Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Obama's First 100 Days Rated B+

I'll cut to the chase. My grade for President Barack Obama's first 100 days in office is B+.

Now, I'm writing this off the top of my head without referring to notes because this type of grading is always subjective. The kind of images embedded in our minds.

The charisma factor: A+

This is a no brainer. Obama gets a break here. All one does is compare Obama with the last eight years of George W. Bush. No contest. Obama's job approval ratings hold steady around 60%. Polls strongly reflect his administration has turned the nation in the right direction. The man is everywhere. He communicates through every media known to mankind. People flat out like the man as honest, sincere and trustworthy. It doesn't hurt that Michelle Obama and their two daughters resonate the perfect family.

Leadership qualities: A+

The best thing about Obama is he makes you think he is listening to you. That is a terrific skill and strokes the ego of friends and foes alike. It is disarming. A great leader admits his mistakes and Obama is at the top of the class, much to the dismay of conservatives who go as far as saying he is unpatriotic as when he shook Hugo Chavez's hand and bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia. He is tough. He listened to his car advisers and agreed with them to fire the General Motors Corp. chief executive. We haven't seen that bold action since Reagan fired the air controllers and Truman fired MacArthur.

Domestic agenda: C

Yes, a mediocre grade because no one really knows how the Obama administrations decisions will affect the economy in the long term. Early signs are that the downside of the recession is slowing down. But unemployment continues to rise. It is too early to grade the stimulus package and the bank TARP infusions. The banking and housing markets may take years to unravel because of those dreaded toxic assets. The government is printing money and critics complain it will burden future generations with debt. Obama plans to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term but at this time looks like a hail Mary pass play. An impatient nation will demand results by the end of the year even if Obama retains his personal popularity. The window is closing fast.

Foreign policy: B-

The upside is cosmetic. Obama enjoys worldwide acclaim as a fresh new leader of a Super Power state. Substance fell short in his flurry of talks with scores of country presidents and prime ministers. North Korea tweaked his nose by testing a ballistic missle. Closing Guantanamo Bay prison is proving more difficult than expected. His Afghanistan/Pakistan policy is fraught with perils since the Pakistanis have shown little willingness or effectiveness to crush the Taliban and al-quada in their own country. Iran remains a nuclear time bomb ready to ignite. No progress is seen in the Israeli/Palestine stand-off. The president embellished his commander-in-chief credentials by his behind-the-scene decisions to enable the navy to do its job and kill the pirates that highjacked the U.S. merchant ship. So far even this early in his adminstration we have seen little results from his diplomatic staff under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Time will tell.

Most defining moment: C-

There are many but the one which will come back and bite him on the butt is his decision to allow the Attorney General to release the torture memos from the Bush administration and not to prosecute the offenders. The president waffled, trying to appease the politics on the left and keep in good graces with the Central Intelligence Agency. In my opinion, it was a just decision. But he lost control as Congress continued its push to get to the bottom of this hornet's nest. The lion is out of the cage and where the fact finding commissions, the congressional investigations and the Justice Department inquiries takes us is out of the hands of Obama. He may want to look forward but the national focus on the audacity of Americans torturing prisoners will not go away.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

News You Can Swear By

What a great day for news. Here's my favorites:

(1) Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is switching political parties as he announced he is running for re-election in the 2010 Democratic primary. Translation: He thinks he would lose to Republican Pat Toomey in the GOP primary who damned near beat him last time out.

"I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans," Specter said, adding that the "change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans." Translation: He thinks he can beat Toomey as a Democrat because state voters are leaning Democrat.

This self-serving politician issued a statement last month saying there is no way he would switch parties. "To eliminate any doubt, I am a Republican, and I am running for reelection in 2010 as a Republican on the Republican ticket," he said at the time.

If Specter thinks he found Jesus in the Democratic Party, good riddance, most GOP analysts would agree. He would be the 60th Democrat in the Senate once Al Franken of Minnesota is seated. Knowing Specter's track record his votes to kill filibusters will be interesting to watch. His game plan seems to become a moderate power broker.

2) The liberal blogs and television news show hosts ganged up to bash Republican Sen. Susan Collins for cutting millions of dollars out of the stimulus package that would have funded additional research and supplies for pandemic emergencies.

That was a cheap shot. Collins has always supported public health care funding. She believes it was unnecessary in a stimulus but should be placed in an appropriations bill. The White House agrees and said there is ample funding in reserve to fight the spread of Swine flu. The Senate intends to add more funds, just in case.

A pox on those who politicize a possible pandemic.

3) President Obama said Tuesday the photo shoot of an Air Force One plane and F-16 fighter jet flying low over Manhattan and creating panic was a mistake and improperly handled.

What boggles the mind is that director of the White House military office, Louis Caldera, who fessed up and took the blame, notified the proper authorities but insisted on secrecy in which the public and media were not warned in advance.

Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not clued in by his events coordinator who was reprimanded and given a nasty note in his personnel file.

Caldera should be reassigned, demoted or fired. An easy way Obama can show he doesn't tolerate such nonsense and insists on accountability, something his predecessor seldom could face until it was too late. Say what you want about New Yorkers. They don't deserve an updated memory of 9/11.

4) The U.S. Supreme Court issued six separate opinions totalling 68 pages on a few words you can't say on live television. The 5-4 vote upheld a Federal Communications policy that could fine broadcasters for even one utterance of a "fleeting expletive."

The court kicked back to an appellate court whether the FCC policy violates the Constitution.
Justice Antonin Scalia said the FCC policy, adopted in 2004, is “neither arbitrary nor capricious.”

The FCC changed its long-standing policy after it concluded that a one-free-expletive rule did not make sense in the context of keeping the air waves free of indecency when children are likely to be watching television. The precipitating events were live broadcasts of awards shows in which celebrities let slip or perhaps purposely said variations of the F-word and S-word.

Here we have the brightest legal minds in the nation, supposedly, sweating out the utterances of a few bad words that would corrupt our children. I propose several remedies. Since award shows usually are not broadcast live until 9 p.m., shouldn't those vulnerable children be in bed? Asleep.

And, how in the world do sports networks avoid the foul-mouth antics of athletes during a World Series or Super Bowl celebration? It happens rarely but no cases have reached the Supreme Court. During Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" how many children suffered permanent damage by seeing a woman's nipple during halftime of a Super Bowl game?

Get over it, people.

5) The cook aboard the hijacked Maersk Line Limited and Waterman Steamship Corp., is suing the company for knowingly putting the crew in danger. Richard E. Hicks alleges in the suit that the owners ignored requests to improve safety measures for vessels sailing along the Somali coast.

Hicks asked that the two companies improve safety for ships by providing armed security or allowing crew members to carry weapons, sending ships through safer routes, and placing such safety measures on ships as barbed wire that would prevent pirates from being able to board vessels.

Because of pirates marauding merchant ships off the eastern African coast for three centuries or more, why does it take a galley cook to ask the right questions? The answer: It wasn't cost expedient for the owners.

And, No. 6 on our hit parade. Tinker Bell, a 6-pound Chihuahua was caught in a 70-mile-per-hour wind gust and whisked about a mile away Saturday in Waterford Township, Mich.

