Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Strict Construction

New Utah Senator Deconstructs the Constitution

            We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.” –Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865.
            Mike Lee is the new Republican senator from Utah. He replaced John Ensign, also a Republican, who left amidst allegations of ethics violations.
            Sen. Lee is about the most coherent Republican I’ve heard speak in a long time. He certainly beats out the current clutch of GOP presidential hopefuls, whose attempts to communicate usually amount to repeating the latest mantras of Faux-Limbaugh. Lee is different. His arguments are cogent and he seems to believe what he’s saying. He is intellectually consistent. He scares the hell out of me.
            Here’s what he had to say about taxation at a town hall meeting in Fairview, UT, on August 30th. (You can hear the whole thing at http://www.c-span.org/Events/Senator-Mike-Lee-R-UT-Town-Hall-Meeting/10737423846/.)
            “At the 50,000-foot level, the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty, and property. Government can’t do – government shouldn’t try to do – for me that which would be immoral for me to do by myself. The government shouldn’t, just because I know that it’s wrong for me to rob from my neighbor and take my neighbor’s money for myself, I shouldn’t enlist the government and outsource it as an agent to do that for me.
            “When we pay taxes, we pay, as it were, at the point of a gun – not literally, it’s really at the point of a pencil or a pen. But we know that if we don’t pay them, eventually some guys with guns will come to our house and then we’ll have to pay them. So we just pay them. So we need to be careful about what we use government for, and I think we have to use government for only those things that no one else can do, that we really can’t do for ourselves, and that usually involves protection of life, liberty, and property.”
            So, Lee believes, such government activities as welfare payments, disaster relief, medical assistance, research and development, educational support, and the like are immoral. The government takes money from some and gives it to others, and that’s just simple theft. I don’t know if he includes special tax breaks for corporations, agricultural price supports, and bail-outs for banks and brokerages. And isn’t taking a smaller percentage of the money earned by trading stocks than that taken from money earned through employment sort of immoral, as well?
            Anyway, Sen. Lee gave the following interpretation about what the U.S. Constitution allows the federal government to do:
            “Now, you won’t find in (the Constitution) any power that says Congress has the power to make everything fair. You won’t find anything in here that says Congress has the power to relieve suffering wherever it may exist, or to make things more just or equitable in society generally. You won’t find any power in there that says Congress can tell you where to go to the doctor and how to pay for it. You won’t find anything in here that says Congress can tell you that you have to buy health insurance, not just any health insurance but that kind of health insurance that Congress in its infinite wisdom deems necessary for you to buy.
            “What you will find in here is the power for Congress to take care of a few basic things: national defense, regulating trade between the states and with foreign nations, regulating trademarks, copyrights, and patents, a uniform system of weights and measures, the federal court system, a federal bankruptcy system, declaring war, taking care of federally-owned property, and my personal favorite power of Congress, the power to grant letters of marque and reprisal. That’s a hall pass that allows you to be a pirate in the name of the United States. I’m going to get one some day. So, that’s the power of the government in a nutshell. That’s the purpose of the federal government, as I understand it, in the Constitution. There are a few other powers, but that’s it in a nutshell.”
            Under those limitations, one wonders what the Founders thought Congress would do, or why they took so much time to create two diverse bodies within it. Were they expected to meet for just a couple days every two years to approve a new official definition of the ounce, approve a trade agreement with Zanzibar, and go home? Apparently Lee thinks so.
            I am always bemused by way Republicans ignore the very start of our Constitution, where are set out its reasons for being: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
            Article One, Section 7, says: “Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate shall, before it becomes a law, be presented to the President of the United States.” It then goes through the procedures required in case of a presidential veto, and concludes, “it shall become a law.” I cannot conceive that the Founders put together this complicated structure just to allow Congress to redefine the ounce and the handful of other powers enumerated. But that’s what Sen. Lee thinks.
            Under his standard, the Erie Canal should have been solely a project of the states it crossed. The land-grant colleges are just legalized theft from the citizens – and, for that matter, so were the various homestead acts. Private enterprise should have gone to the moon, not the federal government. The Soil Bank, the interstate highway system, Amtrak, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, federal assistance to education, all of our efforts to insure civil rights and equality, and so many other projects and programs that have helped this country grow and prosper were all illegal, unconstitutional, and morally wrong.
            This is a bizarre and dangerous conception of the Constitution, but Mike Lee presents it clearly and convincingly. We’ll hear more from him.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Half of Us Pay No Income Tax

Give Them Jobs and They Will Be Happy to Pay

            A recent talking point of the Republican Party is that something like half of our citizens are not paying income taxes. Gov. Rick Perry, R-TX, a recent addition to the GOP presidential candidate loony bin, said he was “dismayed by the injustice” of this fact.
            It is a fact, and it is a dismaying fact, but not for the reason Perry gives – that it’s an injustice. What is dismaying is that half of our people make so little money that they don’t have to pay income tax.
            You know from filling out your own tax forms how much you have to make to pay income tax: more than the standard deduction. That’s $11,600 per adult and $3,700 (actually an exemption and not a deduction) per child. That allows a typical family of four to make $30,600 that’s not subject to income tax.
            These numbers are scarcely larger than the federal government’s poverty guidelines, published annually by the Department of Health and Human Services. The corresponding figures in the 2011 chart are $10,890 for an adult and $22,350 for a family of four. (The figures are higher in Alaska and Hawaii.)
            What these numbers tell us is that about half of our people are in poverty or damned close to it, and that is truly dismaying.
            This is not to say that these people pay no taxes. There are no deductions for Social Security and Medicare contributions, and those in poverty pay a high percentage of their income in sales taxes because they essentially spend all of their money. They don’t have money to invest, so they can’t take advantage of reduced capital gains taxes. They don’t have money to hire tax attorneys, so they often don’t know about ways to reduce their tax expenses.
            These are the people Perry and others are disparaging for not paying their fair share of the cost of government. Income inequality is greater now than it has been since the Great Depression, and this is the result. Capital is lording over Labor, and setting the agenda in Congress and state governments. Don’t you dare increase taxes on the wealthy, they say – go get what you need from all those freeloaders who aren’t paying their share.
            What we should be doing is providing these people with jobs, good jobs, so they can begin to pay taxes and, more importantly, participate in the “American Dream.”
            The increase in the number of those in poverty did not come from those who have more than they need. It came from the middle class. Until St. Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, our middle class was growing. He set about to dismantle it, his followers have continued the process, and they have just about succeeded.
            There are things we can do to reverse this trend. We can stop giving corporations tax breaks for moving jobs out of the country. We can increase tariffs on goods produced by workers without the basic benefits we require for our own workers. We can give tax breaks to companies that increase domestic jobs. We can adjust the tax rates on the very wealthy and on corporations.
            You will notice that every one of these actions is opposed by the Republican Party and the Tea Party, but I think the electorate is beginning to realize that their positions on these issues are really hurting the United States.
            I think the basic definition of a Third World country is that it has a tiny but strong wealthy class and a huge but weak working class. The Republican Party has worked for years to create just that – a Third World country – in the United States of America. It will succeed if we let it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


