Waxahachie, Texas, March 29, 2005 -- Believing what I was raised to hold sacred, that every voice counts, I've bombarded my local paper for years with letters and op-eds (and been active in politics). Yet here in the heart of everyone's favorite "red state," where it's especially important that another voice be heard, no one seemed to be listening. This is my megaphone.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Other people’s mistakes

It has been said that fools never learn and wise men learn from their mistakes. But geniuses should learn from other people’s mistakes.

The great state of California seems on the verge of becoming the late great state of California as it struggles to survive the current recession. Because of a few quirks in their state laws, combined with the fact that the legislature is required to produce a balanced state budget, the financial condition of the state is dire.

Some folks living outside of California who find it amusing, even righteous, to look
down upon the state and all its components (especially Hollywood and its Democrats) may be tempted to express a certain amount of glee at how the mighty seems to have fallen, apparently forgetting that it was California and specifically Hollywood that gave us the late, great Ronald Reagan.

But “left-coast” critics around the country, as they decide how to address their own fiscal crises, would do well to try to understand how that state got into this particular fix, for there is much to be learned from it by others.

Back in the day, as we love to say, California was thriving. But in 1978, “thriving” wasn’t enough for some — nor, for that matter, was their system of representative government, apparently, for beginning with the now infamous Proposition 13, they began to opt for anarchy.

California is one of the states that allows for new laws and even constitutional amendments to be accomplished through referendum — that is, a popular vote that effectively bypasses the legislature. Inquiring minds might want to know why anyone should bother with electing a government at all.

So the citizens passed a constitutional amendment, wildly promoted by anti-tax folks, limiting property taxes to 1% of the assessed value of a home and limiting assessment increases to 2% per year until the property changes hands.

By contrast, here in Waxahachie the property tax (including all local taxes) is about 2.35%. Given that just about everything is more expensive in California, the difference is striking.

Of course, here in Texas we have the homestead exemption, which includes a 10% cap on the amount an appraisal can be increased from year to year, a bit more than 2%.

Not satisfied with reducing future property tax revenues, the greedy folks who brought this about made it retroactive, sending out millions of dollars in refund checks the first year; all the homeowner had to do was ask.

Howard Jarvis, half of the Jarvis-Gann team who led the effort to put Prop 13 on the ballot, is quoted as having characterized all taxes as “felony grand theft.” Texas TEA-party folks would be proud.

Added to the existing law requiring a two-thirds vote for any tax increase anywhere in the state, and another prohibiting local agencies from setting any new tax, the collateral damage was huge.

Very soon after the amendment went into effect, the quality of life in California began to change dramatically. Public libraries began closing down to half-days, “non-essential” school personnel (like counselors) were laid off, and according to Wikipedia, citing a report from the Public Policy Institute of California, “Fire departments were gutted because of a drastic loss of funds. … Cities also cut water, gas and electricity expenses.”

According to a 2003 report in the Rand Review, “Widely regarded as one of the best systems of education in the country as recently as 30 years ago, the California public school system has since become, according to most measures, one of the worst.”

Does this sound like something we want in Texas?

One more thought:

The current web site of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association boasts that Proposition 13 has "saved California taxpayers" over $528 billion. As of June 2009, Reuters reported, California’s present struggle is to overcome a $24 billion budget deficit.

You do the math.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

The doctor will see you now

The worst thing about undergoing a biopsy is the inevitable wait for the results to come in. And if you plan ahead poorly and have the procedure on a Thursday or Friday, I can just about guarantee your weekend will be ruined, because it’ll be Monday before you get the word.

Of course the really worst thing is to have what doctors ironically refer to as “positive” results when they really mean you are not going to be happy to hear them. Your red flags should go up when the doctor asks you to come see him as soon as possible, to talk about your situation.

Imagine this scenario: After sitting in the waiting room with half a dozen or so other patients, you find yourself confronting your future. Your doctor explains that you have a tumor, in fact of the kind that grows fairly rapidly, making surgery the only real option for treatment.

The doctor, whom you trust absolutely and have known for half your life, doesn’t mince words. If you don’t have the surgery, you will die, and soon.

This is not just one kick-in-the-gut time, but two. When you were laid off, fortunately you had enough savings to tide you over until you could find another job, and now that is going to run out while you recover from what will be major surgery. Not only that, but you lost your health insurance with the job, and no other insurance company was willing to cover you because you have had diabetes, even though it has been controlled with dietary changes.

