Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rediscovering Principles -- But Which Ones?

I recently discovered a book that purports to utilize a very similar tactic to my own work-in-progress -- commenting on the degree to which modern America conforms to fundamental "Founding" values.

Matthew Spalding ("We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future") cites the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as I do, but for the most part uses a different set of principles from the ones enunciated in the preambles to those documents. (Yes, he talks about liberty, but quickly associates it closely with religion, which as we all know was barely mentioned in the Constitution -- and then only to ensure that there be no religious test for holding public office.)

As might be expected from an author closely associated with the Heritage Foundation, his conclusions (from the last chapter -- I haven't read all the preceding chapters yet) comprise a veritable glossary of modern conservative philosophy: limited government, limited regulation (no mention of the deregulation of financial markets that just about caused another Depression), anti-welfare, anti-gay, pro-religion (anti-secular), opposed to socialized health care, anti-deficit (apparently unless the red ink is used to finance wars that implement an engaged foreign policy), pro-strict constitutional constructionism, pro-free enterprise, and pro-"liberty" (but apparently not opposed to the sections of the Patriot Act that violated the Fourth Amendment).

Appointed judges, intellectual and political elites, mainstream journalists, bureaucrats, and Europeans -- the customary targets of conservatives -- all fall victim to his keyboard. He almost equates property rights to the means of pursuing happiness, totally ignoring reams of evidence to the contrary. (As we know from last week's post, nobody expects a correlation any more between belief systems and evidence.)

Who is Matthew Spalding? He's a graduate of Claremont McKenna College, with a doctorate in government from Claremont Graduate School. (You'll find no mention of his doctorate anywhere in his book. Perhaps he's not proud of it; or perhaps having a degree of that nature makes it difficult to criticize the intellectual elite.) Spalding serves as project leader for the Heritage Foundation's First Principles Initiative, which "seeks to provide a much-needed education for policymakers, the news media and ordinary citizens on the ideas of liberty and constitutional self-government" (quote from the Heritage Foundation website).

Spalding testified recently before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, warning about constitutional and practical problems associated with naming high-level bureaucrats (commonly called "czars") to positions with the power to coordinate public policy in selected arenas (like health care). Perhaps he didn't anticipate that anyone would make a connection between this testimony and the fact that the Foreward to his book is written by none other than William J. Bennett -- reformed mega-gambler, author of "The Book of Virtues" (are you laughing yet?), and former Drug Czar under President George H. W. Bush. Can you spell I-R-O-N-Y?

Seeing something like this in print (a plethora of assertions with minimal footnotes, albeit with a list of relevant references at the end) merely adds to my motivation to publish the counterpoint to that view.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What Would a Space Invader Think?

If a space invader believed what Americans say about education, he/she/it would conclude that we value it highly. If this same creature were to sit in on any of a zillion business meetings, he/she/it would also determine that Americans base their strategies, beliefs, and actions on facts (or in the face of uncertainty, at least the most reasonable assumptions), plus a logical thinking modality that connects facts with inevitable conclusions. If the alien were to overhear the thousands of conversations in businesses and non-profits alike about "continuous improvement," he/she/it might conclude that we are all intimately involved in feedback loops where consequences of current actions modify future actions.

If our hypothetical space invader then extrapolated to assume that Americans, in general, modify their belief systems and actions to conform to reality, he/she/it would be making a huge mistake.

I am not the only person to notice this phenomenon. Writing in the 12/14/09 edition of the New York Times, Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman commented: "When I first began writing for The Times, I was naive about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs."

In a similar vein, columnist Tim Rutten wrote in the Los Angeles Times (12/12/09) that "our national conversation is dominated by a culture of assertion rather than a respect for evidence reasonably assessed."

One has only to witness the current "debates" about practically every important political issue of the day to verify these ugly truths.

I have been privileged as CEO of a mid-sized non-profit organization to learn about and actually utilize a complex and multi-step decision-making strategy (thanks in part to a skilled consultant) -- and it works! Unfortunately, the model is too complex to describe here in its entirety. Suffice it to say that it incorporates ten steps, including agreeing on the characteristics of a desirable outcome, ascertaining facts, and projecting the likely outcomes of alternatives suggested by a diverse group of people.

I don't see much evidence that decisions made in our public arenas conform to any cohesive decision-making process. We rarely define our goals carefully. We ignore or dispute facts based on pre-existing belief systems rather than modifying our beliefs to conform to generally recognized facts. We don't listen well; "debate" doesn't have the same meaning it used to.

In today's political world, evidence carries little or no weight; life-long learning (ideally part of the "education" we claim to value) is a joke. There is only one step in the political decision-making process: what do I already believe, or need to believe in order to get re-elected? Facts be damned.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but without giving weight to evidence, would we not still believe that the earth is flat and occupies its rightful place in the center of the universe?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but without giving weight to evidence, would we not still be bloodletting to cure people of diseases rather than giving them antibiotics?

(OK, admittedly, this means some people do pay attention to some facts some of the time, since we do have antibiotics and don't believe the earth is flat. But we still can't agree on health care policy, climate change, tax policy, the value of foreign interventions, etc.)

I'd love to see an intelligent creature from outer space slap a few people in the face and say "Wake up! You are destroying each other and the planet! Use your mental capacities for something more meaningful than voting for the next American Idol!"

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Rethink Reform"

Today's New York Times (12/13/09) includes a full-page ad sponsored by the "Committee to Rethink Reform." The ad shows an elderly couple on a lonely country road facing a "highway sign" that says "Next Medicare Doctor 71 miles." The lady is using a walker. Huge letters above the graphic spell out "Cutting Support for Medicare Means Cutting Doctors for Seniors." Below the photo, we find this baffling message: "Incredibly, the Senate just voted to cut billions from Medicare. And despite $36 trillion in debt they expanded the program! More debt and rationing for seniors is coming."

Just out of curiosity, I did a little research. I wanted to know who was so concerned about the health care our seniors are receiving. I also wanted to know, if possible, where that $36 trillion figure came from and who wrote the ad copy that uses a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun. LOL.

This so-called committee is really a project of the "Employment Policies Institute," which according to its own website is "a non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth." Among other things, the Institute publishes studies allegedly demonstrating that the minimum wage has a damaging effect on certain parts of the labor market. (It also doesn't help businesses very much, but I suppose that's incidental.)

CREW -- Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington -- links the "Rethink Reform" effort to discredit health care reform to Bernard & Company, which is closely connected to another non-profit called the "Center for Union Facts." According to the IRS Form 990 filed for calendar year 2007, the "Center for Union Facts" paid Bernard & Company more than $839,000 in compensation, from revenue of less than $3 million. According to CREW, Bernard & Company is closely associated with a long list of conservative causes.

So, I ask you: who really paid for this "Rethink Reform" ad? If we're going to exercise our right to free speech (yes, we all believe in it), is there at least an ethical responsibility to stand up and say it publicly, without hiding your identity?

The question has two answers. First, I don't really know who paid for it. Maybe somebody with lots of time and a research tool more powerful than the Internet can find out. (How likely do you think most readers of the ad will be to find out who really paid for it?) Secondly, in a sense, we all paid for it, because contributions to the "non-profit" organization that sponsored it were tax deductible!

I recently saw in another publication -- I believe it was "The Chronicle of Philanthropy" -- that the IRS is approving applications for new non-profit agencies almost carte blanche these days. Now, I suppose one could argue that doing "research" and publicizing the results also serve an educational purpose. But is education the real purpose of organizations like the "Center for Union Facts" and the "Employment Policies Institute"? Or is the purpose to blatantly influence public policy? (The ad in question concludes with "Call your Senators and raise hell," followed by an area code 202 phone number.) And if they can lobby with tax deductible money, why are the Sierra Club and the American Civil Liberties Union not eligible for non-profit status?

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Few Words about Philanthropy

I accepted a donation this morning for the non-profit organization I work for, from the Verizon Foundation, in the amount of $20,000. Since I had no other burning issues for this week's post (lobbyists, feel free to breathe a sigh of relief!), I thought a few comments about philanthropy would be in order. Not only is it "seasonally appropriate," but it provides a bit of a contrast to my usual invective against selfishness.

Philanthropy is "big business" in this country. At this morning's meeting, the Verizon Foundation distributed close to half a million dollars to 20 or so non-profit social service organizations in the general areas known as the San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire regions of Southern California. Nationally, the Foundation makes grants totaling millions of dollars every year.

According to the Giving USA Foundation, which tracks such things, philanthropic giving in this country amounted to some $295 billion in 2006. Most of this money came from individuals; only 4.3% of the total came from corporations and corporate foundations. About one third of all tax deductible gifts -- the largest single "chunk," -- goes to religious institutions. Social service agencies get maybe 10%.

In 2005, more than 1 in every 4 adults reported doing some volunteer work. I don't know exactly what definition was used. Chances are that coaching your kid's soccer team counted.

According to the "Chronicle of Philanthropy" (12/10/09), Bill and Melinda Gates have contributed approximately $21 billion to their foundation. The most recent gift of $350 million will pay for the building of the foundation's new headquarters building in downtown Seattle.

The same issue of the Chronicle reports that Goldman Sachs has pledged $500 million "to help develop small businesses and train entrepreneurs." (It occurs to me that successful entrepreneurs sometimes end up using the services of a large financial services firm, when they take their companies public.) Skeptics have accused the company of trying to buy a more positive image, pointing out that half a billion dollars is a small fraction of the amount the company pays in bonuses to its employees.

