Thursday, February 25, 2010

An unexpected claim of authority

I've written about the CPAC Conference where some people claimed they were the ones actually following the Constitution. A polling company took advantage of so many conservatives in one place and asked attendees, "Which of the following issues is most and second most importance to you personally?" None of the responders chose "Stopping Gay Marriage" as first choice and only 1% listed it as second choice. At the top of list was "Reducing size of Federal Government" and "Reducing Government Spending." How refreshing to see we're at the bottom of the list, tied with "Reducing Health Care Costs" (a disconnect here -- Dems have been saying this is the top of their list). Responders note that CPAC is not a gathering of religious conservatives, who are raising money just fine.

The British have a national law for civil unions, reported to be the same as marriage except for name. But to get the law passed, there was a concession made to Fundies -- such unions cannot be officiated in any church. Those churches that want to can, of course, bless such unions, but at a separate ceremony. The Quakers, Uniterians, and Liberal Judiasm are crying foul, saying the would be delighted to officiate at union ceremonies and are saying it is a violation of religious freedom to deny them the ability. Their authority for the claim of religious freedom is -- the First Amendment of the American Constitution.

An innovative Public Service Announcement showing that gay couples are legally discriminated against by the Social Security system. What planet are we on? The useful part is about 3 minutes long (the credits take the rest).

Don't Lie, Don't Misinform

The Palm Center took an extensive look at the 25 countries that allow gays into their military. This included all the studies associated with each country. Nathaniel Frank of the Palm Center was a guest on the radio show On Point. He said that gays caused no problems, no special accommodations were necessary, unit cohesion was improved, and harassment decreased. What's more the faster the change was implemented the better the results (in contrast to the US military needing a year to "study").

James Bowman of the Ethics and Public Policy Center was also on the program to give the opposing view. Frank was able to show why every one of Bowman's claims was wrong. The show is about an hour long and one must listen through lots of bigoted claims.

Media Matters has a campaign around the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law, titled Don't Lie, Don't Misinform to demand honesty in the debate around gays in the military. They offer their website as a resource so that journalists can verify what the Fundies say about the issue. This post includes many of the myths and the corresponding reality.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

We're the real Americans

Let's see… There's been a lot written about how certain Christian denominations claim they are the one true faith and if you don't believe the way they do you are most certainly going to hell and you probably caused a hurricane just because you exist. Never mind that their doctrine contradicts the major themes of the Bible, most notably the ones about loving your neighbor as yourself and leaving judging to God.

There has also been a lot of ink spilled over trying to "prove" that America is really a Christian nation, founded by devoted Christians, and that the separation of Church and State was created by those dratted liberals. Never mind that the separation from Church and State was originally promoted by religious conservatives to make sure the government stayed out of their way or that most of the founders were Deists, not Christians.

I haven't hear as much about these two claims lately, though I'm sure they haven't gone away. Perhaps the general public is getting wise? One can hope. Perhaps the arguments no longer have sufficient heft to sway public opinion. Time for bigger guns.

I've started hearing a new chorus giving cry. They're essentially saying, "We're following the American Constitution and you're not. We're the real Americans."

The chorus has gotten loud based on two related events. The first is the release of the Mt. Vernon Statement, yup named after George Washington's estate. Didn't we just have some kind of Fundie manifesto? Ah well, we can deride and ignore this one too. The second is the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) Conference that has just concluded.

The Mt. Vernon Statement decries the how America has lost its way and must return to its roots. It claims that Constitutional Conservatism (as opposed to, say, the current GOP from which there is a carefully defined distance) is based on these principles:
* It applies the principle of limited government based on the rule of law to every proposal.

* It honors the central place of individual liberty in American politics and life.

* It encourages free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions.

* It supports America’s national interest in advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world and prudently considers what we can and should do to that end.

* It informs conservatism’s firm defense of family, neighborhood, community, and faith.

The declared signers include the usual Fundie, anti-gay suspects -- people who won't be upset if we're murdered.

Of course, this contains the usual Fundie double-speak. You had doubts? Two major problems (Only two? Well, two I'll talk about).

That little point about individual liberty… Yeah, it sounds good, something that Americans will agree to, but given the track record of the signatories they mean individual liberty for them. If you don't fit into their worldview -- gays, those who are pro-choice, women -- need not apply. You see, individual freedom means they want the freedom to denounce gays and make our lives as miserable as possible. (I'm not providing links to the Statement itself, you can find it through this link).