You are looking at tens of thousands of dollars, all told, that you just don’t have. The choice is pretty simple: Find the money or die.

Family conference time: you have a decent amount of equity in your home and will be able to borrow against that. Then two of your kids, who are each doing pretty well, offer to pitch in. They have lots of equity in their homes and can easily raise the money. “We want to keep you around, Dad.”

This is not where you say, “No, I’d rather die than let my kids go into debt!”
At least, I certainly hope not!

How could I even suggest such a thing? Because if you cast the situation in terms of the current opposition to President Obama’s health care plan, you’d be running up a deficit and placing a financial burden on your children.

I don’t know about you, but if I were in your situation, I’d have no problem with that concept. And neither would my children, or so I’m told.

Opponents of health care reform that is likely to add “trillions” to the public debt constantly worry about “passing it on to our children and grandchildren,” as if that made any sense. At worst, it’s a cynical argument to make us feel guilty, at best it’s a pitiful lack of understanding of how the world works.

I’m someone’s child, and grandchild for that matter, and I’m probably still paying for World War II, the GI bill, the interstate highway system, and the NASA program, all things that have kept our country safe and prosperous over the years.

If debt is bad, then get rid of the house, the truck and your kids’ college educations, not to mention that 52” flat-screen TV in the rec room. And forget about the trip to Disney World that your credit card would have made possible.

The point of health care reform is to bring the system under control so that costs will be lower and everyone can afford some form of insurance which cannot be denied for pre-existing conditions. Like diabetes. Like you.

Once everyone is covered, emergency rooms will be freed up to deal with emergencies. Preventive care will kick in and that will lower costs all through the system. A 21st century method of keeping medical records will streamline doctors’ ability to provide informed care and will reduce the enormous amount of paperwork presently required of both doctors and patients, allowing doctors to focus on their patients.

This cannot happen in a month or two, or even in a year. But when we pay enormous amounts for our children to attend college we expect they’ll go through at least four years of study, perhaps more with graduate study. And we don’t expect they’ll be hired into a $100,000 a year job even before they graduate, do we?

In fact, you won’t see a return on your investment for years, but you don’t mind because you’ll know it was worth it as the kids begin to prosper. Same with health care reform; it’ll take a while, but it’ll be worth it.

You’ll get your investment back as costs go down and the system works better — and now your kids won’t have to help pay for your surgery.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Nightlife in Waxahachie

A few nights ago, when it was time to turn in and I was preparing for bed with NPR chatting away on the radio, I thought I heard the telephone ring. Couldn’t be sure, so I stopped and listened carefully.

Burrrrrrrrrrrr! Burrrrrrrrrrrr! Not exactly a ring-a-ding type of ring, but that kind of soft burring sound you mostly hear in offices. Burrrrrrrrrrrr! Burrrrrrrrrrrr! Maybe my phone ringer was having a problem.

I heard it again, and then again. I turned the radio down to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, and then could hear it clearly. I tried to figure out where it was coming from. From outside, through the open window? Didn’t make sense.

I walked around to see if it was really coming from somewhere in the house. Nope. Could be from my neighbor’s house, if they had a very loud phone, I guess.

It was puzzling, and kind of amusing, but it was time to sleep, so I shut the window, the sound went away, and I slept.

Most of us have a hard time ignoring a mystery, of course, so the matter was still on my mind at daybreak.

After awhile I called a Texas-born friend, who suggested that it was most likely an early cicada, explaining there’s always a loner or two who turn up first; it made sense and I was satisfied.

Until that night, when I heard my mystery phone again. This time I was downstairs and could tell that the sound was definitely coming from outside the house.

I had the back door open, and this was definitely down low; sounded like it was coming from the pool, in fact. But isn’t a cicada supposed to be up in a tree?

So it must be a frog of some kind. Since I’d never seen a singing frog up close, I wanted to get a look at him. Got the flashlight and embarked.

The pool is like a pond, surrounded by grasses, plants and underbrush, perfect for a froggy type to hide in, but I was determined to see him. He kept singing and I kept closing in on the sound.

Now, a person of a certain age does not typically have the balance of a tightrope walker, you know, so it was a little bit of an adventure sneaking along the dark border of the pool without falling in – but finally I found him. Singing his little heart out.

When these guys sing, their throats puff out like a little golf ball. This is serious stuff. He sang, someone across the pool answered, he sang again. And so on for as long as I stood there.

