Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2012 New Year's Wish List

Here's my wish list for 2012. 

1. For you, dear readers, health, and love and harmony with all your family and friends.
2. A major breakthrough in cancer treatment.
3. A big drop in the unemployment rate.
4. A serious reduction in the number of wars going on in the world.
5. Continued progress in human freedom.
6. The end of the rule of many more tyrants.
7. The growth of a greater spirit of tolerance in world societies, based on the concepts of letting other people believe what they want and be who they are.
8. A global change of heart on the issue of women's equality, especially in those societies that treat women the most oppressively.
9. Continued reduction in the crime rate.
10. Politics that puts human needs before ideology or the demands of moneyed interests.
11. A real international commitment to end the scourges of hunger, disease and pollution.
12. A spiritual awakening of the kind that will increase human happiness and contribute to the realization of the rest of the wishes listed here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Misbegotten Iraq War Ends

After eight years and nine months America is finally out of the Iraq War.  The last convoy of 110 heavily-armored vehicles and some 500 soldiers, churning through the desert under a heavy umbrella of attack helicopters and fighter jets, crossed the Kuwait border in the predawn dark yesterday.  After nearly nine years of trying to pacify the country and win hearts and minds, that description of the exit probably tells us all we need to know about the extent of our success. 

We have all heard of the human cost, including 4,487 American dead and 32,226 wounded, (90% of the total coalition losses), and between 103,000 and 159,000 Iraqi deaths.  In addition to this is the direct monetary cost of $802 billion, with the indirect costs perhaps bringing the total as high as $3 trillion over the years, considering such factors as 20% of the wounded have brain or spinal injuries or that 30% of the 1 million U.S. troops who served there have manifested serious mental health issues.  These are the kinds of costs that never seem to get factored into a decision to go to war, and that will endure and have to be paid for over a span of decades.

Just as important as these considerations, though, are the questions raised by this misbegotten adventure that Americans now say was a mistake by an overwhelming margin.  The United States for the first time initiated a war-attacking and invading a country-that had not attacked the U.S. or its allies first.  The American government at least exaggerated and arguably even manufactured the evidence justifying the war.  The decision for war appears to have been determined by the principals in the Bush Administration even before it took office based on ideological presuppositions, and was not spelled out to the voting public as a likely policy of the candidate upon which the electorate could in part base its election decision.  The press failed in its duty to investigate the facts and properly inform the American people about the veracity of the claims being made. Instead, much of it allowed itself to be cowed into silence or support by political pressure.  The estimates of the human and monetary costs of the war, its duration, and the reaction of the Iraqi people were all absurdly misrepresented by the top officials of the U.S. government and its spokespeople.  And the legislative branch cooperated in eviscerating fundamental Constitutional liberties that have yet to be fully restored.  

All these factors are crucial, because although they have at this point at long last achieved widespread acknowledgement by the American people, there is every reason to question whether or not the nation has learned a lesson that will last into the future.  Now that the national firewall against aggressive war has been breached, will a recurrence become less likely or more?  Now that an Administration has demonstrated the ease with which supposition and fear can be exploited to dupe and stampede the institutions of democracy and the American people into rash action, will this provide a cautionary check against or a road map for new abuses?  If the latter, then the thousands of fallen will truly have died in vain.       

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Republican Field: Can Any of Them Win?

Saturday night six Republican hopefuls met in Des Moines for their latest debate.  You can read the full transcript here.  There will likely be only one more such encounter before the Iowa caucuses, the first official test of strength in the nomination process, are held on January 3, 2012. 

Newt Gingrich, as the new front runner in the polls, came under attack from his fellow competitors, as did Mitt Romney.  See polling data here.  Though he lied several times to obfuscate his former record of support for such measures as climate cap and trade and an individual mandate to buy health care, and drew belly laughs trying to explain his eight-figure K Street lobbying haul as simple "private sector free enterprise," most observers felt Gingrich held his own well enough to retain his late momentum toward victory in Iowa.  See the Fact Check report on instances of untruthfulness in the debate here.  Suffice it to say this field did not win any awards for accuracy last night.

What stands out more than anything at this time are the glaring deficiencies of all the remaining Republican candidates.  One-time front runners Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, along with Rick Santorum, have sought to appeal to the conservative Evangelical Christian vote.  Yet Bachmann's and Perry's stumbles have evaporated their following, while Santorum has yet to be able to generate any.  None of these three gives evidence of being ready to assume the office they seek.

Jon Huntsman, a fellow who tries to talk sense, suffers the handicap in the Republican electorate of being a former appointee of the Obama Administration as Ambassador to China.  Though he is actually quite conservative, the former Utah governor also suffers from sounding far too reasonable when GOP primary voters are howling for red meat rhetoric.  Huntsman also gets stuck with being identified as the second-fiddle "other Mormon" in the field behind Mitt Romney.

That leaves the two current leaders, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.  Romney's Achilles' heel is certainly his reputation as a serial flip-flopper.  Gingrich and the others have zeroed in on this, and were he to win the nomination you can rest assured the Obama campaign would have a field day on this score.  He is competent to be president, but comes across as rather a patrician wimp, strangely reminiscent of the forty-first president, George H. W. Bush.  He might be the most electable general election candidate in the GOP primary field, but he is viewed as too moderate by the typical Republican primary voter. 

Newt Gingrich assuredly knows enough to be president, and now has a sizable lead among likely GOP voters in all the national polls.  Yet he too has major weaknesses.  He has reversed course on the issues perhaps even more than Romney, if that is possible.  He is mean and shoots from the hip like a talk radio pundit, making outrageous statements often at odds with reality.  His ethics lapses are the stuff of legend.  And Gingrich has made over $100 million as a K Street Washington lobbyist for firms the Tea Party excoriates for "crony capitalism."  This has all come after he was drummed out of the House Speakership and fined $300,000 by an ethics committee run by his own party in 1998.  As Joan Walsh of Salon writes of Newt, "even his baggage has baggage." 

Though President Obama should be regarded as vulnerable given the slow recovery of the economy, this field of GOP challengers will be challenged indeed to beat him come next November.  And their biggest obstacles might well be themselves.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Montanans Vote to Abolish Corporate Personhood

Missoula is the second largest city in Montana and home to the University of Montana.  According to the 2010 census, the county seat of Missoula County is home to 66,788 people in the city limits, with a total of 109,299 if you count the "Missoula Metropolitan Area."  (Click here to go to Missoula's official website.)  Situated at 3,209 feet and located at the conjunction of five mountain ranges, Missoula is also called the "Hub of Five Valleys" and even the "Garden City" for its relatively mild climate.  Founded in 1860 as a wagon trail trading post, Missoula shares an independent streak with most Big Sky state residents and indeed, with most Westerners in general.  Thus, a recent ballot referendum there really caught my eye.

In the November 8, 2011 municipal election the good citizens there voted almost three to one to declare that a corporation does not have the same rights as a human being.  According to the Office of Elections, the vote was 10,729 to 3,605, or 74.85% to 25.15%.  City Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken placed the referendum before the council in August, reporting that her constituents had an "overwhelming sense of despair about government."  As she was knocking on doors, people kept expressing their view that, "A lot of people feel that what they say doesn't matter, because somebody with more money will come along and drown out their voices."  They were particularly resentful of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which declared corporations have free speech rights and the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money without attribution for political purposes.  Read the Missoulian newspaper article on it here.

The corporate personhood resolution builds its case with declarations of principle such as:

WHEREAS, corporations are not and have never been human beings, and therefore are rightfully subservient to human beings and governments as our legal creations, ...
WHEREAS, the recent Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision that rolled back the legal limits on corporate spending in the electoral process creates an unequal playing field and allows unlimited corporate spending to influence elections, candidate selection, policy decisions and sway votes, and forces elected officials to divert their attention from The Peoples’ business, or even vote against the interest of their human constituents, in order to raise competitive campaign funds for their own re-election, ...
It concludes with a call for action:

"The citizens of Missoula, Montana, hereby urge the Montana State Legislature and United States Congress to amend the United States Constitution to clearly state that
corporations are not human beings and do not have the same rights as citizens."
Click here to read the entire text of the Missoula corporate personhood resolution.
A group called the Move to Amend Coalition is attempting to spread this message and movement across the country.  Click on this link to go to their site.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

OWS Gains Momentum

The Occupy Wall Street Movement really seems to be gathering momentum now. Breaking up encampments in New York, Oakland, Portland and Fresno appears to have had the unintended effect of dispersing and multiplying new demonstrations rather than stopping them. Though the encampments, marches and demonstrations continue to remain remarkably peaceful, authorities appear to be getting more and more worried and eager to quash the movement.  Remarkably, there have been 4,400 arrests as of Thursday, November 17 nationally against Occupy Movement protesters.  That is already 400 more than were arrested by the government of Iran during the protests against the fraudulent elections there in 2009!

