Monday, June 29, 2009

California Two Days From Paying Bills With IOUs?

Barring a miracle -- I'd say a billion-to-one shot -- the California legislature will not pass a budget by its constitutional deadline at midnight tomorrow forcing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to pay bills by issuing IOU notes as he has vowed.

The state's Democratic-dominated Assembly late Sunday passed a series of tax fees in an effort to balance the budget's $24 billion shortfall knowing full well the governor will veto the bill as he did a similar measure last year.

And, the state is getting no love from its congressional delegation which is telling Sacramento to drop dead.

“Why would we bail out the state when it’s like giving drugs to a drug addict?” said Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican who represents parts of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Asked if the federal government should be helping California with its budget crisis, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein — the state’s senior senator — shot back: “Do you know what the state is getting in stimulus money? $50 billion.”

California is no penny ante state. It represents the world's 8th largest economy. It is home to one of eight Americans. It holds the most electoral votes of any of the 50 states.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the chairwoman of the state’s 33-member Democratic delegation, said California’s budget quagmire is largely a result of structural process which requires any budget or tax increase pass by a two-thirds majority and as a result nothing gets done. “If we [in Congress] had to do what the California legislature does, we would never send a bill to the president of the United States,” she said. “That’s a problem. But I can’t solve that problem. . . . Ultimately the voters of California are going to have to confront what’s happening in their state and figure out what to do about it.”

The White House echoes this can’t-save-California-from-itself sentiment

A May Rasmussen poll found that 66 percent of voters nationwide opposed the federal government guaranteeing California’s loans. And 48 percent said it would be better to let California go bankrupt than to hand the state a federal bailout.

“The legislature and the governor have got to come together and make some decisions,” and then perhaps there is a way for the federal government to help, said veteran California Rep. George Miller, a Democrat and close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “But I don’t see it now until the legislature takes the steps that they can and need to.”

The California situation amounts to a person “holding a gun to his head and saying, ‘If you don’t do something, I’ll shoot myself,’” said Alan Auerbach, an economist and public finance professor at UC Berkeley. “On the one hand, California needs help; but on the other hand, it certainly wouldn’t be unreasonable for the federal government to insist that California help itself too.”

Meanwhile, the Assembly bill passed Sunday, would balance the budget with the help of more than $2 billion in new taxes on smokers, oil companies, drivers and homeowners. State Senate leaders said they would take up the bill today.

Included in the package are a tax increase of $1.50 per pack of cigarettes, a 9.9% extraction tax on oil companies, a $15 vehicle license fee surcharge to fund state parks and a charge on homeowner insurance premiums to pay for emergency response systems.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

U.S. Shifts Afghan Drug Policy To Another That Has Not Worked

Just follow the money. The poppy fields in Afghanistan supply 93% of the world's production of heroin and is the single largest revenue producer for that impoverished country's gross national product, according to United Nations and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reports. After the Soviets gave up and left Afghanistan, the Taliban destroyed the crops under the guise of religious purity and received millions of dollars from the United States and other countries for their efforts on the War On Drugs. Within a year after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Taliban returned to encourage opium growing to finance their operations from the proceeds of selling heroin. The U.S. countered by eradicating the poppies but did not have enough Round-Up to do the job.

It finally dawned on Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, that eradication programs weren't working and were only driving farmers into the hands of the Taliban. "Eradication is a waste of money," Holbrooke said.

As a result, the U.S. has a new policy on poppy production in Afghanistan. It has the support of the United Nations, Holbrooke said outside a G-8 ministers meeting on Afghanistan in Trieste, Italy. The money used for eradication will be shifted to drug interdiction and alternate crop programs.

That's an interesting concept. As we reported in April, the Afghan's president's brother is the alleged kingpin of the country's cocaine trade. The World Bank, we also reported, loaned the country at least $65 million to improve its irrigation infrastructure with marginal success, primarily because of incompetency and fraud within the government's interior ministry.

The United Nations has estimated the Taliban and other Afghan militants made an estimated $50 million to $70 million off the opium and heroin trade last year.

In a report released earlier this week, the U.N. drug office said opium cultivation had dropped by 19 percent last year, but was still concentrated in three southern provinces where the Taliban insurgency is strongest.

Holbrooke said the previous U.S. policy hadn't reduced "by one dollar" the amount of money the Taliban earned off opium cultivation and production. "It might destroy some acreage," Holbrooke said. "But it just helped the Taliban."

Agriculture was among the issues taken up by the delegates at the G-8 meeting in their Saturday session on Afghanistan, with participants saying in a draft version of the final statement that agricultural development was seen as "key to the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other countries in the region."

The statement called for "expanded agricultural cooperation that could lead to rural development, food security, employment growth, higher income levels, alternatives to poppy cultivation and ultimately lower tensions in the region."

It is the same direction and purpose of the World Bank loans which were issued in 2002 with little success.

"The farmers are not our enemy, they're just growing a crop to make a living," Holbrooke said. "It's the drug system." Nor are other crops cash cows.

As Yogi Would Say, When The Energy Bill Reaches The Crossroads, Take It

I'm not buying the Republican bromide that passage of a revolutionary energy bill is nothing but a tax increase. Of course it will cost money for the transformation just as my first Apple computer cost $3,300 in the early 1980s and about a third of that in today's market

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the average American household would pay an additional $175 a year in energy costs by 2020 as a result of the reform bill, while the poorest households would receive rebates that would lower their annual energy costs by $40. President Barack Obama said the cost increase amounts to the cost of a postage stamp per day.

The House bill’s passage Friday, by 219 to 212, with 44 Democrats voting against it, also established a marker for the United States when international negotiations on a new climate change treaty begin later this year.

This is an extremely watered-down bill and God only knows how it will end up after the Senate gets its hooks in it.

Before we run a muck about its political overtones, let's first look at what it purports to do.

