Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Good News, Bad News

There's a a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times on the latest in weaponry being developed for the military, much of it on spec by the builders. The goal is to provide the Pentagon with smaller, cheaper, more effective ways to kill the right people in 21st Century warfare.

Under mounting pressure to keep its massive budget in check, the Pentagon is looking to cheaper, smaller weapons to wage war in the 21st century.

A new generation of weaponry is being readied in clandestine laboratories across the nation that puts a priority on pintsized technology that would be more precise in warfare and less likely to cause civilian casualties. Increasingly, the Pentagon is being forced to discard expensive, hulking, Cold War-era armaments that exact a heavy toll on property and human lives.

The keys to the new development are miniaturization and the current darling of the military set, the pilotless drone. Here's just one example of the new technology being developed for the new kind of war being fought:

Marines already have small spy drones with high-powered cameras, but what they need is a way to destroy the enemies that their drones discover.

Looking to fill the need, the 13-pound "smart bomb" has been under development for three years. The 2-foot-long bomb is steered by a GPS-guided system made in Anaheim. The bomb is called Small Tactical Munition, or STM, and is under development by Raytheon Co.

"Soldiers are watching bad guys plant" roadside bombs and "can't do anything about it," said Cody Tretschok, who leads work on the program at Raytheon. "They have to call in an air strike, which can take 30 to 60 minutes. The time lapse is too great."

The idea is that the small bomb could be slung under the spy plane's wing, dropped to a specific point using GPS coordinates or a laser-guidance system, and blast apart "soft" targets, such as pickup trucks and individuals, located 15,000 feet below.

There's plenty of good news about this trend. The weapons are cheaper and more effective on the battlefield. There is less collateral damage to civilians and civilian buildings. It's hard to fault the developers and the Pentagon for that kind of thinking.

Still, all of this technology is going towards making a more effective, albeit less expensive war machine. Yes, it provides jobs. And, yes, it is designed to protect the innocent located in the midst of the bad guys du jour. But why isn't this kind of innovative thinking and invention being harnessed in other battles, like the ones against Alzheimer's and diabetes, or the building of levees along rivers prone to flooding?

If long-time contractors are building such weaponry at their own cost, it is only because they know their buddies at the Pentagon will find room for the project in the vast military budget at some point. Life saving projects don't have that cushion in our culture.

And that's a shame.

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Monday, May 30, 2011


I'm sorry, but I really am having some real fun watching the GOP race for the 2012 nomination. There's no race in my party, but even if there were, I doubt that it would have the comedic value I'm finding with the Republicans. Besides, the media's contortions in covering the race adds to the bizarre.

Here's a good example of what I mean in both respects. A Gallup Poll run May 20-24 was included in one of the political blogs at the Los Angeles Times. (The poll with analysis was published at the Gallup website.)

Mitt Romney 17%

Sarah Palin 15%

Ron Paul 10%

Newt Gingrich 9%

Herman Cain 8%

Tim Pawlenty 6%

Michele Bachmann 5%

Jon Huntsman 2%

Gary Johnson 2%

Rick Santorum 2%

Mike Huckabee 1% (Volunteered)

Other 2%

No Opinion 22%

Two things struck me when I looked at the chart. The second was that "No Opinion" still leads. Of course, that's not too surprising, given how early we really are in the race.

The first, and most obvious, was that Sarah Palin has leaped into second place behind Mitt Romney. Given the plus/minus 4% margin of error, that's pretty impressive, even though neither has formally declared their candidacy. Romney obviously will. Palin probably won't, although I can't justify ruling her out at this point.

So, why did Palin move into possible contention so quickly? A couple of reasons. Since the last poll, several potential contenders backed out: Trump, Daniels, and Huckabee lead that list. Next, at this point name recognition is a major factor in the kind of poll taken, and Sarah Palin has become very visible over the last couple of weeks. And that brings us to perhaps the biggest reason: free publicity.

The media has been falling all over themselves covering Palin as she has re-emerged from her Facebook-only conversations with her adoring fans. She has a favorable documentary on her life in Alaska coming out shortly. She has decided to take a bus ride around America in some sort of patriotic pilgramage. Both announcements hint at a possible run, and the pundits love playing "Will-She-Won't-She."

So, what does this all mean?

Not much, but like I said earlier: I'm enjoying this comedy immensely.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Wilfred Owen

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

--Wilfred Owen

How Embarrassing

This week's foray into Watching America set me back on my heels. There's been a lot of rumbling about the state of US education, but I hadn't realized that the rumbling has been heard and dissected in other parts of the world. Argentina's Argenpress has a sobering analysis about our education system and the article's conclusion matches its headline: "United States: Goodbye, Public Education."

The United States currently has problems of all sizes, shapes and colors. One of the most serious is the crisis of the public education system. The low scores of academic performance and the failure of standardized tests on the part of tens of thousands of students from poor and marginalized communities combine with constant budget cuts and the trends toward privatization of the public education sector.

Add to all this a fundamental problem: Public education has undergone a qualitative shift in its operation and objectives. Education is no longer seen as a right; it has become a business opportunity. Teachers have become employees who pursue the "success" of their "clients" — the students — and the role of education authorities is in the process of being reduced to mere administrative functions at best.
[Emphasis added]

And the Obama administration is currently leading the charge to a business model which has no connection to the reality of how our children learn.

As part of its Race to the Top program, the government is incentivizing states to raise their limits on the number of charter schools in exchange for federal funds.

Furthermore, the current administration seeks to replace roughly 5,000 poorly performing traditional schools with charter schools. The government has made the juicy sum of $3.5 billion available to the states to subsidize the "change" of these poorly performing schools. The more poorly performing schools that close, the more money the states receive. ...

This type of school, financed with public funds, does not need to operate under the same rules as other public schools. It usually selects its students instead of accepting everyone, which allows it to deliver better results. Its teachers are not necessarily unionized; therefore, they lack labor rights. And it can accept private investment, which allows it to establish other regulations.
[Emphasis added]

The emphasized portion of that quote is key: not every student in the region being served by the school will be accepted, thereby creating separate classes of students, some of whom will be relegated to "lesser" schools. That is bad enough because it runs so contrary to the American ideal of education. But here, ironically, is the stunning part, something our new "education" overlords don't want us to know: their expensive toys don't always work:

But something odd happened on the road to "success." According to a broad investigation carried out by experts at Stanford University, only 17 percent of charter schools were better than traditional public schools, according to standardized test results. 37 percent were worse in comparison, and 46 percent were virtually identical.