Back at my computer, thanks to trusty Google, I learned he is an American Toad (who knew toads could sing?). I found a photo that looks just like him. If you want to hear him for yourself, go to

Sometimes the most exhilarating nightlife is right in your own backyard!

Parsing Barton

Our local Congressman, Joe Barton (R-Arlington), is opposed to cap-and-trade. Yawn. He is so opposed to it that he wrote a whole column about that the other day, with lots of scary assertions, without mentioning so much as a single authority to support any of them.

Though he did offer up Nancy Pelosi:
If you don’t believe me just read what Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week during a trip to China, "We have so much room for improvement. Every aspect of our lives must be subjected to an inventory."

Oh, Joe, there you go again!

See, there was a report filed by Associated Press about Pelosi’s recent trip to China, during which she and the Chinese leaders talked about what the two countries could do about global warming.

Now, if you’re Joe Barton trying to drum up a little opposition to anything Obama, and you see a commotion on the Internet involving something that surfaced in the Drudge report, well, it’s duck-on-a-junebug time. And if you can bring in (with appropriate derision) the name of Nancy Pelosi, then you’re definitely in hog heaven.

(Do you know why the Republicans season almost every criticism of the Obama administration with the Speaker’s name? Why they have attacked her for years? What they really have against her? It’s because she’s from — wait for it — SAN FRANCISCO! In CALIFORNIA! Where there are known to be LIBERALS! And GAY PEOPLE!)

Anyway, according to AP, “The trip comes as President Barack Obama's administration has emphasized climate change as a new area where the two governments can broaden already wide-ranging engagement.” The article continues:
The two countries are the biggest emitters of the carbon gases that are causing warming temperatures. … In a meeting Wednesday, the head of China's national legislature, Wu Bangguo, told Pelosi that climate change was a common challenge and that Beijing stood ready to work with Washington. …

In answering a question from a student about how Pelosi was going to get Americans to cut back on their carbon emissions, the leading Democratic lawmaker said it was important to educate children on how to conserve energy and for citizens to build more environmentally friendly homes.

“We have so much room for improvement," she said. "Every aspect of our lives must be subjected to an inventory … of how we are taking responsibility.”

Sounds a little different in context, doesn’t it?

Anyway, so it’s about climate change. Well, we lost Joe right there because, he says, “I still have some reservations about the science used to create the theory of man-made global warming.”

This is not new. Back in 2005, when Barton was chairman of the House energy and commerce committee, the New York Times, no less, took editorial note when he disputed the entire concept of global warming and wrote to the acknowledged scientific experts demanding they prove to HIM (an engineer, not a scientist) the worth of their research.

Wrote the Times,
It's going to be hard enough to find common political ground on global warming without the likes of Representative Joe Barton harassing reputable scientists who helped alert the world to the problem in the first place.

Maybe that explains why he didn’t mention that cap-and-trade is a pro-environment program until almost half-way through his column, after he had suggested that (1) CO2, the pollutant in question, is as harmless as the bubbles in your Dr Pepper, (2) controlling it with cap-and-trade would cost a family $3,000 to $4,000 per year (according to “expert analysis” he fails to identify) and (3) that would cause industry to send millions of jobs to other countries.

Just for ducks, I went to, and found this:
Leading Republicans are claiming that President Obama's proposal to curb greenhouse gas emissions would cost households as much as $3,100 per year. The Republican National Committee calls it a "massive national energy tax." But the $3,100 figure is a misrepresentation of both Obama's proposal and the study from which the number is derived.

Republicans say they base their figure on a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But one of the authors [of that study] says that the GOP’s use of the study is "simplistic and misleading" and that it ignores key provisions designed to cushion the impact on consumers. The author puts the true added cost of a cap-and-trade system at closer to $800 a year.

That would be about $66 a month. For clean air. And how much do you pay now for your children’s trips to the doctor and asthma meds?

And what about those jobs that Joe claims are going to disappear? Just how does a company that provides energy to American households pull up stakes and move to India or China?

Apparently we’re supposed to just take Joe’s word for it — the word of the guy who tried a few years ago to get the most polluting corner of Ellis county exempted from EPA regulation.

Mr. Barton spends a few paragraphs on Republican efforts to change the legislation, which I suspect was mostly a set-up for calling Democrats “the party of No,” because you have to admit it’s a really catchy phrase and the Republicans need something new to call us now that Democrat Socialist hasn’t caught on.

