Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Don't Forget to Have Fun

This space is often occupied with weighty matters of national or international import. I'm going to change gears today and report on one of Visalia's upcoming cultural events - the annual watermelon seed-spitting contest.

The contest will be held this Thursday at 6:30 P.M. at the Farmers Market site on Church Street off Main in downtown Visalia. Just to show that human beings are always looking to improve things, or maybe that no matter how simple something is we always find a way to complicate it, the organizers have made some changes this year.

First of all, Farmers Market manager Paige Williams says they are going to roll out butcher paper with distances on it to better adjudicate the results. Seems there was a lot of dispute last year and some difficulties finding black seeds on black asphalt.

Second, there will be more winners. Instead of the former two categories of under twelve and twelve and over, this year contestants will be entered in three groups: 6 and under, 7 to 14, and over 14. First, second and third place winners will be awarded in all three groups.

Fans will get to see big John Silva defend his title in the adult age group. He is quoted in the Visalia Times-Delta as saying, "Watermelons with seeds are kind of hard to find, but I found one and I've been practicing. I'm ready to defend my title."

We always have plenty of serious matters to occupy our attention and weigh down our countenances. They always threaten to dampen the spirit. That makes a little silliness all the more welcome in life and necessary to the human psyche. Hail to the competitive watermelon seed-spitters of the world. And don't forget to have a little harmless fun, whatever your own variety is.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thomas Friedman on Energy

"Hot, Flat and Crowded" is the title of the latest book by three-time Pulitzer Prize winning New York times columnist Thomas Friedman. Thursday I went with a group to hear a prescient lecture by Mr. Friedman to a large audience in Fresno, California. The upshot of the lecture is that we are stretching the earth's resource base and atmospheric capacity past the breaking point. A green energy revolution is imperative, and now. You can see Friedman's web page introducing the book here.

Thirty years ago there were only "two and a half Americas" in the world; that is, populations of people equivalent to the American population who were living at the American standard of resource consumption and depletion. They were the U.S., Western Europe and Japan. Today there are nine. In a few more years there will be fifteen. When Friedman was born in 1953 there were 2.6 billion people in the world. Today there are 6.2 billion. Shortly there will be 9 billion. Massive urban developments on the scale of Manhattan are going up all over the world: in the Persian gulf, China, India, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, for instance. And as a result, the climate has warmed 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit and will go up more, inevitably, in the years ahead.

Friedman's basic and persuasive contention is that dealing with this challenge will form the central story of the twenty-first century. Just as those who led the way into the mercantile, industrial, coal and oil ages led the world in the past, so will those who pioneer sustainable and energy now be the prosperous and stable societies of the future.

Friedman pays tribute to Al Gore for so raising the profile of the issue, but half-jokingly says that if he were to run into the Oscar and Nobel Prize Winner today he would ask him to apologize for understating the case so severely. Ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean, for instance, once projected for 2100 and revised to 2060, are now foreseen as early as 2012-13, for example. Rising sea levels could displace a billion and a half people, while more powerful storms and longer droughts wreak increasing havoc with food production in many regions.

His prescription for solving this gathering peril is mainly to incentivize the essential choices. Regulation, he says, will play a role but probably will not be determinative. Price, however, can rapidly change behavior. When gas was $2 a gallon, Hummers were selling great. Last year when it went to $4 the company went broke and Toyota dealers had so many people on their waiting lists for the Prius they stopped adding more.

The magnitude of the challenge is huge. Friedman says "if we started building one nuclear power plant a day it would take 36 years to head off runaway greenhouse gas accumulation." It will take a combination of efficiency, conservation and all the effective natural, biological and technological sources we can imagine. So, what he says has to happen is to charge the real cost of things. The cost of coal is not just cost of digging, hauling and burning it and then the power grid, but also the damage it does to the ecosystem, including such items as the mercury and acid rain in the water, the health costs of the miners and sufferers of respiratory diseases, the contribution to glacial melt, stronger storms, sea level rise, and so forth.

Friedman says if those charges were part of the cost consumes had to pay and those funds put into incentives to develop better systems we could make rapid progress. The next Netscape or Google is out there. "Ten thousand guys in ten thousand garages, coming up with 100 interesting ideas, of which 20 are really useful and 2 are transformative," is how Friedman put it.

