Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Column 33: National - 150 Days of Bush 2

150 Days of Bush 2: A Progress(ive) report
There can be little doubt in anyone’s mind that in his second administration President Bush has made common cause with the far right wing of the Republican Party as represented by the likes of Tom DeLay and with what have been called of Christianity as represented by James Dobson. It is, of course, the right of any President to align himself with whatever political strains he finds compatible, but after five months of this administration, the gap between the President’s views and those of all but the fringe of America is becoming more evident and wider.
By overreaching in a number of areas including the Terri Schiavo case and the “nuclear option” threat, the Republicans have given mainstream America a fresh appreciation of the dangers of unrestrained government arrogance, and a respect for the checks and balances needed to restrain that arrogance.

That same kind of arrogance is at work in the GOP's move to protect Tom DeLay by rewriting House ethics rules and is behind the Republican attack on federal judges – when they attacked judges for upholding the Constitution in the Schiavo case it became clear to the country that the issue was not judicial activism but that the judiciary is the only government branch beyond their control. With that, what had been for many a vague and growing unease began to coalesce into a deep distrust.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll recently indicated that only 26 percent of Americans polled said federal judges are too liberal; 18 percent said they're too conservative; and 52 percent think they're about right. In the same poll, an astounding 66 percent opposed the Republican effort to make it easier to ram even the most extreme judges through the Senate confirmation process. Like the change of ethics rules in the House, that proposed change is seen as an effort to remove all impediments to raw power.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen almost 800 points from its high in early March, and Alan Greenspan and his predecessor, Paul Volcker, are warning about dire consequences if the federal deficit is not addressed in a serious manner. Bush, however, has made it clear that he has no intention of changing course.

As a result, a Gallup poll last month found that only 31 percent of Americans rated the economy as good or excellent; 68 percent called it fair or poor. Just two months earlier, 50 percent of Americans told Gallup they believed the economy was getting worse; by the end of April it was 61 percent.

I don’t have room here to go into Iraq or energy policy or Social Security, where the numbers are much the same. Failed policy, and poll numbers that reflect it.
Other telling evidence of the growing gap is the right wing’s increasingly desperate efforts to attack indiscriminately those who disagree with them in any way. This has extended from the “Justice Sunday” effort to gain support for the nuclear option all the way down to increasingly strident attacks in letters to this newspaper. What is most interesting is how bereft of content these attacks are – at every level, the right attempts to defend itself by defaming anyone and everyone who disagrees, by name-calling, and by insinuating that disagreement is somehow evidence of being anti-American, anti-God, and anti-morality. In fact, though, those poll results can't be explained by Democratic attacks or a liberal media. It's just the cold, hard recognition of failure setting in and of an American public that, if it is anti-anything it is anti-autocracy.

Column 32: Nevada Tax Rebate

The amazing thing about the current (and hopefully temporary) ascension of the right wing to power is their capacity to believe that the more they trumpet their version of what others are doing wrong, the less people will notice what they are doing. This goes a long way toward explaining inconsistencies such as those we saw in the Terry Schiavo debate and the Iraq WMD debacle.
Jim Clark proposes the creation of a hymn to the greatness of Governor Guinn (and by the way, Jim, “America” is set to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” not the other way around) and castigates Assembly Democrats for wanting to use the surplus that resulted from the Governor’s overtaxing policy to improve education in the state. He accuses the Democrats of “spin” for fighting a fight he thinks they cannot win.
Well, let’s talk about spin. Jim is quick to cite the statistic that Nevada moved from 25th to 22nd highest state in per capita taxation, but he conveniently ignores that Nevada is 48th highest in per student spending on education. Jim loves to heap scorn on Democrats, but what they are proposing is to use a tax surplus – money that we have already paid and learned to live without – to give our teachers and public employees more than the miserly 2% raise that Governor Guinn put in his budget and to fund the Millennium Scholarship at a level beyond what State Treasurer Krolicki was able to eke out without tax money. Is that so bad?
Would you be satisfied with a 2% increase in your pay next year? By way of a reference point, the current cost of living adjustment for Social Security is 2.7%, so what the Gov is proposing as a raise for teachers and public employees is less than the increase in the cost of living. According to Jim, the “costly social program” being proposed by those “arrogant democrats” is a 5% increase. Why, we’ll see teachers squirreling away these riches and then leaving in droves, those money-hungry wretches! No, better to look to the Republican administration in Washington and piously mouth pro-education platitudes while passing unfunded mandates on to the states, secure in the knowledge that like-minded governors will ignore the need for funding them, preferring to dress the Republican Party in a red suit and give money back to buy votes.
The population of Nevada is 2.3 million people. If the budget surplus of $300 million were distributed equally it would amount to about $130 for every man, woman, and child in the state or about 2 tankfuls of Bush Administration gasoline. Now I know that, for many people in the state a windfall of three or four hundred dollars to their family would be welcome, but for any family making enough money to have paid taxes, it wouldn’t make that much difference – surely not as much as the difference that putting that $300 million to work in our overburdened schools, paying some of the $300 million to give our overworked and underpaid teachers a raise beyond what would immediately be eaten up by the increase in the cost of living, and helping families that need assistance to sent their kids to college would make.
Right-wing radio “personalities” love to scream about the leftist media while never mentioning that the airwaves are dominated by conservatives. This President has made an art of waving his right hand (the social security non-crisis) to draw attention away from what his left hand ($84 million for Iraq, the nuclear option in the Senate, the appointment of John “Gepetto” Bolton to the UN) is doing. And now Governor Guinn wants to dazzle us with a rebate so that we don’t notice him undercutting honest attempts to pull Nevada out of the educational quagmire we have been in for years.
It really amazes me how stupid the conservatives think people are (except, of course, for other conservatives) and how they think they can pull the wool over people’s eyes again and again. It’s time we stood up and said no and took back our government from the plutocrats and right-wing fundamentalists.