This is how our money is being spent. How embarrassing to have another country recognize our stupidity and to trumpet it.


Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Tom Toles and published 5/25/11 in the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: African Lion

(Photograph by Beverly Joubert and published at National Geographic.)

Things That Make You Go Wow!

Tim Rutten's latest column reminded me of what I consider to be one of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's finest accomplishments: the twin robotic rovers sent to Mars to do a little geological prospecting. It was thought that the two mechanical critters would move around a few feet, gather and analyze some Mars dirt, and, after a couple of months, that would be that. Well, that's not how it worked out.

...the scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge announced that the rover Spirit's seven-year exploration of Mars had come to an end. Originally designed to send back data on a few hundred yards of the Red Planet for just three months, Spirit roamed for miles over years before giving up the ghost to a bitter Martian winter. Its epic journey fundamentally changed our understanding of the most Earth-like of the other planets. And its robotic twin, Opportunity, continues to explore the other side of Mars.

"What's most remarkable to me about Spirit's mission is just how extensive her accomplishments became," said Cornell University's Steve Squyres, the rovers' principal investigator. "What we initially conceived as a fairly simple geologic experiment on Mars ultimately turned into humanity's first real overland expedition across another planet."

While the project certainly wasn't done on the cheap (which is one reason the two rovers have lasted far more than the three month time frame), it was far less expensive in real dollars than the man-on-the-moon and the shuttle projects. It was also less costly in terms of human life. Yet the two rovers have arguably provided us with equivalent amounts of information and surprises.

Yes, as Rutten points out, many would prefer actual human exploration of the universe around us. We would like to see with our own eyes, touch other worlds with our own hands, but that is simply not possible for technological and (just as importantly) economic reasons right now. Humans will have to rely on surrogates such as Spirit and Opportunity to do our exploration for us. That these two surrogates have done so brilliantly is a testament to human ingenuity and the human passion to know.

So, to the engineers and scientists of JPL: thanks for a job well-done.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

About Damned Time

A bit of refreshing news this morning: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) thinks it's time to end our presence in Afghanistan and has written an op-ed piece to explain just why.

She reminds us that the Senate voted ten years ago to allow the use of military force in Afghanistan to punish those who attacked us and those who gave the attackers safe-haven. She maintains that with the death of Osama bin Laden and the weakening of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan there is no further reason for spending $10 billion a month there (we're up to about half-trillion dollars at this point).

Although we must remain vigilant in our efforts to defeat Al Qaeda and must continue our support for the Afghan people, there is simply no justification for the continued deployment of 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan. This July, the president should expedite his promised withdrawal of our combat forces. Moreover, we should now set an end date for the U.S. deployment there. ...

We have to be realistic about what we can achieve in Afghanistan. The notion that the United States can build a Western-style democracy there is a myth. Instead, we should focus on what we can and must accomplish: preventing Al Qaeda from threatening the United States, and supporting Afghans as they determine the way forward.

Boxer, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has some support from the Republicans on the issue, will be calling on President Obama to keep his promise to start withdrawing troops and to provide an exit strategy with specific dates. Nearly 60% of the American public agree that it's time.

Some of us thought ten years ago that the idea of starting a war in Afghanistan was a bad idea and the Authorization of the Use of Military Force a dangerous precedent. We were right. The AUMF proved to be a handy tool for an entrance into Iraq by President Bush and for military skirmishes in Libya by President Obama. The Senate should also consider repealing that authorization so that presidents have to come back to the Senate before proceeding with other military excursions. I won't be holding my breath for that.

In the mean time, however, it is gratifying to note the movement towards ending the longest war in US history. As Sen. Boxer points out, there are other ways to fight terrorism, ways that won't cost us $10 billion a month.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Just Wrong

I am still amazed at how depraved our corporate overlords can be. The latest evidence of just how low they will go was presented by an editorial in the Los Angeles Times. It seems that Scholastic, Inc., venerable and beloved educational materials publisher, has taken to working with major industries to present promotional materials to students. The latest free advertising involved the coal industry and was directed to fourth graders.

A division of Scholastic partnered with a coal industry trade group to produce an energy curriculum for fourth-graders — a poster and related materials — that extols the virtues of coal but neglects to mention the strip mining that degrades the landscape and removes entire mountaintops, the pollution of air and water associated with coal, or its role in global warming. The American Coal Foundation posted an online announcement about its joint project with Scholastic, which sent the "United States of Energy" package, free and unsolicited, to 66,000 teachers on its mailing list, including many in California, and emailed it to 82,000 more.

In this case, schools got what they paid for — a biased, incomplete and frankly embarrassing promotional product parading as education. ...

Never mind that the coal industry has been one of the main actors in the degradation of our environment from its method of extracting the fuel to the consequences of its use. Never mind that the bottom line is so important to the industry that the safety of its workers is rarely considered. Never mind that the industry has shamelessly bought officials at all levels of government so that it can operate freely without any kind of restraint. Scholastic found a way to turn a buck and they used it. On fourth graders.

Folks, I don't think this is what the Bible had in mind when it said, "Raise them up in the way they should go."


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Welcome To The Race, Mr. Pawlenty

Tim Pawlenty has formally announced his candidacy for the 2012 GOP nomination for President, declaring himself a serious man for serious times. In a sense he's right: he's seriously anti-women's rights. George Zornick gives us a peek at T-Paw's record as governor of Minnesota in a blog post at The Nation:

In reality, however, Pawlenty's views on a woman's right to choose are among the more extreme in the emerging GOP field. National Review dubbed Pawlenty as possibly “the strongest pro-life candidate in 2012.” Under Pawlenty, who is an evangelical Christian, Minnesota was the first state to give women bogus information on “fetal pain” in an effort to dissuade them from having an abortion. He also signed laws providing women with information about “alternatives” to abortion, which became a model for other states, and has engaged in years of direct outreach to extreme antichoice groups. [Emphasis added]

Here are some of the details from his term as governor:

Less than one year into his governorship, Pawlenty signed the Women’s Right to Know Act of 2003. The law required physicians to provide women with information about abortion alternatives at least twenty-four hours prior to the procedure, including a list of adoption centers, detailed information about fetal development, and a description of the risks associated with abortion procedures. ...

