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.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Taking off the Gloves

I watched the Democrats debate last night, particularly to see what Obama and whoever else might do about attacking Hillary Clinton. Obama recently said it was time to take the gloves off, though others have said it is too late because Hillary has the nomination well in hand. Here is how it looked to me.

The debate moderators from NBC quickly established that shots at front-runner Clinton would be welcome. Edwards was the chief puncher, accusing Hillary of being of questionable trustworthiness because of her defensively changing or waffling positions. Obama got his blows in over her political calculations, contributions from special interests and unwillingness to encourage publication by the National Archives of her written communications to President Clinton from the time she served in his administration. A few of the minor candidates echoed some Clinton criticism, including concerns that her high negative poll numbers show she is unelectable.

The most interesting thing to me about the Democratic males joining the all male Republican club in the attacks on the only woman in the race, was that none of the attacks are based on her gender. This is not due to any gentlemanly code, or political correctness, but rather to the fact Hillary seems to have no gender related weakness. The attacks last night were literally to her face and understandably disturbed her, but she handled them admirably, in fact, "like a man".

At this stage of the game, there are two kinds of candidates - top tier and also rans. Also rans can give definite, cut and dried answers and never have to worry about being stuck with what they said, because they are not going to get nominated or elected. Top tier people may get nominated and then in the general election campaign be stuck with what they said on the way to the nomination. There are two general ways to handle that dilemma, speak lies and platitudes all the way through, as George W. Bush did, or project a general spirit and direction while pointing out the necessity for pragmatism, nuance and compromise, as Hillary is doing. The three out of four voters who are anxious for Bush to leave want to replace his devious obstinance with a style more like Hillary has.

Voters know any candidate who is going to be viable for the nomination and electable thereafter has to take special interest money, so that shot did not score on Hillary any more than on Obama and Edwards. I doubt voters are interested in knowing what Hillary wrote to Bill during the failed effort to get health insurance coverage for us all. I think they would be more interested in seeing what she wrote to him about his dalliance with Monica.

The most serious substance based attack was over the vote Hillary cast to condemn the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Though the Democratic nominating electorate is very anti-war, Hillary stood behind her vote, pointing out that three quarters of the Senate voted as she did, including some Democrats who had opposed the Iraq War resolution. She showed she understands the conflicting pressures a President must weigh from the Commander-in chief position when she pointed out Iran is a potential threat to the US and we need to keep open the option to use forceful diplomacy. Her Iraq War vote is more open to questioning as politically calculated. Her Iran vote and her defense of it last night seems to indicate Hillary cast this one not out of a possibility of becoming President some day but rather out of the reality she may actually win the Presidency next year.

Near the end of the debate, Hillary came the closest to stumbling. A question of position about a NY state proposal to issue drivers licenses to illegal/undocumented aliens drew her into that most genuinely splintering issue. First she said she supported the licenses as a public safety issue to bring these unlicensed drivers out of the shadows. As a show of hands revealed the panel of candidates split on the issue, Hillary then tried to provide nuance and a bigger picture view, but did so in a somewhat confusing manner, which Edwards and Obama quickly pointed out. This should not actually hurt her, since the actual question was just about the attempt by one state to resolve a problem of unlicensed drivers who fail to get licensed because of their illegal/undocumented status. As she correctly pointed out, comprehensive immigration reform is needed. The public realizes we have a lot of dialog ahead of us before we come to a national consensus on the issues.

I am not sure what should be made of polls where voters say they would never vote for a particular candidate. Some who say that about Hillary, mostly Republicans, obviously mean it. But some Democrats also may be saying it in an attempt to derail her in favor of their preferred nominee. And some Republicans who certainly would not vote for Hillary, may also refuse to vote for a particular Republican nominee for a specific reason, such as Romney being Mormon or Giuliani pro-choice, and thus not vote or vote third party.

Biden and Richardson did not take specific shots at Hillary. Richardson criticized the "holier than thou" personal nature of the attacks. Biden was refreshingly succinct and, though he strongly disagreed with Hillary on the Iran vote, was very diplomatic sounding, perhaps part of a strategy to move his Senate foreign relations experience into the Secretary of State seat, one which he might fill rather well. Some think Richardson, with his Hispanic heritage, diverse background and Gubernatorial experience may be vying for a VP nod. At this point it seems more likely, if Hillary is doing the choosing, Richardson would be her choice, rather than Obama or Edwards.