He is, of course, right. Whether action will be taken in time, at least by this country, seems a highly dubious proposition to me. Just yesterday the U.S. House of Representatives passed its toughest climate measure ever. Though the generally more eco-friendly Democrats have a 70-vote margin there, they only managed to squeak out a bill on a 219-212 vote by exempting 85% of production from these cost targets (purchased in a cap-and-trade regimen). To see more on the climate bill, click here. The short-term thinking and unwillingness to ask anyone to sacrifice now will prevent action until the threat is dire and perhaps beyond avoidance. Still, it was gratifying to see the case being made in front of many of the leading figures of a conservative region, who appeared to receive his message approvingly.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Americans Support Coverage

A number of Democratic senators seem to be running scared on the health care issue. Senators such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota have echoed Republican fears of government intervention in the health arena. Nelson says as far as he is concerned a "public option" is "off the table." Dorgan says there can't be a public plan because "we may not be able to get to 60 votes."

If a new CBS News/New York Times poll is anything close to right, there is less political cause to worry than they might be thinking. According to the survey, "59% say the government should provide national health insurance, including 49% who say such insurance should cover all medical problems." Here are the figures on who should provide American health coverage:

Private Enterprise 32%
Government - All Problems 49%
Government - Emergencies 10%
Don't Know 9%.

The CBS News/New York Times poll with the same questions in 1979 looked like this:

Private Enterprise 48%
Government - All Problems 28%
Government - Emergencies 12%
Don't Know 12%

The survey of 1,112 Americans seems to reflect what professionals, statistics and anecdotal observers have noted for some time now. The system is getting worse and more and more people are ready for a change. A "medicare-for-all" approach would now be favored by a majority and really ought to be instituted. If private insurers want to compete that will be all the better for both cost and service.

Something will be done on health care this year. The only question is whether it will be meaningful or just kicking the can down the road. It may not need 60 votes, and the people seem more in the mood to have health coverage than protect the insurance industry, the protestations of Republicans and "centrist" Democrats to the contrary.

I recommend a read of Paul Krugman's excellent and concise piece on the topic here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thoughts on Iran

Events in Iran may be building toward a tipping point. Soon, either the supporters of presidential election challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi will take their protests to the next level or the government of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his declared victorious incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will ride things out.

First of all, the announced results of the election are almost certainly fabricated. The results of hand-counted paper ballots appeared far too quickly to be believed. The results defied the observations of observers in country, where according to the released totals the incumbent won in places like Tehran where reporters could scarcely find an Ahmadinejad supporter before the vote.

A number of intriguing goings on portend important changes in the landscape both in Iran and around the world in the contemporary era. Mousavi's supporters are planning the biggest demonstrations yet for tomorrow. They seem to be doing a good job of keeping things peaceful, from their end. The government and its paramilitary thugs, are trying their best to stifle avenues of organization and protest. They are tying to jam and block e-mail, texting, facebook, twitter and broadcast outlets. Still, average citizens are risking much to post video of demonstrations and oppression on sites like You Tube.

One important question is whether such electronic communications and networking sites can be controlled by governments, or can people continue to find ways around impediments? These means are clearly being used to coordinate the movement and getting its message out to the rest of Iran and indeed the world.

Another is whether the Iranian theocracy will last. They have an elected government, but also an unelected and unaccountable Supreme Council of Shia Mullahs whose authority trumps everyone else's. Whether this can and will stand in the face of the younger generation and more educated populace's desire for a more open and democratic society is an open question. Earlier protests in 1999 and 2003 fizzled. Will this time be different?

One of the key determinants may well be whether a galvanizing moment takes place. A bloody and well-publicized event like China's 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre could well push things into open and violent rebellion. Officialdom will have a dilemma calibrating the level of repression that might work with what will be tolerated. Most of them well remember their movement's own accession to power in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and they must understand similar forces could throw them out this time around. The world holds its breath.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Saving Our Kids

If you want to see and hear something remarkable, follow the link to the 5th grade choir at PS 22 (Public School 22) in Staten Island, New York. To hear these kids sing is amazing. I would never have thought a group of fifth graders could sing like that. Many of these urban kids have led tough lives. Three quarters of them have family incomes low enough to qualify for the free lunch program.

There was a time when I thought stuff like music, art, maybe even athletics really, was "fluff," not necessarily essential to the academic milieu. I think a lot of people feel that way today. Things like art, music and shop are usually the first things to go when budgets get tight, as they seem to more and more as the public commitment to education ebbs and the preoccupation with taxes continues.

Boy, have I done a 180 on that. Look at these kids. Their teacher, Gregg Breinberg, feels it's a shame that many will go from his school to middle schools where choral music has been axed. He says he is convinced that music has saved a lot of young peoples' lives. I completely agree. Here's why.

Most young people, particularly from tough environments, don't go to school or stay in school for the academics. They need to connect with something. They make friends or they discover an interest. The interest is something they enjoy. It might be a sport, computers, the band, art, drama, cosmetology, ceramics, home ec or working on cars. For some it can lead to a career; for most not. But what it does is give the kid a reason to want to come to school.