Column 31: Incline Village Needs a Plan

Incline Village needs a plan. Over the past decades the village has grown without any real organization or planning. From time to time you will hear people talk as if there were a plan – for example, there is a myth that “chain businesses are not allowed here.” Despite the presence of 7-Eleven, and Subway, not to mention Raley’s, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, I still heard that myth cited in wonder when Starbuck’s and then Quizno’s opened here, but in fact there is no such restriction, nor is there any body of regulations short of the County that could make such a restriction.
We saw a shortcoming of not being self-regulating when the County, without much (if any) consultation with the Village, ousted the Children’s Cabinet thrift store from its location on Northwood due to a violation of (County) zoning restrictions. It is very likely that special interests and an arrogant government agency will give us a post office in what may be the worst possible location in the Village, and we will be powerless to stop it.
So I was gratified to see Bill Horn and Gene Brockman recommend that the IVGID Board of Trustees take the lead on developing a community plan. I was especially pleased that Gene recommended that the group be called “Incline Vision.” In my work with companies and organizations I have become a firm believer in the primacy of vision in any undertaking. A plan, to be meaningful and intelligent, must derive from an alignment of all concerned on what they want to see happen and how they want the organization, or in this case the community, to develop over the coming years.
Alignment does not mean that everyone agrees on every particular of a plan, but that there is a shared commitment as regards the future Alignment means reconciling differences at a level that is sufficient to coordinate actions across community boundaries. The source of effective coordination is a common future, and coming to a common future takes effective leadership and a lot of communication. Where alignment is strong, creativity and valuable planning are easy and natural. In the absence of alignment, planning devolves to arguing about how to get somewhere when we have not established where we are going or why we are going there.
While I know the Board’s effort is well-intended, I’m not convinced that IVGID can provide leadership that will create a vision that is broadly based and inclusive of the entire community, and without a vision that meets those criteria, any plan will be likely to be insufficient to meet the community’s needs. A recent book, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, provides compelling evidence that the broader and more diverse a group is, the more creative and intelligent solutions it comes up with, and the more “expert” and unrepresentative a group, the less well it will do. I believe that this principle must govern any group that takes on the vision stages of the planning process.
Chairman Brockman made the point that for a committee to include all the various points of view in the village would make it too big to be workable, and I agree with him. The solution to this is to recognize that the committee will be a coordinating body, and to task it first with creating that alignment from which a valuable vision will come. TRPA, in its Pathways 2007 project, is trying to do this with a 40+ member committee and numerous subcommittees. It remains to be seen how that will work, but I think a smaller committee that holds forums with all the different interest groups in the Village and then brings together a Village-wide forum to air its findings and to host a conversation to create a vision from which planning will proceed is a more workable model for us.
In any case, we should be glad that the process has been launched, and appreciative of this newspaper for starting the conversation and of Bill Horn, Gene Brockman, and the Board for undertaking the challenge. It is an effort that deserves and needs all our support.