No problem. Owners Dorothy and Lavern Utley credit a pet psychic for guiding them Monday to a wooded area nearly a mile from where the 8-month-old dog had been last seen. The pooch was dirty and hungry but otherwise OK.

We nominate the psychic for David Letterman's Stupid Dog segment.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tale Of Two Teens

Two stories about two gifted teenagers struck my fancy today.

One passed her three college entrance exams with perfect scores and will enroll at Princeton.

The other is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the National Basketball Association draft when he becomes eligible in two years.

While the 17-year-old girl from Michigan is lauded for her great mind, the 17-year-old from San Diego steals the limelight.

He is Jeremy Tyler, a 6-foot-11 forward, who announced last week he will skip his senior year and a scholarship to Louisville for two years of playing professional basketball in Europe.

He has the blessing of his father while both are being advised by a former shoe company executive who remains a powerful figure in basketball circles. The mentor is Sonny Vaccaro
who has advised some high school players to skip college to play for pay overseas and return when they are eligible for the NBA.

Tyler is a junior who turns 18 in June. Vaccaro said he was surprised by Tyler's decision to leave after his junior season but nevertheless supported it.

"Why do we have to put players in servitude?" Vaccaro said of the college game and its strict parameters on amateurism. Vaccaro noted that high-caliber European teens typically turn to the professional ranks early.

Not surprisingly, college coaches and administrators see potential pitfalls. A junior in high school "is a very young age to be thrust into a sport at a professional level where most of the other players are in their 20s or older," NCAA President Myles Brand said.

Vaccaro predicted one or two high school players will bolt for Europe each year. "It's something most families should explore as an option," he said.

Jeremy Tyler

Young Tyler is off on the wrong foot launching his professional career. He shunned the San Diego media by announcing his intentions to the New York Times, saying he was bored with high school.

Tyler's departure would end the turmoil that surrounded him this year at San Diego High. Three top prospects tried to transfer onto the team to join Tyler and soak up some of the attention that surrounded him but were ruled ineligible. Two coaches were fired amid allegations they recruited those players to try to keep Tyler happy.

Meanwhile, Willa Chen of Michigan's Canton High School, a Detroit suburb, has a knack for tough tests.

The Detroit News reported Saturday that the 17-year-old senior got perfect scores on the ACT — and the SAT — and the PSAT. The student said she doesn't think she studied a lot but she said she tries to keep learning all the time.

She participates in the Math Olympiad and also finds time to enjoy jazz, tap and ballet dancing.

As a member of the old school, I can't help but wonder if Jeremy Tyler will ever adapt to the real world. If he fails, he has nothing to fall back upon. As an education.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Another Bad Call By Our Banks

The nation's financial markets collapse has introduced to the public new games the institutions played in pursuit of the almighty buck. One under the radar is auction-rate securities.

"Auction-rate preferred securities is the largest fraud ever perpetuated by Wall Street on investors," said Harry Newton, a private investor who operates the website. "It dwarfs all frauds in history, including (Bernard) Madoff."

Auction-rate securities, generally backed by student loans, municipal bonds or other debt, have interest rates that are reset periodically through auctions -- sometimes as often as once a week. More than $330 billion of the securities were sold in recent years to investors attracted to their yields, which could be a percentage point or more above a typical money market fund.

Almost every banking institution dabbled in these securities and all were burned when the market collapsed. Investors cried securities fraud because the bankers promised them their returns were safe.

The result has been a flurry of lawsuits and arbitration by investors to recovery some of their losses. At least one judge has thrown out a class action case against the banks. The latest lawsuit charging fraud was filed by the state of California against three Wells Fargo & Co. subsidiaries on Thursday.

Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown alleged they committed securities fraud by telling California investors that $1.5 billion of risky securities sold to them were as safe as cash.

The securities "were sold to customers on the basis that they were like cash and people could get their money back in eight days," Brown said in an interview. "Now, it turns out they were not like cash and people can't get their money back even after many, many months, and they're mad as hell."

Regulators have alleged that many banks and investment firms deceived their clients into believing that auction-rate securities were as safe as a money market account. But when the market for auction-rate securities collapsed in February 2008, many investors couldn't sell the securities, or could sell them only at a loss. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Several financial-service companies that issued auction-rate debt have agreed to repurchase billions of dollars of the devalued securities to settle claims by regulators that they defrauded investors.

Last month, Wachovia Corp., which Wells Fargo acquired last year, agreed to repurchase $1.5 billion of the securities from California investors in a settlement with the state Department of Corporations that also included a division of Citigroup Inc. Brown said that case didn't involve the securities at issue in the lawsuit he filed Thursday...

The state alleges that Wells Fargo sales personnel weren't properly trained in the intricacies of auction-rate securities, and that the risks of the investments weren't explained to clients. Investors included retirees and small businesses, and accounts ranged from $25,000 into the millions of dollars, the suit says...

"We fully understand and deeply regret the effects this prolonged liquidity crisis has had on our clients," Charles W. Daggs, chief executive of Wells Fargo Investments, said in a statement.

"Wells Fargo could not have predicted these extraordinary circumstances, and even with the benefit of hindsight is not responsible for them."

Also on Thursday, Braintree Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts claiming $33.2 million of auction-rate securities were sold to them by CitiGroup even though the market for them had collapsed.

Citigroup concealed from regulators and customers its continued sales of such toxic instruments by means of false and misleading descriptions, and also destroyed relevant evidence concerning its wrongdoing," Braintree said in the filing.

Even national models of business savvy such as Texas Instruments Inc. has sued Citigroup Inc., Morgan Stanley and Bank of New York Mellon Corp. for selling it $524 million in auction-rate securities that were supposed to be as good as cash but turned out to be impossible to sell.

Reports the Dallas News:

The Dallas-based chipmaker says the three financial companies misled it into purchasing the securities by understating the risks of auction failures that would – and did – leave TI unable to cash out.

"TI has an absolute commitment to conducting business transactions in an ethical manner and holds its suppliers, partners, vendors to that same standard – banks are no exception," TI spokeswoman Kimberly Morgan said.

ARS owners were – and still are – mostly stuck with investments they could not sell at scheduled auctions. Often, investors were forbidden by underwriters from selling their securities at a loss.

A mass of lawsuits were filed after the ARS market broke in February 2008, some as class actions, some as independent suits. More have filed in months since, and there have been several large settlements between underwriters and various government agencies acting on behalf of investors.

To date, existing cases have not moved far enough through the judicial process to establish any rules of thumb about how underwriters, brokers, investors and bond issuers will share the costs of unwinding or reviving the ARS market.

Diane Nygaard, founder of the Nygaard Law Firm in Kansas City, Mo., is a leading expert on auction-rate securities. On her website she writes:

Clients with auction rate securities may wonder if they can prove that they were misled into purchasing the securities. The truth is that some broker-dealers have already been fined by the government for misleading investors, so it is well documented that companies made fraudulent statements when selling auction rate securities. In fact, Wachovia was recently fined $4 million by Texas for misleading investors about the safety of auction rate securities. In other words, many people say they were misled when they bought their auction rate securities and the government is backing them up.

