Monday, June 30, 2008

Worst Ever

When people ask me who is the worst president ever, I have always answered James Buchanan. He was the one before Lincoln. After Lincoln's election but before his inauguration, Buchanan did nothing as the Southern states seceded, seized federal property and arms, and began building their own army. That is pretty serious dereliction of duty. But I've finally gotten to the point where I must now answer George W. Bush. The lies he told today finally pushed me over the edge. The man's moral putrescence is the last straw. When combined with his blundering incompetence and assault on the Constitution I have to conclude he now stands alone.

You see, today he signed the new G.I. Bill. Senator Jim Webb's bill will guarantee a veteran four years of college expenses after three years of service, similar to what the G.I. Bill originally did after World War II. In his signing statement Bush congratulated Congress for working with him on the law. The truth is Bush opposed the law and repeatedly threatened to veto it. There was no work with him on it. Congress simply defied him and passed it anyway. He lied about this. Then, he named a few Representatives and Senators whom he felt deserved credit for the legislation. The last one he named was Sen. McCain. The truth is Sen. McCain loudly opposed the bill. When it passed the Senate 75-22 McCain was absent and did not vote. Bush lied about this, too.

Bush wanted to make sure he and the Republican nominee got credit for passing this popular Act, even though they both fought it and tried to defeat it. When it passed by a veto-proof majority over his opposition he then went ahead and signed it and tried to pawn it off as his own and Sen. McCain's idea. In case you were wondering, the reason they were against it was they were afraid it made the benefits too good and would make it more difficult to secure re-enlistments.

At any rate, you think the man would learn. With an approval rating at 28% it should be clear by now the American people no longer believe him when he lies to them. After Iraq, Katrina, Valerie Plame, global warming science, the deficit, the economy, the "Clear Skies" initiative, torture, wiretapping and all the other baldfaced lies he has told over the past seven plus years, you'd think he would be at least savvy enough to try to restore some credibility by being honest now and then. But no. He does as he has always done. He says what he wants people to think is the truth, even when he knows it is false and even when it should be obvious the lie will be easily exposed because of his own numerous prior statements on the topic.

I don't know whether this recurrent pattern of absurdly transparent lying comes from his privileged background, of living the kind of life where no one ever dared contradict him. I don't know whether he keeps doing it because it worked for him for his first four and a half years until the majority caught on. I don't know whether he is simply a sociopath who has no conscience or a psychopath who creates his own "reality" as he goes along. At this point, it no longer matters to me.

What matters is that this president has mismanaged everything with which he has been entrusted while systematically working to deprive the American people of their constitutionally guaranteed liberties. And what makes it intolerable is that he has done it while insulting our intelligence and common decency by telling the most childishly obvious lies about it from beginning to end.

I pray the country can survive another six and a half months of this tawdry hack until his riddance becomes official. His venality has finally driven me to the inescapable conclusion that yes, George W. Bush is the worst president ever.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Reflections on the Road

Tomorrow ends our three-week vacation. We'll catch a flight out of O'Hare at 8:10 A.M. and return to Fresno. Tonight being the last night, I thought I'd set down some of my impressions from our path across a region stretching from the Mississippi to the Three Rivers and from the Ohio River Valley to Motown.

The first and lasting impression is, my gosh, the land is so flat. There's virtually no visible elevation until you get to Wheeling and Western Pennsylvania. For a guy who has spent most of his life in California, a state where it's almost impossible to find a place where you don't see mountains, at least on the horizon, it's eerie at first.

Even so, it's easy to imagine the ancient forest stretching an unbroken thousand miles from the Atlantic to the Great Plains. There's still a lot of it left. Along the roads and wherever the land isn't being farmed stand dense deciduous woodlands.

There is way too much corn being grown here. Other than hay, you rarely see anything else being farmed at all. I was wondering if that was because of subsidies meant to encourage ethanol production. If so, it's not a good idea. The stuff is not a net energy or pollution saver, and it's reducing the production of other grains and raising their prices. I'm still amazed. Across 2,000 road miles through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Southern Michigan I saw one fruit orchard, no dairies, no vegetable fields and just a bare handful of wheat farms. It's largely a corn monoculture.

American commercial culture is ubiquitous. The familiar national gas, department store, burger and semi-trendy restaurant places are all over. There are some regional chains. Steak and Shake Restaurant and Meijer Supermarket are two that stand out, and the blot of southern Waffle House joints is beginning to make its way into the north.