Two years later, Pawlenty signed the Unborn Child Prevention Act, making Minnesota the first state in the nation to mandate that pregnant women considering an abortion receive information about “fetal pain.”

Though the position of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is that there is “no legitimate scientific information that supports the statement that a fetus experiences pain,” the law requires abortion doctors and referring physicians to inform pregnant women seeking an abortion that “pain-reducing medication” is available for their fetus. Women in Minnesota seeking an abortion must now sign a form either requesting or refusing pain-reducing medication for their unborn child. ...

In 2008 he named Eric Magnuson chief justice of the court. Manguson has a long record of opposing abortion rights, and once wrote an amicus brief on behalf of an antichoice group arguing that taxpayer money shouldn’t go to abortion services. ...

Beyond these substantive measures, Pawlenty has made many symbolic overtures to the antichoice movement. He declared April 2010 “Abortion Recovery/Awareness Month” in Minnesota. His proclamation noted that “many organizations in Minnesota promote policies that reinforce a culture of life and hope,” and encouraged women who had abortions to seek their help.

He also issued proclamations that darkly observed the day Roe v. Wade was decided. Speaking at an antichoice rally on the 2006 anniversary of the decision, Pawlenty said, “We have a dream today that someday soon this will not be an anniversary of sadness, but an anniversary of justice restored.”

Nice record, that, but it's one he's keeping very quiet about at present. His web site and his recently published book are very short on references to the choice issue, and with good reason. While his anti-choice stance will keep him in good standing with the fundagelicals of his party, it won't be much help with independents when the general election comes around.

Like I've said before, at least this part of the silly season has been fun. Pass the popcorn.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Well, Duh

I'm beginning to think one of the reasons I haven't been able to arise before dawn so that I can drink coffee with the early morning Atriots is that I dread reading the news before I hop over. It's been pretty dreary on all accounts.

OK, that's my excuse for sleeping in today.

Actually, the news wasn't all bad this morning. The US Supreme Court in a predictable split decision has agreed with a lower ruling that the State of California has to reduce its prison population because the massively overcrowded conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment especially with respect to providing medical treatment. The state must now find a way to reduce the number of those incarcerated by 30,000.

Governor Brown, who as Attorney General fought the required reduction, had already planned to shift non-violent offenders to county jails and hoped that he could keep current "temporary" taxes in place to pay the counties for the new burden. That would be some help, but the time line to implement the plan would have exceeded that ordered by the courts.

The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times has a much better suggestion.

At last count there were 142,000 inmates in California prisons, which are so overcrowded that some prisoners must be housed collectively in gymnasiums or alone in phone-booth-sized cages. Under the order upheld by the Supreme Court, the state must reduce its inmate population to 137.5% of the system's capacity — meaning about 110,000 — within two years. ...

...the truth is that experts have been suggesting responsible ways to ease prison overcrowding for years. One way is to create an independent panel to revise the state's haphazard sentencing guidelines, which all too often result in excessive terms that worsen overcrowding. In other states, sentencing commissions have lengthened penalties for truly dangerous felons while finding alternative punishments for minor offenders.
[Emphasis added]


One place such a sentencing commission could take a good hard look at sentencing is the area of non-violent drug violations: an inordinate number of California prisoners are facing long terms for the simple and non-violent crime of possessing and/or using drugs. Most belong in rehabilitation, not prison. While the state does have such a diversion program on the books, it's pretty much limited to first-time offenders, and the program just isn't funded adequately for ongoing treatment. That means the first-timer becomes the second- and third-timer and faces years in prison.

But I'm not holding my breath for such a movement. The clamor has already arisen with respect to the fear that releasing so many prisoners will destroy neighborhoods and cause an furious up-tick in crime. Justices Alito and Scalia started that ball rolling in their alarmist dissenting opinions. We're still stuck in the vengeance mode.

So, somehow, the state's going to have to find money from somewhere to build more prisons or to pay other states to take our overage. Early education programs can wait, as can health care programs for the poor and the state's crumbling infrastructure.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

And One Step Back

Now, here's a bit of depressing news to start the week with:

Fifteen people sit on the Los Angeles City Council. It's possible that in a few months, only one will be a woman. In a few years, there could be none. ...

Eleven years ago, a third of the desks lining the council chamber's ornate horseshoe were filled by women. The steady decline reflects a broader trend across the nation, where the proportion of women officeholders has been flat-lining or slipping.

The number of women sworn in to Congress this year fell for the first time in 30 years, leaving women with just 16% of congressional seats.

And the number of female lawmakers in state capitals decreased by 81 this year, the largest percentage drop in decades.

That's pretty hard to believe, but the numbers are correct. We are losing ground with respect to representation by women, who make up more than half of the US population. As the article points out, the fact that California has two women US Senators and provided the first woman Speaker of the House, apparently made us complacent. Fewer women are running for and winning elections at all levels of government all across the nation. So why are we losing ground?

The prominence of women like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on the national stage may give a false impression of the political influence women wield and ease pressure on women to run for office. That could be especially true in California, where both United States senators, several members of Congress, the attorney general and secretary of State are women. ...

"When women run, women win at the same rate as men in comparable elections," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "But they haven't been running."

No one can say for sure why, but political scientists suspect one cause is the ever-increasing opportunities for well-educated women in business. Another factor appears to be the coarseness permeating many campaigns, and the reputation of politics as a man's world.

Well, those are two reasons, and there is a third: women enter politics later than men because they are generally held to the task as the primary caregiver in families with children. But in 1992, women finally broke through at the congressional level, and made a difference.

Now is not the time for women to step away from electoral politics. Women bring the many of the same skill sets and bring unique perspectives to all issues, not just the traditional "mommy" issues of child welfare and education. We're here, more than half the population, and as well-educated as men. We need to be running in and winning elections.

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Dylan Thomas

(Rest in Peace, Spike the Avenger Kitteh.)

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

--Dylan Thomas

A Very Perceptive View

It's been a while since I've posted anything from Watching America, and that's for two reasons. First, my weekends have been a time for rest and decompression. I can manage picking out pictures of critters and selecting cartoons and poetry, but actually thinking is a little tougher. Second, nothing in the past month has actually grabbed me by providing some insight into the US as seen from another part of the world.

