Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Civility Caucus

When a proposed law is being voted on by a group of representatives of the people, as in Congress, there are often blocks of diametrically opposed diehards on both sides of the issue. Toward the middle are moderates, some leaning one way and some the other. Leaders of the opposing blocks try to pull to their side the moderates who lean more their way. Pulling can be done by gentle nudging, or by harsh yanking.

Prior to 1994, Congressional leaders in the House of Representatives, Tom Foley for the Democrats and Bob Michel for the Republicans, were gentle nudgers. But in 1994, the Republicans chose Newt Gingrich as their House leader, and he quickly applied the choke chain. Noisy Newt soon fell upon ethics difficulties and wore out his welcome, eventually leaving Congress, but his choke chain survived and is now being yanked by even harsher leaders.

Pulling back the moderates leaves two packs, like snarling dogs confronting each other. Those dogs on each side who would naturally be inclined to cautiously approach some of the quieter dogs on the other side, sniff them over and decide they are all right to be around without the need for snarling and fighting, are not able to follow there natural instincts. But now, in Congress, two such dogs have emerged, one from each side.

Democrat Steve Israel of New York accidentally smashed with a door the foot of Republican Tim Johnson of Illinois, as both were hastily leaving from a House vote. The two, both starting their third term, while discussing the accident, shared complaints about the tone in Congress and decided they should do something to improve it. They agreed to start a bipartisan "Civility Caucus", which some are also calling the "Center Aisle Caucus", to blow the whistle on disrespect in the House and to develop a moderate bipartisan legislative agenda.

The Civility Caucus is just in the formative stage, but has already received endorsement from former leaders Foley and Michel. Skeptics have doubts about prospects for such a movement. People supposedly prefer civility to haranguing, but harangues attract bigger crowds. House leaders will work hard to undermine any movement which they see as a threat to their personal power, by pulling or yanking the chains of moderates. As a reaction to Gingrich, in 1994 some moderate Republicans formed the Republican Main Street Partnership, which still exists, though a view of its web-site seems to indicate it is currently almost a one issue group, Republicans in favor of stem cell research. There is supposed to be a group of Democrats in favor of more fiscal responsibility, called the Blue Day Coalition, but a Google search did not find them.

Partisan politics comes with the turf in a democracy. It is absent, at least nominally, only in one party regimes. Ideally, partisanship should be a starting point for approaching issues, then matters of degree within the party should be recognized and respected. Respect for those in one’s own party with whom one disagrees should lead to respect for those of the opposing party with whom one disagrees only slightly and then finally to respect for all on the other side.

My hunch is that the Civility Caucus will have its hands full just addressing matters of lack of respect. Whether it ever gets around to developing its own legislative agenda remains to be seen, but the odds may be against it. Democrats seem more likely to draw back their own moderates by gentility, being they are in the minority and are less strident to begin with, though it might be smarter for Democrats to let the Civility Caucus develop their own agenda to siphon votes away from the Republicans on more moderate issues. Current Republican leadership is more likely to use the choke chain, such as targeting moderates for replacement in the primaries rather than bending to accommodate them. That strategy that might not be that bad for the Democrats since it draws down Republican resources and turns off moderate voters, and Republican moderates who defeat such primary challenges should be that much more interested in developing the Civility Caucus agenda.

What about forming a Moderate Civility third party? That is very unlikely to happen. Third party movements appeal to the same types of people who are attracted to harangues. They are not moderates. They are usually Democrats or Republicans who think their party has moved too much toward the middle, or people who just don’t like either party. Let’s keep our eyes on this new Caucus. As Republicans keep yanking to the right and Democrats fumble around deciding exactly what to do, this bipartisan moderate movement could become important, at least in the short term.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Biodiesel Fuel

Reiko called my attention to an article from the Seattle PI about biodiesel fuel, a product made from vegetable oil. It sounds like methanol has to be used as part of the process of producing the fuel, but the vegetable oil can even be used cooking oil from restaurants.

Some Seattle enthusiasts are brewing their own fuel for use in their diesel cars. In the Seattle area, there are only a few filling stations available, and the cost is more than for gas, but that could be a matter of ecomony of scale. If the product ever caught on and started to be produced in great quantities, availability should increase and the price drop.

I suspect gasoline, despite all the environmental and political drawbacks, still reigns as motor vehicle fuel more because of economically self-interested corporations than because of any inherently higher quality of gas as fuel. Lead, with all its known dangers, was added to gasoline to control engine knocking for over 60 years before being made obsolete by environmentally mandated catalytic convertors for air quality, even though a safer and more economical alternative, ethanol, was known. The reason for this was that Dupont had lead to sell and Dupont acquired a major interest in Genertal Motors, and they worked in co-operation with Standard Oil to keep using lead. An interesting article on this history is at:

The article on biodiesel can be read at:

Friday, February 18, 2005

Classless Suits

Why did a few Democrats go along on the newly signed bill placing some limits on class action lawsuits, in spite of the fact consumers groups say the limits are bad for the public?