"The other thing that happened last week is that the UBS class action lawsuit was dismissed by a judge," Nygaard says. "Anybody who has not been compensated by UBS for auction rate securities bought at UBS will not get money from the class action. It is now dead. And, given the way the judge wrote that opinion, it means, in my best estimate, that probably the other broker dealers who sold auction rate securities will probably win dismissal of their class actions."

According to Nygaard, the Court held that as long as a firm agreed to compensate most investors, a class action should not proceed. In such cases, investors still holding auction rate securities should file individual lawsuits or arbitrations. Of course, since most brokerage firms require customers to sign arbitration agreements, most cases will have to go to arbitration.

People who were involved in such class action lawsuits can still file an arbitration. However, they are advised to do so as soon as possible because the number of arbitrations filed will likely increase as more class action lawsuits are dismissed. The sooner an arbitration is filed, the sooner the case will be heard.

Okay, let's review.

California Atty. Gen. Brown says the Wells Fargo push to sell auction-rate securities up to and after the market crashed was incompetence. The Wells Fargo CE of investments said they had no way to tell and therefore not responsible. Balderdash! Wells Fargo saw the approaching clouds and worked frantically to safeguard its other investment assets which they did better than any other major bank.

But from an investors perspective, Texas Instrument's Kimberly Morgan said it best: An expectation of high ethical values from all its business associates, including the banks.

George Carlin had it right in one of his famous comedy sketches. The business community is out to screw the public any chance it has.

Just to rub dirt in our faces, one wonders how much federal bailout money these large banks used to pay off their auction-rate investors.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

MemoGate And The Act Of Insanity

The political definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

This applies to the sadist(s) in the Bush administration ordering waterboarding of two al-Qaeda prisoners 266 times. Even the Central Intelligence Agency interrogators questioned their superiors about the continued practice of brutal interviewing techniques.

It begs the question of more valuable information obtained between the first and 83rd waterboarding in March 2003 against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Or the 183 times in August 2002 against Abu Zubaydah, according to a 2005 Justice Department legal memorandum.

A former C.I.A. officer, John Kiriakou, told ABC News and other news media organizations in 2007 that Abu Zubaydah had undergone waterboarding for only 35 seconds before agreeing to tell everything he knew.

The New York Times reported in 2007 that Mohammed had been forced more than 100 times with harsh interrogation methods, causing C.I.A. officers to worry that they might have crossed legal limits and to halt his questioning.

The Remmers Rule I rarely break is rushing to judgment with a knee-jerk reaction to a fast-breaking news story. I'll let other pundits grab the glory and take the first bite of the carcass. I don't trust my initial gut response, ending up with egg on my face more often than not. Besides, hindsight is the best seat in the restaurant.

Therefore, one of the few sane people in MemoGate is Diane Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She has written a letter to President Obama essentially telling him to shut up and allow her committee time to investigate the enhanced interrogation techniques of enemy combatant prisoners.

Her implication is that Obama is setting himself up for a pratfall by assuring the CIA he will not prosecute those who obeyed orders and tortured prisoners. The president is sticking to his story: To admit past mistakes and go on with the governance of the country.

The Department of Justice also is conducting an investigation, focusing on the lawyers who wrote the memos. I wrote in an earlier post the lawyers should be prosecuted or at least be subject to disbarment.

After the latest disclosure of the 266 times the two al-Qaeda bigwigs were roughed up, I would insist the decision-makers of that repeated process also be prosecuted. Those were some sick dudes.

As long as we are addressing sane approaches, I must grudgingly give credit to former Vice President Dick Cheney for asking the CIA to release classified documents detailing the success of the enhanced interrogations.

It may be a phony overture on Darth Vader's part -- as if the CIA would actually comply and spill all our dirty secrets -- but worth calling his bluff in this high-stakes poker game. If we're going to nail the bad guys, we must know the value gained from their illicit efforts.

Meanwhile, the jockeying for power positions continue.

Philip Zelikow, who served in the Bush administration as a top aide to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said in a blog for Foreign Policy magazine and in an interview Monday that he believed a decision about a criminal investigation is for the Justice Department to make after an initial inquiry, not for the president to make on his own.

Michael V. Hayden, director of the C.I.A. for the last two years of the Bush administration, disputed an article in The New York Times on Saturday that said Abu Zubaydah had revealed nothing new after being waterboarded, saying that he believed that after unspecified “techniques” were used, Abu Zubaydah revealed information that led to the capture of another terrorist suspect, Ramzi Binalshibh.

The Times article, based on information from former intelligence officers who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Abu Zubaydah had revealed a great deal of information before harsh methods were used and after his captors stripped him of clothes, kept him in a cold cell and kept him awake at night.

The article said interrogators at the secret prison in Thailand believed he had given up all the information he had, but officials at headquarters ordered them to use waterboarding.

He revealed no new information after being waterboarded, the article said, a conclusion that appears to be supported by a footnote to a 2005 Justice Department memo saying the use of the harshest methods appeared to have been “unnecessary” in his case.

Only a prosecution will reveal fact from fiction.

Let's review the numbers. Mohammed and Zubaydah are murderers yet to be tried. Contrast the 266 occasions they were tortured. Compare that to 2,819 civilians killed on that September day, 4,277 U.S. military casualties in Iraq and 607 in Afghanistan.

The sharks of public opinion are circling the waters.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Thinking Outside The Box -- Eliminate West Point

People who think outside the box are either nut cases or geniuses. Isaac Newton, Socrates, Leonardo daVinci, Henry Ford and Newt Gingrich come to mind.

Now comes columnist and author Thomas Ricks with a proposal I'm uncertain jumps the shark. Rick proposals elimination of West Point and other service academies to, uh, save money. The savings would expand ROTC scholarships.

I can only presume Ricks is serious and by coincidence or timed at the moment President Obama is asking his cabinet to cut $100 million from their budgets. Ricks is no flake. He has covered the military for 20 years and is author of "The Gamble" about the Iraq war from 2006 to 2008.

"I've been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military," Ricks writes.

You can imagine the hostile reaction graduates from West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy and other military colleges would create. Now there's a formidable lobbying group with not only rank but attitude.

Argues Ricks:

Not only do ROTC graduates make fine officers -- three of the last six chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reached the military that way -- they also would be educated alongside future doctors, judges, teachers, executives, mayors and members of Congress. That would be good for both the military and the society it protects.

As for the expense, Ricks says it costs $300,000 to produce a West Point officer but $130,000 for an ROTC student. He explains:

This is no knock on the academies' graduates. They are crackerjack smart and dedicated to national service. They remind me of the best of the Ivy League, but too often they're getting community-college educations. Although West Point's history and social science departments provided much intellectual firepower in rethinking the U.S. approach to Iraq, most of West Point's faculty lacks doctorates. Why not send young people to more rigorous institutions on full scholarships, and then, upon graduation, give them a military education at a short-term military school?

This smacks of East Coast elitism.