This week is a little different. I found this article from Spain's El Mundo which provides a remarkably good analysis of the state of the Republican race for the 2012 nomination and which nails our press and its proclivities quite righteously.

The writer notes that with the recent withdrawal of Trump and Huckabee, things are still fluid in the race. Here, however, is the part that tickled me:

The last ones to get off the train have been Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee. Regarding the former, there is little to say. Many warned that his flirtation as a presidential candidate was his umpteenth slapstick to get media coverage and increase his salary in the upcoming “reality show.” It is not the first time he had done it, but this time the media was happy to take the bait because it was mutually beneficial. In these banal times, the only thing that matters is the ranking of the news with the most viewers.

Why, yes, I think that gets it nicely.

But the writer also has a pretty good grasp on the dynamics involving the rest of the candidates, declared or still being coy:

If anyone has benefited by all of the thinning of the roster of aspiring candidates, it is those less known to the public, such as Tim Pawlenty and John Huntsman. They will have a larger quota of media coverage, something that is needed to compete with the powerful electoral machinery of multi-millionaire Mitt Romney.

I think that's right on the money as well. This week's trip over to Watching America was worth it.


Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Lee Judge / The Kansas City Star (May 19, 2011) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Tarantula

(Photograph courtesy Claire Rind and published at National Geographic. Click on link to learn about the cool way these critters keep their balance.)


Well, I'm still here. It's not 6:00 PDT yet, but I'm reasonably certain I'll still be here at 6:01. Oakland's religious seer Harold Camping was either working with faulty data or was just simply wrong. The graves have not opened in the midst of world-wide earthquakes, people have not vanished in large or even small numbers. The Rapture, as far as I can tell, just didn't happen. Either that, or God didn't want any of us, which, of course, would certainly be understandable.

The media was pretty restrained in its coverage of the Camping phenomenon, at least up to this point, treating the affair as just an eccentric blip in theological considerations. It's been awhile since we've had the announcement of the End Times in such detail, so the prediction did have some newsworthiness, but not much. Now that the scheduled time has passed for most of the world, the press has a bit more to say, either with snark or with some journalistic neutrality.

I'm still rather puzzled by some parts of this story, however. Millions of dollars worth of publicity for the event (billboards sprang up everywhere), were spent. Where did that money come from? And why was it spent that way? Did the advertisers really think the faithful needed to get ready? If they were faithful, wouldn't they already be ready? Was it all just a scam by some despicable hucksters? Or are people so overwhelmed by powerlessness they needed some kind of anchor, something that will keep them from the constant battering of vicissitudes?

Who knows. Certainly not I.

I'm just tapping away at the keyboard with one eye on the clock.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging


Michael Lazarus is at it again. This time it's the Republican efforts to shield the banking industry from any meaningful oversight.

There can be only two possible reasons for Republican lawmakers' steadfast opposition to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

One: Maybe not a single GOP member of Congress has ever had a problem with his or her bank, credit cards, mortgage or car loan, and thus sees no need for additional oversight of financial institutions.

Or two: Maybe GOP lawmakers are responding to the millions of dollars spent by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the financial services industry to undermine a new government agency intended to rein in abusive lending practices.

Now there's a tough call, eh?

Just in case, however, Lazarus cites a few facts, among them this:

It's not surprising that Republican lawmakers are doing their darnedest to shield banks from additional scrutiny. In the 2010 campaign cycle, individuals and political action committees associated with banks gave nearly $19 million to federal candidates, committees and parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The vast majority of that money made its way to GOP recipients, the center found.

What puzzles Lazarus is that the constituents of these congress critters haven't raised the roof because of their choice of banksters over the rest of us. After all, bank abuse doesn't just happen to dirty hippies. Lazarus concludes that the facile "too much government ... we don't need another agency" combined with a lack of media interest in the subject have met for the perfect silence.

To the first issue, we need only point to the fact that the current system had been so thoroughly gamed by banking interests that our entire economy went down the tubes, where it remains. We should have learned that real oversight was necessary or these thugs would continue to rip off the rest of us.

To the second, we need only point to the silence of the press. It's attention span is even shorter than ours, and may in fact be the reason we don't pay attention.

Fortunately, David Lazarus is paying attention.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cry Wolf

Donald Cohen is the director of the Cry Wolf Project, a nonprofit research network that identifies and exposes misleading rhetoric about the economy, regulation and government, and he has a timely opinion piece in today's Los Angeles Times.

Since 2003, the California Chamber of Commerce has published an annual hit list of bills it labels job killers. The list has included state legislation to protect consumers, workers and the environment, and to raise revenue to fund public services or support middle- and working-class families.

No politician — Democrat or Republican — wants to be known as someone who kills jobs, so many of them will avoid supporting any bill so labeled. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used the list as a to-do list for his veto pen. His Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, vetoed some of its top targets.

The chamber's argument is always the same: If "job-killer proposal X" passes, companies will go bankrupt, shrink or move out of California. Excessive taxes, regulations and paperwork, especially on small businesses, will crush private sector investment.

To make certain the politicians get the message, the Chamber issues plenty of advertisements to hammer home its point with the pols' constituents by the sheer power of repetition. All too often laws designed for consumer or environmental protection never get enacted because of these tactics. A few, however, have managed to squeak by, and Donald Cohen lists a few which have and the impact those laws have had on California's economy and business climate.

Here's just one of his examples:

In 2002, California was the first state to create a paid family leave insurance program, which helps family members care for children or elderly parents without losing their jobs. The chamber lobbied vigorously to kill the bill but was unable to stop it. At the time, chamber President Allan Zaremberg described the law as a coming disaster for business, saying, "We're opposed to a lot of bills, but this is one of the worst." A lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business predicted, "It will be the biggest financial burden for small businesses in decades."

Now, eight years later, an extensive survey of employers and employees by economists Ruth Milkman and Eileen Applebaum found that the law isn't the costly job killer that business warned about. In fact, the survey found the leave law helped reduce turnover and increased employee loyalty while helping families meet the challenges of working and caring for their children.

Not quite the job killer the Chamber claimed it would be, was it? In fact, the law established what one "job-killer" maintained decades ago: we do better when we all do better.