Last Friday's outrageous pepper spraying of peacefully demonstrating students at the University of California at Davis was the latest impingement on the First Amendment rights of citizens to peaceably assemble and exercise freedom of speech.  To read about the incident and watch a video of it, click here

The movement is gaining strength because its message resonates.   First, Wall Street brokers and investment banks got bailed out when their casino securitization schemes came crashing down.  With this in hand they turned around and showered themselves with billions of dollars in bonuses.  Then, instead of turning to job creation, Congress concentrated on debt reduction, even bringing the U.S. to the brink of fiscal default.  Instead of offering real help to homeowners in danger of foreclosure, the Bush tax breaks of the wealthiest 1% were protected.  Across the country, instead of asking the haves to contribute to society at the levels they used to, students have been socked with an 81% increase in tuition in recent years, with the prospect of 16% a year more for the next four years.

The pattern is clear.  The wealthy pay a 15% tax rate on capital gains while wage and salaried labor pays 25 to 35%.  Corporations are allowed to park income in the Cayman Islands to hide it from accountability.  Oil companies, big agribusinesses and corporate jet owners receive subsidies while regular folks are told to expect their Social Security and Medicare to be cut and their children's class sizes to go up. Big interests with their campaign cash and their 17,000 Washington lobbyists have gamed the system to help the rich get richer while gutting everything that helps sustain the middle class.  Fantastically, now it is the middle class's money which is going to support plutocrats.

The Occupy message in response to is equally clear: this class warfare of the top against everyone else is destroying opportunity in the country and must be reversed.  By uniting the vast majority to vote their interests they challenge the comfy arrangements that have grown up over time and threaten to restore some of the social mobility and the safety net that has been so shredded since the inception of the failed trickle-down ideology in the 1980s.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Legalized Bribery Continues

Sunday night CBS News ran a feature on 60 Minutes that every American should watch.  You really have to see it to believe it.  Called The Lobbyist's Playbook, it features Leslie Stahl interviewing convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is out of prison now and telling it like it was.  Not only does Abramoff fess up to his own corrupt misdeeds, he makes it clear he feels that despite some tighter laws being passed as a result of his scandal, little has truly changed in the influence peddling game.

In the piece, Abramoff claims to have had strong influence over 100 Washington legislators.  One particularly effective technique he used was to tell congressional staffers he would have a job waiting for them after they were through with the government service, often at triple the salary.  They would then become amenable to slipping items into bills that would benefit the clients Abramoff represented.

The 60 Minutes segment also includes Stahl interviewing former congressman Bob Ney, the only lawmaker convicted in the Abramoff scandal.  Ney is similarly frank about his own corrupt doings.  Despite the disgusting nature of how they operated, it's refreshing to see some honesty from inside participants about how the game is often played.  Abramoff also talks about legal dodges around attempts to rein in the industry.

The bottom line is that so long as politicians need large quantities of cash to run campaigns, and so long as they have to get it from private sources, interests with business before the government will find ways to get it to them in exchange for the favors and special treatment they desire.  The system is in itself tantamount to legalized bribery.

To see the 60 Minutes segment click here.  To see my earlier post including suggestions on reforming this travesty, click here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Changes National Conversation

An amazing transformation in the national conversation has taken place over the past six weeks, thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement.  What people are talking about has moved off cuts, layoffs and deficit reduction. It is now focused on jobs and inequity, the inequity of a system that watches out for the interests of millionaires, billionaires and corporate giants and neglects the needs of the overwhelming majority of middle and working class Americans.

This change has resulted in a spate of attention to stories about how income inequality has risen since the introduction of trickle-down theory thirty years ago.  Click here to see the chart based on Congressional Budget Office statistics showing a 275% gain in income for the top 1% compared to the nearly flat performance for other income levels.  It's noteworthy that the link in this paragraph is not from a liberal source, but from the staid Economist magazine's site. 

What began in New York's Zucotti Park September 17 has spread nationwide and even internationally.  You can get reports from a wide range of "Occupy" goings on in Richmond, Nashville, Portland, Oakland, and from London to Cairo's Tahrir Square here.  There have even been a couple of Occupy marches here in Visalia.

The reaction against those with the money and clout to hire an army of lobbyists, bankroll anonymous political action committees and skew legislation and the tax code to their special advantage is widespread across the political spectrum.  It is worth noting that before it was co-opted by the Republican Party, even the Tea Party movement was originally set off by the bank bailout.

Remarks by figures such as House Minority Leader Eric Cantor that the movement is motivated by "hatred" or is "pro-Communism" show how poorly some understand the ideals at work here.  What spawns the perspective that children should have decent public schools or senior citizens a dignified retirement is hardly hatred.  The notion that banks and brokerages should be careful with their depositers' money and cover their own losses is hardly antithetical to the principles of real free enterprise.

Whether Occupy Wall Street has legs will be determined by its staying power and its ability to crystallize and lead opinion.  Its basic premise: that ever-lower taxes for plutocrats and corporate giants should not come at the expense of basic human services, retirement security, and jobs for the rest of the population is one that has struck a chord and ought to resonate in these times.  We could be in for a wild ride.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Obama Masters Foreign Policy

The recent successful end of the rebellion in Libya marks another milestone in President Barack Obama's conduct of foreign policy.  This latest in a remarkable string of successes is all the more striking given the president's lack of international or defense credentials when he ran for office.  It says a lot about his basic outlook, validating a measured and principled approach to the world in contrast to the wasteful, unprincipled and ultimately counterproductive methodology of his predecessor in office. While Obama has certainly shown no aversion to the use of force when he considers it necessary, he has consistently shown an astute capacity to tailor the scale of the action to the need at hand.

On his third day in office, Obama fulfilled campaign promises by signing executive orders ending torture and closing secret CIA prisons.  These actions were met with relief around the world. Juxtaposed with this was his order three months later to kill Somali pirates holding American merchant sea captain Richard Phillips hostage.  The lesson seemed to be that the U.S. could and would stand firm against criminal thuggery and extortion while upholding its traditional principles--that it was not an either/or proposition as the Bush-Cheney administration had contended.  Why not both?

President Obama followed this up with the first visionary appeal by an American president to the people of the Middle East on their own soil with his landmark Cairo Speech of June 4, 2009.  In it he spoke out against the allure of violence by stating, "So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity."  And in a passage that now sounds prophetic, he continued,

"But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.  Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.  Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away...and we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments--provided they govern with respect for their people."

That these words were delivered in the Egypt of the corrupt and oppressive dictator Hosni Mubarak is not inconsequential.  To what extent these appeals contributed to later events may be revealed in  historical studies to come, but it cannot be denied that the American outreach Obama initiated in his early months culminated in the October 9, 2009 announcement that the new president had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.  In the words of the Nobel Committee, "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy, and cooperation between peoples...Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics."

This climate was revealed in the Arab Spring of 2011, when the citizens of Tunisia and Egypt successfully agitated for freedom and democracy and ousted their authoritarian rulers.  Uprisings also took place in Libya, Syria and Bahrain.  Obama's adroit handling of the situation in Libya, focused on air support and enlisting the contributions of allies, ultimately resulted in the overthrow of the odious regime of Moammar Ghaddafi without a single American casualty at a cost of about $1.5 billion: a clear delineation from how the Bush Administration went about regime change in Iraq.  There, U.S. boots on the ground resulted in American losses of 4,481 dead and 32,195 wounded at a financial price tag of $757.8 billion in direct costs and possibly $1.9 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, including indirect costs.

Speaking of the inherited wars, Obama personally made the bold decision that killed Osama bin Laden in May despite potential diplomatic fallout with Pakistan, and also recently eliminated English-language Al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen.  His stepped-up use of drone attacks has decimated the terror group's leadership in Pakistan.  Meanwhile, all American forces are scheduled to be out of Iraq by the end of this year and Afghanistan by 2014. The Obama scalpel has proven to be a far more effective and economical strategy than the Bush-Cheney bludgeon.  While they excelled at braggadocio and posturing, Obama quietly shows good judgment and gets results.  The contrast could not be more refreshing nor more helpful to America's image and interests. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Good Friends and Big Trees

It's been awhile since I posted.  I've been extremely busy with papers to grade and a visit from my good friends Tom and Jeff.  I also want to apologize to Ms. Cain, who posted a comment on my last blog entry on exercise.  I was trying to approve and publish the comment, but seem instead to have deleted it!  I always look forward to comments on my musings, so if any of you dear readers want to chime in please feel welcome.  I'll try not to delete the next one!