As I have written here previously, Bush wants to weaken the judicial branch in favor of the executive and legislative. He also wants to protect the rich and powerful from lawsuits by their victims seeking redress. States Rights, a traditional conservative value, are not important to Bush if he can accomplish what he wants by having his Congress enact laws requiring cases to be brought in Federal Court instead of State courts. It used to be the other way around, when conservative racists were supported by State courts, civil rights laws were passed to make rights violations a Federal matter.

Contrary to the Bush assertion that class action suits are a great burden on the economy and a threat to [and here he always leaves out such behemoths as the tobacco industry and Wal-Mart] "small business owners" and "doctors", class action concepts were developed in our legal system in order to provide justice in an efficient and cost effective way. When many people are claiming injuries and all filing suits in a myriad of courts against the same defendant over the same alleged cause of the injuries, it works better if the suits can all be lumped together in one court to be handled all together - as a class action lawsuit.

Incidentally, class action lawsuits against a small business or a doctor, if they exist, would be quite rare, since such small enterprises would not normally generate a sizeable number of injuries, and if they did, the enterprise would probably be too small to pay its victims without going bankrupt. Also it seems more sensitive to be concerned that innocent victims of a defunct business are not going to be compensated for their injuries, than to cry as Bush does for the small business owner who injured them.

Bush disdains our "lawsuit culture". Excuse me, but the judicial system is one third of our government. Judicial is about courts and courts are about suits, methods to peacefully resolve disputes in accordance with justice where parties cannot reach agreement on their own. There have been some other methods to resolve such disputes without a "lawsuit culture" , but they are not admirable, for example, mob violence, rioting and gang wars. With Bush pushing Congress to pass laws banning or hamstringing everything he disagrees with, might we say we have a "legislation culture"? Do the rash of under the radar, late Friday executive orders, such as those further endangering the environment, constitute an "executive order culture"?

As part of his attack on the judicial system, Bush refers to injured persons "shopping around for friendly venues". In the law, venue means a proper place to bring a case, one that has a sufficient legal connection with the parties involved, and particularly a connection to the defendant, the one who did not start the lawsuit. Corporations like Wal Mart are in the business of having connections [stores] everywhere, so they have legal venues everywhere also. Defendants have the right to jury trials if they don’t trust the judge to decide what are the true facts, so " friendly venues" really means "friendly juries". Wal Mart thinks local people are "friendly customers" when they spend their money at Wal Mart but apparently become enemies when they sit on juries. That may be true if they have figured out how bad Wal Mart is, but then they would not be Wal Mart customers and Wal Mart’s attorneys could most likely have them stricken from the proposed jury for being hostile.

I think some Democrats went along with this change because they are choosing their battles and this is not as important as some others. The actual changes being made are quite limited. It only affects suits over $5 million and does not affect cases already filed. Class actions can still be brought in State court if one third or more of the defendants live in the State, and some plaintiff attorneys may be able to put such classes together to stay in State court. Attorney fee limits are only on cases where the injured parties receive coupons rather than cash settlement.

Federal courts have been considered less receptive to class actions than State courts. I think the reason for that is that Federal Courts have a very limited number of trial judges compared to the huge numbers of Judges in State Courts, and they were discouraging attorneys from coming to Federal Court and using up comparatively scarce Court time. But now that the law has been changed and Federal Courts are going to be the only ones in which some of these suits can be brought, I predict the attitude of the Federal Courts will change and they will be receptive and make use of Special Masters and Magistrates and other ways of handling these cases, demanding that Congress fund the costs since Congress gave them the case burden. Federal Judges also serve for life, so after many years of seeing class action cases against Wal-Mart, Federal Judges may become another "friendly venue" to the consternation of the judicial underminers.

White House Softball

I was one of the 10,000,000 people watching NBC Nightly News Thursday, hearing Brian Williams report about the ringer in the White House press briefings. Like many of those viewers, I was not aware this story, about a supposed White House correspondent who is not actually a legitimate reporter but is a plant by a Republican Party activist in Texas, had been in the news for several days.

This man, who was not using his real name, somehow managed to gain access to the White House briefings and was frequently called on to ask what are called "softball" questions, one example being the kind that express agreement with the goals of the administration and ask how the administration is going to accomplish those goals. While this impostor has often been called upon, many legitimate reporters are being passed over because they asked the legitimately hard questions many of the American people want answered.

When Bush holds a rare press conference with the White House Press Corps, he appears to call on reporters somewhat at random and impressively calls them all by first name. Bush reportedly does have a good memory for names of people he wants to "work", a vital skill for a con man. But in fact, before the press conference, Bush is given a seating chart with a list of the names of the people he is going to call on, so he can be sure to avoid the more serious questioners. And then, like many con men, he usually has a ringer or two planted in the crowd.

The Nashua Advocate has an interesting article investigating how this phony reporter gained access:

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Robbing Peter to Pay Peter

When Peter entered the world of work, his Uncle Sam arranged to provide government services on behalf of Peter at a cost to Peter of $1.00 a year. Sam also arranged to handle a retirement/insurance plan for his nephew for another annual payment of $1.00. Sam said the plan would pay Peter if he became disabled and also would protect his widow and children to specified degrees in the event of Peter's disablility or death. Once Peter reached retirement age, the plan would pay retirement benefits as elected by Peter and his wife. To get the same benefits as under the Sam plan from someone else, Peter figured he would have to pay $1.05, so Sam's plan sounded pretty good to Peter. Peter figured Sam was a sensible Uncle and would probably invest the plan dollar at the prevailing $1.05 annual return.

