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.