Archive for February 2012

Saying What It Isn’t

February 29, 2012

Pennsylvania State Representative Kathy Rapp has introduced a bill euphemistically named “the Woman’s Right to Know”. How good can that be?  Now there is an effort to make sure woman know what’s going on.  Pennsylvania must be a “severely” well meaning State.

Not.

Instead Pennsylvania is poised to follow Virginia into the inexplicable land of trying to hinder a woman’s right to choose while not offering any support for either the mother to be or the unborn.  Like Virginia, Pennsylvania’s bill would require a vaginal ultrasound probe if the abortion were to be scheduled within the first 7 weeks.  The bill does not specify a vaginal image but at that stage of fetus development, the belly approach does not normally yield a clear enough image.

So why has it becomes necessary for another State legislature to produce a totally unnecessary and intrusive bill whose only victim is the woman.  The woman and her doctor have confirmed she is pregnant.  For her personal reasons, the woman has decided it is an unwanted pregnancy.  She has all the information she needs.  Plain and simple.

You have to wonder what these anti-abortionists do all day?  There are no national directives driving women to terminate a pregnancy.  Unlike China, the US has no “one child” policy.

It would certainly be ok for these anti-abortionists to come forward and offer to pay for medical care and delivery costs for any woman considering considering terminating the pregnancy.  It would certainly be ok for anti-abortionists to arrange adoption and health care for any child, regardless of medical condition, to be born instead of being aborted.  But they do not step forward.

Another puzzling aspect of these ultrasound bills is why are these new requirements really needed?   The number of abortions per 1000 woman nationally has been decreasing since the 1990s.  Additionally puzzling is why, in the minds of those who propose this type of legislation, do they not seek to prosecute the male who has inseminated the woman?  Why is this a woman problem?

There is no denying this is a complicated problem.  There ought to be agreement that an unwanted pregnancy is not a desired outcome.  Focus ought to be on how to reduce or eliminate unwanted pregnancies.  Where are the bills in Virginia or Pennsylvania that promote sex education, birth control, and family planning?

Economic Freedom Agenda

February 28, 2012

Rick Santorum, in an op-ed column in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, has performed a worthwhile service for the American people.  He laid out his economic plan if elected President.  This is a sound basis for assessing the policies a Santorum Presidency might bring.  He is due credit for making this statement.

Over the next days or weeks, pundits will do the math and see if Santorum’s proposals add up.  For example, how much would two tax brackets (10% and 28%) produce in tax revenue, and does this look like enough tax revenues when coupled with his other proposals.  Unspecified is how Santorum would treat dividend and capital gains and whether the Mitt Romneys of this world will continue making millions and paying only 14% or less.  This will become clear as the press asks more questions.

The same questions would apply to a corporate tax rate of 17.5%.  Does this eliminate all the current deductions and are there any new deductions that would flow preferentially in corporations direction?

Sanotum promises to reign in spending by cutting $5 trillion over 5 years.  Directionally this is fiscally great.  Unknown is where Santorum see this $5 trillion coming from?  He speaks of putting Social Security and Medicare on a financial sustainable path.  This is certainly necessary but just how would Santorum do this?

Santorum also promises to revive housing.  Strangely he proposes eliminating Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, and allowing families who houses are underwater to deduct losses from the sale of their homes (in order to get a fresh start).  There certainly are good reasons to question Fanny and Freddie, and maybe even eliminate them.  But there seems to me no connection with doing that and reviving the housing market.  Eliminating Fanny and Freddie will make it harder to get mortgages, not easier.  The deduction of losses from sale of underwater houses, however, is a creative idea and should be considered.  Since there are no free lunches, Santorum needs also to think through how this benefit will be paid for given all his other tax cuts.

I applaud Rick Santorum for publishing this summary.  With some further analysis we will know if this is “a chicken in every pot” or some very positive and constructive proposals.

2012 Religious Freedom

February 27, 2012

It is well know that the US Constitution’s first amendment establishes “religious freedom”.  But what does that mean?

The First amendment begins, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;.  What does that mean?

Most interpretation say that Government (at any level) can not establish a State religion nor can it prevent (or force) any citizen from practicing a religion of their choice.  The founders were white European men and most likely were thinking some form of christianity when they wrote “religion”.

