Tuesday, March 29, 2005


About the Culture of Life

Some writers urge that we Americans adopt a "culture of life." Human life is precious, no matter what condition the person may be in. An unborn fetus has a life that is precious. An old opinionated geezer like me has a life that is precious. A patient in a nursing home with a severe brain injury has a life that is precious. And so on.

This argument makes me wonder, just what is it about life that makes it so precious? There are the pleasures of life: enjoying the company of loved ones; enjoying a good meal; enjoying beautiful music and other beautiful works of art; enjoying a good argument; and so on. These enjoyments have one thing in common: the ability to think, feel, and be aware of one's surroundings. If you take away my ability to think, to feel, to be aware of myself and my surroundings, you degrade me to the status of a vegetable. As a vegetable I can be fed, my body can carry out its functions, and so on, and I am not aware of what is going on any more that my favorite rose bush in my back yard is aware of its surroundings. I even imagine that if we humans have souls, the soul leaves the body when the body is no longer able to think. In my mind, the soul resides in the process of thinking.

Culture of life advocates have argued that abortion is wrong because it deprives a human of life. Removing the feeding tube of a brain-dead patient is wrong because it will cause the patient's death.

I think that a "culture of life" is a good idea, but it can be pushed too far and lead to absurd conclusions. If the patient had previously expressed a wish not to be kept alive indefinitely in a non-thinking condition, it is wrong not to honor that patient's wish. I do not oppose the practice of assisted suicide. Personally, I am a coward. If I knew I had a terminal illness that would put me in terrible pain for months before death, I would want the end to come before the terrible pain started.

I think that "culture of life" has to be fleshed out by a discussion and a general agreement on what constitutes life. I do not think that the brain-dead patient is "alive" for the purposes of an ideology of preserving life. I think that ascribing "life" to an unborn fetus can lead to a situation in which someone has to decide which life is more precious: that of the fetus or that of the mother.

Anyway, these are my thoughts. Any contrary opinions?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


About the Schiavo Case

I am bothered by the case of Terri Schiavo. The two factions in the case publicly curse and insult each other. The President and a majority in Congress have taken the side of the parents who want to keep Terri Schiavo alive. A majority of the public appears to sympathize with the husband who wants to let her die. In spite of all the insults and curses, I think the disagreement is a result of the two factions not agreeing on the facts. The husband believes that his wife is brain dead and can not be revived. The parents believe that their daughter is not brain dead and can be revived and advanced to some form of consciousness, given time and a medical break-through or two. The parents and the husband are not talking to each other but past each other. The judges in Florida have done their best to adjudicate the situation. I can’t believe that federal judges can do any better.

I don’t take sides in the conflict between the husband and the parents. It is traditional in our culture for relations between husbands and mothers-in-law or fathers-in-law to be strained. I sympathize with any judge who has to render a decision in this case. While it seems to be true that Terri did not leave any written statement of her wish to be allowed to die if she were in the state she is in, it also seems to be true that she uttered such thoughts to her husband and to a friend. Naturally, the parents deny that Terri ever said any such thing. There is no objective proof that she did. There is only the testimony of the husband and the friend.

I am annoyed particularly by the persistent mispronunciation of the name “Schiavo.” Recently I heard one radio commentator give it what I consider the correct pronunciation: “ske-AH-vo.” Nearly ever other person who utters the name, including our President, calls it “SHY-voh.” The form of the name seems to be Italian. The “chia-” combination in Italian is pronounced “kee-ah” as in Chianti wine. I wish Americans would pronounce foreign names better.

About John R. Bolton

I’ve just been reading some articles about the nomination of John Bolton to be the Ambassador to the United Nations for the United States. Some articles contain words of praise for Bolton, others condemnation. Both the pro-Bolton and anti-Bolton articles show agreement with the fact that Bolton is blunt-speaking, tactless, and contemptuous of the United Nations and of International Law. Pro-Bolton writers state that the United Nations needs to be shaken up and that a dose of Bolton would be good medicine. Anti-Bolton writers view the appointment as a big, big mistake, in which George W. Bush shows his own contempt for the United Nations and his decision to continue conducting this nation’s foreign policy without any attempt to obtain support from the UN.

Mr. Bush has made conciliatory speeches in recent weeks, indicating that he would like to have UN support for this nation’s foreign policy initiatives. How can his words be squared with the Bolton nomination?

It looks to me and others that Bolton’s nomination to the UN post is a move by Condoleezza Rice, the new Secretary of State, to get the man out of town. When Colin Powell left, many neocons hoped that Bolton would be elevated to Deputy Secretary of State. Instead, Rice chose Robert Zoellick, a former colleague while she was National Security Advisor. Zoellick, unlike Bolton, is a realist and an experienced diplomat.

Score one point for Rice, zero for Cheney and the Neocons. Award Bush a muddle.