That's something the California Legislature and the US Congress might want to keep in mind.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mea Culpa

Well, Donald Trump has pulled out of the race for GOP nomination for president, which does peeve me a little. I was having fun with watching the various Republicans go through some hilarious contortions during this early part of the silly season and he just let some air out of that balloon. I mean, really: the guy has spent a life time donating to Democratic candidates and suddenly he's interested in the birth certificate and academic credentials of the current President, which makes him a worthy Republican?

Oh, please.

Now, most of us knew Trump wasn't going anywhere in this race, but apparently the news media took the whole candidacy quite seriously. Reporters and pundits spilled a lot of ink and electrons on every move and every speech The Donald made. Imagine their chagrin when Trump fired himself. Actually, the Washington Post saved you the trouble yesterday by posting a few thoughts from the pundits who labored on Mr. Trump's behalf. My favorite came from E.J. Dionne:

There is now a strange symbiosis where self-promotion, goosing ratings, selling books, kicking off a new TV season, winning more page-views and upping speaking fees all get masked together and the resulting porridge gets labeled as “politics.” Mike Huckabee (for whom I confess to having a soft spot) and Sarah Palin (for whom I do not have a comparable soft spot) have all used the political media to enhance their market value. Now Trump – in a much shorter time -- has done the same. And the Republican contest for the presidency has been reduced to one big marketing exercise.

Think of it as the privatization of American politics. Issues, schmissues. Celebrity rules.

Why, yes.

I think that gets it.

It's just too bad that the media didn't get it sooner.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Poor Paul

Poor Paul Ryan, he can't get a break. First, after introducing a plan to effectively end Medicare, his constituents greeted him with boos and catcalls. Then fellow Republican and candidate for the party's presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich, scathingly attacks the plan as "social engineering".

So, what's a poor congressman to do? Keep on peddling the idea to a friendlier audience.

The architect of the GOP’s controversial Medicare overhaul delivered a forceful defense of the plan here Monday, saying it would empower seniors and accusing President Obama of having a “shared-scarcity mentality” that promotes “bureaucratically rationed health care.”

Facing a backlash from voters over his proposal to turn Medicare into a system that subsidizes health-care coverage for retirees on the private market, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) moved to recast the plan as the only one that would make the economy grow. ...

Ryan said the government cannot fix its fiscal problems without bringing down health-care costs over the long term. He argued that his Medicare plan, which the House approved in April, would do just that by providing “less help for the wealthy and more for the poor and the sick.”

That friendlier audience was, of course, a businessmen's group in Chicago. They liked the idea that ending Medicare would grow the economy for them. That way they wouldn't have to, you know, actually hire people to make real goods and sell them. It makes their lives easier, never mind that it doesn't do much for the rest of us or for the economy or for actually cutting health care costs.

A friendly audience, however, was a nice change for a man who clearly is contemplating a run for the Senate seat soon to be vacated by Wisconsin Senator Kohl.

Lots of luck on that one, Paul.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

No One Ever Said He Was Dumb

As sleepy as I still was, reading the headline that "Newt Gingrich Slams Ryan's Plan To Overhaul Medicare" caused me to raise an eyebrow.


Well, yes. And it's a pretty canny move by the silver-headed conservative running for the GOP nomination.

“I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering,” Gingrich scoffed in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." ...

Gingrich later called the reform plan “too big a jump,” adding: “I’m against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.”

Those are probably weak excuses offered in place of the real reason: too many Americans have expressed outrage at the privatization of an important social program that is popular. The cost to elders is just too high. For the GOP to stand behind Ryan's proposal could result in the GOP losing not only the presidency but also the House. And that means the cost to the party is just too high.

Lest the party faithful think he's lost his mind, however, Gingrich did throw them a rather meaty bone. He's in favor of the plan to change Medicaid by giving states block grants and letting them figure out how to spend it without any federal control or guidelines. Smart man, him. Elders turn out to vote, but poor people don't.

It's going to be an interesting campaign season after all.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Anne Sexton


Loving me with my shows off
means loving my long brown legs,
sweet dears, as good as spoons;
and my feet, those two children
let out to play naked. Intricate nubs,
my toes. No longer bound.
And what's more, see toenails and
all ten stages, root by root.
All spirited and wild, this little
piggy went to market and this little piggy
stayed. Long brown legs and long brown toes.
Further up, my darling, the woman
is calling her secrets, little houses,
little tongues that tell you.

There is no one else but us
in this house on the land spit.
The sea wears a bell in its navel.
And I'm your barefoot wench for a
whole week. Do you care for salami?
No. You'd rather not have a scotch?
No. You don't really drink. You do
drink me. The gulls kill fish,
crying out like three-year-olds.
The surf's a narcotic, calling out,
I am, I am, I am
all night long. Barefoot,
I drum up and down your back.
In the morning I run from door to door
of the cabin playing chase me.
Now you grab me by the ankles.
Now you work your way up the legs
and come to pierce me at my hunger mark

--Anne Sexton

Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Tom Toles and published May 9, 2011 in the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Tiger Ray

(Photograph courtesy Oliver Lucanus and published by National Geographic.)

Making Out Like Bandits

The economy may still stink for most of us, but there are some companies which are doing just fine. It's not just the oil companies which are raking in record profits. So are health insurers.

The nation’s major health insurers are barreling into a third year of record profits, enriched in recent months by a lingering recessionary mind-set among Americans who are postponing or forgoing medical care. ...

Yet the companies continue to press for higher premiums, even though their reserve coffers are flush with profits and shareholders have been rewarded with new dividends. Many defend proposed double-digit increases in the rates they charge, citing a need for protection against any sudden uptick in demand once people have more money to spend on their health, as well as the rising price of care.

Now reserves, the money insurers set aside in separate account to cover losses, are generally set on the basis of predicted future events, and health care costs continue to rise, so there is good reason for those reserves being quite cushy right now. That doesn't quite explain the drive for higher premiums right now, however, especially given the string of extremely profitable years for the companies.

So what's going on?

Well, as to those profits: many policy holders are themselves rationing health care. Those who are working at jobs where insurance is offered now find that their employers have had to go to policies with higher deductibles and co-pays. That means more money comes out of the policy holder's pocket, and with rising gasoline and food costs, people are just foregoing doctor visits for "minor" issues like preventive care. Insurance companies claim that as the economy picks up, so will visits to the doctor.

Those companies also have to be contemplating the implementation of the new healthcare law, when they won't be able to turn away anyone for any reason. Insurers got away with raising premiums when early provisions kicked in, and they figure they should be able to do it again.