But as retirement age appeared on the horizon, Sam came to Peter and confessed that he had not been sensible. The Government services Sam provided were not even worth the $1.00 paid, because Sam had been more interested in lining his own pockets and those of some of his friends and he had not been a good steward of the money. Sam had always provided Peter with copies of the annual government budget, but he purposely made them as complicated and confusing as possible, so Sam could not fully understand where his money was going. In fact, it turned out the government was actually costing $2.00 a year, so there was a $1.00 shortfall every year.

After getting over the shock and trying to control his anger towards his Uncle, Peter asked about the shortfall. Sam swallowed hard and told Peter that he had made up the shortfall each year by using the money from the retirement/insurance program. Peter asked if Sam meant he had "robbed" money from the plan. No, Sam assured him, he had only borrowed the money and put IOUs in the plan to cover it. Peter told Sam he would never have agreed to such an arrangement if it had been explained to him, but he guessed as long as the IOUs got paid, that part of it could work out OK. But Sam did not look reassuring, and when questioned further, Sam admitted that he had put the interest rate on the IOUs unreasonably low, and now he could see that when the IOUs were paid there would not be enough money in the plan.

At this point the door opened and a beady-eyed man in a business suit strutted in wearing cowboy boots. He waved casually to the four corners of the room and flashed a confident smile which nevertheless felt untrustworthy to Peter, as if this man were an incompetent student about to ace a test because someone had snuck him the answers beforehand. Sam introduced the man as George, who Sam said had somehow assumed a position of authority on working out this problem, even though knowledgeable people who had spoken to him about it said his thought processes appeared befuddled. George glad handed Peter, slapped him on the back and immediately nicknamed him "Dick", because George chuckled, Dick is another name for Peter. When Peter didn't join George in laughing, George immediately pursed his lips and squinted his eyes as if seriously pondering something and then told Peter not to worry about this problem, because George had found the Lord and the Lord wanted George to take care of "Dick's" problem.

George told Peter the problem had to be solved pronto, by changing the plan. You see, by now some of Peter's kids were working and had started paying into the Sam plan also. Instead of Peter's kids putting a dollar in the plan, George said they should give a lot of it (he did not say how much exactly) to some friends of his (he did not say exactly who) to manage (he did not say for what fee) it in order to earn (he did not say guarantee) a better return (he did not say how much) than the original Sam plan. That way Peter would have more money for retirement (George did not say anything about disability or death benefits for Peter, his kids or their family members). But where would the retirement money for Peter come from if his plan account was already short and if his kids were going to be paying less into the original plan, Peter asked? We'll use some of the money from your kids, George answered. But that won't be enough and then won't their plans be short changed? George looked perturbed and mumbled some incomprehensible spontaneity about mandates, protecting people from evil and believing what he says, because he believes it himself.

Peter managed to excuse himself from Sam and George. He decided to study this all and discuss it with his wife and children. He suspected George and people like him were probably the ones who turned Sam's head and got him to line their pockets and Sam's with budgetary trickery and irresponsible investment of the plan money. If only Sam had been forthright and stuck to the plan, Peter thought, budgets could have been fairly worked out through the years and the plan reasonably modified if necessary. Now, Peter figured, it would be up to him and his family to straighten out Uncle Sam and the budgets, adjust the plan as needed and avoid George and his friends like the plague.

This story is true. Peter's name has been changed because he is innocent

Monday, February 14, 2005

Suicide Bombers and Collateral Damage

When reasonable people who disagree have a sincere discussion of their differences, they often come to realize they differ only by a "matter of degree" or on "where to draw the line".

The Baltimore Catechism taught me there were venial sins and mortal sins [in addition to the original sin of Eve eating the apple, for which we are all still paying the price- but that is another story for discussion another day]. Law School taught about misdemeanors and felonies. Law school also taught that the law basically is the lines we draw as a society to regulate our own behavior. God wrote the laws about sin in stone, but we write our human laws on paper.

Our interpretations of both the stone and paper laws varies with time and by person. Number 5 in stone says don't kill. Interpreters have argued exceptions for self-defense and for just wars. Capital punishment seems to be considered by some retroactive self-defense, but by others unjust vengeance. Bush calls the Iraq War pre-emptive self-defense, but some others term it unjustified aggression . Bush calls the Iraq War just, but some, like the Pope, told him before Bush started it that it was unjust. At least one American Catholic Bishop said John Kerry should be denied the sacraments for not working as a politician to change the laws to outlaw abortions as against stone 5, even though Kerry personally agrees with the Church position that abortion is wrong. But no American Catholic Bishop has said sacraments should be denied to American Catholic soldiers who fight in the Iraq War, even though the Pope said the war is unjust.