The other problem is highlighted in the pronouncements by Kathryn Lopez, editor of the National Review Online, who attended the CPAC. In an interview on NPR Lopez, describing the Mount Vernon Statement, said:
A conservative is somebody who respects the Constitution. He wants to support policies that advance freedom. A conservative is someone who believes that we don't need to reinvent the wheel and that the founding fathers knew what they were talking about. They established a republic based on moral principles, and these are things that we don't want to get away from.

Did you catch that little phrase "a republic based on moral principles"? Very few moral principles, and none of the ones mentioned in the Mt. Vernon Statement, are in the Constitution. I looked. There is a lot of talk about how the government functions, who is allowed to vote, what a president can do, what the House and Senate are allowed to do, what happens when a president dies in office, that there is a Supreme Court and lower courts may be established as Congress desires. Boring details of how government works.

I suppose the lists of what Congress can and cannot do is the basis for an insistence on limited government, but then we're back to the issue of saying something they don't mean. Remember their definition of activist judges?

Then one gets to the amendments. A few of them might have moral overtones.
1. No established religion, freedom of speech, press, assembly, right to petition grievances.
2. Right to bear arms.
3. Must ask permission to quarter soldiers in a home.
4. Citizens secure from unreasonable search and seizure.
5. If detained a citizen must be charged, must have due process, can't incriminate self.
6. Right to speedy trial and confront witnesses.
7. Right to trial by jury.
8. Cruel and unusual punishment is banned.
13. Slavery is abolished.
15. All races may vote.
18. Liquor is abolished.
19. Women may vote.
21. Amendment 18 is repealed.
24. Poll tax banned.
26. 18 year olds may vote.

The Constitution says nothing about capitalism being the preferred economic system. Nothing about America must push for democracy around the world. Nothing about defense of family, neighborhood, and community. It does defend faith, but not in the way the signatories mean, not that their faith and religion trumps my faith.

It's clear what this crowd is doing. The Constitution is a sacred document in America. We don't tamper with it lightly (note the tough amendment process) and highly respect it. We get indignant when president or Supreme Court glaringly don't uphold it. But it is also a document the average American hasn't read and doesn't understand all that well. So claiming that something is in the Constitution gives it a cachet that might dupe the rubes.

This assault on the Constitution reminds me of the rise of fascism in Germany. They gained power and an early act was to suspend the German constitution.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In search of leadership

Admiral Mullen, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the one outspoken for repeal of the military's ban on gays, went to Amman, Jordan to talk to the troops there. He was surprised, since he had made so much news about it, that none of the soldiers brought up the issue of serving with openly gay soldiers. So Mullen himself brought it up. The response: a yawn -- no big deal, let's get on to real issues. Soldiers did say they would prefer the ban be repealed promptly so the debate doesn't get in the way of fighting two wars.

Alas, repeal of the ban is going nowhere. Obama isn't pushing it. Dems in the House and Senate are each waiting for the other to act because they are afraid of reigniting the culture wars. Even the Human Rights Campaign, the gay organization with the purpose of prodding the prez. and Congress seems to not want to make waves. Nobody is actually leading on the issue, in spite of overwhelming support by Americans and the common soldier declaring it to be a non-issue, and in spite of Dems appearing to be weak and without any principles at all.

Throngs hopeless before the masters

My sister sent a commentary by Charlie Reese, retired journalist of the Orlando Sentinel, titled 545 vs. 300 million. It was annoying enough (sorry sis) that I started looking into it. Shortly after that my dad sent an email of the same thing asking me to comment on it. I appreciate that he asks for my opinion. I had no difficulty finding the text online, in several places too. Even Snopes, the site that debunks fraudulent claims had a copy (though all they say is that Reese did write it, the first version was back in the 1980s and it was updated most recently (for personnel changes) in 2008). So here we go. Reese wrote in part:

Politicians are the only people in the world who create problems and then campaign against them.

Have you ever wondered, if both the Democrats and the Republicans are against deficits, WHY do we have deficits?

You and I don’t propose a federal budget. The president does.

You and I don’t have the Constitutional authority to vote on appropriations. The House of Representatives does.

You and I don’t write the tax code, Congress does.

You and I don’t set fiscal policy, Congress does.

You and I don’t control monetary policy, the Federal Reserve Bank does.

According to this claim, 300 million people are helpless before 545 rulers (435 representatives, 100 senators, 1 president, 9 justices). All we need to do is not reelect anybody and all our problems will go away. I don't buy it.

