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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

September Miscellany

Here are some thoughts at the end of September.

Most Americans wish someone would push the fast forward button to January, 2009, so we can see George W. Bush kicked back to Texas. Pundits agree Hillary has been running a flawless campaign and will likely be the Democratic nominee. She has been impressively competent. Once her nomination becomes reality, the selection of her running mate will be the hot topic. Obama would be an exciting choice for his freshness and a wise one to enable his seasoning and preparation to be the successor.

Today Bush is threatening a veto of a bi-partisan act to expand the federal subsidy of health insurance coverage for children. Even the insurance industry favors the expansion, but Bush says he will stick to his mission to stop government spending. The expanded coverage would cost $35 billion over five years, the same amount of our tax money Bush is spending every six months in Iraq. I think the nation is finally realizing that the “free market” has never been able to provide universal health care and that a Medicare type program is needed to provide insurance coverage for everyone.

Also today, the Iranian President and Bush both address the UN General Assembly. Reminds me of the movie, “Dumb and Dumber”. The UN will keep Iran in check, because the Security Council members with veto power all want that. The US makes the most noise, but China’s position is the key to getting things done.

At the UN, Bush verbally attacks the military junta which has ruled Myanmar for 19 years. Like the Iranian President, Bush likes to hear himself talk. But China is the major player in what is happening in Myanmar. The military government of that country is being restrained by Chinese pressure from cracking down on the protestors who are now emboldened. Maybe some progress will be made on starting to free that nation from the hold of its oppressive regime.

The new PBS series on WWII documents the overwhelming magnitude of the death and devastation of that War, particularly as it fell on civilians, starting with the blitz of London, progressing through the fire bombing of Germany and ending with the Atomic bombing of Japan. The axis powers had delusions of grand imperial expansion and the vast majority of their civilian populations, with the possible exception of Italy, were wildly supportive. Think of the Bush program pushed in 2003 to spread democracy to the world and of all the cars driving around with American flags and yellow ribbons and you begin to get the idea.

In many invaded and occupied countries during WWII, civilian patriots fought the invaders and resisted the occupiers by whatever means available. We rightly celebrate their bravery and heroism. Yet in our own time, the Bush administrations has been striving for years to get our courts to adopt the concept that such civilians who oppose our actions should be called “enemy combatants” and forfeit all legal rights to fair treatment under either agreed military conventions or civilian constitutional protections. This effort is correctly seen worldwide as a shame on America.

We learned a lot from WWII. Ken Burns, the producer of the PBS series, was rightly concerned that we may have forgotten those lessons and that we have failed to teach them to our younger generations. The UN, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, bona fide international legal tribunals, international regulation of atomic energy and the peaceful resolution of disputes between nations were all needs that were addressed and met after the end of the War. America, the chief advocate for world peace following WWII, has sadly in the last couple decades, through the Republican Party and especially under George W. Bush, seemed to be working to undermine institutions of international peace.

Back on the home front, a somewhat unexpected strike by the United Auto Workers has once again put needed attention on our beleaguered auto industry and the insecurity of employer provided pension benefits. Our auto maker corporations ignore the simple fact that they make crappy cars and instead blame their financial woes on being saddled with retiree pension costs. The union wants to take the pension responsibility off the auto maker hands, which makes a lot of sense to me. The auto makers should just turn the pension funds over to the union to manage and then stop whining about the cost. Whatever it costs them they can write off, let the stockholders eat any loss, and then move on to 401k type plans with no guarantees. Of course, this would mean giving up the option of escaping current pension promises by filing bankruptcy. Moving the pensions to union control, forgetting about bankruptcy tricks and focusing on building better cars is what needs to be done to keep American cars competitive. We should build American cars so good the Chinese people will want to buy them instead of waiting for their government to enable the building of good Chinese cars. We could follow the example of the deal Japan and the US made, and build a negotiated number of American cars in China as a condition to be allowed to sell even more of our cars over there.

Friday, September 14, 2007

What to Read in Jail

There is no need for a comment here on the Congressional testimony of the General and the Ambassador and the Bush speech about the war in Iraq. All this dog and pony show was quite easy to predict, as I did here in July in “Filibustering Iraq”.

