Friday, December 26, 2008

Post-Holiday Thoughts

Christmas without translation

"Any man who goes around with the words 'Merry Christmas' on his lips ought to be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart"
Yup, got to play Ebenezer Scrooge in a Christmas play back in grade school and loved it. After getting past the toy/game acquisition phase at some point in high school, I have never been a big fan of Christmas. I used to knock myself out trying to find just the right gift for each family member and friend. It was gratifying when they opened these presents, but I also resented having to spend so much time, energy and money all at once.

These days, I give stuff to people all year around. When I see something a friend would like, I get it and give it to that person, regardless of season. And for the holidays, I get back to the real purpose of all these winter celebrations, which is to counter the seasonal cold and darkness. In the immortal words of Wayne, "Party On!" Such partying is not as uninhibited as in earlier decades, but a lot of lights, imbibing and socializing helps get you past the Solstice.

Receiving gifts graciously is an art I've been slow to develop. Sometimes a gift will come from someone out of the blue and I feel embarrassed that I didn't reciprocate. But finally I've come to learn that the gift you give back is the gratitude you express to the giver, the thanks for caring. (And then, I make a mental note that down the road to keep that person in mind for a gift whenever I come across the right thing.)

The Oregonian gave me an unexpected gift on Christmas Eve, although belatedly. The paper never arrived on my porch that morning, but because of the egregious travel conditions, I didn't call up circulation . Instead, I read the paper later at a coffee house and inside it was a column by Garrison Keillor. Everyone knows Keillor from his radio show and many also because of his Lake Woebegon books, but Keillor also writes a fine newspaper column, the best since Russell Baker retired from the New York Times. He writes one every week, but The O chooses to publish it about as often as every lunar eclipse. Why I don't know. The editors dutifully run syndicated columns by the pathetically predictable David Broder, as well as reprinting all the Times' columnists the following day.

But for Christmas, they gave me Keillor, and I give him to you here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

An Oregon Appointment???

Who would you pick?

Hendrik Hertzberg is an editor for The New Yorker who always has fresh information and insight on issues even though his columns come out days after the newspapers and blogs have had their say. In a piece on the hubris of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the looming U.S. Senate appointments in Illinois and New York, Hertzberg comes up with an unconventional and brilliant idea.

He suggests New York Gov. David Patterson think outside the political box when choosing the person to replace Hillary Clinton, who will give up her Senate seat when she takes over as Secretary of State:

What if Governor Paterson, prompted by the squalor of his Illinois colleague’s maneuverings, were to put aside mundane calculations and take full advantage of his theoretically unfettered freedom of choice? The Senate was originally conceived as a sort of chamber of notables, but most of its members, over the years, have been notable mainly for their mediocrity. New York is full of interesting people. Want some suggestions? Try these, collected from an informal canvass—a baker’s dozen, in alphabetical order:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, thoughtful and scholarly, would give the new President someone to shoot hoops with. Christiane Amanpour would be a slam dunk for the Foreign Relations Committee. The impossibly distinguished Vartan Gregorian is a one-man academy of arts, letters, and the humanities. Bill T. Jones, who doesn’t need words to make a speech, would make C-SPAN 2 worth watching. A non-dynastic Kennedy, the novelist William, would give upstate New York representation of the first order. Paul Krugman would provide ornery economic smarts. Arthur Laurents, conveniently, is already in Washington, directing the National Theatre revival of his “West Side Story.” If you doubt that Lou Reed knows politics, listen to his album “New York.” Felix Rohatyn is as senatorial as you can get without wearing a toga. Ed Sanders—poet, Pentagon levitator, classics scholar, founding member of the Fugs—is a political force in Woodstock, New York. Toni Morrison’s majestic voice would warm the Senate chamber. No one who ever spent the equivalent of two Senate terms in a complex, ceaselessly scrutinized job in New York has ever done it better than Joe Torre did as manager of the Yankees. Harold Varmus, the head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and, like Morrison, a Nobel laureate, got lots of money from Congress for the National Institutes of Health when he ran them, during the nineteen-nineties. Perhaps he could do the same for New York—not that such petty considerations are worthy of this exercise.

Read the entire column here.

That got me to thinking fanciful thoughts that can only be thought on an inclement day cloistered inside—with an hour’s break to slog a few miles in the snow just for some exercise. Okay, what if Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden somehow got appointed to a post in Obama’s cabinet? Not likely, since his big issue, health care, has been handed to former colleague Tom Daschle. But just suppose? And suppose that Gov. Ted Kulongoski departs from his pedestrian, professional politician’s posture and thinks creatively for once? Even less likely, for sure. But play along with me.

Who among our Oregon citizenry should the Guv select?

It’s not as if Oregon has always sent seasoned politicians to Washington. Wayne Morse, one the greatest, had never been elected to anything before becoming the “tiger of the Senate.” Maureen Neuberger served adequately in the Senate when her husband, Richard, died in the early sixties.

So how about William Kittredge, the foremost authority on the modern West (see Owning it All, among other writings)? Storm Large, who was in the middle of a lot of political events this year, would certainly shake things up in Washington. For a tough, no-nonsense approach to the nation’s business, one could do no better than Gert Boyle, chair of Columbia Sportswear. On the other hand, to get Oregon’s fair share of federal pork, go with Oregon State University basketball coach Craig Robinson, who is Barack Obama’s brother-in-law. Trailblazer GM Kevin Pritchard has shown he is an organizational genius and a great judge of character and talent—and he’s assembled a near-perfect team now; making more trades would only mess up the chemistry. Phil Stanford, who seemed to know a lot of inside stuff, is looking for a new job, I hear. And Simpson’s creator Matt Groening could form the first Senate comedy caucus with Al Franken (if Franken squeaks in).

Who else? What are your suggestions?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Accentuate the Positive

More Time for ‘Zilla

We break once again from the mundane world of politics, policy and urban agriculture to confront a more serious threat to our city: mainly, what’s with the Blazers as of late?

Going into tonight’s game against Sacramento, the Portland Trailblazers have lost three in a row—three squeakers. Two were decided by last-second shots and the third went into double overtime. They could have—and arguably should have—won all three games.

Blame can be passed around on these losses. In the first two, Travis Outlaw played not only miserably but stupidly, getting beat on defense and attempting poor shots on offense. In the overtime loss to the Clippers, Steve Blake was suddenly possessed by the ghost of Chris Dudley and missed four crucial free throws down the stretch.

These games did not have to be as close as they were. The Blazers, however, are taking a risk and suffering big when that risk doesn’t pay off. They need to make a decision now: whether to go for a high playoff seed by changing their starting lineup or try to develop Greg Oden and because of that settle for probably the last seed or possibly not make the playoffs at all.

Rookie center Oden seems to be a nice, hardworking kid, but as for this year, he’s neither the best center on the team nor the best rookie. Rudy Fernandez, the perpetual motion machine from Spain, could be contending for Rookie of the Year on many other teams, but on the Blazers he doesn’t get the minutes and generally plays behind Brandon Roy.

More pertinently, Joel Pryzbilla has been the Blazers unsung hero so far this season, even gracefully yielding his starting slot at center to Oden and not complaining about declining minutes. But somebody better complain, because Pryzbilla is demonstrably better than Oden. Even now playing less than half the game, ‘Zilla is the Blazers leader in rebounding and blocked shots, the two major stats for centers.