Much has changed since the middle 1700s.  The US is now home to many different faiths as well as a growing number who claim no faith.  It would follow from a strict reading of the First Amendment that all Americans should be able to practice their belief system (consistent with legal precedents), and not be put upon by someone or some religious group exercising their beliefs.  In other words, a devote Muslim or Jew may may elect to follow certain dietary standards and as an exercise of their religious freedom, should able to allowed to (again assuming there is no public health issues).  Religious freedom does not mean that a Muslim or a Jew who believes strongly in their faith precepts should be able to force their dietary beliefs on others.

It is in this sense that recent comments by Rick Santorum repudiating President John F Kennedy’s famous religious freedom speech are so curious and potentially dangerous.

Kennedy said, “…. I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him…”

Santorum said, “To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?”

“That makes me throw up and it should make every American who is seen from the president, someone who is now trying to tell people of faith that you will do what the government says, we are going to impose our values on you, not that you can’t come to the public square and argue against it, but now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.”

Of course Kennedy never said people of faith had no first amendment rights (free speech).  Kennedy was trying to calm fears that the Pope might somehow dictate policy to Kennedy if he were elected.  In doing so he articulated the real intent of the First Amendment religious freedom part.   Going against the wishes of ones religious leader has had unpleasant consequences through out history.

Today many things are different and others just the same.  We know the world is round.  We also know the earth is not the center of the universe.  And today we are witnessing again the horrors and terrors resulting from religious intolerance with Shiite killing Sunni and vice versa.

Santorum is either purely pandering or is badly mistaken about any government actions.  There are no regulations or government requirements that interfere with any person of faith practicing the faith for themselves.  No catholic is required to seek an abortion or to use any of the birth control methods.  No person of any faith is required to do so.  So religious freedom exists and has been maintained.

The danger is that Santorum’s view of the world is faith based, and he wants to see his faith apply to everyone.  This is not freedom of religion, this is more like tyranny of religion.

Presidents for decades have sort Reverend Billy Graham’s counsel.  That does not violate relgious freedom.  Some certainly did it for public political consumption.  Others may have valued and benefited from counsel from many sources including Reverend Graham.  No harm, no foul.

In a strange way, Rick Santorum’s candidacy may end up helping Americans come to understand what religious freedom is really about.  Simply said, I have no right to tell you what to believe, and the opposite is true too.  If we respect that principle, then everyone can maintain their freedom of religion.

What Makes A Good Leader

February 25, 2012

In this presidential season, everyone has an opinion on who should be the next President.  Some say President Obama has failed and therefore is unfit for another term.  Others say the GOP field is full of totally unqualified candidates.  The November elections is when a decision is made, but on what basis will that decision be made?

Being an effective President is about both leadership and policies.  Simplistically, saying “follow me” and then leading others over the cliff, no matter how dynamic or persuasive  those words are said, is not the leader you want.

Presidential leadership must consider both what has to be done and also how to get others to agree to do it.  It is possible “problems” can be solved in more ways than one. This makes the job of convincing others who hold a different view even more difficult.

Another problem all candidates, including President Obama, face is why what needs to be done is really necessary.  The rationale is not transparent.  For a variety of reasons, ranging from political ideology to outright co-option due to campaign contributions, it is almost impossible to determine whether a candidates position on any issue is due to principle, a political compromise, or due to personal advantage.  A sorry state to be sure.

So, regardless of which party win the White House, the question will remain whether the winning candidate can put forth a winning set of policies and rationale or not.  There are so many untruths and mistakenhoods that permeate our every day lives, what any politician may says should be view with a grain of salt.

There is, in addition to all of this, the unknown and unexpected.  Great Presidents result from successfully handling unanticipated situations.  For these occasions, it will be the temperament of the President under fire that will win the day.  This quality is not always obvious during the campaign process.

This November, the task facing each American is whether their choice for President is based upon a real understanding of the policies or simply an opinion about the person.

Regardless of each person’s rationale, they should ask themselves on what basis do I think these are the right policies or for what reasons do I think this is the wrong person.  Then, each should ask, why do I think his opponent has better policies or why is the other candidate simply a better choice to be President.

In reality, even with such a process, there is no guarantee that the person selected President will be successful.  Democratic elections are not science.  There is no absolutely correct answer.  The best we can hope for is that both parties (and any third parties) put forward competent and capable leaders.  Then we can chose what we think is the best from the best, and not the least worst from the worst.

The Arizona Sorting Out?

February 24, 2012

Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate was a cozy event.  Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney sort of stood around and gave answers to the questions the moderator asked.  Mostly they said what they had prepared to say.  So far from what was said, nothing unusual.

But there was something different.

