Sunday, March 27, 2011

Government Shutdown and the Game of Chicken

Upon reading Saturday morning’s headline in the New York Times, “Budget Impasse Increasing Risk of U.S. Shutdown,” my wife remarked that it sounds like a game of Chicken.  To this I responded, “That’s exactly right, except that the initial dare, with all of its bullying and taunting, has come from the Right.  Also, to continue the analogy, the Democrats are driving dad’s nice, fairly new sedan, while the Republicans are driving a jalopy.”  Of course, being a lot smarter and quicker than I, she got it:  “You mean, the Republicans [and let me go to the source of this issue, the freshman Tea Partyers] don’t care if there’s a big crash!”
Now, I happen to have some familiarity with the game of Chicken.  I was a bit of a “greaser” in high school in the mid-late 1950s and enjoyed working on cars.  One weekend, for example, I and a friend dropped a 1957 Corvette engine into his old 1949 Ford coupe (creating a pretty dangerous, overpowered vehicle); I, myself, owned a sleek 1951 Mercury coupe, shiny in its ten coats of black lacquer (until I slid it sideways into a telephone pole).  Usually, though, I was fairly cautious; I certainly never played Chicken and rarely participated in a drag race; my friend with the Ford was less inhibited, and as his companion I experienced a bit of the insanity of Chicken and half-mile drag races on a particular, slightly less-travelled section of suburban road in Westchester County.
Even then, I realized these activities were pretty stupid.  But they were definitely a part of the coming-of-age activities in America’s automobile culture.  To emphasize this point, who hasn’t enjoyed watching all those shenanigans that precede the tragic denouement of American Graffiti--all that hanging around the drive-ins, revving engines to show off, driving off somewhere to accomplish nothing in particular, holding the cops in disdain and taunting them?  
Now, if we project these activities to the present, they provide an interesting analogy to the GOP and its Tea Party compatriots.
The showing off (engine revving) is like the new Republican majority making a big deal of reading the Constitution at the opening session in the House, even as they edited out certain parts of the Constitution that they didn’t like, and as two of their freshman members tried to raise their right hands and be sworn in while watching the ceremony on television. The Republicans also intended to have every new piece of legislation also cite the passage in the Constitution that authorizes the bill, a cumbersome and very likely unworkable demand that is purely symbolic (more engine-revving). 
The driving around aimlessly and accomplishing nothing is like all the Republican talk about jobs being the first and most important piece of legislative activity, and yet spending all their time defunding NPR, going after Planned Parenthood, and attacking several other pet social issues which have no relationship to creating jobs and in fact are likely to put more people out of work.  And let’s not forget that House Speaker Boehner said, if our policies cause job losses, “so be it.”
The disdain and the taunting of cops finds its analogy in the name calling almost every Republican directs toward the President of the United States.  We recall those Sarah Palin rallies where she would whip up her base to the point of encouraging cries of “treason” and “kill him.”  Among more recent examples, Senator Jim DeMint (R, SC) compared Obama to Hitler and Hugo Chavez and also said he was “the world’s best salesman of socialism;”  John Boehner (R, OH) called Obama’s budget proposal “a new American socialist experiment;”  Mike Pence (R, IN) as third ranking House Republican called Obama’s economic agenda “European style socialism.” 
Now, “socialism” may well serve as a classic Republican four-letter-word, but Republican taunts against our President go much further. Almost daily, we hear Republicans tossing out terms like fascism, communism, naziism, which are not merely false, but totally contradictory. And then there are those insane references to Obama being a Muslim, wanting Sharia law in our country, and not being born in America and possibly being Kenyan. 
These are utterances not even worthy of thoughtless freshmen.  But they are part of an aimless, undisciplined and suicidal rejection of any bipartisanship and compromise that is being pushed by those conservative, freshman Tea Party representatives.  They hold the steering wheel of the Republican jalopy, and when the Democratic drivers veer off course at the last moment to avoid destroying dad’s nice sedan (and their lives), there is a good chance that the Tea Partyers will veer the same way. They seem to want the crash more than the victory.
After all, there is no victory for the course they are driving.  As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has been arguing for several months, “slashing spending in the face of high unemployment is a mistake.”  [NYTimes, March 25, 2011, most recently]  The only sane strategy is to create jobs now; we will have time later to deal with the deficit.  However, creating jobs is tough work and nowhere near as much fun as going after NPR or Planned Parenthood...or taking the party jalopy out for a game of Chicken.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Power of Water and Ink

That old adage that an image is worth a 1000 words is well-served by this wonderful short created by (among other things) director and illustrator Clement Beauvais to promote safe drinking water.  In this case, do we say a video image is worth 1000X words?

