Thursday, December 27, 2012

Forgiving the Pope

The Pope has been in the news this week.  Not all that surprising with Christmas being celebrated around the globe.  His Highness's high profile pardon made the bulk of the news coverage.  According to CNN: “Pope Benedict XVI has pardoned his former butler, Paolo Gabriele, weeks after he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for leaking the pope's private papers.”  The Pope’s visit to the prison and his forgiveness of a long trusted ally nicely echo’d the spirit of Christmas.  The Pope even set up the Gabriele family with a new house and a stipend for the rest of his life.  That loving gesture is applied far too selectively by his Emminence.
The Pontiff’s annual Christmas message to the world is one of the most important and listened to speeches of the year.  Per the Huffington Post:   He dedicated [his Christmas message] this year to promoting traditional family values in the face of gains by same-sex marriage proponents in the U.S. and Europe.  Benedict [said] the campaign for granting gays the right to marry and adopt children was an "attack" on the traditional family made up of a father, mother and children." 
"People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being," he said. "They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves."
The claim isn’t new, or all that original.  The Pope said in his annual peace message that gay marriage, like abortion and euthanasia, was a threat to world peace.
 
As an Anglo-Catholic (the smells and bells part of the Episcopal Church) I attended a Parish that for many years regularly kept the Pontiff in our intercessions.  As a person of faith I know that it’s treacherous to apply secular standards to religion.  Human history is filled with the arguments and counter-arguments of Biblical interpretation.  I’m no religious scholar.  In fact had my grandmother not been sitting in the front row of the Catechism exam unconsciously whispering the answers I might never have been confirmed!  I’m a person of faith, whether I can recite Bible selections or not.
The power of forgiveness lies at the essence of my Christian faith, and many faiths of the world.  I can understand, respect and support Pope John Paul II who forgave the man who tried to assassinate him.  Likewise Pope Benedict’s reprieve to his long-time confident makes sense to me on both a practical and a spiritual level.
Two people celebrating their love together is a rather traditional expression of feelings.  Whether those people are of mixed heritage, same sex or different backgrounds matters little.  Two souls coming together is the most beautiful and sacred experiences that there can be.  Love is the essential foundation for forgiveness and love is the most natural characteristics of being human.  Try as I might in my Libertarian-see-every-point-of-view philosophy, I am unable to comprehend how love is a threat.  Love is the antidote to the world’s ills.  My Solstice/Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanza/New Year prayer is for the power of love and forgiveness to trump fear and intolerance.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Here, There & Everywhere

Somewhere around age 10 I wrote a newsletter to family and friends and called it Here, There & Everywhere.  I’d ditto copy it on the machine at Dad’s school and mail it.  I can’t quite remember all the details, but I vaguely recall charging a subscription rate.  The originals are safely ensconced in a box in a storage facility somewhere in Southern California, but the ethos lives on.  The goal of that enterprise was to have entertaining and interesting tidbits that would interest readers.  A lot of things have changed since then, but today’s media environment requires even more effort to grab people’s attention, whether it be a family newsletter, a blog or mass media.
Being able to multi-task and manage a variety of things simultaneously is a given in today’s fast paced world.  It’s interesting in a world that is more fractured, with more demands on our focus and attention that the media landscape has become more singularly focused.
 
Looking back over the past several months, the cable networks, newspapers, and their online counterparts have all gone to single coverage on major stories like Super Storm Sandy, the Presidential election, the “Fiscal Cliff”and most recently the tragedy in Sandy Hook.  Each of these stories has merit, require attention and focus.  But to the exclusion of everything else?
The online resources that are available to support news organizations should allow a variety of stories to be reported with a better depth.  Instead it’s all one subject all the time until the next one comes along.  The ad-nauseum ‘what if’ scenarios that the various television people talk amongst themselves and their colleagues is maddening and has infiltrated newspaper and magazine theorists as well.  What happened to actually interviewing lawmakers, or experts in the field?  When did a reporter for their own network become the go-to expert on a particular subject?
I never thought I’d be one of those people longing for the good old days of (fill in the blank).  But I do.  I listen to BBC most mornings because I can get a range of stories that are happening in the world.  Then I’ll switch over to Morning Joe and Soledad on CNN to see how long I can tolerate the hypothesis of the day.  It’s often not long.
Perhaps the saturation coverage of whatever the subject de jour is an antidote to the fractured world.  If all major stations are covering the same story in largely the same way for days on end, maybe the essence will filter through to the audience?  Not that anybody’s asking me, but I’d much prefer my news to be Here, There and Everywhere.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Color Splash