Despite this, local pride remains strong. People are always quick to mention the prominent locals who are nationally known in sports, business, politics or what have you. Small towns go to great pains to set up well-equipped and staffed local historical and cultural facilities, even in places where the economy is distressed and the population shrinking and aging. It's poignant and heartening to see little towns building a waterpark for their kids, or a pioneer or railroad museum, or restoring and refurnishing Victorian mansions built by the magnates of a bygone age. These folks are not giving up.

There is still a lot of manufacturing, especially in the Toledo-Chicago corridor and in Southern Michigan. But much of it looks antique. And an awful lot of it, particularly in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, has closed its doors, likely forever. It's hard to see what is going to replace it, and they worry about it.

The great cities are still vibrant. They are more concentrated than Western cities, rather than sprawling out quite so far. They stand like islands of skyscrapers surrounded by oceans of corn and forest. Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Gary,
St. Louis, Columbus and Indianapolis are for the most part clean and bustling. Road construction and urban refurbishment are busily underway in all of them, though it looks like Gary, St. Louis, and Cleveland are the three that seem the most worn around the edges. Chicago clearly outshines them all as the colossus of mid-America. It's a truly great city and should be on anyone's list of places to see in the USA.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Plutocracy Gets Another Boost

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law gives yet another boost to plutocracy in America. The ruling makes it more difficult for congressional candidates of modest personal means to match money contributed by the wealthy to their own campaigns. This gutting of the "millionaire's amendment" will tilt elections even more heavily toward the wealthiest candidates.

The "millionaire's amendment" to McCain-Feingold says that the amount a candidate can raise from each individual contributor can be increased if an opposing candidate contributes more than $350,000 to his or her own campaign. Since there are no limits on self-funding, this amendment was passed in order to give less wealthy candidates a more realistic chance to match the war chest of a millionaire opponent.

The Roberts Court has instead ruled that while no limits can be set on self-funding, they can and indeed must be be imposed on those who have to solicit funding from others.

The ruling is yet another example that elections have consequences. George W. Bush's Supreme Court appointees, Sam Alito and John Roberts, have swung the court toward the conservative perspective of granting carte blanche to the richest corporations and persons and constricting the ways and means by which effective challenges can be mounted against them.

The Supreme Court decision in 2000 declaring Bush the winner in Florida and thus the nation has made an enormous difference in American life. As this latest Supreme Court ruling shows, a consistent bias in favor of plutocracy is but one of the results.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rust Belt Desperation

Here I am in Northeast Ohio, North Canton, to be precise. I'm staying with my cousin and her family on our trip through the region. Canton is next door and Akron is just down the road. Youngstown isn't far away. These are some of the great cities of American industry. Or maybe it's more accurate to say, they once were. All the talk hereabouts is the evaporation of American manufacturing.

Let me give you the local case in point. The largest employer in North Canton was the Hoover Corporation. You know, the biggest name in vacuum cleaners and sweepers. They had been in North Canton over eighty years. Their mammoth plant and world headquarters covered over a million square feet. At its peak the complex employed over 5,000 people. Even up to last year Hoover provided over 3,000 local jobs.

Then TTI showed up. The Chinese appliance giant bought Hoover last year. Actually, they bought the parent company, Maytag. It's a fine illustration of effective modern business strategy. Flush with piles of American cash, TTI bought the competition and then, last September, shut it down. They then turned around and sold the land to a California real estate development company. TTI gets the Hoover name and patents, destroys the competition, and makes most of the money back on the real estate.

Their already substantial entry into the American market now stands without serious impediment. Production has been relocated to China at significant cost savings. Americans may get some cheaper appliances. They will need them too, because more and more of their high-wage jobs are disappearing. Canton used to have a populaton of 120,000. It now has 90,000. The Hoover Company directly or indirectly accounted for nearly 40% of North Canton's (population about 15,000) economy.

Free trade. Unregulated enterprise. Open investment. That's the way to prosperity, we often hear. Whose prosperity, one might ask. That's what a lot of people in Northeast Ohio are asking these days.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Two Guys From Uhrichsville

My wife and I left Columbus for Wheeling today on the latest leg of our summer sojourn of historical sites, ball parks and visiting relatives. We got to stroll the beautiful Ohio State campus and be awed by the massive presence of Ohio Stadium, home of the perennial nationally contending Ohio State Buckeye football team. Columbus, Ohio is a place I've always wanted to visit because if it weren't for The Ohio State University my life situation might be a lot different.