My topic today is friendship, occasioned by the wonderful visit of my friends Tom and Jeff.  These guys have been special friends since our days at Claremont McKenna College, which we all attended from 1972 to 1976.  It is humbling to think our acquaintance now goes back nearly 39 years.  Tom and I were room mates for several semesters.  Jeff is in charge of rural development loans for the US Department of Agriculture in Oregon.  Tom is a developmental economics professor at Michigan State University.  He spends a lot of time in Asia working on the economics of food distribution.  I teach history at College of the Sequoias.  All of us wanted to go into fields where we felt we could contribute to society and help people.   

My friends came for a three-day weekend, flying in to the San Francisco Bay Area Friday morning and arriving here about noon.  They left early before dawn on Monday.  We had plenty of activities, most of it centered around nearby Sequoia National Park.  But of course the best thing about it was the camaraderie--the catching up, sharing ideas, views and advice.  It's uncanny how with very good friends it's easy to pick right up where you left off, filling the same roles in a group.  Tom even mentioned right away how it seems people's basic personality is formed early and persists throughout life.  Indeed it seems so.

The picture above shows the three of us taking a break on our hike along the Sugar Pine Trail at Sequoia.  That's me on the left, Jeff in the middle and Tom on the right.  We went about five hours at 6500 feet, a good workout.  I was able to go to the top of Moro Rock and get a gorgeous view of the high Sierras from there, as you can see from this closeup of Jeff.  Yes, the first snowfall of the year had taken place a couple of days before.  Our first quick visit up Friday afternoon had been shrouded in fog and cloud, but by the time we

 took this shot on Sunday it was clear and sunny.  The temperature was a comfortable (for hiking) 55 degrees.  At one point on the trail deep  in the woods we found ourselves about 20 yards from a bear!  Fortunately the critter was in a copse of bushes busily gnawing on something and paid us no mind. 

Saturday we visited Crystal Cave in the park, another first for me.  Tom had never been in a cave.  The hour-long tour was over almost before we knew it--a sure sign of time well spent.  The cave was noteworthy for its still-growing formations and its clear running water inside.  The guide was a fascinating young man.  He struck up a conversation with us after the tour about how to approach finding a college that fits his interests and goals.

We didn't spend a lot of time reminiscing about bygone days.  All of us, in our late fifties, are still focused on the present and future.  There was talk about handling job pressures and personal relations, and Jeff now has a grandchild to dote on.  Tom is on the verge of a major career advancement and was also encouraging me to branch out.  It felt so comfortable to be able to share intimacies so freely; such friends are one of the great blessings of life.

If you've never seen a giant sequoia, they are truly awesome. Here is a shot at the entrance to Circle  

Meadow in the Giant Forest Area of Sequoia.  One sign compared the size of these trees to a human, saying they are about the same relative size to us as we are to an ant.  The biggest are up to 275 feet tall and comprise 40,000 cubic feet of lumber, the largest living things ever on planet earth.  The Coast Redwoods along California's northwest shore are taller but much thinner and have less volume.  These giants can live up to 3,000 years!  

It was a great weekend.  Fresh air, the joys of good friends, stimulating conversation and humor, taking in the wonders of nature, and treating ourselves to Reimers ice cream on the way down after a good long walk reduced the relationship of life and happiness down to its essentials.  These are the true things of life to savor.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Keeping Healthy: Exercise

In my last post I described some of the nutrition steps I've been taking.  Now it's time to take a look at the exercise routine I've been following.  The main goals are to improve cardiovascular function and build tone and strength.  A side benefit is calorie consumption to take some of the pressure off diet in the business of weight control.

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are cardio days.  Several years ago I bought a treadmill and customarily do my work on it.  I buy a service contract which gives it a yearly tuneup and free repair when it needs it.  I've found when you use a home treadmill as much as I do this winds up paying for itself.  When the treadmill is down for service I've used the odometer in my car to plot out a route around the neighborhood which I run instead.  I don't do that all the time because I feel the pavement is harder on my knees than the treadmill.  But by all means do whatever you find most enjoyable as long as you're exercising! 

I like to do my workout early in the morning.  When the alarm goes off I get out of bed and get right to it.  I drink about six ounces of water and put on my running shoes.  I moisten a washcloth and daub my face and neck with it during the run for comfort and to keep the sweat out of my eyes.  I have a TV set up so I can watch the morning news or whatever is interesting while I do my workout.  The routine is a six-minute warm up, a three-mile run and then a six-minute cool down.  I start out walking for three minutes at three miles per hour.  Then I move the speed up to 3.5 and walk for another three minutes.  After that I kick it up to five mph and run for thirty-six minutes.  It's a twelve-minute-mile pace and I cover three miles.  To make it interesting and begin working in some interval training, at the 36-minute mark (that's 30 minutes into the run, after the six-minute warm up walk) I increase the speed to six mph for one minute so I'm really running.  I go back to five mph until I hit the 40-minute mark and run at 6.5 mph for another minute.  That feels almost like a sprint.  The purpose of interval training is to prompt the body to continue to improve, which it naturally does when faced with varied challenges of different intensities.  At the 42-minute mark I go back down to a brisk walk at 3.5 mph for three minutes, then finish at a comfortable walking pace of 3 mph for the last three minutes. 

The entire routine takes 48 minutes.  I allow close to an hour, considering the call of nature, donning shoes, getting a drink of water and a little cool down afterward.  I shave after the run and then like to spend a few minutes outside to cool off before I get in the shower.  Otherwise I'll still be perspiring when I get out of the shower and try to dry off!  The treadmill readout says this routine burns about 540 calories.  I worked up to the three miles incrementally, starting at a half mile.  

Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are strength training days.  I get up at the same time and run through my calisthenics and weights for a pattern that takes a little less than half an hour.  Then I get on the treadmill or bicycle for another half hour.  I start on my back with legs straight and clench the quadriceps ten times for a five-count.  I do ten more while raising the legs and ten more while raising the legs over a pillow.  While still on the floor I do ten kegel exercises, which is clenching the sphincter muscles for bladder control.  That's important for me as someone who's had a prostatectomy.  I get up and do twelve five-count toe stands.  After that I sit on the side of the bed and try to push my knees together ten times with my fists holding the legs apart.  Then I try to move the knees apart with my hands trying to press them together.  Back on the floor, I do 50 five-count abdominal crunches followed by twenty half sit ups where I alternate driving the left elbow toward the right knee and the right elbow toward the left knee.  Next come the push ups.  I do at least 50; after that I go until I can't do any more.  Today I did 56.  My tops so far is 61.  When I started my workouts I could not do one push up!  While doing the push ups I stop going down when my elbows are bent 90 degrees.  Going farther risks injury.  Now it's time for the weights.

For a couple of years I used one ten-pound dumbbell.  I recently bought an adjustable pair at a sporting goods store.  By working both arms at the same time I'm saving time.  I started with 11 pounds in each arm and just this week went up to 13.5 pounds each.  The next increment will be 16.5 pounds apiece.  When I went from 11 pounds to 13.5 I cut the reps by 20%, the approximate amount of the weight gain.  I'll stay at this level until it gets easy.  Then I'll add the weight and work on increasing the reps as strength builds.  At present, with the 13.5 pounds I start by sitting in a chair and lay my forearms on the chair's arms.  I do 80 wrist curls palms up and 80 more palms down.  I stand up and do 25 like the military press, extending both arms all the way up.  Then I lay on my back on the floor and do 25 like a bench press, extending both arms up from the chest.  Then I stand up and do 40 biceps curls.  That concludes the calisthenics and weights, at least until I get in the car to drive to work.  I have a hand gripper there.  I hold it down for a 100-count with each hand, then do 100 squeezes with each hand.  I do them with the index finger off the grip.

But before that, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I do half an hour of treadmill walking.  To warm up I go 3 mph for two and a half minutes and 3.5 mph for another two and a half minutes.  Then I push the incline up to 6% and go for twenty minutes.  I warm down at the end by taking the incline back to zero and going another two and a half minutes at 3.5 mph and then at 3.0 mph.  The treadmill readout says this routine burns about 250 calories.