Don't forget to hand lots of candy out to the trick or treaters tonight. Remember, Congress extended daylight savings time an extra week in part to please candy makers who wanted more time for the annual extortion. And don't forget to change your smoke alarm batteries, as the fire chiefs, encouraged by the battery makers, recommend. You can read all about these two matters in the NY Times.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Better Way to Choose Our President

The current method of nominating candidates for the US Presidency is a disgrace. States leap frogging to be first choosers, too many debates with too many participants, and overall chaos mired in huge sums of money all bespeak the need for improvement. Most of us have no opportunity to vote in the primary process until it has already been decided, and if we live in a State that always votes for a particular party which we do not favor, the electoral college makes our vote meaningless. I have a proposal for a better way.

I have previously written about real campaign financing limitations, but what I most strongly advocate is public financing of campaigns, based on a formula tied in to the number of votes cast for a particular political party in the last primary election. Basing the financing on past party votes will also serve as a deterrent to crossover voting in party primaries. The President and Vice-President are the only offices we elect nationally, so the Federal Government should supervise those elections, including at the primary stage. But beyond changing the financing method and supervisory authority, we also need to regulate the actual voting process.

Our choice of President should start from the State level, with a national day of State Presidential Primaries in which voters in each State will be given a separate primary ballot for each political party, with all the candidates being State residents. Voters will then choose one ballot to submit, marking on it the candidate of choice. The top vote getter in each political party will be the party nominee from that State. Each State can set its own rules for financing and debate, but the ballot and election will be according to national standards. This method of State voters nominating State residents respects one of the concepts behind the electoral college, that electors can do a better job if they are more personally aware of the candidates. Indeed, some candidates in this election may actually campaign as endorsers of candidates from other States. This national election day eliminates the nonsense of leapfrogging caucuses and primaries. Each State, regardless of population size, is also given an equal right to nominate one of its own citizens to be President.

The federal government will then produce and distribute DVDs for each political party, in numbers proportionate to the total votes that party received in the State level primaries. The DVDs will contain 5 minute speeches for each candidate indexed alpha by State. From this point on, all financing will be federally regulated. At this stage, there will be no official debates. Most of the action at this time will involve State favorite sons and daughters who are not viable candidates and who have not already endorsed someone else being politicked to endorse someone else, akin to the role supposedly played by the electors of the electoral college.

Two months after the previous election, a National Top Three Primary election will be held, in which voters again select the party ballot of choice, but this time vote in no order of preference for up to three of the fifty candidates, listed alpha by State. This allows a voter to nominate the local favorite, as well as a more viable candidate for now and a hopeful one for the future. The top three vote getters for each party will be their finalists. The results of this election will also be fertile ground for farming VP nominees. After the unaccountable Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney, we should expect our holders of that office to be legitimate Presidential hopefuls and therefore answerable to the American people, and this new process should give us some input in that direction. Over the two months following the Top Three Primary, the federal government will sponsor three official debates for each party’s three finalists, with party expenditure commensurate with votes received by the party in the that election.

After this second two month period, the National Presidential Primary will be held, at which a voter will again choose a party ballot and this time vote for one of the three finalists to be the party nominee. The prevailing nominees will then choose their running mates and a final four month campaign will begin. Four official federally sponsored debates will be held during this time, with the first and third debate including the top two vote getters as well as the third party candidate who received the highest primary vote, but the second and fourth only including the top two. There will also be two debates between the VP candidates, the first including the top three and the second including the top two.

Four elections in eight months may be expecting a lot from an electorate with shamefully low voter turnout, but starting the nominating process in the home State and then giving the opportunity to consider candidates from every State should make voters feel more empowered. Two months into the voting, after the second election, the field for each party will be reduced to three, so there will never be more than three candidates in a debate, yet the third party candidates will play a role by participating in half the debates. Voters will be able to spend the first four months narrowing the field and the last four months focusing on the finalists. State and local governments could coordinate their elections with the national voting days. All four Presidential elections could be conducted efficiently by mail.

The electoral college would have to be abolished as part of this new approach. The smaller States might agree with abolition, since the new process preserves some of their equality, regardless of population.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Cheaters Never Win

Hang on. My muse has amused me and pointed me in many directions with this theme.