My grandparents Giuseppi and Rosa Natoli immigrated from a town just outside of Palermo, Sicily around 1918. He went to work in the clay mines near Uhrichsville, Ohio, close to Canton. The Natolis had three children: my Uncle Jim, my father Joe and my Aunt Rose.

Prospects for advancement for immigrant families in the 1920s were difficult but not impossible. But when the Depression hit at the end of the decade, they became remote for just about everyone. My grandfather was adamant. No school after high school. Twelve years of school was enough for anyone. After that it was time to get a job. The coal mine or the brick mill were good enough. My father and uncle disagreed. They were smart and saw college as the way to get ahead. But how could they afford to go to college?

The opportunity came from Ohio State football. No, neither of them played there. My father played offensive tackle and defensive end on the high school team at 133 pounds. Uncle Jim played too, though he was a little smaller. Not exactly Ohio State varsity material. But a guy from the neighborhood, Lou Groza, did go to Ohio State to play for Coach Paul Brown. He was a tackle and the first of the great kicking specialists. Lou "the toe" was his nickname. Groza mentioned his two intelligent but poor friends back home.

Coach Brown invited them to Ohio State to be football team managers. They could live in a room within the walls of Ohio Stadium. They would take care of the football equipment, wash the towels and uniforms, and keep things ready for the players. They could enroll in classes and if they could cut it they could stay.

Well, they were able to cut it. The coach helped them get jobs in the summer to make enough to come back the next year. Dad used to tell me how the University Chancellor's wife would invite the students from poor, immigrant and rural backgrounds (Joe and Jim Natoli fit all three categories) to her home to teach them etiquette and the manners expected of college-educated people in American society. The Natoli boys were grateful.

After their sophomore year World War II came. Dad wound up in North Africa and Italy; Uncle Jim served in France. When they came back they had the GI Bill to finish their educations. Dad got his degree in business while Uncle Jim studied the law. Lou Groza went on to a long career in the NFL and election to its Hall of Fame. Paul Brown founded the Cleveland Browns and built them into a power. Later he founded the Cincinnati Bengals. The new stadium there is named for him. He's in the NFL Hall of Fame too.

After they graduated, my father and uncle came to California to seek their fortunes. Dad wound up as Vice President of a manufacturing company. Uncle Jim retired as a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge. Not bad for two sons of a coal miner whose first language was not English. And all only made possible by the good word of a friend from the neighborhood and the generosity of a nationally-famous football coach who had no reason to take a chance on two kids he didn't know. If it weren't for their perseverance and the help of those good people and the University I might have grown up working in the coal mine or brick mill in Uhrichsville, Ohio. Such is the serendipity of life.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Obama v. McCain: Anything New Here?

The race between Barack Obama and John McCain is often touted as a new kind of contest that will overturn much conventional political wisdom and most of the recent electoral models. I do not really see that happening. While there will be a few twists unique to this year's election, the basics of the race will remain within the normal pattern for a Democrat v. a Republican.

The reason things will mainly follow the conventional dynamics is because even though both candidates talk a lot about bipartisanship and have even engaged in some of it, both Obama and McCain adhere to their basic party lines on most issues. Obama is a liberal Democrat. McCain is a conservative Republican. The mass of voters in strongly conservative states is not going to abandon McCain for Obama. The mass of voters in liberal states is not going to defect from Obama and go to McCain.

The basic dynamics in play since 1964 still hold true in 2008. Conventionally, Democrats stress diplomacy and want to avoid military conflict. They feel individual rights need not be seriously compromised in pursuit of defense goals. They defend abortion and other gender equity rights. They are very sensitive to minority issues and support government action to foster more widespread opportunity. They are strongly concerned with the environment. They feel everyone should have access to health care and think the government should take care of this if the private system does not. They are suspicious of corporations and believe the public interest requires that they be closely watched. They tend to favor labor over management. They prioritize providing services over keeping taxes low. They are not averse to using law and government power to make business adopt what they feel are more socially productive and responsible practices on issues such as environment, energy, safety, and so on. They don't like privatizing government services.