I'll be back soon with another of my regular blogs.  Meanwhile, please watch, from Brain Pickings:  PICKED: Beautiful Short Film for World Water Day

Thursday, March 17, 2011

NPR: Whose National Priority Is It?

Today we are faced with several critical issues, among which are the budget and a possible government shutdown;  our desperate need for some sort of jobs bill;  new concerns regarding the safety of our nuclear power plants;  the fate of Japan, one of our major allies, in the wake of the earthquake and destruction by a tsunami;  and the developing revolts in the muslim countries of northern Africa.

One would imagine that it was the extreme nature of these issues that prompted Congressional Republicans to call an emergency meeting.  Is the “Party of No” finally setting aside its narrow ideological interests and tackling the real issues facing our country and the world? 

No, how naively optimistic of me to think this!  Their emergency meeting was to gather the Rules Committee to rush to the floor HR 1076, which seeks to prohibit all funding for NPR (National Public Radio) and for the acquisition of radio content. Representative Richard Nugent (R, FL) claims that they are not defunding NPR but merely “liberating it from public dollars.”
Now, any American who really wants to learn the in-depth details of those several critical issues to which I referred in the first paragraph (as well as almost anything else of importance), most likely will get his/her information from either NPR or The New York Times.  These sources offer the most thorough news coverage one can find.

Moreover, recent polls have shown that 69% of the American public favors continuing governmental support of public radio and TV.  Yet, our hypocritical Congressional Republicans, going against their often-invoked mantra that they are merely doing “what the American people want,” are going to defund (or, if you embrace Orwell, “liberate”) America’s best and most thorough source of news.

I guess that it’s not enough that Fox News has operated for over a decade as the propagandistic mouthpiece of right-wing Republican politics--the Republican Pravda, if you will.  Now the majority party of our House wants to insure that American citizens can only get their news from Fox, because it is clear that, as Representative Steve Israel (D, NY) says, after attacking reproductive health, and the salaries of teachers, nurses and researchers, “now the Republicans want to control the news.”    

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Charlie Sheen and the Wall Street Bankers

In his article in New York Magazine entitled, “A Drug Called Charlie Sheen,” Mark Harris pointed out the obvious, that, “of course” Sheen has “money on his mind,” given Sheen’s many delusional statements such as “his spectacularly tone-deaf assertion that at nearly $2 million per episode he is ‘underpaid,’ [and also] his insistence that CBS apologize ‘while licking my feet.’”  That’s the deference expected from people who consider themselves so far above the rest of us--we should lick their godlike feet.
Now, almost all of us can agree with Mark Harris’ analysis that this is “all nuts (albeit a degree of nuts not even Hollywood has seen before).”  But is Sheen’s behavior--claiming to be underpaid while making millions of dollars a year and then also demanding apologies from those who criticize him--unique?  Is it really “nuts?”  Or have we been exposed to similar behavior elsewhere in our society in recent years?  
We may consider Hollywood actors an overly-pampered bunch, but Sheen’s greed and haughty defensiveness comes from an arrogance that really is not so prevalent among actors.  After all, it’s the rare Hollywood actor who hasn’t experienced the feast-and-famine nature of this profession.  Most Hollywood actors have learned modesty through bitter experience.
However, we do have a profession in which such modesty seems quite rare, and which of late has revealed a similar arrogant combination of greed and lofty defensiveness.  It is, in fact, a profession that we were brought up to consider among our most respected and staid--the profession of investment banking.
Let’s just consider one of the major players in this field, Goldman Sachs’ chief executive, Lloyd C. Blankfein.  In 2007, Blankfein was paid $68 million, even as his firm misled investors in a subprime mortgage product (that was devised to fail) and as Goldman Sachs contributed to the housing market collapse of that year. In December of 2009, Blankfein’s bonus alone, in the form of special stock, was valued at $9 million. Wall Street took this meager sum as a sign of restraint, even though it exceeded what any five well-paid and comfortable members of the middle class could ever hope of earning over a lifetime!     
But we all know that investment bankers earn scads of money and they expect their earnings to rise indefinitely.  As with Sheen, they have “money on their mind.”  But does Sheen’s lofty defensiveness accompany this greed in the case of our bankers?  Let us simply recall that, in November of 2009, Blankfein stated that, “I’m doing God’s work.”  Also, in a London Times Interview the same year, in answer to a question whether Goldman employees make too much money, he retorted, “Is it possible to have too much ambition? Is it possible to be too successful?”
Early this year, some of the world’s most powerful financial executives met in Davos, as reported by Paul Krugman in his commentary of January 31, 2011.  Their principal demand in this meeting was that governments must stop banker bashing.  As Krugman wrote, “Apparently bailing out bankers after they precipitated the worst slump since the Great Depression isn’t enough--politicians have to stop hurting their feelings, too.”  So, yes, the defensiveness is there as well.  We ought to know better than to criticize such deities!
Once they retire, however, some investment bankers have been able to descend from their Olympian heights and rejoin normality. For example, John Mack, chairman of Morgan Stanley, admitted in February of 2010 that Wall Street investment bankers are overpaid and that is not likely to change.  “I still don’t think the industry gets it,” he said.  As an example, he cited  a Morgan Stanley trader (under the age of 30) who, when offered $11 million in compensation, jumped to a hedge fund that paid him $25 million. [David Mildenberg, Feb. 24, 2010 Bloomberg News]
In another instance, John S. Reed, a founder of Citigroup, echoed Mack, saying of many Wall Street executives, “They just don’t get it.  They are off in a different world.”  [Louise Story and Eric Dash, Jan 9, 2010, New York Times, “Banks Prepare for Big Bonuses, and Public Wrath”]
So, there it is, Charlie Sheen and Wall Street investment bankers have something in common; the main difference is that Charlie Sheen’s greed and outrageously haughty behavior only hurts him. Those same traits among our investment bankers have hurt our country (and to some extent the world), bringing us to the brink of financial disaster. Naturally, given their Olympian stature, these perpetrators simply move on to bigger rewards while continuing to live in “a different world.”
Give me the public spectacle of a Charlie Sheen any day over the hidden machinations of unethical bankers whose profession, regretfully, we have been brought up to trust so implicitly.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Japan, America and Preparedness