WWII started out as a just war, but questions are still debated as to the justification for the firebombing of Dresden and the atom bombs dropped on Japan. As an example of how only a few years can change matters, consider how few people would have argued that firebombing a major German city or atom bombing two Japanese cities would have been justified in 1942 rather than 1945 [assuming for purposes of illustration we had the A bomb in 1942]. For many Americans, the experience of those three additional years of war changed the matter of degree and crossed the line to justification.

Suicide may violate stone number 5. But what about suicide missions in wartime? The Japanese Kamikaze knew he would die for sure when he embarked on his dive bombing mission, but the death rate among Allied bomb crews in WWII was so astoundlingly high, as to make their flights arguably suicidal by matter of degree. What about suicide bombers in the middle east? They know they are going to die, but is there justification for their actions? Obviously there is from their point of view and from the point of view of those who make compensatory payments of "appreciation" to their families - as Saddam Hussein did. Innocent civilians and children are killed by suicide bombers, but so were they in Dresden and in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Has the US targeted innocent civilians and children in Iraq? The answer may be a matter of degree and where the line is drawn. For example, early in the war, when there was a report Saddam was dining in a restaurant, it was bombed. Saddam was not there, but what about retaurant employees and patrons, including perhaps children, who may have been killed? They may be what is euphemistically called "collateral damage", innocent victims who were not intended targets, even though the possibility of their becoming victims was known. Precision bombs used in Iraq supposedly limit collateral damage, whereas attempting to destroy whatever war factories existed by firebombing the entire civilian population of Dresden resulting in 35,000 deaths in one night sixty years ago was significantly more extensive. Battling insurgents in Iraq seems to be done on a shoot first and ask later self-defense justification basis reminiscent of the free fire zones in Vietnam -innocent victims should have known to avoid potential combat areas (even if the area is their own home) lest they become another variety of collateral damage.

Motive and purpose in targeting are often factored into determining degree and where the line is. Purposeful targeting of a school of children or a church service as a statement to the other side seems as bad as it can get, different in degree say from blowing up a guardpost and guards with civilians present. The atom bombs were intended to send a message to the Japanese Emperor and people, but the argument for justification seems to be a calculated variation of self-defense - sending the message was the only way to save the many more lives, Japanese civilians and military personnel on both sides. Could not a middle eastern bomber believe the same way - by killing these few civilians I am hoping to send a message that may actually save more civilians and military on both sides in the future?

Hate and patriotism can be used to recruit suicide bombers, but religion seems to work best. Without getting embroiled in the mystical aspects of the story, we can recall Jesus as the most celebrated person on a suicidal religious misson. Islamic bombers apparently believe they are dying the death of a religious martyr. What religion has not had its martyrs - they seem to be a vital part of the story, as if a religion could not be worthwile if no member was willing to die rather than renounce belief and no villain was so opposed to the religion as to be willing to create its martyrs? But I don't see Islamic bombers as religious martyrs, since no one is asking them to renounce their religion. I understand they think their religion is under attack, and I may agree with that in some ways, but no one is asking them to renounce Islam. They may be martyrs in the secondary sense of dying in a fight for princilples, but by that definition most people who voluntarily risk their lives are martyrs if they die from the risk.

But what about those who send these usually young bomber martyrs to their deaths and then make payments to their families? Isn't there something questionable about using money as an inducement to engage martyrs? We said it was when Saddam did it, but now Congress is arguably doing the same by raising the death benefits substantially for families of those killed in combat, at a time when the war is turning out to be longer lasting and more deadly than the administration expected and when enlistment quotas are not being met.

I raised more issues here than I intended. I wrote this more as food for thought than to stir up debate. Determining matters of degree, where lines should be drawn and how to interpret such degrees and lines is usually difficult, but especially so in time of war and more so as a war continues over time. Unfortunately, the degrees, lines and interpretations always seem to move during war in directions that we later wish they had not, which is another valid argument for ending a war as soon as possible. It is also a valid argument for disagreeing that there is any such thing as a "neverending war against terror".

No Brain, No Pain

Researchers in Norway have concluded that lobsters do not feel pain when thrown live into boiling water, because such invertebrates do not have a sophisitcated enough brain and nervous system to experience such anguish. The lobsterian writhing is only a manifestation of an escape instinct according to lobster bioligists in Maine. Animal rights activists counter that studies backed by fishing economies are not to be trusted.

As a mean little kid I remember pulling a leg off a Daddy Long Leg spider and watching it move by itself. Catfish heads also mugged on after being severed. I quit amputating Daddys because I actually admired their grace and lack of menace. I quit putting catfish under the knife when fishing proved too boring between catches. Somehow also, perhaps as some aspect of my Catholic schooling, I felt abusive actions against any of God's creatures was not right - not something Jesus would approve.

Years later, as a young agnostic adult struggling to understand moral issues, I pondered the ethics of animal experimentation, particularly with regard to inflicting pain, especially if the study of the pain itself was one of the purposes of the experiment. When I viewed the museum at Dachau, I wondered how any doctor could have participated in the horrible human experiments conducted there. One in particular that astounded me was the throwing of people into ice water and then quickly slicing the tops of their heads off to see what was happening to the brain [I think this experiement was intended to add to the knowledge of how German sailors might better survive an accidental artic plunge]. I reasoned that the Dachau doctors had probably started experimenting on animals and did not consider experiments on Jews as that much different.