— Reduce greenhouse gases by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 through a cap-and-trade program.
— Limit emissions from major industrial sources. Emissions from agriculture would be excluded from the cap.
— Control carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and limiting six other greenhouse gases.
— Allow companies to meet emission-limiting targets by investing in offset projects such as tree planting and forest protection.
— Require electric utilities to produce at least 12 percent of their power from renewable sources such wind and solar energy by 2020, and require as much as 8 percent in energy efficiency savings.
— Impose tighter performance standards on new coal-fired power plants and provide $1 billion a year in development money for capturing carbon dioxide from such plants.
— Establish standards that require new buildings be 30 percent more energy efficient by 2012 and 50 percent more efficient by 2016.
— Protect consumers from rising energy costs by giving rebates and credits to low-income households.

Republican leaders called the legislation a national energy tax and predicted that those who voted for the measure would pay a heavy price at the polls next year. “No matter how you doctor it or tailor it,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, Republican of Pennsylvania, “it is a tax.” Only eight Republicans voted for the bill, which runs to more than 1,300 pages.

President Obama on Saturday urged senators to show courage and approve a bill he can sign.

"My call to every senator, as well as to every American, is this," he said. "We cannot be afraid of the future. And we must not be prisoners of the past. Don't believe the misinformation out there that suggests there is somehow a contradiction between investing in clean energy and economic growth."

Obama said the bill would create jobs, make renewable energy profitable and decrease America's dependence on foreign oil. "It will spur the development of low-carbon sources of energy — everything from wind, solar and geothermal power to safer nuclear energy and cleaner coal," he said.

I've heard the arguments and will hear more when the Senate sinks its fangs in it and -- honestly -- I do know whether it will work. It is, however, a step long needed in the right direction.

But the legislation, a patchwork of compromises, falls far short of what many European governments and environmentalists have said is needed to avert the worst effects of global warming.

While some environmentalists enthusiastically supported the legislation, others, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, opposed it. Industry officials were split, with the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers opposing the bill and some of the nation’s biggest corporations, including Dow Chemical and Ford, backing it.

I agree with those House members who expressed concern about the market to be created in carbon allowances, saying it posed the same risks as those in markets in other kinds of derivatives. Regulation of such markets would be divided among the Environmental Protection Agency, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That, to me, is a recipe for a turf war causing ceaseless delays and confusion.

I have my reservations. It reminds me of an old adage about buying a pig in a poke.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Mommy -Knows- Best's No No

No doubt Caroline Maria McNeal of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, wanted to do the very best for her daughter Brittany. Unfortunately, as school secretary at Huntingdon Area High School, she took it a step too far.

The state attorney general Thursday filed 29 criminal complaints of unlawful use of a computer and 29 counts of unlawful altering of public records against McNeal involving improving her daughter's test scores in a case dating back to 2007 when Brittany was a junior at the high school.

McNeal didn't hack into the computers. She obtained the passwords from fellow workers, according to the complaints filed by Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett. School officials discovered the grade tampering early and corrected the mother's actions prior to her daughter's graduating class in 2008.

Scores provided directly by the College Board showed a cumulative score of 1370, while an unknown source had previously entered 1730, according to court papers. Further investigation revealed that the data had been entered from Caroline McNeal's computer starting more than a week before SAT scores for other students were entered. Other test results indicated the mother lowered results and class ranking of at least two students.

The McNeal's do not have a listed telephone number and school officials were told by the AG's office not to comment. Brittany took no part in the scam, Corbett's press release said.

The case caught my attention as an example of bad parenting. It's one thing to be protective and nurturing of a child. It's quite another to cheat. What possible benefit would a child gain through cheating rather than facing life's future on her own ability?

I confess this is borderline psychobabble but too often we see parents who will go to extreme lengths to achieve a world through their eyes and not that of the child. Parenting of teenagers, in particular, is difficult to say the least.

As a boy, I lived in fear of failing my father, a stern disciplinarian. I rebelled as a teenager and did stuff just to offend him. As a father, I took a different approach. I considered myself a U.S. Senator, using the advise and consent approach to parenting and let the chips fall where they may. It must have worked. As a father, my son took the best attributes of his mom and dad, discarded the bad ones, and created a parental environment for my grandchildren that I envy.

There are certain things in today's parenting culture that make me cringe. The idea a kid receives a trophy simply by participating in class or a team sport dilutes the value of our competitive nature. Parents are at their worst enabling bad behavior by their children. But, cheating is intolerable.

Caroline McNeal's mommy-knows-best syndrome will cost her dearly. Each of the 29 counts is a third-degree felony punishable by a maximum of seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine, said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for Corbett's office. For Brittany's sake, wherever she is, I hope the punishment is less severe.

Since the case has been brewing for two years, I would think the mother has had time to realize the errors of her ways. Perhaps community service and probation would be appropriate.

Michael Jackson, 50, R.I.P.

I'll let others proclaim the significance of Michael Jackson's contributions to music and entertainment as the legendary "King of Pop." I considered him weird. It was best described by Johnny Carson in an opening monologue of The Tonight Show years ago when the hometown Dodgers led the league in fielding errors.

"What does the Dodger infield and Michael Jackson have in common?" Carson asked. They all wear gloves on their left hand for no apparent reason."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Mark Sanford Case

Americans love a juicy scandal spiced with sex, intrigue, lies and ultimate redemption, especially when it involves a rather high-profile person such as Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

It would not surprise me if in Sanford's high school yearbook he was voted the least likely senior to have an affair, let alone writing steamy emails to his paramour at a time his political party was considering him on a short list for vice president of the United States.

In his public persona, Sanford exuded Republican family values and strong religious beliefs with his chief cheerleader, his wife Jenny, working alongside him frantically to bolster his political career.

It is crystal clear today that Sanford's private side is a train wreck illustrated by his rambling confessional of a press conference he held yesterday on the state's capitol rotunda. Let me also be clear. I don't believe an extra-marital affair by a politician is grounds for resignation or impeachment nor do I believe it has anything to do with him being a Republican. Sexual dalliances know no political boundaries.

But (I love that word in these kinds of discussions), the man is a hypocrite for espousing religious and moral standards in voting for President Clinton's impeachment and removal of Newt Gingrich as House Speaker, both involved in various forms of infidelity.

