Sunday, January 30, 2011


In the footsteps of Saul Alinsky

In a previous post I advised my liberal-progressive-Democratic friends to let Obama go about the constitutional job of being President and not depend on him to start or promote new initiatives toward reforming our undemocratic, corporate-ridden political and economic system.  Starting something new is something we have to do ourselves.  Our opponents on the Right have been working for years to develop a coherent movement that, even though it is a minority, is so disciplined and organized that it has become more influential than the majority of our citizens.  As Democrats, we have a tradition of obstinate independence that precludes the discipline shown by the Tea Party movement.  We need to have at least agreed goals that conform with our views about what's wrong.

Unlike the Tea Party Movement, we can't vent our frustration with the system and at the same time advocate fundamental changes that will, if enacted, simply reinforce the things about the system that we hate.  Fortunately, we are not that disciplined and not that inclined to listen to demagogues who use our frustration and energy to promote their own selfish interests.

Let's start with agreeing on what needs to be changed.
Feel free to add to the list above.

We can not depend on favorite candidates for office to make these changes.  We need to use techniques recognized in the constitution itself: public protest and petition.  History teaches us that peaceful protest is more effective than violent protest.  Look at Russia!  The people rose up and violently ended the rule of the tsar.  What replaced it?  The rule of Stalin.  In these days, the rule of Putin.  It is not sufficient to overthrow a government that is oppressive.  There must be a profound change, not only in the government, but in the people.  Peaceful, if rowdy, demonstrations eventually wear down the prejudices of the people and bring about changes in the government.  I am talking here about an effort that will take two or three generations.  It isn't going to happen in the election of 2012.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Vinegar and Honey

Many of my Democratic friends are disillusioned with President Obama because he doesn't confront his Republican opponents.  Instead, he tends to placate them.  He won't tell them that he knows they are telling lies when they assert that Social Security and other entitlements have to be scaled back to reduce the deficit.  He won't tell them that, because of the way Social Security is funded it delivers a net surplus to the general fund in the Treasury.  He won't tell them that the TARP program was (a) started by their President, George Bush and (b) has been a success and will probably turn out to be a net gain for the Treasury.  And so on.

Mr. Obama has already demonstrated his style of governing.  He's not confrontational.  He recognizes that while confrontation would be very satisfying to those of us who are perpetually angered by Republican lies and misrepresentations it would not produce useful results, especially with a divided Congress.  Even when we Democrats had a majority in both houses there were enough Democrats in Name Only (DINO's?) from districts that normally elect Republicans to make progress on a progressive Democratic agenda very difficult.  We forget, especially here in California, that the United States is a deeply conservative nation.  Americans are more religious than the people of almost any other country.  Around 90 percent of our fellows attend church services at least occasionally.  No other nation has as large a percentage of nominal believers in some religion.  Religious belief naturally goes with conservatism.  Religious people of all faiths believe things written in their holy books, things that were written down thousands of years ago.  The same believers in the wisdom of ancient writings follow ancient writings and ideas about economics, about the responsibilities of government, and about self reliance rather than dependence on systematic help from society.

Our successful presidents have been those who choose honey rather than vinegar.  My mother told me that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar.  A similar principle applies to dealing with other humans.  Mr. Obama understands that bit of ancient wisdom and applies it to his job as President.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Intransigence and Bias

A few days ago I heard on the radio (NPR in Pasadena, California) about a wikileak.  The documents leaked revealed details of negotiations between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority a few years ago.  According to the documents, the Palestinian leader had agreed to give up nearly all of Jerusalem, had agreed to letting the (illegal) settlements in the West Bank stand, and so on.  As far as I could tell, this leader was willing to give the Israelis just about everything they asked for.  The Israeli government refused to accept this offer, or even to continue negotiations.  Instead, Israel cut off the negotiation and asserted that the Palestinians were not being partners in the search for peace.

Israeli intransigence I understand and accept as the way things are.  What amazed me was the spin that the radio announcer was giving to this damaging leak.  He (or she?) asserted that the leak would be very damaging to the Palestinian leader!  This leader would find himself in trouble with his own people for being willing to concede so much!