I recall reading a biography of George W. Bush which mentioned how, as a young boy, he liked to perpetrate violence on insects. When asked in the 2000 town hall debate how he felt about so many prisoners being executed in Texas during his time as Governor, his smiling answer was that they would not be around any longer to commit other crimes. From that answer it appeared to me that Bush had made the same leap from insects to prisoners as the Dachau doctors had made from animals to Jews.

As humans we must recognize the danger of trivializing the pain of lower species, because history shows that it is not hard for some humans to treat other humans as a lower species, just by applying a label such as Jew or capital offender. Buddhists practice loving kindness for all sentient beings. If a lobster has the sense to try to escape from boiling water, I think a lobster is sentient.

Here is a report from the Guardian:,11917,1408050,00.html

Here is a First Science article on whether fish feel pain:,11917,1408050,00.html

Pucker Practice

Here's an idea for Valentine's Day - give the gift that keeps on giving - learn to be a better kisser: Seattle Kissing School.

This school is legitimate. Here is the website:

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Misoverestimating Christine

Christine Todd Whitman's new book, "It's My Party Too", I thought might be another in a growing line of Bush-bashing books by former administration insiders. I was aware that the former head of the Bush EPA was supposed to be a female moderate rising star of the Republican Party who had supposedly worked some modern day fiscal miracle while Governor of New Jersey. But, since I had not heard any Democrats offer her even faint praise, and since I did not see her doing anything moderate at EPA, I had my doubts.

John in Phoenix has long been telling me about the Republican moderates in Arizona being targeted by the right wing of the party. I don't know who is actually a Republican moderate anywhere nowadays. I suppose a Republican who is pro women's right to choose and is opposed to a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage is what some people call a moderate. I doubt there are any long time moderates in the Republican Party today. I consider McCain more a maverick than a moderate, Guiliani more an opportunist and Schwarznegger more a windbag. A legitimate long time Republican moderate, with overwhelmingly impressive government experience and well thought out ideas, was Elliot Richardson, who died a few years ago. His book, "Reflections of a Radical Moderate", written in the Gingrich Era, is excellent.

As for Whitman's book, check out the review by at Powell's books. It is devastatingly well done in explaining how overestimated Whitman was and how irrelevant she and her book are.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Everyday Lowest Price

We all benefit by being wise consumers. Even the rich seek a bargain, and in fact bargain hunting often facilitates wealth. [One time when I was about 13, I was with my Mom at a café where she was working, when a rich man came to the cash register to pay his bill. She calculated the sales tax and he said she should just leave that off because the government was already taking too much money. Mom said the government needs to be paid too for what it does and she made him pay the tax. After he left, she told me that is how some people get rich - by cheating.]

Wise consuming means not just looking for a good price, but figuring out if you even need to be a consumer in a particular case. Sometimes using what you already have, borrowing, renting, trading, postponing or just forgoing is the wisest course.

Socially responsible consumers factor into their decisions such issues as who will profit from the purchase and who may have been taken unfair advantage of by the potential profiteer.

Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world. Wise consumers and socially responsible consumers should be extremely reluctant to shop at Wal-Mart. Supposedly everyone knows Wal-Mart has the lowest prices, because they squeeze their suppliers for the lowest cost, hire marginally employable people for the lowest wages, and sell the highest volume by forcing smaller competitors out of business. If you are not a socially responsible consumer then maybe you don’t care about the victims in the Wal-Mart wake: the sweat shop workers in China working for companies steered there by Wal-Mart; the American suppliers forced into bankruptcy because they would not go overseas; the single mothers struggling to make ends meet on the minimal Wal-Mart pay, without any meaningful benefits, and being told to work overtime off the clock and apply for welfare if they can’t make ends meet; and the owners and workers at small local long time businesses which could not compete and had to close.

But all wise consumers should be aware Wal-Mart does not have the lowest prices. Frontline on PBS did an excellent story on Wal-Mart which included an interview with a former manager of six Wal-Mart stores. He said Wal-Mart merchandising is based on a form of bait and switch. A definitely low price, bottom of the line item is placed in the position of prominence in an area of the store, designed to lure customers to that area by the prominently displayed low price. Once going to the area and looking at the item, most customers will see it is extremely poor quality and then will end up buying a better quality item in the department for a higher price, without realizing that price is perhaps even higher than elsewhere in town. Customers have swallowed the myth about lowest prices at Wal-Mart and are presuming that, since the prominent item is obviously the cheapest in town, the whole price list for items in that department is accordingly lower than elsewhere.

Another problem with merchandise from Wal-Mart, and not just the obvious price leader, is that it may be especially supplied with cost cutting in mind and therefore could be of lesser quality. The supplier may make a cheaper product specifically to meet Wal-Mart cost demands, and Wal-Mart still prices the item as if it were the higher quality item, taking the difference as added profit rather than passing the cost reduction on to the customer. Model numbers of particular items from mainstream manufacturers that are available only at Wal-Mart are likely to be in this category.