Businesses wouldn't try to purchase good will by making charitable donations -- would they? If they did, would it be a bad thing?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Lobbying (Not Again!)

I can't seem to get away from the topic of lobbying. Maybe it's following me around. Hmmm, maybe it's following ALL OF US around!

The most recent report to pique my interest appeared in the New York Times 11-15-09 (yes, on the front page). It seems that lobbyists from Genentech, a biotechnology giant, were successful in ghost-writing portions of speeches inserted into the Congressional Record by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Unknowingly, more than a dozen members of the House have even used almost identical wording when commenting on certain benefits incorporated in health care legislation. Company lobbyists, who are no dummies (more like ventriloquists?), planted two sets of talking points -- one for Democrats and one for Republicans.

Why does this matter? Psychologists tell us that people tend to believe things they hear from people they regard as credible and knowledgeable. All right, I can hear you laughing! Congressmen, credible? Well, compared to self-interested company spokespeople, lobbyists themselves, and so-called scientific reports funded by the company -- maybe so. Everything is relative. And remember, not everyone knows that the Congressional Record is pretty much "made up" -- revised at will, after the fact, to reflect things that were never said. Before you know it, those lobbyist-drafted words will be taken as fact by some naieve college sophomore writing a term paper.

There's another reason this is smart politics for the lobbyists. They know that people tend to get rigid once they have made on-the-record statements. Flip-flopping creates not only criticism from people who refuse to be smarter today than they were yesterday, but it can also engender a condition known as cognitive dissonance. "Why are you now saying x when last week you told everyone you believed y? Aren't you being intellectually dishonest?" Oh my, what politician will admit to that? So once they go on the record, they are easier to manipulate.

I have a suggestion for members of Congress: if you don't know what you're talking about, keep silent until you've done some real homework. And don't expect the self-serving statements of hired guns to always represent the truth.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Half Full? Half Empty? You Decide!

According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department, a 12-year-old middle school student in Calabasas (an up-scale community) was kicked and hit by as many as 14 classmates about a week ago, possibly motivated by a Facebook group urging violence against redheads. (See Los Angeles Times, 11/22/09, p. A43.)

What are we to think? Is it possible to generalize from the viciousness and immaturity of pre-adolescents?

One thing we can be thankful for -- among the school's responses was a teacher-led effort to discuss discrimination in their classrooms. Hooray for the American tradition of taking action immediately following disasters. With "risk management" so well incorporated into the lexicon of every organization (much to the delight of insurance companies), is there some reason we can't extent the concept to the prevention of social stupidity?

I can hear the objections already. It's not the job of the school to inculcate values. We don't have time -- we're too busy teaching the required academic subjects and ensuring that our kids do well on standardized tests. Well, I for one am not happy about the fact that a vulnerable child who happened to have freckles was "left behind."

Sometimes I really don't know whether the glass is half full or half empty. There are millions of generous, kind-hearted people in this country. There are millions more who would cheat their grandmother if they thought it would benefit them personally. (Well, maybe not their own grandmother -- but somebody else's grandmother would probably be fair game.)

I guess it reminds us that human beings are exceptionally complex creatures, with conflicting genetic and environmental forces assaulting us from all directions.

Best Thanksgiving wishes to all my readers, and many thanks for your comments and encouragement, both on- and off-screen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Achieving National Goals

I'm happy to report that I'm making decent progress on writing the book proposal for "I Pledge Allegiance: To What? -- The Paradox of 'Me.' " Herewith, a draft of the summary of the volume's last chapter:

"Chapter 9 describes several strategies that could enhance the achievement of America's fundamental values. First, we must decrease the attention given to pure economic measures (e.g. GDP) and highlight more meaningful social indicators. (The President, for example, could even include a status report in the State of the Union message.) The successful non-profit model should be used more extensively to engage in activities that promote our stated objectives (thereby reducing the ubiquitous and sometimes deleterious profit-at-any-cost motive). Educational programs should incorporate, alongside "pure" academic instruction, modules on cooperation, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and increasing the skills required to cope with personal adversity. The Constitution should be amended to provide for additional representatives and senators, with publicly financed national elections, for the purpose of reducing parochial interests and promoting the common good. Corporations should be legally charged with the public responsibility to take the long-term welfare of all citizens into account, even as they strive to earn profits for shareholders. Inter-cultural exchange programs should be vastly expanded to increase the sense of "family" Americans feel for each other, regardless of geographic, ethnic, and religious differences. Finally, voters should be encouraged to select leaders on the basis of critical thinking ability and the willingness to take counter-intuitive, bold positions when doing so will enhance the pursuit of happiness, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure a nation and a world conducive to the well-being of our posterity."

Sorry -- long paragraph I know.

If any readers have additional ideas about how to achieve our fundamental values, as espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution, I'd love to hear them!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Corporate Justice at Last (LOL)

Regular readers of this blog will not be shocked to learn that I am skeptical about corporate ethical standards and the effectiveness of this country's regulatory machinery. It came as a bit of a surprise to me that fines were levied recently against some big names for alleged wrongdoing.

Oil giant BP was fined $87 million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) following a 6-month inspection that revealed hundreds of violations of a 2005 settlement agreement resulting from an explosion that killed 15 workers and injured another 170. According to the Associated Press, OSHA said that "the company also committed hundreds of new violations at the nation's third largest refinery by failing to follow industry controls on pressure relief safety systems." (Of course, the company disagrees and formally contested the OSHA action.)

Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times (11/6/09), "three major retailers have agreed to pay nearly half a million dollars to settle a lawsuit stemming from the companies' sale of toys containing excessive amounts of lead." Collectively, Target, Toys R Us, and Kmart will pay a total of $454,000 in civil penalties and other fines. California State Deputy Attorney General Harrison Pollak is quoted as follows: "The settlement provides a remedy for past violations and makes it less likely that there will be future violations of lead standards."

So far, so good. But suppose I, as an individual, violate a safety standard that results in an increase in mental retardation in children (like lead poisoning does) or that results in 15 unnecessary deaths. Will it impact my behavior if the state, to punish me and make it "less likely" that I will become a repeat offender, fines me $1?

It's not a rhetorical question. Fining me $1 is, within an order of magnitude or two, the same type of punishment as the actions described above.

In 2008, BP reported revenue in US dollars of about $367.053 billion. The fine of $87 million amounts to .02% of such revenue.

Toys R Us, Target/Dayton-Hudson, and Sears Holding Company (owner of Kmart) reported total annual revenue in recent years of approximately $83.9 billion (combining reports from different years, as available). The fine of $454,000 represents .00054% of such revenue.

Ah, justice at last!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Rape of Hope

Today's Los Angeles Times (10/31/09) included a story horrifying in its brutality -- in more ways than one.

Recently, a 15-year-old girl was gang raped outside a high school near Oakland, California, while a homecoming dance proceeded peacefully nearby and as many as 20 onlookers jeered, took pictures, and messaged their friends to come join in the fun. Two hours passed before someone witnessing the event decided to call the police.

Columnist Sandy Banks tried to answer the obvious questions. How could such a callous (not to mention criminal) occurrence take place, and why on earth would it take two hours for someone to come to their senses sufficiently to put a stop to it? She interviewed a junior at the school, who opined that "A lot of them, they don't think they're going to be successful. They've already been judged, so they go with that. They drink, they smoke, they pop pills. It's the 'bad boy' culture. That's how they see themselves."

I can't help wonder how widespread this feeling is. Are there, in fact, thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of young people who face the future with a brooding face and a heavy heart, uncertain whether any portion of the American dream will ever collide with what currently passes for their lives?

We are told by the so-called experts that the widespread and gargantuan inequality that pervades American society today will never cause unrest -- at least partially because people at the bottom of the ladder perceive the potential for upward mobility.

Do they?

Please note: regardless of the attitudes and emotional predispositions of the perpetrators of this indecent affair, their actions are in no way justified. Those directly involved should be prosecuted, and the voyeurs should be grounded until they mature. For some of them, this might entail missing next year's dance.

Side note: the school board is planning to install security measures now -- after considering them for years. And, rest assured, a campus police officer has proclaimed that "We have a safe environment at Richmond High." The educational bureaucracy at its finest!

What should really be happening in the classrooms when things return to "normal"? Should teachers focus on social responsibility, communication and collaboration skills, conflict resolution strategies, and critical thinking? Well, that might be nice, but some parents would complain, and besides, the students need more math, science, history, etc. so they can improve their scores on those all-important standardized tests. That way we'll "Leave No Child Behind" -- except the unfortunate young lady who was brutally raped.

When things finally erupt in this country, we're going to have the best educated rioters in the history of the world. They'll be full of knowledge -- potential "Jeopardy" champs all -- because that is what our educational policy makers think is important -- but hope will be in short supply.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

From Whence Do We Come?

If it's true that Americans suffer from an advanced case of evolutionary "mismatch," responsible for many of the ills of our egocentric and essentially selfish society (at least by comparison with many other developed countries), then something must differentiate us from the citizens of some other countries, who seem to understand better than we do the value of cooperative, caring behavior on an organized basis. Why would we cling to no-longer-adaptive behavior patterns established thousands of years ago if people in selected other countries don't (or at least do so to a lesser degree)?