Fortunately, I blogged about this topic a week ago. The ideas here are not original with me. The source of the problem in governments of all levels is a paradox at the core of the American voter. We want government to solve all of our problems. We don't want to pay for any of the solutions. Politicians are quite happy to exploit that paradox for their own advantage. That means we've always had the opportunity to throw the bums out. But we happen to like the way our bum brings home the pork for our district or state while leaving all the other districts and states -- and our children -- to pay for our goodies. The president creates the wildly unbalance federal budget because if he didn't he would have a voter revolt -- don't you dare touch my Social Security, Medicare, mortgage deduction, and farm subsidy. You had better make sure I and my neighborhood and country are safe too. We've come to expect all those government programs to be a right.

The news (by which I mean NPR) has had several stories about Obama signing an executive order to form a bipartisan commission to bring down the deficit. He did it that way because Congress couldn't get the votes to form the commission -- something about several GOP senators changing their vote at the last minute while accusing the Dems of making the whole deficit reduction thing one big meaningless show. Right. Like the GOP wasn't going to do the same if they had their own commission. That's a way of saying that, in spite of heated rhetoric, the GOP isn't any more serious about the deficit than the Dems. Need an example? Scott Brown, that new senator from Mass. campaigned on fiscal responsibility. Where to cut? His answer: eliminate waste. I know the government is famously inefficient, but there is no way to trim $1.6 trillion by cutting only waste (then again, he might be hiding the GOP definition of waste). Keep in mind that amount is about 20% of the whole budget.

The end of the Reese tirade that I got from my sister (which wasn't on the online sources, so I doubt it was by Reese, besides I've seen it before) listed the various American taxes (telephone usage taxes included) and then says:

Not one of these taxes existed 100 years ago, and our nation was the most prosperous in the world. We had absolutely no national debt, had the largest middle class in the world.

Let's see, 100 years ago was 1910. Being the most prosperous country in the world wasn't all that hard to do, neither was having the largest middle class. That could mean the middle class was actually quite tiny compared to now and the poor of the time had no social safety net. Other emails that get passed around also note that in 1910 the average life expectancy was 47, while it is about 76 now. Health is much better, roads are much better -- highways exist now, I'm glad I have a phone that can be taxed, my parents get Social Security, my other sister is on Medicaid, and America has a pretty good military. No, I don't want to go back to conditions of 1910.

While I'm on the subject of deficits, reader Daniel did reply to my last posting on that issue. He remains unconvinced that now is a good time for America to face its mounting debts in spite of my elaborate explanation. You can read his response at the end of that posting. In turn, he hasn't convinced me, and I'll leave it at that.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Skeptical of success

I got a couple responses from my last set of postings. This time it wasn't my friend and debate partner, but someone named Daniel. He's commented a few times since last August, and I gather from his profile and blog, he is British and spent some time a year ago living and working in Washington DC and traveling a bit around America. I get so few comments I like to learn a bit about those who do respond.

And occasionally, as my friend and debate partner knows, I take issue with the comments -- or at least try to clarify the debate.

I wrote about how the federal government is running up huge deficits while pandering to the voters, a process that is not sustainable. The longer the fix is postponed the harder it will be to implement and with more problematic consequences.

Daniel responded:
So he should put the financial house in order... in the midst of a recession? This is one issue where, right now, he has to lie - for the good of the country. Your financial system is not in order, and cannot be put in order by cutting spending (now or taking-effect-in-the-future); nor can it be put in order by raising taxes, both of which take money out of the system.

I agree that turning off the stimulus and job assistance money now would make a bad problem worse. However, there are features in the US federal budget that are not sustainable and have been known not to be sustainable for many years, much longer than the current recession. The largest of these items is the Social Security system. It was sold to the voter (way back in the 1930s) as a tax on current income that would fund retirement. The higher a person's income over working years the higher the benefit later. It is actually a system where current workers fund current retirees. At the beginning one retiree was supported by 16 workers (if my memory is accurate). Today each retiree is supported by maybe 3 workers. The Baby Boom generation, a big demographic bump, is starting to retire, making the whole thing more precarious. There are (politically unpalatable) solutions to the situation -- delay the retirement age, reduce the payout to the richer beneficiaries, or taxing the payout as regular income.

My point of the original posting is that the sooner this situation is addressed the less catastrophic it will be for those affected. Addressing it is independent of the recession and changes, if done right, will take effect a few years from now when the recession is (hopefully) over. But Congress has rarely shown that much foresight.