Being a wise consumer is easier than being a socially responsible one. It is harder to do research on responsibility factors than on prices and quality. But everything I have learned about Wal-Mart tells me that carefully wading through the everyday lowest price myth for a true bargain there is not worth supporting a company leaving so many victims in its wake.

Working hard? - or Hardly working?

How do you earn your living? Are you "working hard" for a wage or salary as an employee of someone else? Or do you "hardly work", living instead perhaps on income and gains on investments? [If you are self-employed, as I was for 25 years, you probably earn most of your money by your own hard work and by that of your hardworking employees, whom I hope you pay fairly].

You probably have some investments in the stock market, either individual stocks or some mutual funds, perhaps as part of a 401(k) plan through your employer. You also probably know what the Dow Jones average is and maybe the Nasdaq and S& P 500. If you are still a "hard worker", you likely have visions of someday "hardly working" and living instead on passive income. If you work for startup, you could be one of the next "Microsoft millionaires". Hopefully you don’t work for the next Enron.

The last time I "worked hard" for an employer was January 1, 1974. Since the employer had been required by an Order of the National Labor Relations Board to give me my job back after illegally firing me for union organizing activity, they were quite thrilled to receive my resignation letter. Even though the employees had voted the union down several months before, the company was still nervous about having me around. I made my resignation effective at the end of the day on January 1st, in order to get paid for the holiday without actually working, having learned something about nickel and dime economics from my employer.

That one day as an employee in 1974 turned out to be of more value than I realized, because the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) took effect that day, and I thereby became vested in a portion of the company pension plan under he new law. If my last day had been December 31, 1973, I would not have been vested at all.

ERISA was designed to regulate company pension plans to prevent them being used for the benefit of the top executives while screwing over the lower echelon workers. But top executives have high priced lawyers who figure out new ways to get around laws like ERISA , and lower echelon workers usually have a hard time figuring out exactly how they are still getting screwed.

The gravy ERISA took out of executive pensions was replaced with exorbitant executive salaries, bonuses, stock options, severance packages and other gimmicks, with the added attraction that these payments could be received much sooner than retirement age and the recipient could be long gone with the payments before the company went broke, leaving the workers pensionless. Once the executives were no longer personally interested in pension returns, they could also work to short change the pension fund, putting that money instead into profits and getting another bonus for doing so.

As an economic conspiracy theorist, I am struck by the fact that the adoption of 401(k) plans has made so many employees feel like they are participants in the "ownership society". They identify with other fellow capitalists and faithfully follow the market indexes and fantasize about someday "hardly working". In spite of the fact they still work hard full time, this new identification, combined with other myths carefully crafted by the wealthy elite, has made these workers think politically more like capitalists than like the hard workers they actually are.

I am not disparaging employee investments. I am just saying workers should remember that their fundamental asset is their ability and willingness to "work hard" and not their dream of "hardly working", and they should have that in mind when they vote. If you have "worked hard" and been able to achieve "hardly working" status, or if you are able to do so in the future, remember what it took for you to get there and vote to give others the chance you had, rather than voting like a capitalist.

Labor Unions 101

In the 1950's I learned about labor unions and politics. My mother was a cook who became active in her union and was elected to serve on its executive board. Mom told me about some of the cases that came before the board involving employers abusing their employees and how the union stood up for the worker. In that heyday of American unionism, with a Republican President and Congress who were trying to undermine the New Deal union protections, labor unions began to get seriously involved in political action to defend the protections, and Mom took an office job with a union political action committee. She brought home lots of interesting materials about the history of unions and about the American political process, and since they were written for workers to understand, I found them very readable.

Unions were considered as subversive up through the First World War and as unimportant during the Roaring Twenties. American workers languished in unemployed poverty during the Great Depression as a result of the collapse of the economy brought about by unregulated capitalist greed. The New Deal of FDR brought needed economic regulation and worker protections, but it was WWII that finally brought full employment.

After the wage and price controls of the second War were lifted, the worker protections of the New Deal enabled workers to organize unions and collectively bargain with employers for a contract specifying wages, hours and working conditions. American industrial dominance had produced a large profit pie, and the employment contract determined what portion would go to the workers who produced it and what portion would go to the capitalists who financed it. The labor laws governing the process served to keep the bargaining fair and to encourage ultimate agreement through a free market process of negotiation. The 1950s were a time of great prosperity in America, with productive and fairly compensated unionized workers providing the bulk of the labor. [That some unions practiced racial and ethnic discrimination during those years is a sad fact and is not excused by the existence of such discrimination in other areas of American society].

Enlightened employers know that a happy and stable workforce is beneficial to the success of a business. Such employers recognize the helpful role unions play in producing such a workforce. But some employers, individually and through business groups, refuse to recognize the value of unions and have through the years tried to get changes in the laws in order to undermine the collective bargaining policy of our country and to hinder legitimate union activity. These people also oppose all laws designed to improve wages, hours and working conditions of workers, whether unionized or not. They fought against pension vesting regulation, workplace safety and family medical leave. They always oppose any increase in the minimum wage law. They recently succeeded in getting the Bush administration to change the overtime pay regulations to the detriment of most workers.