HGTV’s “Color Splash has been on the air since 2007 – transforming bland spaces into festive rooms thanks to the innovative use of color.  It’s often over the top, but an amusing distraction.  I don’t think host David Bromstad has ever used Tangerine Tango, the 2012's color of the year.  2013 is the year of emerald.  Pantione determines the color for each year – they are (per their site) “…known worldwide as the standard language for color communication from designer to manufacturer to retailer to customer.” Who knew?  Color me educated.
Green M&M’s became developed a mythology that they were an aphrodisiac.  Green is also known as the color of envy and jealousy making it an interesting juxtaposition with the candy legend.  In fact, color has an entire psychology around it.  Studies have also been done on the impact of human behavior as it relates to color.  Given the identical set of information, people react one way if something is set against one color versus another.
In the days of black and white movies – the good guys were distinguished by their white hat, and the not so good guys always wore black.  That visual way to reinforce a characters role in the story actually has continued in modern filmmaking.
Characterizing one’s political opponent as evil just put Americans through a two year, multi-billion exercise.  With 51% of the vote, President Obama successfully painted Mitt Romney as the scarier proposition.  The election seemed to be about who would be worse for the country – not whose vision or policies would be best.
While President Obama won the election – the Republicans continue to demonize.  The idea of coming together and compromising has been a rhetorical nicety, but the practical application of the concept hasn’t yet materialized.  Winning is more important than governing.  With the media’s inability / refusal to report and discuss nuance they’re able to keep the simple narrative of good-bad alive.  Complex issues are reduced to simplistic sound bytes and surrogates from each side are sent out to parrot the lines across the media landscape.  This is not the way to solve a $16 trillion deficit – that under the most rigorous Republican proposals will be $20 trillion by the time Obama leaves office, and likely more. 
That’s me painting Democrats and Republicans  the same color: red.  As in red ink.  As in what happened to even the dialogue about a balanced budget – about the United States of America not spending more than it brings in?  Good stewardship of this amazing, prosperous and vital nation must include real fiscal responsibility – as in a balanced budget and a debt reduction plan.  How did this concept become extremist?  Spending the country into bankruptcy – that’s far more reckless.
 
 
It would be nice if the world was as black and white – and people were either just good or just evil as the entertainers and politicians try to portray.  We are a conundrum of complexities and contradictions.  We are, in short, gray…not in the dull, lifeless sense of the color – but the equal mix of white and black.  Wouldn’t it be nice if our politics actually reflected who we are?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Buddy, spare a dime?

In the sea of $16.3 trillion of debt that grows by another $3.5 billion each day ($1.3 trillion each year) – Congress has an innovative solution:  do away with the $1 bill.  Of course this issue isn’t really related to the debt – but I found it amusing with all of the fervor of the supposed fiscal cliff (that I earlier wrote is really a bump in the road ) there was actually a Congressional sub-committee that once again wants to replace the dollar with a coin.  They can’t seem to figure out how to balance the books - but let's focus on paper money and whether to dump the penny.
Retire the Penny is a website sponsored by citizens who want to abolish the one cent piece.  The most obvious justification is that it costs 2.4 cents to produce each penny.  Each year it costs $120 million to produce currency that is worth $50 million.  Nickels are even worse – at a cost of more than 11 cents per.
The Mint provided the sub-committee with a promise that they will be making suggestions to address the cost basis, including moving to multi-plated steel as the material to make future coins from.  That would save $200 million per year – chump change in a $3.796 trillion budget, but still.  They’ve been studying the issue for 18 months.
It is important to have currency that doesn’t cost more to make than it’s worth.  It’s also time to let the penny retire, just as the half-penny retired in 1857 and other denominations before that.  As monetary value changes with time so must the paper and coins that represent the value.  Replacing the paper dollar with coin hasn’t been effective in the various attempts so far, mostly because people are left with a choice of what they’ve been familiar with their entire lives, and something different.  Electronic payment is rapidly taking over – the elimination of the paper dollar will become a non- issue.
A far better use of Congress’s time would be looking at the $1.327 trillion in annual deficit spending.  None of the hysteria and hand wringing today is about balancing the books:  having the US spend what it brings in.  The hoopla about “the cliff” would change the $1.327 trillion annual shortfall down to about $1.2 trillion for the upcoming fiscal year.  A big amount no question – but not as big as the amount accruing.  Despite the rhetoric, that doesn’t even consider the $16.3 accumulated debt. 
 