More important, Sanford ditched his office for five days not telling his staff or security team where he was going and leaving the lieutenant governor holding the bag without the transfer of power to do anything should it arise.

But the granddaddy of questions is who the hell considered him presidential timber?

Once he went missing this past weekend, the balloons were launched and, among others, Howard Fineman of Newsweek and MSNBC said he was known in Republican circles as an "odd duck."

By yesterday's end of his press conference, we learned he was a nasty chap to deal with in personal relationships with his legislature. He once brought two pigs onto the floor of the legislature to illustrate his point against pork-barrel projects. One crapped on the carpet, we are told. He is known for being private and vindictive. But, in context of presidential ambitions, we learn from news coverage that the constitutional powers of governor in South Carolina are extremely limited. That could explain more than principle why he was forced to accept the federal stimulus money in a ruling from the state's supreme court. He challenged the governing power system and lost.

Americans will never accept a presidential candidate considered a flake. Mark Sanford is a flake, and not a very lovable one. His timing couldn't be worse. He disappeared on the Father's Day weekend for a more "erotic" trip to visit his mistress even though at his press conference he apologized and called his sons "jewels." I feel sorry for his sons, the youngest 10. I can imagine that pain if my dad, also the father of four sons, announced one night he had a mistress. It's one of those world shaking events that never are completely repaired.

As for Republican supporters whining they lost another presidential aspirant, I say thank your lucky fortunes. And, what the heck was Rush Limbaugh lamenting "he coulda been another JFK." The only similarity I can determine is both had extra-marital affairs. He called the Argentinian "the girl from Ipanema" in a trashy tone. Wow!

Another thing. If his family knew about the affair five months ago, why did he flee unannounced to Argentina at this time? To end the relationship?

And, those emails. They appear to say he is smitten with Maria and all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

And, why did the South Carolina newspaper The State sit on those emails since last Christmas?

One of the Argentine trips was paid by the state but what about the other two or three he admitted?

That's the trouble with press conferences. They raise more questions the more one talks and Sanford rambled for nearly an hour.

I suppose the only winner out of this mess is the great pub bestowed on the values of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pssttt! Mr. President. We Have A Health Reform Bill For You

President Barack Obama said at his press conference today that the most important health care reform is reducing costs. Mr. President, do I have a plan for you. There's actually one in the Senate that answers your criteria that includes kind of a public option, a hybrid, one could say.

For more than a year, the U.S. Senate has had a universal health care reform plan before it that could be revenue neutral in 10 years compared to other plans that carry a $1 trillion price tag over the next decade.

Mr. President, you might not like it. Your Democratic leadership may not like it. But, if all else fails, what the hell? As you say, it's better than nothing. It might work. Take a look at it as we did today.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, who I consider one of the more responsible conservatives, wonders where's the love for the Wyden-Bennett bill known as the “Healthy Americans Act” (S. 334). The Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation have estimated that its budgetary effects would not increase the deficit within five to 10 years after its enactment.

Brooks argues that with some fine tuning the bill authored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) is the answer to overhaul health reform senate chairmen refuse to consider. The reason is that the plan would be paid for in large part by eliminating the tax-exempt status of health insurance coverage now offered to employers and its work force under company plans.

Brooks noted that at a May 12 Senate hearing, a panel of 13 experts gave reasons for supporting the tax exemption because it represented a giant subsidy to the affluent. It drives up health care costs by encouraging luxurious plans and by separating people from the consequences of their decisions. Furthermore, repealing the exemption could raise hundreds of billions of dollars, which would be used to expand coverage to the uninsured.

Now that we have your attention, Mr. President, read on.

When Wyden piped up and noted that he and Bennett have a plan that repeals the exemption and provides universal coverage, the Finance Committee’s chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, "looked exasperated," Brooks noted. "With that haughty and peremptory manner that they teach in Committee Chairman School, he told Wyden and the world that this idea was not going to happen."

Brooks argues that Baucus, other committee chairmen and their staffs are trying to fix the health care system by building on the current system and cutting costs arbitrarily, a practice unchanged since the Nixon administration. Writes Brooks:

The problem with the committee plans is that they don’t do much to change the underlying incentives, and consequently don’t do much to control costs. “The single most expensive option is to build on the existing system,” says the health care costs guru John Sheils of the Lewin Group... Now you might think that in these circumstances someone might take a second look at the ideas incorporated in the Wyden-Bennett plan, which already has a good C.B.O. score, bipartisan support and a recipe for fundamental reform. If you did think that, you are mistaking the Senate for a rational organism. For while there are brewing efforts to incorporate a few Wyden-Bennett ideas, there is stiff resistance to the aspects that fundamentally change incentives.

Mr. President, we think you are a rational man.

Okay, let's take up Brooks' offer. The Washington think-tank Center on Budget and Priorities gives the Wyden-Bennett bill good marks in addressing the 46 million without health insurance and the eroding decline of employer-based coverage which insures about 59% of all Americans.

The report, in part, says:

The Wyden-Bennett plan seeks to achieve universal coverage by creating a new private insurance system for the United States. It would establish state-based purchasing pools, with nearly all Americans (except those in Medicare and the military) required to enroll in a private insurance plan made available through their state’s pool. Employer-based coverage would likely be reduced substantially over time (few, if any, small employers likely would continue to offer coverage although a number of large employers probably would do so, at least initially), and Medicaid and SCHIP would be converted into supplemental insurance programs that “wrap around” the private insurance plans offered through the new pools. Premium subsidies would be provided on a sliding scale based on income to help make the coverage provided through the new purchasing pools affordable for low- and moderate-income families.

Among positive attributes it cited:

Coverage could be extended to 99% of Americans. It would rely on group health insurance run by state-based purchasing pools rather than an unregulated private plan market. Coverage would be the same no matter what the individual health conditions. Premiums for the poor would be subsidized based on income but still require a co-pay. It attempts to cut costs incorporating financial incentives to encourage individuals to enroll in cost-effective plans to slow the rate of health spending.