A far more telling stat is the +/- column. You don’t see this stat in The Oregonian’s abbreviated box scores, but you can on or Yahoo Sports. What the +/- shows is how many points his team gained or lost while he was in the game. If you have a +10 for a game, then your team scored 10 more points than the opposition while you played.

Here is the +/- line for Oden and Pryzbilla for the last three games:

Game.....................Orlando................Utah................L.A. Clippers

Oden......................... -10......................-8........................... -3

Pryzbilla ..................+15 ......................-1...........................-2

Now this is not a perfect stat for a player, because the score depends on the other four players in the game. With Blazers coach substituting a whole second unit at a time, it can be like comparing apples to kumquats.

Generally, the starters should have a better +/- than the bench, or else they shouldn’t be starters. Oden plays most of his minutes with Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, Steve Blake and a rotation of Nick Batum, Outlaw and Fernandez. Pryzbilla usually plays with Sergio Rodriguez, Channing Frye, Outlaw and Fernandez. In the Utah game, Pryzbilla played a lot with Outlaw, who had a horrendous -12 for the game. In the Clippers game, he was stuck for much of the time with Rodriguez, who had a -13 impact on the outcome.

In a close game earlier this year, Oden had a -22 while Pryzbilla was +23.

It’s clear that Pryzbilla should be the one playing 30-35 minutes a game, with Oden getting the remainder. Given real starter’s minutes, Pryzbilla would easily be among the top five in the league in rebounding and blocked shots. He’s not a scorer, but he’s improved immensely in the past year. He’s developed a little hook shot and he seems to have improved his ability to catch passes, which has been his major downside over the years. His free throw shooting is now above average.

More than that, the Blazers seem more relaxed and confident with Pryzbilla in the middle. He’s predictable. He knows what to do and he’s go their back. Oden makes rookie mistakes and is inconsistent. He may develop into an all-star center, but he’s not holding his own against Dwight Howard of Orlando, or even Kendrick Perkins of the Celtics. Someday, he might be another Nate Thurmond, or merely another Tree Rollins. We know what Pryzbilla is going to be, just what he is not, maybe a bit better.

Apparently, after all the hype about Oden—and then the delay of a year because of his injury—the Blazers think they need to play him as much as possible. And talk about hype. Watch a Blazer game and during the commercial breaks, he’s pitching more products than the Schonz ever did. His face is billboarded throughout the city and splashed across all kinds of media. Meanwhile, Pryzbilla probably might get mentioned in the back pages of Mother Earth News.

There are times when McMillan sees the game slipping away and puts Pryzbilla in hoping his defense will reverse the momentum. Yet he seems committed to starting Oden and playing him the majority of the time—or else upper management had ordered him to do so.

To win, the Blazers don’t need to rush Oden’s education in the NBA.

They would be better off to put Oden back on the bench and let him be the understudy to Pryzbilla this year. He would feel a lot less pressure and thus be more relaxed when his time to play comes around. He also fits in with the faster paced second unit.

More importantly, the Blazers would start winning again.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

An extraordinary rendition

Saving Oregon via Outsourcing

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has released his budget for the coming biennium and it appears the state faces a $1 billion shortfall because of the lousy national economy. The economic malaise is going to precipitate hundreds of cuts to state agency budgets, plus, perhaps, a few small tax increases.

Now if our government was run like a business—specifically like a modern corporation—instead of minor decimation to most departments, the main tactic would be to spin off the unprofitable divisions. And if that’s not possible, then outsource everything that can be outsourced.

Of all the general fund and lottery money spent by the state of Oregon, 93 percent goes to one of three categories: education, health and human resources, and public safety. These are sometimes called “education, medication and incarceration.”

How could we save money in Oregon through outsourcing? Under the Oregon Health Plan, the state pays for certain approved medical procedures and some prescription drugs. Those drugs could be purchased more cheaply from India. In fact, it may also be less costly to send patients to hospitals in several Asian nations that specialize in medical tourism than to treat them here. A lot of the state's health services, however, are for things like immunizing children, pre-natal care and drug treatment—things that might not be feasible overseas.

More than half the budget goes for education, ranging from kindergarten to the university level. Higher education remains grossly underfunded here, even while tuition at state universities continues to rise beyond the means of the middle class. The offspring of wealthy moguls and plutocrats of other nations have flooded Oregon's campuses. Perhaps, then, Oregon should send its students to lower-priced colleges in Europe and elsewhere. After all, it's often said that travel broadens one's perspective.

Oregon college professors complain they are not paid as much as their peers in other states, yet for a fraction of their salaries, the state could hire professors in India to teach via teleconferencing or satellite video hookups. If a daily newspaper in California can do it, why not the University of Oregon, which today is renowned primarily for its football team, anyway.

The best solution, however, comes out of the public safety budget, which comprises 17% of the total. Because of Measure 57, Oregon will have to spend well over $1 billion in the next budget cycle on prisons. Hmmn...$1 billion. Exactly the same as the current budget shortfall.

What if we outsourced all incarceration to some other country? Shortly, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of former Bush Administration officials seeking work and many of them will be experts on the practice of “extraordinary rendition.” They could be brought in as consultants to match Oregon's convicted criminals with the best and most economical black sites. Surely, it would be cheaper to house our prison population in Eastern Europe or Egypt than in Oregon.

Wonder if Kevin Mannix had this in mind all along?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Global warming's upside

Raspberries in December

I have to admit to some guilty pleasures from the consequences of global warming. Today’s high temperature of 59 in Portland was about a degree off the all-time high for this date. Last night, it was so warm I decided to go on a two-hour bike ride throughout the city, not something one normally does for pleasure at the end of November.

The best investment I made this year was in raspberries—specifically, four everbearing raspberry bushes. I only wish I bought at least four more. I didn’t realize how apt the “everbearing” name is. This morning I picked just shy of a half-basket of the berries, enough for

ten substantial raspberry pancakes, which were delicious.

The berries started producing in July and never stopped. They may continue to ripen well into December. After doing some research on them, it appears they will keep it up until we have a frost. Until that moment, my raspberry patch is like a little bit of summer in the shadows of the winter solstice.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My .02 worth

Get Serious About Gas Tax

Governor Kulongoski has a plan to finance new road and bridge construction that would jump vehicle registration fees from $27 per year to $100 and charge $100 for vehicle titling fees. He also wants to up the gax tax by two cents a gallon.

Two cents? Gimme a break.

What is really rash is that people are complaining about it.

Drive around town and you see a large disparity in gas prices. I’ve noticed a difference of 12 cents between the highest price for regular and the lowest price on the same day.

I don’t know why people get gas at the Shell station at Southeast 39th and Stark, when the Arco station four blocks away on Belmont is always at least a dime cheaper. Yet the Shell station stays in business. Maybe it’s just more convenient.

In the past year, the price of gas has fluctuated by more than $2 per gallon. Somehow, we survived when the price was at $4-plus a gallon.

My point is that two stinking pennies is nothing when the price of gas changes more than that from one day to the next. Even a dime is not that big a deal. The governor should ask for at least a ten-cent hike in the gas tax. We won’t really notice it and it will pay for five times as many road repairs.

Of course, if he really meant to be green and save the planet, he’d be seeking a 50-cent or better increase in the gas tax, or perhaps a 20-cent increase per year, with the proceeds freed to go to improving railroads and other general fund uses. Some of the money could go to tax relief for people in rural areas where they have to drive longer distances.