What separates Americans from, say, Scandinavians, I suspected, was at least partially the result of our frontier heritage. Some confirmation of this hypothesis comes from the book "Wilderness at Dawn -- The Settling of the North American Continent" (complete reference upon request).

In 500 pages or so, Ted Morgan recounts an overabundance of detail about his topic, starting about 15,000 years ago and moving inexorably, sometimes laboriously, through the 18th century. Generally he is content to describe events, rarely lapsing into analysis. On page 483, however, we find this stunning conclusion: "Mix well these ingredients: three expansionist European powers, a native people refusing subjugation, and a population of slaves brought agains their will from West Africa. The result? A recipe for strife."

Indeed, the preceding pages tell the story of people with often vicious and aggressive tendencies, creating government on the fly, often violating their own laws almost as quickly as they make them, seeking fortunes and the freedom to practice religions not favored in their native countries while simultaneously denying tolerance to others.

"Whatever their destination, as they occupied hundreds of different habitats and climates, the various groups [of settlers] had one thing in common: the quest for food was their organizing principle" (p. 24). Fast forward a few hundred years -- and find some people scrounging for food in garbage bins, the slightly more fortunate accepting baskets at non-profit pantries and hoping the provisions will last out the month, and the very fortunate never satisfied even with huge fortunes, allegedly demanding multi-million dollar bonuses for moving money and securities around the world in ways inscrutable to the average person, stockpiling hundreds of millions of dollars in banks around the world to evade legally imposes taxes, and complaining all the while about over-regulation and large government deficits.

"Around A.D. 1100, at the peak of their power, the leaders of Cahokia [a settlement apparently near what is now Wisconsin] ordered the building of a stockade around the inner city. They cut down an estimated 80,000 trees...and didn't replant. Losing its cover, the game fled at a time when the human population was increasing...By A.D. 1300, Cahokia was abandoned, and its splendid mounds were covered with weeds and underbrush, monuments to man's overreaching" (p. 41). Fast forward a few hundred years, with industry still resisting efforts to mitigate the ravages of environmental destruction. We are the children of our forefathers.

"Like Columbus, the settlers of all of North America -- of Quebec, Jamestown, and Plymouth -- would believe that the white men didn't have to treat the Indians the way they treated one another" (p. 50). "In each village he visited, De Soto repaid the hospitality of the chief by taking him hostage, along with other captives who were used as porters" (p. 73). Fast forward to today. Every oppressed minority -- ironically, with the possible exception of some Native American tribes -- is still struggling with vestiges of past injustice, current-day bigotry, or both.

"On February 12, 1599, [Juan de] Onate pronounced the sentence [to Indians who had lost a battle]: All the men over the age of twenty-five would have one foot cut off and would have to serve twenty years of serfdom. Those between twelve and twenty-five would simply have one foot cut off" (p. 83). Fast forward to Texas, 2009, where commissions are disbanded just in time to prevent official findings that a convicted arsonist, since executed, was actually innocent. (I presume you saw the articles in the paper about this recently.) Don't see the connection? It's a mentality that basically says "we will have law and order here, at any cost, and if we make a few mistakes along the way, so be it."

Welcome to American, then and now.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Just the Juxtaposition of Facts, Ma'am

You might need to be at least 50 years old to understand the title's reference to the perennial tagline of the old TV show "dragnet" ("just the facts, ma'am," usually spoken to a lady highly motivated to explain why her petunias are blooming so colorfully before she tells the detectives about the murder she just witnessed). However, all you need to draw conclusions from carefully juxtaposed facts is the ability to see that 2+2 = 4.

Fact #1 -- low wage workers are frequently screwed by the business establishment. According to the New York Times (9/2/09, p. A11), a new study documents frequent and egregious violations of work rules affecting people earning, on average, about $8 an hour. More than 4,000 workers were interviewed, across the country, in a variety of industries. Among the results: only 8% of such employees claimed workers' compensation benefits following a work-related injury -- the others mostly didn't report as a result of pressure by their employers not to file; 12% of workers who earn tips reported that their employers steal some of the tips; 76% who had worked overtime the previous week were not paid the proper amount; 57% had not received mandatory pay documents that would have indicated they were being properly paid; 43% in the apparel and textile industries reported being paid less than the minimum wage. Workers surveyed, in fact, lost on average 15% of the pay to which they were legally entitled.

Fact #2 -- more recently, it has come to light that wealthy Americans have hidden large sums of money in Swiss banks, illegally evading taxes. According to the Los Angeles Times (10/15/09, p. B6), 7,500 people have voluntarily disclosed such accounts in order to take advantage of an IRS amnesty program that would preclude them from being criminally prosecuted and possibly spending time in jail. No doubt thousands more are hoping that their names are not among those to be disclosed by banks "in 70 countries and on every continent except Antarctica."

Fact #3 -- According to the New York Times (5/16/09, p. A9), business groups were opposing legislation that would guarantee workers seven sick days per year if they work for employers with 15 or more employees. The authors of this bill claim that three-fourths of low-wage workers do not currently earn any sick days. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the head of the Republican Party oppose the bill.

Fact #4 -- According to the non-partisan California Budget Project (reported in the Los Angeles Times 10/12/09, p. B1), "the bottom fifth of taxpayers -- those earning less than about $18,000 -- paid about 11.7% of family income in state and local taxes. By contrast, the top 1%, earning $430,000 or more, paid only about 7.1% on average." (So much for California being a "high tax state" -- yeah, for whom??) The article goes on to point out how many state services (education, transportation, the entire law enforcement/correctional system, etc.) benefit the wealthy at least as much as they benefit the poor.

Try to keep these facts in mind the next time you recite the Pledge of Allegiance: "...with liberty and justice for all."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dear Mr./Ms. Corporation

My friend,

I understand that you want to be treated like every individual American -- imbued with all the rights and privileges included in the U.S. Constitution. For example, I understand that you'd like to be protected by the First Amendment and that you advance the view that "corporate free speech" should include the right to contribute to political candidates without limitation.

Let me point out that you already have more than half of this "cake." You have all the legal rights required to do business -- purchase and sell property, hire and fire employees, enter into contracts, advertise, etc. Although you are supposedly prevented from making certain kinds of political contributions, there are more ways around this than there are (or at least were) fish in the sea. You hire lobbyists in vast numbers and pay them so much that they just can't help attending political fundraisers and contributing to political action committees.

In fact, you even enjoy benefits individual people do not, e.g. perpetual life (hence, the ability to accumulate unlimited wealth and never be subject to an inheritance tax) and limited liability. Human beings do not have the right to sever their actions from their brains; in court, it is not considered a good excuse to say "my right arm may have hit you, but my brain was not involved." Yet, dear corporation, when you violate the laws of society, you have the right to shield your brains (your executives) from legal consequences. They do not go to prison unless they personally violate laws; mere malfeasance on your part (e.g. violating laws against pollution) only results in fines (paid, ironically, by shareholders who are not at all involved in your daily management). Even if your executives were to be subject to litigation individually, you undoubtedly protect them with general liability insurance (again paid for by your owners, the stockholders).

Unlike real human beings, if you are caught violating a law, you say you never did it, promise never to do it again, pay a small fine, and be done with it. You probably don't even feel embarrassed or ashamed, first because you are organically incapable of it, and second because you were just doing what the capitalistic system says you should do -- maximize profit!

Yet, with all these advantages, you continue to lobby for more -- usually with great success. According to a book by Dutman and Cray ("The People's Business," published in 2004 by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.), you and your siblings handcuff the regulatory agencies by blocking sufficient funding for them to do their jobs adequately, and you promote legislation designed to block legitimate lawsuits (p. 202).

In summary, you want all the benefits of being an individual but none of the responsibilities. Is that fair? Does that work to the advantage of all citizens of this country?

Oh my, now I've gone and done it. In addition to wanting the rights of people, soon you might want the rights of citizens -- say, the right to vote. I can hardly wait to see what process you will use to determine who you will vote for.



Monday, October 5, 2009

Shh, it's a SECRET!

I wish I could divulve my sources for this particular blog post, but my discussions with them are sensitive, confidential -- and in some cases downright classified! LOL. In protecting these sources, I am continuing a long-standing American journalistic tradition.

President Obama suggested recently to New York State Governor Paterson that he drop his campaign for election. How do we know? New York Times reporters spoke to administration officials and a Democratic operative who "spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions with the governor were intended to be confidential" (NY Times, 9/20/09, p. A1).

Former Senator John Edwards (as of 9/20/09) might or might not announce that he is the father of his mistress' child, but "Mrs. Edwards has yet to be brought around," said one family friend, who like others spoke about the situation on the condition of anonymity, pointing to the complicated and delicate nature of the issue (NY Times, p. A1).

A terror probe appeared to be concentrated in the New York area, according to the New York Times (9/22/09), according to a federal law enforcement official and others, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the high level of secrecy surrounding the investigation.

According to the New York Times, (9/23/09, p. A1), New York police have been using an immam for intelligence purposes: "Several officials -- all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because much of the investigation is classified -- have said that the inquiry, which had been under way for several months, could well have continued, tracking communications, meetings, plans and associates of the suspect." Unfortunately, the imam betrayed the police.

According to the New York Times (9/23/09, p. A9), President Obama had a meeting in the situation room with his top advisors. "They reached no consensus, so three or four more such meetings are being scheduled. 'There are a lot of competing views,' said one official, who, like the others in this article, requested anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations."