Ricks' proposal is tempting although I doubt it stands a snowball chance in hell. For one thing, I don't understand the savings aspect. What money is saved from service academy costs is only transferred to ROTC scholarships which would far exceed those now attending the academies.

The concept of a military graduate school is laudable.

The military academy model is based on a career in the armed forces. The ROTC programs are designed for careers of one's choice. I foresee a dark scenario in which the ROTC produces a saturation of junior officers and too few colonels, commanders and generals.

Ricks may have scored a coup in respect to fitting our military into the challenges of the 21st Century. I would anticipate a response often made by our new president:

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Obama Haters As Viewed By The Economist

I enjoy reading The Economist because most of the time it offers a dispassionate view of American politics.

This article on the Obama haters speaks for itself.

BY MOST people’s standards Barack Obama has had an excellent week. He enjoyed a counter-Carter moment when navy commandos rescued an American hostage, leaving three kidnappers dead. He gave a measured speech on the economy. And, to cap it all, he gave his daughters a Portuguese water dog named “Bo”. What’s not to like?

Plenty, according to some people. Mr Obama may be widely admired both at home and abroad. But there are millions of Americans who do not like the cut of his jib—and a few whose dislike boils over into white-hot hatred. The American Spectator, which came of age demonising the Clintons, has run an article on its website on Mr Obama entitled “Il Duce, Redux?” The internet crackles with comparisons between Mr Obama and various dictators (Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini) or assorted psychotics (Charles Manson and David Koresh). When Jonah Goldberg, a conservative pundit, praised Mr Obama over the dispatching of the Somali pirates, his e-mail inbox immediately overflowed, he said, with “snark and bile”.

A recent Pew poll showed that public opinion about Mr Obama is sharply divided along party lines. Some 88% of Democrats approve of the job that he is doing compared with only 27% of Republicans. The approval gap between the two parties is actually bigger than it was for George Bush in April 2001. Bush loyalists, led by Karl Rove, have duly over-interpreted this poll in order to soften their former boss’s reputation as America’s most divisive president. Today’s Republican base is significantly smaller than the Democratic base was in 2001, so surviving Republicans are more likely to have hard-core views. But there are nevertheless enough people out there who dislike the president to constitute a significant force in political life.

As The Economist went to press, the bestselling book in the United States was Mark Levin’s “Liberty and Tyranny”. Mr Levin frequently denounces Mr Obama on his radio show as an exponent of the second of those two qualities. The new sensation in the world of cable is Fox News’s Glenn Beck, who has already attracted 2.2m regular viewers since his show was launched in January. Mr Beck recently apologised to his viewers for saying that Mr Obama’s America is on the path to “socialism” when it is really on the march to fascism. Media Matters, a left-wing organisation that monitors the media, reports that, since the inauguration, “there have been over 3,000 references to socialism, fascism or communism” in describing the president.

Rush Limbaugh claims that he has seen an uptick in his audience since he announced that he hopes that Mr Obama fails. He has no time for the idea that all Americans should wish their president well (“We are being told that we have to hope Obama succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles…because his father was black”). Mr Limbaugh is not the ankle-grabbing type. He has also added Robert Mugabe to the list of people to whom Mr Obama can be likened.

Why are some people so angry? For all his emollient manner and talk of “post partisanship”, Mr Obama is just as much an embodiment of liberal America as Mr Bush was of conservative America—an Ivy League-educated lawyer who became a community organiser before launching a political career in one of America’s most cosmopolitan and corrupt big cities, Chicago. Mr Obama almost lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton because of his lack of rapport with white working-class voters. In the general election he did worse than Michael Dukakis in the Appalachian states of Kentucky and West Virginia.

The economic crisis has transformed this cultural suspicion into a much more potent political force. It is true that Mr Obama’s solution to the recession—spending public money in order to stimulate demand and trying to prevent a run on the banks—is supported by most economists. Mr Bush would have done much the same thing. But it is nevertheless driving many Americans crazy. April 15th—the last day on which Americans can perform the melancholy duty of filing their tax returns—saw rallies (dubbed “tea parties” after the Boston one) in every state, 500 or so in all. The protesters, some of whom dressed in three-cornered hats and waved “Don’t tread on me” flags, repeated a litany of criticisms that has been mounting since Mr Obama won the election—that he is a big government socialist (or fascist) who wants to take people’s money away and crush their freedoms.

It is hard to judge so early in the game what the rise of anti-Obama sentiment means for the Obama presidency. Bush-hatred eventually spread from a molten core of leftists to set the cultural tone of the country. But Obama-hatred could just as easily do the opposite and brand all conservatives as a bunch of Obama-hating cranks.

What is clear is that the rapid replacement of Bush-hatred with Obama-hatred is not healthy for American politics, particularly given the president’s dual role as leader of his party and head of state. A majority of Republicans (56%) approved of Jimmy Carter’s job performance in late March 1977. A majority of Democrats (55%) approved of Richard Nixon’s job performance at a comparable point in his first term. But today polarisation is almost instant, thanks in part to the growing role of non-negotiable issues such as abortion in American politics, in part to the rise of a media industry based on outrage, and in part to a cycle of tit-for-tat demonisation. This is not only poisoning American political life. It is making it ever harder to solve problems that require cross-party collaboration such as reforming America’s health-care system or its pensions. Unfortunately, the Glenn Becks of this world are more than just a joke.

Amen to our brothers across the pond.

You Want Justice? Look No Further

Justice is in the eye of the beholder.

Most Americans are repulsed at the brutal interrogation techniques sometimes used by our Central Intelligence Agency on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

You want to be really repulsed?

In Pakistan, al-Qaida and Taliban thugs shoot you by a firing squad for spying. No trial. Just a forced confession. By their convoluted reasoning, it's humane. They used to chop your head off.

Here's a detailed account of justice as carried out by the Taliban this past week:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – "I was given $122 to drop chips wrapped in cigarette paper at al-Qaida and Taliban houses," confessed 19-year-old Habibur Rehman, just before the Taliban shot him dead for spying for the United States. "If I was successful, I was told, I would be given thousands of dollars," he said.

In a video released last week by the Taliban as a warning to other would-be spies, Rehman recounted how he was recruited to spy on the Taliban in North Waziristan and drop small transmitter chips on specific targets to call in CIA pilotless drone aircraft.

"I thought this was a very easy job," Rehman said in the video before he was killed. "The money was good so I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money."

The chips transmit a signal to a satellite overhead. The drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, are controlled and remotely piloted by the CIA in the United States, according to Pakistani and western military analysts. Once the signal is received, the drone takes off from Shamsi air base in southwestern Pakistan and collects data and intelligence to attack the chosen Taliban and al-Qaida target.

A U.S. official, who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity about the Taliban allegation said, "People should recognize this for what it is … extremist propaganda."

President Barack Obama has stated that he considers the drone program an effective tool to target al-Qaida sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the mountainous border with Afghanistan. Nine out of 20 wanted al-Qaida operatives, who were on a list drawn up by U.S. official last year, have been killed by drones using intelligence provided from chips planted by Pakistani and Afghan tribesmen working as spies.