The tsunami disaster that is devastating Japan has swept me back, briefly, to my blog of February 6, 2011: “Our Water & Fracking,”  where I had mentioned that the fissures created by high pressured liquid can cause seismic tremors. 

In that blog, I mentioned the case of Cleburne, TX, of June 2009.  Just this month, we have learned that Conway, Arkansas (just slightly north of Little Rock) has been experiencing “a swarm of earthquakes,” ranging from 1.8-3.8 on the Richter scale. Two natural gas companies have agreed to temporarily suspend fracking activities until “scientists sort it all out.”  See:

Now, these are rather minor seismic events, certainly nothing like the 8.9 one that caused the tsunami on Friday, and they also are totally unrelated to what has taken place in Japan.  However, these fracking incidents are emblematic of the extent to which we, in America, tie the hands of effective governmental oversight while enabling private corporations to exercise their will on our country and our lives in a way that Japan and no other industrialized country would tolerate.

Today’s (Saturday) news reports from Japan offer insights into how that country’s strict construction codes and extensive disaster preparedness has very likely saved many lives as well as damage to its infrastructure. I can only think of how unprepared our country would be for anything like this tsunami, and, for example, how poor our preparation was for Hurricane Katrina.

Reading about Japan got me thinking of how America is likely to be even less prepared for its next natural disaster, not because of Katrina, but because of the results of our recent mid-term elections.  Republicans, Tea-Partiers (and let me also throw in libertarians) have an ideological (and maybe fatal?) disposition against what they like to call “big government.” Yet, without “big government” countries cannot create the sorts of systems that are required for effective disaster planning.  

James Glantz and Norimitsu Onishi, quoting tsunami preparedness expert Rich Eisner, wrote in today’s New York Times that “Japan’s ‘massive public education program’ could in the end have saved the most lives.”  Yet, America’s present-day Republicans would castigate such an education program as just one more example of big government interference. And the budget proposals coming out of today’s Congress show just how much we continue to shortchange education and infrastructure development (among many other things).  Let us pray that the seismic pressure is not building on the San Andreas Fault, at least not until we have had a few decades of politicians who understand the value of governmental oversight and control.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Women: Wronged By the Right

Today, at the Armory Show in New York, I saw a large print of a photograph by Jodi Bieber, a portrait of Bibi Aisha.  It is one of a series of photographs from Bieber’s Kabul Series, photographs of the women of Afghanistan.  

This photo of Bibi must be among the best-known images by Bieber, as it was on the cover of Time magazine on August 9, 2010.  Bibi stands, blue shawl over her head, calmly looking at the camera.  The shawl covers her ears, which were cut off, but not her nose, its bottom half cut off, leaving irregular raw edges of scarred flesh surrounding the gaping hole of her nostrils.

Despite her horrendous mutilation, this is a beautiful portrait.  Bibi’s beauty comes through because she is a beautiful woman and also because she was comfortable in Bieber’s presence.  But its essential beauty emerges because of Bibi’s self-possession and willingness to honestly show her condition. Superficially, the photo is gruesome. On a deeper and more essential level it is as noble as a portrait by Velazquez.  I couldn’t look away.