Near the end of the article, Joe tells us that “Republicans have a plan” that can “lower energy costs and create jobs while protecting the environment,” that “includes conservation of natural resources and increased production of alternative and renewable fuels.”

Wow. Joe, you’ve been holding out on us!

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Consider yourself warned!

The sound of the telephone ringing startled me awake. It was still kind of dark so I peeked across the room to see the time. 6:30 a.m. The caller ID assured me that it wasn’t family, but I answered it anyway. Not cheerfully.

A recorded female voice said, approximately,
Hello. This call is about your Citi Credit Union account. Because we believe it was accessed by an unauthorized third party, we have suspended your account. If you wish to reinstate your account, please press 1.

There was something wrong with this picture -- not least that I never heard of a “Citi Credit Union”— but I was still a little concerned because I’d had someone hitchhike on my Citi credit card account a few months back. So I pressed 1, and then received instruction to begin reinstatement by entering my credit card number.

For an instant I imagined I was reading an email.

On the Internet it’s called “phishing,” and everyone who has an email address probably knows by now not to reply to an email from anywhere that asks you for account information. That’s why my red flags went up, and I hung up.

Boy, you have to admit the bad guys are ever more creative.

After I was wider awake I recalled what happened when someone actually did access my account: The bank had called me with a recorded message, to be sure, but when I pushed 1 it took me to a real, live person who did NOT ask for my account number, rather for confirmation of specific charges.

Even so, I had hung up that time, too, and called my customer service number directly to see what was going on.

This latest was the first time I’d received such a call, so I called good ol’ customer service and reported it. I learned that they have recently gotten a flurry of reports describing such calls and that there were definitely thieves at work.

Interestingly, they said the calls reported were almost all in the wee hours of the morning – when sleepy folks might be off guard, it seems. And that’s true: I was briefly inclined to fall for it at 6:30 in the morning, after all. But happily, when it was over, all I’d lost was a bit of sleep.

So here’s the warning: If you get one of these calls, or any call for that matter that asks you for your credit card number, no matter how convincing they are, do not give it, but immediately report it to your card company.

And if by chance when you read this you suspect you’ve been a victim or think you might have been, report the call to your credit card company as soon as possible because they can still protect your account.

I probably get all those “phishing” emails because my email address is out there in connection with my real estate business, and that certainly helped me spot the fraud in this case.

But folks who don’t use email, or use it only casually, may never have been the target of phishing expeditions and may not recognize the scam when it comes over the phone. That’s why I want to warn you.

Skepticism is a healthy thing, and we should never hesitate to question anything that seems just a little off.

Meanwhile, on the chance that even one of the people reading this is now forewarned against this latest round of thievery, it will have been worth the ink.

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A Justice for all

It will probably come as no surprise that I like poetry. I mean, really like it, often love it, especially poetry written back when it still rhymed, or had an irresistible rhythm, and definitely before the modern fad of breaking lines up into stairsteps on the page got to be all the rage.
I mean, who can follow
a thought when it

jumps around
like this?

But prose can also be poetic, so to speak, particularly when it is, as the dictionary suggests, “an imaginative or sensitively emotional style of expression.”

Just consider our Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Maybe the Founders just naturally wrote like that, or perhaps they deliberately waxed poetic out of emotion for the history they were making. Either way, it worked.

Soon after that, they produced our Constitution, another truly remarkable document, that has served its purpose well ever since.

There have been amendments from time to time, most notably the first ten, which comprised the Bill of Rights, but really not so many when you come to think of it. Fewer than 30, all told, suggesting that the Founders got it pretty much right in the first place.

Now, the tricky thing about our Constitution is figuring out how to comply with it more than two centuries later, and that is the debate at the heart of choosing a Supreme Court justice, as President Obama is about to do for the first time.

There are essentially two schools of thought here: whether every case before the Court must be decided strictly according to what is written in the Constitution, or whether that doesn’t make sense because so much has changed that circumstances impossible for the Founders to have foreseen demand interpretation for our times.

Barack Obama has told us he wants to appoint a justice who is not someone with “just ivory tower learning. I want somebody who has the intellectual firepower but also a little bit of a common touch and a practical sense of how the world works.”

And he added that one of the qualities he's looking for in a new Supreme Court justice is “empathy.”

Now, everyone take a deep breath here and understand that “empathy” is very different from “sympathy,” a distinction that seems to have eluded some of his determined opponents.

