tell, while all this and more was going on and sucking up all the media's oxygen, halfway around the world, Obama's new plans for Afghanistan were taking shape.

Recall, in early December up at West Point, President Obama unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan. It included sending in a surge of 30,000 troops (he, though, studiously avoided calling it a Bush-like "surge") to deny the Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens along the Afghan-Pakistan border and, most important, to train more Afghani police and expand their national army. The latter goal was essential if we are ever going to be able to extract ourselves and bring our troops home. The future depends upon helping the Afghan people to police and defend themselves.

So, two months into this, how are things going?

Not very well, according to a recent report in the New York Times. (Linked below.)

In a slightly overstated summary of the state of affairs there, the general charged with building an effective Afghan police force is quoted as saying, "It's better [for police recruits] to join the Taliban; they pay more money."

This is no longer literally true since the Afghan government recently upped police wages to between $165 and $240 a month while the Taliban pay just $200 a month. But even with the new pay levels (with the higher amount reserved for police officers assigned to "hostile areas") a report from the U.S and NATO commanders reveals that one in five recruits have tested positive for drugs (Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of opium poppies); fewer than one in ten is capable of reading (including license plates); after training only a percentage of recruits can pass a firearms test but nonetheless are sent out into the field. As a result, these policemen suffer much higher casualties than the security forces fighting the Taliban.

And so it is no wonder that poor pay and these high casualty rates each year lead about 25 percent to quit the national police force.

The report also reveals that police are sent out into hostile territory without either the proper weapons or appropriately armored vehicles. Most of the deaths are the result of ambushes where having the proper equipment is essentil to survival. But without it who can blame so many from walking away. Quite a few who do in turn join the Taliban and then attempt to blow up their own former comrades.

Quel mess.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

February 4, 2010--Snowbirding: What I'm Learning On My Winter Vacation

Some of my New York City friends continue to ask what I'm up to down here in South Florida. They think of me as someone who has Big City etched in my DNA and thus would wilt in this small-town environment as much from the smallness as from the heat. It hit 84 degrees here the other day and for me that usually spells discomfort. "Maybe it's my advancing age," I tell them, "But I'm fine with the heat."

"But don't you need at least a dose of winter cold," they ask, "to keep you alert and stimulated?"

"I'm fine with the weather here," I say, "In fact, I like it. I assume it must be an aging thing, but in Florida I don't have as many pains in my joints as I do up north at this time of year."

How could they not understand this? By not pressing me they may be showing sensitivity about my age or at least recognition of the inevitability of aches and pains that are more common to someone as old as I. And, in truth, some New York friends, almost of my generation, from personal experience know well about this since they are at the moment where it is 28 degrees and are feeling some of the very same cold-induced aches.

Thus, shifting the subject, they press on, "But," they wonder out loud, "you seem to be spending a lot of time with people who are politically very conservative." I nod. "And doesn't that make you crazy? All that Obama bashing? All those anti-science doubts about global warming? All that suspicion about anything governments do? Aren't you taking your coffee every morning among Teabagger?"

"Well, maybe not exactly Tea Party folks; but yes, many of my friends here are proud Republicans and for the most part much more conservative than I. In fact,” I paused, “I like that at least as much as I enjoy the warm winter weather.”

I can hear their incredulous silence. I know they must feeling that the hot temperatures have not only sapped my physical energy but also wilted my ability to think analytically. They are surely saying to themselves, “He’s trying too hard to fit in in an alien culture. Sad, he used to be so tough minded and true to his convictions.”

To this I would say, “Quite the contrary. On a daily basis, as a result of encountering these, to me, contrarian points of view I am frankly feeling more politically and ideologically challenged than, don’t bite my head off, from what I usually experience in New York where we all tend to agree with each other. Yes, you may have preferred Hillary and I Obama, but there was never any question that we would support whoever won the nomination. Isn’t it true that our major disagreements have been about movies? Is Avatar really a remarkable movie as a movie or is it merely a technological wonder. Things of that sort. Is this not true?”

More silence.

So I suspect either I am right about this and that my downtown friends prefer to let it remain an unspoken acknowledgement that this is true or, more likely, they’re not buying any of it.

“So,” I say, “let me give you an example.”

“Fine. That would be helpful. About what?”

“About military equipment.”

What?” This I can hear loud and clear.

“Well, jet fighter planes.”

What?” comes through even louder.

“You heard me. F-16s, F-22s, F-35s.” I wonder from the static on the phone line if perhaps they have hung up. But then I hear ice cubes rattling around in a glass I realize they went for a drink to help them get through this.