In my opinion the four candidates did not convince anyone (other than their current supporters) that any candidate was presidential material.   To moderates and progressives, the sight must have been convincing.  None of these candidates appear or act Presidential.

While Ron Paul is a delight to listen too, he is beginning to sound more like a mouse.  He squeaks that he won’t do this, or won’t do that, laughs, and squeaks he will cut this program or that one.  Does anyone believe he has the power of an argument that will make a divided Congress follow his words?  Not a chance.

Newt Gingrich was the surprise debater.  Once again, when little was expected, he invoked history and vivid polemics.  If nothing more, Newt can talk.  He carried himself, however, like the caricature of over weight member of royalty.  Except in Georgia, do you think anyone else will follow this fast talking pied piper?

Rick Santorum stood tall and told us what he would do differently than he did in the past.  He said it without any catchy phrases trying to connect each with an anti Romney interpretation.  Rick’s passion and memorable promises are just tied to his social issues pledges.  Once he goes away   from that type of emphasis, Rick becomes pure vanilla no matter what he thinks he has said.

Probably the saddest performance Wednesday belongs to Mitt Romney.  He was forceful and many of his pronouncements sounded Presidential.  He was prepared and spoke well to almost all the issues.  His weakness appeared, however, when he attack another opponent and when that opponent landed a good counter punch.  On those occasions, Romney looked like a little child not knowing whether to yell angry words or just cry.  Romney looked decidedly un-presidential in those situations.

So far the Republican primaries have enjoyed low turn-outs.  This coming Tuesday and the following “super Tuesday” will most likely reveal whether too many Republicans are so underwhelmed they sit the primary out letting others decide.  If this happens, it looks to me that the nomination will go to the floor of the convention.

Were Paul, Gingrich, or Santorum correctly to conclude they could not win and simply withdrew, Romney’s chances would increase quickly.  It appears at this point no candidate seems interested in quitting.

Unfortunately for Romney, there are unlimited other possibilities for convention voters.  He can hope  that the rank and file Republicans will suddenly emerge to support him with encouragement from gobs of campaign ads.  But I think he is dreaming.

I think Arizona just made clear which 4 Republicans would not become President.  None of them.

Should I Be Surprised?

February 23, 2012

A news report today revealed something about Syria that makes you say “I told you so”.

“I told you so” is not about Syria either.  It is about the incomprehensible invasion and occupation of Iraq.

If you remember, we were told that Iraq possessed WMDs.  This included both chemical and nuclear stock piles.  We were told that these WMD would be spread around the world and as such represented an imminent threat to the US.

We know now that Cheney, Perle, Wolfowitz, and Libby had already decided to invade Iraq before George W Bush was elected.  They fancied some grand remake of the Middle East.  By taking out Iraq, the sun would shine, flowers would bloom, and the rest of the Muslim world would fall in line.

We also know now that there were no WMDs.  We also know we have spent over 4000 lives and close to a trillion dollars (and still counting).  And, now we know we missed the country loaded with chemical weapons.  Which country?

You guessed it.  Its Syria.

The US is very concerned about what might happen if the Assad regime were to be overthrown.  Who would guard these WMDs?  The Bush team and their apologists have long tried to explain away the Iraq invasion as justified and necessary, and then in the face of no WMDs, the line that the world is better off without Hussein.  What were these people thinking then about Syria and Bashar al-Assad who was right next door?

 

Pay Back Time?

February 22, 2012

The news reports coming out of Syria are disheartening and troubling.  In another country which most Americans know little and think of as homogeneous, the supporters of President Bashar al-Assad are mercilessly killing anyone thought to be opposing the government, street protesters or civilians.  Man’s inhumanity towards fellow man seems as predictable as Newton’s theory on apples.

Today’s Syria is a mess like most other countries in the Middle East.  It is like a bottle of hot gases getting hotter.  It has enough oil that it is worth the Alawi minority to control the 74% Sunni majority.

Assad has paid attention to the other Arab Spring awakenings.  He does not want the unpleasant outcomes he has seen in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.  So, it is not hard to understand the heavy hand that Assad is laying upon his opponents.

This situation could present an intriguing set of possibilities for Israel.  Syria’s hand has been only slightly veiled in its support of Hamas and Hezbollah.  Could the current situation provide Israel a chance to even the score?

There are reports that the West is considering taking part in a proxy war by supplying arms and munitions to Assad’s opponents.  At first blush this looks justified on humanitarian grounds.  On consideration, however, there is no way to predict that following the fall of Assad, the sun will shine and flowers bloom and life will be good in Syria.  Why should Syria be different from the other Middle East countries who have experienced regime change?