Column 30: Earth Day

Last Friday, April 22, marked the 35th anniversary of Earth Day. Though the population of the United States has increased by almost 50% since the first Earth Day, Only about a million Americans were expected to actively participate this year, compared to some 20 million then.
Why is this? As my friend Bob Perkowitz pointed out in his Earth Day column in the Charlotte, NC, Observer, today’s environmental problems are much harder to come to grips with than the problems of the ‘70’s. Global warming? I am an environmentalist and a trained scientist and I can’t even determine whether it’s real or not. Depletion of fish stocks? Too complex – species come and go to begin with, and even if the US restricts fishing, won’t other countries just take the fish anyhow?
Also today’s problems seem to involve too many unpleasant tradeoffs – gas is pushing three dollars a gallon, but we shouldn’t drill in the Arctic. Hybrid cars seem like a good idea, but will they work on our mountain roads? Alternative energy? That’s a problem to be solved by the energy companies – what can I do?
The most widespread mood I encounter, even among many environmentalists is resignation. So much is out of our hands, and what is in our hands seems to amount to gestures –I recycle my bottles and cans and major corporations produce tons of waste. I can go “off the grid” but they’ll still drill for oil in ANWR.
In his column, Bob (Full disclosure: Bob is married to Lisa Renstrom, a member of the Sierra Club Board; I have consulted, and continue to consult to the Sierra Club Board and Lisa) makes a compelling case that much of what impacts environmental quality in the 21st Century is actually under our control, for example energy independence, economic prosperity, healthy communities, and our natural heritage.
Dependence on foreign oil, is our single greatest national security and environmental problem, one that, in Einstein’s famous words, cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created it. The US can never produce enough oil to be independent and secure, and our government leaders need to stop buying the oil companies’ story that we can. Viable alternatives to oil exist now – geothermal, active solar, and wind power are all proven and usable – all it takes is the will to change. Hydrogen power is on the way to feasibility, and electric/hybrid vehicles are a reality. Every American, regardless of their politics, should be for energy independence.
Our dependence on foreign oil also has a powerful negative effect on our prosperity. 27% of the US trade deficit in 2004 was due to importing $179 billion in oil. This is a major force behind the weakness of the dollar and high gas prices. An energy policy that focuses on an independent future for America will create jobs, correct the trade deficit and make American businesses more competitive.
Health care does not seem like an environmental issue, but in many cases such as the Fallon cancer clusters it is. Mercury-laden fish that we cannot eat, chemicals in waste water that cannot be removed, air that is unhealthy to breathe all affect our lives and the costs of caring for those affected affect our economies, both public and private. Healthy communities should be an environmental priority.
Finally, there is the natural beauty in which we live. Every gas well in Wyoming, and oil well in the Arctic, every logging road through forests makes the next environmental abomination easier and lulls us into resignation. I have had my differences with TRPA’s methods and actions, but I am grateful that, for the Tahoe basin at least, someone is looking out for our natural heritage.
Let’s have Earth Day be a wake-up call for those of us who have, explicitly or implicitly, given up. Now is the time to be talking about energy independence, economic prosperity, healthy communities, and our natural heritage. I join with Bob Perkowitz, the Sierra Club, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, and yes, even TRPA in inviting you to realize that each of us is, at heart, an environmentalist.

Column 29: National - The Pope

An awful lot has been written about Pope John Paul II since his death last week, which I probably fitting given his long tenure and significant influence in the world. Much of what has been written, however, has, in my view, presented only half of the man, which does a disservice to history, and dishonors the man’s legacy.
If John Paul had been “just a pope,” perhaps this would not be so bad, but this Pope, like Bishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama took a position of world, not just religious, leadership. By taking strong and courageous stands on political issues, by his outreach to other faiths, by his willingness to take responsibility for wrongs committed in the name of the Church in the past, he distinguished himself from earlier Popes, who allowed the Church to ignore or even to appear to condone such wrongs as the Holocaust and the Inquisition.
This same courage and strength, however, informed the Pope’s intransigent conservatism on issues that many, even many Catholics, consider socially urgent. While at the same time demonstrating that the Church has made serious errors in its past doctrines and practices, he maintained its infallibility on current doctrines and practices such as pedophile priests, contraception, abortion, divorce, women in the priesthood, and others.
Every religious group has the right to set its own boundaries and to declare those who transgress those boundaries outside the fold. At the same time, all but the most conservative factions of most faiths in the modern world have made allowances for changing views of the world and exigent factors such as disease. The Pope often spoke of the need for a “culture of life,” but this is hard to reconcile with refusing to allow the use of condoms to prevent disease. The Pope was ready to admit the Church’s errors with regard to Galileo and the Inquisition, but seemed less willing to have the Church take responsibility for the many scandals regarding child molestation in the United States and many have argued that he aided and abetted Cardinal Law in escaping the consequences of his having protected priests accused of molestation and even having transferred known molesters into positions where they still had access to children.
None of this detracts from the Pope’s real accomplishments or from his commitments. He was a stalwart advocate of freedom and if he didn’t bring down Communism single-handedly, he certainly contributed materially to its demise. That there were modern errors he failed to acknowledge does not diminish the importance of his having apologized and taken responsibility for earlier errors. He was deeply compassionate for the poor and the downtrodden, and his lack of compassion for the sides of human misery of which he disapproved did not subtract from this.
However, when a religious leader takes on being a leader in the secular world as well, he makes himself liable to be held to a higher standard of integrity. This Pope, by taking a stand against authoritarian regimes makes his own authority subject to review; by reaching out to other faiths in a spirit of inclusion and collegiality, the integrity of his judging others’ morality by his own doctrine becomes questionable. When millions of Roman Catholics do not follow his teachings on birth control and divorce, his authenticity in proclaiming these teachings as universal is diminished in the world’s eyes. When he turns a deaf ear to the misery of those whose lives were damaged by priests and bishops operating under the mantle of ecclesiastic authority, his moral leadership acquires a hollow ring.
Pope John Paul II was one of the great spiritual, moral, and religious leaders of the 20th Century, and history will remember him as such, but history is not served by remembering only half the man – all of who he was and became made his contribution what it was. Let us remember the whole man.