On Saturdays instead of walking the slope I bicycle, weather permitting.  I ride 6.5 miles through town and get done in thirty minutes.   To get done in 30 minutes or less I'm pedaling hard all the way; maybe not all-out, but hard.  Early in the morning on Saturday traffic is light.  When I began it took me 45 minutes.  I wear a helmet and use front and rear lights before sunrise, but the bike is nothing fancy.  It's a girl's bike one of my daughters used to ride: one-speed (no gears) and with the pedal brakes instead of hand brakes.  I don't have the neon bike-racing togs either.  Serious cyclists with fancy bikes I encounter on the road go past me with little effort, but that's OK.  I'm not out to set the land speed record or go fast at minimal effort.  I'm out to work hard and get my heart rate up for half an hour.  I don't work out on Sunday.  I figure the body needs some recuperation time.    

I'm not really finding it difficult to maintain my regimen or to force myself to do the work.  I just set the alarm and get going when it rings.  In truth, I rarely get awakened by the alarm anymore.  My internal clock knows when it's time and I'm usually up and turn off the alarm off before it rings.  I have had to curtail my previous night owl tendencies.  I'm lights out now before 10:00 and up at 5:00 and enjoying it.  Habit and routine are powerful.  So is the feeling of strength and stamina these workouts engender.  I understand they release plenty of good hormones into the blood that help give a positive mental outlook, too.  My doctor tells me the blood samples from my physicals since instituting this program have been textbook perfect.  These six hours of exertion are also burning at least 3,000 calories and building muscle that burns more even when I'm at rest.  That allows me to eat more when I want without packing on the pounds.  If you're interested in getting started with your own routine, I'd advise doing things you enjoy, and remember to build into it.  If you are looking for some exercises to get started with, here's a link to an article by noted Visalia trainer Justin Levine.  Get active!   


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Keeping Healthy: Diet

In a few days I'll be celebrating my fifty-seventh birthday.  As the years go by it has become more and more important to counteract the effects of aging with good diet and exercise.  I'll share some of the practices I've developed and am currently following, starting with diet in this piece and exercise in the next.

The three goals I have with diet are focused on getting results concerning the issues of weight, cholesterol and antioxidants.  The means to get good results have to be realistic for me, meaning that I can't set a regimen so restrictive I can't follow it.  That means I have had to commit most of it to habit, and I have to allow myself some exceptions and treats from time to time to stay sane.  I am 5'8" tall and weigh 160 pounds.

Let's start with breakfast.  I eat after my morning exercise and shower.  My typical breakfast Monday through Saturday includes a bowl of cereal with 1% milk.  I like some variety, so I have a rotation of six cereals that I rotate from day to day.  I buy cereals without high fructose corn syrup and added sugar.  Yes, I have had to read the ingredient labels.  I look for ones that have higher fiber content.  To save you some time, those criteria eliminate Kellogg's products!  My rotation includes Shredded Wheat, Kashi Go Lean, Raisin Bran, Grape Nuts, Wheat Chex and Cream of Wheat.  The Chex are a little marginal nutritionally, but as I said, I get a bit of a treat now and then!  I heat up the Cream of Wheat on Saturday because I have more time that day, not having to go to work. 

I throw six to eight blueberries, three to four blackberries or raspberries and half a banana, cut up into bite-sized slices in there.   The berries are great for innumerable vitamins and powerful antioxidant effects.  Antioxidants work to prevent the basic biochemical deterioration that is at the heart of the aging process itself.  I also have a 12-ounce glass of water and eight ounces of prune juice and another fruit juice.  I know that's a lot of hydration, but remember I have breakfast after a good workout.  Most of us don't get enough fluids as it is.  I'm careful with the fruit juices.  I drink 100% prune juice and Healthy Balance fruit juices or 100% orange juice.  The Trim brand is good too, but our market doesn't carry it anymore.  It's easy to buy junk fruit juices that are full of sugar and calories.  I read the labels and avoid those.

I also take supplements with my breakfast.  The list includes Vitamin C, a B-Complex, Fish Oil for good antioxidant and cholesterol-fighting properties, Oscal with D and Calcium, Glucosamine, and a Centrum Silver multivitamin.  Yep, that's six tablets.    

On Sunday I typically splurge and have eggs and toast with canola margarine.  Sometimes I'll fry some lean turkey to go with the eggs.  I continue with the fruit and vitamins.

Lunch at work has become a consistent routine.  I have an apple or orange, a 4-ounce Activia lowfat yogurt, a couple of cherry tomatoes, about a dozen almonds and a handful of walnut halves with water to drink.  It's low-cal yet high in energy, vitamins and minerals, and promotes the good cholesterol.  If I need an afternoon snack I'll have some peanut butter, sometimes on soda crackers (unsalted tops!).  Breakfast and lunch have really come to be comfortable and ingrained as habits.  That makes the pattern easy to follow.

My keys at dinner are not as regimented, but incorporate some basic principles.  I have red meat no more than once a week.  Frozen or otherwise pre-prepared meals are as rare as hen's teeth, since they're usually full of fats and preservatives, often including way too much salt.  Speaking of which, I do not put salt on anything other than corn on the cob, which I love but have maybe twice a year during the summer.  In order to fill up before the high-calorie items I always start with the salad and/or vegetables and always drink plenty of water.  In fact, one dinner a week is customarily a salad meal.  Potatoes and other starch like rice are OK as long as they're not smothered in stuff like butter and gravy, other than once in awhile as a treat.

Stuff like chips and sodas have disappeared altogether.  When they're not around they're not even a temptation anymore, and I don't miss them, even though I used to be a Diet Coke junkie.  I confess I have taken lately to frequently having a little square of dark chocolate after dinner.  It does have antioxidant effects, and that's all the rationalization I need, there!  And it helps to allow yourself to go out at least monthly or have a splurge meal once on the weekend.  Few can stick to a fairly strict pattern without a break now and then without getting frustrated and chucking the whole thing, and I feel that's a main reason most diets fail.  I've been doing this for a few years though, and am very happy with it.  I feel better, get sick less, and have seen improved blood tests and energy longer at work.           

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Local Election Endorsements for November 8

After extending invitations and holding candidate interviews, the Tulare County Democratic Central Committee has made its local candidate endorsements for the November 8 election.  The recommended candidates for Visalia City Council are Amy Shuklian and Raymond Macareno.  The recommended candidates for Visalia Unified School District Governing Board are Lucia Vazquez in Area 6 and Lita Reid in Area 7.   

Visalia City Council members are elected at large throughout the whole city.  Since three seats are up for election, voters will be able to cast three votes, and the top three vote getters in the six-candidate field will  be elected to four-year terms on the Council.

Amy Shuklian is an incumbent council member and the Vice Mayor of Visalia.  She has a deserved reputaton as an extremely hard worker and is known for her openness.  Amy got her start advocating for a dog park and recreational facilities, and has helped bring both to fruition.  She has never missed a Council meeting, and is known throughout the area for her accessibility and effectiveness in working together with city, county, state and federal agencies and electeds to get things done for Visalia.  Always attentive to the voice and concerns of the people, she intiated a monthly open house where she makes appointments and meets with citizens to hear and help with their issues.  Amy well deserves a second four-year term.

Raymond Macareno is currently a service center Director and the former Executive Director of the Tulare County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.  Raymond combines a strong service ethic with a knowledge of the needs of small business.  As such, Raymond would provide a voice and sounding board for communities that currently are not represented on the Council, particularly in the Hispanic community.  Raymond's multifacted talents and experience merit his election to the Council.

Lucia Vazquez is running unopposed in Visalia Unified School District Area 6.  The School Board has for the first time gone to area elections, and Lucia will be representing a heavily Hispanic and low-income area that has not had representation before.  A Consultant and Researcher for Proteus, Inc., Lucia is not content to rest on her laurels as an unopposed candidate.  She is running a vigorous campaign to get her name out and meet her constituents.  She believes that education is the means up the ladder for today's youth as it was for her, and feels that parent outreach and involvement is a key to fostering an attitude of success.  That is something she intends to work hard on.

Lita Reid is our choice for the School Board in Area 7.  Lita has a proven record of community involvement and the commitment to make a difference.  She is a practicing attorney and was a longtime newspaper editor.  She realizes the constraints current budgetary realities impose, but has a systematic approach to keeping funding where it will have the most impact, in the classroom.  Her dedication to the education of the whole child, rather than simply teaching to standaridized tests, marks Lita as worthy of support.          

Monday, September 5, 2011

In Observance of Labor Day

Happy Labor Day, everyone! We celebrate Labor Day both to pay tribute to the dedicated work done by American workers and to commemorate the improvements in our quality of life won by the steadfast efforts of the American Labor Movement.  The first Labor Day was celebrated on September 5, 1882 by the Central Labor Union in New York City.  By the time Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, it was already being celebrated in thirty states.  As you enjoy the day off today, don't forget to think a moment or two about the sacrifices made throughout the years to win the pay, rights and benefits that even non unionized workers today enjoy.