It asks serious questions the plan does not answer:

Would state-based purchasing pools reduce the risk of "adverse selection" -- that is, the separation of healthier and less healthy people in different insurance plans that may make coverage unaffordable for those in poorer health. Would access to needed health care for low-income Medicaid and SCHIP (children) beneficiaries — particularly those with disabilities and special health care needs — be protected adequately if these public programs are converted into supplemental programs that “wrap around” the new private insurance plans? Would the subsidies provided under the plan be sufficient to make the private health insurance coverage provided through the new purchasing pools reasonably affordable for the many low- and moderate-income families who are currently uninsured?

The Center on Budget and Priorities offers these modifications to the Wyden-Bennett bill:

  • The plan could be modified to better minimize the risk of adverse selection. The plan could preclude the state-based purchasing pools from offering high-deductible plans attached to HSAs (Health Savings Accounts), since those plans would primarily attract people who are healthier than average. Equally essential to minimizing adverse selection would be greater standardization of the benefit packages the plans can offer; this is necessary to limit the otherwise relatively unconstrained ability of insurers to design benefits in such a way as to “cherry pick” — that is, to encourage enrollment by the healthy and deter enrollment by those in poorer health. These steps would significantly improve the long-term ability of the new purchasing pools to pool risk effectively.
  • The Wyden-Bennett plan could better ensure that Medicaid and SCHIP beneficiaries actually receive the supplemental benefits for which they would be eligible, both by placing additional requirements on private insurers participating in the new purchasing pools to improve access to care and by assigning vulnerable beneficiaries to plans that best meet their health care needs. The plan also could be modified to establish explicit new funding streams to support the integrated state services for vulnerable low-income populations that now receive funding through Medicaid, and it could provide financial incentives to states to encourage them to maintain adequate Medicaid and SCHIP eligibility and benefit levels over time, thereby preserving access for vulnerable low-income people to needed supplemental coverage.
  • The plan could better ensure affordability by increasing the subsidies it provides to low- and moderate-income individuals. In addition, an overall limit on total out-of-pocket costs (premiums, deductibles and co-payments) as a percentage of family income could be established, at least up to certain income levels. The mechanism for adjusting the value of the benefit package each year also could be modified so that low- and moderate-income individuals do not increasingly become underinsured over time. These steps to ensure affordability would add to the legislation’s costs and would likely require additional revenues beyond the existing financing sources the Wyden-Bennett plan now taps.
This may not be the best plan, Mr. President. But it is the best one on the table that answers all your criteria. Call it a fall-back plan if all else fails. The political risks I need not point out since you are on top of that game. A tax on the affluent? You're in favor of that since you plan to end the Bush tax cuts for those above $250,000 next year. Besides, with this plan you circumvent a single-payer or public option plan that drives the Republicans nuts, and, perhaps, even gain five or 10 of their votes who co-sponsored the Wyden-Bennett bill.

Monday, June 22, 2009

For Diabetics, These Dogs Save Lives

For diabetics who own pets it comes as little surprise that dogs are being trained to warn diabetic owners when their blood glucose levels fall dangerously low. For diabetics who live alone and for young children, this is a big deal.

This phenomenon has been discussed in anecdotal incidences by diabetics in published letters to the American Diabetes Association monthly magazine for years. Man's best friend has been trained to sniff out certain cancer cells, illegal drugs and explosives.

A survey last December by researchers at Queen's University Belfast found 65 percent of 212 people with insulin-dependent diabetes reported that when they had a hypoglycemic episode their pets had reacted by whining, barking, licking or some other display.

At the Cancer and Bio-Detection Dogs research center in Aylesbury, southern England, animal trainers are putting that finding into practice and honing dogs' innate skills.

The training would seem a slam dunk based on my experience. For 13 years I lived alone in a motorhome with Honey, a mixed Australian Shepherd. Because of the cramped space, she knew every move I would make before I did. When my sugars ran low while asleep or at the dining table, she would begin licking my face and start whining. When I corrected the low sugars by drinking fruit juice or a candy bar, Honey would relax and with a heavy sigh slump to her favorite resting spot and fall to sleep.

Extremely low sugars untreated lead to comas and death.

"Dogs have been trained to detect certain odors down to parts per trillion, so we are talking tiny, tiny amounts. Their world is really very different to ours," Chief Executive Claire Guest of the detection center told Reuters TV.

The center was started five years ago by orthopedic surgeon Dr John Hunt, who wanted to investigate curious anecdotes about dogs pestering their owners repeatedly on parts of their body that were later found to be cancerous.

At around the same time, the first hard evidence was being gathered by researchers down the road at Amersham Hospital that dogs could identify bladder cancer from chemicals in urine.

The move into diabetes followed the case of Paul Jackson, who told Guest and her team about his dog Tinker who warns him when his sugar levels get too low and he is in danger of collapsing.

"It's generally licking my face, panting beside me," Jackson said.

The center now has trained 17 dogs accredited as diabetic sniffers.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Ayatollah Speaks; Game, Set, Match?

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has spoken. Last Friday's national election results were not rigged because “the Islamic state would not cheat," he declared. He warned the opposition would be “responsible for bloodshed and chaos” if the protests continued. At least eight citizens have been killed in the demonstrations so far.

The ayatollah is the hammer, the lead mullah, in the Iranian government. His broad powers include ultimate authority over state security. In a sense, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won re-election in a landslide, is his puppet. Western observers may not like it, but that's the way it is. The Ayatollah said he believed Ahmadinejad’s approach to foreign and social policy was “closer to what it should be” than the other candidates and one former president.

As with many observers knowledgeable in election returns, I find it hard to believe that a national election of 40 million votes cast by hand ballot can be tallied in a matter of a few hours after the last precinct closed. Ahmandinejad won by an 11-million vote margin over three rivals. “Sometimes the difference between two candidates," Khamenei said, “is 100,000, 500,000, 1 million, so at that time there may be some doubts about cheating. But how can 11 million votes be replaced or changed?”