Here are my thoughts: Whatever happened to ethics? If people are privy to documents and discussions that are legally classified, family conversations intended to be confidential, law enforcement operations that are secret, and the like, what motivates them to talk about such details to reporters? Is it really appropriate, even for a newspaper dedicated to printing "all the news that's fit to print," to utilize anonymous sources so frequently, on such delicate subjects?

I don't have answers, folks, just questions. Do YOU have answers?

**Note: did you miss me last week? Sorry, I was out of town the entire weekend and returned exhausted. And how much are paying to read this blog anyway? (Haha, just kidding.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Two Nations?

Two weeks ago I introduced the idea of splitting the United States into two distinct countries, and I provided data indicating that the southeastern states were, de facto, pretty much doing this already. These states generally score low on the Human Development Index, tax their residents at low rates compared to other states, and send conservative legislators to Congress, where they block progressive legislation backed by a majority of Americans (universal health care being just one current example).

So, the question arises, why not separate formally into two distinct countries, permitting both to treat their citizens in a manner consistent with their political philosophies? Then the people who want low (or zero) taxes could live in the south and dismantle their educational and social welfare systems, while those who have a better developed sense of social justice could live in the north and develop top quality schools, hospitals, and support networks, taxing themselves accordingly.

Yes, I know it's been tried before. But circumstances change. There is no danger now of a resurgence of overt slavery based on race. This time, the north would have no incentive to oppose succession; "good riddance" would be a more logical response.

Or would it? Aside from the obvious logistical and political problems, this country's massive dilemma is much too complicated for a geographical solution.

First, and probably least important, our states are not homogeneous. So-called red states contain pockets of blue voters, and vice-versa. Even if people wanted to move to their "country of choice," the process of leaving existing homes and jobs would be disruptive at best and completely impossible for many. You think it's tough being a liberal in Mississippi now? Wait until you're only 1% of the population and the Supreme Court rules that "free speech" no longer includes dissenting from popular views. (I can't help wondering: would the ACLU be permitted to exist in a "new south"?)

Secondly, this "solution" doesn't solve the long-range problems inherent in a world where isolation is neither desirable nor possible. Unless travel between the two countries was prohibited, contagious diseases could easily spill over the border. And atmospheric pollution knows no boundaries; if the planet warms up quickly due to complete deregulation of coal-fired utility plants in the south, fences along the Mason-Dixon line will not protect those who are willing to tax themselves to maintain a healthy planet.

Thirdly, how long would the north tolerate the extreme conditions that would probably develop in states controlled by reactionaries and the self-interested upper class unfettered by our current federal laws? Ethical standards occasionally result in international intervention (e.g. to prevent genocide and famine). Conditions might develop in the south that would eventually cause Civil War II -- and how unfortunate that would be!

Finally, I doubt that geographic separation provides the best model for the resolution of human differences. Regardless of political labels, liberals and conservatives don't agree even among themselves on everything. One imagines that substantive debates already do and would still occur in the cities of Berkely and Tuscaloosa. What are the residents going to do then -- move to the extreme eastern and western boundaries of the existing metropolis and declare that there are really two legally different cities? And the process of continuous fragmentation could continue indefinitely, as new issues would inevitably arise. Do we really want to see several million countries in the world?

No, let's not take that course of action. Let's move decisions to the lowest reasonable level of government, to allow individual enclaves to live in a manner of their choosing so long as the "externalities" (negative influences on surrounding people) are minimized. Let's facilitate better communication strategies among dissenting groups and encourage tolerance and compromise where possible. Oh, by the way, we probably also need to find a way to isolate politicians at ALL levels of government from the influence of wealthy self-interests. If decisions on health-care were made in 50 different political venues, drug company, insurance company, private sector hospital, and physician association lobbyists would be showing up in all of them, showering money on as many state legislators as necessary. (You say that already happens? Gee, we do have some intractable problems, don't we?)

I guess the National Football League won't have to change its name anytime soon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Reading the New York Times

If you were expecting a continuation of last week's post -- well, that comes next week. I'm going to give my readers another opportunity to comment on my "Two Nation" solution to the political mess we find ourselves experiencing. (Surely such a radical notion conjures up a few thoughts -- even though I told you I didn't really believe it was the answer!)

So, today, you get to experience vicariously the enormous pleasure I got out of reading the New York Times a few Sundays ago. Herewith, the essay I wrote in early August, saving it just for this occasion:

Yes, it's expensive to subscribe to every day home delivery. But where else, in one edition of any publication, can you read about:

* the impact of economics professors on real-life American financial meltdowns;

* the arrest of a homeless man for being homeless while he sleeps in a shelter;

* the impact of special interests on what otherwise would be an effective cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions;

* the awakening of our defense department to the security threats posed by climate change;

* the questionable ethical behavior of former Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson during the economic turmoil of late 2008;

* the drug industry's plan to spend up to $150 million to run TV ads in support of health care change(wow, where did all that money come from? can you say "consumers"?);

* the demise of printed textbooks in favor of electronic delivery of sometimes-free content;

* the continuation of presidential signing statements;

* orthopedic problems associated with young baseball pitchers throwing too many fastballs; and

* President Obama's improvisational sense of humor?

Wait, there's more! Alberto Gonzales answers a question about his "ethical failings" by saying "All the inspector-general investigations, they're over now. They found that I had not engaged in any criminal wrongdoing." (Hmm, let me see -- is he equating unethical behavior with illegal behavior, or is he just evading the question? I report, you decide.) He follows up by saying, in response to a question about whether he has been offered a job with a law firm since le left government service, "I can understand why a company or a firm would want to make sure that the investigations are complete and there is no finding of wrongdoing before they make a hiring decision." And he's writing a book, publisher still to be identified. OK, I can relate to him on that last point.

Wait, there's STILL more! The word "fail" is becoming an adjective, as in "I'm so fail." (Is that somehow related to "Me bad"?) Human beings evolve, so does language. Who woulda thunk?

On Sunday, August 9, 2009, all this and more provided me with hours of enjoyment (not to mention the content for this blog post).

By the way, the New York Times actually has something in common with the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin -- neither is perfect. The photo of Sonia Sotomayor on page 1 of the Times, taking her oath of office as a Supreme Court Justice, says the accompanying article appears on page 12. It doesn't; it appears on page 10. (Does the Daily Bulletin make a few errors from time time? Don't get me started! Recently, a "reporter" kindly informed me that "entertaining entertainers" would be present at the Los Angeles County Fair.)

OK. I know you have 23 more blogs to read and 7 messages on your Facebook wall informing you what your friends had for dinner last night. So I'll end this here. But first, in the interest of full disclosure, I have no financial interest whatsoever in your subscribing to the New York Times! Do so only at peril of finding out what's really going on in the world.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Two-Nation Solution

Wait! Don't call the Department of Homeland Security just yet. I'm not really advocating the overthrow of the federal government, and certainly not by forceful means. However, I do think some of the following facts, figures, and analyses will trigger brain waves leading to an interesting and possibly even useful discussion.

Consider health care reform -- something most people in this country recognize as necessary in some form or another. In addition to the massive lobbying described in previous posts, the barrier to passage is simply this: too many "nays" in the U.S. Senate, where, for historical (not constitutional) reasons, a two-thirds vote seems to be required to pass almost anything of significance.

Also consider this: the following states are currently represented in the U.S. Senate by two Republicans: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Louisiana and North Carolina have one Republican and one Democratic Senator. (I exclude Florida in this entire analysis because, from a political standpoint, it's already two states; South Florida has the hallmarks of the northern states from which many of its residents migrated, and Northern Florida resembles its neighbors Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.)

Among the most southern states, only Arkansas is currently represented by two Democratic Senators. Since Republicans are generally more conservative and reluctant to support social programs (and to vote for the taxes that support them), it follows mathematically that if the states listed above were not part of the union, health care (and a lot more) would pass the Senate with great ease. Then the rest of us could have the kind of country we really want to live in. (OK, pardon the slight hyperbole, designed not to boil your blood but to stimulate your synapses.)

Arguably, we already have two countries -- we just don't call them that. According to "The Measure of America -- American Human Development Report 2008-2009," the south is by far the poorest performing region of the U.S. on ALL aspects of the Human Development Index (HDI) -- based on hard data measuring health, knowledge, and standard of living.

Here are the ten worst states, in order from the "bottom" -- Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Montana. Texas ranks 35th, and Georgia ranks 32nd -- higher than the others but still firmly ensconced in the bottom half.

Case in point: here are the worst fifteen states to be born in if you want a long life expectancy, from the "bottom" up: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, and Texas.

In homicides per 100,000 residents, in the year reported by this study, the U.S. average was 6. Here are the numbers for selected states: Louisiana, 13; Mississippi, 10; Alabama, 9; Georgia and South Carolina, 8; Texas and Arkansas, 7; Oklahoma, 6; Minnesota and Massachusetts, 3; and Maine, 1.

Is this state of affairs imposed by external factors on an unwilling population? Apparently not. According to the Tax Foundation, which uses data primarily from the U.S. Census Bureau, the states that tax their residents the least (taking into account sales, income, and property taxes) are, in order of increasing tax burden: Alaska (obviously a special case due to oil revenue); South Dakota, Mississippi; Tennessee, New Hampshire, Wyoming, Nevada (another special case due to the gaming industry), Montana, Alabama, South Carolina, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. Putting Alaska aside, please note that 5 of the 12 remaining states listed also rank in the bottom ten of the HDI.