One of the earliest focuses of Labor was workplace safety.  In 1904, 27,000 American workers were killed on the job just in transportation, manufacturing and agriculture.  In 1914 35,000 died in industrial accidents and 700,000 were injured--and that was in a population only one-third that of the United States today.  Particular incidents such as the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 galvanized the people and finally moved protective legislation.  In that disaster 146 workers, mostly women, burned or leaped to their deaths from the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a New York high rise.  Without running water, fire escapes or fire extinguishers, with the doors locked and the fire department's ladders not reaching past the seventh floor, the tragedy was inevitable.  100,000 marched in support of workplace safety regulations and the politicians finally had the courage to overcome employer resistance.

The Populist and Progressive Parties of the 1890s and early 1900s stood for the rights of union membership and collective bargaining.  They campaigned for the 8-hour day, railroad, banking and telecommunications regulation, health and safety protections and a minimum wage.  Though both parties eventually went defunct, virtually their entire programs were eventually adopted, much of them co-opted by the Democrats and Republicans.  They endured violent assaults that killed many workers in such strikes as that at the Homestead Steel Mill and Pullman Sleeping Car Company.  

Such standard practices as lunch breaks, weekends, overtime and holiday pay, vacations, health benefits, worker's compensation, health and safety standards and enforcement and even the concept of national immigration restrictions owe their existence to the organized labor movement, which is nothing less than the democratic action of workers banding together to support humane treatment, due process and a just compensation in repayment for the value they add to their employer's bottom line.

In these times when once again large employers and conservative politicians are trying to roll back the benefits common people have won through years of struggle, give a thought or two on this Labor Day to the workers down through the years who risked their jobs, safety and sometimes even gave their lives for the pay and working conditions most of us now enjoy.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Perry's Extremism on Full Display

A few days on the campaign trail have served notice that Texas Governor Rick Perry is about as extreme a right winger as it is possible to be. Since he is the current leader for his party's nomination in the polls it also shows how far toward the nutty fringe a Republican has to go these days to win the GOP primary electorate. One would think that some of these positions ought to make it exceedingly difficult for him to win a general election should he be the Republican standard bearer in 2012, as I believe he is likely to be.

Perry shows his antipathy to modern science by characterizing evolution as, "just a theory with a lot of gaps in it," and pollution-caused global warming as a "hoax" ginned up by a worldwide conspiracy of meteorology nerds. Rejection of the fact and data-based universe is apparently an article of faith in Republican ranks these days. It's hard not to wonder what such a stance would have on America's ability to compete in global technology should this latter-day know-nothingism penetrate into the pinnacle of leadership of the nation itself. Either Perry does not believe in science when it conflicts with his prejudices or he is prepared to babble nonsense in order to tell the ignorant what they want to hear. Neither alternative provides much comfort to the prospect of a Perry presidency.

The Governor is also adept at reading things into the Constitution that are not there. He has written in his book "Fed Up," published in 2010, that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional--not just that he disagrees with them, but that the Framers in 1787 somehow banned these programs. To refer to these most popular of federal programs as "scams" and "Ponzi schemes" does take guts. One can only imagine the effect on the senior citizen vote after a few months of publicity of these views.

He repeats the conservative canard that the Constitution was written to "limit government," and protect "states rights" when any eighth-grader can tell you it was to increase federal power over the states after the weakness and disunity of the former Articles of Confederation. His statement, referring to Texas, that, "When we came into the union in 1845 one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that" has exposed either his revanchist Confederate sympathies or a willingness to play to a constituency disposed to dismember the United States--a rather blatant violation of the Presidential oath of office, by which he would, if elected, swear to defend the Constitution "against all enemies."

He has topped these antics off by threatening Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, (originally a Bush appointee, by the way) with accusations of treason and veiled intimations of violence "we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas," if he should deign to differ with Perry on monetary policy. This bull in the china shop buffoonery is what apparently captures the imagination of Republican voters these days, as Perry stands at the head of the current opinion polls. It is not, however, what will win a majority of voting Americans in a national election.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Time for a Big Jobs Program

President Obama announced he will be coming out with a jobs bill after Labor Day. Here's hoping it will be something really big, because that's what the country needs. Incidentally, it would also be good politics for him too.

To start with, it's long past time we had a big jobs push. The fight over the debt ceiling that lasted most of the summer was a distraction from what most of the American public was interested in and what the economy really needs. The original stimulus from 2009 stabilized the free-fall but now has largely run out. This latest round of Republican-pushed budget cuts, to take effect sometime in late November, will do nothing for jobs. Spending cuts do not produce jobs; to the contrary, in order to institute them jobs will have to be cut. That's been the problem as job creation has stalled the past few months: modest gains in the private sector have been offset by downsizing in the public sector.

No doubt there will be some tax credits for companies that fill new positions in Obama's plan, but he needs to go farther. The principal reason hiring is slow is because consumer demand is weak. Consumer spending is 70% of the U.S. economy. Corporate America has been enjoying strong profits of late by cutting jobs and boosting productivity. Indeed, 96% of the top 500 companies were profitable over the past 12 months. They are sitting on an estimated 2 to 2 and a half trillion dollars in cash. American companies produced 1.0 million jobs in America in the pat year but 1.4 million overseas. The reason is that with high unemployment, skittish lending and hesitant buying patterns, demand is picking up faster overseas than here. Source for this paragraph. The solution? We need more jobs here, more money in the pockets of American consumers.

Since private business is not doing it, not only incentives but direct government hiring ought to take place. Many have called for a big push on infrastructure construction for part of this program. You can expect an "infrastructure bank" to be part of the Obama proposal in September. That is a good idea and ought to be done, but I feel his proposal ought to go farther. We have 8 million people out of work. Consider that directly funding 1 million jobs at $35,000 a year would cost $35 billion. When you consider a year of the war in Afghanistan costs three times that much or that the yearly deficit is expected to be over $1.2 trillion (thirty times that much) that amount is a relative bargain. If Obama were to propose opening up 2 million jobs right now for $70 billion it would have an electrifying effect on the unemployed and the economy. And for you fiscal hawks, it would only add 6% to the yearly deficit. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has a ten-point plan for jump starting employment that makes a lot of sense. It includes a mix of tax and regulatory changes and direct government actions. Take a look at it here.

There is certainly plenty for 2 million people to do. Everything from classroom aides to neighborhood cleanup to weatherizing buildings to transportation maintenance to the huge backlog of postponed work at National and State Parks to care for the elderly--there are a host of productive things that need doing, would help the country, would restore a sense of purpose and hope in the lives of the unemployed and would return $70 billion of buying power to the economy.

It would be good for the President politically too. Would the Republican-controlled House of Representatives refuse to go along? Almost certainly yes. Their preference is Hooversim; do nothing and hope for the best. The contrast between a strong program to directly provide millions of jobs juxtaposed with further excuses for more inaction could only work to Obama's advantage in next year's elections.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Perry's Entry is GOP Game Changer

The entry of Texas Governor Rick Perry into the Republican presidential field is a game changer. I rate him as odds on to capture the GOP nomination and face President Obama in 2012.

The dynamics of the Republican race are relatively simple. Mitt Romney is the early front runner. He appeals to the business community and the more moderate elements of the Republican coalition. The question to be settled is who will be the more conservative standard bearer to challenge him?

The Iowa Straw Poll, on the strength of some 4,800 votes, vaulted first-place finisher Rep. Michele Bachmann into contention as a prime challenger to Romney. Libertarian and isolationist Congressman Ron Paul finished second. Nobody else farther down the list, which included Tim Pawlenty who dropped out of the race based on a third-place finish, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, John Huntsman or Newt Gingrich has any kind of realistic shot at the nomination.

So it will be Bachmann and Perry who battle it out for the anti-Romney mantle. Both are far right-wingers who appeal to both Tea Party fiscal zealots and evangelical social issues voters. In this contest Bachmann excels at firing up the base with red meat rhetoric. But she will, I believe, not be able to overcome Perry's edge in gubernatorial experience and the kind of country folksiness so valued as authenticity by Republican voters. And make no mistake, Perry is nearly every bit as conservative as Bachmann.