The top Taliban leaders believe they now have successfully infiltrated many of the spy networks operated by the U.S. and Pakistani military in North and South Waziristan – but not all.

"We used to watch these planes, but we had no idea they were chasing us and taking pictures of our activities," said a senior Taliban commander in North Waziristan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"In the early days of our jihad, our training camps were visible and people would come and go. We were not so concerned about the security of our locations, but that is all changed now. We abandoned all our old camps and re-located to new places," he explained.

The commander, who is close to Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a top Taliban boss in North Waziristan, said that 40 training camps have been moved because their Afghan friends, working for the Americans in Afghanistan, tipped them off about planned U.S. attacks.

"They told us the Americans had gotten pictures of our whereabouts and of our training houses and were planning to attack us through these unmanned planes," the commander said.

The commander said that once the Taliban had foiled their original plans, the Americans started paying Pakistani and Afghan citizens to identify their secret locations.

"Finally, with the help of our sources in the Pakistani and Afghan intelligence agencies, we detained two Afghan tribesmen, who after five days of interrogation by our men, confessed to spying for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. They revealed other names and then we knew there were entire networks of spies operating in our areas," he said.

"Finally we busted one network of spies after another," the commander said and named some Taliban militants in their ranks who were operating as Western agents.

"Mullah Omar recently outlawed beheading of these traitors," the commander added. "Now we shoot them with AK-47 rifles, but only after we are sure of the charges against them."

A senior government official in North Waziristan, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his life, said the Taliban have recently executed more than 100 alleged spies in North Waziristan.

Mohammed Nasir, who owns a general store in Miranshah, North Waziristan's main city, said that everyone is scared to death the Taliban will arrest them as spies.

"There is non-stop killing now of people accused of spying," said Nasir. "The government has no control – so the Taliban pick up people and try them in their secret courts. It is impossible to prove one’s innocence."

Before he was shot to death, Rehman said he did not know that he was spying for the United States, he just did it for the money. "I was told that if I could put a chip next to an Arab house, then I would get $12,000," he said.

The next time you think our justice system of accused enemy combatants is brutal and torturous, just consider the plight of Habibur Rehman.

Friday, April 17, 2009

King Solomon's Decision

That was a gutsy decision by President Barack Obama to release detailed Justice Department memos authorizing brutal interrogation techniques by the Central Intelligence Agency while at the same time announcing he would not prosecute the agency's operatives who carried them out.

It was a decision of biblical proportions comparable to the one made by King Solomon. Metaphorically, he cut the baby in half.

By releasing the classified memos, Obama appeased the piranhas looking for blood.

By assuring the CIA he would not prosecute the operatives for carrying out orders, he appeased the intelligence community. At least a little.

We are led to believe the constitutionally-challenged Justice Department lawyers who wrote the memos during the Bush administration will not go their merry way. They already are under investigation by Justice for what the common folks would call malpractice and could lose their right to practice law, including one who since has been appointed a federal court judge for life. Whether these lawyers should be prosecuted for war crimes probably will be kicked back for Obama's decision. He may not be able to punt on that one.

The left and right have spoken on this issue ad nausea. No sense in detailing who said what for we all know from where they are coming.

Obama made the right decision.

Harsh interrogation techniques and torture by the U.S. has resulted in a valuable recruitment tool for those who want to destroy us, primarily al-quada. Nor have these techniques proven ability to produce truth from the prisoners.

Having said that, we need to stop and take a deep breath. We have set ourselves up as a nation on the gold standard of virtues. It is absolute fallacy to believe we are the only nation stooping to torture as a means of interrogation and punishment. Even if we were, it is also fallacy to think a U.S. citizen would be treated in the same way if held prisoner in Mexico, Egypt, Syria or the al-quada in Pakistan. I'll take the word of the best-known POW in our time, John McCain: Torture doesn't work.

Prosecuting the CIA operatives who did follow the Justice Department authorizing memos passes the stink test, in my opinion. They relied on the the lawyers to provide the guidelines. To learn five to eight years after the fact the lawyers had their brains screwed too tight, is no reason for 40 lashes.

I'm not buying the post-WWII trial precedents in Germany and Japan that "following orders" is not a defense. The lawyers, not the CIA grunts, are the ones who should be prosecuted. We've already seen the folly of prosecuting the Abu Ghraib prison underlings while Pentagon officials avoided the scandal.

Besides, Obama is no fool. His decision is the price he must pay for appeasing the intelligence community. Just ask former CIA Director Porter Goss when one crosses the spooks.

Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, cautioned that the memos were written at a time when CIA officers were frantically working to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Those methods, read on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, appear graphic and disturbing,” said Blair in a written statement. “But we will absolutely defend those who relied on these memos.”

Obama, ever the pragmatist, prefers looking ahead as well as acknowledging the sins of the past.

Prosecuting CIA operatives would destroy the company for no reason other than extracting a pound of flesh.

Prosecuting the lawyers is a different ballgame. It would lead directly to the White House under its former occupants. That's what Obama is attempting to avoid. Never forget he is a member of the presidential brotherhood and they stick together through thick and thin.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cables Fishing For Gigabyte Revenue

If I wore a pacemaker it would have beeped in alarm mode upon reading David Lazarus's column in The Los Angeles Times that my cable company may charge me as much as $150 a month for online access.

By coincidence, an hour earlier I ripped an $82.66 check to Time Warner for Internet and basic cable television access. This monthly ransom note amounts to about 7% of my gross monthly income. For sheer entertainment value, I'm willing to pay the price. Certainly, almost doubling the cost will not offer twice the pleasure.

"The sky-high charge is part of a new 'consumption-based billing' system that Time Warner will test this summer to address what it says is the possibility of "brownouts" on the Net within three years because of soaring usage," Lazarus writes.

Oh, my gosh. I'm surfing the Internet six hours a day. Searching for gems to write about. Straining the innards of my computer until it flashes a warning it's losing its memory capacity.

I really worked up a lather when Lazarus reports the basic problem are video outfits such as Netflix. Yikes! I got Netflix. And then he gently lets me off the hook. It's the downloading of these videos that stretch the resources of the cable operators.

Whew! I don't download movies. Or songs. None of those mega kilobytes or whatever some geek named them in the basement of his parent's home. Who the hell wants to watch a movie on his computer screen when he can relax in a recliner watching the same flick on the TV set? Then, by definition, I'm no contributor to brownouts.

Let me digress here a moment. Only once in my entire life have I been called by a national consumer survey pollster asking my product preferences. After dropping the phone as a result of convulsive laughter, I told the guy I make up my mind what I want, go to the store, find the proper display shelf, buy it and promptly leave. He agreed. I'm a lousy shopper. That's how I must have been put on the national survey no-call list.

My habits with the Net are no different. I have to arm wrestle my firewall to access even the safest websites on cyberspace. And, when the computer flashes me a warning that a particular site or program is unsecured, visions of viruses and worms crawl through my brain.

But Lazarus, God bless him, put my mind to rest. He quotes an authority who claims all Time Warner and the other operators are trying to do is gouge the consumer.