Daniel also responded to my posting that the Washington Spectator thinks the Obama presidency will be mediocre:

It sounds like the Spectator's simply wrong.

See, this Congress/Presidency partnership has been the most successful since Reagan, according to this.

Just because the big-name issues haven't been successful doesn't mean other issues have failed; and just because Obama's been more bipartisan than some believe he should (remember, he's got to appeal to moderates, independents, and even conservatives who voted him into office, and he represents the whole country, not just liberals) doesn't mean he's failed.

Don't believe everything you read!

I hope by now, Daniel, that you've seen I am very skeptical about a lot of what I discuss here (and my friend and debate partner is good at prodding when I'm not skeptical enough). So, no, I don't believe everything I read.

I've been reading Newsweek for about 30 years, and have come to expect it's skeptical eye. But even there I don't always agree. I've now been reading the Washington Spectator for maybe 3 years. If it didn't pass the skeptic's test I would not have renewed beyond the 1 year gift from my father.

So, back to the Spectator's claim and opinion. Over the last year, Obama has indeed been outfoxed by the GOP in the manner described in my post. His blunders with health care reform still might doom the legislation. If he continues to be outfoxed by the GOP I would agree with the Spectator that he should be ranked as an average president.

Daniel cites a Washington Post article that says Obama is the most successful president since Reagan.

I don't know the political persuasion of the Post, so my skepticism is only on alert. If it was the Detroit News, whose conservatism is blatant, my skeptic meter would be redlining. Might the Post have a political motive for pumping up the president's image? I won't guess.

Now to the claim itself. Actually, the Post article says, "Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president -- and that includes Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson." It leaves me wondering how success is measured. Quite a claim. Even so, the *Post* bases it's claim on these accomplishments:

The big stimulus bill not only started the economy on the rebound, it included provisions for tax cuts, energy conservation, renewable-energy production, green technologies, help in home buying, college tuition, health information technology, research into effectiveness of health treatments, education reforms, clean water, smart electrical grid, and broadband internet expansion. Not bad for one bill.

Additional successful bills include: children's health insurance, improved oversight of bailout funds, FDA regulation of tobacco, land conservation, credit card bill of rights (it took me a while to figure out the bill that came today was not accusing me of missing a payment), and defense procurement. Not mentioned in the article is employment non discrimination, protecting gays in the workplace. Still in the works are carbon cap-and-trade, financial regulation, and health care reform.

Yes, that is quite a lot accomplished. Thanks for pointing it out.

The purpose of the Post article wasn't just to catalogue the legislative successes of the last year, but to highlight the disparity between that success and the grumbling by the general public. Some of the reasons:

We're still in that recession and unemployment is still high. If a prez. can claim he is responsible for a good economy, he gets blame when it is bad.

People are mad that the banks got bailed out.

The negotiations of the health care bill have been unusually public, rancorous, and messy.

Not all of those legislative successes have wide public support. Some people don't like the basic idea. Some don't like the amount of government intrusion. Some don't like the bloated deficit.

The stimulus bill was put together without anyone selling it to the public in a meaningful way and the result seemed to be the typical pork-barrel ways that Obama campaigned against.

Given the way the GOP has stirred up the public and been obstructionist, Congress as a whole has become unpopular and taken the president's popularity down with them. The popular legislation is dismissed because it came from unpopular legislators.

Now with Dems losing that 60th seat in the Senate, all that success of the first year might not continue. If Obama can't figure out how to get legislation passed with a 59 seat majority -- the Washington Spectator has it's doubts -- there could be real Senate gridlock, nothing will get done and Obama will deservedly be tagged as -- mediocre.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


According to the Washington Spectator (alas, links require subscription), Obama is a mediocre president. He has been frequently outfoxed by the GOP. Some of the evidence:

* Obama started his negotiations of last year's stimulus package by already conceding a great deal of the GOP position. They wanted tax cuts, even though cuts are less effective as a stimulus and the package included lots. But when you start by handing your opponent his basic position he is, naturally, going to push for more.

* A key part of the health care bill process was put in the hands of Max Baucus, who had already accepted a career total of $3 million from health care interests. Baucus slowed down his committee's work even while the GOP discussed their strategy of keeping the bill off the Senate floor until after the summer recess -- which the GOP used to stir up the specter of death panels. Obama stood by until it was too late.

* Bush accomplished a great deal more, governing as if he had a mandate, with a tiny margin in the House and 49-51 deficit in the Senate. Yet Obama is stymied while having a wide margin in the House and 57 votes in the Senate.