High tax states include New Jersey (rated 3rd from the top on the Human Development Index), New York (rated 7th), Connecticut (rated 1st), Maryland (rated 5th), Ohio (rated 31st), Vermont (rated 14th), Wisconsin (rated 19th), and Minnesota (rated 9th). (By the way, California taxes its residents at 26% above the national average and ranks 11th from the highest in terms of the HDI.)

Have I made my point? With some exceptions, the states that rank low on HDI tend to be low-taxing southern states, and apparently that's what the voters want, because they elect predominantly Republican U.S. Senators and governors. High-taxing states generally rank much higher on the Human Development Index.

So, let's just formalize what we already have and give those states that collectively want to spend money on health care, education, and general quality of life the opportunity to utilize their chosen federal government to enact such provisions legislatively. And the states that more or less don't care about such things and are unwilling to pay for them -- well, since they would probably not revert to slavery, let's send them on their merry way.

I will present some reasons next week, or the week after, why this is truly not only politically impossible but ineffective -- and possibly even counter-productive. However, in the meantime -- as always -- I welcome comments from my perspicacious and insightful readers. Why, or why do you not, feel that segmenting this already splintered and politically polarized country would be a good (or a bad) idea? And don't just say that it would become necessary to rename the National Football League.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Prisons: Two Opposing Views

Strangely, the New York Times and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin both carried commentaries on 8/20/09 regarding our prison system and the wisdom of keeping so many people incarcerated. Compare and contrast -- have fun!

Nicholas D. Kristof, in the Times, suggests that we could probably afford better and more universal health care if we used our criminal justice money more wisely. He cites the example of Curtis Wilkerson, serving a life sentence in California for (hold your breath!) stealing a pair of socks worth $2.50. (Yes, it was his "third strike." I'm not claiming he's an angel. At the age of 19 he abetted robbery -- twice.) Kristof wonders whether we really need to spend $216,000 annually on keeping people like this in prison, comparing that sum to the $8,000 the State spends annually on each child in the Oakland public school system.

Citing a study indicating that 82% of those sentenced to state prisons were convicted of non-violent crimes, Kristof asks why the U.S. incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average.

U.S. Senator Jim Webb, in introducing a bill to establish a commission to study the situation, says "There are only two possibilities here. Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice." (I have another hypothesis: in our predominantly selfish society with a wide gap between wealthy and poor, the former will go to just about any lengths to protect what they have from the latter.)

Well, enough of rational thinking. Let's see what California State Senator Bob Dutton has to say about the situation. "Everyone knows that liberals have a soft spot for criminals," he (or his ghost writer) begins, apparently having been inspired by the very first post on this blog to make a bold attempt to emulate famous writers who encapsulate entire universes of knowledge into their initial sentence. He goes on to criticize "unelected liberal judges" for requiring the state to release 43,000 inmates in the next two years. (Even assuming that the "liberal" label actually provides legitimate information, I can't help wondering whether conservative judges aren't selected in exactly the same manner. A fine point, I know.)

Never mind that legally constituted federal courts, attempting to enforce the U.S. Constitution and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, have mandated after years of delay and inaction (during which time Dutton has been accepting public money as both a State Senator and a State Assembly member) that the time has finally come to stop the prison overcrowding that inevitably leads, as it did recently, to riots.

Dutton says that "California already has an abysmal 70 percent recidivism rate from rehabilitation programs." Not true. We might have a 70 percent recidivism rate from prisons, but just about everybody knows (not including the Senator, apparently) that very little money is spent in this state on rehabilitation. Dutton also says it would be a crime (so to speak) for a "rehabilitated" inmate (the quotes are his, implying that a "rehabilitated inmate" would be an oxymoron) to re-enter society and accept a job during this deep recession that might otherwise be taken by a "law-abiding constituent." With attitudes like this, no wonder recidivism is high!

Not embarrassed at using fear tactics, Dutton states that unless California's liberals come to their senses soon, someone could become the victim of another wanton killing. Parolee Charles Samuel, he says, has been arrested by police and is suspected of slashing the throat of a 17-year-old high school student. (Note that he doesn't say that Charles Samuel has been convicted of this crime, only that he's been arrested; another great American principle -- innocent until proven guilty -- bites the dust.) "Releasing hardened criminals to make prison more roomy and comfortable for the remaining criminals is both foolish and short-sighted...[T]he liberals' love affair with criminals now risks the safety of every Californian -- including themselves." Perhaps the conservatives' hate affair with social justice is just as much to blame.

Suppose, hypothetically, you had to be in the same room for a couple of hours with a politician who can't use the word "liberal" without combining it with character-assassination-style insults or a guy who stole a pair of socks worth $2.50. With whom would you feel safer?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lobbying and Evolution

Just in case you have other things going on in your life besides reading my blog (LOL), let me summarize the last three weeks' posts for you. At all levels of government, lobbying is ubiquitous, influential, and dominated by wealthy special interests (frequently corporations) that spend literally billions of dollars every year to promote primarily short-term, profit-oriented outcomes designed to benefit only themselves (sometimes at great cost to others).

Surely another case in point is redundant. But major newspapers scream with examples on practically a daily basis. According to the New York Times (8/19/09), a noon rally the previous day in Houston -- the first of about 20 planned -- was designed to "organize resistance to proposed legislation that would set a limit on emissions of heat-trapping gases..." Despite its "everyman" flavor (the master of ceremonies was a local rodeo announcer), among the participants was James T. Hackett, CEO of Anadarko Petroleum, and many employees of oil companies were bused in from their workplaces. (No doubt their pay was docked for taking more than 30 minutes for lunch.) Who's behind it? A group called "Energy Citizens." Who's behind that group? The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's main trade group. If you're surprised, go to your room. (Wait! On second thought, if you're surprised, you are already spending too much time in your room.)

Here, finally (was that a sigh of relief I heard?), is my primary point. As we all know, evolution favors "survival of the fittest." With exceptions that will be introduced in weeks to come, normally survival of the fittest means behavior designed to favor the life and well-being of an individual organism. In this manner, the probability of that organism's passing its genes on to another generation increases. [Caveat: evolutionary theory can be complex; the ideas presented here are essentially accurate -- but far from comprehensive. I intend only to relate those points specifically relevant to whatever hypothesis is being described at a given point in time.]

This system worked effectively for homo sapiens in its early days thousands of years ago, when survivability meant essentially staying warm, dry, well-fed, and safe from intruders bearing spears and clubs. The last two in particular often required strength, speed, agility, and a hostile attitude toward those inclined to inflict casualties and/or steal precious resources. As a consequence, nature "selected" for future generations the kinds of behaviors that are primarily self-directed and oriented toward immediate needs. The welfare of society-at-large and the longevity of the planet did not figure into the equation. It wasn't necessary 10,000 years ago.

But evolution, for all its genius, is a notoriously slow process. According to one theory, if organisms with a beneficial mutant gene produce 5 percent more offspring, it will require about one thousand generations before virtually all organisms in that species inherit that gene. Given that one human generation equals about 25 years, it follows that even a mutation that produces substantially enhanced probability of reproductive success could require some 25,000 years to effectively permeate the species.

What we have, then, is a world that has changed exceptionally rapidly over the last 300 years or so, creating an entirely new set of survivability issues, inhabited (at least in this country) by people who have institutionalized lobbying as the legal embodiment of selfish behavior that is no longer adaptive.

For these reasons, mankind has been described by some evolutionary biologists as a "walking fossil." "Our psychological adaptations consistently produce maladaptive thought, emotion, and behavior in our modern environments." (Reference available upon request.)

And it's likely to get worse before it gets better. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to lift what little restraint remains on the amount of money corporations can spend directly on elections -- and the people who claim to know about such things are placing their bets on a 5-4 vote in favor of doing just that. It might not matter a great deal, as we have already seen that corporations find legal ways of exerting enormous influence over politicians. But I see no reason to make it worse.

Will human beings be able to avoid the cataclysmic events that could be the consequence of the evolutionary "mismatch" between our stone-age brains and the modern, global, high-tech, polluting world? Will global warming, for example, result in massive political, social, military, or social unrest? Will the continued aggrandizement of wealth by those already wealthy eventually lead to upheaval? (Are we immune from such phenomena? If you think so, you may be spending too much time in your room -- but probably not reading history books.)

Please comment on this series of posts on lobbying, evolution, and their interactive relationship before global warming melts your keyboard.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lobbying: Part III

The financial meltdown of 2008 was predicted well in advance by people who understood that the repeal of regulations incorporated in the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 would result in an "oligopolistic situation" -- companies that are "too big to fail" in today's lexicon (Martin McLaughlin, posted November 1, 1999 -- complete reference available for those who inquire).

Could we, or should we, have known better? According to McLaughlin, "a financial deregulation bill was passed in the early 1980s under the Reagan Administration, lifting many restrictions on the activities of savings and loan associations...The result was an orgy of speculation, profiteering and outright plundering of assets, culminating in collapse and the biggest financial bailout in US history (at the time), costing the federal government more than $500 billion."

Why, then, did former Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and others push repeal of the 60-year-old law that had (except for the S&L situation) kept the country away from financial disaster since the Great Depression?