“Tact in audacity is knowing how far you can go without going too far.” –Jean Cocteau, 1889-1963.

Michelle Bachmann can’t pronounce it, but Mitch McConnell’s got it.

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word that means gall, audacity, nerve, impertinence, insolence, hubris, guts, etc. You can probably think of at least one plural spherical synonym that’s very close to its meaning. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-MN, said the other day that President Obama had chutzpah, annoying Jewish voters because she pronounced it “choots-pah” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9_mWlXvKnq8). The pronunciation is closer to “khuts-pah,” and is hard to write in English because we don’t use that sound much.

Rep. Bachmann has often demonstrated her own chutzpah in the past, but Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, takes the Chutzpah Award for the week. That’s quite a feat in this Congress.

McConnell realized that the Teabags in the House of Representatives were not going to let a compromise happen in the current debt ceiling negotiation, so he came up with a face-saving proposal that, as I write this, may actually be what ends this ridiculous but gravely dangerous charade. The minority leader suggested giving Obama the authority to raise the debt ceiling, subject to congressional approval. The House would surely vote against any such increase, but the Senate wouldn’t have the 60 votes necessary to bring it to a vote, so it would go into effect.

Is that clear? Right. As mud.

What’s the point? If Obama raises the debt ceiling, as he must do, all the Republicans can vote against it and blame him for doing it. The only problem is that they have to pass the bill that sets it up.

This is about as clear as the procedure whereby a senator asks for unanimous consent to give a bill a second reading, then objects to his own request. No kidding, that happens. It’s procedural. So is McConnell’s concoction. But if it allows us to move forward without defaulting on our debt payments, I’m all for it.

The chutzpah came in when McConnell was interviewed by talk-show host Laura Ingraham and discussed his plan. He said if Republicans were to force default, President Obama would probably win in 2012. (He said earlier this year that his top priority was to make Obama a one-term president, so he wouldn’t want that.) Voters, he said, might think Republicans were making the economy worse.

(And here comes the chutzpah.) “You know,” he said, “it’s an argument he has a good chance of winning, and all of a sudden we have co-ownership of a bad economy.”

I don’t know whether to respond to that statement with extreme umbrage, outraged astonishment, or bottomless sarcasm, so I think I’ll try all three.

During the Bush Jr. administration, two major wars were begun, one of them under false pretenses, and taxes were cut, twice, because every Republican knows that the only way to improve the economy is to cut taxes. Moreover, for years Republicans had been chipping away at the safeguards on banks and stockbrokers that had been put in place after the Great Depression, and finally, just before Mr. Obama was to take the oath of office, the whole damned thing collapsed.

You own that, Mitch! We’re not about to accept joint tenancy of that fiasco.

Under those watered-down restrictions, those who have and play with money managed to reduce the value of our entire country by about forty percent just weeks before Bush returned to cutting brush in Texas. People were mad, and mad they should have been. But a year and a half later, President Obama hadn’t put everyone back to work, so they voted for the Republicans again.

What McConnell is really saying is that the U.S. electorate has the attention span of a mosquito, and his party has done a pretty good job of blaming Obama for all the ills of the past decade, but if the GOP sticks to its hard-line stand now, voters might just remember that in November of next year. He’s betting that voters won’t remember the vote to give Obama the power to raise the debt ceiling if every Republican in Congress votes against it a few days later when he exercises that power.

The man’s got… uh, chutzpah.

Friday, July 15, 2011


(That’s New Mexican for Hot Links)

Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.” Ray Bradbury.

My “Favorites” list has gotten out of hand again, so it’s time to make the sausages. I thought I’d start with some technological advances that are in the works or at least are claimed to be. New technology is how we’re going to have to get out of the fiscal slump we’re in and start moving forward again.