The way I understand it, “empathy” means you understand where someone is coming from; “sympathy” means you want to go where he’s going – you want what he wants. Big difference.

Obama explained why he believes empathy is a desirable quality in a justice:
You have to be able to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes and get an idea of how the law might work or might not work for them.

He offered, as an example, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:
You always had a sense that she was taking the law and seeing what are the practical applications of the law....She wasn't a grand theoretician but she ended up having enormous influence on the law as a whole.

Our Founders, wise as they were, would never have expected America, this amazing country, to forever remain an 18th century society. I believe they intended to give us a body of law that would serve to guide us for centuries ahead, through growth and changes they might have guessed at and those they could not.

Michele Norris, an NPR reporter, speaking in a Sunday round table on the matter, said it better than anyone. She suggested that whereas conservatives see the law as “set in stone” in demanding “strict construction” of the Constitution, Obama
. . . sees the law as something that is dynamic, that changes over time . . . almost as if [the law is] a river, something that flows through people’s lives, from the courtroom into the classroom, into the boardroom, through field and factory, past the kitchen table; and that the Constitution, this magnificent document, was written 200 years ago . . . and that you need to consider how the terrain of this country has changed. Because that will determine the ebb and the flow of this sort of dynamic force.

Sheer poetry.

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He started it!

Apparently Dick Cheney wants to talk about torture. Or, as he calls it, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And that’s pretty much all he has been doing over the last few weeks. So that’s what I’ll talk about here.

To the definitions of torture let us add the well nigh inescapable appearance of the Grand Old Persecutor himself on TV what seems to be 24/7, though I suppose it’s actually less often than that. On the other hand, now that his daughter Liz has joined the fray . . .

I mean, it wouldn’t be such torture if the former Vice President had at least one or two new things to say on his second, third or even sixteenth appearance, on at least one or maybe two of the TV shows (he does save the talking heads the trouble of presenting new news in what is increasingly becoming infotainment), on even one of the networks.

As it is, viewers by now can almost finish his sentences for him. “We kept America safe for seven and a half years”; “I believe that Barack Obama has made us less safe …”; and, of course, “we did not torture.”

Conventional wisdom seems to have it that he really believes this stuff, so it wouldn’t be right to say that he is deliberately lying here, and George Orwell did address this possibility in Nineteen Eighty Four:
To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed. . .

Orwell wrote this in 1949, so he had some recent history to draw upon. He wasn’t making it up. For example, the United States Office of Strategic Services made an assessment during WWII of Hitler’s methods, including this:
His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

I apologize to anyone who is tempted to think I want for a minute to compare Dick Cheney to the man who invaded most of Europe in a quest to dominate the world. No, that’s not where I’m going. I believe Dick Cheney really and truly believes what he’s saying, and that he truly believes the choices made on his watch were in the best interests of America.

And if he doesn’t, then at least he wants us to believe him.

Cynics suggest that he is worried about his own accountability, but I’ll take him at his word, that he is only worried about America.

Call it torture, call it “enhanced interrogation techniques,” call it what you will, most of the respected voices in the intelligence community call it wrong, ineffective, and bad for America’s reputation.

Bob Baer, for example, a former CIA agent who knows a thing or two about it – he underwent torture himself (did you see “Syriana”?) and spoke recently of a close associate who was tortured to death – is absolutely opposed to it; in recent weeks a host of operatives, both intelligence and military, have also spoken out against it from personal knowledge.

I’m going out on a limb here, but it seems to me that most of the folks who support harsh interrogation techniques are people who have never served in the military. Dick Cheney himself managed to get five deferments during the war in Vietnam, and I think it’s safe to say that most of the pro-torture commentators are too young to have seen any action.

But they did watch “24” last night . . .

Speaking of ticking time bombs, I offer this: The President has declared that the United States will not torture. Torture is illegal, period.

So let me leave you with this thought: Imagine you are the President (remember, anyone can be President), and you have a person in custody who is believed to have information that could save the country but could only be gained through torture, which you have declared illegal. What would you do?

Seriously, do you think for a minute that you would hesitate to do whatever is needed? How about, “Damn the torpedos – full speed ahead!”

At a recent press conference President Obama was asked just that question. He reiterated what he had said during the campaign in 2007:
I will do whatever it takes to keep America safe. And there are going to be all sorts of hypotheticals and emergency situations, and I will make that judgment at that time.

So now, will Dick Cheney please finally retire to a ranch in Wyoming, and let the rest of us move on to current crises?