Some observers wonder if the insurers are simply raising premiums in advance of the full force of the health care law in 2014. The insurers’ recent prosperity — big insurance companies have reported first-quarter earnings that beat analysts expectations by an average of 30 percent — may make it difficult for anyone, politicians and industry executives alike, to argue that the industry has been hurt by the federal health care law. Insurers were able to raise premiums to cover the cost of the law’s early provisions, like insuring adult children up to age 26, and federal and state regulators have largely proved to be accommodating.

It's time now for federal and state regulators to stop being so accommodating. Proposed premium hikes should be fought hard unless the insurers stop being so outrageously profitable.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

That's Crazy Talk

I really do need to visit The Nation website more frequently. Every time I do, I am educated and sometimes even amused. I got both yesterday (before Blogger took the day off). George Zornick did a listing of eleven of the most outrageous and nutty things Newt Gingrich has said over the years in celebration of Newt's announcement that he would seek the GOP nomination for president.

Now, I'm sure Newt has been verbally outrageous more than eleven times over the years, but Zornick picked his favorites, and the ones he picked are a pretty good measure of the man who would be president. My favorite is listed fifth:

“It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.” – [Newt’s explanation for why his multiple affairs won’t damage his political fortunes, as told to his jilted wife.]

(A fuller version of the story can be found here.)

Now, that's a pretty crass thing to tell the wife you've been cheating on. It is also, however, a pretty strong indication of the man's view of himself. He sees himself as a man of grand ideas and the ability to place them before the public. He's not what he does; he's what he says. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

And that's why I understand what I suspect is Zornick's view of the nuttiest thing Newt has said, number eleven:

“I’m running for President.” [5/11/2011]

Pass the popcorn.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Double Edged Sword

Like Michael McGough, I have some mixed emotions about the letter recently sent to House Speaker John Boehner by a number of Catholic theologians and professors at Catholic University in advance of Boehner's visit to the university to deliver the commencement address. In that letter, the Speaker is taken to task for his miserable record in Congress with respect to the basic teachings of the church.

McGough cites one paragraph from that letter:

For example: "Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the church's most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference [sic] the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress."

Yes, it is nice to see the smarmy hypocrisy of the Speaker and members of his party when it comes to addressing the issues of poverty in America laid out so deftly, and, yes, it is nice to see church leaders protesting something other than abortion and women's reproductive freedom. Still, like Mr. McGough, I am troubled by the intrusion of the Church into our politics.

And yet, it bothers me that Boehener, as a Catholic, is being called to account for his actions in Congress. It is true that the budget he shepherded through the House "guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society." But there is a sense about the letter that Boehner hasn't followed his marching orders from the church. This is the same critique that conservative Catholics make about Catholic members of Congress who support abortion rights. And the implication is the same: that Catholic politicians' first duty is to their faith as it is articulated by the hierarchy, and not, say, to the opinions of constituents. [Emphasis added]

This was a battle that should have ended with the election of John F. Kennedy decades ago, but it clearly has not. While my lesser angel is gleefully applauding the smack-down of Boehner, my better nature, the one that prizes the wall separating church and state, knows that such an intrusion is one that has to be fought if we are not to slip into theocracy that our founders wisely rejected.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Industrial Strength Collusion

Michael Hiltzig is at it again. His latest column points out the scam being run by pharmaceutical companies (large and small) to the detriment of consumers and Medicare/Medicaid. The scam involves patent challenges.

Brand-name drug companies and their generic rivals spend so much time and money attacking each other — in court, in Congress, and everywhere else lawyers and lobbyists do battle — that when they land on the same side of an issue it's a good guess that the consumer is getting whacked. ...

The practice is known as pay for delay. It's what happens when a brand-name company with a valuable drug patent pays a generics company to drop a patent challenge. The goal is to delay the arrival of cheap generic alternatives for months or even years.

The brand-name company gets to maintain its monopoly during the interim, but consumers and taxpayer-funded agencies such as Medicare and Medicaid lose out on the cost reductions of as much as 90% they might enjoy by buying generic versions of a blockbuster drug. The generics companies make out by earning money without facing the uncertainties of patent litigation or the bother of actually manufacturing the drug.

Hiltzig unpacks just how these lucrative tactics came to be, including the fact that at least one drug maker's representative actually bragged on the record on how nicely one deal worked out for his company. Both companies did very well. Consumers? Eh, not so much.

This kind of collusion in any other industry would be a crime, yet at this point, the drug companies have avoided any kind of liability. Since Congress is all hot and bothered about deficits and the cost of Medicare/Medicaid, it might want to do something about this unholy practice.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

So, What's The Hold Up?

Interesting bit of news, this. An executive order waiting to be signed by President Obama has got some knickers in a serious twist:

A lobbying battle is raging largely behind the scenes over a seemingly obscure executive order that could — if signed by President Obama — make public the political spending that many corporations can now keep secret.

Under the proposed order, all companies bidding for federal contracts would be required to disclose money spent on political campaign efforts, including dollars forwarded through associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other private groups. ...

The executive order would require any company seeking a federal contract to disclose all of its federal political spending over $5,000 for the previous two years — including contributions to third-party groups.

Some of this information is already available: Government contractors, like all companies, have to disclose contributions to their political action committees, as well as their independent political expenditures. But the proposed order would create one central database — on the website data.gov — listing the political activities of government contractors and their affiliates and officers.

The Chamber of Commerce is going nuts over the proposed order, which comes as no surprise. Since the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, business interests have been pouring money into campaigns via the Chamber and its "non-profit" organizations formed to funnel that money appropriately. "Appropriately" in 2010, of course, meant to Republican candidates, for the most part.

While the executive order would not preclude the donations, it would demolish the secrecy part. We would at least know who the donors are and how much they gave. As these companies bellied up to the federal feeding trough, we'd know how much and, presumably, who paid their admission.

So, why the delay in signing the order?

Well, it seems that Democrats have learned the lessons of 2010, perhaps too well. They also have been busy setting up the organizations to take advantage of the opacity ushered in by Citizens United, and hope to garner some of that free money.

A pox on both of their houses.

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Monday, May 09, 2011

Distressing News

The job market is still pretty bleak, but it's even bleaker for older unemployed workers. You would think that their experience and their knowledge would make them prime candidates for positions that do open up, but, unfortunately for those over 55, you would be wrong.