 
Continuing to focus on the smaller issues – not that the U.S. seems incapable of fiscal responsibility (by either party) means that the country is heading for a fiscal avalanche.  Maybe not next year or the year after – but as any of us who have ever borrowed money or used a credit card knows:  the bill always comes due.  And the bill will come when it’ll be too late to have our hand out asking if anybody can spare a dime (which costs just $0.04 to make.)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Being prepared

I like planning ahead.  I get that from my Mom, not so much from my Dad who would inevitably be planning his lesson plan right up to the moment when the bell for class would ring.  I was also never a Boy Scout, well, at least in the official sense! Being prepared is probably a control issue –if things are set up in advance then I have a higher likelihood of knowing the outcome.  Of course that’s a myth, but it makes me feel better.  When I see other people who plan ahead I generally have a positive reaction of a like minded soul.  That wasn’t the case with the planning that happened around the recent Presidential election.
It was terribly amusing and a little bit embarrassing when Mitt Romney’s President-Elect website went live after he had conceded the election.  It became a metaphor for what didn’t work about his candidacy.  Humorous as it may be that the site went live when it shouldn’t have, it is comforting to know that there was planning going on in the event that he won.  It would have been terrible for him to win and have nothing in place for transition.  Kudos on the planning.  A Bronx cheer for the erroneous release. 
President Obama likewise was planning both for a win and what he and his Administration would do in the event that he lost.   The New York Times and Boston Globe reported on Sunday that the Obama administration crafted drone rules in case Romeny won. 
 
 
Drones are the devices that are operated by remote control and account for hundreds of deaths each year of people on the President’s Kill ListDrones were first used under President George W. Bush #43 and were used on a limited basis.  Drones are a signature Obama tactic and as part of his administration’s legacy they wanted to establish concrete rules about when they could be used and when they couldn’t, and not have leave the flexibility in place that President Obama enjoys.

Providing consistent policy is a good thing.  Having the Executive Branch formalize a policy when there President is judge, jury and executioner is not.  No member of Congress or the Senate were involved in the crafting of the policy.  The former Constitutional professor doesn’t permit any legislative oversight.  The article assures the reader that in the preparation of a formal policy there is internal discussion inside of the Administration, with representatives from Justice and State challenging officials from Defense and the CIA.  There was little debate let alone discourse about this in the campaign.  Even without bequeathing the Obama Doctrine the Romney camp would have likely just continued the killings.
 
When one person makes the unilateral determination of who lives and dies Western media and politicians traditionally define that person as a dictator.  Not so in this case.  The arrogance of a Kill List is exceeded by the chutzpah to memorialize it as a policy for future administrations.  It’s the rare instance where the Boy Scout motto of being prepared is harmful.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Long Live the Twinkie

The potential death of the Twinkie has captured the imagination of the American media.  Like the snack cake itself the company is well beyond its expiration date.  Despite some hyperventilating this situation again proves Mark Twain’s famous saying:  “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  It’s the type of story that seems tailor made for today’s media culture – no matter what your perspective there’s good guys and there are bad guys and the loser is nostalgia.
Since its founding in 1930 the company has undergone more than 25 mergers and acquisitions, the first in 1937.  This activity indicates that from its inception the company has undergone significant and near constant change in its corporate structure and ownership as a variety of individuals, companies and conglomerates have attempted to maximize profits from the various breads and snacks they make and sell.  Despite America’s nostalgia for their products, this has never been a family run affair.
The company’s history of acquisitions, mergers and the various labor issues is captures the ethos of American Business depending on the time in history.  In the 1950’s and 60’s when the U.S. was growing rapidly the company expanded greatly, buying up 9 different bakeries.  Reaganomics materialized in the 1980’s with the company going private and being run by a high-tech business entity that was trying to run a diverse portfolio.  The 1990’s saw the company go public (again), riding the stock market and economic boom of the time.  The 2000’s found the company in labor battles and the longest bankruptcy in history at that time.  The current bankruptcy proceedings are the most bitter – mirroring today’s business and political cultures.
 