Cyanobacteria: Here’s the concept: build solar panels filled with water and blue-green algae (yes, the stuff they were touting as a nutritional supplement a few years ago), more formally known as cyanobacteria, that have been bio-engineered to excrete something that can be used as diesel fuel. Pump in carbon dioxide – an unwanted byproduct from a nearby factory – as food for the algae, and pump out fuel from the other end. It sounds promising: http://www.jouleunlimited.com/

Megawindmills: If you’ve seen semi trucks carrying individual blades for windmills that generate electricity, you know these things have gotten huge. Just how big can they get? A 23-million-Euro project in Denmark called “UpWind” aims to find out. The biggest windmills today produce five to six megawatts; UpWind is working to see if a 20 MW monster could be mechanically and economically feasible: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110415083320.htm

Infrastricture: Sometimes we can’t move forward until we figure out where we’ve gone wrong in the past. Here’s a website that calls into question our post-war reliance on suburbs as the appropriate mechanism of growth. The problem is that single-family houses are built on lots that are too big to allow utilities to be maintained. The roads, sidewalks, and water and sewer lines have too far to travel between connections, and there isn’t critical mass to support transit facilities. Dense developments surrounded by open space may be the solution: http://www.grist.org/sprawl/2011-06-22-the-american-suburbs-are-a-giant-ponzi-scheme

Got fungi? They’ll eat up an oil spill, decontaminate water, kill the termites under your house, even break down nerve gas. If you’re only familiar with fungi in the form of button mushrooms or athlete’s foot, you’ve got a lot to learn. You could find worse ways to spend 18 minutes than by watching Paul Stamets’s video about fungi and how they can save the world: http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_stamets_on_6_ways_mushrooms_can_save_the_world.html

Got magic? This one is a little bit on the far side, but it still has to do with mushrooms saving the world. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers found that psilocybin, found in “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms,” as some call them, not only improves your life, it has long-lasting positive effects. Seems like someone told me that 40 years ago; they were illegal back then, too: http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/06/magic-mushrooms-safe-still-illegal

Floating cannon ball: This one’s really out there, but it’s fun. Canadian scientist John Hutchinson bombarded a 75-pound cannon ball “with high-frequency waves produced by Tesla coils, radio waves, and Van de Graaf waves” and made it float. Is this what allows UFOs to change course instantaneously while traveling at high speeds? See for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WK-BziiId_0&feature=share

Déjà vu all over again: Well, back to politics. Political scientist Laurence Britt studied fascist regimes, including Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Suharto’s Indonesia, and Pinochet’s Chile, and came up with fourteen common traits. The list is eerily familiar: http://www.ellensplace.net/fascism.html

Another Fave Fourteen: Here’s another list of 14 things that is strangely similar to the previous one: http://www.truth-out.org/14-propaganda-techniques-fox-news-uses-brainwash-americans/1309612678

Trickle up: Profits are way up at the Fortune 500 companies. How’s that working out for us? http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/05/05/163747/fortune-500-corporations-81/

Meanwhile, back at the board room: CEOs of the Standard & Poor’s 500 companies (probably about the same as the Fortune 500) made more in 2010 than they did in 2007, before the excrement contacted the oscillator: http://apnews.excite.com/article/20110506/D9N1UMKO1.html

Perspective: House Republicans have proposed cutting the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) by over $830 million. Pat Garofalo points out that this is roughly equivalent to one week of the revenues we would have collected from millionaires if Congress had not extended the Bush tax cuts last December: http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2011/06/02/234878/gop-nutrition-cuts-one-week/

Is our military too big? We have 5% of the world’s population but account for almost half of worldwide military spending. This is one of 13 facts that may surprise you:   http://www.businessinsider.com/facts-about-defense-spending-2010-11#

Pipelineistan: Why are we in Afghanistan? Is it to crush the “50-75 ‘al-Qaeda types’ in Afghanistan” (supposedly a CIA quote) now that bin Laden is gone? Here’s an interesting perspective, from what Wikipedia describes as the ”independent broadcaster owned by the state of Qatar: http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/07/2011711121720939655.html

Something completely different: Even I get tired of politics. Here’s a collection of recipes for one of the most astonishing substances on earth: dandelion wine. Enjoy! http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/dandelion.asp

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Debt Limit Must Be Raised

Everything Is Compromise

“In war, the strong make slaves of the weak, and in peace the rich make slaves of the poor.” – Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900.

Congress will raise the debt limit. If Congress doesn’t raise the debt limit in the next few days – before August 2nd at the very latest – the world will face economic collapse. Yes, there are Teabags who hope that will happen, but there will be enough “cool heads” to avoid default and its dire consequences. Congress will raise the debt limit.

What is despicable is how long this whole process is taking. It is not something new, something out of the blue.

In June, 2002, Congress raised the debt ceiling to $6.400 trillion; in May, 2003, to $7.384 trillion; in November, 2004, to $8.184 trillion; in March, 2006, to $8.965 trillion; in September, 2007, to $9.815 trillion; in July, 2008, to $10.615 trillion; in October, 2008, to $11.315 trillion; in February, 2009, to $12.104 trillion; in December, 2009, to $12.394 trillion; and in February, 2010, to the current limit of $14.294 trillion. (See http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/hist07z3.xls.)

The only question left is how the compromise will look. We are involved in the age-old conflict over what government should do and how it should be paid for.

The Republican Party discovered a few decades ago that the best way to influence the electorate was to select only a few very simple messages and repeat them until people start believing them to be true, ignoring all facts and complications and nuances. The utter and obvious inanity of St. Ronald Reagan’s assertion that government can’t solve our problems because government is our problem didn’t stop him, or his many disciples in the intervening years, from making it.

The current message is equally simple and equally inane: “We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.” The only basis for this assertion is repetition, and they all repeat it. It falls apart if you give it the most casual inspection, but they still repeat it.

You can certainly find fraud, waste, abuse, duplication, redundancy, tautology, inefficiency, obsolescence, obstinacy, inequality, cronyism, paternalism, elitism, and all sorts of well-beaten-but-still-well-funded dead horses in the federal budget, and there is a lot of money that can be saved by weeding these things out, but doing so is not going to solve our fiscal problems.

You can cut the throats of those already hurting the most by cutting unemployment compensation, nutrition assistance for pregnant women, Food Stamps, literacy programs, home care, and Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Health Care Act, but doing so is not going to solve our fiscal problems.

You can curtail the space program and let our highways and railroads and water lines and sewer lines and electric lines all go unmended, but doing so is not going to solve our fiscal problems.