Once the primary season begins Bachmann will likely win the Iowa caucuses. Then Romney will probably take the ensuing New Hampshire primary. In a practical sense, both will need those victories to remain credible. But then Perry will take the South Carolina and Florida primaries on friendly Southern turf and be off to the races. Wins there will take the air out of Bachmann's campaign and leave Perry one on one against Romney. Perry will prevail because in the final analysis Romney is simply not conservative enough for today's Republican electorate. The party veers farther rightward every year and Romney is, in their mind, still tied to the moderate policies he agreed to as Massachusetts governor.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Inevitable Fallout from Debt Deal

First the Republicans in Congress took the debt ceiling process hostage. Then they held out for an all-cuts settlement that follows party orthodoxy. During the weeks of negotiations, investors were evidently not impressed with the deal taking shape. The New York Stock Exchange's Dow Jones Industrial Index fell by 1,000 points.

After President Obama signed it on the last day before the deadline, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared with satisfaction, "I'm very happy. I got 98% of what I wanted." Obviously unimpressed, the Dow Jones Industrials fell by another 500 points.

Also clearly unimpressed, Standard and Poore's subsequently downgraded the United States' credit rating from AAA to AA+. This is the first time that has ever happened. Today, the first day the Stock Exchange was open after the downgrade, the Dow fell another 600 points.

So, the Republicans devised a settlement their congressional leader considers almost a perfect picture of how they would like to handle the federal budget going forward. And as a result, the value of American equity assets has fallen by about 18% in a month.

Even the business and investment community, frequently supportive of Republicans, recognizes their ideologically-driven approach to the budget for what it is--something that simply doesn't work, couched within a political strategy that reduces governance to gridlock.

Maybe now will come an opening for a realistic, "balanced" approach that fully addresses the problem? One can only hope, and if not, that the public will remember who crashed the bus when the next election rolls around.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Time to Draw the Line

Now that the debt ceiling crisis has been placed on the back burner it's time to step back and survey the scene. The picture isn't pretty, and not just because "the parties can't work together" or "government seems dysfunctional." These things may be true, but the salient point to keep in mind is that the reason this is so is because the Republican Party wants it that way.

Raising the debt ceiling has always been a rather pro forma exercise. Yes, speeches have always been made to score political points, but the process has heretofore been a stand alone yes or no proposition, where the obvious answer has been "yes." Should the United States be authorized to pay the bills for things it has already purchased, and the salaries of the people to whom pay has been promised, or not? That has been and was this time the question at hand. It has never before been tied to future spending and projected budgets. No party has resorted to courting default and the ruination of the nation's credit--until the Republicans this time. The American, European and Asian markets are still in turmoil and losing money over this. It has been an exercise in raw extortion without regard for the consequences. The place to debate the budget is during the budget process, not the debt ceiling consideration.

In a similar vein, the 60-vote Senate threshold to overcome a filibuster used to be a rare occurrence, reserved for major matters of great importance. With the Republicans, this has now become routine, applied to every bill and appointment, regardless of whether it is controversial or not. The purpose is to bring operations to a halt. Click here to see a graph on how the use of the filibuster has quadrupled with the current Republican minority in the Senate. It is to the point where a Nobel Prize-winning economist, Peter Diamond, recently withdrew his name for nomination to the Federal Reserve Board in disgust. Sen. Richard Shelby, (R-Ala.) said he felt Diamond was "unqualified" for the job, and was backed by the typical lockstep Republican junta in support. A Nobel Laureate economist unqualified for a job as an economist? Seriously?

The President did get further debate on the debt ceiling proper delayed until 2013. But don't think the same strong arm tactics won't be employed again. As part of the settlement, a twelve-member Congressional "super committee" will be charged to report out ways to help balance the budget November 23. If they can get a majority, their report and recommendations will have to get an "up or down vote." If they cannot come to majority agreement, automatic cuts will happen to defense and discretionary spending. Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare recipients will be immune. Supposedly, Republicans will not want defense cuts and so will have an incentive to deal in good faith, including finding new revenues as well as cuts. Don't count on it. The Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of 2012. Expect any deal to be held up unless President Obama and congressional Democrats cave in on this. The President says this time he will not budge, but since he has already given in on this before he will be tested on it again. Calamity and a government shutdown will be the threat in November. If the minority party, without even enjoying popular support for these stances in the polls, (60% feel there should have been some tax revenues in the settlement) can brazen its way on this, then the Obama presidency will be in serious jeopardy.

Sometimes it isn't enough to be the adult in the room. When one side doesn't care how much harm they do the country in order to get their way and can count on the other side being
"responsible" and giving in to prevent that harm, then the cutthroats have taken over the neighborhood. The Republican goal is to paralyze governance and then blame Obama and the Democrats for it. Sometimes you have to dig in your heels and say no. Obama and the Democrats had better start doing that. Now.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

AB 459 Is Positive Election Reform

On Thursday the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 459. The bill would give the state's electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. The measure would not go into effect until states with a majority (270) of the 538 national electoral votes approve similar legislation. Thus far seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted the procedure, known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The measure now goes to the desk of Governor Jerry Brown, who has not yet indicated whether he will sign it. Previous Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed the bill.

Brown's signature and California's adherence to the Compact would definitely be a step in the right direction, the direction of democracy. We elect every other office by who gets the most votes; this would make the democratic principle universal for all our elected officials. The idea was first approved in Maryland in 2007. Since then New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Washington, Massachusetts, D.C. and Vermont have joined. California's big bloc of 55 electoral votes would get the Compact nearly half way to enactment, as the total of ratified states plus the national capitol would come to 132.

Those who object to electing the president by popular rather than electoral vote usually say it would eliminate the importance of smaller states in presidential elections. That's not true, though. The present electoral college system neglects both small and large states, and candidates concentrate almost all their time and resources on 12-15 swing states. Some like Florida are big states but others like Nevada have small populations. No one pays any attention to big California, reliably Democratic, nor big Texas, reliably Republican. Likewise, no one worries about small Democratic Connecticut or small Republican Wyoming.

It is better by far for the candidates to have to concern themselves with people and their concerns, wherever they live, rather than the needs of those who happen to live in just a few strategic states. This bill is a welcome step along that path. To see my earlier comments on why popular vote is preferable to the Electoral College, see my 2007 blog "The Electoral College: Democracy Denied."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Revive the Space Program

As I write, space shuttle Atlantis is presently docked at the International Space Station to deliver four tons of equipment. This is the last shuttle mission before the fleet is retired. The American manned space program will now go on hiatus. After fifty years in space and thirty years with the shuttle, any U.S. astronauts going up will now have to hitch a ride with the Russians. As a lifelong space enthusiast I have to admit I'm terribly disappointed with this shortsighted state of affairs.

It seems all part of a nation abandoning its dreams and pulling in on itself. The spirit of adventure and exploration that gave rise to the country seems to have evaporated. We appear to be under the sway of decision makers more concerned about saving a nickel than making a dollar. As a child, I watched the first astronauts go up. First Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, then John Glenn fired our imaginations and national pride by rocketing into the heavens on a column of flame. Before the end of the 1960s, strikingly courageous trailblazers backed by American resolve, organizational acumen and scientific prowess had fulfilled President Kennedy's pledge to land on the moon. Missions to Mars were planned for the 1980s. And then things started getting scaled back.

The entire space shuttle program has cost $209 billion. That's $7 billion a year, $7 billion that is equivalent to less than one month's expenses in Afghanistan. Viewed from a practical standpoint, money invested in the space program has yielded a huge return for the U.S. economy. That investment has been responsible for immense advances in computers, electronics, weather prediction, the GPS system, communications, cryogenics, physics, aeronautics, and the developments of myriad substances able to withstand extremes of temperature and stress. Take a look at some spinoffs here. There are thousands of them.

In the 1960s the space program was 4.4% of the U.S. budget. In 1972 that was cut back to 1.6%. Now it is less than 0.5%. While the forward-looking nations of the world that are emerging as the new leaders are investing in space, technology and modern infrastructure, many who seem to hold sway in America tell us we cannot afford to dream and explore, to embrace cutting edge energy production or even to modernize our aging and inadequate transportation system. That is poppycock. We will spend three times the entire NASA budget this year paying absentee "farmers" not to grow crops.

I would instead contend that the nation that loses its spirit of adventure, scales back its vision and turns its back on the future by failing to keep up with the innovation of its international competitors is far along the path toward obsolescence and decline. I for one have heard quite enough from those who continue to tell us what we can't afford and can't do. We Americans need galvanizing dreams, the call of the frontier, and a national challenge to call forth our best efforts. The establishment of a moon base or a Mars program would fit the bill nicely. We have been waiting and drifting long enough. Let's go.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Brooks Book Hooks This Reader

I've just read a fascinating and important book, The Social Animal by David Brooks. In it Brooks brings you up to date on recent findings in studies of the brain that are truly revolutionizing our conception of how people think, feel and interact. He does this through following the lives of two fictionalized but prototypical characters, Harold and Erica. I highly recommend this book.