Liberals point to the hedge funds and are irate that management has run the company into the ground while pocketing all of the cash along the way.  Conservatives point to the intransigence of the unions and the strikes that have left them no choice but to liquidate the company and fire all 18,500 workers. 
Both sides are right.  Hedge funds have taken profits out of the company – but that’s what they are designed to do.  A hedge fund is obligated to maximize their investors return.  If they’ve done so by pulling out returns to the point that the company can’t operate and goes under then the original capital is lost and the Fund will have not done their job well and their investors will ultimately lose their funding and not invest in that hedge fund again.  Unions have gone on strike against the company to get better wages and benefits.  That’s their job – to obtain the maximum compensation and working conditions for their membership.  If they’ve done so to the point that the company dissolves, then ultimately the Union will lose membership.
 
Let the company dissolve.  The fact that online sales of the snacks went crazy with the potential dissolution shows that there’s still a strong consumer base.  The company has $2.5 billion in sales.  History has shown that these products have survived under dozens of mergers and acquisitions – this is no different.  American-style capitalism will survive and the snack foods will live.  Ding Dong – the witch isn’t dead and neither is the Twinkie.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A bump in the road

The pundits and politicians are hyperventilating about “the fiscal cliff” as if the end of civilization is at stake.  It’s not a cliff at all – more like a pothole.  The Federal Government has been spending more than it brings in for generations.  As part of a bipartisan agreement in August 2011 Congress and the President agreed to raise the so-called ‘debt ceiling’ to meet the ongoing spending deficit only if certain ‘draconian’ cuts kicked in starting in 2013.  The theory was that the cuts would be so unpalatable politically that the politicians would have no choice but to compromise.  It’s these very cuts that Congress and the President agreed to that they are now saying are going to destabilize the western world and the global economy which is, of course, not quite true.
The approx. $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts and the expiration of the Bush-Obama tax breaks to the rich would have a significant impact on the U.S. economy if they all happened at once, which is the implication that is in the discourse about this subject.  It’s not all immediate.  It’s over 10 years.  And many of the changes don’t start for several years. 
Think of it this way:  You have to come up with $10,000 right now.  That’s a huge amount of money.  Now consider coming up with that same $10,000 – but over ten years.  That’s $1,000 per year.  That’s $83.33 per month, or $2.84 a day.  Can you come up with $2.84 a day?  That’s a much more likely scenario than coming up with $10,000 tomorrow and it changes what you would do significantly.
The political and media narrative is at a near panic level that a compromise has to be figured out for the proverbial $10,000 – not agreement on how to find the $2.84.  Who benefits from such obfuscation?  The media – because they have another simple narrative to report on – with a clear pro/con argument, and the use of the hyperbolic descriptor “fiscal cliff” implies danger. 
The United States is $16 trillion in debt.  The Obama policies have contributed nearly a quarter of this, but the debt has built up over a long period of time --- all with the Congressional approval.   When in session 13% of Americans approve of the job they do – when out of session 21% approve.   The waters get even muddier looking at last week’s election results.  Only 5% of Congress lost their seats in the 2012 election – 10 Democrats and 15 Republicans – out of 435 seats.  How can 13% of Americans approve of the job Congress does yet return 95% of them to their job?   That's another blog...
The automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion spread over 10 years are $120 billion per year.  The 2012 US budget had $3.96 trillion in spending.  Taking $120 billion out of that spending is 3%.  If the United States goes off a cliff for 3% of a budget that runs at a deficit 10 times the proposed cuts, then we may have to rethink the whole math thing.  It’s not a cliff – it’s a bump in the road, and the way to navigate it calmly driving through it.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

And the winner is...