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Now, stop and think a minute . . .

A recent discussion with my son-the-reporter of course got around to the crisis that newspapers are going through these days, and how opinion writers and TV pundits just about everywhere are weighing in on what the outcome might or should be.

The noise seems to center on newspapers’ falling advertising revenues, on the one hand, and on the other the speculation that more and more folks are getting their news from the Internet, or from entertainment like the Jon Stewart show, Rush Limbaugh, or the talking heads at MSNBC and Fox News – none of which, by the way, are “hard news” reporters, but rather commentators on what may have begun as hard news — not exactly Huntley and Brinkley, Walter Cronkite or the PBS Newshour.

I admit to being addicted to some of the cable news shows, but that’s not where I get hard news. Before I tune in to MSNBC, I've listened to NPR, read the New York Times and other of the much-maligned “mainstream media” as well as assorted magazines for national and international news, and of course the Waxahachie Daily Light for local goings-on.

So what about the newspapers? How shall we be informed if they disappear? Can we agree that hard news is a good place to start, or will we be satisfied with the pre-selected information we get from favorite TV shows or Internet web sites?

Of course, no one really knows what will happen, any more than the effect of the Internet could have been predicted back when Gutenberg’s printing press got our attention in 1440, or when William Randolph Hearst (aka Citizen Kane) took over the San Francisco Examiner in 1887 and turned it into a mighty publishing empire.

And over the years just about anyone who gave it a try could publish and distribute news in printed form. Back in the mid 20th century a simple image transfer medium consisting of a sheet of gelatin in a box, called a hectograph, was ideal for young aspiring reporters to print neighborhood newsletters. So we did.

If we’d had some advertisers we might even have made money, but …

Thanks to the Internet, of course, YouTube has become a player in the dissemination of information, and so it was that Frank Rich, writing about the situation for the New York Times, was able to share this bit of history:
To time-travel back to the dawn of the technological strand of the disaster, search YouTube for "1981 primitive Internet report on KRON." What you’ll find is a 28-year-old local television news piece from San Francisco about a "far-fetched," pre-Web experiment by the city’s two papers, The Chronicle and The Examiner, to distribute their wares to readers with home computers via primitive phone modems. Though there were at most 3,000 people in the Bay Area with PCs then, some 500 mailed in coupons for the service to The Chronicle alone. But, as the anchorwoman assures us at the end, with a two-hour download time (at $5 an hour), "the new telepaper won’t be much competition for the 20-cent street edition."

There’s a crowd that believes, sincerely, that there’s no problem, we’ll just get our news from the Internet. But there’s a catch: Most of the serious reporting that makes it onto the Internet sites is done by print reporters, published in newspapers, and picked up by web sites. What happens to those stories when a newspaper folds?

Oh, say some, there are smart people everywhere who will find, investigate and report the news we need. You don’t have to be trained in journalism to do that.

Maybe so; I won’t argue that point here. But do you have any idea what it costs to send a reporter to, say, Iraq? Try $10,000 a month – and that’s not salary, folks. It covers travel, food and lodging, of course, but also local transportation, security, translators, “fixers” (the people who get you into places you need to be and out of places you need to leave and generally keep you out of trouble), satellite phones, and of course armored vests and a camera or two. Just for starters.

But what if you don’t care about war zones, or for that matter any foreign news? Then ask yourself who, exactly, will be interested enough to cover your local city council meetings? Who will go to Austin to discover legislation that might be making its way through to becoming law that will affect your life? Who will bug the Center for Disease Control to get the news we need about swine flu? Who will spend hours and hours covering often tedious Congressional hearings, to make sure we know what our legislators are up to?

“Citizen journalists”? Do you think? Let’s ask Thomas Jefferson:
The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.

Originally published in the Waxahachie Daily Light, May 11, 2009.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Whither the Republicans?

In the heat of last year’s primary elections I ventured my opinion that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was doomed to fail because it was operating on a false premise: They believed that winning what they called “the core constituency” of the Democratic party was enough to win the nomination.

The premise was false because they didn’t understand their definition of “core constituency” was obsolete.

I referred to Danny DeVito’s famous lines in the play “Other People’s Money” to describe the problem:
“It's too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered and a miracle occurred, … we would still be dead. You know why? …

Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market.

Down the tubes. Slow but sure.