Kids (and grownups) have two ways to play - co-operatively and competitively. The ways can combine, as when team members co-operate to compete with an opposing team. The ways can also conflict, as when a team member is more interested in personal triumph than the good of the team. Kids hear early that “cheaters never win”. It is usually first heard from the mouth of some righteous kid who has just been walloped by a rule breaker. That the rule breaker did in fact win the game of the day is rationalized by the righteous one, who believes if he follows the rules, he will be victorious - some day. Enter religion or Karma or whatever leads one to believe in an afterlife, and today’s loser can be mollified by the thought of the cheater perpetually burning in hell or being re-born as a turd blossom [hmm, so that’s how Karl Rove came to be].

Put the title of this piece in quotes and do a Google search and you get over 60,000 hits. The first is an interesting blog entry from a thoughtful teenager, Megan in Massachusetts, who readily captures the adolescent frustration of bringing childhood idealism into the reality of adulthood. Shakespeare helped me make that transition. In high school, as my Christian beliefs waned, I heard Polonius tell Hamlet, “This above all, to thine own self be true”. To me that meant that the most important rules to follow were those felt in one’s own heart. That worked for me. A good God would not let our hearts mislead us. A rule against the heart is a bad rule and should not be followed, and if that conflicts with the rules made by those in power, then follow the heart and take the consequences. It is better to win in your heart and lose on the field than to win on the field and lose in your heart.

Bartlett’s has surprisingly little cheat quotes to offer.
A pessimistic Dryden in 1676 wrote:
“When I consider life, ‘tis all a cheat;
Yet, fool’d with hope, men favor the deceit;
Trust on and think tomorrow will repay.
Tomorrow’s falser than the former day.”

Cornelius Vanderbilt, in the essential attitude of the robber baron, wrote in 1853 to former business associates, “You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you.”

In a somewhat gentler vein, in the early 20th century, Marcel Proust wrote of grief and oblivion in “The Sweet Cheat Gone”, about how people are bound together in the mind, allowing our memories gladly to cheat us into an illusory connection, in spite of the fact that “Man is the creature that cannot emerge from himself, that knows his fellows only in himself; when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.”

The word cheat comes from the Latin word meaning to fall upon. Our English based legal system early on coined “escheat”, the concept that in the absence of a Will or of heirs, the property of a decedent had to go to someone as a last resort. That “someone” was the King or the Lord of the Manor. Resentment of such Regal or Lordly taking probably led our peasant ancestors to apply the shortened word “cheat” to the taking of anything by unfair advantage. In modern democracies, escheat property goes to everyone, via the government for the benefit of the taxpayers. I had a couple escheat cases in my days of law practice and found the government attorneys to be very receptive to continuing attempts to locate heirs without rushing to declare there were none.

Does the government ever cheat us? Many Republicans today talk like the very concept of government, particularly in the regulation of business and collection of taxes, is a cheat. Many Democrats, and an growing number of Republicans, believe the Bush Administration is cheating people out of our Constitutionally protected rights and liberties. Cheating by Bush should not be a surprise, given his life record of cheating, such as how he jumped ahead on the Air National Guard list, sold his oil stock before the business collapsed and stole the Presidency.

Do we ever cheat our government? Our Federal government estimates we cheat it out of about $350 billion dollars of taxes every year. Many tax cheats wear American flag lapel pins, drive cars with “Support Our Troops” ribbons, and are livid over “illegal aliens” consuming the benefits for which our taxes pay. They secretly rationalize tax cheating by their belief that government taxes and regulations are cheating them. Sound familiar? It should, they are called Republicans. But Republicans have no monopoly on tax fraud. Like young Megan said, “Everybody’s doing it”. Tax cheats seem to be saying that because so many people are cheating, those who pay their taxes in full are really paying extra to make up for the cheaters.

How do you beat a system that is rigged against you? Frustrated computer gamers know that games cheat. The algorithms are stacked against you. To “level the playing field” [1,270,000 Goggle hits], you need a “cheat”. Google for “game cheats” and you’ll get over 4.5 million hits. Cheats seems to trump leveling. In competition you need an “edge”. When you go over the edge, you are cheating. The current sports world is full of stories of cheaters. So is our White House. The current occupant tells us we are in a war against terrorists who want to destroy us, and so we must let our commander-in-chief cheat to protect us. He needs to be able to spy on us, “render” people without warrants or hearings, torture detainees. John McCain does not usually inspire me, but he did when spoke out against America embracing torture, by saying that the knowledge America did not torture was what sustained him during his prisoner of war ordeal.