You can get the government out of the business of regulating business, but in doing so you will allow a return to the excesses of the banks and stock brokers, and the poisoning of our food, air, and water; you will permit child labor, illegal immigrant labor, and labor under unfair and hazardous conditions – and doing so is not going to solve our fiscal problems.

Yes, we have a spending problem – but we have a much greater revenue problem. In order to put a cap on our federal debt, we’re going to have to stop operating at a deficit, and that means we need to bring in a lot of money.

Unfortunately, you can’t just raise the taxes on the obscenely rich, or the filthy rich, or the extremely rich, or the very rich, or the rich, or even on everybody and everything that moves, and solve our fiscal problems.

What we must do is get our engine running again, running well and leaving everybody else in its dust. This is something we have done many times in our history, and there is absolutely no reason why we can’t do it again.

To do this again we need to support education and research and development. We haven’t been doing those things very well recently. The cumulative knowledge and awareness of the average U.S. citizen is woefully inadequate to the needs of the present era. We have to fix that.

We used to expect our high school graduates to know how to read, write a legible sentence, make change, know the basics of government and geography, and have a measure of common sense. These days we can’t even expect that of our college graduates! Our children won’t be able to invent the new technologies we need with that kind of preparation. Children in other countries will have that ability.

We need to use our technological prowess to guarantee we will keep that prowess. We have the tools to reform our educational system, and we need to use them. Our present school is modeled after Henry Ford’s assembly line, and it doesn’t work.

We need to use our technological prowess to reform our medical system from top to bottom. We used to spend about five percent of our money for medicine, but today we’re getting close to spending a quarter of all our income to stay healthy or tend to our illnesses. We can’t keep doing that.

We need to re-evaluate our military position in the world. After World War II, when Europe was in shambles and the Soviet Union was spending every extra ruble on war toys, it was appropriate for us to take the lead. Things have changed. Other countries need to start spending more to help protect the world, and we need to spend much less. We need to use our technological prowess to create a smaller but more efficient military machine, and use it very sparingly.

We need to re-evaluate how our government and our nation interact with corporations. We need to reward those that provide good jobs at home and penalize those that move their jobs elsewhere. We need to restrict corporate donations to elected officials, even if that means we have to amend the Constitution. We need to restrict financial institutions and watch them carefully.

We need to develop new sources of energy and recognize the influence of the petroleum industry over our elected officials. This industry is as outdated as our schools are.

And those are just the first things that come to mind. We have to start collecting more than we spend so we can start paying down our debt. To do that we must energize the economy and ensure that it will continue to be viable. We can cut spending and we can increase revenue through new taxes or tax reform, but we must rev up our economic engine to get out of the hole we’re in.

But first, we have to raise our debt limit again. If we don’t we’re doomed to experience a depression of huge scope and duration, and we’ll bring the rest of the world down with us.

Congress will raise the debt limit. The sooner the better.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

McCain Makes a Stand Again

Opposing the Right-Wing Media Takes Courage

“These are questions that every member of Congress needs to think about long and hard, but especially my Republican colleagues.” –Sen. John McCain.

In what has been a stifling atmosphere since the present Congress convened in January, I appreciate any breath of fresh air that stirs the lockstep Republican miasma. Once again, Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, has provided a bit of a breeze.

He made the above comment this morning in reference to participation of the United States in NATO‘s military operation in Libya. Our role in the action has been limited to missile and drone strikes and the like, and we have put no troops on the ground there. Yesterday the Obama Administration made the assertion that because our involvement was limited in this way, it doesn’t require congressional approval under the War Powers Act of 1973.

That act requires the president to inform Congress within 48 hours after committing forces, and limits military actions to 60 days, with a 30-day withdrawal period, unless war is declared or Congress authorizes more time.

Sen. McCain was not supporting the White House in its assertion that what we are doing in Libya is exempt from this restriction, but he did make a strong case in favor of the action itself.

Lots of GOP members of Congress have criticized President Obama for supporting the NATO mission, and there is Democratic opposition as well. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-OH, has announced that he is suing the president for violating the War Powers Act.

But many of the Republicans who are now chastising Obama for his decision were among the most vocal, before he acted, in calling on him to do something for the poor, oppressed people in Libya. Such legislators make it clear that it is the president himself they really oppose, and they appear to be quite oblivious to the hypocrisy of their reversed positions.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about our participation in Libya; I think most of us do. I see a valid point in the argument that Congress needs to authorize further action. I am not going to imitate the lockstep Republicans and defend the administration at all costs. I think Kucinich’s lawsuit is an appropriate way to determine the scope of the War Powers Act and its restraint on executive power. In this case, especially, the law is not clear.

What I found refreshing in McCain’s speech this morning was his exhortation to fellow lawmakers to consider involvement in Libya itself, not just the fact that it was ordered by a president from the opposing party.

“Many of us remember well the way that some of our friends on the other side of the aisle savaged President Bush over the Iraq war, how they sought to do everything in their power to tie his hands and pull America out of that conflict…” he said. “We were right to condemn this behavior then, and we would be wrong to practice it now ourselves simply because a leader of the opposite party occupies the White House.”

Wow! And there’s more:

“Republicans need to ask themselves whether they want to be part of a group who are earning the grateful thanks of a murderous tyrant or trying to limit an American president’s ability to force that tyrant to leave power.”

For the second time in less than a month, McCain has spoken out against the politically correct GOP dogma. The first time was his condemnation of the assertion that torture of U.S. prisoners had helped track down Osama bin Laden. This time he stood in opposition to the most basic Republican tenet: anything President Obama does is wrong.

In between those two events we saw what happened to Newt Gingrich when he called the Ryan plan to dismantle Medicare “right wing social engineering.” The Faux-Limbaugh echo chamber almost blew a 50-amp fuse on that one, and Newt couldn’t backtrack, recant, apologize, or temporize quickly enough.