I can count the ways. Transparency is not a strong suit in this election, but alas, it may take months if not years if we ever know.

The ayatollah's sermon was as predictable as a slam dunk although some Iranian experts insist there could be a power play unfolding among the ruling clerics between reformers and the old guard. We may find out Saturday as a group of reformist clerics loyal to the former President Mohammed Khatami planned to demonstrate against the election results. There were conflicting reports about whether they had received official permission.

Of all the news dispatches coming out of Tehran, I found this interview by the Washington Post the most revealing. In it, Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, Ahmandinejad's top political aide, confidant and head of the president's re-election campaign, accused the U.S. for meddling in Iran's election. "I hope in the case of the elections they realize their interference is a mistake, and that they don't repeat this mistake. They'll certainly regret this. They'll have problems reestablishing relations with Iran," he said.

You can bet that Hashemi's comments reflect exactly what Ahmandinejad believes even though he has been silent except for one press conference after the election.

The Post interview was unclear whether Hashemi also was talking about Republican congressional criticism, some calling the Iranian election a fraud, or President Barack Obama's measured comments. Obama has repeatedly denied that the United States is "meddling" and he has been criticized in Washington for not speaking out more forcefully on behalf of the Iranian demonstrators who contend the election was stolen.

But in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, Obama said that "when you've got 100,000 people who are out on the streets peacefully protesting, and they're having to be scattered through violence and gunshots, what that tells me is the Iranian people are not convinced of the legitimacy of the election. And my hope is that the regime responds not with violence, but with a recognition that the universal principles of peaceful expression and democracy are ones that should be affirmed. "Hashemi seemed to take particular umbrage at Obama's reference to democracy. The United States and some European nations, he said, have "supported the street unrest. They even called it a democratic event."

Offering a long list of achievements by the government, he explained that extensive trips to Iran's remote provinces, an increase in wages and pensions, free health insurance for the poor and the successes in Iran's nuclear and satellite programs had empowered a class ignored by previous governments. He said the opposition, based in Tehran, could not see beyond it.

There's no question Ahmandinejad knows how to push the right buttons in his connection to the masses. One of the platforms he ran in his first campaign for president was as mayor of Tehran he improved garbage collection.

That's the problem with this past election. Garbage in. Garbage out.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

PETA,, You Publicity Hounds

I've seen so many stupid things in my life I've grown immune to outrageous, gratuitous comments but this one by PETA pushed my alarm button where I refuse to take it in silence.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is a buzz because President Obama during another one of his endless television interviews swatted and killed a pesky fly. If it was a gymnastic event, as judge I would have awarded Barack a 10.

Obama stopped the interview with CNBC's John Harwood when the fly broke every FAA regulation imaginable. He waited until the critter landed again. And, smacked it dead. "Now, where were we?" Obama asked Harwood. Then he added: "That was pretty impressive, wasn't it? I got the sucker."

PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich said: "We support compassion even for the most curious, smallest and least sympathetic animals. We believe that people, where they can be compassionate, should be, for all animals."

Friedrich let a good story get in the way of a basic fact. Flies aren't animals. They're insects.

I was willing to give the animal rights mouthpiece the benefit of the doubt that he was, for sure, kidding. But, noooo. PETA is sending Obama a Katcha Bug Humane Bug Catcher, a device that allows users to trap a house fly and then release it outside. My God, he was serious.

Friedrich said PETA is a strong supporter of Obama because of his voting record as a U.S. senator on behalf of animal rights and outspoken against animal abuses. Still, "swatting a fly on TV indicates he's not perfect," Friedrich said, "and we're happy to say that we wish he hadn't." I could be wrong, but memory serves that house flies lives are numbered in days, even without a quick human hand, fly swatters and chemical bug killers.

After the interview, Obama took a tissue and picked up the fallen soldier off the White House floor. As far as the interview went, one must feel sorry for Harwood. No one remembers what was said, including the fly.

I give credit grudgingly to Friedrich for doing his job, thrusting PETA's purpose onto the national stage and not accusing the president of being a Michael Vick copycat.

Deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said the White House has no comment on the matter. Now there's a no comment I can live with. And to think what they used to say about the president.

No Drama Obama.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Time To Play, A Time To Shut Up

Most high school graduation ceremonies are behind us now but they're still fuming over the one held Friday in the Bonny Eagle school district in Portland, Maine. Diplomas for two graduates were upheld because of excessive celebration in the eyes of the school superintendent.

One grad blew kisses to his mother and the other accused of inflating and releasing a rubber duck and bouncing beach balls. The parents of both graduates were not amused, not by the antics of their sons but by what they considered Draconian methods of Supt. Suzanne Lukas.

Let me digress for a moment of full disclosure. I, too, was denied my diploma on graduation day and can relate to what a big deal that is to an 18-year-old. More on that later.

What we have here, folks, is three versions of what constitutes proper decorum for a high school graduation exercise. The grads say there were expressing jubilation at a milestone in their lives. The school officials say the grads signed a rules of conduct pledge prior to the ceremonies, and the parents...well, let's hear what they had to say.

Mary Denney, said her son's showboating didn't break any rules. She told WMTW-TV "a kiss to your mom is not misbehavior." She is seeking an apology — and a diploma for her son, Justin.

The mother of Tyler Lamy, the only one ejected from the graduation exercises for his involvement with the beach balls, said she picked up her son's diploma Monday.

Now, let's hear from a Portland Press Herald reporter who attended the graduation.

The trouble started after students sitting on stage began bouncing beach balls and sending a giant inflatable rubber ducky into the air. A uniformed Cumberland County sheriff's deputy, who was attending as the school's resource officer, moved one student away from his classmates and then escorted a second senior – Lamy – out of the Cumberland County Civic Center.

Superintendent Suzanne Lukas warned students to stop with the fun and games, but they didn't. Lukas later refused to give a diploma to at least one senior after he had blown a kiss and bowed to the audience, according to parents and students.

Throughout the ceremony, audience members booed and heckled Lukas, some even shouting profanities, parents and students said.