I offered this opinion after the Pennsylvania primary, where the total vote for Clinton turned out to be less than half what they had counted on; either the “white, working class, non-college-educated” voter was not a certain voter for Hillary or the proportion of such voters had shrunk — perhaps both.

I called it “the toilet bowl effect”: When a toilet is flushed, a huge volume of water descends into the bowl and then whirls in an ever-shrinking vortex until it’s gone.
So why drag all this up again? Because those who fail to learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them?

Recent events in and around the Republican party reached a crescendo with the decision by Senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania (there’s an interesting coincidence!) to give up on the party and join the Democrats.

It had become clear, after a huge number of Pennsylvania Republicans moved to the Democratic party in 2008, that the folks who were left were not a constituency likely to re-elect him in the 2010 Republican primary; a moderate Republican by history, it appeared his chances were better running as a Democrat in the general election.

The reaction in the Republican leadership was mixed, ranging from "sorry to see him go" to “good riddance,” with a heavy tilt toward the latter. Michael Steele, the Republican party chairman, referenced Specter’s “left-wing voting record,” an interesting new definition for “moderate.”

There’s a patchwork of hue and cry from assorted people who profess to care about the future of the Republican party who yearn for the party to rise again, to offer leadership and become a force again. Sad to say, the major players, at least so far, seem determined to pursue an increasing share of a shrinking market.

A good first step would be to dump the word “conservative,” because no one seems to know exactly what it means anymore. Awhile back, it was “low taxes, efficient government, strong national security.” But what does it mean now?

As it is, the lack of any other coherent message on the part of the Republican leadership leaves them defaulting to simply opposing anything the Democratic administration wants to do. With nothing to offer but anger, the party is doomed to keep on shrinking.

There are folks for whom positions on abortion, or gay rights, or school prayer may be a critical part of being “conservative”; but what do they do – refuse to join with anyone who disagrees with them? What if, like Pat Buchanan, they disagree with the war in Iraq but agree on those “social” issues?

What if, like Ron Paul, they disagree on the social issues and on the war in Iraq but believe in low taxes, efficient government and a strong national security”?

What if, like Arlen Specter, they agree on some issues and disagree on others but want to identify with the basic tenets of the Republican party? Drum them out of the roll call?

“Conservative” just doesn’t seem to tell us anything anymore.

Maybe going back to just plain “Republican” will do nicely, but it needs a new sense of purpose. A fractured party is almost no party at all.

Whatever your political leaning, you should want a healthy Republican party. No matter how well our president is doing, no matter how noble the intentions of his administration, a robust and coherent Republican party will always keep them on their toes.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

One lump, or two?

There’s no accounting for people’s taste in matters of tea, or parties, or especially “tea parties.”

Last week saw the astounding uprising of dozens of people all across our country in a movement that could only be called, truthfully, “astroturf.” That is the term generally applied to activities pretending to be grass-roots movements that are not, really.

In this case, the leadership of passionate folks like Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich and the talking heads on Fox News was hard to ignore. Towards the end, Governor Perry and even ol’ Joe Barton inserted themselves into the act.

In search of a hook upon which to hang their objections to all things Obama, and apparently lacking the imagination to come up with something new, those good folks had decided on tea-and-taxes.

Back in 1773 tea-drinkers in the colonies, specifically in Boston, were really upset to learn that the British Parliament had decided to levy an import tax on tea shipped to the colonies. They were outraged, in fact, and told the captains of the three ships that were waiting in Boston Harbor to take their doggone cargo back to England. Wasn’t fair, they said, to have to pay taxes they had no hand in levying.

It was taxation without representation, they said. And that was wrong.

The ships didn’t budge, and things heated up to the point where angry colonists stormed the docks and dumped all that tea into the harbor.

Reports have it that Samuel Adams was a leader of the movement.

According to the account in Wikipedia,
The Boston Tea Party was a key event in the growth of the American Revolution. Parliament responded in 1774 with the Coercive Acts, which, among other provisions, closed Boston's commerce until the British East India Company had been repaid for the destroyed tea. Colonists in turn responded to the Coercive Acts with additional acts of protest, and by convening the First Continental Congress, which petitioned for repeal of the acts and coordinated colonial resistance to them. The crisis escalated, and the American Revolutionary War began near Boston in 1775.
Inquiring minds want to know: What’s the connection?

Last week’s events had nothing to do with tea, Americans are no longer subject to taxes levied by King George, and Samuel Adams is now associated with a more interesting beverage; Congressional representatives were everywhere to be seen at the “tea parties,” so you could hardly claim lack of representation was the issue.