This week most American’s ‘gained’ an hour with the end of Daylight Savings time.  The ‘additional’ hour provided many the ability to get some more sleep but it doesn’t solve the fact that part of the US is always ahead of the rest of it.  For those of us who like to be in the know as events happen, some events happen in real time while others are held with the hope that those in different time zones won’t need a spoiler alert.
Major cultural or sporting events have an accommodation where people simply adjust to realities of a varied timeline.  Many reality competition shows are tape delayed to keep with the structure of prime time viewing habits.  ‘Major events’ are different.  The Oscars are presented in Los Angeles with people arriving on the red carpet at 4pm in the afternoon so that the show can begin at 5 – or at 8pm on the East Coast.  To do the show at the traditional 8pm on the West Coast would mean that a large part of the country wouldn’t see it since it would start after most have gone to bed.
Sporting events likewise occur so that those living on the West coast watch the games over breakfast – with many college and professional games starting on the East in the early afternoon. 
The 2012 Summer Olympics went the other way, much to the complaint of the Twitter universe.  NBC’s tape-delay decision to package events so that they aired in the U.S. during the evening when most people watch television riled the social media population accustomed to having everything right now.  The challenge of not reporting the results for hours before the event aired was evident with the network inadvertently revealing winners, defeating their own efforts.  Even though all of the events were available for streaming there were record ratings and viewership of the games via the tape delay presentations.
America decided this week on a new President, Congress and a slew of ballot issues.  Cable and broadcast networks began airing exit poll results in the late afternoon on the East coast – mid afternoon in many other parts of the country.  While the graphics and information was preceded by “it’s too early to tell, these are just preliminary…” the fact is that hours and hours of time was filled with conclusions about who was winning and losing.  Then as polls actually closed in the East and votes were actually tabulated and reported, this was reported as well – all the while voting continued in many other areas of the country.
It’s impossible to know how many people heard or saw that President Obama was ‘winning’ and then opted not to vote (or were then motivated to go out).  But it has an impact on whether somebody thinks that their vote has an impact.  There is one universal and consistent message on Election Day – from candidates to one’s Facebook feed:  vote.  That message is diluted and even eradicated by reporting the results early.  It may explain the nation’s shift towards ‘early’ voting.  Anything that might suppress the vote is unacceptable.  There are solutions – from multi-day voting that end simultaneously across the country to states not releasing their results until a synchronized time – maybe even the next morning.  Whatever the fix – there must be one.  Putting a “spoiler alert” warning is not enough. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Let there be light

It’s raining, It’s Pouring. This old man was snoring.  I was fortunate that the Superstorm Sandy had nary an impact on me – other than a deluge while walking the dogs.  (That happened in St. Paul too, but that soaking came with a sound and light show.)  Sandy’s devastation has been significant – and the most telling impact is in how people prepared.  Some got water, prepped food, put out sand bags, etc.  Others, like me, went to great efforts to make sure that the laptop, the phone and the Kindle were charged.  I even have a hand crank gizmo that I can wind up to generate a charge for a device.
Approx. 8.2 million households went dark during the height of the storm – and huge numbers of people won’t see power return for days or even weeks.  Hollywood has kept us entertained over the years imagining a world without electricity. Reality is the scariest storyline of all.
The U.S. electric grid is described as a “complex matrix of transmission and distribution lines.”  The U.S. Energy Administration actually has a simple map:  there are 10 geographic grid distributors.  It’s rather unnerving how simple it would be to disable connectivity for the country – a handful of incidents and the U.S. is plunged into another age.  Everything we do is reliant on electricity – not just our devices and obvious things like lights – but pumping gas, flushing toilets and doing laundry.  That Americans are so reliant on a centralized source for power is counterintuitive to the idea of rugged individualism.
 
Having a centralized power grid allows for certain efficiencies, but also contains dangers as well.  In September 2011 5+ million in the Southwest were without power due to an equipment issue.  In India this July half the country went dark.  Disabling the handful of nexus points in the U.S. system would be debilitating.
What would a private grid of networks look like?  It would localize the power consumption and generation so that if something happened in one state, dozens of other states wouldn’t be affected.  It would add a huge amount of available power for purchase – the ultimate way to further reduce cost since it’s the essence of a free market economy.  It’d be cumbersome and prone to problems.  Regulation would have to be streamlined, but not eliminated.  Democracy is messy and so would having an electric grid that reflected it.  The plus is that there would be more power and it would be cheaper. 
 