Saturday, March 12, 2005



I use e-mail to keep in touch with some old friends from the last place I worked. We exchange letters about current events and express our differing opinions about politics and political people. One friend, Harold, often brings up the matter of half-truths. He cites as examples statements by certain “liberal” organizations or certain “liberal” Senators, particularly Ted Kennedy, that express only one side of a complex issue. For example, a pol or an organization criticizing President Bush’s environmental policies presents only one side of a complex issue. Harold says that the person or organization is using a half-truth to criticize a policy or to advocate a different policy.

One matter of intense contention between Harold and “liberal” environmentalists is drilling for oil in ANWR. Environmentalists argue that the drilling would severely damage wildlife in the region, that the amount of oil available would satisfy our needs for petroleum for only a few months, that in any case nothing would be available for years, and that the country should instead spend the money on developing alternate fuels and energy sources. Harold argues that these arguments are half-truths, that they ignore the real and pressing need at present for a source of petroleum that isn’t subject to the vagaries of Middle-East politics, that alternative sources of fuel and energy are years away even with a crash program, and that we should compare the possible damage to wildlife with the damage to our whole economy in case of another oil embargo.

Well-put, Harold. Of course our policy makers have to consider all of these arguments. One argument that Harold doesn’t cite is the greed of oil exploration and production firms. These firms see the chance to make a killing if drilling in ANWR is approved. Officers of these firms have close ties with Mr. Bush and members of his administration. Those of us (myself included) with suspicious minds tend to see these close ties as the real reason for advocating drilling in ANWR. Harold would, of course, classify this bit of information, even if true, as a half-truth.

Recently I have seen President Bush on television promoting his scheme for “improving” or “saving” social security. He reminds me of nothing as much as a side-show barker at a carnival hawking a magical elixir that will cure warts, bad breath, and baldness. When one speaks of half-truths, Mr. Bush must be given due recognition for his accomplishments in this field. I can go on to list dozens of his statements that are half-truths, but I will refrain from that luxury and limit myself to just one. He claims repeatedly that the terrorists who took down the twin towers and who are bedeviling us in Iraq do so because they “hate freedom.” That statement is obviously a half-truth at best. In fact, there are so many different motives among the various terrorists that one can’t make a blanket statement that they all agree on anything except a burning desire to punish the United States. They have many motives, not necessarily justifiable but real enough to them anyway. To say that they all hate our “democratic system and values” is at best a half-truth.

Watching Mr. Bush hawk his cure for the real or imaginary ills of Social Security makes me wonder why so many Americans voted for him. Are we as a people so easily convinced by the side-show barker and the snake-oil salesman? I would like to think not.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


The Intolerable Pain of Payback

Alan Greenspan has added his voice to the clamor about the crisis in Social Security. His statements support the claims of those who are telling us that Social Security faces a crisis in 2018 (or thereabouts). The crisis is, according to Mr. Greenspan, that by that time the present payroll tax won't be sufficient to pay all the benefits promised to retirees.

Well, DUH! We know that. We also know that the excess of the payroll tax has been invested in safe government securities for many years. The Social Security Administration has only to start cashing in those bonds to make up for the shortfall in the payroll tax. So, where's the crisis?

The real crisis is that the federal government hasn't been collecting enough money in other taxes for years. The shortfall has been made up by using the excess money from the payroll tax. You see, if you don't already, that when the Social Security Adminstration buys a government bond, the money goes into the general fund of the federal government.

The crisis and the pain is that the payroll tax excess will go away. Not only that, but the federal government will have to find some way of raising money to pay the bonds that the Social Security Administration will be cashing. That probably means, horror of horrors, a tax increase.

For years the federal government has been using the excess of the payroll tax to help fund other government operations. After 2018, the government will have to start paying back all that money. That is the crisis.

A prudent President would know that the situation simply requires an adjustment in certain other tax rates. Perhaps persons with large incomes would have to pay at a slightly higher rate. Our present President doesn't see things that way. He is a tax cutter, not a tax increaser. Rather than raise some other tax to begin paying back the Social Security Trust Fund bonds, he proposes to abolish Social Security altogether. He wants this change in Social Security to be his legacy. I suggest that, if he succeeds, future historians may call him the Great Welcher.

Advice and Consent

The federal constitution stipulates that one of the duties of the Senate is to give the President its advice and consent regarding judicial nominations. The other day in an interview on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer Senator Frist, the majority leader, seemed to imply that "advice and consent" meant voting for the President's judicial appointees. I emphasize voting for, because it is well-known that Dr. Frist views his primary duty to be unquestioning support of whatever whim George Bush chooses to perpetrate on the American Public.

There are other ideas as to what "advice and consent" means. When Lyndon Johnson was President, it usually meant that the Senate would provide advice in the form of suggested nominees put forward by various Senators. The choice of nominees for federal judgeships involved some political wheeling and dealing. Johnson once asked the minority leader, Senator Everett Dirksen, what the price was for six Republican votes in favor of a particular bill. Dirksen's answer was "six judges, Mr. President." Of course, in those days the Republican Party was not yet in the grip of a combination of ideological conservatives and fundamentalist Christian evangelicals.