The organizers managed to turn out clumps of participants all around the country, some wearing teabags, some tossing them into waterways (littering!), many carrying or wearing signs objecting to high taxes, more taxes, and taxes in general.

Given that it was April 15th, the subject had to be pretty fresh on their minds, though it looked like they were having a pretty good time anyway.

Yet the reality is that most of the folks who were demonstrating, from the looks of it, are actually getting a tax cut because of Obama; of course, some of the loudest, like Armey, Perry, Barton, and the stars of Fox News, are probably in that select group of people with income over $250,000 who will see their taxes go up (would that be why they are so passionately involved?).

Lost in the noise, interestingly, is that in the latter case, the projected increase will still keep their rates below what they paid under Clinton. In some cases tax rates will be lower than they were under Reagan. Were they complaining then? Remind me.

A reporter went to one of the rallies and asked around to see how they felt about the fact that their taxes were going to be reduced. Some demonstrators said that didn’t count, because they were sure their taxes were going to go up later.

Well, yes, some people always complain about taxes. They just don’t like them. For that matter, neither do I, but I am very fond of having a government, a military, first responders, national parks and public schools. Just for starters.

Anyway, I don’t think it was really about taxes. I suspect it was more about the economy, and we Americans can be an impatient lot, as is often noted.

Even so, is it reasonable to expect that Obama, after three whole months in office, should have fixed it by now?

Originally published in the Waxahachie Daily Light, April 20, 2009.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

A couple of bones to pick

Most folks have heard, at least in passing, about the the Employee Free Choice Act, or “card check,” working its way through Congress this week. And most of what we seem to hear is basically negative. Lies, even.

If you tell the truth you may not get what you want, I guess.

So here we have this great hullabaloo of worry about secret ballots, something the worriers know the American public cherishes above practically everything else. But it’s all a fraud.

What are the worriers worried about? They say they are worried about the process by which employees of a business decide whether they want to bargain as a group for things like hours, wages and benefits.

Who’s doing the worrying? The employers. That should tell you something.

But the employers aren’t worried about the outcome, not at all. They say they are just trying to be sure that their poor dumb employees aren’t denied the right to a secret ballot.

That argument is what’s dumb. The legislation in Congress right now, the Employee Free Choice Act, or “card-check,” provides for each and every employee to receive a card with the following choices:

The employee can sign up in favor of joining a union, or not. Or he can choose to have a secret ballot on the matter. The employees get to choose.

Secret ballot. There it is, right there. If the majority of the cards come back with the secret ballot choice checked, there you are, it’ll be a secret ballot.

But if 50%-plus-one come back checked in favor of having a union, the employees get to have a union. That’s a majority, but it would appear the employers who are fighting this are afraid a majority of their workers might actually want to have a union. The dirty little secret is that employers don’t want it to be simple.

Gotta wonder why.
* * *

Good ol’ Newt Gingrich is back, maybe getting a good start on 2012, and has been on various TV shows holding forth on just about everything under the sun, or at least everything Barack Obama is doing. Which he opposes.

In the context of the leadership struggles within the Republican party, Newt comes across as the sane elder statesman, according to some.

So, last week he suggested that Obama should have taken out the North Korean rocket test with some kind of laser weapon, an idea perhaps intended to show how high-tech he thinks; “high” might be the operative word here because we don’t seem to have such in our arsenal.

On at least one Sunday show he shared his opinion on health care reform, or at least what he perceives as Obama’s plan taking us down the road to “putting everyone on Medicaid.”

Now, I can’t be sure he meant to say “Medicaid,” though he said it several times, because I know the comparison that’s been drawn to one of the options being proposed for a national health care solution is “Medicare,” a very different breed of cat.

Medicaid, a form of health care coverage for the working poor, might as well be unavailable so far as Ellis County residents are concerned. Most doctors can’t afford to offer it because it pays so poorly.

Medicare, on the other hand, which most senior citizens have, is agreed by all but the unfeeling to be good coverage, cost-effective and efficient. A government plan that lets you choose your own doctor and make your own decisions, by the way.

And no, Obama’s plan is not “socialized” medicine, nor is Medicare for that matter; however, that’s the favorite term of argument for those who prefer that private insurance companies continue to make your decisions, choose your doctor, deny coverage when you most need it, and make lots of money in the process.

Originally published in the Waxahachie Daily Light April 13, 2009.

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