Fixing the electric grid is a national security issue.  Imagine what California would be like if then Governor Gray and his successor Arnold Schwarzenegger had put the huge amounts of capital (political and economic) into solar instead of building additional power stations in the state after the Enron fiasco.  It doesn’t make sense for government to fund the building of private power stations – since that decision had already been made and it was going to expend that money anyway – what would the Golden state be like today if millions of people had received rebates to put solar on their houses? There’d be hundreds of thousands of power generating plants – even giving back to the grid.  When the next natural disaster occurred the entire region wouldn’t be impacted.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wasted Vote Syndrome

I just dispatched my ballot back to the registrar – and for longtime readers it will not come as a surprise that I have voted Libertarian.  Over the years as I’ve proudly voted twice for Harry Browne (RIP) once for Michael Badnarik, held my nose voting for Bob Barr and just ticked for Gary Johnson.  While it’s nice to be enthusiastic about the individual carrying the torch, I vote not for the person, but for the party.  Rather old fashioned, and not at all consistent with today’s personality driven campaigns.  Since my candidate (and party) is going to lose, is my vote a waste?
Voting matters.  It makes a statement.  It’s not about whose going to win.  That’s a sporting match.  Voting for a party (or a person) that aligns with your own beliefs cannot be a waste.  There are six candidates who have qualified on the California ballot for President.  Only two of them will have gotten any substantive media analysis and coverage – with the former being pretty superficial.  It begets the ‘which came first – the chicken or the egg’ question:  should candidates get coverage because they’re well known or because they’ve qualified for the ballot and could win and should be known?
A horse race is easier to report on - it’s a nice simple narrative to tell.  Toss in the occasional twist – a John Anderson or a Ross Perot – and that makes for a great human interest element, but it’s always more interesting between the front runners.  With all their money and attention, really, why wouldn’t you vote for one or the other of the big guys?  Elections matter and if you’re going to vote then you should at least do so because it matters to you. 
Picture this:  November 7th, 2012:  One of the corporate-backed parties will have won the billion dollar race, 90% or more of Congress will have retained their seats (even if power shifts in Washington DC that’s the retention rate) and the smaller parties will have collectively garnered 1.5 million or fewer votes.  The political world will be at ease and this is the most likely of scenarios based on history, polls and common sense.
Imagine a slightly different result:  Gary Johnson (the only candidate among the other parties who mathematically could win the Electoral College) wins 10% of the vote, ten times more than what he probably will get.  One of the major party candidates will have won, Congress will have the same retention rate – but the political elite will be agog.  The Libertarian perspective will at least become part of the discussion.  That would be good for finding solutions and good for discourse.  And  it won't happen.
The traditional argument goes something like this:  if all of the people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 hadn't wasted their vote then the U.S. would have had President Gore.  Why isn’t it that if even more had voted for Nadar then the issues that the Greens were passionate about would have become more impactful instead of them disappearing? 
 
Voting for Mitt Romney or Barak Obama guarantees some level of consistency.  Both have unbalanced budgets, both redistribute wealth, albeit in different ways, and rhetoric is all that differentiates their foreign policy.  Partisan gridlock will remain constant no matter who wins.  Support them if you align with them.  Not voting is the only scenario that qualifies as a wasted vote. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Death: pros and cons

I am both for death and against death this election season.  Californians will vote on Proposition34 that would abolish the death penalty.  In Massachusetts Question 2 would permit assisted suicide (under a whole range of rules and conditions, like in Portland, OR).  I would vote to allow individuals and their families to choose a dignified death while I oppose state sanctioned death.  The two ballot choices have death in common, what matters is who makes the decision.
My father and I had many conversations over the years about dying.  Some were esoteric intellectual musings that disintegrated into rambling diatribes about the meaning of life.  In later years after his stroke the discussions became more personal.  I researched and studied all of the various options and we corresponded regularly about it. 
There were two conversations in this process that remain with me.  One was sitting at the Dining Room table with both my parents filling out a very detailed document of their medical wishes.  Most forms are pretty generic – want to have a machine assist?  Yes or no.  This document, rooted in the Episcopal Church tradition, drilled down.  Is oxygen OK to ease the pain versus a ventilator that is needed for living?  Difficult conversations and at the end of this several hour process we not only had a mutual understanding for legal purposes, we had a familial agreement.
Some years later as Dad’s prognoses deteriorated and it was clear that the end was coming, the years of detailed discussions he and I had been having needed to be part of a larger family discussion.  In the living room we approached a subject that most of us are uncomfortable with:  How Dad wanted to die. Consensus and agreement didn’t ever materialize.  That’s not the point.  We all knew what Dad’s fears were and what his wishes were.  At a certain point those wishes couldn’t be fulfilled because of the laws in the state of Massachusetts and he died before any of those ‘what if’ scenarios materialized. 
 