Where in all this does Obama diverge from the liberal norm? The answer, of course, is nowhere. He doesn't. His Senate voting record rates over 90% with feminist, minority, environmental, consumer, civil liberties and labor groups. Utah and Texas are not suddenly going to vote for Obama the Democrat.

On the other hand, Republicans adopt a much harder line on defense issues. They tend to feel that threatening would-be international adversaries with military force is a good way to handle them. They tend to believe defense exigencies may require accepting some diminution of personal rights. They oppose abortion rights and have little inclination for government action to advance gender equity or minority concerns. The environment is not a particularly high priority, especially if preserving it may involve economic costs. They believe the economic marketplace provides most of the incentives to assure equal opportunity. They mistrust labor and feel government should help business run things the way it wants, and not averse to writing laws to advance that view. They prioritize keeping taxes low over fully funding services. They feel market solutions will provide whatever energy, health, safety, and environmental changes are needed. They are eager to privatize government services.

Where does McCain part company with these views? The answer, for him too, is nowhere. Some might say the environment, yet his rating by the League of Conservation Voters is only 26%. And while that is higher than many other Republicans, do not expect him to be named the 2008 "man of the year" by the Sierra Club. He has voted with the Bush Administration 95% of the time over the past four years, including changing his positions to the more conservative ones on such issues as taxes, constitutional rights and immigration. Massachusetts and California are not going to be voting for McCain the Republican this year.

There certainly are particular conditions this year that will affect voters' decisions. Obama does have a special appeal to younger people, and a higher than normal appeal to African-Americans, a group that votes nearly 90% Democratic anyway. But his race will also work against him, as McCain's age will also work against him. And the worse the economy is doing the better it will be for Obama. But on the whole, things will come down once again to the verdicts of about a dozen swing states in the first week of November. That pattern will form the structural basis for the election, just as it has for the past forty years.

Monday, June 16, 2008

No Obama T-Shirts

One of the things I wanted to get in Chicago was a Barack Obama T-shirt, and what better place than in his hometown? I saw some in a store window early in our 5-day stay and thought I could get some later without much difficulty. Boy, was I wrong. I never saw another one the rest of the trip.

They are being sold as fast as shops can get them in. What's surprising is who's buying them. The word is they are a very hot item with foreign tourists, who snatch them up as soon as they see them.

It's not hard to imagine the appeal Barack Obama has to a worldwide audience. He would be the first American President who looks like most of the rest of the world's people. He would be the first who does not have a name originating in the British Isles. He also contrasts with the current President and his presumed opponent on his willingness to at least try talking to adversaries and in his refraining from the language of threat and division in his approach to dealing with the world.

How refreshing it must seem to most of the world's people and governments that Americans might actually elect a leader who would cooperate on global environmental and population problems, who is not on a hair trigger to bomb or invade anyone who disagrees with him, who might finally set the ingenious Americans to developing alternatives to petroleum and who might even make it a priority for the US government to live up to the ideals that used to make the American system the marvel of the world.

And as far as the T-shirt goes, I was told I better order it online like most Americans do. The rest of the world isn't leaving us many on our store shelves. Maybe the Obama campaign can ship a few hundred million of them overseas in the next few months. That might be the way we finally turn this trade deficit around.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Improving Recidivism

I ran across an interesting item here in Illinois on the topic of criminal recidivism. Illinois implemented a plan in 2004 that has resulted in the lowest conviction rate among parolees in state history, including a 23% reduction in arrests among all parolees and a 40% reduction in repeat incarceration among parolees with substance abuse histories. As Governor Rod Blagojevich says, "Being tough on crime means being smart about fighting crime. The reality is that offenders who are sent to prison are most likely going to be back in our communities sooner or later. And when they return, if they don't have the skills and support to lead clean and productive lives, they are most likely going to end up committing crimes again."

The program consists of three parts. First comes the Sheridan National Model Drug Prison and Reentry Program. Second is an increase in parole agents and the counseling, monitoring and job placement assistance they provide. Third is the creation of a Community Safety and Reentry Commission.

The drug program follows from data that show 69% of convicts were under the influence at the time they committed their offenses. They receive "intensive treatment, job training and counseling during incarceration and substantial support during reentry."

The parole agent increase resulted in 100 new agents being hired statewide. There are eight Spotlight Reentry Center locations that work with parolees to provide enhanced case management for those who want to stay drug-free and obtain honest work.

The Commission has toured the state to ask for citizen suggestions to reduce recidivism, especially in the ten areas with the highest populations of ex-offenders. It also researches effecitve practices nationwide.