McCain escaped unscathed the first time; it’s hard to second-guess a man who was in captivity for years when he gives his opinion about torture. Will he get by with it this time?

I think so. He’s not running for president this time around, so his candidacy can’t be shot down, and he still commands a lot of respect from rank-and-file Republicans and independents who supported him in 2008. He was re-elected to his Senate seat just last year, so he can afford to speak out.

And usually McCain can be counted on to toe the party line. He’s careful about choosing the issues on which he differs from it. But that gives even more weight to his words when does decide to play the “maverick.”

I think both of his stances are courageous in the face of the bulldozer tactics of the right-wing media. I am reminded of the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Everyone was so frightened of communists, or of being accused of being one, that McCarthy was able to trample the rights of many innocent people and pervert the protections of the Bill of Rights as he crusaded against them. Finally, some courageous Republicans stood up to him and he quickly crumbled.

Faux News and the Limbaugh clones are just as vicious, and just as wrong, as Joseph McCarthy was. It is heartening to see at least some resistance to their excesses.

Keep it up, Sen. McCain!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My Fellow Boomers:

An Open Letter

"There is absolutely no greater high than challenging the power structure as a nobody, giving it your all, and winning!" – Abbie Hoffman, 1936-1989.

I remember walking through a parking lot with my mother when I was quite young.

“Look, Morrie,” she said, pointing, “a two-toned car!” She explained that this was a new fad in Detroit, where they made cars. I thought about it a moment and then asked why cars didn’t come in lots of colors.

Two-toned 1955 Packard

“Well!” she responded, “I think two colors are quite enough!” She made it clear from her tone that this was something dangerously close to cultural excess, a disturbing distortion of the envelope of propriety.

This was in the 1950s, just after many thousands of young men had come home from World War II, where they had all worn uniforms and functioned in a strict hierarchal system. They exchanged their old uniforms for new ones: the gray flannel suit, the wide tie, the fedora. Their wives wore gloves and hats with veils and only wore white shoes in months without “r”s, or whatever that rule was. Any deviation from the norm was unsettling and subjected the “deviant” to possible censure.

Making up for lost opportunity, they had lots of kids – so many that the press started talking about a “baby boom.” That’s where we came in.

Most everyone agreed that we were “spoiled,” that our generation was better off than any before it, but that didn’t mean we were happier. We had lots of toys and unprecedented opportunities, but we saw flaws in the culture that had provided them.

We didn’t want to wear gloves or fedoras and we saw nothing wrong with two-toned or even fifty-toned cars. We would have been satisfied with fewer toys if that had reduced the stress caused by our parents’ pursuit of material advancement and superficial appearances. The pundits of the day called it “keeping up with the Joneses,” and we didn’t buy into it. We had to live behind the façades. We were the Jones kids.

Eventually we went to college, or we went to war, or we went to the streets – or all three.

I entered college in the fall of 1965. In June there had been about 23,000 U.S. “advisors” in Vietnam or on the way. Before the year ended there were 184,000, and the charade that they weren’t simply soldiers evaporated. Ever more thousands were added, and before I graduated the total exceeded half a million. The draft was reinstituted and student deferments were cancelled.

Most of us smoked pot and a lot of us dropped acid, and so did the musicians we listened to. We turned on, dropped out, went back to nature, burned our bras (or stood by watching and enjoying it), let our hair grow, made love not war, invented ecology, took our shoes off, gave peace a chance, didn’t trust anyone over 30, ate brown rice, went to concerts with light shows, and participated in sit-ins, love-ins, and lots of other “-ins.” At least a quarter of our vocabulary was comprised of the words “wow,” “groovy,” “man,” “cool,” “like,” and “really,” usually in combinations like “Wow, man, like really groovy, man!”

(If you’ve forgotten what it was like, go back and read your Zap Comix and watch a few Cheech and Chong movies.)

We really thought we were changing the world, and for a while we really were. We ended a pointless war. We helped to break down centuries of prejudice against women and minorities and we ignored economic class distinctions. We respected not only fellow humans but all of Earth’s denizens. We crippled the power structure in the music industry and wreaked havoc on institutions of higher learning. We were open to new things. It was beautiful, man, really beautiful!

But of course it wasn’t. Not all of it. There were nightmares, too. The worst was the way many of us who weren’t soldiers treated those who were when they came home. Our “free love” was often used as an excuse to brush aside those who loved us. Our experiments with marijuana left some of us dazed and useless on some couch as the years went by, or even led us into the darker holes of harsher substances.

Perhaps the most disappointing shortcoming was our political evolution. We saw the excesses and injustices of the generations that came before us, and we all sang with Mr. Dylan as he wondered how many years it could continue. We took to the streets to protest these wrongs and make them right, but when Richard Nixon started replacing soldiers with bombers we sort of forgot about it. We had railed against our parents’ ridiculous social conventions, but we simply replaced them with new ones. It wasn’t the same line, but we all toed it.

And then it was gone. Money managers replaced flower children; cocaine and eventually double lattes replaced pot; sexting replaced free love; “drill down” replaced “groovy;” Beemers and then SUVs replaced hippie vans; and The Tea Party replaced the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. It isn’t the same line, but lots of us are toeing it.

Economic class snobbery and prejudice and pointless wars have made big comebacks, trashing the planet is in vogue again, and some of us have adopted yet another ridiculous set of social conventions. It’s “Alice in Wonderland” all over again, but this time with diamonds instead of hearts. The caterpillar still makes no sense. The Dormouse still ends up in the tea kettle.

After all these years, now that we’re all hitting thirty-something for the second time, can’t we sit back and look at where that “long, strange trip” has led us? We were always prone to take to the streets and yell and shake our fists, and less likely to listen and ponder and check things for accuracy. We think of ourselves as lone wolves, but we’re often just sheep in wolves’ clothing.