Sometimes the word choice matters a lot

A new poll demonstrates this word choice issue clearly. When asked, "Do you approve of homosexuals serving in the military?" 57% of respondents said yes. When asked, "Do you approve of gays and lesbians serving in the military?" the response jumped to 70% in agreement. When the same two questions were posed with the addition of the word "openly" the response was 42% for the word "homosexuals" and 58% for "gays and lesbians." Either way the results show that support for gays in the military is increasing.


According to the counter I see when I post entries to this blog this is post 1000! And it has taken me only 2 1/4 years to do that much writing.

Let me use this as a moment to take a break from being profound.

I shoveled over 6 inches of snow yesterday morning. By the time I ventured out in the afternoon there were no traffic problems. Even my own street had been plowed by then (my city can take several days to get around to it when there is only an inch or two). I saw cars by the side of the highway, but traffic flowed at posted speed (or above as drivers in the area tend to do).

When I got to the Ruth Ellis Center I was rushed away from the kitchen for a special project. So I didn't serve the food (and smell the fries being fried) or clean the pots, my usual chores. My project for the evening was a lot more fun. I was given a large bag of teddy bears (and related critters, one a stegosaurus), a box of toiletries, and a bag of scarves. I put a few toiletries in a plastic bag, attached it to the plastic chord around the bear's neck that already held a greeting card, and then wrapped a (carefully chosen color coordinated) scarf around the critter. It was fun to see the 20 year old gay guys express their delight in choosing a bear to keep.

What's a government to do?

A couple days ago I wrote that the GOP seems to believe that government should offer no services, at least not at the city level. There is an obvious question behind that statement: What are essential government services? What are the things a government (at least one in American) should do? What things should a government leave for someone else to do? What things should a government not do? Why did you make those choices? Who pays for it?

All are interesting questions. But I'm not going to make any attempt to answer them, at least not today. What I am going to talk about is that we in American are steadfastly refusing to answer those questions.

According to Jacob Weisberg in Newsweek, in the first of a trio or articles, that refusal leaves us in a bind. We want Washington to do something about unemployment but don't like the stimulus package and don't want another. We want a fix for health care and we don't. At the root of that ambivalence is this core paradox: We want government to fix problems but we don't want to pay for the fix. We dislike government in the abstract, but don't you dare mess with my Social Security check. We like the idea of sacrifice and hard choices but you better not demand it of me.

Of course, politicians pander to the paradox. As a result, nothing meaningful can get done.

Robert Samuelson's take on the issue actually started with the questions I posed above -- what should the government do, why, and where does it get the money? He then goes on to say that Obama's budget tinkers around the edges, racking up huge deficits for a long time and declaring victory if a deficit is reduced by a smidgen. But we can no longer tinker and we make the problems worse the longer we wait.

Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security make up over 40% of the federal budget. Participants in those programs would be drastically affected if changes had to be huge and quick. Cutting a current retiree's benefits would create a storm. Better to make changes now so those affected can make adjustments. Changing the benefits of someone who will retire in 10 years allows the affected people to plan for the change.

Evan Thomas says there is a reason why politicians pander to the paradox. They get thrown out of office when they don't. When Obama was campaigning he gave hints that he would challenge the paradox and actually tell voters the hard truth. And actually got elected. Someone has to tell the truth and he is the only one, given the players in Washington, who might. Yet, now in office, Obama is also in the midst of the pandering.

Thomas lists the available options. The feds have relied on an ever improving economy to allow them to handle increasing debts. But the debts are so high and the economy is fragile enough such high debts can strangle growth. Government borrowing squeezes out private borrowing. The Fed can always print money. That eventually leads to high inflation. Raise taxes -- enough to resolve the problem -- would also stifle economic growth. Or lawmakers, led by Obama, can put the national financial house in order.

Obama might lead. But he hasn't yet.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Taxes are too high!

Michigan has been knocked back on its kiester due to the shrinking of the auto industry. The state budget is a mess with cuts to everything. The Detroit Free Press has reported in the past that the state tax system is structured around a robust auto industry and it will never contribute the taxes it has in the past. It's time to restructure the tax system to get revenues from the 21st century economy based on services. Naturally, the GOP controlled state senate is sticking to its no new taxes pledge, easily making the Dem governor dance to their tune. School systems and state universities faced cuts this year and are crying for help.

That leaves me wondering just exactly does the GOP consider to be essential government services. The answer appears to be: None. Their goal seems to be no government at all.