Illinois figures these actions are saving the state $64 million a year due to reduced incarceration expenditures. There is also the bonus of productive work and
fewer losses to crime. The example of Illinois shows us that harsher punishment is not necessarily the best or only deterrent to crime. A large number of offenders can be helped to become good citizens if we are willing to make the effort to provide the kind of effective interventions that work.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Lincoln Lives

We pulled into Springfield, Illinois today on the next leg of our vacation jaunt. We got to tour the old State Capitol Building (in use 1839-1876) where Abe Lincoln served as a state assemblyman and argued cases before the court. We also went on tours of his law offices and his home. Tomorrow we plan to go to the History Museum and to New Salem, a recreation of the pioneer town where he got his start in Illinois.

Most meaningful to me was the scene at the Park Service Visitor Center at the Lincoln home. We got there in time to obtain tickets for the 4:10 P.M. tour of the house. As we waited there were three Korean tourists happily pushing buttons on a scale model of Springfield in 1860, making the various buildings light up. Who would have thought an American leader from almost 150 years ago would be known in Korea? Another group of about a dozen Japanese had just returned from the previous tour and talked excitedly among themselves. The only word I could make out from their conversation was the repeated use of the word "Lincoln."

A mother and her son came into the building. She wore the head scarf of a devout Muslim. She took her son over to a bronze bust of the 16th President and talked to her boy in a serious tone. Then she got out her camera and had him stand next to the Lincoln bust to take their picture together. That one really got me.

Abraham Lincoln still captures people's imaginations and wins their veneration because he stood for the right, no matter the cost. His meaning knows no borders or creed. Freedom is right. Subjugation is wrong. He was willing to be personally reviled, ridiculed and blamed, and to risk not only the lives of others but his own in pursuit of the right. Those traits represent not only the best of what it means to be American but the best of what it means to be human. That is why his appeal stretches beyond our own borders. As long as there are those in injustice and the dream of justice lives Lincoln's memory will live also.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Chicago, Illinois

Today was our third full day in Chicago. What a great city this is. I'm at an internet cafe and this time is costing money so I'll try to keep it brief.

Chicago is bustling, and gives every appearance of a very prosperous community. The sales tax is 9% and it seems the denizens of Chicagoland are getting a lot for it. The parks are well kept and full of flowers and throngs of people. The streets are clean. The transit system is clean, up-to date and heavily used. The museums and cultural attractions are similarly extremely well maintained and world-class. You don't see graffiti and decay around here. This city is kept up. Cranes are ubiquitous and construction/renovation is going on all over the place. The "crane" is said to be the unofficial city bird! Chicago seems to be an exception to the overall recessionary climate afflicting most of the country these days.

The architectural quality and variety is something to behold. From the first late nineteenth century neo-gothic skyscrapers like the Chicago Tribune Building and the wondrous marble edifices left from the 1893 World's Fair such as now house the incredible Field Museum and the Chicago Art Institute through art deco wonders like the Merc and the Hilton Towers to unadorned steel and glass skyscrapers such as the Sears Tower to the latest innovative works including the Trump Tower currently under construction and the outdoor architectural art of Millennium Park, Chicago is a sight to see. It's all worthy of the city of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Plenty of open space has been preserved to boot, so you don't get the New York City dark canyons effect. That includes the entire lakefront and lots of parks where city crews are busy keeping them in top shape planting flowers and such.

Last night we went to a ball game at venerable Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs since 1914. The faithful are fun-loving and extremely passionate about their Cubbies. And even though there is a lot of beer being drunk they don't cross the line about getting out of hand. It was a treat to go to a game where spontaneous and well-known chants came from the crowd and where they even sing team songs. What an atmosphere, and how indicative of Chicago's spirit.

From what I've seen this is one of the truly great American cities. If you get a chance to visit the "city of broad shoulders" don't hesitate. For sure, it's "my kind of town!"

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Clinton and Economy Unify Democrats

On Friday the economic news coming out of New York and Washington was unreservedly grim. On Saturday Hillary Clinton urged her supporters to rally behind the banner of Barack Obama and pledged to do all she can to help him win in November. These two developments will do much to unify the Democratic Party in this year's election.