The West could view this geopolitically and conclude that there is no good reason for Russia to be intervening.  With visions of the former cold war, justification of supplying the rebels is not a big leap.  Supplying the rebels will clearly lead to a lot more destruction and killings, and may after a long blood bath lead to regime change.  But still, why do it with no brighter outlook?

Israel, however, has different motives.  In addition to striking at the Hamas and Hezbollah safe houses, should Israel elect to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, Syria offers a direct flight route.  A Syrian government tied down fighting a well supported uprising could not present much of a threat to Israeli planes.

Summing this up, the West has little more than humanitarian wishes to end the violence.  Intervening with troops or even a Libyan air assault will simply leave an infected wound.  The West should see it has no legitimate business in any Middle East country and has a history of leaving seeds for despotic governments, all for oil.

Israel, could act as a conduit and supplier of arms.  Israel could decide to take the chance that a new Syrian Government might act more even handed towards them.  While this outcome may be problematic, a new Syrian Government is unlikely to treat Israel less friendly than Assad’s.

The Light Of Day

February 21, 2012

The little asked, but frequently thought question is, “can Rick Santorum undertake the rigors of a Presidential campaign and still remain popular enough to win in November?”

The previous campaigns of Pawlenty, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich do not paint an encouraging picture.

These campaigns begin with a targeted message aimed at an active minority of voters.  Filled with catchy phrases and divisive statements, these candidates caught the media’s attention.  Momentum is just that.  It keeps a body in motion until it is acted upon by another outside force.  Reality finally brought each of them back to earth.  The question is “how about Santorum”?

If nothing else, Santorum is consistent and sincere.  What you see is what you will get.

Santorum, however, may have set already his own traps for an ultimate crash back to earth.  His strongly held, conservative Catholic right wing, views coupled with pre-21st century views on the economy and the environment will provide a field day for interviews.  In the  end I suspect, the moderate voter will decide “no thanks, Rick”.

It will take some more time for the average family to realize what Santorum favors.  I can just see the light bulb coming on when it registers that Rick favors no more sex once the family decides it can not afford or medically risk having more children.  Hmmm, I don’t thing that will sell well.

Women will wonder why they should surrender their rights to choose and even more to the point, why this man should think he has a right to decide for her?

Educators will begin to think what would be the logical extension of Santorum’s home school recommendation.  (Woman might wonder too).  While there is nothing wrong with home schooling per se, can you imagine a nation where there were no public schools and kids just sat around the kitchen table and studied?  Oh, and yes in Rick’s world, mom would stay at home too and do the teaching.

I think the issue with Rick Santorum is not so much what he believes, rather its that what he believes, he thinks must apply to you.

I have great respect for his family values and his willingness to home school his children.  I don’t even mind his recommendation of home schooling and pointing out its virtues.  (We certainly have a lot of dysfunctional family units in America and failing schools.   So, if Rick’s ideas appeal, a family should be free to choose that style.)

That’s the key.  Believe what you wish, preach what you believe, but don’t deny others their freedom just because they see things differently.

The Consequences of Run Away Health Care Costs

February 20, 2012

Estimates today put the US per capita health care spending at $9,000 a year.  For a family of four this represents $36,000.  Most families do not see this magnitude because their employer picks up the lion share and Medicare covers most of the expensive years.  Still health care costs, such as out of pocket expense or the employee share of his employer provided policy, sends most screaming “foul” when presented the bill.

The estimated bill for the entire US is about $3 trillion annually, or about 19% of the entire GDP.  For comparison sake, this is slightly larger than all the Federal taxes collected and 3% short of all Government spending.  This is a gigantic expenditure.

Putting US expenditures in a different perspective, for example in comparison to other selected countries.   In a 2008 study, the US boasted a health care expense of 16% GDP while the other countries studied ranged from 8% to 11%.  Something seems odd.  Why are the US figures for much higher?

If the US were as efficient with health care expenditures as the most expensive of the other countries, health care costs could drop by a third.

Unfortunately, that would not be the end of health care cost creep.  All other major countries still report national budget conflicts with the relentless rise in health care costs.  But getting our costs a third lower is an attractive target just the same.