A serious increase in gas taxes would get people to drive more fuel efficient cars or just drive less. I know, it seems un-American to force people to cut down on driving, but the way it is now, when gas prices increase, all that extra money goes into oil company profits and the coffers of unfriendly dictators around the globe. We might as well keep a little for ourselves.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The lesser of two evils is still evil

Dems Get Too Clever by Half

Did the Oregon Legislature outfox itself in the recent election, or is someone pulling a fast one on the voters?

When Keven Mannix, who sponsored Measure 11 fourteen years ago, raised enough signatures to put another mandatory sentencing law on the ballot, Democrats in the legislature thought they had a clever way of foiling his initiative. They drafted a less expensive measure with the same intent of locking up meth dealers, identity thieves and others committing property crimes, only not so many of them.

Mannix’s baby, Measure 61, was estimated to cost as much as $797 million over the next five years, plus forcing Oregon to float bonds of over $1 billion to build more prisons. The legislature’s alternative, Measure 57, would have cost around $400 million over the next five years and required the state to borrow $314 million for prison construction. It also promises some drug treatment for inmates.

Property and drug-related crimes are on a lot of citizens’ minds, most likely because of sensationalized television news reports. Actually, property crimes have been declining for the past several years. So with the economy tumbling like a wounded duck, with the Oregon Health Plan on short rations, with both public and higher education grossly underfunded, I opposed both of these measures. A lot of people did. The Oregonian’s editorial page came out against the measures. A City Club research study concluded that neither measure was in the best interest of the state.

An unusual thing happened when the City Club’s research committee presented its report to the members assembled at a Friday forum luncheon. A motion was made to substitute a minority report that opposed 61 but urged adoption of 57. Some of the speakers spoke glowingly of 57, but others argued that although both measures were a waste of money, 57 was a lesser waste of money. They predicted both measures would pass, so it was crucial that 57 garner more votes than 61, because the measure with the most votes would be the one implemented.

I asked people at the club, some of whom are far more connected politically than I am, what the polls revealed. Everyone assured me that polling showed both measures winning by big margins, with 61 somewhat ahead. But no one could give me specific numbers. Over the next few weeks, I kept asking for poll numbers and all I ever heard was “they’re both going to pass easily, so vote for 57.”

Usually, I turn my ballot in early, but not this year. I kept waffling between following my principles and going along with the tactics of the legislature. Finally, on the Monday before the election, I held my nose and voted for 57—and against 61.

The election results come in and guess what? Measure 57 passes big time. Measure 61? Down the tubes. Yes, by a slim margin, but it lost. So now the state has to pay for this boondoggle, while funding for education and health care dwindles ever more.

Measure 57 won by 374,000 votes out of over 1.6 million cast. I wonder how many of those votes came from people like me, who reluctantly voted for the lesser of two evils. I suppose a survey could be taken to find out. Since the tactical argument was pervasive, it’s very likely that the majority for Measure 57 came from people who were opposed to it, but voted for it to keep Measure 61 from going into effect.

If that’s the case, it seems the legislature screwed up—and screwed us taxpayers royally.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Think it over

Hillary Clinton and the Supremes

Compared to the 2004 election, Supreme Court appointments were not so much of a noteworthy issue this year. Of course, after Bush won in 2004, he appointed John Roberts as Chief Justice and Samuel Alito as an Associate Justice, leaving a hyper-conservative legacy for decades. Thus the swing vote on the Court switched from Sandra Day O’Connor to the more conservative Anthony Kennedy.

Still, had McCain won the election, there could have been dreadful consequences for the Court. Three of the so-called liberals or moderates on the Court want to retire (John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and David Souter). McCain, according to his campaign promise, would have appointed replacements similar in their radical thinking to Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Roberts and Alito. These guys, despite claiming to adhere strictly to the Constitution, are judicial activists certainly as much as the former liberal justices they disparage.

Thankfully, Barack Obama will get to appoint the people to replace Stevens, Ginsberg and Souter. He will have a dilemma considerably different than that faced by Bush and Cheney. The Republicans’ quandary was to find someone who passed all their litmus tests and who also could be passed off as qualified to be elevated to the Supreme Court. It wasn’t always easy (remember Harriet Miers?).

Obama faces a totally opposite challenge, that of choosing from a veritable cornucopia of extraordinary candidates—judges, law professors, attorneys general and many politicians who also are legal scholars—who are not locked into a rigid ideology. I’m sure every advisor and wannabe advisor to Obama will have a suggestion. His choice, then, won’t make everyone happy.

So my suggestion is Hillary Clinton. No, she has never sat on a judicial bench, but that’s not a prerequisite for the Supreme Court. Neither had Earl Warren or William Rehnquist. One of my favorites, William O. Douglas, only had experience on the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Hillary graduated from Yale Law School and was listed as one of the hundred most influential lawyers in America before she was 30. She’s been a U.S. Senator now for eight years. Many Supreme Court observers credit the conservative O’Conner’s pragmatism and independence to her experience in the Arizona legislature.

No one doubts Hillary’s tenacity or mental capacity. In fact, her detail-oriented intellect is perfect for the intricacies of the thorny legal questions that come before the Court. She would breeze through the Senate confirmation process and be ready for the job from day one.

The main drawback is her age. Bush appointed men in their forties and fifties, who could be on the bench for at least three decades. Obama will want to counter with young justices as well. Hillary is 61, but she appears to be in great shape.

Hillary is most charming and persuasive in small groups, a talent that could bring Kennedy around on a lot of issues. What’s more, she could go toe to toe with Scalia and give him nightmares. That would be worth the appointment just by itself.

The last time a U.S. Senator was appointed to the Supreme Court was in 1945, when Truman selected a liberal Republican named Harold Burton. I always wondered why Lyndon Johnson didn’t name Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon to the Court. Morse, perhaps the most astute constitutional scholar of his era, was a thorn in LBJ’s side over the Vietnam War, though otherwise they were on the same page. LBJ could have muted Morse’s constant criticism of the war by taking him out of the Senate and putting him on the Court. Instead he chose Abe Fortas.

I’ve always thought Morse would have made an excellent justice, but Hillary will be even better.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

President-Elect Obama

"Marvin..what to we do now?"

The title comes from the last line spoken by Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” a 1972 Oscar-winning film about an idealistic young man who gradually sells out to his campaign handlers and is elected to the U.S. Senate from California. Aside from starting out young and idealistic and ending up winning, Redford’s Bill McKay is virtually the exact opposite of Barack Obama. Which is a good thing.

The question, however, is appropriate. What do we do now? All the pundits are now speculating what Obama will do now, and most of them are also making suggestions. Some want him to be slow and moderate, others think he should rally the substantial Democratic majority in Congress to go on a full-scale liberal offensive. I figure Obama will consult with a lot of other smart people and then come up with the wisest course of action. He probably already has several plans ready to go on Jan. 20.

Obama made it clear in his victory speech Tuesday night that he expects all of us to contribute. His election was made possible by the thousands of people who volunteered and organized on his behalf. It appears he is looking for the same kind of service to the governing of the country. I’m sure he will find a way to turn a phrase that basically means the same as John F. Kennedy’s exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

So what do we do?

We know what Obama will have to do immediately: First, get the U.S. economy back on stable footing and promote new jobs, and second, deal with several major international problems that include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and our disgruntled allies in Europe. I’m sure he also will start cleansing the entire federal government of the incompetent right wing Bush appointees who have flouted the laws they are charged with enforcing and often decimated their agencies for the personal gain of their friends and fellow plutocrats.