Portland police were even called to the civic center at about 8:30 to provide potential backup for the sheriff's deputy, said Capt. Vern Malloch. A city officer responded, but left within 10 minutes, Malloch said.

For days afterward, angry parents called and e-mailed Lukas and members of the school board. Some said the superintendent overreacted and turned the ceremony into "a fiasco."

Hopkins said feedback about the graduation crackdown has been mixed.

"Some of it's positive. Some of it's negative. It's all about people and what their expectations are at graduation," he said. "Do we want graduation to be a circus or do we want to it to be a refined event?"

Some parents said they went to the school board meeting Monday to complain about Lukas' actions, but were not offered an opportunity to speak. Hopkins said everybody will get a chance to speak this time. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the Bonny Eagle Middle School cafeteria in Standish...

"Your entire family's there to watch you graduate and be so proud. My great-grandmother is 96 years old and she was there," Lamy said. "It's one of those things you can't do over. You can only do it once."

Lamy said he was sitting one row behind a student who inflated a beach ball and tossed it into the air. "We thought that was great. It's a celebration," he said. "I didn't even get a chance to touch the beach ball." A student sitting next to Lamy, Decker Leonard, said Lamy didn't appear to have anything to do with the beach balls.

I can attest from personal experience young Denney and Lamy will remember the incident the rest of their lives. In my case, I wasn't being rowdy. Our school ran on a student honor system and one benefit was sitting wherever you wanted in class. For the final exam, our driver's ed teacher insisted on assigned seating. I balked, telling the teacher I never cheated nor would I begin in his crummy classroom and if he didn't like it he could take the DMV manual and shove it up his orifice where the sun don't shine. The school allowed me to attend the ceremonies but I wouldn't receive the diploma until I took and passed the driver's ed test the following Monday. I missed the post-graduation beer keg party as a result.

My advise to the Bonny Eagle graduation class and all others is that one thing you must learn in school is to play by the rules and that there is a time and place for about anything. If you doubt my wisdom, try challenging your drill instructor, run a red light in view of a police car or fail to file your income tax returns.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Iran: What You See Is What You Get

From a westerner's perspective whose only expertize on Iran is finding it on a map, Friday's national election was a fraud. What else would you expect? When westerners apply U.S. standards for fair elections to a foreign country run by a theocracy, you're guilty of wishful thinking and probably smoking an illegal substance. Get over it. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory for a second four-year term and has the military and ruling clerics to back it up.

Opposition leaders are calling on Iran's Guardian Council to refuse to certify results and declare the election canceled. The final verdict rests in the hands of one man, the supreme ayatollah. To sway his opinion, protesters have rioted in the streets for two days with the predictable brutal response by police and military troops. Their goal is to create enough mayhem and chaos to force the mullahs to rethink their policies. Fat chance.

Based on what I've read, Iranians are not upset with the West's preoccupation of fear that Iran will develop nuclear capabilities but over basic economic conditions and runaway inflation. That is not always projected in Western media reports which at this moment are preoccupied by reporting the violence which Ahmadinejad compares to celebrations after a soccer match.

Another Western view which I abhor is carrying the impact of President Barack Obama's Cairo speech to unreal expectations fueled by Lebanon's recent election which brought in pro-U.S. factions to their government. The political and economic conditions in Lebanon versus Iran is like comparing apples with oranges.

Meanwhile, Obama remains insistent on opening dialogues with the Iranian regime. Progress in this area could turn in the West's favor on several conditions: 1) the post-election protests continue, 2) the U.S. and its allies lift economic sanctions, and 3) Iran agrees to allow inspectors to determine its nuclear plants are creating energy and not warheads.

I doubt that will happen. I hope I'm wrong.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Obama's Firing Inspector General A Can Of Worms

President Barack Obama's abrupt firing of the inspector general of AmeriCorps caught my attention only because by comparison his predecessor never seemed to have the gumption to axe anyone. But, then, digging into the details, the canning of IG Gerald Walpin is murky to say the least. It is a story of political intrigue, favoritism to a campaign supporter and two wings of the executive branch in cahoots with each other. Here are the facts in the case the best I can figure:

Walpin, a George W. Bush appointee, investigated alleged misuse of federal grants to a non-profit education group led by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star and vocal supporter and contributor of Obama. Walpin accused Johnson's group of using portions of the $850,000 AmeriCorps grant to pay volunteers to campaign for a school board election as well as personal services such as driving Johnson to functions and washing his personal car.

In August 2008 Walpin, whose only punitive power is to withhold grant funds, referred the case to the federal prosecutor. The prosecutor determined the investigation was mishandled and misleading while referring Walpin to an ethics committee that governs the conduct of inspectors general. "We also highlighted numerous questions and further investigation they needed to conduct, including the fact that they had not done an audit to establish how much AmeriCorps money was actually misspent," Acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown said in an April 29 letter to the federal counsel of inspectors general. Yet, the prosecutor's office negotiated a $424,000 settlement with Johnson and St. HOPE Academy, a nonprofit group receiving the federal grants from the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs the AmeriCorps program.

It must be noted that Walpin made numerous comments about his investigation during Johnson's campaign for Sacramento mayor. It led the prosecutor's office to announce no criminal charges were being contemplated.

Obama on Wednesday tried to force Walpin to resign but he refused. The president in a letter Friday notified House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the senate pro tem, Vice President Joe Biden, of his decision which takes place in 30 days. "It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general," Obama said in the letter. "That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general."

The president didn't offer any more explanation, but White House Counsel Gregory Craig, in a letter to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, cited the U.S. attorney's criticism of Walpin to an integrity committee for inspectors general.

The problem with Obama's letter is that it offered no reason for the firing despite the fact that as U.S. senator, Obama endorsed the legislation that reformed rules governing inspectors general from being fired on political grounds.

Walpin defended his work on Friday. "I know that I and my office acted with the highest integrity as an independent inspector general should act," he said. Walpin said he gave the integrity committee "a full and complete response" that was also signed by several people who worked on the case. "I have no question but that we acted totally properly," he said.