In the early 1970s, I worked for a title insurance company which Safeco Insurance had acquired. Safeco is a classically unenlightened employer. The title company had good workers and an enterprising culture which was resulting in a growing profit pie, but it was not being fairly shared with the workers. We started a campaign to form a union and to get a fair contract. Safeco fought it tooth and nail and was found to have violated several worker protection laws. The workers finally formed a union but they never did get Safeco to agree to a contract. However, as a result of the labor law violations being brought to light, and probably as an inducement to undermine the union effort, Safeco did improve the pay structure. However, the pro-union employees drifted off to other vistas, replaced by carefully screened anti-union types, business shriveled and in a few years Safeco bailed out of the title insurance business.

The union organizer we first worked with on the Safeco campaign told me that unions are interested in improving the lot of all workers, whether or not they become unionized. Unionism is one of those causes that wishes it did not have to exist - that all employees would be treated fairly without the need for unions. Advisors to employers tell them if they have a union organizing drive on their hands they have done something wrong in the way they treat their employees and they better make some improvements.

The workforce of the 1950s included people with memories of no jobs during the Depression and then of working hard during the War. They understood the value of having their unions represent them. They believed in and practiced the mottto "a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage". The success of the Democratic party in 1960s politics meant unions were safe from attacks by unenlightened employer groups. But a combination of Republican political resurgence and influx of young workers without knowledge of the background of labor relations in American history, started an erosion of support for unions in the 1970s. The Reagan-Bush years of the 1980s were openly anti-union. Reagan supposedly showed his "balls" by firing the air traffic controllers for going on strike, ignoring the fact their strike was primarily over concerns that the skies were not safe for passengers. The real "balls" were shown by Lech Walesa and the polish solidarity union movement standing up to the communist government - those are the people who deserve credit for the collapse of communism, not Ronald Reagan.

The Clinton administration of the 1990s was to me almost a moderate Republican government. Clinton started by signing the family leave law which the first Bush had vetoed, but then nothing much seems to have been done after that to benefit workers or their unions. The WTO and Workfare are more favorable to Wal-Mart than to workers. Wal-Mart is the prime current example of an unenlightened employer, one who believe a worker should be happy just to have a job, regardless of the low pay, long hours and poor working conditions. Smiley face logos and company cheers should be enough to bring joy. Wal-Mart believes a stable workforce is bad for business, because long time workers are more likely to expect improvements in wages, hours and working conditions, and are more likely to form workplace friendships that could lead to worker discussions of collective bargaining rights.

Union membership is now largely concentrated among government workers, where the profit pie analysis doesn’t really work. I would prefer to have seen unions continue to be a force in the private sector and then to have government worker contracts modeled after comparable private sector union contracts. There does not seem to be much prospect now for unions to make gains in organizing more workers. Maybe it will take another Depression to develop a new generation of union workers.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Windshield Cowboy

George W. Bush likes to project himself as a manly man, always strutting around for the cameras, especially when he can put on a military uniform for a photo op. He likes to talk like an Old West Sheriff, giving righteous ultimatums to villains. However when the posse forms, he is not one of the riders. During the Vietnam War, he took advantage of pulled strings to jump the waiting list for National Guard pilot training, in spite of marginal test scores, and was trained to fly an obsolete training plane that could not be used in combat. At college, he wore a uniform - as a member of the cheerleading squad.

In a letter he made public on September 11, 2003, Bush wrote, "One of the paintings I selected for the Oval Office portrays a man on horseback, leading a charge up a steep hill. His face is full of purpose and determination, and it is clear he expects to get the job done. The painting is called "A Charge to Keep," based on a Methodist hymn that's a favorite of mine, "A Charge to Keep I Have."

We always hear about "the ranch", where Bush spends his record breaking amount of vacation time. Reporters seem to be confined to one small spot for reporting from the ranch - you always see the reporter speaking to the camera with the same picturesquely weathered somewhat dilapidated outbuilding in the background. We never see the lavish residence with all the elaborate "security upgrades" we have purchased for George. During the month long vacation he took the August before 9/11, we saw him trying to cut a log with a chain saw, in an apparent attempt to imitate Ronald Reagan. But unlike Reagan and many other Presidents, we have never seen Bush on horse back.

Aparently the "ranch" has no horses and Bush is what wife Laura calls a "windshield cowboy", driving a pickup truck instead of a horse. I have been curious about this horseless cowboy story for some time and finally did a Google and found the "Post your pictures of Bush on horseback" site. Included there is a picture of Cheney on horseback. The replies are worth reading, including a lot of Bush apologists and a comment that it is particularly strange that the rich Bush twins never even owned a horse; but most enjoyable are the pictures of Bush on horseback - one on a wooden hobbyhorse and two on what appears to be a fake horse in a photography studio.

The site is at:

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Spiritual and Secular

In the current American political discourse, many Republicans, most notably the Bush faction, have been trying to describe themselves as spiritual people, embracing moral values and religious beliefs, while portraying the Democrats as secular people, having only a worldly outlook without spiritual values. These erroneous simplifications do us all a great disservice.