Focus on the Family, the Fundie organization that has long said nasty things about gays, has its headquarters in Colorado Springs. Several other Fundie and conservative groups have made their home in the city and now control its politics. The city has rejected tax increases and the city treasury will soon be empty. Already a third of the street lights are out; parks, pools, and museums are about to close; there aren't enough firefighters or cops; no busses on weekends; no more street paving. The newly homeless residents no longer have social services and are setting up tent ghettos. Taxes still too high?

I've wondered if the Michigan governor would ever consider sitting down with the majority leader of the senate and go over every item in the budget, saying, "Do you believe the government should pay for… -- yes or no." Then go on to how much, then on to how to pay for them. She could then go to the public and say, "This is what the GOP thinks are the only things government should pay for. Do you agree?" Alas, she's too much of a wimp and the GOP are too evasive to be pinned down that clearly.

Raising a stink for a dollar

I wrote yesterday about the news that the judge in the Calif. gay marriage case is gay. Of course, the anti-gay organizations in the trial are crying foul, saying that this proves what they knew all along. The judge is biased. Naturally, the stink they raised was part of a donor solicitation letter. The charge is easily picked apart, which I won't bother to do. I'll only note that straight judges don't decline divorce cases, black judges don't decline race cases, Catholic judges don't decline Christian cases, and wasn't there a big deal last summer about the importance of putting a Latina on the Supremes? Even so a few say the gay judge should have stepped aside, if only to deny the anti-gay crowd a fund-raising opportunity (like that would work).

I think the show is too tame

There has been a lot of talk lately that slavery and Jim Crow hadn't been all that big of a deal, that those forces were actually benign. All this is to support the claim that with Obama in the White House we're in a post-racial world. Sure we are. Kris Broughton, who calls himself Brown Man Thinking Hard, has created a 7 minute video Racial Discrimination: The Reality Show in which he asks us to imagine that white people were the slaves and the black people were the masters. This is what your life would be like. I think the whole video could have been a lot more horrific than it is.

By appointment only

Snow storm in Michigan today so my evening rehearsal was cancelled. That gives me time to write.

I moved to the Detroit area around Labor Day of 1978 to take my first job. My work address was 1 Woodward, which overlooks the Detroit River and had great views into Canada. I commuted from the northern suburbs, living near my college roommate. Most of my commute was by train from which I could gleefully note the clogged freeway the train passed over.

Once a month this company had a luncheon for the professionals and managers in a nearby hall. Each luncheon featured a speaker. One of them was Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. I don't remember what he talked about, though I do remember the line about, "those cornfields north of 8 Mile" implying the suburbs just outside the city was full of hicks.

I didn't stay at that company very long. By the spring of 1979 I had gotten a job at Henry's company in Dearborn, where I worked for 27 years.

As one who took advantage of the cultural institutions of Detroit -- the orchestra, institute of arts, etc. -- I ventured into the city regularly and was puzzled by Dearborn colleagues who bragged about how many years it had been since they last drove into the city. But I didn't grow up in the city and they did.

Coleman Young was the first black mayor of Detroit. He was elected in 1973, not long after the city became majority black, and served as mayor (some say king) until his retirement in 1993. Author Paul Clemens was born in Detroit the year Young took office and has written a book, Made in Detroit, about growing up as a white kid in predominantly black Detroit. I had put this book on my Christmas wish list and my niece bought it for me. She said it looked intriguing and wanted my review of it. So, here it is.

Clemens is a fine writer and tells a fascinating tale. He doesn't try to analyze race relations (well, not too much). He reports on how his experiences are affected by race conflict. One example is the "By Appointment Only" sign in the neighborhood barbershop. That sign only mattered when a black man walked in -- sorry, the next available appointment isn't until next week. The author does comment on how the mayor antagonizes whites to keep blacks voting for him, yet the city keeps declining. Young was asked why the city is in such poor shape and he blames all the people who left -- which had me wondering why he didn't work to make the city more desirable and conciliatory to make fewer people want to leave. The Clemens family stuck it out until the 1990s before bailing for the 'burbs.

I understand a bit more about my former colleagues who saw no reason to cross Detroit city borders. They lived through the racial tensions of the 1950s and '60s (including the 1967 riots) and I did not. They were incensed by Coleman Young. I could ignore the guy.

Clemens describes the location of many Detroit things in the book. I got out a map of the city to note the neighborhoods where his family lived and the various Catholic churches he and his extended family attended. However, many times the author could be elusive. He never names the university where he got his Bachelor degree (Grand Valley State University?), nor the city where he lives a couple years after he gets his Masters (Grand Rapids?). He is even vague about the college in the Cass Corridor (Wayne State University?) where he worked on the grounds crew one summer and the Catholic college (Marygrove?) where he worked once he moved back to Detroit. Why be so elusive?