Another surge in oil prices and bad news on employment and inflation combined to spur a huge sell-off on Wall Street and another fall in the value of the dollar. Oil was going for $139 a barrel, an all-time record and up an unprecedented $11 on the day. The official unemployment rate jumped 10% in May, to 5.5%, as 49,000 more jobs were lost. 8.55 million Americans are unemployed and another 5.23 million who want full-time work are working only part-time. The Dow lost over 390 points in Friday's trading.

Clinton incorporated the latest news on the recession into her speech this morning, telling the estimated 10,000 attendees and a national television audience that the country cannot "afford another four years of Republican mismanagement" of the economy. Her strong endorsement of Obama was designed to implore her supporters to come out for the Democratic ticket this fall rather than to harbor disappointment about her defeat in the nomination battle. Her remarks were enthusiastically received.

George W. Bush admitted the figures showed "slow economic growth" but, seemingly out of touch with reality, also said, "We're beginning to see signs that the stimulus may be working." John McCain agreed, stating, "The wrong change for our country would be an economic agenda based upon the policies of the past that advocate higher taxes. To help families at this critical time, we cannot afford to go backward as Senator Obama advocates."

Obama responded by terming the economic news "a reminder that working families continue to bear the brunt of the failed Bush economic policies that John McCain wants to continue. We can't afford John McCain's plan to spend billions of dollars on tax breaks for big corporations and C.E.O.'s."

The primaries showed Clinton to be a proven vote-getter among older women, Hispanics and working-class whites, the very groups Obama had the most difficulty winning over. A recent survey showed Obama already preferred by Hispanics 62% to 29% over McCain. If Clinton's ardent support for Obama can keep these important groups unified for Obama in the fall he must definitely be considered the favorite to win the election.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Road Trip

My wife and I will be flying out of Fresno bright and early on Sunday the 8th to begin a three-week summer vacation. We'll have a stopover in Phoenix before proceeding on to Chicago. We'll go down to Springfield to see the Lincoln sites and then mosey on over to Ohio to visit relatives. Along the way we've got tickets for six major league baseball games. I'm not sure how much blogging I'll be able to do; it could be rather sporadic for the next three weeks.

I hear Chicago is a great town. I've bought the "city pass" for the major museums and such. Millennium Park is supposed to be well worth a visit and there is plenty of stunning architecture. We're looking forward to going to a jazz cafe or two. Best of all, I've got tickets to see the Cubbies in storied Wrigley Field on the 10th. Chicago is also home base for Barack Obama; we'll see if there is anything to report about that.

After spending a couple of days in Springfield we'll take a jaunt over to St. Louis to catch a Cardinals game in the new Busch Stadium. Joan has relatives in Cincinnati and Wheeling and I have some in the Canton area. A lot of them are elderly now and this will likely be the last time for us to get together. We plan to stop in Columbus to see the Ohio State campus where my father and uncle went to school. We'll see the Reds play the Dodgers, so I'll be rooting for the visitors in that one. I'll try to pick my Aunt Rose's brain for stories about my father and uncle. We'll see a Pirates' game in Pittsburgh on a side trip from Wheeling and we have six people going to see the Indians in Cleveland.

From there it's a jaunt up to Detroit to see the Tigers. On the way back to Chicago we'll make a stop in South Bend to take a look at the Notre Dame campus. Then it's back to Chicago for two last nights before the flight home to California. Maybe we'll take in something we didn't get a chance to in our first 5 days in the Windy City.

As you can see, it will be very much a whirlwind tour. We'll be staying in 11 different places in 21 days. It should be quite a diverse trip, with sightseeing, some history, relatives and six ballgames. After all that, coming back home will seem like the vacation.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Big Issues of 2008

These big issues will define the playing field for the 2008 elections and determine whether America rebounds or falls into decline.

THE ECONOMY. For the US to stay competitive in the world it will need to pay far greater attention to education. The brightest must have access to high-quality education at all levels. Vocational education must respond to the needs of developing markets. Societal attitudes will have to change to foster these priorities.

The middle class squeeze will have to be addressed. To accomplish this, tax and fiscal policy will need to find a better balance between workers (more than now) and investors (less). Deficits will need to be reined in to control inflation. There must be a more pragmatic approach to regulation, applying it where helpful to consumers while avoiding its excesses. People must be protected from predation.

A backlog of infrastructure restoration must be undertaken. Transportation, water, utilities and communications in particular need attention. Anyone who has been abroad recently knows the antiquated, inefficient and deteriorating state of America's systems compared to those of Europe, Japan and much of emerging Asia.