I can't begin to list the number of students I've had over the past eleven years at community college who work hard enough to pass twelve units a semester so they can stay eligible to play softball, football, soccer, basketball, or one of our other sports. Along the way a lot of them get a degree or a certificate that opens the door to a successful life. You have to meet young people's personal needs to have some fun in a wholesome and productive way if you don't want to lose them. Our society is losing far too many of them. When we continually slash the activities that keep them connected to school and each other in a positive vein we do not save money. We squander it, for dropouts and gang members cost society enormous sums in lost productivity and the legal system.

It's crucial to support the arts, sports, and school-based activities. It's one of the best ways to save America's kids.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pakistani Villagers Strike Back

"Villagers are rising up against the Taliban in a remote corner of northern Pakistan, a grassroots rebellion that underscores the shift in the public mood against the militants and a growing confidence to confront them." This report from Sarina Tavernise and Ifan Ashraft on the ground in the region for the New York Times underscores an essential principle in the volatile region and in the effort to defeat Islamic militants in general: the only real way to accomplish it is through the cooperation and support of the indigenous people themselves.

Events in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan have shown that foreign firepower coming in and indiscriminately blasting insurgent and innocent alike has won neither hearts and minds nor lasting military results. In Iraq it was not the "surge" but the "Sunni Awakening" and "Sons of Iraq" groups turning on the extremists out of revulsion against their outrageous behavior that pacified places like Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit.

So it is now in Taliban-controlled areas of Pakistan. "These people, six months back, were not willing to share anything," said a military official. "Gradually they've been coming out more and more into the open." Why? In the words of a local man, "It was not Shariah, it was something else. It was scoundrel behavior." Draconian "justice" and most recently, the suicide bombing of a mosque that killed thirty people, have been the last straws that have turned the populace around. Jmail Roghdani commented, "This has made the people violent." The ranks of local militia has grown to over 1,000, and they have driven the local Taliban out of town and reportedly encircled them in an area called Gazigeh.

One of my own students has family in Pakistan. She recently returned from a trip there. At one point she saw a group of men chanting prayers by the side of the road. "I was asking my cousins if there was going to be a bomb blast. Everyone shrugged it off. Not even five minutes later, I saw ambulances going by and our phones ringing. Turns out someone blew up the area where we were eating. After that I was ready to go home." For the people who live there, that is not an option. There comes a point where they are pushed to resistance against fanatic and murderous thugs on their own. Before that point is reached, when groups like the Taliban can pose as domestic patriots against foreigners, they can gain popular support, or at least acquiescence. But once they have and begin misusing authority they lose the people and nothing can save them.

This is a fight for the Pakistani Army and people. The more directly the United States is involved the worse it will be for us. One would think we'd learn after all these years.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech

Now that it's been four days we can take a look at President Obama's speech to the Muslim world with a bit of distance from some of the partisan and sound bite hoopla. If you read the entire speech one thing that jumps out at you is his willingness to deal directly with a multiplicity of very thorny issues. You can read the entire text in the New York Times here. Because of his background he can talk to foreign Muslims in a way and with a credibility no previous American leader could.

It's clear the president was trying to accomplish several objectives in the address. The first was to drive a wedge between most Muslims and violent extremists. The second was to identify the United States with Muslim aspirations. The third was to sketch the outlines of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. He touched on other issues too--democracy, women's rights, economic development, Iran's nuclear program, pernicious stereotypes--showing that in the international arena, as at home, he doesn't shy from going after big issues in all their complexity. In doing all this, Obama gave the Islamic world a number of assurances or promises by which they can measure him in the months and years ahead.

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace." Obama opened with a call for Muslims to reject the message of brutality espoused by "violent extremists." He refers to them as a "small but potent minority" and frequently quoted the Koran to try to place most of his listeners outside their circle. Churchill once said, "If you desire a quality in a person, impute it to him." Obama followed this maxim extensively, as in saying, "Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality." Good Muslims, he says, do not behave like these extremists, killing innocent people. To consider the import of his saying such things, can you imagine any other U.S. President being given a hearing to tell good Muslims how they were expected to behave? Such is the international opportunity of having Barack Obama as the American leader.

Obama's second main point was to win friends for the United States. He made a definitive statement: "America is not--and never will be--at war with Islam." He went back into history to cite Morocco as the first nation to recognize the United States and quoted John Adams as desiring friendly relations with Muslim countries. He made sure to mention the seven million American Muslims and said there were 1,200 mosques in the United States. Obama said, "I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. But that same principle must also apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known....We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: out of many, one."