I miss Everett McKinley Dirksen. We need a man like him again.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


About Federal Judges

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has written an article advocating that justices of the Supreme Court be appointed for fixed terms of office rather than “for good behaviour” or for life as the federal constitution now specifies. He argues that limited terms for justices would take much of the heat out of the present controversy regarding some of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominations. Of course, such a change would require an amendment to the Constitution. Mr. Bandow’s article was published in the Los Angeles Times on March 2.

Another suggestion, published a few months ago in The Nation, was to require confirmation of Supreme Court justices by a super-majority vote in the Senate. The writer suggested a 2/3 majority, the same as required for ratification of treaties or conviction of an impeached President or federal judge. The writer of the article commented that our Supreme Court has been widely admired and copied by other democratic nations. In order to maintain respect and credibility, the Supreme Court of any democratic nation must be politically neutral and impartial. Packing the court with political sympathizers and allies may be temporarily advantageous to an administration. In the long run, it debases the court and damages its effectiveness.

These two articles address different ways of dealing with attempts to pack the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary with like-thinking ideologues favorable to a particular President and his administration. Mr. Bandow’s solution has the effect of letting the courts be packed, but allowing a future administration to undo the packing and the bias. The writer of The Nation article proposes a means of preventing the packing in the first place.

As a practical matter, it may be easier to implement Mr. Bandow’s remedy than that of the writer for The Nation. Constitutional amendments require approval of 2/3 of the members of both the House and the Senate. It is unlikely that the political party in power would agree to change the Senate vote of confirmation from a majority to 2/3. Agreement to limit judges’ tenures to some fixed time period would be more likely. State judges are generally elected for fixed terms.

A criticism of Mr. Bandow’s solution is that the result of packing the courts is a set of decisions and precedents that can not easily be undone simply by replacing the judges. In spite of the complaints of some conservative commentators that “liberal” judges make new law instead of following the constitution, it has been the tradition for centuries, both here and in the mother country, England, for judges to create law. Many of the features of our system of justice relating to the rights of defendants and the rules for handling and presenting evidence were specified first by judges and not by any legislature. Judges rely as much on previous decisions as on the constitution and ordinary laws in arriving at their decisions and conclusions. Even a conscientious judge who disagrees with a previous decision is reluctant to overturn it without a compelling reason. The public loses respect for the law if it changes too often and too arbitrarily.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005


Senators Frist and Reid

March 1, 2005: Today I watched the TV interview of Senator Frist, the Majority Leader of the Senate, on the local PBS station. The interviewer, Jim Lehrer, pointed out that the program had aired an interview with Senator Reid a week earlier. I tried to compare the two men and contrast what they said and compare what they said with my own opinions. Naturally, Senator Frist's remarks are fresh in my mind. My recollection of what Senator Reid said may be faulty.

The big controversy at the moment are the judge nominations that President Bush has sent to the Senate. Included are several that were rejected last year. Actually, they were not exactly rejected or voted down. The Democrats filibustered against them so they never came to a vote by the full Senate.

Senator Frist complained about the tactics of the Democrats. He argued that the duty of the Senate is to give its advice and consent to the President regarding judicial nominations. How, he asked, could the Senate fulfill its constitutional obligation if the opposition party conducted a filibuster to prevent a vote?

In his interview a week ago, Senator Reid (Harry Reid of Nevada, the Minority Leader in the Senate) said that the Senate last year had approved nearly all of Bush's judicial nominations. A few were filibustered because the Democrats were convinced they were too far to the right out of the mainstream of American political and judicial thought.

There is no doubt that Mr. Bush intends to pack the federal judiciary with judges that share his conservative Christian values. Should the President have such power? Presidents are here for no more than eight years. Senators and Representatives come and go. Judges hold their positions for life. According to the federal constitution, it requires only a President and 51 Senators to appoint a judge. Once in office, the judge can be removed only by impeachment, a procedure that requires a majority of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senators.

Right now we are in the midst of an ultra-conservative counter-revolution. The President and a substantial bloc of Representatives and Senators favor doing away with Social Security as we have known it. The President and a majority of Senators favor packing the federal judiciary with like-thinking judges. These are judges who may some day rule, for example, that the federal government has no power to do anything about the environment. Eventually this counter-revolution will run its course and more moderate men and women will be elected to the Presidency, to the Senate, and to the House of Representatives. This more moderate or centrist group will have to deal with a Supreme Court dominated by ultra-conservatives as well as an ultra-conservative federal judiciary.

Finally, what's it to me? I may not live to see the end of the ultra-conservative reign. A new generation of progressives will have to deal with the ultra-conservative vestiges in the form of a Supreme Court and other federal judges who resist progressive changes. That's their problem and I can only wish them success in dealing with it. It also occurs to me that the present situation that I complain about is brought about by the constitution itself. The framers wanted a government that wouldn't do anything rash. They cleverly constructed a scheme that would make any kind of change difficult to achieve.

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