According to McLaughlin, in 1997 and 1998 alone, the banking, insurance, and brokerage industries spent over $300 million on lobbying. Gramm himself (or more correctly, his political action committees, but it's a fine point) collected more than $1.5 million from these three industries between 1994 and 1999.

Does lobbying buy results? Cause and effect is hard to prove. Common sense suggests that it does; in fact, if it did not, would the supposedly rational corporations continue to throw millions of dollars into it? Not likely.

Here's a typical recent news report, stating basically what we all already know: special interests exercise virtual veto power over legislation they strongly oppose. "To win industry support in enlisting more of his collegues, Mr. Durbin (Senator from Illinois) approached trade associations. Shortly after negotiations began, the American Bankers Association abandoned the talks, saying there was no compromise they could ever support. (Senator Durbin's) legislation went nowhere...There was no counterweight to that legislative muscle" (New York Times, 6/5/09).

Academic studies verify the phenomenon. David Parsley, professor of management at Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management (and his co-authors) "suggest that lobbying activities significantly and positively impact the bottom line of companies who do it. In addition, lobbying expenses appear to positively impact firms' stock prices and returns" (reference available). Kroszner and Stratmann theorize, in a paper published in the American Economic Review (Vol. 88, No. 5, Dec. 1998) that the entire Congressional committee structure facilitates the transfer of corporate contributions to powerful committe leaders.

If all this special interest lobbying worked to the benefit of the country as a whole, then who could possibly oppose it? But, for the most part, it doesn't. An entire treatise could be written on the efforts of utility and coal companies to derail environmental regulation, and the impact is dirtier air and the challenge of potentially cataclysmic climate change.

Here's a recent example: you're no doubt familiar with the "cash for clunkers" legislation that is providing large rebates to purchasers who trade in "old" vehicles for more fuel efficient models. But why were vehicles manufactured prior to 1984 excluded? According to the Los Angeles Times (8/13/09), "the restrictions were pushed by lobbyists for the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a group that represents companies that sell parts and services to classic and antique car collectors...The association opposed the entire concept because such a program could shrink the size of the market for aftermarket parts."

Is the 1984 limit in the national interest, considering that the legislation was intended primarily to reduce pollution and act as a stimulus for new car sales? "Experts at the California Air Resources Board say cars built before modern engine controls were fully developed in the 1980s are significantly dirtier than new cars. For example, a 1965 Chevrolet Malibu, when new, produced 400 times the smog-forming pollutants that a new 2010 Malibu produces...Older vehicles also are among the least fuel efficient. In 1975, the overall new-car fleet averaged just 13 mpg, compared to 22 mpg in 1985" (LA Times, 8/13/09).

Let me remind you that this series is about lobbying and its impact on achievement of national goals, e.g. "the general welfare." (Reference: Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.) Who's winning -- general welfare or special interests? It doesn't even seem to be a fair fight!

Could it be that evolution is playing a role? I'll have some ideas on that next week.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Lobbying (continued from last week)

In last week's post I described the ubiquitous nature of lobbying in California. I doubt that any reader will find it difficult to extrapolate this situation to the national scene, where lobbying is legendary and the "game" is played for very high stakes -- billions if not trillions of dollars.

The amount of money spent on lobbying reveals the importance of the activity to those with skin in the game. Before I throw a few numbers at you, however, let me reassure you that I strongly support the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, certainly including the right to free speech. If lobbying were limited to presenting information to governmental officials and attempting to persuade them to engage (or not engage) in certain activities, I wouldn't be writing this. But common knowledge about Political Action Committees, gifts and travel, etc., added to the fact that lobbying involves far more money than could ever be spent on education and persuasion alone, leads us to the inevitable conclusion that more than free speech is involved.

OK, are you ready for some stark statistics? According to the Center for Responsive Politics (visit the website at, total lobbying at the federal level alone in 2008 amounted to $3.30 billion. That's well over twice the amount spent ten years earlier. It's also about $1,000 for every man, woman, and child living in the United States -- every year -- without even including the prodigious amounts spent on lobbying at the state and local levels.

According to The Hill, a congressional newspaper with a special focus on business and lobbying, the top 100 lobbying firms posted revenue of $414 million in the first half of 2009. Firms ranked 101 to 200 brought in another $125 million. Extrapolating to the full year, it follows that the top 200 lobbying firms in the country will rake in well in excess of $1 billion in 2009.

These numbers may under-report the truth. Some companies don't register their in-house lobbyists unless and until some watchdog agency calls them on the carpet (Archer Daniels Midland is one example, according to The Hill). Therefore, those expenditures don't get reported.

Needless to say, these lobbying efforts are focused on accomplishing specific objectives. So I know you won't be surprised that health care, insurance, and finance companies spent a bundle recently. In fact, according to the New York Times (8/2/09), the health care industry spent $263.3 million on lobbying in the first half of 2009. The combined finance, insurance, and real estate industries came in a close second at $222.7 million. PhRMA, the powerful association of pharmaceutical companies, spent $6.1 million, up 23% compared to the comparable period in 2008.

Do you suppose that companies receiving TARP funds from the government (bail-out money!) ceased their lobbying activities, claiming poverty? Nope. According to the Commonwealth Institute, TARP recipients spent $114 million on lobbying in 2008, including $14.8 million during the last quarter alone when "relief" funds were actually being distributed.

What exactly does all this lobbying buy? (Academic studies, as well as articles in the popular media, give us the answer.) In what ways did lobbying result in the financial meltdown to begin with? Stay tuned, faithful readers!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Self-Preservation: The Ultimate Ironic Mega-Mismatch

The title of this blog entry is the working title for a chapter in my book "I Pledge Allegiance: To What? The Paradox of 'Me.' " (Don't look for it on the bookshelves yet! LOL) Due to space limitations, it will require several weeks for me to fully explore this topic here. Generally, though, the thesis is that our evolutionary, genetically-based behavior patterns -- successful though they were thousands of years ago in a completely different environment -- may lead to our undoing in the modern, high-tech, globalized society we now inhabit. Evolutionary psychologists refer to this situation as a "mismatch" -- an unintended disconnect between what once was a behavioral trait leading successfully to self-preservation through reproductive advantage and the impact of that same behavioral trait in a totally different world.

In the United States today, selfish and self-serving behavior -- once a necessity for survival -- has become institutionalized in powerful and inevitably dysfunctional ways. The ubiquitous corporation, an entity with the official legal status of a person and required by custom and well-established law to act solely in its own best interests, uses its accumulated wealth and power to preserve the status quo, sometimes at the expense of the general welfare. And to the extent that such status quo endangers the planet and/or results in social injustice on a scale that could conceivably lead to social unrest -- thereby putting at risk all that the corporations wish to preserve -- the self-serving behavior may ultimately and ironically become just the opposite.

Please note that this is not a condemnation of either capitalism or democracy. It is, however, a warning that unregulated, unenlightened, short-term self-serving behavior may eventually cause the demise of both.

Let us begin by simply expanding on the obvious: those powerful and wealthy enough to do so frequently hire lobbyists to peddle political influence, with the objective of preserving and/or enhancing such power and wealth. In the State of California, according to the website of the Secretary of State, there are more than 2,300 organizations that employ professional lobbyists. I will list below only a few of these organizations, grouped in accordance with certain traits or habits possessed by California residents:

Those who were born (hmm, OK, that's pretty inclusive): California Medical Association, California Nurses Association, California Hospital Association.

Those who live in an apartment or a house: California Apartment Association, California Building Industry Association, California Association of Realtors, Escrow Institute of California, California Construction & Industry Materials Association.

Those who eat: California Grocers Association, California League of Food Processors, Dairy Institute of California, California Restaurant Association, California Farm Bureau Association.

Those who buy anything: California Chamber of Commerce, California Business Alliance, California Retailers Association, Direct Marketing Association.

Those who purchase insurance: Anthem Blue Cross, Associaton of California Insurance Companies, California Association of Health Plans, Alliance of Insurance Agents & Brokers, Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies.

Those who use the telephone: Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc and Its Affiliates.

Those who will eventually die: Cemetery and Mortuary Association of California.

Special interests hire lobbyists to influence your life from cradle to grave. Are you surprised? I doubt it. But you may be surprised at how powerful these interests are. Tune in again next week.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Would You Like Salt with that Intellectual Pretzel?

A faithful reader suggested that I look up a paper entitled "Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality," by Will Wilkinson, a research fellow at the conservative Cato Institute. I did.

Although it's impossible to summarize 24 pages in a short paragraph, Wilkinson's main point seems to be that, although it's true that income inequality has increased in the US since the 1970s, it doesn't matter. In fact, he says, focusing on the discrepancy may be counterproductive because a) there are more relevant measures of economic and psychological well-being; b) the fact that some people are super-rich doesn't prevent others from having economic opportunity (never mind the most essential tenet of all of economics, the principle of scarcity); and c) economic disparity is independent of social justice.

I had two reactions to this article: 1) Wilkinson and I live in two completely different worlds; and 2) alleged intellectuals have an amazing capacity to twist logic to conform to preconceived conclusions.

Wilkinson wants us to measure not inequality of wealth but "the quantity of goods and services a person has consumed over the course of his lifetime, and the value to that person of all those goods and services" (p. 4). He claims that the inequality of this so-called lifetime "consumption income" [without specifying exactly what it measures] is considerably more stable than the inequality of income per se. Among the reasons for this is "the ability to engage in consumption smoothing...through access to credit...[and] the ability to smooth consumption [by racing] ahead of changes in income volatility" (p. 5). He fails to point out that even rich people generally only eat 3 or 4 meals a day and maintain a limited number of vacation homes; their "consumption" is bound to be less extreme than their income.