Conventional wisdom says Obama's window of opportunity is his first 100 days in office—the honeymoon period. This is ridiculous. A candidate spends almost two years campaigning for the job and then only has about three months to get anything done? The theme comes from Franklin Roosevelt's legendary “First 100 Days,” when he proposed and a compliant Congress passed a spectrum of relief bills aimed at saving banks and spurring economic activity. This is when many of the New Deal acronyms got started—CCC, WPA, TVA and the like.

Obama will also have a pretty compliant Congress—after all, several Senators and possibly dozens of House members owe their election to his coattails, including Oregon's own Jeff Merkley. He will get a lot of what he wants. Will it be what we want and need?

He has invited our participation. We have to tell him what we think. The President-elect and all those new members of Congress. Obama comes off as a visionary, but he's above all a pragmatist. He's going to go for what will work best. At some point, he's going to run into his own campaign promises and proposals.

For example, health care. Of all the positions Obama took during the election, his health care proposal is the weakest. Hillary Clinton has a better idea—the main difference being that in her plan everyone is mandated to carry insurance. Ron Wyden's program goes further. But what works best is a simple single-payer universal health care plan, the kind that all other developed nations have. As well as people in the U.S. who are older than 65.

There shouldn't be a debate about this any more than there should be a debate about evolution or global warming. It's just a fact that single payer systems cover a lot more people at a lot less cost, and that the quality of care is usually better than in the U.S. Of course, it's “socialized medicine” according to its opponents (mostly Republicans, DLC Democrats, and insurance companies.). A survey last year found that most doctors support this kind of universal health care. Even more surprising, more Americans say “socialized medicine” would be better than our current system than say it would be worse.

Socialist? Who Cares?

The term “socialist” seems to have lost its panic-inducing power. Both John McCain and Sarah Palin repeatedly denounced Obama as a socialist for proposing to raise the top income tax rate from 35% to 39%. Evidently, the American electorate didn't believe McCain or didn't care. More than a few, I assume, understood that progress taxation, first implemented by McCain's hero Teddy Roosevelt, is not socialism. In fact, Adam Smith advocated it.

I'm not a socialist, but there are endeavors better left to the government. The military, for example. The Bushies outsourced military operations in Iraq and the consequences weren't good. It's very scary to have a large corporation (I.e., Blackwater) whose revenues depend on the waging of war. A government-run basic retirement account (Social Security) certainly looks better these days than the Bush/McCain notion of having each of us invest in the stock market. Public education, despite its many faults, is also something the free market can't adequately replace.

And so it should be with providing citizens with the means to pay for essential health care. This doesn't mean the government gets into the business of running hospitals or hiring doctors. It means the government takes over the role of insurance companies. That in itself will cut costs for health care.

Crucial to Economic Health

The cost of health insurance is central to our economy. Employers large and small have to scale back hiring because their health care plans are too expensive. Or else they are cutting off health insurance if they don't have a union or are in an industry that has to compete for skilled workers. It's really hard to expand your business if you can't afford to hire new people.

On the other hand, there are potential entrepreneurs who could be starting their own businesses, but instead stay married to their old companies because they can't afford to lose their health insurance.

In addition, studies show that around half of all personal bankruptcies filed in the past several years have resulted from the inability to pay huge medical bills. Rising health care costs are also a factor in the mortgage meltdown.

I have a long list of items for Obama to accomplish, but this one is right at the top. As soon as the new Congress is seated, there will be bills introduced to address health care. Obama will have his introduced, Wyden's will be back and there may be a few more floated out there. But any fix that involves insurance companies won't be a real fix. At this point, with the Republicans' laissez-faire ideology totally discredited, the people are ready for single payer health insurance. We need to make sure our representatives know that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama Wins!

Dancin' in the Street

I've witnessed, and mostly suffered through, elections for about 40 years, but never have I experienced an election after which there was widespread dancing in the streets.  News reports showed euphoric citizens dancing in Chicago and Washington, D.C., but it happened right here in River City too.

These blurry photos were taken outside the big bash thrown by the Bus Project and Willamette Week at the Grand Central Bowl last night.  A brass band in the parking lot was cooking for several hours with hundreds of people clapping hands and dancing around them.  You can barely make out a trombone and a couple of other horns in thecenter photo.  By that time, I was a little blurry, too.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ballot Measure 65

Minor Parties OK With 2nd Class Status

With virtually every organized political party opposed to Measure 65, there must be something good about it.

Measure 65 on the Oregon ballot would change Oregon’s primary election process. Instead of having one primary ballot for Democrats and another for Republicans, there would be one ballot with all candidates for each office listed. In such a primary, all the voters could choose among all the candidates in all the races. The two candidates who receive the most votes then go on to a run-off in the November general election. This is just about the same method used in all the non-partisan races, such as for city council, district attorney or county commissioner.

This “top-two primary” is opposed by the insiders in both the Democratic and Republican parties. That’s understandable, since Measure 65 ends the exclusive primaries these parties hold every two years at taxpayer expense. They fear that party relevance and power would diminish and that’s probably true.

Aside from several political hacks losing their jobs, however, I see nothing wrong with the measure.

What is puzzling is that the minority parties—and specifically the Pacific Green Party—are staunchly against it. People who speak for these parties say they fear that it will spell the death knell of minor parties, because they will never get on the general election ballot.

I seriously doubt the demise of any of these minor parties would be much noticed. All of them combined amount to about five percent of all registered voters. The Libertarians have the most, with about two percent, followed by the Pacific Greens and the Constitution Party, Socialist Party and maybe a couple others. On the other hand, a fifth of all registered voters are not affiliated with any party—and these independents do not get a voice in the primaries for governor, secretary of state, state treasure, and all the state and federal legislative offices.

Currently Second Class

One would think that minority party people would hate being treated as second class citizens. While the state pays for the Democratic and Republican primaries, there are no primary ballots mailed out to Pacific Greens or Libertarians. They have to choose their candidates through some other method, such as a convention.

I’m thinking that the people who run these small parties would rather play the Ralph Nader role of spoiler than grow larger and actually have a chance at governing. When was the last time a minority party candidate won any kind of partisan election in Oregon? It hasn’t happened. The Libertarians have won at least four non-partisan municipal elections in Washing County—two on water boards and two on the Beaverton School Board. And Pacific Green member Xander Patterson was twice elected to the East Multnomah County Conservation Board.

So the only success minor parties have ever had in Oregon came in elections similar to the top-two primary concept. Elections where candidates of all parties were thrown together in the primary.

Many years ago, I registered to vote as a member of a minority party because its positions on issues aligned pretty closely with mine. But when a primary election loomed, I changed my registration back to Democrat so I could actually vote for candidates who were both good on the issues and could also win. According to state records for this year, about 25 percent of the Pacific Greens membership switched to the Democrats, presumably to vote for Obama or perhaps a progressive candidate like Steve Novick, who narrowly lost to Jeff Merkley in this year’s primary.

No Need to Be a Democrat

If there were a top-two primary, it’s possible I would change my registration to the Pacific Green Party, if it showed a bit more common sense on other issues than it is displaying on Measure 65. A lot of Democrats, especially in Portland, subscribe to political philosophies that are closer to the Greens than to mainstream Democrats. With a top-two primary system, they would have no reason to remain Democrats.