It is for those years of conversations that I support having options available in the law.  Our family may never have gotten to the point where we would have ever actually taken action, but the idea that we could have would have made a monumental difference in Dad’s life and our respecting his wishes.  In a country that celebrates individualism, assisted suicide (with rigorous controls in place) is something that is needed.
On the Death Penalty:  Government should not be in the business of killing people.  The U.S. system is based on justice, not vengeance.  It’s really that simple.
There are financial arguments as well. 
·       Putting a prisoner to death cost Californians $4 billion since 1978 and less than a handful of people have been executed. 
·       Maryland spent $37.2 million per execution. 
·       Approx. 25% of all medical costs occur in the last year of life.
Putting a price on somebody’s life is a helpful way to look at the public policy part of the issue.  The value that any of us would place on a loved one versus a nameless prisoner will be inherently disproportionate.  We must as a society value life.  We do that by respecting people’s individual choice with their doctor and their family on how that life should end.  We do that by punishment rather than vengeance.  If that all saves some money in the end, great.  It might just make us a better people too.
 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pigs are flying

Pigs are flying.  Wonders have ceased.  Hell must have frozen over.  The United States Congress has investigated a government agency and issued a damning indictment.  The Homeland Security & Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations criticized counter terrorism reporting and found significant examples of waste, fraud and abuse.
“It’s troubling that the very ‘fusion’ centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem. Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” said Senator Tom Coburn, the Subcommittee’s ranking member who initiated the investigation.

Examples of the fusion center difficulties (from the report):
                  Blaming a Russian for hacking into the Springfield IL Water District's systems. It was actually an employee logging in while vacationing in Russia.
                  Implying Jared Loughner shot Gabrielle Giffords because she was the first Jewish female elected to Congress …a fact that a simple Google search would have caught.
                  A memo suggesting that members of the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party (as well as Ron Paul supporters) are potential terrorists.
Homeland Security is one of those descriptors that is Orwellian in nature.  It came into American’s lexicon in the days following the September 11, 2001 attacks.  Politicians were desperate to do something.  The result is that 187 agencies and departments fall under the Homeland Security banner .  According to the Department’s FY 13 Budget inBrief (197 pages) there are more than 230,000 employees of the department and their last budget was $59 billion, $6 billion more than they asked for.  That’s approx. $200 for every man woman and child in the U.S..
In an enterprise that large there will be problems.  Their mission is equally as big:  “The Department of Homeland Security will lead the unified national effort to secure America. We will prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation. We will ensure safe and secure borders, welcome lawful immigrants and visitors and promote the free-flow of commerce.” 
There’s nothing wrong with their mission.  Thousands of dedicated, patriotic Americans who work there take their function seriously.  The problem comes with the very notion that any entity can guarantee safety from all threats.  To realize that goal anything that potentially could be construed as a risk factor has to be acted on.  To protect itself (like many innocent people), the Department initially refused to cooperate in the investigation, is unable to determine whether it spent $289 or $1.2 billion on fusion centers, and routinely violate civil liberties and privacy laws.  The ends shouldn’t justify the means…but that’s a minority opinion. 
The good news is that Congress has a comprehensive analysis and report on the ineptitude in delivering its well intentioned mission (and balancing its books).  The bad news is that it took Congress more than two years and cost millions of dollars to do the investigation and report.  So pigs may not be flying, but they were air born for a moment. The real question is whether any practical change will happen - or, more likely, things will continue on as they have.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Vanity thy name is politics