A lot of people I know don't have the luxury of "consumption smoothing." They frequently carry less than $20 in their pockets. They postpone maintenance on their elderly cars because they can't afford to have the repairs done. If they have a credit card at all, they carry a balance and pay hefty monthly interest charges (which will not worry you if you own stock in one of this country's major financial institutions). They barely have enough money to buy diapers for their babies. They hold car washes so they can pay to bury their deceased relatives.

Have we in fact "won the war against poverty without even noticing it" (p. 8)? I don't think so.

"If we are worred about inequalities in education and health care, as we should be, we might stop to consider that these are precisely the areas we have chosen to shield most jealously from entrepreneurship and market competition" (p. 9). He might have a reasonable case for education, but health care? Aren't pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies entrepreneurial? Aren't most doctors private practitioners? Aren't many hospitals owned by huge corporations?

Wilkinson admits that income inequality in the US "is higher than in any other wealthy nation" (p. 10) but says it doesn't matter because we are 12th on the UN Human Development Index (HDI) -- "a relatively comprehensive measure of well-being." Using the time-tested method of simply leaving out inconvenient facts, he fails to mention that the US has actually been slipping recently in its HDI compared to other countries. The most recent statistics, published in October of 2008, show the US 15th, not 12th as it was in the previous survey, outperformed by the usual cast of nations conservatives love to hate for their governmental intervention into the free market economy and their caring policies toward their less fortunate citizens -- among them Iceland, Norway, Canada (oh, watch out: socialized medicine!), the Netherlands, Sweden, Luxembourg, Finland, Switzerland, Denmark, and yes, even France.

Finally: "Rising income inequality should have very little effect on the ability of the wealthy to influence the outcome of the democratic process" (p. 18) and "Economic resources are not easily converted into political resources" (p. 22). That will be news to the lobbyists, the kingmakers (frequently land developers) who annoint each succeeding generation of local politians, and the corporations that spend billions of dollars every year influencing public policy. I would enjoy hearing Wilkinson explain his ludicrous assertion to the millions of poor, elderly, and disabled Californians who recently lost essential benefits while the rich were shielded from tax increases by the politicians whose campaigns were financed by, uh, the rich. Yes, Barack Obama collected a lot of small contributions from middle class Americans; watch what's happening to his attempt to provide medical care to poor citizens and get back to me in a couple of months if you still believe money doesn't buy political influence.

To his credit, Wilkinson does list a plethora of problems with existing American society, including "inner-city kids consigned to abysmal public schools,...a larger share of its citizens [imprisoned] than any country on Earth,...and patterns of private discrimination [that] constitute for millions a web of real, seemingly inescapable barriers to opportunity and achievement" (p. 13). What's his proposed solution? First, stop wasting time thinking about income inequality. "Focus on things like intergenerational poverty and failing schools" (p. 23) -- as long as you don't meddle with "well-functioning market institutions and entrepreneurial energy" (p. 24). Just exactly how we solve the problems of intergenerational poverty and failing schools in the context of the primary tenets of conservative political philosophy, he doesn't say.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Besides, what good comes from pouring more salt on a badly twisted would-be intellectual pretzel?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

George Will

Arguably one of the most intellectual of today's conservative media commentators, George Will produces a newspaper column that promulgates views on any and all political topics. In recent months, he has weighed in on health care, Spain's alternative energy program, the government bailout of General Motors, the significance of the death of Robert McNamara, regulation of tobacco, and the Supreme Court's ruling in the Ricci (New Haven firefighters) case.

Like many entertainers masquerading as sources of news and analysis, Will rarely passes up an opportunity to criticize liberals and successful government programs, usually out of the side of his mouth. On 6/11/09, for example, he refers to "the preposterous entitlement to collect Social Security at age 62." He fails to mention that people opting for such payments forego a significant portion of the monthly benefits they would receive if they retired at a later age. Will apparently feels no empathy (oh, that's a "bad word" these days) for workers who have paid into the system for at least 10 years (and probably much longer) and who now wish to enjoy some leisure time. (Perhaps opting out of the capitalistic rat race is something Will simply can't comprehend; what higher calling could there be than making more money?)

Continuing his first amendment right to engage in linguistic legerdemain, Will says (6/19/09) that "In a 1998 settlement, 46 states conspired to seize $206 billion from companies selling legal tobacco products..." An impartial observer might have said that "46 states cooperated in using the judicial system to hold tobacco companies liable for alleged infractions of laws and regulations duly adopted by democratic legislative bodies." Using neutral language, however, would be have been so, well, like Walter Cronkite.

Not content to lambaste President Obama by utilizing oblique literary references ("But the capitol, gripped once again by the audacious hope of mastering everything..." 7/10/09), Will apparently cannot stand the fact that we now have a President who accepts responsibility for his actions and speaks the English language. When our leader dares to use the word "I," Will denigrates him for being "inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun" (6/7/09). Where was his vehement protest when George W. Bush proclaimed "I am the decider"?

Will loves pointing out apparent inconsistencies using mildly clever language. "Washington mandates that Detroit must build cars for which there is much less demand than Washington demands that there be" (6/7/09). When you finish chuckling, remember that small, fuel-efficient cars are best-sellers. Until the recent recession, Toyota and Honda could barefly keep up with the demand. I don't mind "mildly clever" as long as the facts are correct, but Will has not mastered the art of presenting a comprehensive picture of a complex situation.

I absolutely love this one: "Government is incapable of behaving like market-disciplined private insurers" (6/21/09). What?? Could Will possibly be referring to the oligarchy of health care insurance companies that is raising premiums much faster than general inflation and using every trick in the book (legal and otherwise?) to avoid paying expensive legitimate claims by denying coverage ex post facto? Has he forgotten that MediCare, while far from perfect, is successfully providing health care to millions of Americans?

On 7/10/09, Will berates "behavioralists" (I think he means "behaviorists") for believing in "nation-building" (hmm, how quickly we forget the rationale Bush used to justify the war in Iraq once it became clear there were no WMDs). "Liberals," he says, "tend to treat hopes as probabilities," suggesting that it "would be wise to entertain a shadow of a doubt...that history is linear and progressive."

I would like to see George Will occasionally entertain a shadow of a doubt about what he apparently views as his own omniscience.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Health Care Debate (continued)

My last post compared health care insurance to food insurance, the latter being a ridiculous proposition that bears too much resemblance to the current health care industry. Paul Krugman made exactly the same point when he asked in his recent column (New York Times, 6/22/09) "Isn't the purpose of health care reform to protect American citizens, not insurance companies?"

Krugman, unfortunately, is a singular voice in a sea of complaints that insurance companies won't be able to compete with a public endeavor. "Regardless of how it is initially structured, a government plan would use its built-in advantages to take over the health insurance market," whined Karen M. Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, and Scott P. Serota, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, in a letter to the U.S. Senate (New York Times, 6/24/09).

To which I believe the proper answer is "who cares?" If government can do it better, then why not let it? If private sector corporations can provide greater efficiency, better customer service, and enhanced results (more actual health care!), then let them demonstrate their capacity to do so.

If the purpose of public policy is to protect shareholders and employees of private sector companies, then letting buggy whip manufacturers go out of business was a huge mistake. And what about the corporations that used to make those ubiquitous dials on telephones? Where are they now? (Could it be that the great American free enterprise system actually has the capacity to retrain employees to perform functions that are useful and valuable in today's -- not yesterday's -- economic climate?)

This entire debate exemplifies what I regard as a central dilemma in this country today: we have totally lost sight of our true values, objectives, and aspirations. The ends have been displaced by the means. The holy grails of conservatism are free enterprise in the private sector, limited government, and low taxes, regardless of whether they actually produce the kind of country most Americans want to have. Why? Because these are the principles that preserve a comfortable status quo for the upper- and upper-middle class societies. The evolutionary power of self-preservation is alive and well.

Bob Cable and Dana Cox, in a recent "Point of View" op-ed piece in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (6/24/09), suggest that "Now would be a good time to remember how and why this great nation was formed..." Unfortunately, they don't provide an explicit conclusion. I'll suggest the following (without any claim to originality): 1) "to [organize]...its powers in such form, as to...[the People] shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness"; and 2) "to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

All right, which is more essential to the promotion of the "general Welfare": maintaining the profitability of private sector insurance companies, or providing health care to every American using whatever method achieves the desired result most effectively and efficiently?

It's a rhetorical question.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Food Insurance?

I am grateful to Vicki Riba Koestler for the idea resulting in today's blog post. She wrote a letter, published in the New York Times on July 4, pointing out that, like education and food, health care is a necessity. However, rather than spending our money on health care directly, we buy health care INSURANCE, positioning (with rare exceptions) a profit-oriented company as the gatekeeper between ourselves and the desired product.

Maybe we're missing a really good bet here -- an opportunity to provide jobs for hard-working Americans, investment vehicles for would-be shareholders, and executive positions for top-flight managers who feel they deserve million dollar salaries and bonuses.