In fact, there is a chance some elected Democrats, such as state Sen. Vicki Walker of Eugene, or U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, would run as Pacific Greens or with some other progressive party, since their stature in their districts would guarantee them victory regardless of their party. It’s also possible that well-organized and articulate Pacific Greens running in inner Southeast and Northeast Portland legislative districts could win elections in these liberal/radical enclaves, whereas these races now are settled in the primary and frequently there is no contest in the general election. By the same token, Libertarians could challenge conventional Republicans in the suburbs and rural areas of Oregon, where one rarely sees a Democratic candidate.

Take the primary race in House District 42, where I live. Jules Kopel-Bailey won a lively Democratic primary with 40 percent of the vote over three other worthy opponents. He has no opponent in the general election, so he gets into the legislature without winning a majority in his only contested race. In a top-two primary system, he would have had to face the Democratic runner-up in the general election.

It wouldn't be farfetched to see a viable Pacific Green candidate emerge in District 42, given its extremely liberal constituency (the district encompasses both Reed College and the Hawthorne District).

But maybe the PG's don't want that kind of power. Maybe they don't want to go down to the legislature and actually grapple with the state's problems and get their hands dirty making compromises with other legislators, which is an essential part of democracy. Maybe the are happy to sit on the outside and throw stones that at this point have all the impact of a smurf football.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hint to Merkley campaign

This would get my vote

Late stage political advertising runs the gamut from simply annoying to absolutely dispiriting. We’re now hunkering down in the midst of a blitzkrieg of escalating negative commercials on the tube, tabloidized mini-dramas in which one’s opponent is portrayed as the main attraction to a Halloween haunted house. The photo of the poor candidate always has a black background and his or her skin is a ghastly yellow. The TV’s volume mysteriously rises, yet the voiceover sometimes sinks to a stage whisper. Partial quotes are sprinkled around like blurbs from a movie trailer.

The worst thing, though, is that the same commercial is shown six million times. Frequently, it’s run two or three times in a five-minute programming break. The goal is for each and every viewer to memorize the entire attack ad to the point of having bad dreams about it.

These ads eventually disgust a small but significant percentage of the voters to the point of not bothering to vote. This typically turns out to be a Republican advantage, because the base treats an election like a gladiator event that they cannot afford to miss.

Here’s what would get my vote:

Audio: Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” or Pachobe’s “Canon.” Something light and soothing.

Video: Scenes of Oregon’s beaches, mountains, wooded wilderness areas, free-flowing rivers, an elk herd, a salmon jumping, the sun rising over the Wallowa’s and setting at Cannon Beach. Or a bunch of puppies playing.

Voiceover: No voice over.

Text overlay: No text overlay.

Political message: No political message.

Nothing but nice music and pictures. And at the end, “I’m Jeff Merkley and I approved this interlude between negative campaign ads.”

Campaign funds couldn't be spent more wisely.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Modal Matrimony

Biking into the Sunset

I was out riding my bike on Saturday when I encountered one of those “only-in-Portland” events: a wedding in which the bride, groom, maid of honor, best man and a large number of guests arrived and departed by bicycle. And all dressed up, too.  It was at Sellwood Park.

Bride on a bike                                  Most of the guests, too.

Took a few snapshots but didn’t intrude on the festivities. I searched The Oregonian today for the announcement, but could not find the lovely couple.

Didn’t see any tin cans or other debris tied to the backs of their bikes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Convention center lodging for our times

Who brought the s'mores?

The juxtaposition of two news stories just gave me an idea. The first is an article in the Business Journal about the proposal for a $240 million convention center hotel, a proposal that is still alive despite misgivings by a lot of people that it will never pencil out.

This story says that Metro is extending its review of the project for another 75 days because of “uncertainty of current market conditions, the commitment to fund the hotel using only existing funding sources and the need to coordinate multiple inter-governmental and public-private agreements” in bumping the project.

The second is the big news that the economy is going crash if American taxpayers don’t chip in $700 – 800 billion to save failing financial services companies. You have read all about that, I’m sure, but this account sums it up best.

Bailout or no bailout, the economy is going to suck for quite awhile. A lot of businesses will feel a pinch, if not a cramp. Consequently, their trade associations will be forced to cut back on their lavish annual conventions. In this economic climate, finding a private party willing to erect a luxury hotel in Portland will be harder than finding an optimistic Mets fan in Queens.

Instead, Metro ought to look to an outfit like REI or G.I. Joes to operate the Portland Convention Center Campground.

Most major conventions are held in the summer, which in Portland, after the Rose Festival is over, is usually gorgeous. Rather than check into a bland, generic hotel room at $400 a night, conventioneers would pitch a tent in a lush green meadow, shaded by towering fir trees for a tenth the cost. They could bring their own tents and camping gear or rent them from the park host. There’s some vacant land down by the river not far from the convention center that would work, as well as some blocks north and south of the center that could be converted to campground land.

Think of the green brownie points Portland—and the convention sponsors—would receive.

Those convention goers who can’t handle sleeping on the ground could check into the adjacent Portland Convention Center RV Park. Plenty of pull through full hookups with satellite dish television and either wifi or broadband cable to each site. The RV park would have plenty of motorhomes available to rent. Now is the time to jump on this idea, since dozens of RV manufacturers are going into bankruptcy because consumers are no longer buying their 50-foot, six-miles-to-the-gallon behemoths. A lot of these motorhomes are being unloaded at very reasonable prices, according to a friend who manages the annul RV Show at the Expo Center.

Now maybe the American Bankers Association is unlikely to choose Portland with its back-to-nature facilities, but then again, the bankers may not even be holding a convention for awhile. Who might go for it? Obviously, camping equipment businesses. Also other industries involved in outdoor recreation. Probably the trade association for bicycling companies, organic foods, alternative health care and green energy. These, by the way, are all growth industries.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Kindergarten Sex Ed?

This Bill Needs No Lipstick

So the McCain campaign runs an ad accusing Obama of supporting a bill that would teach sex education to four-year-old children.  People are aghast.

Then it turns out the bill in question had a provision that would allow kindergartens to teach kids about inappropriate touching by adults or older children.

Now if the Rovians were running Obama's campaign instead of McCain's, they would have come out with an ad accusing McCain of opposing a bill aimed at protecting kids from sexual predators.

Not advocating.  Just sayin'.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Obama vs. Palin

Are You Experienced?

Experience is a comb which nature gives to men when they are bald.” …Chinese Proverb

Lately I have been rummaging through the vastness of the World Wide Web in search of quotations on “experience.” The one above may be my favorite, although it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

In the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy’s lack of experience, compared to Richard Nixon, was constantly questioned. At one point, JFK told a little story about a banker who had been in the financial business for 40 years, but whose bank had gone bankrupt. “This man knew the banking business up and down, but you wouldn't hire him to run your bank,” Kennedy said. Or at least, I recall him saying something like that. I doubt if I remember it from his debates with Nixon. It probably was in something I read several years later.

There’s also this pearl of wisdom from another politician: “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” That is attributed to former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood. Let's hope he learned from his.

But the one most pertinent to this year’s campaign comes from Mark Twain (as if there was any doubt): "We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it -- and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again -- and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore."

Or as Aldous Huxley wrote, “Exoerience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happens to you."

Now the opposing camps in this year’s presidential warfare are firing shots at the rival ticket over “lack of experience.” Barack Obama has been a U.S. Senator for less than three years. McCain’s choice for vice president, Sarah Palin, has been governor of Alaska for a little over a year. Obama is just three years older than Palin (47 to 44), so neither has a full lifetime of experiences from which they have learned lessons.