He quotes Karl Bode, editor of "The cable companies argue that they can't handle this demand, but if you look more closely, the growth of the Internet is manageable through reasonable equipment upgrades... By charging a ridiculous amount for Internet viewing, they hope you'll scale back online and go back to watching things on cable."

Finally, Lazarus offers a happy conclusion to all of us:

As it happens, an "under new management" sign is up at the Federal Communications Commission. And President Obama's pick to serve as the agency's chairman, Julius Genachowski, has a background in the online world and is said to be a strong believer that everyone deserves affordable broadband Internet access.

One of the FCC's next steps should be to determine how much the Net really costs on a per-gigabyte basis, and to ensure that access providers charge a fair price.

Heavy Net users should pay more. But not that much more.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


We can only hope Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke revised his speech Tuesday claiming the economy is showing "tentative signs" of improvement. At least President Obama in a major speech on the economy later in the day wasn't caught with his pants on fire. More on that later.

In remarks prepared for students and faculty at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Bernanke mentioned improvements in recent data on home and auto sales, home building and consumer spending as flickering signs of encouragement.

In the newspaper business, an editor at this time would bark "Rewrite."

It seems the Commerce and Labor departments scooped the fed chairman who should have known the reports were forthcoming.

Commerce reported a 1.1% retail sales drop in March with auto sales leading the slump.

The Labor Department followed with a report saying wholesale prices plunged 1.2% in March led by a 13.1% drop in the price of gasoline.

Bernanke did warn that any hope for a lasting recovery depends on the government's success in stabilizing the financial markets and getting credit to flow more freely. That's a familiar tune the Obama administration has played over and over.

The key economic indicators announced by Commerce and Labor were greeted with predictable thumbs down from the stock market. Stocks on the Dow Jones Industrial Averages dropped 85 points in early morning trading.

There's more gloomy news. In a separate report, Commerce said business inventories fell 1.3%, the sixth straight month that's occurred.

The overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, fell at an annual rate of 6.3 percent in the final quarter of last year, the biggest slide in a quarter-century led by the largest drop in consumer spending in 28 years.

The White House released an advanced text of Obama's speech at Georgetown University in which he said "times are still tough" and warned that a culture of "instant gratification" had produced neglect of major national problems that wound up undermining the economy.

He chastised former President George Bush and the past and current Congress for failing to address the economic problems. He contended that the nation's "day of reckoning" on the economy was caused partly by "a fundamental weakness in our political system."

Here's one excerpt from Obama's prepared text:

I want every American to know that each action we take and each policy we pursue is driven by a larger vision of America’s future — a future where sustained economic growth creates good jobs and rising incomes; a future where prosperity is fueled not by excessive debt, reckless speculation and fleeing profit but is instead built by skilled, productive workers; by sound investments that will spread opportunity at home and allow this nation to lead the world in the technologies, innovations and discoveries that will shape the 21st century. That is the America I see.

Mr. President, we see that too. But the time has come to stop blaming the previous administration and the previous congress for all the ills passed on to your administration. We get that. The time has come to stop the talk and walk the walk.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Oasis Of Reason

My cousin Peter Ellsworth, an attorney now retired but still prominent in the San Diego business and health care community, once commented tongue-in-cheek he didn't realize there were moderate websites on the Internet.

I told him I was a frequent contributor to and boasted the stature of that venue was gaining respect throughout the communications world.

Never in my six months affiliation with tmv, as we call it, has that respect shown so brightly on the news and commentary postings about the Somali pirates. One needs only to go back to the archives beginning with last Monday, April 6. No scoops. Just plain, solid insights and intelligent commentary on the events that were unfolding. Even the comments section to these posts, oftentimes far off the political charts, were reasoned.

Of course, the climax to the pirate hostage story of the American ship captain came Easter Sunday with the heroic rescue and killing of three Somalis. It was a brief moment of national pride, the result of a coordinated plan from President Obama right down the chain of command to the sniper SEALs who fired the fatal shots.

Oops! Did I say President Obama? You wouldn't gather that by listening to conservative talk radio and some of the so-called pundits called in by Fox News. In an interview with that cable network, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton Sunday gave lip service to Obama as he praised the U.S. Navy's role in successfully ending the crises.

At the time, I thought Bolton was not exactly forthcoming. Now, I think he was being an idealogical jerk.

Brother, did that impression come through loud and clear after reading tmv's editor-in-chief Joe Gandleman's account Monday morning in two separate postings. Folks, trust me. Uncle Joe, as we call him, nailed it.

What conservatives in their partisan rantings fail to understand is that a discerning public is not stupid. They totally misconstrued Obama's silence while the pirate caper unfolded as waffling. They wanted their audience to believe Obama did not have the guts to pull the trigger.

In the words of President Nixon, someone conservatives can understand, let me make this perfectly clear: Obama approved the Navy's rescue plan twice giving authority to the captain of the Bainbridge to execute the orders when the opportunity arose. Without such orders, the hostage ordeal still would be floating off the Somali coastline.

Let's be clear on another subject. Credit for Obama in no way diminishes the role played out by the highly-trained military that conceived the plan and executed it to perfection.

The Somali pirate issue is not a Democrat vs. Republican philosophical discussion yet conservatives insist on framing all issues in that context. That's a pity, and as the Bush administration mouthpieces were prone to say, unpatriotic. Tit for tat, guys.

Cousin Pete is one intelligent fellow and can think for himself. We've offered him Exhibit A.

And, being moderates, if anyone thinks we're giving the far left a pass, may I refer you to the tmv archives, once again, and look under such categories as federal budget, bailouts, stimulus, health care, climate change and so on. A real potpourri of ideas, dear cousin.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Rachael Maddow Show's A Fine Wine

Being Easter Sunday and all that, I felt redemption for something I wrote in passing reference about Rachael Maddow. I called the MSNBC cable news hostess a "liberal flame thrower."

Maddow is, yes, a liberal. The "flame thrower" element is a description applied by Fox's Bill O'Reilly for anyone on the left of which he disagrees.

I'm in agreement with Ms. Maddow more often than not.

As is so often the case, the post in question mentioned Maddow once in a critical review of MSNBC's new primetime host Ed Schultz. The comments from readers on The Moderate Voice and my own blog all chastised me for my Maddow characterization.

I stand corrected.

From a pure journalistic perspective, Maddow is the best interviewer on television since the death of Tim Russert.

A Rhodes scholar, she does her homework. Her producers have the intelligence to allow her enough time to probe deep into a guest's responses. In this regard, she's a bulldog. She's relentless. And she carries it out in a low-key professional manner. No yelling and insulting ala O'Reilly and his sidekick Sean Hannity.

Furthermore, Maddow is an excellent teacher. She can grasp a complex subject such as the budget reconciliation bill and explain it in language a fifth grader can understand. I'm a political junkie and not embarrassed to admit how much I learned about the U.S. Senate's 60-vote majority cloister rule after listening to Maddow's explanation.

She also offers provocative guests, experts in their fields, one seldom sees on MSNBC, CNN or Fox. Maddow is not a Washington Beltway protege which works to her advantage.