Basically, here's how food insurance would work. To get an individual policy, we'd first need to do a complete inventory, detailing all the foods we have ever consumed that might have caused an upset stomach (including that incident when we were six months old and we spit out that yukky spinach). We'd submit the application to one of three or four major loosely regulated food insurance carriers that, like all corporations, are required by law and custom to make decisions in the best interest of their shareholders. Hope would be high that we'd be accepted, despite costly premiums, because without food insurance we would no longer be permitted to enter the local supermarket. (In an emergency, we'd could drive 45 miles to the nearest public food bank and wait in line several hours while all those who showed up were assessed (triaged) for the urgency of their need. Of course, we'd be on the hook for the expenses associated with such a visit.)

Perhaps our neighbors would be luckier. The husband (or wife) might still be employed, making him (or her) eligible for food insurance for the entire family through the employer. This would be fortuitous, just in case someone had an allergic reaction to broccoli at the age of four. The premiums would eat up 28% of the net paycheck, but hey, at least the family would be covered. And the wage earner would be able to feel very patriotic, knowing that a hefty percentage of the premiums would be devoted to providing employment to industrious Americans, performing such important tasks as: planning and implementing marketing campaigns on behalf of the insurance company; lobbying Congress; and determining how much people would have to pay for their food insurance, how often they could buy free-range chicken, and whose policies would be canceled retroactively when it came to light that they forgot to state on their applications that they have an occasional craving for sushi.

Generally, the system would work pretty well. Three days before each shopping trip we would submit a list of desired foods to the insurance company, which would approve or deny each item based on its own interpretation of what we should be eating. After paying the deductible at the entrance to the grocery store, we would proceed to fill our cart and check out. The store would then send us a bill, since the insurance would cover only 80% of the actual cost of the approved items.

If Aunt Jenny, her second husband, and a gaggle of cousins decided to drop in unexpectedly, the need for food would skyrocket. Quickly we would submit a supplementary list to the insurance company, and the underwriters might be kind enough to approve 50% of what we request, claiming that our policy includes in the small print a limitation on the number of visitors we can feed during a holiday.

OK, the analogy isn't perfect (but it's instructive nevertheless). Unlike treatment for cancer or other long-term, debilitating conditions, which some people need and others don't, the food bill is fairly predictable. But over the collective lifetimes of reasonably small groups of people, healthcare is also fairly predictable. We all need it regularly throughout our lifetimes, and large expenses can be anticipated sooner or later as a function of age.

So, seriously folks, why can't we devise a system for getting medical care without wasting a large percentage of our resources on profit-oriented middlemen? (I'll provide a partial explanation next week -- stay tuned, faithful readers!)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Independence Day Edition!

Evolutionary psychology teaches us that it may take as many as 1,000 generations for even an exceptionally beneficial genetic mutation to permeate an entire species. It is not surprising, then, that a mere 10 generations after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, American human nature has (apparently) changed negligibly, if at all.

This point is brought home to me graphically -- even sonorously -- when I read speeches and other documents (the Federalist Papers, Supreme Court decisions, etc.) produced by some of our finest thinkers and orators. They describe not only the weaknesses of humankind's fragile intellect, far outmatched by basal emotional impulses, but also the ramifications these weaknesses create in a fragile society. Their wisdom is ageless, and we ignore it today at our own great peril.

I start, deliberately, with a fairly recent address by a not-so-famous gentleman named Felix G. Rohatyn. An investment banker by trade and a major figure in helping New York City survive its financial crisis in the 1970s, Rohatyn addressed the graduating class of Middlebury College, Vermont, in May of 1982. He identified "income and class disparities on the one hand, regional disparities on the other" as among "the most serious threat[s] to our democratic form of government." Furthermore, "The basic test of a functioning democracy is its ability to create new wealth and see to its fair distribution. When a democratic society does not meet the test of fairness, when, as in the present state, no attempt seems to be made at fairness, freedom is in jeopardy." (As this is written, the State of California is considering draconian measures to balance its budget by severely curtailing and/or eliminating many social programs for the aged and the disabled.)

Possibly channeling the California legislature of the 21st century in advance, Rohatyn claimed that "the critical issues we face today are not the levels of interest rates or what kind of package finally comes out of budget negotiations...Our fascination with numbers must not obscure the real issues, [which include] the rapid growth of a permanent underclass in America...without real hope of participating in the future of the country; ...the decline of our traditional manufacturing sectors;...illegal immigration;...and nuclear proliferation."

Although he lost the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956 to the popular World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson should be remembered for his quiet eloquence. "We talk a great deal about patriotism. What do we mean by 'patriotism' in the context of our times?...I venture to suggest that we mean a patriotism that puts country above self...The public interest must always be the paramount interest...The anatomy of patriotism is complex. But surely intolerance and public irresponsibility cannot be cloaked in the shining armor of rectitude and righteousness. Nor can the denial of the right to hold ideas that are different -- the freedom of man to think as he pleases. To strike freedom of the mind with the fist of patriotism is an old and ugly subtlety."

I wish some of today's politicians and lobbyists -- and the people and corporations that employ them -- would read a few words delivered by Judge Learned Hand at the "I Am an American Day" celebration in New York City in 1944 and 1945: "What, then, is the spirit of liberty?...The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. [T]he spirit of liberty which weights the interests of other men and women alongside its own without bias...Even in our own interest we must have an eye to the interests of others; a nation which lives only to itself will in the end perish."

Finally, President Andrew Jackson: "It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes." And no list such as this would be complete without Alexander Hamilton: "Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint."

Readers are invited to submit their own favorite examples of wisdom that is well ahead of its time and/or ideas regarding how well today's society is responding to the admonitions of the ages.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Battle Hymn of the "Republic" Party

Lucky me! Although I'm a registered Democrat, I received in last Wednesday's mail a fund-raising appeal for the Republican National Committee signed by none other than Chairman Michael Steele. Now, nobody expects this type of mailer to be profound or scholarly. It has one purpose only, and that is to motivate people to write checks. So, let's analyze what issues and kinds of "reasoning" the top Republican strategists think will get their "base" to open their wallets.

The mailer came in four parts: a letter (dated "Monday Morning" -- I kid you not!), a questionnaire (the "2009 Obama Agenda Survey"), a pledge form, and a postage-paid return envelope. To give credit where credit is due, I consider three of the 15 survey questions to be phrased in a reasonably objective fashion, e.g. "Should English be the official language of the United States?" More typical, however, were items characterized by the linguistic legerdemain that has become standard in political circles.

One common trick used to turn allegedly informational surveys into political statements is to incorporate into the items certain assumptions, "facts," and terminology with subjective and emotional connotations. Here's Exhibit #1 from the "survey": "Do you agree with Barack Obama's budget plan that will lead to a $23.1 trillion deficit over the next ten years?" All of a sudden Republicans are against budget deficits, having squandered the balanced budget environment they inherited from the Clinton administration. And where did that $23.1 trillion figure come from. (It's strange, I didn't see a footnote.) And did the Bush/Cheney tax cuts increase or decrease the national deficit? Simplistic questions are not designed for people who prefer complex answers.

Item #9 reads "Do you support the creation of a national health insurance plan that would be administered by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.?" Using the words "bureaucrats in Washington, D.C." is like, well, throwing peanuts to a hungry elephant. Notice that the alternative -- trusting the administration of healthcare to the profit-oriented private sector -- was not provided as an alternative.

I really love #7: "Do you believe that Barack Obama's nominees for federal courts should be immediately and unquestionably approved for their lifetime appointments by the U.S. Senate?" Presumably if someone answers "No," it will be interpreted to mean that it's OK to delay hearings and to oppose the nominees regardless of their qualifications.

I can't resist quoting #13: "Are you in favor of reinstituting the military draft, as Democrats in Congress have proposed?" Are Democrats (as a group) really advocating this? Again I searched in vain for a footnote and found nothing -- not even from Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, or the Weekly Standard.

The four-page letter, though, is a real classic. Of course it trots out the old reliable "liberal media elites" and the "ultra-biased media" phrases guaranteed to boil the blood of most right-wing conservatives. It states, without any evidence whatsoever (maybe because it doesn't exist?) that "the media acts (sic) as though the outcome of the past election was a unanimous, 100% vote in favor of Barack Obama." (I guess Fox News, et. al., are really not part of the media -- at least not the media the conservatives love to hate.)

The letter accuses Obama of proposing changes that will "stifle our fragile economy" and (if you can believe this) "undermine our nation's sovereignty." I'm sorry, but that last one is over the edge in my opinion, even for a political hit piece.

Generally speaking, it appears that the Republican hot button issues are taxes, deficit spending, immigration, big government, the media, and unions -- and of course preventing health care reform if it reduces the influence (and profits) of insurance companies.

Despite the gross inaccuracies, innuendos, and misrepresentations, I think the letter is insidious for two additonal reasons. First, it refers to "Democrat legislation" and the "Democrat agenda," deliberately avoiding use of the word "Democratic." The intent is clear, despite the sophisticated but slimy strategy: to subliminally disparage the entire opposition Party and everything it stands for. Secondly, the letter never specifically refers to "President Obama"; the authors apparently believe that showing respect to the man who legitimately won the office (without benefit of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision) would rankle the people from whom they want contributions. They may be right.

I've marked the letter up good, correcting the grammar (apparently English isn't the official language at the RNC) and pointing out the logical and linguistic fallacies. Now I'm putting it into the postage-paid return envelope and sending it back to the "Republic" Party. With the money I save by not enclosing a contribution, I'll re-join the ACLU.