Are neither of them ready for the high office they seek? Does one have better experience than the other? Or does none of it matter? What experience is relevant to the job?

The Republicans claim Sarah Palin is the only candidate among on either ticket who has executive experience. That discounts Obama's stint as president of the Harvard Law Review, director of Project Vote in 1992 and serving on the boards of directors of several foundations, including being chairman of the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. None of these roles are as large as being a governor, but they add breadth to his experience. On top of that, he has put together a crack campaign organization that numbers 2,500 paid staff. This is a very disciplined and savvy organization that totally outmaneuvered Hillary Clinton's manager.

Another argument is that McCain has all the experience and he's the one running for president, while Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, is the one with deep experience. This is supposed to be a positive for McCain. But look at it this way: if McCain suddenly dies, the reins are turned over to a raw rookie.

The thing I like best about Obama is that he has a very confident management style that allows for extensive debate and challenge among his subordinates. He chose Biden not so much to help win the election, but to help him govern. He realizes that for all his talk of change, there are going to be real hurdles to it and a guy like Biden has the connections to surmount many of those hurdles, not to mention the moxie to tell Obama what he really thinks.

Some people are able to take more from experience than others, and thus may not need as much before getting into a high profile position. Kwame Brown and LeBron James were both number one NBA draft picks out of high school, Brown in 2001 and James in 2003. (The Blazers' Travis Outlaw was also a first round pick in 2003). As things turned out, Brown had tremendous potential but never has lived up to it. Outlaw definitely was not ready to play professional basketball and took several years to develop. James was an instant star. It was his play in the Olympics that produced a gold medal for the U.S. team.

In this election, it's obvious which candidate is most like LeBron James.

So let's just stuff it about experience.

Sizing Up Former Presidents

Let’s take a look at presidents over the past 60 years as to how much experience they had before taking office:

Harry Truman: U.S. Senator for a decade before being selected as FDR’s vice president in 1944. So gobs of experience. He’s regarded now as a pretty good president, though his approval rating upon leaving office was just 22 percent.

Dwight Eisenhower: No conventional political experience, but a great deal of experience in managing an enormous operation—as supreme commander of allied forces in World War II. Considered a “do-nothing” president when he left office, he now is considered one of our better presidents.

John F. Kennedy: Six years in the House and seven years in the Senate. Compared to Nixon, he was called “inexperienced.” Actually, he had a lot of experience. Since he was assassinated in office, the jury is out on how good a president he was or would have been.

Lyndon Johnson: In 1964, when he was 58 years old and running for president against Barry Goldwater, he had spent exactly half of his life in national politics. That included 13 years in the House, 11 years in the Senate, six years as Senate Majority Leader, almost three years as vice president and one year as president. That’s hard to beat. Many regard him as a great president who was able to maneuver the landmark civil rights laws through Congress, as well as his Great Society programs. But his lack of judgment resulted in the U.S. getting deeper into the quicksand pit of Vietnam.

Richard Nixon: Before becoming Ike’s pick for vice president, Nixon has served in the House and Senate for a scant six years, so he didn’t have that much experience for that post. When he ran for president, however, he could claim eight years as vice president. He is always ranked as one of the worst presidents in American history, though he was pragmatic enough to go along with many liberal causes, such as the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and imposing wage and price controls.

Gerald Ford: Spent 25 years in the House before becoming Nixon’s vice president. A great deal of experience, and yet not much to write home about.

Jimmy Carter: One term as governor of Georgia (after a couple of terms as a state senator). Had executive experience, but his downfall was alienating a Democratic Congress. Conventional wisdom deems Carter’s one term as a failure, but I think he was pretty good and definitely visionary. He definitely is our best ex-president.

Ronald Reagan: Two terms as governor of California is what he had. Plenty of executive experience if you believe Reagan was running the show. Turned out to be fairly pragmatic while adhering to an ultraconservative agenda. He got what he wanted most of the time, but it's questionable that what he accomplished was good for the country.

George H.W. Bush: You want experience? Bush I had more than anyone. Six years in the House, ambassador to the U.N., envoy to China, CIA director and of course, Reagan's VP. So with all that, he turned out to be a poor to mediocre one-term president who only looks better in comparison to his son.

Bill Clinton: Arkansas attorney general for two years and the state's governor for 12, giving him extensive executive and domestic policy experience. He was first elected governor in 1978 and embarked on very liberal policies, which led to his defeat two years later. When he won in 1982, he was more careful. He remained politically cautious in the White House (with the ill-fated exception of Hillary's health care plan). A Republican-controlled Congress and his own foibles may have kept him from being a great president.

George. W. Bush: As a kid, he was exposed to the political experiences of his father, but he must not have payed attention. His business career brings to mind the old joke: What's the easiest way to make a small fortune?* He did have a fairly successful six-year run as governor of Texas. He is now generally judged to be one of the worst presidents in history.

So what does that tell us? That experience is no indicator of presidential greatness, or even competence.

We all know that, of course. Abraham Lincoln, considered our greatest president, had just two years in the House and four terms in the Illinois legislature. In fact, he hadn't been elected to anything for the 12 years prior to winning the presidency.

*Answer: Start with a large fortune.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fear & Loathing Time Again

Girding for the Rovian Onslaught

The Rovians have landed again, laying waste to the nation's political climate like alien monsters out of War of the Worlds.

Already you can see their slimy tentacles going after Obama. To his credit, he's responding immediately, unlike Kerry in 2004. The problem with this approach is that he's always playing defense.

Obama—and all Democrats—need a Strategic Defense Initiative, essentially an umbrella ad that defuses the Republicans' smear tactics.

I'm not an advertising guru, but the SDI would go something like this:

Flash through clips of some of the Republicans' most egregious television ads. The Willie Horton ad that brought down Dukakis. The Swift boat ad. Maybe the ad that linked former Geogria Sen. Max Cleland, a war hero and triple amputee, to Osama Bin Laden. Heck, there might even be some kind of ad that Rove used against McCain in 2000. There's also a lot of opportunities to fine tune the ad with local examples in each market area.

While the clips are running, an authoritative voice is saying, “Back in 1988, they castigated Gov. Michael Dukakis for a prison furlough program that let a dangerous man out of prison, when the program had actually been started under his Republican predecessor. In 2002, they questioned the patriotism of war hero Max Cleland. Two years later, they did the same to John Kerry. All lies. It's easy to lie and spread rumors in a 60-second ad. The truth, though, takes a little longer. If you want the whole truth, you can find it here:

That would be pretty gutsy for the Obama campaign, since FactCheck also criticizes some of Obama's ads. Overall, McCain's lies and distortions have been worse.

Or they could play it safe and refer voters to this:

That URL uses a lot of words for a television ad, either verbal or on the screen. The web page isn't that dynamic, either. It also has a bunch of bad links.

Instead of the sleazy political ads, they also could do it funny by recalling some just plain stupid TV ads (think the Budweiser farting horse ad or the poor Kenyan runner forced to wear running shoes). Dredge up an ad for Enron or Countrywide. New York's Crazy Eddie (is he still around?). At the end, if it's legal, slip in a clip of the worst attack ad on Obama. Have the voice over say, “A lot of what you see on TV is ridiculous. That's okay for a brand of beer or a running shoe, but this year, there's a big difference between presidential candidates. To make an informed decision, forget what you see on TV and look here:”

Then run one of the web pages listed above.

A problem, of course, is that some of the voters Obama is trying to reach may actually like those ads.