HEALTH CARE. All Americans must have access to affordable, high-quality health care. All the other developed nations have done this at an average of half the cost of our system. This is a necessity on moral and practical grounds, and it cannot happen without strong government involvement. The American people deserve and are coming to demand no less.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT. America needs an effective energy policy. It must be pursued with at least the importance applied to the space program on the 1960s and perhaps approaching the desperate urgency of mobilization during World War II. Our economy faces implosion if petroleum prices continue to rise as they have, and there is relatively little oil left to drill domestically. We simply must develop sensible alternatives. Government outlays and mandates will be required to achieve this.

The same holds true for the other side of the coin, the increasingly harmful effects of climate change caused by the infusion of increasing amounts of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Global warming is already here and will continue to worsen. The US must join in the successor agreement to the Kyoto Accords. Drought, the increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes, sea level rise and the mass extinction of species are currently underway. Mandates on fuel efficiency are necessary. Wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and truly efficient biofuel sources must be fostered. Mass transit has to be expanded. An increase in nuclear power generation must be considered. The next administration will have to take strong action. Voluntary targets are not enough.

IRAQ. The American strategic blunder in Iraq must end. It is a financial drain. It is degrading the effectiveness of our Army, Marine Corps and National Guard. It is the primary reason for our international isolation and a recruiting bonanza for new generations of anti-Western jihadists.

More than this, the mentality that led to the war must be expunged. We must not come to believe that the initiation of unprovoked wars in order to reconfigure the world to our liking is a fruitful, sustainable or ethical foundation for pursuing our international aims. That is a path trodden by many a nation throughout history, and it has invariably led to their eventual destruction.

THE U.S. CONSTITUTION. The U.S. Constitution must be followed. The principles it enunciates are the reason the nation was founded. We are no longer the United States of America but something else in direct proportion to the extent that our government violates it and that our society permits that government to do so. We must particularly adhere to its tenets on search and seizure, habeas corpus, the due process of judicial proceedings and the rule of law. The Executive must follow and obey the laws passed by the Congress. The next administration must repudiate and reverse the encroachments on the people's rights undertaken by the present one.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama Shouldn't Pick Hillary

Barack Obama would be better off not picking Hillary Clinton as his vice presidential running mate. There is no end to the trouble it would cause him.

Hillary Clinton wants to be president herself, and very badly. Everything she would do as running mate and then as veep would be dissected by the media with that in mind. "Is Hillary undermining Barack today for her own interests?" would be the question on cable channels and in print all the time.

Hillary is a star. It's a bad idea to select a running mate who can upstage you. Many would wonder whether Barack or Hillary was in charge. It needs to be clear who is running the show, and in the minds of many it never would be with both of them in the mix.

What would they do with husband Bill? He seems to have lost a fair amount of the deft political touch he had as president. They might try to manage him, but how exactly does one do that with a former president? And is that the kind of thing a new administration can afford to spend time and energy doing? Bill gets the spotlight whenever he wants it, and he seems to want it quite a bit. This has train wreck written all over it.

Obama's core supporters don't really want her because her presence detracts from his message of making a change from the past. A CBS News survey reports 76% of Hillary's supporters would like to see her as running mate but only 44% of Obama's would.

Obama will be seen as weak if he names her. When Hillary let word out to the New York congressional delegation yesterday that she would be open to the vice presidency, that was all well and good. But today when three of her surrogates made the media circuit talking it up and two more of her confidantes started "draft Hillary for veep" movements, she went too far. One doesn't campaign publicly for the vice presidential nomination. It smacks of putting pressure on the nominee. If he gives in it will appear he cannot stand up to that pressure. There is no surer way to lose an election for commander in chief than to give seem weak in the face of pressure.

And finally, he doesn't need her to win the election. Now this one is obviously debatable, but the same poll finds that as of today 63% of Hillary voters say they would vote for Obama, 22% say they wouldn't and 11% aren't sure. Mind you, these are the numbers the day after the last primary, when Hillary has yet to even publicly concede the race and when disappointment among her backers is at its peak.