A number of older job seekers are finding that their age is working against them during this painfully slow recovery. People age 55 and older are unemployed for a year on average — more than two months longer than younger workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some employers are scared away by the higher pay and health care costs that can come with hiring older workers, as well as the perception that an older hire may not be motivated to learn new skills. ...

When they do get a job offer, older workers often have to agree to a much bigger cut in salary. Workers above age 60 were paid $300 a week less on average when they were rehired, compared to $125 less for the overall labor market, according to 2007-2009 data analyzed by Northeastern’s labor market center.

Prospective employers are careful not to talk about age, but older job seekers hear it just the same. Alyse Winston, 57, of Needham, who is looking for work in software quality assurance, had one interviewer tell her: “We really do well with recent college graduates. They have the energy and the momentum, and we can train them our way.’’

Discrimination on the basis of age is illegal, but employers have become more careful in working around the issue so it is difficult for job applicants to get any kind of handle on what is clearly an age knock-out. Frankly, employer reluctance to hire older workers does make some sense, given the botched up healthcare reform which does nothing to reduce the cost of health care insurance for older workers, something making an earlier age for Medicare eligibility would have helped. Still, there are a lot of older workers who could still do the jobs they are being turned away from.

The official unemployment rate for elders is deceptively low. Many have simply left the workforce, drawing social security and on their savings far earlier than they had planned.

Somebody really needs to do something about this or we will soon have a huge underclass of poor elders, people who worked and saved all of their working lives, only to have the pins knocked out from under them.

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Sunday, May 08, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Nikki Giovanni

Knoxville Tennessee

I always like summer
you can eat fresh corn
From daddy's garden
And okra
And greens
And cabbage
And lots of
And buttermilk
And homemade ice-cream
At the church picnic
And listen to
Gospel music
At the church
And go to the mountains with
Your grandmother
And go barefooted
And be warm
All the time
Not only when you go to bed
And sleep

--Nikki Giovanni

Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Lee Judge / The Kansas City Star (May 6, 2011) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Wild Pigs

(Photograph courtesy NASA and published at National Geographic. Click on link to learn what diseases these wild pigs carry.)

A Morning Off

(I'm sleeping in today.)

Friday, May 06, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

The Cost Of Diagnosis

There's an odd opinion piece in today's Los Angeles Times, one that gave me some pause over my first cup of decaf. Written by H. Gilbert Welch, a practicing physician and professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, the article takes the position that one reason for burgeoning health care costs is that doctors are over-diagnosing. They are finding conditions in their patients which in the past would not really be cause for concern or for treatment.

The threshold for diagnosis has fallen too low. Physicians are now making diagnoses in individuals who wouldn't have been considered sick in the past.

Part of the explanation is technological: diagnostic tests able to detect biochemical and anatomic abnormalities that were undetectable in the past. But part of the explanation is behavioral: We look harder for things to be wrong. We test more often, we are more likely to test people who have no symptoms, and we have changed the rules about what degree of abnormality constitutes disease (a fasting blood sugar of 130 was not considered to be diabetes before 1997; now it is). ...

Diagnostic thresholds that are set too low lead in turn to a bigger problem: treatment thresholds that are too low. Diagnosis is the critical entry step into medical care — getting one tends to beget treatment. That's a big reason why we are treating millions more people for high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, glaucoma, depression, heart disease — and even cancer.

To have any hope of controlling healthcare costs, doctors will have to raise their diagnostic and treatment thresholds. And higher thresholds would be good for more than the bottom line. Less diagnosis and treatment of disease would return millions of Americans to normal, healthy lives. That's right: Higher thresholds could well improve health.

At first reading, I was a little appalled at the doctor's assertions. Surely finding the abnormalities is critical in health care. After reading further and thinking about it, I think Dr. Welch is onto something. A 65 year-old woman typically shows some loss in bone density. She also most likely has a spine which shows arthritic changes, perhaps even some 3 millimeter disc bulges in the lumbar spine. To even get to this point, however, that same woman has had some relatively extensive and expensive diagnostic tests. Then, with that diagnosis, she is now faced with treatment which may not necessarily improve her condition and may actually cause new problems (esophageal ulcers or gastrointestinal problems). If all she came into the doctor's office with were some complaints of a sore low back, one that could easily be cured with time, some rest, and a couple of aspirin, then the various diagnoses really are over the top.

As Dr. Welch points out, there are multiple reasons for these expensive diagnoses. Obviously, the technological explosion makes MRI machines readily accessible and doctors use them a lot. Second, the fear of law suits for missed diagnoses certainly plays into it. But there is more, especially in these days when "death panels" and "healthcare rationing" are phrases thrown around so readily:

The movement to measure healthcare quality, however well intended, exacerbates the problem. Many performance metrics measure whether diagnostic tests and treatments are being ordered. Because good grades typically require action, not inaction, lower thresholds are encouraged. And the advent of electronic medical records has made these actions even easier, as more and more of us have the "one-click" option to order tests and treatments.

While I am uneasy with the concept of raising the threshold for diagnosing a condition, Dr. Welch certainly has made some excellent points.


Thursday, May 05, 2011

Meanwhile ...

The general feel-good bipartisan response to the assassination of Osama bin Laden is apparently only for the consumption of the rubes. Back in the House, the GOP has been busy undercutting women's reproductive rights during, of all things, budget considerations.

From the Los Angeles Times:

The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a sweeping antiabortion package to further distance federal funds from the procedure by solidifying existing measures and imposing new ones. ...

The House bill would permanently place into law current policies prohibiting federal money from paying for abortions through Medicaid and some other federal programs. The policies, primarily outlined in the decades-old measure known as the Hyde Amendment, must be periodically renewed.

But the bill also goes further to eliminate what supporters say are indirect federal subsidies for abortion providers.

Under the measure, businesses that offer health insurance policies covering abortion could not recoup tax credits under the new healthcare law. In addition, individuals could not deduct the cost of an abortion when itemizing health expenses on their taxes, nor could they use a tax-exempt savings account to pay for an abortion.

Playing to their basest base as the 2012 elections loom, Republicans justify the unjustifiable with the usual tortured logic:

As Democrats sought to portray these new provisions as part of an extreme social agenda, many Republicans argued that the measure merely reflects the public's will. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), the bill's sponsor and chief advocate, said he hoped the measures would limit access to abortion.