In his section on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Obama was perhaps tougher on Israel than any previous American president. He emphasized the U.S. special relationship with Israel, saying, "America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based on cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied." Yet he also emphasized, "It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland." He strongly called for a two-state settlement, with separate and sovereign Jewish and Palestinian states existing side by side. "I intend personally to pursue this outcome," he said. "Palestinians must abandon violence," and "recognize Israel's right to exist", but also, "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements...It is time for these settlements to stop." Obama signals he may lean on Israel harder than it is used to from American leadership.

The president spoke strongly for American values and confronting murderous extremists, but also built trust by admitting some mistakes and offering promises. Unlike U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, which he justified on grounds of self defense, he referred to Iraq as a "war of choice" where he promised to withdraw U.S. combat forces from the cities by July, from the entire country in 2010, and "to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012." In both countries, he assured, "we pursue no bases and no claim on their territory or resources." He stated, "I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year."

So with a combination of words, deeds, and promises open to evaluation, the new American president began his task of repairing America's image in the Muslim world, extricating the country safely from its military involvements in the region and taking his shot at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Like most everything else Barack Obama does, it is a straightforward effort to tackle seemingly intractable problems head on, giving due to the importance of factors that have made things so hard but pointing to a shared interest in putting the past in the past in order to make a better future.

After 60 years of frustration in the Middle East I don't think anyone is making rosy predictions of imminent breakthroughs, but the way Obama is approaching things is unquestionably the right way to go. The U.S. and the region will be better off for this speech and the new American stance, and just maybe we will begin to see some real progress. Inspiring a little hope is, after all, one of this president's strong suits.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Health: Obama Backs Public Option

On Wednesday President Barack Obama provided some crucial input into the health care debate by declaring, "I strongly believe that Americans should have the choice of a public health insurance option operating alongside private plans." By so saying, the president sides squarely with Democratic progressives and has likely driven off practically all congressional Republicans. You can see recent articles in Politico and Roll Call here.

During his campaign against Hillary Clinton, Obama consistently questioned whether requiring people to buy health insurance would work. He then said it should only be required for their children. Now he seems to have been won over, accepting the idea she espoused, that "If we do end up with a system where people are responsible for their own insurance, we need to provide a hardship waiver to exempt Americans who cannot afford it." It will be up to congress to write in the details, perhaps with a sliding scale. Those with employer plans could obviously keep them.

Up to now, Obama has been silent on details, preferring to let congress chart its own course. As real "tensions" have emerged among Democrats, though, the administration decided it was time to put the influence of the popular president to work to nudge the process along. Progressives are convinced that without a public portion along the lines of Medicare the big insurers and HMOs would simply continue the current expensive and restrictively rationed system that leaves 47 million people uninsured and at least that many more with "coverage" that still leaves them vulnerable to bankruptcy in the case of catastrophic illness or injury.

Republicans, on the other hand, see any public option as a foot in the door toward a total government takeover that would throw private insurers out of business and eliminate consumer choices. As mentioned before in these columns, these supposed advocates of free competition are pretty obviously scared to death of what might happen if their private health contributors actually had to try to compete against a not-for-profit system.

Congressional Democrats emerged from a meeting on Wednesday that examined a report from the Council of Economic Advisers, "The Economic Case for Health Care Reform" that predicted a net income gain for a typical family of four of $2600 per year by 2020 and $10,000 per year by 2030 if health is overhauled. See a synopsis of the report here.

Obama has made health a top priority and has said if it doesn't happen this year it may not happen at all. Roll Call reports the schedule is to get bills out of both houses of congress by the August recess, reconcile them in a conference committee report in September and pass for his signing by October. Many Democrats seem newly invigorated by the president's clear direction. "The president says get it done. Get it done right because we only get one chance," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) "This strengthens those of us advocating for a public option, which is the only way to keep the private insurers' feet to the fire," agrees Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-N.Y.)

Perhaps Harry Truman's 1947 vision, that any American who is sick would be able to go see a doctor, will finally come to pass this year. Or perhaps not. The opposition will be fierce and well-funded. Just today, my own congressman, conservative Republican Devin Nunes put an editorial in the Fresno Bee touting his "better alternative." It follows the outline of John McCain's campaign plan, offering a tax rebate for individuals or families and "voluntary state-based solutions." Left unanswered are questions such as how people will be able to afford the "better alternative" when the tax rebates cover only one-third the cost of a typical family policy and what happens if states and companies decide not to "volunteer" to play ball. Such distractions are just more of the same rhetoric that have prevented progress for 62 years. Those interested in actually addressing the problem should contact their representative and Senators right away.