Clemens reads several black authors, such as James Baldwin, as part of his studies and describes his internal debates with them. At times I wondered where he was going with these thoughts. I kept waiting for him to come up with grand pronouncements on race relations. Perhaps his point is there aren't such things.

Though there are minor drawbacks the story is worth the effort. It’s a book I recommend.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The chair recognizes the senator from Michiana

With the current dysfunction in the US Senate there is renewed talk about it's imbalance. The two senators from Wyoming represent less than a half million people while the two from California represent over 33 million. Alas, the constitution says that changing the representation in the Senate needs approval from all 100 members, not the usual 2/3 needed to amend the constitution. What to do? If you can't adjust the senators, instead adjust the states. Here's a map showing state lines redrawn so that each one of the 50 states has a population of about 5.5 million. Given state politics around here the state of Michiana would be quite happy to be split off from the state of Detroit (which appears to be everything south of Flint), though Michiana would include the southern shore of Lake Michigan, including the city of Gary. State lines would then be redrawn after every 10 year census. Yeah, I know the headaches involved, but I like the thinking of coming at the problem through the back door.

Perhaps time for some populism

I've written about the disastrous ruling by the Supremes to allow corporations to enter politics with a wide open wallet. Jonathan Alter in Newsweek says that using a constitutional amendment to reverse that decision is not a good idea because it tampers with the First Amendment and sets a bad precedent. Instead it is time for public financing of campaigns. Raise a particular amount of money (like $50K for House races) in donations of $100 or less and the candidate gets a significant amount (like $900K for the House). Yes, candidates can get a lot more from corporations but those who don't can brag about their clean financing. Several states have tried this already and voters go for the clean candidates. If Obama gets behind it he could easily get his 13 million campaign contributors to get Congress to act. It's time. Disclosure requirements are a good idea too.

Michael Hirsh and Daniel Gross on Newsweek comment on Obama taking up the populist chant. Populism can drive politicians to do some dumb things, but it can also guide them to some smart ones. Here are a few for the current Washington mess.

* Cut Wall Street compensation. The big guys say they need those huge bonuses to keep the best talent. It would be better if the rest of corporate America had access to that talent to solve useful problems, like those in medicine.

* Force investors to cut what is owed in bad mortgages. There was talk of "moral hazard" -- the idea that if borrowers had their debt reduced they would be come careless with their debit. Funny that wasn't brought up when big banks walk away from debt.

* Fix "too big to fail." Big Finance no longer has to play by free-market rules.

* Restore basic commodities to market prices by curbing speculators.

* Reform tax policy. The general wisdom is we should tax something if we want to discourage it (which means a big gasoline tax is the only way to get to more fuel efficient cars, which Europe has done well). So if we want jobs we should reduce payroll taxes. Lessen Wall Street speculation by taxing it. The tax climate for investing was the best it has ever been during the last decade -- and stocks did mighty poorly.

Raising ruckus v. enduring political structure

Before the just concluded Tea Party Convention, Joe Scarborough commented on the success of the movement. Scarborough is GOP and co-hosts the MSNBC show Morning Joe. He wrote this commentary for Newsweek. Though the movement scares the Dems it will be very difficult to turn it into a political party (as much as my friend and debate partner want to fracture the GOP). The tea party was created out of a deep skepticism and dissatisfaction of the status quo. But the various leaders are as distrustful of each other as they are of the federal government they are battling. It is easy to raise a ruckus, difficult to create an enduring political structure. They may have a hard time dealing with success. However, they still can maintain enough bite to influence the 2010 election.

But they're so cute!

The judge in the Calif. gay marriage case is himself gay! It won't make any difference because the case is going to be repealed no matter how he rules.

A protest sign spotted recently: "If God hates FAGS, why are we so cute?" A responder suggests the annoying word really stands for a psychological disorder named Fanatical Anti Gay Syndrome.

Maybe two Supreme Court vacancies -- Stevens and Ginsberg -- coming soon. Will Obama nominate someone just as reliably liberal or with the court drift a bit more rightward?

Afraid the tables might be turned?