Alan Solomont, a Democrat and the board chairman of the government-run AmeriCorps, and Stephen Goldsmith, a Republican and the board's vice chair, said they strongly endorsed Obama's decision.

I don't know what to believe. It appears Obama is playing hardball politics while at the same time ignoring whistleblower legislation he co-sponsored two years earlier. On the other hand, how can an inspector general accuse a firm of squandering federal grant money when he doesn't even conduct an audit?

This story fell below the MSM radar but the conservative blogs are questioning Obama's lack of transparency and on this occasion for good cause.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Little More Audacity, Mr. President

I had a Keith Olbermann WTF moment when I saw President Barack Obama on NBC shilling for that network's Conan O'Brien show and several nights later making a cameo appearance on the Colbert comedy program.

The Man is omnipresent on every news medium on the planet. All right, Mr. President, we get it. Enough's enough. When liberal comic Bill Maher complains about Obama's overexposure on television, you know the guy has crossed the line. "I'm still a fan, but there's a fine line between being transparent and being overexposed," Maher writes in an op-ed column in today's Los Angeles Times. "Every time you turn on the TV, there's Obama. He's getting a puppy! He's eating a cheeseburger with Joe Biden! He's taking the wife to Broadway and Paris -- this is the best season of "The Bachelor" yet!"

I too am an Obama fan and as Maher believe it's time for the president stop worrying about his popularity and reelection and start taking decisive stands on the pressing issues, most of which he and his White House cronies continually blame on the Bush administration. Writes Maher:

I mean, selling the personal part to stay popular, I'm all for it, but you got us already. We like you, we really like you! You're skinny and in a hurry and in love with a nice lady. But so's Lindsay Lohan. And like Lohan, we see your name in the paper a lot, but we're kind of wondering when you're actually going to do something.

I know that's harsh. But when I read about how you sat on the sidelines while bailed-out banks used the money we gave them to hire lobbyists who got Congress to stop homeowners from getting renegotiated loans, or how Congress is already giving up on healthcare reform, or how scientists say it's essential to reduce CO2 by 40% in 10 years, but your own bill calls for 4%, I say, enough with the character development, let's get on with the plot...

I never thought I'd say this, but he needs to be more like George W. Bush. Bush was all about, "You're with us or against us." Obama's more like, "You're either with us, or you obviously need to see another picture of this adorable puppy!"

Patience is also wearing thin among Obama allies for his penchant of blaming Bush even though it is the flat out truth. It's become a case of overkill as Peter Baker discusses in a column in today's New York Times.

“The financial crisis this administration inherited is still creating painful challenges for businesses and families alike,” Mr. Obama said this week as he proposed spending limits. “We inherited a financial crisis unlike any that we’ve seen in our time,” he said last week as he thrust General Motors into bankruptcy. His advisers and allies follow the same script. “The Obama administration inherited a situation at Guantánamo that was intolerable,” James L. Jones, the national security adviser, said of the military prison in Cuba. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended the Obama foreign policy in the same vein. “We inherited a lot of problems,” she said.

Baker rightfully argues that Obama needs to fess up and take ownership of many of these problems that now smacks with his imprint even though he has been in office five months and it may take years to solve them. Among them is the cause and effect of the stimulus package, adding 21,000 troops to Afghanistan and firing its top general and insisting Israel stop expanding its settlements on the West Bank.

Baker offers some telling quotes from David Axelrod, the president's senior advisor:

“Whatever problems he inherited walking in the door, they’re his responsibility now,” Mr. Axelrod said. “Nobody’s trying to duck responsibility or make excuses for them. But it is important at times to put it into perspective, not to fix blame but to underscore that some of these problems are complex and they’re going to take time to solve.”

Taking notice of Baker's comments were these offered by Ben Pershing of The Washington Post who predicted the political ramifications of taking full responsibility:

To start, his poll numbers may drop. On some issues, they already have. It was widely noted a Gallup survey showed a measurable uptick in the percentage of respondents who disapproved of Obama's economic policies. And a new Gallup poll shows 55 percent of Americans disapprove of current U.S. policy toward GM. Numbers like that will affect Obama, regardless of whether it was him or President Bush who started the country on the path of bailing out auto companies.

Even though Obama's popularity remains around 60% (90% from Democrats) he essentially has only the remaining months of this year before his political capital is spent. In 2010 the congressional and governors races will focus on results and failures perceived by the voters over the Obama administrations policies.

I'll defer to Bill Maher for closing arguments.

"I'm glad that Obama is president, but the "Audacity of Hope" part is over. Right now, I'm hoping for a little more audacity."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Palau 'Honored' To Take Chinese Detainees

I can't wait to hear the reaction of Republicans that the remote Pacific island nation of Palau is "honored and proud" to resettle about 17 Chinese Muslims now held as "non-combatants" at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

"Palau's accommodation to accept the temporary resettlement of these detainees is a humanitarian gesture intended to help them be freed of any further unnecessary incarceration and to restart their lives in as normal a fashion as possible," President Johnson Toribiong said.

Toribiong's unilateral announcement came a day after U.S. marshals flew another Guantanamo detainee to New York City where he appeared in federal court and pleaded not guilty to 286 murder and conspiracy charges in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

Republicans claim the American people do not want trials and incarcerations of alleged terrorists in the United States for fear they will either escape, the trials will reveal classified information threatening our national security or released on the streets if found innocent of the charges.

Actually, the pending release of the 17 Chinese and trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian held at Guantanamo since 2006, are the easiest decisions by the Obama administration on what to do with the remaining 218 prisoners at Guantanamo. Obama has pledged to close the prison by January 2010 but has failed to determine how to adjudicate the most dangerous. Until such a plan is forthcoming, Congressional Democrats have joined with Republicans to withhold funding for the base closure.

A federal judge last year ordered the Uighur Chinese detainees released into the United States after the Pentagon determined they were not "enemy combatants." But an appeals court halted the order, and they have been in legal limbo ever since.