When she sticks to politics or relative substantive issues, Maddow is on firm ground even if one disagrees with her slants, angles and any other agendas on her platter.

And, unlike most TV hosts, she not only apologizes for errors or misstatements from previous shows, she corrects "mischaracterizations" as was the case of describing Colin Powell as "uncomfortable" with a series of questions she asked the former Secretary of State. Powell said that wasn't the case, she reported the following day.

She does tend to be a little prissy with those "Holy Mackerel" stories. The "GOP In Exile" and the show's concluding segment are fluffy time killers, but, by and large, she offers an informative and entertaining show.

"The Rachael Maddow Show" is like a fine wine. It grows on you.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Oh, Those Cunning Somali Pirates

Certainly, I cannot be the only one on the planet wondering how in hell can a bunch of Somali renegade pirates outwit, out maneuver and out perform the world's combined fleet of navy vessels. And earning big bucks in the process.

Perhaps the key is that so far the pirates haven't killed any of their hostages.

And, so far, only the French have shown some spunk in retaliatory commando attacks on the pirates, the latest killing three pirates and one hostage.

But the U.S. and other nations are exercising extreme caution.

For once, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News offers a knee-jerk reaction that could diffuse the crises: Arm the merchant ships with military to kill the pirates as they attempt to board ship. That's about as effective as the U.S. manning commercial airlines with air marshals.

Another option is invading Somalia to rid the source of the pirate braintrust. Bad idea, the pundits say for it conjures visions of the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" tragedy.

Somalia, it seems, is a country -- perhaps the most dysfunctional in all the world -- too prickly to invade and come out smelling like a rose.

So what's a law-abiding nation to do to stop this utter nonsense? The answer is paying the ransoms demanded by the pirates. Memo to world leaders: That ain't gonna stop it.

The ransoms paid are Somali's largest producer of gross national product and they only go into the pockets of the thugs.

The crazy thing is, the pirates have the street people in many impoverished nations rooting for them as they are portrayed as a bunch of Robin Hoods robbing the king's treasures. And, the world leaders are buying into that PR nonsense.

It is said the pirate mother ships carry hostages with them as a shield for protection while their high-speed launching boats raid the unarmed merchant vessels. Is it a bluff? We don't always know.

What would happen if the navies began blowing the pirate ships out of the water? The consensus is that's like winning the battle but losing the war. The French don't seem to give a damn about that PR nightmare.

I think the Obama administration better get off the dime and take some action patterned after the French.

Meanwhile, the beat goes on. The latest pirate seizure occurred this Saturday morning. The following is a dispatch of the incident filed by Reuters:

Pirates captured an Italian-flagged tugboat with 16 crew including 10 Italians on Saturday, in the latest hijacking in the busy Gulf of Aden. The tugboat, with enough fuel and food on board to last a month, was believed to be heading toward the Somali coast, the head of the Italian company that owns the boat told Reuters.

"I've entered into contact with the families (of the crew)," Claudio Bartolotti, head of Ravenna-based Micoperi Srl, said, adding there were also five Romanians and one Croatian on board.

...Andrew Mwangura, of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, said the tugboat's crew were believed to be unharmed. He said the tugboat was towing two barges at the time of capture but there were no details about their cargo. "This incident shows the pirates are becoming more daring and violent," Mwangura told Reuters by phone.

NATO alliance officials on board the Portuguese warship NRP Corte-Real, which is patrolling the Gulf of Aden, said a distress call came from the MV Buccaneer tugboat but communications were lost six minutes later.

Bartolotti said he received an email around midday informing him that the pirates had taken the ship. He said it came from the tugboat captain's email address but did not appear to be written by him. He said calls to the boat so far had not been answered.

Bartolotti said he had received word that an Italian navy warship, the Maestrale, was heading toward the area where the tugboat was hijacked. Somali pirates have stepped up attacks in March after a lull at the start of 2009.

International interest has focused this week on the plight of an American hostage, Richard Phillips, held by four pirates on a lifeboat flanked by U.S. naval warships in a high seas standoff since Wednesday.

As I was saying, this is ridiculous that it continues to happen almost daily.

Lawlessness rules.

The Somali pirates are outsmarting the rest of the world. Crime pays.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

No Bailout For Newspapers

I've been reluctant commenting on the demise of newspapers, a place of work I enjoyed immensely for a quarter century. But I'm a fossil, quitting the business in 1985, and lack the hands-on experience of what really happened during the past 29 years.

I do know this: Federal bailout for newspapers is a really really dumb proposal.

Difficult as it is to say, newspapers are dinosaurs.

It reminds me of a lousy movie starring Danny DeVito and Gregory Peck about a New England wire manufacturing company's final days. DeVito, playing a Wall Street venture capitalist, offered a succinct description of Peck's pride and joy. He compared it to the manufacturers of buggy whips at the time automobiles were introduced to the nation. In the end, only one maker -- "the best damned buggy whip manufacturer in the whole world" -- was left standing.

So be it with newspapers. It's a damn shame. For with the demise of newspapers, the collateral damage can be catastrophic as its tools applied to the First Amendment might as well be thrown in the recycle bin.

Rosa Parks, in her farewell column in the Los Angeles Times, says it much better than me.

If newspapers become mostly infotainment websites -- if the number of well-trained investigative journalists dwindles still further -- and if we're soon left with nothing but the yapping heads who dominate cable "news" and talk radio, how will we recognize, or hope to forestall, impending national and global crises? How will we know if government officials have made terrible mistakes, as even the best will sometimes do? How will we know if government officials have told us terrible lies, as the worst have sometimes done? A decimated, demoralized and under-resourced press corps hardly questioned the Bush administration's flimsy case for war in Iraq -- and the price for that failure will be paid for generations.

The problem is Parks' solution.

If we're willing to use taxpayer money to build roads, pay teachers and maintain a military; if we're willing to bail out banks and insurance companies and failing automakers, we should be willing to part with some public funds to keep journalism alive too. In an article in the April 6 Nation, John Nichols and Robert McChesney offer some ideas on how to bail out the news industry. They suggest, for instance, eliminating postal rates for periodicals that get less than 20% of their revenues from advertising, a tax credit for the first $200 taxpayers spend on newspaper subscriptions and a substantial expansion of funding for public broadcasting. Meanwhile, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced legislation to allow many existing newspapers to restructure as tax-exempt nonprofit educational institutions. And these ideas are just a start.

If the thought of government subsidization of journalism seems novel, it shouldn't. Most other democracies provide far more direct government support for public media than the U.S. does (Canada spends 16 times as much per capita; Britain spends 60 times as much). And as Nichols and McChesney point out, our government already "doles out tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect [media] subsidies," including free broadcast, cable and satellite privileges.

My argument against bailing out the newspaper industry is that it is a waste of money. It will only prolong an inimitable death rattle.

Bailouts are now in vogue as the government tries to keep the financial institutions and U.S. carmakers alive -- without too much success at this time, I might add. Nor are they very popular in the public conscious. Can you imagine the public uproar if The New York Times was given a billion dollars to continue publishing? A line in the sand must be drawn somewhere.