In the days ahead Obama will continue to praise her. Clinton will concede and give a ringing endorsement. She will do that because she agrees with practically everything Obama stands for. She will also do that because she has to if she wants any chance at the nomination in 2012 or 2016. John McCain will chip in and do his part by continuing to champion positions that are anathema to the overwhelming majority of Hillary Clinton Democrats. That 22% figure will consequently go down, probably to less than half of where it stands now. The CBS survey shows Obama leading McCain nationally by 6% right now, even with 22% of Hillary backers saying they will jump ship for McCain. When half or more of them get back on board, Obama's position will be strong indeed.

Barack Obama ought to do the wise thing and choose somebody else to be his running mate.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Obama Makes History

The United States of America was born as a revolutionary nation dedicated to revolutionary ideals. In many ways the story of the country and its people can be understood as a long struggle to complete the vision first espoused on July 4, 1776, to live up to these lofty ideals and bring them, by fits and starts, to fruition. Foremost among these brazen concepts was the startling assertion, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." Those words were written 232 years ago. I wonder what Thomas Jefferson would be thinking today.

Barack Obama has now made history as the first American of African descent to secure the nomination of a major political party for President of the United States. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this achievement. For 157 years as colonies and the first 89 years of independence, people like Barack Obama existed to toil as slaves in a land of liberty. Some 620,000 Americans died in the terrible struggle to determine whether that incongruity would continue or whether a step would be made along the path "to form a more perfect union," and to settle the proposition that, "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent." Those words were spoken 150 years ago. I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would be thinking today.

Even after Emancipation the persistence of the old attitudes meant that another century would pass while people who looked like Barack Obama were relegated to the second class citizenship of Jim Crow. Thousands more lynchings, burnings, bombings and imprisonments attended the debate over the dream, "that one day my children will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin." These words were uttered 45 years ago. I wonder what Martin Luther King would be thinking today.

Today America took one more step on the long and difficult road to overcome the obstacles that have impeded the realization of its revolutionary founding ethic. Obama is sometimes criticized for speaking too much about hope. For someone who looks like him, what else could he possibly stand for? For nearly four centuries that was all that sustained an entire people. Forty years ago, in another campaign, one candidate said, "Some people see things as they are and ask why. I see things that never were and ask why not." I wonder what Bobby Kennedy would be thinking today.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Americans Not Fooled About Inflation

We bought a new heating and air conditioning system two years ago and have been keeping records of our energy usage and expenses ever since. Yesterday I got the latest gas bill. For the month ending May 15, 2008 the bill reported we used 35 therms worth of gas. That's exactly the amount we used in the same month in 2007. The dismaying thing was the bill itself: $53 this year compared to $41 last year.

$12 in a literal sense is not that big a deal. But the percentage increase of 29.3% in a single year is. It's astronomical. Evidence like this makes it hard to place any credence in "official" inflation estimates of 3.9% or even 4.8%.

I looked up some figures on food staples in the past year. Milk is up 26%, eggs 40%, flour 23%, ground beef 15%, chicken 13% and apples 18%. Commodity prices for corn are up 30% and wheat 270%.

I started today on energy, and it has been much in the news, of course. My electrical bill per kilowatt hour is up "only" 9%. Gasoline at the pump is up 28% this year, and the wholesale price of a barrel of oil has risen 400% in the past seven years.

Our health care provider, Blue Shield, is raising the rates by 12% for my employer this year. I'm grateful I'll be fortunate enough not to have to pay for that out of pocket, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand those are funds that will not be available for raises.

The government has gamed the inflation calculations to exclude food and energy prices. It also modifies the figures based on "seasonal adjustments." These have the effect of understating the true impact for the obvious purpose of covering backsides in Washington. Such practices, combined with provisions that fail to count people as unemployed if they have lost their jobs and are no longer looking for work, allow those in power and their media defenders to contend that the economy is growing and that inflation and employment are low.

Faced with reality, however, the American people have caught on to the subterfuge. 82% tell pollsters the nation is "heading in the wrong direction" and nearly as many believe the country is in economic recession. It is no coincidence that "change" has therefore been the winning ticket in the presidential primaries this year. On the Republican side it has catapulted John McCain, who has a reputation as a "maverick" among Republicans, into position as the nominee. On the Democratic side it has brought the relatively poorly known Barack Obama, who ran from the beginning on "change you can believe in" against Hillary Clinton's "ready on day one" emphasis on experience to the threshold of his party's nomination.

Once this is over one can hope that the new administration, whose ever it is, will restore some economic honesty to the way the figures are compiled. You can, after all, fool all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool them forever.