Anonymous government sources said Palau will be compensated with $200 million and its treaty with the U.S. for self-defense will be renegotiated later this year. Palau, made up of eight main islands plus more than 250 islets with an estimated 20,000 population, is best known for diving and tourism and is located some 500 miles east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean.

The government refused to send the Uighur detainees to China for fear they would be tortured or killed because of the group's uprising in western Chinese provinces.

Meanwhile, Ghailani was a strategic choice for the Obama administration to demonstrate that the federal courts -- as opposed to the Guantanamo military tribunals -- can be relied on to bring to justice those suspected of heinous acts against the United States.

"The Justice Department has a long history of securely detaining and successfully prosecuting terror suspects through the criminal justice system, and we will bring that experience to bear in seeking justice in this case," Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said.

U.S. prisons now hold 216 terrorism suspects or convicts, including Omar Abdel Rahman, serving a life sentence for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted of plotting with the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Human rights groups that have been sharply critical of U.S. detention policy at Guantanamo praised the transfer of Ghailani. "This is an important step in restoring the United States' observance of the rule of law, but there is still a long way to go," said Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, an alliance of rights advocates.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement: "This is the first step in the Democrats' plan to import terrorists into America."

The Republicans are right on one thing. Obama's campaign pledge to close Guantanamo was based on naivety for underestimating the legal entanglements created by the Bush administration.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Fear + Principle = Nothing

It is deeply troubling how politics sometimes prevents good governance. Two examples:

Philip Mudd, a senior CIA official in the Bush administration, has withdrawn his nomination for intelligence chief at Homeland Security for fear of questions about his role in the CIA's harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists.

Vice President Joe Biden and other top Obama administration officials have withdrawn from attending a national mayors conference in Rhode Island for fear of crossing a picket line from local firefighters.

In one case a highly qualified intelligence official would expose himself to possible criminal activity for following orders determined legal under a previous president. In the other, politicians indebted to labor unions consider that more important than working to help the nation's mayors address their economic ills in which many cities are facing bankruptcy.

These examples of intimidation must stop if our nation is ever going to pull out of the foreign and domestic mess the Bush administration left us with.

Mudd was scheduled to appear before Senators next week but pulled out, saying his nomination would create too much of a distraction over what he knew about torture tactics and other harsh interrogation methods.

Mudd served as deputy director of the Office of Terrorism Analysis at the CIA. The Democratic-run Senate would have had to decide whether indirect involvement or knowledge of the interrogation program was enough to disqualify someone praised by current and former intelligence officials. His testimony before the Senate could be used against him if Congress or the Justice Department pursued a formal inquiry into violations of the U.S. Constitution or anti-torture treaties by the Bush administration.

The left wing of the Democratic Party is seeking a truth commission and perhaps a special prosecutor into the Bush interrogation policies. President Obama says he wants to move forward, passing the buck to either Congress or Attorney General Eric Holder. On the right, former White House political advisor Karl Rove said the Democrats are trying to punish a previous administration for policies of which it disagrees. The result at this stage is competent, qualified people are prevented from doing due diligence for their country.

Administration officials not crossing a picket line is a gutless gesture even though Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the mayors are invited to the White House to discuss their issues of grave financial consequences. At issue is a years-long conflict between the Providence mayor, David Cicilline, and local firefighters over contract matters. Cicilline is the host of the conference, and the firefighters, backed by the International Association of Fire Fighters which endorsed Obama and financially contributed to his presidential campaign, plan to stage a picket line at the event. The major's website earlier reported confirmed guests of Biden, senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, Attorney General Holder, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and other administration officials.

"While this administration is taking no position on the circumstances of the dispute itself, we have always respected picket lines, and administration officials will not cross this one," Gibbs said.

In his own statement, Cicilline said the tactics of the firefighters have dampened Providence's chances of shining on a national stage. Still, he said, he would not "cave" into meeting contract demands even if means a no-show by all the Obama dignitaries. He called the effort "political extortion."

I see it as pettiness and principle standing in the way of solving the greatest problems facing our cities.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The $125,000 Question And A Lot More

I feel like Jon Stewart of The Daily Show after taking a week off. Among the news items he missed was General Motors filing bankruptcy giving taxpayers a 60% ownership. Stewart thought it was cool owning a car company promised to be a more lean, green, mean machine. So what if it still fails? Stewart asked. "It's insured." Pause. Imaginary phone call. "By AIG? Yikes."

I missed some good stuff on Sonia Sotomayer, the Supreme Court nominee. Republicans no longer complained they couldn't pronounce her name. Newt Gingrich walked back his comment she was a racist. Even Rush Limbaugh admitted he could support So-toe-ma-yore if she ruled pro-life on the abortion issue involving Roe vs. Wade.

Some things never change. I read today the New York City Parking Enforcement detail did a helluva job writing tickets on a parked vehicle for the past month. Unfortunately, the driver inside the vehicle was dead all that time, claims his daughter.

My "Bull Headed" Award goes to Mark Sanford of South Carolina, the Republican governor holdout from accepting federal stimulus money. The state Supreme Court ordered Sanford on Thursday to request the $700 million and the governor said he would comply. The nation's most vocal anti-bailout governor had refused to take the money designated for the state over the next two years, facing down protesters and Republican legislators who passed a budget requiring him to. The unanimous court ruling said the governor had no say in the matter. For his stand, Republicans outside the state are pushing him to enter the 2012 presidential race.

But, we return to New York City where an innovative experiment is taking place in that metropolitan stink tank of a public school system. A charter school will be paying teachers $125,000 per year plus bonuses. The school, called the Equity Project, is premised on the theory that excellent teachers — and not revolutionary technology, talented principals or small class size — are the critical ingredient for success. Experts hope it could offer a window into some of the most pressing and elusive questions in education: Is a collection of superb teachers enough to make a great school? Are six-figure salaries the way to get them? And just what makes a teacher great? The Equity Project will open with 120 fifth graders chosen this spring in a lottery that gave preference to children from the neighborhood and to low academic performers; most students are from low-income Hispanic families. It will grow to 480 children in Grades 5 to 8, with 28 teachers.

Stay tuned.