There are lots of problems left, and while we helped solve some of them, we also made some of them worse. Maybe we should look at ourselves through the same critical eyes that once stripped our parents of their pretensions. Maybe this time we can get beyond simplistic slogans and unquestioned assumptions.

There was a time when our generation woke up, realized that everything and everyone in the world was interconnected, and found the awareness that love was the most important thing we could give or receive. For that brief time, we knew that our fellow humans were infinitely more important than money or cars or a new dining room set or the guns and bullets with which they could be so easily killed.

It’s time to wake up again.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Lose This Word!


            In the 2007 Miss Teen USA contest, the finalist from South Carolina was asked why she thought it was that a fifth of Americans couldn’t find the United States on a world map. Her answer was mind-bogglingly incoherent and thus hilarious, and the YouTube video of it has racked up 50 million hits (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj3iNxZ8Dww). I must add that her smile was quite winning.
            What seemed to bother most people about her answer was her use of the term “U.S. Americans,” as if this were a stupid tautology. Nobody seemed to mind that she called the country where we’ve been fighting for a decade “The Eye-rack.” Twice.
             Well, I don’t think she was all that wrong in specifying which Americans she meant.
            There are (according to Wikipedia) fifteen countries or territories in South America, with a combined population of almost 400 million people. In North America, there are 43 countries and territories (including Central America and the Caribbean), with a total population of about 542 million.
            The United States of America (heavy on the “of”) is just one country with about a third of all those people.
            Yes, I am saying Canadians are Americans, too – as are Mexicans, Falkland Islanders, Brazilians, and even (gasp) Cubans.
            And yes, I realize that if you say you’re an American almost anywhere in the world, the hearer will assume you mean you’re from the United States. Katharine Lee Bates probably didn’t have Tierra del Fuego in mind when she wrote “America the Beautiful,” although the shining seas she speaks of meet down there.
            It’s just that I appreciate accuracy, and I resent those who seem to think everyone on the other side of an imaginary line is somehow inferior.
            Lyndon Johnson was famous for beginning his presidential addresses with “My fellow Americans,” and many of his successors have done the same, but I appreciate Barak Obama for ending his addresses with “…and may God bless the United States of America.” Perhaps he is sensitive to our usurpation of the word from our neighbors.

            If you enjoy speaking English precisely, please check out my other blog: http://losethisword.blogspot.com/.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Lose This Word!


            There is very little need for this word. It is imprecise, gender-specific, and confusing.
            Article 1, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution begins as follows: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” The proper terms for members of Congress are, therefore, “senator” and “representative.” A “congressman,” if such a word had any utility, would be a male senator or representative.
            “Congress” includes both houses, but the ubiquitous use of the word “congressman” as synonymous with “representative” confuses many people, who think there are two legislative bodies, the Senate and the Congress.
            As for the gender-specific problem, it results in such unnecessary constructions as “congresswoman” and “congressperson” to specify, respectively, a female representative or a non-gender-specific representative.
            Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-TN, refers to herself in her official correspondence as “Congressman Blackburn.” I can see doing that with a word such as “chairman,” which is a title for a presiding officer, or “airman,” which is a military rank, but in this case it is simply unnecessary.
            “Representative” has two more syllables than does “congressman,” and as such might take a bit more energy to utter, but it is far preferable. If a catch-all term is needed to describe someone elected to Congress, try “federal legislator” or “member of Congress.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

McCain Takes the High Road

Gingrich Wallows in the Mire

“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear.” – Sen. John McCain.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I’m a Democrat and seldom have good things to say about Republicans. There are exceptions, though, and today’s posting is one of them.

The back-story, of course, is that the whackadoodle fringe of the Republican Party received a double blow earlier this month. Not only did President Obama produce a copy of his original birth certificate, with signatures and all, just a few days later he announced that Osama bin Laden had been found in Pakistan and killed.

Desperate for some way to spin at least some of this to their advantage, several rabid right spokesdorks suggested that bin Laden would never have been found without George Bush, Jr.’s “enhanced interrogation” measures early in the war. That sterile phrase translates into water-boarding and other forms of torture and elicits the dreadful images of Abu Ghraib.

Michael Mukasey, who was one of Bush’s egregious attorneys general, said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information – including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.”

McCain knows a lot about torture. He was shot down in Vietnam in 1967 and was a prisoner of war there until 1973. He was repeatedly tortured and deals with the physical effects to this day.

Mukasey’s suggestion that U.S. torture led to bin Laden’s capture appeared in the Washington Post, and that’s where McCain rebutted him in an op-ed piece on May 11th. He responded to Mukasey’s claim quoted above by saying, “That is false.”

He also said, “Individuals might forfeit their life as punishment for breaking laws, but even then, as recognized in our Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, they are still entitled to respect for their basic human dignity, even if they have denied that right to others.”

And that’s the point, isn’t it? We cannot preserve and extol our treasured rights and freedoms by denying them to others. We cannot legitimize torture in some foreign land or in some maximum-security prison without staining the very principles we are supposedly defending.

There was more from the apologists – search Rick Santorum and Dick Cheney if you want to know more – I don’t – but they were careful not to slander McCain himself, which is something new. It is refreshing to see a Republican draw a line that he won’t cross without having all the other elephants dump on him.

Before he ran for president, Sen. McCain was known as a statesman and someone who worked for bipartisan progress. His fellow Republicans called him a “maverick” because he didn’t always toe the party line – and it wasn’t always a term of endearment. He seemed to relinquish that title, even while he wrapped himself in it, in his campaign against Barak Obama. Perhaps now he can claim it again. (See McCain’s full text at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/bin-ladens-death-and-the-debate-over-torture/2011/05/11/AFd1mdsG_story.html.)