This blog entry is neither about this portrait nor about Bieber’s photography.  It is about how the portrait spoke to me and prompted certain wider thoughtsIt is about the plight of women in a male dominated world.  Bibi, at the age of twelve, was promised to a Taliban fighter. At fourteen she was married.  Abused by her husband, she fled, was caught, then taken to the mountains, mutilated and there abandoned.  She survived, and after her Time cover appeared, she was flown to California where she received reconstructive surgery.

Unfortunately, Bibi’s mistreatment is all too common, not only in Afghanistan, but throughout the world.  We hear and read about genital mutilation, women sold and held in slavery, forced prostitution, and sex tourism.  We also are aware that today, in many places, laws and traditions marginalize women and turn them into second-class citizens: they are married off with no say, sometimes as young as nine; they are denied any opportunity for education; they are prevented from owning property, thus remaining dependent upon a man (husband or son).

As Nicholas Kristof has shown, this new century of ours has seen an enormous rise in brutality towards women: acid attacks in Afghanistan, sex trafficking in south east Asia, bride burnings in India, mass rape in several African countries, and malnourishment in Ethiopia (while men in the same family enjoy perfect health). In a lecture in St. Louis in October of 2010, Kristof stated that “more girls are killed in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all genocides of the 20th century.”  

Faced with these evils, we surely give thanks for being Americans, where, ever since we became a nation, we have developed far beyond such unenlightened behaviors.  After all, the beginning of the second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence holds the truth “that all men are created equal,” and today we accept as given that the word “men” is generic and means “all people”, men and women.  And then, since 1920, our 19th Amendment to the Constitution protects the voting rights of all citizens, stating that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged...on account of sex.”

So, America has developed into an enlightened country in which one assumes that women and men are equal. But how far have we Americans actually come? Could it be that, lately, we are reverting?  To be more blunt, are Republicans and our country’s right wing pushing us backwards by creating a culture of gender disdain and dismissal?

Allow me to cite a few examples that raise such suspicions.  There are people who would like to disenfranchise women, such as conservative commentator Ann Coulter.  In 2003, she stated that America “would be a much better country if women did not vote.”  In case someone defends her as having “misspoken,” in 2007 she said “If we took away women's right to vote, we'd never have to worry about another Democrat [sic]president....women are voting so stupidly, at least single women.”  So much for the 19th Amendment as one of the bedrocks of our modern society;  Ann Coulter thinks (some) women are not smart enough to vote and ought to be treated as second class citizens.

Another example, of course, is the continuing abortion debate.  Republicans nationwide appear obsessed with revoking a woman’s right to choose even though they claim their main interest right now is balancing the budget.  Georgia State Representative Bobby Franklin wants abortions classified as murder and all miscarriages investigated, which would require a force of “Uterus Police” larger than our National Guard.  Maybe we could get in the good graces with the Taliban by sending our “Uterus Police” there instead of our National Guard, and they could expand their duties to providing virginity tests for all the brides in Afghanistan and rural areas of other countries like India where this medieval custom is still practiced!

Of course, you may say, this is Georgia and hardly representative of our country as a whole.  However, just over a week ago, House Republicans voted unanimously to strip Planned Parenthood, our nation’s leading provider of reproductive health care, of all government funding.  None of this government money had been used for abortion; all of it goes to family planning, cancer screening, and other essential aspects of reproductive health care.  Yet, Republicans only talked about abortion, as if to mask the fact that they were actually proposing to jeopardize the health of American women.  Republicans also are against Title X, the National Family Planning Program; since Title X provides essential contraception for the poor, one would think that anyone against abortion would embrace Title X.  Not according to today’s Republican logic!

The House has just chopped $50 million from the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant, which helps some 2.5 million women and 31 million special needs children.  It imposed $1 billion cut in programs at the National Institutes of Health that aim to prevent pre-term birth. It cut nearly $1 billion from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Helping women is clearly low in priority among Republicans, and that even shows in another backward trend: for the first time in 30 years, the number of women in both houses of Congress has diminished.

Stephanie Schriock, President of Emily’s List, talks of the radical anti-woman agenda put forward by John Boehner and House Republicans.”  “The GOP is doing everything it can,” she writes,  “to take away our access to health care, our ability to plan and care for a family, and our opportunities to make successful, safe, and healthy lives for ourselves and our families.”

With women now making up only 17% of Congress, Schriock writes, and with Republicans now in control of the House, “Republican men will forgo their promises to create jobs and will instead attack the programs American women rely on to take care of themselves and their families.”

Undoubtedly, some of our more conservative Republicans hold to the quaint concept that a woman’s place is in the home.  Ironically, the home that they are offering our women is becoming a most unwelcome place.  Are they, maybe, cutting off their (her) nose to spite their face?