The basic idea is that most of our brain activity takes place in the subconscious, including most of what we consider thinking, and that it's all infused with feelings and motives we're often not even aware of. We reference and prioritize virtually everything through emotional constructs, for instance. Our conscious thoughts are truly the tip of the iceberg of what is going on in our heads. Let me give you some examples.

From the chapter on culture, illustrating the power of identification: Researchers gave Yale students a biography of a mathematician named Nathan Jackson. In half the cases they listed Jackson's birthday as the same date as the student reading the bio. The students were then given some math problems to do. The ones with the matching birthdays worked on the problems 65% longer than those without.

Also from culture, on reasons for institutional effectiveness: "The United States is a collective society that thinks it is an individualistic one. If you ask Americans to describe their values, they will give you the most individualistic answers of any nation on the planet. Yet if you actually watch how Americans behave, you see they trust one another instinctively and form groups with alacrity."

From the chapter on society: "A cultural revolution had decimated old habits and traditional family structures. An economic revolution had replaced downtowns with big isolated malls with chain stores. The information revolution had replaced community organizations that held weekly face-to-face meetings with specialized online social networking where like found like....The webs of relationship that habituate self-restraint, respect for others, and social sympathy lost their power."

On social mobility: The biggest change here is not globalization but "cognitive load," the modern need to process so much more and different types of information than before. Brooks writes, "In the 1970s it barely made economic sense to go to college, some argued. But starting in the early 1980s the education premium started to grow and hasn't stopped." The median family income of someone with a graduate degree is $93,000 and a child born into that family has a 50% chance of graduation from college. The median person with a high school degree is in a family making $42,000 and a child born into the family has a 10% chance of college graduation. For high school dropouts the figures are $28,000 and 6%.

And you've got to see the "marshmallow test" results on page 123-124 that predicts future success much better than any IQ test! Brooks is known as a prominent moderately conservative social and political commentator, but does not let ideology control where the research leads. In fact it often leads away from his convictions. If you get a chance to read The Social Animal settle in for a treat.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

An Illness Gets Me Thinking

I've had something happen this week that once again underscored for me the importance of making sure that everyone has access to medical care. This past Monday around noon I came down with a case of the sniffles. It didn't seem too serious at first, but over the course of the afternoon the runny nose got worse.

I have had allergies before, though not for some years, and this seemed like such an episode. It is late spring/early summer and I'd just been noticing some new flowers, particularly the verbenas, in bloom around the house. The drip from the nose was very thin and watery and became constant, except when being interrupted by sneezing. Then my left eyelid got swollen and puffy and began to water incessantly too. I finally took some antihistamine and went to bed.

I suffered all day Tuesday, using one tissue after another all day. I kept taking antihistamines but my condition persisted. It seemed peculiar that only the left nostril and eye were affected. The right side side, to my relief, was still clear so I could breathe out of one side of my nose and see out of at least one eye.

The body's mechanisms and defenses are remarkable. Like Tuesday morning, when I woke up Wednesday at first the symptoms were much improved. Before long, though, they were back at full strength. It's as though the body makes a maximum effort to keep the air passages open so it can try to renew itself in sleep, and then, exhausted, is once again overwhelmed. By mid morning I was miserable. I resolved to go to the doctor, hoping for perhaps a stronger, prescription antihistamine that could overcome my body's allergic reaction to whatever pollens were bedeviling it.

Instead, I was surprised when he looked into my left ear and exclaimed, "My gosh, it's sure red in there!" The same was true when he peered up my left nostril. It seemed I didn't have just an allergy going on. A full-blown infection of the ear, nose and sinus was underway. He prescribed a five-day antibiotic treatment of Azithromycin (often called the Z-pack) and a nasal spray to dry things up. With these in hand, I was already considerably better by bedtime Wednesday and felt definitely on the mend by Thursday. Ah, the wonders of modern medicine!

Fortunately, I'm someone with good employer-provided medical coverage. It doesn't cost me much to see the doctor or get prescriptions. Yet I still waited two days, both because I incorrectly self-diagnosed what was wrong and because I therefore didn't want to waste even an insurance company's money on something that probably couldn't be remedied except by time.

What would I have done if I'd had no insurance at all? Well, I can afford to pay, so I might have waited another day trying to save the $90 doctor visit and $150 prescription cost. What if I were really hurting for money, like most of the community college students I teach? Well then, I can imagine waiting a long time, hoping it would go away of its own accord. $240 is a couple of weeks pay for some of them, or their share of a month's rent. They would just suffer and get worse for another several days or a week. Maybe an infection like mine left untreated for 10 days could cost someone an eye. And if it were something more dangerous, they might well wait until it was too late and even die. It happens. That's why Harvard Medical School estimated 45,000 Americans die every year because they have no health insurance.

That's also why it's such a moral imperative to make sure everyone does have some form of coverage. It needs to be treated as a human right. As Garrison Keillor has written, "if lower taxes are your priority over human life, then we know what sort of person you are. The response to a cry for help says a lot about us as human beings."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Back From Kansas City

I'm back from scoring AP European History exams in Kansas City. I avoided any tornadoes in the city on the wide Missouri River but couldn't completely avoid the heat. The daily highs ranged from 93 to 97, accompanied by the kind of high humidity we don't get in Visalia. Outside of the work-related, I set up a group trip of 14 of us to take in a baseball game at the very attractive Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals. The home town team fell to the visiting Minnesota Twins 8-2.

I was also able to partake in some famous KC barbecue at Jack Stack's. I had the sampler platter including beef, chicken, a baby back rib and even kielbasa. It was excellent. I came back with some BBQ sauce for home, including from a couple of restaurants I didn't get to, Arthur Bryant's and Gates.

Then there was an outing to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It has to be seen to be believed--spectacular. Monet's "Water Lilies" were there on tour. It also has Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Medieval, Enlightenment Era, American, African, Asian and modern. Architecturally, the building looks like it might have been put up by an 1890s robber baron, with marble columns in the monumental neoclassical style--very impressive. I didn't even get to the American and Asian collections but if I ever return to KC I'll be back for the rest of it.

On the topic of the work-related, I'll be incorporating some of the material from the AP test in my Western Civilization classes. There were some fascinating documents on England's Queen Elizabeth I and the gender-related challenges she faced when she ascended the throne, including how she handled the potentially fatal (for her) situation. I also learned a lot about the events leading up to the English Civil War. That is the interlude that ended with Charles I losing his head and determining that Parliament would reign supreme in Britain rather than following the course of absolute monarchy that was gaining the upper hand in France, Spain, Austria, Russia and Prussia. The developments of Britain and the Netherlands along constitutional rather than absolutist lines was of immense significance in setting the stage for their rise to prominence and bequeathing important elements of their systems to the subsequent democracies, including that of the United States.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Real Meaning of the Gingrich Flap

There is no doubt the roll out for former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign is one of the quickest self-immolations in U.S. political history. But what has received little comment is the extent to which the entire episode shows just how strong Barack Obama may be in 2012 and how poorly Republicans are positioning themselves to run against him.

Former Speaker Gingrich led the House from 1995 to 1999 during the Clinton era. He officially announced his candidacy for the 2012 Republican nomination for the presidency on May 11. Within four days his campaign was a shambles, reeling from self-inflicted verbal wounds and assailed by his fellow Republicans. Though Gingrich's prospects were already touch and go due to his multiple marriages, ethics lapses and policy flip flops (for instance, he was for the health care mandate before he was against it and supported intervention in Libya until Obama did it, after which he opposed it) his real problems began when he went on NBC's "Meet the Press" with David Gregory on May 15, a scant four days after jumping into the race. You can see the "Meet the Press" interview or read the transcript here.

Speaking of the budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) that defunds much of Medicare and turns it into a voucher program, Gingrich criticized it as "right wing social engineering." He was immediately excoriated by Republican media and candidates for not supporting party orthodoxy. Gingrich took so much heat from them that within days he was completely disavowing his statement, claiming a conspiracy on the part of Gregory, playing up his "great friendship" with Ryan and pledging his absolute fealty to the party line on taking Medicare apart.