Many people, such as McCain, want to keep the ban on gays in the military. Their reasoning essentially comes down to the straight soldiers are afraid they will be raped by the gay ones. That fear is called projecting. It seems to appear a lot when discussing gay issues. According to studies funded by the Department of Veteran Affairs, 30% of military women are raped, 71% are sexually assaulted, 90% are sexually harassed, with perhaps only 10% of all these incidents reported. Straight soldiers are well aware of what gets done to the women around them (they may even participate). They are afraid that they will be treated in the same way they treat women. Sorry, guys, gay men aren't that interested in straight men.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Abandoned and on ice

A couple guys are highlighting abandoned houses in Detroit by spraying one with water and photographing the ice enshrouded result. Then they will chip away the ice and deconstruct the house, salvaging all they can, and turn the lot over to an urban farm cooperative. They're also involved in such neat things as sidewalk soup kitchens.

In this posting from last September the ice house guys have a couple aerial shots of Detroit, one from 1949, the other from 1967. They have set them up to alternate with satellite photos of the area today. It's amazing to watch the houses disappear. Even so, there are thousands of abandoned houses in Detroit and the city manages to raze about 100 a year.

Anyone with a spine out there?

Yes, I know it has been a week since I last posted. I tend to do my blogging in the evening and there were a couple evenings when I didn't feel like writing anything followed by a slew of evenings when I was out -- and a few more of those to follow, which is why I'm writing during the day. Even so I've been accumulating stuff to write about. A bunch of these topics might be a bit old and several won't get my usual full treatment and will be lumped together.

First, news on the mouse front. It has been 11 days since I plugged yet another hole between outside and the basement and put steel wool where pipes come in and out of the cabinet beneath the sink. Since then the traps have not been triggered and I've seen no evidence of mice. Glad that episode is over with. I had escorted 11 mice out of the house (though I can't tell if it was 11 different mice).

The Westboro Baptist Church -- that virulently homophobic church that protests soldier funerals saying the deaths are justice from God because America doesn't condemn gays strongly enough -- decided to protest the headquarters of Twitter in San Francisco because that company isn't using their enormous reach to condemn gays. The church's representatives were outnumbered by a counterprotest group holding nonsensical signs: "I was promised donuts." "I have a sign." "Silly hats only." "Build prisons on the moon." Passersby gave the nonsense signs a lot of attention, ignoring the Westboro gang. Mission accomplished.

A sweet video about how it is becoming difficult for corruption to hide in secrecy. This one's about banning video from the Calif. marriage trial but the idea will mean more as corporations open the floodgates to money.

We've long known the GOP is a known enemy of gays (though, thankfully, that is lessening). But, as I say again, the Dems are not necessarily our friends. The prime example (at the moment) is the Hawaii House. They can't claim this incident is the result of GOP maneuvering because the GOP has such a tiny presence. Here's what happened.

Last February the House voted for civil unions with a margin so wide it was one vote shy of veto-proof (with one pro-gay representative missing).

The Senate sat on the bill, then killed it, then brought it back. The House leadership declared the bill would not be worth their attention unless the Senate passed it with a veto-proof majority. You never know what the governor will do so lets not waste effort. Towards the end of January the Senate *did* overwhelmingly pass the civil unions bill.

What to do when your bluff has been called? The House Dems met behind closed doors to talk it out. They decided that they didn't want to go on record in an election year, so through an untraceable voice vote they chose to postpone voting on civil unions. Let me repeat that -- none of them wanted to go on record for supporting gay civil unions, in sharp contrast of their vote a year ago. One protestor summed it up saying something like, "Oh, sorry that my civil rights stepped on the toes of your reelection campaign."

Nepal -- Nepal! -- will be offering same-sex marriage soon. It is trying to make itself the gay destination of choice that Hawaii is working hard not to be.

Jon Stewart has a few things to say about bumbling Dems. This was from the show just before the Dems lost that senate seat in Mass. Stewart's histrionics quite accurately show my annoyance with the party that needs a collective spine transplant.

Stewart is at it again, this time praising Admiral Mike Mullen for his stand on repealing the ban on gays in the military. McCain is caught in a flip-flop on the issue, and not for the better. Stewart and a colleague explore the issue that too many senators are old, not only that, they're openly old. Well worth the 8 minutes.

The text of Mullen's testimony, in case anyone needs to know what a spine looks like.

There is a very good reason not to waste the year studying the military ban (and it would be a waste because it should only take 2-3 months to implement). If the whole thing is delayed after the election the increase in the number of GOP legislators will make passing the repeal that much harder, or impossible. Yeah, I know you don't want to go into the election with that vote on your record. But see my comments about spines.