Of all the issues that call out for righteous rejection by Republicans who still claim some vestige of honor, the defense of torture is perhaps the most important, and the most obvious. McCain’s principled refusal to condone “enhanced interrogation” shows courage and conviction that have been scarce among GOP legislators. Maybe it will encourage others in the party to speak out against their colleagues who go too far.

Unfortunately, it didn’t inspire Newt Gingrich, who stepped out of line by calling Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan “right wing social engineering” on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Despite the accuracy of his statement, he was castigated and pilloried and left for dead by the right wing echo chamber, and instead of defending his remark, he proceeded to apologize and make the bizarre excuse that he had been tricked into saying it.

Then, on Faux News, he came up with the ultimate denial, saying, “any ad which quotes what I said Sunday is a falsehood.”

No statesman Newt. Needless to say, his fledgling presidential campaign sank before it hit the water. Thank goodness.

May isn’t over, but so far it’s been a bad month for Republicans and their presidential hopefuls. The birth certificate did in Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich self-destructed, and Mike Huckabee decided he didn’t have enough fire in his belly. Osama bin Laden’s death gave President Obama a bump in the polls. Paul Ryan’s attempt to dismantle Medicare isn’t playing in Peoria, or anywhere else. Just yesterday, the Democratic candidate in a “safe” Republican district in New York won a House seat. Glenn Beck was apparently fired and Rush Limbaugh’s ratings are in the toilet. And what’s left of the GOP presidential bullpen seems to be populated by klutzes fresh off the farm-team.

But in the long run, Republicans can be proud of their former standard-bearer and once-and-perhaps-future maverick and statesman, John McCain.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Some Want Our Schools to Fail

A Successful Society Honors Its Teachers

“If a seed of lettuce will not grow, we do not blame the lettuce. Instead, the fault lies with us for not having nourished the seed properly.” – Buddhist proverb.

The subject of education is difficult to approach. We know there is much that is wrong with our present educational system, but there is no consensus about what the problems are. To make matters worse, there are people out there who really do not want to improve education.

Some of those people are parents. Among them are those who cannot find the time to care about their children, for whatever reason, but many are people who didn’t get much out of school themselves. Our educational system failed them, and they expect it to fail their children.

As I see it, they send their children to school wearing the dunce caps they once wore.

It has been shown many times that lack of education leads to lack of income. Lack of income forces people to live in substandard housing, which is usually clustered with other substandard housing. Schools in such areas do not perform well compared with schools in more affluent areas.

And that is the primary problem (there are many others) with the concept of “No Child Left Behind.” This act of Congress, signed by President George Bush, Jr. less than four months after the 9-11 tragedy, penalizes poorly-performing schools without regard to the obvious connection between lack of education and lack of income and parental support.

NCLB makes the assumption that teachers are at fault. We’ve all had poor ones, and it would be nice to be able to weed them out, but teachers cannot be evaluated only by how well their students perform. Other factors must be considered.

Some parents are a problem, mostly because of their lack of support, but there are forces out there with a more diabolical agenda.

Teachers have been assailed on another front recently. Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin pushed through a measure to strip his state’s teachers of their collective bargaining rights, and several other Republican-controlled state houses are trying to do the same. Teachers, they say, get paid too much and work too little. They are to blame for our economic difficulties.

That isn’t true. If we truly valued our children’s education we would pay teachers a lot more. As it is, we place a higher value, in dollars at least, on celebrity blowhards like Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen; on stockbrokers and basketball players and fashion designers and corporate raiders and all those who accumulate wealth, even if they do so by impoverishing others.

A society that doesn’t value its teachers is not likely to have very well-educated children. An educated person doesn’t just know facts, or where to find them. He or she knows how the world works, questions authority, is tolerant of those who are different, and is skeptical of simple answers to complex problems.

Such a person is not easily misled, and is considered dangerous by those who seek to mislead. That is another group that wants our educational system – at least our public educational system – to fail.

Yes, I am saying that there are people committed to “dumbing down” our citizens, and they are succeeding wildly.

Teachers and their bloated salaries caused the recession. We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. Barak Obama is a Kenyan Muslim communist. The universe is only 7,000 years old. Tax cuts for the rich will trickle down to the rest of us. We have the best health care in the world. Global warming is a hoax. We wouldn’t have found bin Laden without torture. Drill, baby, drill.  Government isn’t the solution; government is the problem.

Well-educated people don’t accept such statements without question. They’re not likely to keep the dial turned to Faux News. They’re dangerous.

Well, I say be dangerous! Encourage your children, and your friends’ children, to learn, and explore, and doubt! Question authority! Speak truth to power! Value those who teach!

And never stop learning. If we all keep learning, those who seek to mislead will lose this perilous game.

Let’s not be stupid enough to accept being dumb.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mexico's Future Is Intertwined with Ours

(This is a piece I wrote in June, 2007, which was published on another site. After four years, I don’t see the need to change a single word.)

When I was in high school I was hired off and on to help a local land surveyor. I went with him on surveys all over our home state of New Mexico. One large tract was located south of Columbus, the town Pancho Villa raided in 1916. Its south boundary was the international border with Mexico.

The border at this place was marked by a barbed-wire fence that looked just like all the other barbed-wire fences that crisscross the West. I suppose there were marker stones here and there, but there was nothing immediately visible to indicate that this fence separated two widely diverse countries.

This was grazing land, on both sides. All that could be seen in either direction along the fence was grass, rolling hills, an occasional cow.

I think of that lonesome stretch of land when I hear people suggest that all we need to solve our immigration problems with Mexico is a secure fence.

About half of our common border looks just like this. The other half runs along the centerline of the Río Grande, a river famously described as “too thin to plow, too thick to drink.”

The distance is 1,951 miles.

Could a “secure fence” be built across such a long distance?

Sure. It would be about 70 times as long as the Berlin Wall, which was 28 miles, but less than half the length of the Great Wall of China, which stretched for 3,948 miles. There’s plenty of historical precedence for such barriers; they often outlive the regimes that build them.