That was the way the story was reported in NPR.  Until then I had considered NPR to be relatively free of bias in the way it presented news.  But here was a story, presumably true because no one denied it, that to me was very damaging to the government of Israel.  Israel has been claiming for many years that the Palestinians do not want peace and are not willing to make any concessions, etc., etc., etc.  The story reveals that it is Israel that has been unwilling to make any concessions or even to accept important concessions from the Palestinians.  The way NPR reported the story reveals a strong pro-Israel bias among its news reporters.

Later on, either the same day or the next day, it was reported, again by NPR, that many governments had reacted to the story by changing their attitudes toward Israel.  That is, they were becoming more inclined to blame Israel for the continuing conflict than before.  In fact, the leak has been damaging to Israel.


Friday, January 21, 2011


More about Values

There are inconsistencies in my set of values.  I classify values as individual values and societal values.  An example of an individual value is thrift and frugality.  I try to be thrifty in my purchases and frugal in the use of things I've purchased.  I'm frugal about food.  I live alone and sometimes food that I buy starts to get moldy before I eat it.  My practice is simply to scrape off the mold and eat what's left.  Most mold has a bad taste - it tastes, well, moldy.  Of course bleu cheese, English Stilton cheese, French Roquefort, and others are moldy.  The delicious flavor of those cheeses is due to a special mold.  As you can see from the cheese, the mold is blue-green in color.  Hence, the name bleu cheese (bleu being the French word for blue).

Getting back to thrift and frugality, it is good for an individual to be thrifty and frugal.  It is also good for society for individuals to be thrifty and frugal.  We live on a crowded planet with limited resources.  If I am thrifty and frugal I am leaving resources for others to use.  I am convinced that thrift, frugality, and avoiding waste is a value that every individual should cherish.

There are some people who believe that society should not only encourage thrift and frugality but actually enforce it by strictly rationing the resources that members of society can use.  This rationing is done by pricing or using "market forces" to allocate scarce resources.  This enforcement of limits on the use of resources becomes to some people a value.  Just as my own habits of thrift and frugality leave resources for others to use, so this enforced limit leaves resources available to those who can afford them.

I do not view the enforced limit of the use of resources by market forces as a value.  That is, I do not think it is a good thing.  Rationing may well be necessary but it should not be left to market forces to make the allocation.  Resources should be allocated according to need.  Every American is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  If a person is a diabetic and needs insulin to remain alive, then that person should have insulin.  He or she shouldn't be deprived of insulin because the price is too high.

Allocating scarce resources on the basis of need rather than price and ability to pay isn't easy.  It isn't automatic.  Human intervention is necessary.  Human being have to make decision about allocation.  These decisions must be made openly so that everyone can see whether they are made fairly and not according to some special relationship between the person who decides the allocation and the person who receives the scarce resource.  For example, giving a person the power to determine the allocation of insulin gives that person the power to decide who lives and who dies.

I am trying to show that there is a conflict between individual and societal values in some cases.  In my insulin case, one can argue that it is impossible to make sure that an insulin czar will always be fair and will not play favorites.  Hence, the only alternative is to let market forces make the decision.  To me, decisions made by market forces are obviously biased in favor of the rich.  The rich diabetic gets all the insulin he or she needs while the poor diabetic doesn't get any.

I will continue this essay later, with other examples of values in conflict.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


What's next in the health care saga?

I believe that at least a few Republicans are sane, intelligent, and compassionate.  Providing affordable health care to all Americans is a noble and compassionate goal and I believe that at least a few Republicans share it.  I believe that these compassionate Republicans who voted to repeal the existing health care law would replace it with something that would achieve the goal of universal health care.  Let me try to argue their point.

First, these compassionate Republicans believe that health care should continue to be paid for by private insurance.  They oppose a universal single-payer plan such as the one in Canada or the national health insurance such as the one in Britain.  They favor making it possible for everyone to buy private insurance.  That implies that the insurance premiums have to be affordable.  How does one achieve that goal?

You can not achieve it by simply legislating the size of the premiums.  Private insurance companies have to earn a profit.  They must set premiums high enough to cover the cost of the money they pay to medical providers.  The whole idea is shared risk.  The average person is healthy and does not need any expensive medical treatment.  A few individuals do need expensive treatments.  The cost has to be shared among both groups.  That is, it is necessary that every person has insurance and pays premiums.  The same principle applies to home insurance and auto insurance.  Everyone pays premiums but few collect benefits.