What caught my attention this week was an interesting article in the NY Times about the Standardized Chapel Library Project, a program under which the Justice Department’s Federal Bureau of Prisons decides what religious books make it into prison libraries. Concerned that some religious books might incite violence, this censorship project took the unusual approach of not just banning books deemed dangerous, but instead banning all religious books except for those on an approved list. Apparently the secret experts identified twenty religions or religious categories and then arbitrarily chose particular books and other media to represent each category.

Typical of the Bush Administration in general and the Justice Department in particular, the approved list has not been publicized, and the standards used for selection as well as the names of the persons who adopted the standards have been kept secret. This calls to mind the self-censorship used by the Motion Picture Association of America, whose ubiquitous film ratings, in what would be a total surprise to most Americans, are also made by secret panels applying non-published standards. An excellent documentary about the MPAA ratings sham, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated”, is definitely worth watching.

The Times article mentions the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. There is also a subsequently passed Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. As the previous Wikipedia links to these articles indicate, the Acts were passed in 1993 and 2000, in an attempt to clarify or modify Court rulings on conflicts between religious rights and general societal interests. I don’t recall any public dialog at the time these laws were passed. Particularly now, after the 9/11 religious fanatic attacks, with America embroiled in the middle of a religious was in Iraq and with a disastrous Presidency enabled by a religiously motivated voter base which disregards our Constitution, we need to have a significant dialog about the place of religion in our own lives, in our country and in the world. The next Democratic Presidential administration could play a significant role in encouraging such discussions, publicly and with all views welcome.

The trampling of prisoner religious reading rights has prompted the expected class action lawsuit, succinctly covered in this blog entry from Melissa Rogers. I expect the prison censorship project to be ruled unconstitutional. As in the film on the MPAA ratings, a major point of interest is who are the people on the secret panel. The assumption regarding the movie raters, since the ratings supposedly exist to guide parents, is that the raters would be concerned parents. But it turns out the panelists were mostly people involved in the film distribution business, using the ratings system to assist distribution of their own films while encumbering distribution of independent films. Perhaps the same will be revealed about the Standardized Chapel Library Project - the secret panel may be composed of religious book publishers and distributors.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Wars and Presidents

Wars make Presidents and Presidents make wars.

Our first American President was the general who led us to Revolutionary War victory. Service in the War of 1812 helped Andrew Jackson win the 1820 election. The War with Mexico was Zachary Taylor’s ticket to the White House. U.S. Grant led the Union Army to victory and rode that to the Presidency. Teddy Roosevelt led the charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, which added a military credential to his Presidential campaigns. After the first World War, General Pershing hinted he might be willing to become President, but his close wartime alignment with President Wilson made Republicans wary of him, and Democrats knew Pershing was a Republican at heart - as are most Generals. General MacArthur had Presidential aspirations following WWII, but Truman firing him during the Korean War confirmed MacArthur’s time had passed and Eisenhower was the heir apparent to be anointed President.

War time Presidents get re-elected, but there are fewer of them than one might expect, only four, of whom three did not get over 55% of the popular vote. Lincoln got 55%, Roosevelt 53.4%, Lyndon Johnson 61% (by convincing voters his opponent, Goldwater, was trigger happy with nukes), and Bush II got a very marginal 50.7%. [If you are into numerology, maybe you can make something of the fact these re-election years all ended in a 4, 1864, 1944, 1964 and 2004]. The first two re-electees “won” their wars, while the last two could not deliver the victory they promised. Woodrow Wilson has the distinction of getting re-elected on a campaign slogan of having kept us out of the World War, while then getting us into it after his electoral victory.

Our Generals in the Vietnam War spent their post-war years defending against the legacy of their blunders, rather than sending out hopeless Presidential feelers. The Gulf War gave some Presidential credence to General Schwartzkopf, who did not pursue it, and then to Colin Powell who settled for Secretary of State. Wes Clark sought a Presidential nomination in 2004, but his military leadership had been in relatively unknown encounters, and he confused everyone by being a rare General running as a Democrat.

With two of our last three significant war adventures being shambles, maybe Americans have learned that wars don’t really make Presidents. Bush II has certainly reminded us that Presidents can make wars on false pretenses. Now we need to learn to how to solve problems without making war.