The cost would be astonishing, even if our “great wall” was just an electrified fence. It wouldn’t just be the cost of construction, of course. Any kind of barrier would require maintenance, energy, and human oversight.

Meanwhile, some 350 million people a year cross that border through legal points of entry. They include busloads of tourists, semi loads of all sorts, hordes of pedestrians. They all expect to make the crossing with minimal delay. The commerce they conduct is economically beneficial to both countries. Obviously, maintaining security while allowing that commerce is a difficult job. Any increase in security measures that slows down the flow causes an immediate outcry from the people who depend upon the border, many of whom are quite influential.

All borders are artificial. Even if they are maintained with rigid military zeal, such as in East Germany before the wall came down or in North Korea to this day, there are people on both sides who have relatives, interests, histories, and memories on the other side. Those people will do what they can to return.

Perhaps a better approach than building a great wall would be to help Mexico come closer to its potential. It is a country rich with natural resources, and it has a huge workforce. It has many natural wonders. Its people and their culture are delightful. The population is well educated: 98% of children attend primary school, 64% go to secondary school, and 23% go on to college.

Mexico also has many problems. It is ruled more by money than by law; corruption is endemic. A mordida, or “bite,” of the proper amount – you might call it an institutionalized bribe – will remove obstacles faster than a cadre of lawyers can do in this country. There is an oppressive class structure composed of a few who are very rich and the many who are very poor. Environmental controls are lax.

Despite its shortcomings, Mexico is attractive in many ways. It has lots of petroleum and many kinds of minerals. It has cheap beer and cheap but wonderful food. It has beautiful scenery and many miles of beaches.

Its main asset is its large, underutilized labor pool. If we could help Mexico create jobs for some of these people, they would be less likely to brave the dangers entailed in an illegal border crossing.

As it is, the United States is getting the most courageous and resourceful of Mexico’s citizens. Many of them come here to work but continue to support those less able back home. Many of them would like to return but cannot because there are no economic opportunities there.

That’s a real waste. It seems probable that the United States will rely on Mexican imports more and more in the future. Our destinies are intertwined. We need to open doors to Mexico, not seal them up. We need to encourage trade and promote the ideals that have improved the lives of our own citizens.

We don’t need to build a fence.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ding, Dong, the Wicked Which Is Dead?

The Head of the Snake or Just a Big Snake?

We’ve cut off the head of the snake.  James Warlick, U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria.

In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy suggests that if Napoleon had never lived, France would have invaded Russia anyhow in 1812. It’s as if all kinds of forces had come together to that end, and Napoleon somehow found himself on a horse in a funny hat in front of the French army.

The surgical assassination of Osama bin Laden was celebrated raucously Sunday night in Washington and many other cities across the country with shouts and signs and spirits, both high and distilled. There were expressions of great relief on all sides along with congratulatory handshakes and shoulder-pounding.

Indeed, the ferreting-out and killing of this despicable person after almost ten years of searching was good for our national psyche. It was like a sore tooth finally pulled.

But Osama bin Laden was not the sole source of the enmity that resulted in the 9-11 tragedies. He was charismatic, I’m told, and a source of inspiration to his followers, but he was not their only inspiration. His death doesn’t change their minds.

There are many in the Islamic world – and elsewhere about the planet – who think of the United States of America as the “Great Satan.” We returned the favor by giving that title to bin Laden.

Both are wrong.

Had Osama bin Laden never lived, the Twin Towers might not have fallen, but the hatred that is borne against our country would have found some expression, some outlet. And it still exists.

There are many causes of that hatred, some going back to the time of the Bible, some from the era of the Crusades, some from the heavy-handed imperialism of Great Britain. But the biggest problem today is Israel/Palestine.

“This land is mine. God gave this land to me.” Those are the opening words of the theme song of the 1960 movie, “Exodus,” which chronicled the establishment of Israel and was a big event at the time. “Next year in Jerusalem” is the way Jews conclude both their Yom Kippur and Passover Seder celebrations. The “return to Zion” was eagerly anticipated for centuries, and after the Second World War, newly-freed Jews from all over Europe and elsewhere flocked to what was then called Palestine to make that dream a reality.

The United Nations voted to accept the partition of Palestine in 1947, the year I was born. The enmity toward Israel, and to a great extent toward the United States, which has supported Israel from the beginning, is just as gray-haired as I am. During those decades, many Arab countries have become fantastically wealthy supporting the worldwide demand for petroleum, but that hasn’t reduced the hatred. It has just made it possible for the haters to buy lots of weapons.

We can kill all the bin Ladens we can find, but the hatred will continue – and the danger to our homeland will continue – until the problem of Israel and Palestine is finally solved. God may have given Israel to the Israelis, but the people who lived there before that happened see it differently: “This land is mine. The Israelis stole it from me.”

A day will dawn when it no longer matters. That day is far in the future, and Israel and the Arab factions that vie for control of the land around it are doing little to bring it closer.

The best thing our country could do to secure its homeland is to work with Israel and its neighbors to establish the pre-1964 borders as permanent, create a Palestinian state with some real measure of economic stability, and demand every nation in the area accept the result. We and our allies have a lot of economic and diplomatic power we can wield to that end, and wield it we should.

Some would say that now is not the time, given the current disruptions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and even Saudi Arabia. I would argue that this is the perfect time. Osama bin Laden is dead. We’re moving troops out of Iraq and we really want to move troops out of Afghanistan.

Israel must be pressured to give up its extraterritorial building projects and accept the pre-1964 boundaries, but it will not do so until the factions in Palestine stop shooting missiles into its territory. The reverse is true as well. It’s time for everyone in the region to lean on the two sides and promise to support and defend the result.

Until that happens, we can look for more terrorism here and across the world. I really think now is the time to do something about it besides making everyone take off his shoes at our airports.