For three-quarters of my life I’ve worked in and around egos – from theatre and movies to entrepreneurs.  My own roles (professionally and volunteer) inevitably are rooted in my own sense of self-worth as with the work itself.  It’s true for all of us.  One doesn’t need to be a Freudian scholar to realize the role that ego plays in our lives.  There is a particular manifestation of the ego in politicians, however, that sets their vanity on a whole different plain.
This week Vanity Fair released its November edition with an exclusive article claiming that President Obama considered putting Osama bin Laden on trial if he had been taken alive.  The sources?  Top national-security officials and the President himself.  This claim is a whopper and proves that the id, ego and super-ego are on full display in the 2012 Presidential campaign.
On May 1, 2011 Navy SEALS raided a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden.  The President has been unapologetic about the action, in fact has touted the action as proof of his foreign policy expertise.  The White House then leaked that President Obama maintains a kill list.  CIA Director Leon Panette stated on PBS NewsHour: "The authority here was to kill bin Laden.”
 
"No Easy Day" was released a few weeks ago and was written by a SEAL who was part of the mission.  The book details that bin Laden didn’t represent any threat, was unarmed and was just killed.  It was an assassination pure and simple.
The action is one of the most popular things Obama has done – with 93% of the country supporting the killing.  I have been a vocal part of the 7%, criticizing the President’s actions as being inconsistent with American ideals and a tradition of law.  The voices of dissent have been small and infrequent.  Until this article in Vanity Fair at least President Obama was unapologetic about his philosophy and his action, however inconsistent I might think it is with the Rule of Law.  The October surprise is that integrity is now gone.
If President Obama wanted to take bin Laden alive he could have.  The Navy SEALS are a highly skilled and highly trained cadre of professionals.  All reports concur that bin Laden was unarmed.  This sudden suggestion – in total contradiction to numerous statements by the White House, the Defense Department and the soldiers themselves – can only be the work of a politician wanting it all ways.  He wants to get credit for thinking of putting bin Laden on trial while reaping the benefits of exerting military muscle in murdering the man.  The sniping, lying and name calling of Campaign 2012 was bad enough.  Now political vanity rears its ugly head and the result is more cynicism, which I didn’t think was possible.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Pinocchio Personified

President Obama was at his eloquent best this week at the U.N. when he said the strongest weapon against hateful speech "is not repression; it is more speech. … We cannot ban blasphemy.”  He apparently was ignoring last week's White House’s request for Google to remove a Muslim film from You Tube (which they denied).  The beloved cartoon character made popular by Disney is more and more human and Mister Geppetto’s head is spinning around. 
Mitt Romney’s no honest Abe Lincoln himself.  The Washington Post actually has assigned the Romney/Ryan campaign 4 Pinocchio’s.  At the Republican convention the campaign said  “we won’t be dictacted by fact checkers.”  Honesty seems to have no place in a Presidential campaign.
There’s no Constitutional right for truth.  CNN outlines how the half-truths are commonplace in this campaign on all sides.  Americans used to aspire to truth and justice. Instead the next six weeks will be a battle to the bottom.
The result of the “he said” / “he said” mentality is that is has become white noise for the electorate.  They both lie.  They both misrepresent themselves and their opponent.  It’s all in an attempt to sway the 5% who describe themselves as “undecided.” 
Romney got some heat for saying that 47% of the country will vote for President Obama no matter what.  He was inelegant, crass and inaccurate in his justification – but the overall point was actually right.  Presidential contests throughout time show - with some rare exceptions – a country nearly evenly divided throughout history.
The difference today is that once the election is done and governing begins – those who didn’t win no longer look for the greater good or service to the country – it’s all about beating the other side the next time.  Thwarting a second Obama term was the Republican’s priority from Inauguration Day.  So much for public service. 
 
 
Whether President Obama continues for four more years or there’s a President Romney – one thing is clear:  neither will have a legislative majority.  The country will be gridlocked again.  That might not actually be the worst thing.  Since the country is largely divided it makes sense that Congress too would be divided.  The question is whether there’s an interest in bridging the differences.  Both major parties have evolved to the evangelists passions of take-no-prisoners and to win-at-all-costs.  Without a majority, though, it’s an exercise in frustration because history shows us that Americans have been and will be divided.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have leaders (from both the executive and legislative branches) who found a way to keep their principles while still getting something done?  That’s the real cartoon.