If this all-purpose strategic wall is put up, it will foil a lot of the attack ads. The same kind of spot can be developed for radio, as well.

Still, this is playing defense. The Rovians are going to do whatever it takes to win the election, and that means making voters afraid. They won with an all-out fear offensive in 2004 and they will try it again. Fear trumps all other emotions when it comes to electing the next president. They will find a way to make people think that electing Obama will be tantamount to turning the United States over to the radical Islamic hordes.

On this one, though, Obama can take the offensive, and should. McCain's lack of judgment, ignorance of facts and volatile temper render him a loose cannon should he land in the White House.

The video is there; it doesn't have to be made up: McCain at a town hall meeting saying it would be fine if the U.S. was in Iraq for 100 years. McCain singing, “Bomb Bomb Iran” to the old Beach Boys tune. McCain having to be corrected by Joe Lieberman about Iraqi factions. And then there are all those quotes from fellow Republican senators who question is temperament.

Come September, the Obama campaign should be playing a compilation of McCain's greatest gaffes non-stop. If not the Obama campaign directly, then one of the 527s, like, has to step up. I like the fact that Obama is taking the high road in this campaign. But if his opponent is truly dangerous—or as dense as the current occupant of the White House—it's important to let people know.

After all, the most effective political ad in history was the classic “Daisy” commercial that made voters think Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war if elected. It was pretty devastating, but Goldwater was really out on the fringe and had openly talked of using “tactical nuclear weapons.”

Goldwater, a maverick senator from Arizona, got trounced by Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Let's hope history, this once, repeats itself.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The "Nanny State"

Enlightened Self-Interest?

About a decade ago, I went shopping for a pickup truck. My old one had been T-boned by a speeding car and was totaled. The insurance payoff wasn’t enough to buy a new truck, but it did give me the wherewithal to buy a good used one.

I spent several days scouring the lots on 82nd and McGloughlin and yet couldn’t find the exact truck I wanted—a strong and sturdy half-ton with a fuel-efficient six cylinder engine and a manual transmission. So after enduring the sales vultures at several lots, I’m at one on McGloughlin and the sales guy is so laid back that I had to start talking to him. He showed me a couple of trucks and neither of them impressed me, but as I was walking away from the lot, a silver Mazda RX-7 sports car caught my eye.

Wouldn’t hurt to take it for a test drive, I figured. Not gonna buy it, but I might as well have some fun. So the sales guy gets the keys and we get in. It had dark maroon leather seats, a sun roof and it really drove well. I zipped it up and down a series of Milwaukie’s back roads. By the time I pulled it into the lot, I had sold it to myself. I dickered with the sales guy and his boss for awhile and got a couple hundred bucks off the sticker price, which means I left a lot more on the table. Then I drove it away.

It might have had something to do with having just gone through a divorce. My ex-wife had just bought a BMW. Whatever the rationalization behind buying the sports car, it was a totally irrational decision.

I’m recalling this misadventure now because so-called conservatives are nattering again about the “nanny state,” particularly here in Portland. `In Sunday’s Oregon, David Reinhard wrote: “Folks who think that individuals cannot be trusted to protect their own interests or make the best decision for themselves and their world will always find plausible, if attenuated, excuses to turn a traditionally private matter into a public cause celebre.”

Their mantra goes like this: “You don’t need the government telling you what to do. And you know how to spend your money better than the government does.”

Except, actually, you don’t.

Predictably Irrational

At least not all the time. Virtually every psychological study of human nature over the past decade—and there have been plenty of studies—demonstrates that people rarely make decisions by doing careful research and weighing the evidence. All kinds of emotions, biases and behavioral conditioning come into play.

A recent best-seller, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Duke University economics professor Daniel Ariely points out a number of human foibles. Such as this one on the fallacy of supply and demand.

The book covers a number of relevant topics as to how humans make decisions. We overweigh negative consequences, we make foolish decisions based on whether or not something is labeled as "free," social norms will often trump cost-benefit calculations, anchoring of choices skews our decision-making, and so on. Ariely concludes ". . .we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend."

Given this information, one could take public policy in two different directions. You could argue that if we act irrationally as individuals, then that irrationality is magnified in groups, such as legislative bodies. You could also observe perversely that people will irrationally ignore warnings and other information put out by the government. To a certain extent, these points are true. Almost all laws are the results of compromises that frequently fail to solve the problem at hand.

Warnings Heeded

People continue to smoke cigarettes, despite the Surgeon Generals' warning on the side of each pack for the past 44 years. The percentage of people who smoke, however, has declined dramatically since 1964—from 42 percent to 20 percent. Thus the package warning, along with other forms of government propaganda, seems to have had a positive effect (unless you happen to work for a tobacco company).

In his Sunday column, Reinhard takes on recent local issues, from the new county law requiring chain restaurants to supply calorie information on their meals to the proposed city law to tax plastic and paper bags by as much as 20 cents per bag.

Reinhard totally ignores reality when ranting about the law proposed by state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, which would require all adult bicyclists to wear a helmet. “Now, there's every good reason for bicyclists to wear helmets, but that's just the point: Adult bicyclists can recognize their own self-interest without the state's help.” Really? If he ever got out of his office and mingled with the bike crowds in town, he'd notice at least a quarter of all adult bikers are helmetless.

State governments had to enact laws to get people to wear seatbelts in cars, even though rational adults know seat belts save lives. Those legislative battles were fought 20 years ago. Nowadays, you don't think twice about instantly putting on your seat belt when getting in a car. The law has modified people's behavior.

Sometimes people do act rationally, given information. In cities which have enacted laws requiring restaurants to post calorie counts, customers are averaging 50 fewer calories per order.

As for the grocery bag law, both paper and plastic pose environmental problems and some of these problems cost the government and/or the public money in dealing with bags that are thrown away. (Or worse, plastic bags that people throw in the recycling bin that gum up the sorting machines.) It makes sense, then to provide consumers with an incentive to bring their own bags. I have one I bought from Fred Meyer several months ago and most of the time, I leave it in my house. And usually, it's still in the house the next time a do some grocery shopping. Being a cheapskate, you can bet I'll remember that bag if I'm going to be charged 20 cents for one of the store's flimsy bags.

A Game With No Refs

Government regulation, on the whole, is a good thing. Commerce without regulation is like playing basketball without a referee. That works okay in pickup games in the park, but can you imagine how nasty it would get in the NBA finals if there were no refs? There's be a lot of cheating, a lot of arguing and undoubtedly several fights. Eventually the game would be so degraded that only thugs and fools would play it—sort of like today's stock market.

If you look at the kinds of cars owned by liberals and conservatives. an ironic picture emerges. The car of choice for ardent liberals is the Volvo 240 station wagon, which may be the best car for the money ever made. This car is sturdy, reliable, extremely safe, wonderfully comfortable and pretty fuel efficient if you get the five speed, four cylinder model—yet boring. It's the ultimate nanny state car, although there are others, such as most Toyotas, Hondas and Subarus.

Meanwhile, the archtypical archconservative drives a Hummer or other macho behemoth, for no good reason other than he or she has the money to own one. Or maybe because in a collision, the SUV will crush whatever it encounters (although it is more likely to just roll over).

So it's weird. The kind of people who think government should be involved in helping people make decisions act rationally when they buy cars. And the people who think its not the government's business to influence individual behavior make stupid decisions about cars.

Go figure.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Day in the Life of Joe Republican

Look What Those Liberals Did

The following came in an e-mail and since we occupy a backwater of the Internet, everyone else probably has seen it before. But if not, it's a pretty good description of a certain segment of the political spectrum.