Unlike Ms. Parks, I don't care if other countries subsidize their newspapers. That's a non-issue.

Providing even more tax havens for newspapers and pumping equity into their operations will only create fear and trepidation among the working stiffs. There was a time on the old San Diego Tribune reporters and editors used far too much caution writing stories about good advertisers who ran a foul. Such would be the case of Big Brother looking over your shoulder. It's human nature.

I think we are losing sight of a basic principle. Newspapers rise and fall because of market demands. They are a part of our capitalistic system. If the market leaves the industry and the industry can't figure out how to cope, then the industry must die. Cruel, but true.

American habits of curling up on a sofa Sunday mornings and reading the newspaper are changing. We now sip our morning coffee in front of the computer to read the comics and work the crossword puzzles. Rather than printer's ink rubbing off on our hands and pajama tops, we curse at the computer screen because it takes more than a nano second to download a story which may or may not pique our interest.

If our economy ever pulls out of the current recession, only the smartest and best managed newspapers may survive -- just as that last buggy whip manufacturer.

The sad part of the equation is that the Internet media sites don't pay worth a damn and few can afford to attract crackerjack journalists who know how to dig and edit and write well. Until that market glitch is corrected, I'm afraid we never again will see a Watergate or veterans rehabilitation hospital scandal uncovered.

Oh, the websites and blogs will still report on the escapades of the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans of the world, but those are easy fish to fry.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Time To Get Creative Finding Our Exemptions

Next Wednesday, April 15, is the deadline to file our income tax returns. 'Tis the season for creative lawyers and taxpayers to take advantage of weird deductions in the more than 20,000 pages of rules and regulations established by the Internal Revenue Service.

Yes, 20,000 pages. That's equivalent of reading a 400-page book by Ernest Hemingway 50 times. And, no where near as concise.

Every year during the drudgery of preparing our taxes, some expert pounces on the wild and whacky tax exemptions embedded deep in the bowels of the tax code. It lightens the ordeal with a small dose of levity should one favor gallows humor.

For example, did you know you can write off the cost of a clarinet and lessons for your child if an orthodontist prescribes it to prevent overbite?

This and other examples are offered by authors Marc Luscombe of CCH, a tax research firm, and Bob Scharin a tax analyst with Thomson Reuters tax business in an on-line article in Newsweek.

"There are some pretty weird provisions in there," says Luscombe "They are cleverly worded so it's not obvious when they are helping a particular taxpayer."

Cleverly written my fat ass, to paraphrase Mehgan McCain. They are written into the tax code by Congress adhering to the favors of special interest and lobbying groups.

The clarinet loophole extends far beyond the melodic tones of a Benny Goodman. They've successfully used the IRS's sweepingly liberal interpretations of medical expenses to deduct money spent for air conditioners, swimming pools, hot tubs, Indian medicine-man consultations, sex therapy, diet dinners and home remodeling, Luscombe reports.

Did you know Alaskan whalers can take a $10,000 deduction for money they spend outfitting their boats? This comes courtesy of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, Luscombe says.

Since the only real whalers left in the U.S. are Native Americans preserving their cultural heritage, the deduction doesn't aim to benefit businesses as much as it does community groups. Stevens's support for whalers didn't go unnoticed. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission supported Stevens as he fended off corruption charges and throughout his last unsuccessful election.

Let's say you are Canadian or other foreign national. Your wagers on winnings on U.S. horse race and dog tracks are tax free.

That means they don't have to cough up the 30 percent withholding tax that unlucky Americans must pay. This provision was included in the 2004 jobs act, at the behest of (Republican) Kentucky Sens. Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell to help ease the suffering of bet-taking race courses. This break on legal gambling doesn't have anything to do with taxes you are supposed to pay on illegal activity. That's right. Anyone who receives bribes, deals drugs, takes kickbacks or steals property is expressly required to pay taxes on that income, reminds Luscombe. Of course, they can write off their attorney's fees as a business expense.

Republican congressmen are adept at writing special tax breaks for their consitutents. For example, the makers of fishing-tackle boxes such as the Plano Molding Co. of Illinois.

Before that bill was enacted, they had to pay a 10 percent excise tax on their boxes. Secure sport fishermen were instead stowing their flies in less-expensive plastic sewing boxes. But Rep. Jerry Weller, a Republican from Illinois, got the rate cut to 3 percent, saving the industry as much as $11 million over five years, one tackle box at a time.

Of course there's a number of Democrats seeking confirmation to high government posts that don't even pay their taxes which is a novel way of creating their own exemptions.

The IRS tax code is Exhibit A how our government, besieged by special interests and lobbyists, works. The devil is in the details of this 20,000-page tome.

Kind of makes one yearn for a flat tax if it wasn't so darn regressive to us peons in the middle and lower tax brackets.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It Reminds Me Of Mr. Ed, The Talking Horse

For a guy in the broadcast industry for 30 years, one would expect Ed Schultz not to be conned by a politician. That's exactly would transpired in Monday's launching of "The Ed Show" on MSNBC.

Politicians are notorious for not answering questions directly. President Barack Obama is the best of the best. His Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is in his boss's league.

Mr. Ed, as I shall call him until he gets his act together, asked what safeguards are in place so small businesses can compete for federal stimulus funds to build roads and bridges. A great question.

LaHood sidestepped the question. He stuck to his talking points saying how many millions of dollars were allocated for projects determined by state governors. We still don't know if small business has a chance in hell to compete against the big guys.

It was a great question because the theme of "The Ed Show" is advocacy of the middle class, the blue collar guys who are the grunts of our economic system. If mega firms are the only ones to compete for rebuilding our infrastructure, then the middle class once again takes it in the shorts.

MSNBC's press release says Schultz emerged as the foremost "progressive" radio talk show voice in America with a number of prestigious awards honoring his work.

He joins the network's Eastern time zone prime time stable of Chris Mathews (the political wonk), Keith Olbermann (the opposition's hatchet man) and Rachael Maddow (left-wing flame thrower).

The cable network remains the lowest rated in most survey categories of its competitors CNN and Fox News and unashamedly gears itself to attract a niche audience of progressive viewers.
The ratings battle between MSNBC's David and Fox's Goliath is rather amusing and entertaining. My personal formula for credibility of each network is to take what each says and divide by two.

At any rate, Mr. Ed is probably a decent addition to the MSNBC political team but for the life of me cannot imagine how he will catapult the network's ratings. His competitors are Fox's Brett Bair and CNN's Wolf Blitzer. One of his problems is that on the West Coast at 3 p.m. the very corps of listeners he hopes to corral are still working.

I like the format and theme of "The Ed Show." Schultz has a long way to go to finesse and fine tune it. The opening editorial or commentary segment is entertaining with room to grow on substantive issues. But, he cannot be Mr. Nice Guy and allow guest answers to circumvent his questions.

What concerns me most about both MSNBC and Fox is that unless you channel surf the viewer is left with a warped, biased impression of what is going on in the world. One can take only so much in a single sitting listening to the delivery of news with an attitude.