OK.  Compassionate Republican principle number one is that everyone must buy health insurance.

Perversely, one of the big Republican arguments against the existing health care plan is the universal mandate.

A corollary of the principal of requiring everyone to buy health insurance is that insurance companies must not be allowed to cherry-pick their clients.  A health insurance company must sell a policy to anyone who applies, regardless of the risk that person poses.  The company must ignore any preexisting conditions in setting the premium.  Otherwise those persons who need insurance the most will be faced with impossibly high premiums to obtain it.

A second belief of compassionate Republicans is that any move toward universal health care should use, as much as possible, existing systems of providing and paying for medical care.  The existing system relies on insurance companies that are regulated by State Insurance Commissioners.  Different States have different rules and limits regarding premiums, determining what medical costs are covered, and the like.  The result is that a person buying health insurance is limited to those insurance companies subject to the regulation by the State in which they live.  A resident of California shouldn't buy insurance from a company that is regulated only by the State of Nevada, for example.

It has been proposed, in the name of competition, to allow insurance companies to sell policies in any State, particularly in States in which they are not regulated.  If that change were to be adopted it would require that the federal government set up a national insurance commissioner to replace the 50 State insurance commissioners who now regulate the insurance industry.  Alternatively, the insurance industry would operate without any regulation at all.  Neither alternative seems to be one that truly conservative Republicans would embrace.

Perversely, some Republicans have advocated just such a change.

My conclusion is that the thoughtful and compassionate Republicans are not the ones that set Party policy.  The policy of the Republican Party seems to be simply to oppose anything that Democratic President Obama advocates.  I join in calling it "the party of NO."

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Those silly Republicans!

Republicans would like to present themselves as a Party of reasonable people who do not waste valuable time doing silly, pointless things.  This week in the House they are doing just that: something silly and pointless.  They are debating and voting on a measure to repeal the recent health care law that has just been enacted.  They in the House know that there isn't a chance that the repeal will go anywhere.  The Senate won't even consider it.  Even if the Senate were to take it up and pass it, President Obama would veto it.  There's not a 2/3 majority in either house to support the repeal.  So, why waste the time to debate it and vote on it?

Speaker Boehner says that the repeal is being considered because it was a campaign pledge.  However, there is no majority among the public, according to recent opinion polls, in support of the repeal.  The debate and the vote in the House are not going to win Republicans any additional votes in the next election.  Republicans and those few Democrats who may vote for the repeal know that it isn't going anywhere.  Perhaps that knowledge gives them cover.  They can say they are voting to satisfy some of their constituents, while at the same time they know that, since neither the Senate nor the President will agree to the repeal, they are not doing any harm to national policy.  I wonder how the House Republicans would vote if there was a Republican majority in the Senate and they knew the President would not veto the repeal?

The Republicans are off to a great start!

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Thursday, January 13, 2011


Fear and Mistrust of Strong Government

Conservatives and Liberals both have this fear and distrust.  Conservatives fear that a strong government will take away their property or limit what they can do to conduct a profitable business.  Liberals fear that a strong government will take away their civil rights in an effort to enforce public order and safety.

The murder of six people last Saturday in Tucson has brought out a discussion of actions that a strong government can and ought to take to prevent such things from happening again.  Here are some of the suggestions:
And so on.  Add your own suggestions.  There are practical limits in how far we can follow any of them.

It's politically impossible to impose a sufficiently strict ban on firearm sales and ownership to prevent another lunatic from obtaining a gun and setting out to kill an elected official.  Conservatives would object loudly to such severe restrictions.

It is politically impossible to put every person with mental illness in an institution.  There is the danger that unscrupulous judges may put innocent and sane individuals away because of political opposition.  Liberals would object loudly to laws that enable judges to put people away because of fear that they might do something, whether sane or not.

Screening and metal detectors for every member of Congress doesn't sound practical.  It is important that a member of Congress be approachable by any constituent, even one who disagrees with the member.

Toning down the rhetoric is a nice idea and I'm all in favor of it.  How do we square limitations on what can be said about a political opponent with the first amendment?

It's a quandary.


Saturday, January 08, 2011


What will Brown do?