“There’s this guy here. Harvey. He’s really smart about a lot of things. He had a terrific college education, then went to law school, and now runs a family insurance business. His father was a jet pilot during the Korean War. Sounds like quite a guy. Unfortunately he died a few years ago. I would have loved to have met him. Well, Harvey is not only a conservative Republican of the libertarian stripe—a real one (he does for example support a woman’s right to have an abortion)—but also quite a space and military buff.

“As he puts it, he likes to pull my chain by bringing up all sorts of subjects about which we disagree. As much to provoke me as to get a discussion going. Sometimes he succeeds at both. His skepticism about the science regarding global warming always gets me worked up. He says the case is not yet made that humans contribute to it. The science, he says, is not ’settled.’ I respond that the atomic theory wasn’t settled when we embarked upon the Manhattan Project and yet we proceeded. We go back and forth about things of this kind.

“Currently, we’re fighting about fighters. Jets. He knows so much about this that I don’t see the need to check his facts. The other day he was giving me a hard time because I had written a blog a few months ago about the Obama administration’s decision to reduce production of the ultra state-of-the-art stealth fighter, the F-22, claiming it was too costly to build more than we currently have and was not needed considering the dangers we face. In addition, they cut back the number being ordered since we were also spending hundreds of billions on developing the F-35, the so-called Joint Strike Fighter, which could be adapted for use by the Army, Navy, and Marines.

“This made Harvey crazy,” I continued with friends up north, “in part because with little knowledge I was poaching on his territory. But more because he felt this was a shortsighted decision by the Pentagon. This represented cost cutting for the sake of cost cutting without taking into consideration the long-term threats we might face when China begins to flex its own military muscle. I pooh-poohed this, claiming that China was too smart to bankrupt themselves, as we have, to become a military juggernaut. They are doing just fine as it is and are figuring out non-military ways to dominate the rest of the world. Us included.

“He not only told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about but also that I hadn’t done my homework about the fighter planes we would be left with if we didn’t complete our original F-22 plans. ‘For example,’ he said, ‘did I know about the Russian-built fighter, the Su-30MKI?’ My blank stare told him that I of course knew nothing about it. In fact, I had never even heard of it. Noting this, he continued, ‘Well, if you had done your research before typing up that blog of yours you would have discovered that both our current F-16s and the projected F-35s are no match for it.’

“I looked at him skeptically, since my image of Soviet or Russian aircraft is that they are clunky and have never been a match for ours and, what’s more, their pilots are ill trained by comparison to ours and that, God forbid, if it ever came to combat with them, our guys would have no trouble shooting them out of the air.”

When I said all this to my New York friends, especially the reference to the dogfights and the mention of the image “shooting them out of the air,” I could hear them taking big swigs of their gins and tonics and saying, “You need to come home. Back to New York. And I mean now!”

“Hear me out,” I said, “I haven’t been transformed into a gung-ho type. I’m trying to tell you that by being here and encountering good guys such as Harvey, I’m learning a lot. Really. I’m having some of my assumptions challenged. So let me finish about the fighter planes. I’m almost done. Then you can hang up and go back to whatever.”

“OK, but hurry up, we’re about to go uptown to the theater.”

“So Harvey said to me, ‘Do a little reading, will you, because the Indians have been buying Su-30s from the Russians and in a war game situation with the Indians not too long ago, our guys, flying F-16s, were wiped out. Those Russian fighters are much hotter than ours and are able to turn on a dime. Our boys didn’t have a chance. They’d look out of their canopies and on their tails they’d see their Indian “adversaries.” They called the games off before they were scheduled to end since there was no contest.’

“Shook up by what he was saying, I said to Harvey, ‘You need to get me stuff to read about this. Not that I necessarily doubt you, but I need to do my own reading about this.’ Later that day by e-mail I had a whole lot of stuff from him. (A sample is linked below.) And sure enough, Harvey is right. The Russians are making these planes and they are superior to our best existing jets.

“So, I don’t know how to think about this,” I confess to my Manhattan friends, “Nor do I know what to do. The Cold War is over; but long run, who knows what’s going to happen in the world? Am I certain, are you certain that we have nothing to fear from the Russians or the Chinese? I don’t mean now but maybe 20, 30 years from now? If not, why are the Russians building these planes? Perhaps out of national pride? They lost the Cold War and so maybe this is one way for them to regain stature. But are you sure about this?” I paused and then added, “Well, I’m not.”

With this they hung up and raced up to the theater district.

If they had remained on the line, I would have said, “I don’t like being confused. I admit that I don’t really like having my assumptions challenged or, worse, shaken, but if I’m wrong about certain things, shouldn’t I be open to learning?”

I hope so. Thus, thanks to Harvey for getting me to think more about this. Though he continues to be dead wrong about global warming, across-the-board tax cuts, what to do about Iran, the gold standard . . .