The credit and insurance industries have been using algorithms that “score” us as a basis for deciding how much to charge us. The validity of these practices has been called into question. I just spent an hour on the phone with my own auto insurer of 40 years, questioning why my perfect driving scores did not prevent a 40% liability premium increase under their new formula. These algorithms may be a form of cheating, or just fuzzy math. In either case, government regulation is starting to address them. In the meantime, certain behavioral modifications can be made to improve a score, without cheating. In a similar vein, the book whose picture adorns this article purports to advise how to honestly break all the dishonest rules to get ahead in business, which two reader/reviewers found helpful, though there are over a quarter of a million books at Amazon which are better sellers.

I do like the idea of paying back an individual cheater, by cheating him, as when a student athlete in college tried to copy my test answer and I purposely wrote the wrong one down and showed him, before I replaced it with the correct answer. As an Air Force paper pusher, I was required to pass a multiple choice test on computer knowledge or else be re-assigned to more physical or dangerous duty. Copies of stolen test answers circulated, but I chose not to avail myself, in part wondering if they were as bogus as the ones I offered the college athlete. Cleverly, the Air Force graded the test on the curve, and whenever the curve started getting quite high, they knew cheating was taking place and would design a new test. So I waited for the new test and took it, giving my best guess answers based on whatever made the high priced computer system sound wonderful. I passed, without studying and without cheating. Those who tested after studying the stolen scores failed.

The trigger for this article was my car trip home from the library on Tuesday morning. As I coasted down the big hill toward home, first one, then a second driver flashed high beam headlights at me. My car has daytime running lights so I thought maybe I had them on bright. As I fiddled with the light lever, I slowed down to examine it more closely. Then when I looked up I saw the motorcycle cop waiting at the next intersection. The hill is a natural speed trap, but my hesitant lever checking, and the warning flashes, saved me from a ticket. Were the other drivers cheating the traffic cop? I’ll choose to say they were just warning me to slow down for safety. In my heart, I know I am a safe driver who does not speed and would not have deserved a ticket, but rather a warning from the officer. I will watch my speed on that hill from now on. I don’t want to skew my score and turn the insurance algorithm against me. I also don’t want an accident to happen.

I saved love for last. Cheating on one’s spouse or lover is the cause of much grief, sometimes not just for the spouse and the cheaters, but also for the whole world. Think Bill and Monica. Unheralded by Bartlett’s, Hank Williams wrote and sung a summary of my feelings on cheating, “Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you”.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Insurance 101

Today, without his usual egotistical photo op, George W. Bush vetoed a rare bipartisan Congressional bill that would have extended health care benefits to millions of children in America. Bush easily realized that posing for pictures with a sick child without medical coverage and with the parents who will be bankrupted by having to pay the medical expenses would not be good for the Bush “legacy”.

Drawing on the cold war era specter of the communist menace, Bush called the measure another step toward “socialized medicine”. Bush also said the government should not extend to middle class children health care protections intended only for poor children. This is the same middle class that Bush fooled into supporting huge tax cuts for the wealthy, by telling them they too would receive a tax break. Now the middle class realizes the annual tax break they got is not enough to pay for even one month’s medical insurance, and Bush is protecting the wealth of the rich from the menace of "socialism" at the expense of middle class families.

In the first year of law school I learned how the medieval legal system saw that risks such as a house fire could result in a loss not only for the initial victim, but also for the neighbors to whose homes the fire spread. Suing the initial victim was ineffective, since the losses to all the neighbors would exceed the ability of the first homeowner to pay. Legal minds then realized that the solution to this problem was to spread the risk of fire loss throughout the community - and thus the concept insurance was born.

Everyone agrees the solution to paying for health care is insurance. Health problems,like fire, can strike anyone. Insurance spreads the risk of paying for individual health problems among the greater population. All insureds are protected against medical expense and are pleased to know we are all helping each other by pooling our resources. In virtually all the rest of the world, this most fundamental risk, the expense of a health problem, is efficiently insured against through a universal single payer system, provided by the best manifestation of the community will, the national government. But in America, because of the outdated red scare, and because of the political money spent by special interests who make huge sums on the present system, our simple attempt to spread the risk like the rest of the world, is blocked.

Congress can override a Bush veto if 15 more House Republicans change their vote. If not,once a Democrat is in the White House, this legislation can be passed again and signed by the new President, much like Bill Clinton did for the family medical leave act that the first Bush had vetoed. To the Bush family, protecting family values means protecting the valuable wealth of their rich crony families, but does not mean helping all the rest of the American families meet their health care needs.