A good friend asked me today about the future.  Specifically, what predictions can I make for how Governor Brown is going to deal with the California budget deficit.  At the time I said I don't know.  Thinking over the question, I think I have some clues.
I expect to see some initiatives to increase certain taxes.  I expect counties and cities to have to find additional ways of raising money.  I expect to see some willingness by the public to accept some changes in the property tax system; i.e., some modifications of Proposition 13.  Perhaps business property will be taxed at a rate more in keeping with the ad valorem value than it is now.  There will be much yelling and screaming and kicking by those business property owners who have enjoyed for thirty years the advantage of not having their taxes increased to keep pace with inflation.  It will be an exciting time.  I look forward to enjoying the fighting.  I hope my health remains good for at least four more years.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011


Con vs. Lib - What's the Difference?

To save space, I have abbrreviated the title of this post from "Conservative vs. Liberal - What's the difference?"  The question came up this morning in the monthly first Wednesday meeting of the Men's Group at a church in Woodland Hills.  We geezers were talking about the new Congress, in which the Republicans have a majority in the House and an increase in the Senate.  We wondered why politicians don't talk to each other and try to find compromises instead of taking absolute stands and trying to suppress any ideas advanced by the minority.

My thought is that the difference between conservatives and liberals is that the two groups do not recognize the same problems as matters that ought to be addressed in legislation.  Consider the health care bill enacted by the previous Congress.  The House, with a Republican majority, is going to spend several days debating the proposition that the bill should be repealed and replaced with something more to the liking of Republicans.  This debate and the final vote will be taken in spite of the fact that we still have Mr. Obama as President and a Democratic majority in the Senate.  It would be a true miracle if the repeal were to be achieved.  (I write "miracle" instead of "calamity" because miracles do not happen in my world, certainly not in the last two thousand years.)  The vote is purely symbolic, a waste of time to please a few constituents.

We geezers still wondered why there are such strong feelings on the two sides.  One reason, I believe, is that conservatives and liberals are concerned about different problems.  Consider American health care.  It is very good.  If you need the latest advances in medical practice, you can get them here - if you have the money to pay or if medical providers will provide them pro bono.  However, a significant part of our population can not afford medical care at all.  This part comprises people without medical insurance to cover expensive medical treatments.  In Canada and in many European countries such care is provided under a system in which the cost is paid by the government.  In other words, the cost of medical care for all is borne by taxes which everyone pays.  In addition, medical practice in these "socialist" countries is less expensive than medical practice in most American communities.

I have written extensively by e-mail to my conservative friends about universal health care.  Neither one of them supports the idea.  One argues that we already have universal health care because hospital emergency rooms are legally obliged to treat everyone regardless of ability to pay.  The other argues that we simply can't afford to provide free medical care for everyone; the government is running big deficits as it is and there isn't the money to provide free care.  My point is that conservatives do not recognize uneven health care as a problem that government should do anything about.

On the other hand, my conservative friends are very much concerned about what I call the "Andy Cap" fraction of society.  Andy Cap is a cartoon character who lives in north-central England.  He lives on the dole and sedulously avoids doing work for money.  Conservatives see any public benefit, such as free health care for the poor (or for all) as a chance for "Andy Cap" or lazy freeloaders to get something of value without working or paying for it.  A related concern is the malpractice situation.  Conservatives see that malpractice lawyers encourage dissatisfied patients to sue their doctors and hospitals.  These lawyers earn enormous fees from successful lawsuits.  In addition, most trial lawyers are Democrats and contribute heavily to the Democratic Party.

We talked also about the influence of money, especially corporate money on elections.  In our country a successful candidate for office has to raise a lot of money.  Two candidates competing with each other vie for money.  The one who can raise the most money usually wins the election.  It is no surprise that the successful one will, in office, support legislation that benefits his wealthy supporters.  As a result, we have a plutocracy, not a democracy, even though the new Republican majority in the House intends to have the federal constitution read to the members.

Naturally, we talked about the "Tea Party" faction in the Republican Party.  Most of us think the Tea Party people have some quaint ideas.  They are sincere and angry.  In my view, they are angry about many things that make me angry but their anger is directed at other things than mine.  I think they are being misled and I hope that in time they will realize that their leaders are using them for some ends that are not good for the country.

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