"There is no doubt whatsoever that ending all public funding for abortion saves lives," said Smith, a leading congressional abortion opponent. "When public funding and facilitation isn't available for abortion, children have a greater chance for survival."

Ah, yes: the rights of the preborn.

Of course, once those children are born, the party stalwarts lose all interest, as evidenced by the cuts to the safety nets which allow them to grow up strong and healthy with a shot at a 21st Century education. And their mothers? Well, they need to be punished for their sluttish ruttings.


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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Death Culture

Ink and electrons continue to be spilled on the assassination of Osama bin Laden. The latest revision to the story coming from the White House is that Osama was not armed when the Navy Seals broke into the room Osama was in, but he still resisted so they opened fire. That story still has plenty of gaps so I'm sure we'll be dealing with it as a lead story for at least two more days. Violent death is always a big story in our culture.

Another story on violent death played out 41 years ago. Today is the anniversary of the Kent State massacre when Ohio National Guard opened fire on student protesters at the university, killing four of them and wounding nine others. Their crime? They wanted to end the war in Viet Nam.

Both stories are notable insofar as they involved extra-judicial killings. No judge and jury were involved. While the victims in both are hardly identical, the incidents do show a comfort zone for when and where killing people is deemed acceptable or excusable, even if there has been no trial.

But what about cases in which there have been trials and the sentence is death? Does that ultimately make a difference? Are there times when state sponsored killing of civilians is perfectly acceptable? Apparently the state of California and many other states think so. The only real caveat is that the death be carried out without undue pain and suffering.

California returned to the death penalty in the late '70s, but there have been no executions for several years now because of the pain and suffering issue. The main drug in the lethal injection used by the state is no longer manufactured in the country and is in short supply worldwide, which complicates matters. There is also a federal case pending on the issue of the lethal injection mode used by the state and authorities have been scurrying to come up with a program which will pass muster.

The latest plan has hit a snag, so there will be more delays.

California officials have backed off a drive to resume executions this year, asking a federal judge to delay until at least January his review of revised lethal injection procedures.

The delay means that the state will have gone at least six years without executing any condemned prisoners, who now number 713. ...

Although other death penalty states have scaled back the number of capital charges sought in murder trials, partly out of concern for the soaring costs of maintaining capital punishment, California has bucked the national trend and continued adding to its teeming death row, the nation's largest, experts said.

I suppose the ineptness in finding a way to execute someone which passes constitutional muster is a sort of blessing, but I would much prefer that the government at all levels get out of the business of executions. Yes, there are people who have committed monstrous crimes, there are Osama bin Ladens who threaten our security, but there are surely better answers than engaging in the same act which is at the root of the sentence.

An eye for an eye leads to societal blindness. And that's what ultimately was behind Kent State.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Meanwhile ...

As noted by many of my friends, the news of the assassination of Osama bin Laden has had all sorts of salutary effects, not the least of which are the bumping off the national radar screen the incessant reporting on Donald Trump's latest whinges and the millionth rehash of the styles on display at the royal wedding. But, those shiny keys also has bumped off news that actually have some import in the real world, among them this story from the Sacramento Bee.

Because of budgetary problems, the Sacramento county has had to cut funding for the First 5 Program, one that serves children up to age five with programs to enhance their health and education. The program itself is funded by cigarette taxes, but the money has been diverted from this program by the state to meet budget shortfalls.

The First 5 Sacramento Commission on Monday slashed $48.5 million from programs serving young children in the county.

The cuts were necessary because the state recently took $1 billion in reserve funds from First 5 commissions across California to help balance the state budget.

First 5 Sacramento responded mostly by reducing appropriations by a quarter to one-half for a range of programs over the next five years.
[Emphasis added]

Here are some of the cuts to the program:

A program to add fluoridation to waters in the county to stave off tooth decay;

A breast-feeding program run under the auspices of the federal Women, Infants, and Children agency;

A school-readiness program to prepare youngsters for education, comparable to the pre-schools many of the families could not afford.

And, of course, with the cuts in these programs, the county First 5 program won't need as many staffers, so employees are being laid off now.

This sort of scenario is being played out not only at the local level, but also across the state and the nation, all because tax hikes are off the table, especially when it comes to the privileged, and because deficit spending has become the boogieman du jour.

But the health and welfare of poorer children aren't nearly as interesting as Donald Trump's hair piece or of Kate Middleton Windsor's wedding gown, much less the death of an international nemesis. So we won't be hearing much about it.

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Monday, May 02, 2011

Time To Turn The Page?

I went to bed early last night, so you can imagine my surprise this morning in finding that every newspaper and wire service I scan in the morning filled with the news of the death of Osama bin Laden. After nearly ten years and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the man President George W. Bush said was wanted "Dead or Alive" was now dead.

President Barack Obama's announcement was restrained. He was smart enough to realize that gloating would have been both unseemly and imprudent. Former President George W. Bush's response (found at the same link) was brief and for him almost quiet. The rest of the coverage was not so refined and delicate.

Although I haven't even begun to really process the information, one bit of the news struck a rather deep chord for me. Rather than turning the remains over to his family, Osama's body was buried at sea.

Finding a country willing to accept the remains of the world's most wanted terrorist would have been difficult, the official said. So the U.S. decided to bury him at sea.

In other words, the US wanted to short circuit any dramatic and perhaps excessive mourning by those who sympathized with Osama's cause. I guess that was a prudent move.

It's hard for me to feel any relief at the announcement. I do know that one of things I've learned over my nearly 65 years is that revenge is rarely sweet, especially in the long run. And I certainly don't feel any safer now that Osama has left the earthly plane. I'm sure there will be a violent response to his death, if not here in this country, then in another. And we still haven't adequately addressed just why Al Qaeda chose to embark on its jihad against the West, particularly the US.

All we have done over the past ten years is erode 200 years of civil liberties in the name of security, and I don't think those liberties will be returned to us even now that the bogeyman has been dispatched.


Sunday, May 01, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Langston Hughes

Walkers With The Dawn

Being walkers with the dawn and morning,
Walkers with the sun and morning,
We are not afraid of night,
Nor days of gloom,
Nor darkness--
Being walkers with the sun and morning.

--Langston Huges

Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Mike Luckovich and published April 24, 2011 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Click on image to enlarge.)