A Day in the Life of Joe Republican

Joe gets up at 6 a.m. and fills his coffeepot with water for his morning coffee. The water is clean and good because some tree-hugging commie liberal fought for minimum water-quality standards.

With his first swallow of coffee, Joe takes his daily medications His medications are safe to take because some evil lefty bomb-throwers fought to insure their safety and that they work as advertised.

All but $10 of Joe's medications are paid for by his employer's medical plan because some fire-breathing lazy ass union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance -- now Joe gets it too. Never would he turn it down.

He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs. Joe's bacon is safe to eat because some girly-man liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry.

In his morning shower, Joe reaches for his shampoo. His bottle is properly labeled with each ingredient and its amount in the total contents because some crybaby liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained. Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is healthy because some environmentalist wacko troublemaking militant fought for laws to stop industries from polluting our air.

Then Joe walks to the subway station for his government-subsidized ride to work. It saves him considerable money in parking and transportation fees because some fancy-pants limp-wristed freethinkng asshole fought for affordable public transportation, which gives everyone the opportunity to be a contributor.

Joe begins his work day. He has a good job with excellent pay, medical benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some fire-breathing Viet Cong-loving union members fought and died for these working standards. Joe's employer pays these high standards because Joe's employer doesn't want his employees to call the union in. So Joe benefits from what others have gained.

If Joe is hurt on the job or becomes unemployed, he'll get a workers compensation or unemployment check because some stupid pinko troublemakers didn't think Joe should lose his home because of a temporary misfortune.

At noontime Joe needs to make a bank deposit so he can pay some bills. Joe's deposit is federally insured by the FSLIC because some godless liberal red wanted to protect Joe's money from unscrupulous bankers who ruined the banking system before the Great Depression. He can thank that Stalinist Franklin D. Roosevelt for that.

Joe has to pay his Fannie Mae-underwritten mortgage and his below-market federal student loan because some elitist pointy-headed liberal decided that Joe and the whole society would be better off if he was educated and earned more money over his lifetime. That's okay, but the bastards tricked him because he has to pay taxes. Bush will fix that, he tells himself.

Joe gets home from work. He plans to visit his father this evening at his farm home in the country. He gets in his car for the drive. His car is among the safest in the world because some America-hating liberal fought for car safety standards. He arrives at his boyhood home. His was the third generation to live in the house financed by Farmers' Home Administration because bankers didn't want to make rural loans. The house didn't have electricity until some big-government New Deal Stalinist liberal stuck his nose where it didn't belong and demanded rural electrification.

Joe is happy to see his father, who is now retired. His father lives on Social Security and a union pension because some wine-drinking, cheese-eating Marxist made sure he could take care of himself so Joe wouldn't have to.

Joe gets back in his car for the ride home, and turns on a radio talk show. The radio host keeps saying that liberals are bad and conservatives are good. He doesn't mention that over the decades the beloved Republicans have fought to defeat every protection and benefit Joe enjoys throughout his day.

Joe agrees with the talk-radio loudmouth: "We don't need those big-government liberals ruining our lives! After all, I'm a self-made man and a good Republican and I believe all Americans should take care of themselves, just like I have!"

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Trade winds

Ichiro Must Go

UPDATE: The only player the Mariners traded was left relief specialist Arthur Rhodes. Ichiro stayed put. So did Raul Ibanez, who set a Mariner record with six RBI in one inning Monday and tied another this evening with 14 RBI in three games. After that outburst, the Mets might be regretting their failure to close a deal with Seattle.

We are temporarily abandoning discussions of politics and public policy because there is a far more important and pressing issue at hand. That, of course, is the future of the Seattle Mariners.

There is absolutely nothing important about the Mariners this season. They are the worst team in the American League. They already have waived two players who were in their Opening Day lineup and the rest of the team has been in a season-long funk. When their pitching staff actually pitches well (which is rarely), they don’t score runs. When their batters hit, their pitchers explode. They have some usually exceptional fielders who are having career years for errors committed.

The trading deadline, however, looms at the end of the month. It’s very likely that Jared Washburn, the team’s best pitcher in the past couple of weeks, is going to the Yankees. Arthur Rhodes, a left-handed reliever, is coveted by a few teams. But the big trade rumor is that our favorite Mariner, Raul Ibanez, will go to the Mets.

Definitely, the Mariners should trade an outfielder, but not Ibanez. They should dump Ichiro Suzuki before his skills diminish further and his trade value collapses.

Ibanez is a consummate pro and a team player. He is on his way to his third straight season of over 100 RBI. He is not very fast, but he still plays a decent left field and leads the team in outfield assists. I’m sure he’d love to play for the Mets, since he was born in New York. If he does, I wish him well.

Ichiro has been considered one of the best leadoff hitters in the game ever since he migrated to Seattle from Japan in 2001. The problem is, he’s not. Leadoff guys are supposed to get on base, and while Ichiro gets a lot of hits, almost all singles, he doesn’t walk very much. Thus his on-base percentage is mediocre for a leadoff hitter. On the Mariners, Willie Blomquist has a higher OBP. Willie who? Exactly. Blomquist’s batting average is 30 points lower than Ichiro’s, but his OBP is several points higher. Blomquist is just as efficient as Ichiro in stealing bases, as well. The Mariners would score more runs if he were in the leadoff spot.

Over the years, we’ve come to believe that Ichiro is primarily stat driven, and the stat that gets his motor running is number of base hits. In 2004, when he hit .372 and set a season record for hits, we often wondered whether he could hit .400 if he paid attention to the strike zone. It was obvious even then that he swung at a lot of bad pitches, expecting to use his speed to beat out routine infield grounders.

It appears he’s slowed down a bit, as reflected by his .295 batting average. He still doesn’t seem to know the strike zone, or if he does, he doesn’t care about it.

The number of times he has swung at an obvious ball on a 3 – 1 count indicates he would rather gamble on getting a base hit rather than a take a sure-thing walk. On several of those occasions, he has grounded into a double play.

And then there are the times he has tried to bunt for a base hit with a runner on second base, whereas a single that gets out of the infield would score the runner.

There are reports that Ichiro hasn’t been motivated to excel this year because the team is losing. He doesn’t get it. The superstar is supposed to play harder and motivate the rest of the team when the going gets tough. Instead, the only Mariners putting out are Ibanez and Jose Lopez.

It’s likely that most of baseball’s general managers are hip to Ichiro, but he still is a superstar who draws big crowds. He’d be huge in Los Angeles or New York. (Also in San Francisco, but the Giants aren’t in a pennant race this year.)

There are other downsides: he’s almost 35 (a year younger than Ibanez) and has four years left on a $90 million contract. The Mariners would have to get a lot of really good prospects, and probably at least a couple of established players, in return.

That last negative, however, is why the Mariners should trade him. Under the era of the hastily-departed Bill Bavasi, the team made some egregious moves. Bavasi signed free agents to ridiculous contracts based on flimsy evidence (e.g., Adrian Beltre, signed to a mega contract after one anomalous season of 48 home runs, who since has been just fair to middling.) Worse, Bavasi traded top prospects away for questionable veterans. Now, the Mariners minor league farm system is depleted and weak. If they trade a couple of pitchers this season, we wonder who is going to be able to get the opposite team out.

This year has already been written off. Probably the same for next season. But for rebuilding a team to compete in a few more years, Ichiro needs to go.