The irony, of course, is that Gingrich was right in the first place. Medicare is probably the most popular federal program ever instituted. To put a cap on it and start pricing it out of the means of senior citizens would not only be unconscionable social policy, leading to the inevitable bankruptcy or early deaths of untold numbers of people, it would also make certain an overwhelming GOP defeat at the polls in 2012. If the eventual GOP nominee runs on a platform of gutting Medicare you can expect to see him or her lose by an even greater margin than John McCain did in 2008. One only has to think back to the Tea Party types who flooded town hall meetings in 2009, shouting for their congressperson not to vote for "socialized medicine" but also to "keep your hands off my Medicare."

The brouhaha indicates the extent to which the GOP is overreaching and out of touch with the public. Their only chance with the moderate center of the electorate is to disavow the Ryan budget's slashing of Medicare. Yet all but four Republican House members voted for it. They are already going to have targets on their backs for that. Any presidential nominee who wants to win is going to have to run away from that position. But as the Gingrich flap demonstrates, their base may not permit that to happen. If not, expect easy sailing for Obama's re-election and a very good chance for the Democrats to recapture the House.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Our Taxes Are Low

There is no shortage of opinion, spin, ideology and outright propaganda in discourse over the issues of our day. And then there is fact. McClatchy reporter Kevin G. Hall did a little research lately and turned up an interesting set of such facts on the subject of federal taxes. To the contrary of what most conservatives believe and say, federal taxes are at the lowest percentage of national income since at least 1950. Go to the article here.

The historical average since World War II is that 18% of gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the national economy, has gone to federal taxes. When times were prosperous, in the year 2000 after the longest expansion in U.S. history, that percentage grew to about 21%. After the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that fell to 15%. And then last year, 2010, it fell lower yet, to 14.4%.

The bottom line is that we are not overtaxed, but undertaxed, not only by world standards but even by our own historical standards. If getting a handle on the deficit is a concern, and it should be for the long term, though in the short term reviving jobs is a far more pressing matter, then there is no way to get there without increasing taxes. The simple math is that revenues are running 4% of GNP below historic norms and spending is running at about 6% of GNP ahead of the norm.

To balance the budget, if anyone is truly serious about it, would require increasing taxes about $600 billion a year and reducing spending by about $900 billion a year. To get an idea of what this would require, immediately withdrawing from both Iraq and Afghanistan would save less than $200 billion. Now, a fair amount of any deficit will take care of itself if the economy improves significantly, and that should be the first order of business. But part of any realistic solution must also include restoring revenues to their historic averages, and that will require a tax increase, particularly on those in the top income levels. As Hall points out, their effective tax rates are the lowest they've been since before World War II.

So when you hear politicians say they have a plan to balance the federal budget without raising taxes, be assured they are spouting ideological rhetoric, not talking any kind of mathematical sense.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The End of Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden died on May 1, 2011, shot twice by a U.S. Navy SEAL at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This is the way we all expected his end would come, avenged by crack American special ops forces. One thing that particularly gratifies me is the timing of Bin Laden's demise, for he lived just long enough to see proof of the failure and futility of his life's work.

Like most fanatics, the al-Qaeda founder's ideology and appeal were built on intolerance and hatred. In his case, this meant intolerance of any deviation from his medieval views on religion and society and hatred of all who failed to share those views.

If the Muslim world had problems they were the result of scapegoats and bogeymen, especially Westerners in general and Americans in particular. Just how the indiscriminate murder of these imagined enemies would in any way improve the lives of Muslim people was never fully explained or even thought through. But then it never is, any more than Hitler's hatred of Jews, Stalin's paranoia of kulaks or Ottoman antipathy to Armenians made any rational sense. It was about focusing disaffection on the other, the outsider, to create unity in fear and fellowship in service to the sinister.

This spring Bin Laden must have watched in dejection as a wave of revolution spread across the Middle East. Revolution was what he was always fomenting, but these popular upheavals for freedom, rights and democracy appealed to hope, not fear. Unlike his vision, they embraced the future, not a barbaric past of whippings, beheadings and inhuman subjugation of women.

And unlike his record of carnage and destruction, these movements were actually about building
something. Marchers throughout the Muslim world were demonstrating people power in the service of uplifting the human spirit rather than chaining it, following in the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, rejecting Bin Laden's path of chaos and blood. He lived just long enough to see his message eclipsed, his means repudiated and his ethos supplanted.

Troopers entered his bedroom and the criminal's final scene unfolded. But by then the plot had been completed. Whether he realized it or not, time had passed him by. He had already become what men like him despise most: Osama Bin Laden had become irrelevant.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Boehner Gets Honest for One Day

It was remarkable to see House Speaker John Boehner yesterday saying the oil companies might not need their government subsidy. With oil at $112 a barrel and profits consequently growing by leaps and bounds, their $4 billion tax windfall seemed "unwarranted," even to him. He told an ABC News reporter that to help balance the budget the government needs revenue and oil companies, "ought to be paying their fair share." How refreshing.

President Obama quickly seconded the sentiment. Seeking to capitalize on the common ground he saw in the Speaker's statements, Obama sent a letter proposing ending the corporate welfare and using the money instead to develop clean energy sources. OK, so far so good.

But all that was yesterday. Upon reconsideration, today Boehner's office began walking his statements back and "explaining" that he did not really mean what he said. Now they say the President's proposal would, "simply raise taxes and increase the price at the pump." This is the typical hypocritical tap dance Republicans pull when caught in blatant inconsistency. They say they are against wasteful spending-except when it goes to wealthy interests that contribute to them. Someone must have reminded the Speaker who pays the freight for his party. Go ahead and cut education spending for poor kids and doctor visits for seniors; those are wasteful. But don't touch subsidies for profitable multi billion dollar corporations-that's essential spending we can't do without. We all get the picture.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nixon Library Visit

On Monday I went with my wife and grown daughters to the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. It was a fascinating look at a larger than life character who unquestionably helped shape an age. You can go to Library site here. Nixon made real impacts, some negative and some positive. Ultimately, of course, his memory and place in history are tied up with the Greek-tragedy personality flaws, primarily paranoia and hubris, that led to his resignation in disgrace in 1974 to avoid certain impeachment and conviction.

The museum itself is quite attractive, as are the grounds. The entrance is nondescript but part of the overall building resembles the White House. There is a recreation of the Lincoln Bedroom and the large East Room, which seemed bigger than the actual East Room in the White House. Outdoors in the back is the small home in which Nixon was born; it came in a kit by railroad from Indiana and his father assembled it on the site. The landscaping is very attractive and includes a long reflecting pool and fountain that is reminiscent of the one at the Martin Luther King historical site in Atlanta. Among the memorable displays are the Presidential limousine he used and the Presidential helicopter that served the presidents from Kennedy through Ford. Yes, it is the famous craft Nixon rode off the White House lawn after tendering his resignation where he gave those memorable double "V" signs.

Inside you can watch the "Checkers" speech in which Nixon saved his spot on the ticket as Eisenhower's running mate in 1952 and the debate with John F. Kennedy when they ran for President in 1960. There is a huge section on his groundbreaking trips to China and Russia and an interesting room featuring life size likenesses of the 10 greatest world leaders of his time, including such people as Kruschev and Brezhnev of the Soviet Union, Mao Tse-Tung and Chou-En-Lai of China, Winston Churchill of Britain, Charles de Gaulle of France, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Golda Meir of Israel. The collection of gifts from foreign potentates was absolutely stunning. All are considered property on loan from the National Archives.

There was certainly a tendency of the Nixon Foundation displays to place the former President in a positive light. One that stuck out to me was a display that said Nixon took office after campaigning in 1968 promising to "bring us together again" in the face of division over civil rights and Vietnam, and that his landslide re-election victory in 1972 "proved he had done so." I understand the former display on Watergate was somewhat of a whitewash.

Thanks to a new Watergate section at the end of the walk-through, that is no longer the case. The National Archives put it together, and it includes an unvarnished factual treatment of the background and misdoings of Nixon and his associates. It ends playing what amounts to Nixon's own confession in his famous interview with David Frost.

The site continues to be used for important historical and political functions. To inaugurate the new Watergate display, reporter Bob Woodward and editor Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post were on hand to host an evening forum in the replica East Room. They were just arriving in the foyer as we and the rest of the paying tourists were being cleared out of the building at 5:00 P.M. They were formerly considered personae non grata by the Nixon Foundation for their role in bringing Nixon down, but since the forum was being conducted by the National Archives they were invited and were glad to come. As I bought a biographical DVD at the guest shop on the way out, the clerk told me the Nixon Foundation has "important figures" come and explain their take on history at East Room receptions and functions too. Two he mentioned were Ann Coulter and Bill O' Reilly.