This new, lower health care cost world would have some differences from what Americans know today.  Health care plan administrators (formerly the Aetna’s and Cigna’s of the world) would simply pay claims and keep records.  What these administrators covered and how much they actually paid would be set by a national non-political board of medical professions.  Coverage would be universal.  (Potentially, as in Germany, there might be a second layer of coverage which could provide coverage not available in the national plan.)

There would still be the problem of how to pay for health care.  Presumably if American businesses did not have to provide coverage, that cost could go “one time” into increased wages and salaries.  Then, individuals would need to pay their own way.  Or, a national tax system could be established, or possibly some combination of both.

Not so fast.  We should expect the predictable laments.

  • “Too much government” despite the fact that a national board would be composed of non-government employees.
  • “I don’t want to be forced to buy coverage” despite the fact that those who do not buy insurance  games the system.
  • “We have the best health care in the world and this will ruin it”.  The data shows the US does not have the best health care in the world, but clearly any change can be fraught with the potential for problems.

The most obvious changes involve the loss of capitalization value for many health care organization as well as the loss of $900 billion that flows annually to hospitals, doctors, and drug companies.  Doctors, hospitals, and drug companies will simply not receive the same revenues as before.  This would mean lower wages, salaries, and fees being paid as well as a sharp drop in the stock value of publicly traded health care providers.

Sound good?  I guess it depends upon where you stand.  Do you pay or do you collect?

The numbers speak.

The country could decide to hold firm with our current health care delivery system.  That path is clear, it is the one we are on.  So expect each year to see a bigger piece of GDP (and each person’s budget) going to health care and not other discretionary spending.

Alternatively, the US could look to a Universal health care model with a target health care cost as a percent of GDP, and decide to move towards it over, say a 10-15 year period.  While it would be feasible to adopt Universal health care faster, the dislocations will be severe.

Evolution in this case might be better than revolution.

How Many Times Can An Opinion Be Wrong?

February 19, 2012

Republicans this past week struck up a new theme.  They have accused President Obama of being responsible for the current high price of gasoline.  Prices are on the rise across the country, so the Republicans must have this one right.  Or do they?

What is most amazing about the run up to the 2012 election has been the repeatedly dead ended or patently incorrect charges the GOP has leveled at President Obama.

The bail out of “the Auto Industry was wrong” sails straight into the fact that all other nations with auto industries protect them jealously.  Even more to the point, the Big Three have come back strong and are adding jobs.

“The government shouldn’t be asking religious organizations to violate their consciences”, GOP leaders said.  The public does see it that way for the churches themselves, but for affiliated organizations which employ mainly non-religious employees, the public sees it quite differently.  Birth control is far more popular than what the GOP knee jerk reaction indicated.

Now it is gasoline.  For sure when the smoke clears this issue will again show the GOP in a poor light.  Rising gasoline prices are high primarily due to speculators who are buying up gasoline and oil futures.  Speculators are betting there will be a war with Iran and the Strait of Hormuz will be closed.  This would interrupt the flow of oil and result in bidding wars which would drive up the price of oil and subsequently gasoline.  What policies could President Obama have adopted that would have made this outcome impossible?

We might hear that he could have approved more off shore drilling.  In this way, the US could have been energy independent.  Oh really?

Not so long ago, the Administration cancelled some leases it had auctioned to Exxon because they had not developed in 10 years what was reputed to be the largest find in the Gulf of Mexico.

President Obama could have allowed anyone to drill off shore and there would be no more oil today.  It just takes a long time for the oil to come to market.

With respect to Iran and the Strait of Hormuz, what should President Obama be doing?  Should he attack or back Israel in attacking Iran.  That will certainly close the Strait.  Keeping the Strait open and allowing speculators to choke on their futures will be the quickest way to reduce prices at the pump.

Republicans look lost in their own headlights.

The US is never the less at an important point in its history.  It is recovering from a serious self inflicted economic recession.  Its fiscal house is a mess.  Congress is seen as totally useless.  And the middle class are beginning to say spontaneously that the American dream is no longer in reach.

None of this can be changed overnight.  But why not begin the journey.

So with a Democratic President whose best line is to give him four more years to complete the job, a job which is undefined.  Where will that lead?

Is the best shot the GOP offer is to hurl charges which are patently false or out of step with Americans’ opinions?

Why not select a candidate who projects a vision of a better America, fiscally and militarily strong, boasting a growing economy and bounding with opportunity for all.  Oh, yes, and how (what policies) the candidate would use to get the US to that spot.  Such a vision would have to raise President Obama’s game too.

Hmmm, may be it is that last part, what policies, that has the GOP stumped.