As with most such nonsense, we can best set matters straight by clarifying some fundamentals. We all know there is physical reality, starting with our own bodies and the physical objects that surround us. But we also know there is another kind of reality that is not physical and which includes invisibles we know exist, such as our thoughts and feelings.

So how should we discuss these realities if we want to have a clear political discourse? First we need to recognize that we are all spiritual people because we all have thoughts and feelings, and we each apply our own thoughts and feelings to arrive at our moral values and beliefs. We also must admit that we are physical presences in a world of physical materials and therefore of necessity must participate in that world.

The Constitution of the USA was designed by the Founders to work in both a spiritual and physical way. Spiritually it embodies the thoughts and feelings of those who founded this country and the moral values and beliefs they held. Physically, it sets out a framework for the mechanics of the people and the government dealing with each other and with the physical world in which we live.

The Founders purposely chose not to make the Constitution a religious document. They knew that the various religions were groups of people with somewhat differing specific sets of moral values and beliefs based on a concept of worship of some form of supernatural sentience, and that they expected their members to adhere to their specific beliefs. From experience the Founders also knew that some religious groups would try to force their own set of beliefs on other people through the vehicle of a national government which would persecute those with opposing beliefs. To prevent this from happening in America, the Founders specifically provided in the First Amendment to the Constitution that the government would not allow any religious group to use the government for religious purposes nor allow the government to abuse any religious group.

Over time, the Constitution has been amended to reflect further thinking resulting in changes in values and beliefs, two notable examples being the abolition of slavery and the extension to women of the right to vote. No serious attempt has ever been made to repeal the religious protections of the First Amendment, but many laws through the years have been enacted and then found to be unconstitutional violations of the Amendment. Use of government funds for "faith based initiatives" may be one of the next ones found to be in violation.

To say the Bush Republicans are spiritual and have moral values is meaningless, since all of us are spiritual and have moral values. The Bush people should instead be called religious, and to the extent their political agenda includes religious initiatives, it will have to comply with the First Amendment religion provisions. For example, to say government money should be given to a group that believes drug addicts can be helped by a program that includes beliefs and moral values on how to live should be no problem, but when the group is a religion as defined above and when the religious belief is a part of the help given, then it is actually a prohibited "religion involved initiative".

What about calling Democrats secular? Secular is a word that literally means physical as opposed to spiritual. But in the context of American political discussion it has traditionally meant non-religious, like our Constitution is. Secular does not mean without spiritual values, it just means without religious values included. The Constitution is spiritual but not religious - it is spiritual and secular. The Founders knew then and the Democrats know now that most people, including Democrats, are religious. But the Democrats, like the Founders and in contrast to the Bush Republicans, know the wisdom of keeping religion and government separate.

Bush Budget Shafts Students

In the budget George W. Bush just submitted to Congress, he proposes to increase the maximun Pell grant available to an eligible colllege student from the current $4,050 to $4,150. Too bad college cost increases aren't limited to a similar 2 1/2 percent.

Meanwhile the $25 billion already appropriated for the Afghan and Iraq Wars for 2005 will be augmented by a supplemental budget request of $80 billion for the year. Rounding the 2005 war budget down to $100 billion, if that amount was spent instead for Pell grant increases, one billion students could get the $100 raise.

Bush pushes for private investment accounts as an alternative to social security, supposedly out of his great concern for the future of our young people. If Bush is really concerned for the young, then instead of pushing to let young people invest their social security with his rich cronies, he would do more to help them be able to afford a college education. It is a sad fact that many of our young American troops only enlisted in the armed forces because they had no other means to get a college education. Significant increases in financial aid for college students could further impair our military recruiting effort, which is already hampered by the harsh realities of the cost of war being paid by our killed and wounded troops.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Continuing Coverup of Prisoner Torture by USA

The matter of the torture of prisoners by the US keeps arising in a variety of forums. The surprisingly high number of 36 Senators voting today against the nomination of Alberto Gonzales is largely attributable to his and the White House refusing to provide requested information to the Senate about the role Gonzales played in the promulgation of the US torture policy. He is known to be the author of the lead memorandum on the subject but claimed in his Senate testimony he could not remember much of anything else about the issue and even if he could, that it would be classsifed information or subject to some previously unheard of offshoot of the executive privilege doctrine.

The soldier who was convicted by court martial of prisoner abuse wanted to have everyone above him in the chain of command required to testify as to the actual torture policy, but they all asserted their privilege against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment. If the Army really wanted to get to the truth, they would have put appropriate pressure of these higher ups to get them to testify or resign.

Because of the Holocaust experience, Germany has laws allowing prosecution of persons accused of war crimes, regardless of national boundaries. War crimes charges are being sought in Germany against Don Rumsfeld, and for that reason he will not be making the customary appearance at the international security conference there next week. Such charges could not be brought in the International Criminal Court, because the US is not a member nation of that Court, out of concern that US officials or personnel might be charged with international crimes and not have the right to a trial in US Courts. What kind of a nation member of the world community is the US, when it will not let alleged US criminals be tried in the Court of the international community and when it imprisons citizens of other nations and tortures them and does not even let them have a US trial?

On the Larry King show, Rumsfeld just siad he offered to resign twice. He should have - once for misfeasance and once for malfeasance.