Monday, December 28, 2009

Decade with no name? Says who?

   And so we say farewell to the Decade of Levi Johnston, he who impregnated a vice presidential candidate's teen daughter, paraded before the nation as a picture of family values, had his affections alienated, did an armpit- bearing fold-out photo session and appeared on enough talk shows to become a household face.

   That the candidate's name needs no utterance, not to mention the daughter's or even the child's, says a lot about the 10-year stretch just about done.

    It was the Decade of Jon and Kate, they who became celebrities because a cable channel pronounced them and their eight children as much. Then they split viciously and became more celebrated.

    It was the Decade of the Dramatic Squirrel, an emotive rodent which had drawn 1,240,046 online hits when I checked YouTube. You can add to the number. Go ahead.

     Or it was Paris Hilton Decade, or the Elizabeth Lambert Decade, named in either case for people whose charms, or lack of them, were broadcast for all to see via the World Wide Web — the first by a sex tape, the second by images of the University of New Mexico soccer player pulling an opponent to the ground by her hair.

      We wish we could say farewell to them, but they're still there and will be far into the next, yet-to-be-named decade.

       Now, you're saying that the decade we hereby depart never got a name, either. Aughts? Trendily trite. Oh-Ohs? Well, not bad, if your name is Mark Sanford, or Elliott Spitzer, or John Edwards.

       Fact is, the decade has lots of great names. For instance, it was the Decade of The Family. Not the biological unit venerated by scoundrels for political gain. No. During this decade, a secretive group of Republican politicians liked to quote the Bible and convene at the secretive "C Street House" in the nation's capital — for prayer, of course. In 2009, the secretive C-street fellows were wracked by a string of sex scandals, headed by Sanford, and including Sen. John Ensign and former Congressman Charles "Chip" Pickering.

       But if you think it was a decade for mea culpas, no. It was the They-A Culpa Decade. "Scooter" Libby took the rap for a campaign waged by Dick Cheney to go after a former envoy who knew too much about the false pretexts for invading Iraq.

      In case after case, people who sought to speak truth to power relative to a war built on lies, truth tellers like Cindy Sheehan, or former terrorism czar Richard Clarke or former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, each became the issue, amazingly.

      Yes, it was their credibility we were to examine, not that of the incredible band of schemers and storytellers prosecuting a war that never would have happened had truth been known or Congress or a cowed media been receptive thereto.

       George W. Bush strode away from it all with a wink.

       It was the Outsourcing Decade, the Privatizing Decade, the Government Run as a Business Decade, and we were all shown how well that worked when Katrina was the storm of the decade.

       It was a decade so full of insults to the collective intelligence that 10 years wasn't enough to make anyone pay for them, except suddenly to hear that Barack Obama was to blame for a bad economy, for dollars spent without accountability, and for "dithering" on wars he didn't start.

         So, in a way, it was a public service that we had Levi Johnston, Paris Hilton,  "Dancing With the Stars," YouTube, Facebook and sex scandals galore to distract us. Otherwise, we might not have anything to complain about as we enter another decade in search of a name.

        John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:


Monday, December 21, 2009

'And on Earth . . .'

   It was March 20, 2003. After "shock and awe," American forces had rolled tanks into Iraq. I drove by a church whose marquee read, "Pray for peace." I shook my head. Maybe some worshippers inside wanted that. The rest didn't mean it at all. They wanted to crush perceived enemies.

   Now it's December 2009. The church marquees read, "Good will to men." Some mean it. Some don't at all. The news pages tell us that churches that really model the phrase can end up being pariahs.

   Like the congregation in Denver that announced it would "live without labels" and welcome homosexuals. It lost half its congregation.

   Or the Baptist preacher in Fort Worth who decided to portray gay couples as couples in the church directory. The simple act of inclusiveness became a headline-grabbing tempest.

   I know of a church in Waco that can advertise "good will" without disclaimers. It has modeled grace and inclusiveness from the start. And yet it's a good bet that another new year will find it encountering recriminations at the hands of believers.

    We are all fortunate that we live in a land where Charley Garrison can have his congregation, Waco's Central Texas Metropolitan Community Church, and not have to hide from billy clubs or flames, like, say, in Uganda, now pondering criminalizing homosexuality. Garrison's church is a place for gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals to feel Christian love without holy asterisks.

    That doesn't mean the church can't just go about its business without someone asserting it is doing the devil's work.

     Awhile back, a group picked out Waco's "seven gates of hell" and stood before them and prayed. Garrison's church was one. (Oddly, I guess because it also serves all kinds without judgment, the high school that my kids attended was another. Isn't that special?)

     At least it was peaceful. And, as Garrison said with a smile, "one can never receive enough prayers on one's behalf."

      In Uganda, militant bigotry has sought and derived sustenance from believers on these shores, such as a certain almost-psychologist who gets a lot of cable TV face time convincing people that gays and lesbians can be changed.

      High-profile evangelist Rick Warren, who had been linked by association with a key proponent in Uganda, took his time getting around to denouncing the legislation, ultimately pronouncing it in near-parliamentary terms as a "terrible bill." So doing, he added his assertion that homosexuality is against Jesus' teachings. That's something many believe, although little Jesus actually said would ever intimate it.

      Said Garrison, "Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality. Nothing at all. But he had a lot to say about judging others. . . If we spent less time trying to figure out what's right or wrong for everyone else and more time working on the right and wrong in our own lives, I think the world would be a lot better place to live," he said. "And I think God would be happier, too."

       Garrison, who is gay himself, is the last one to dwell on the hateful vibes that some people who call themselves Christian seek to send his way. He takes pains to point out how supportive most of his community's clergy have been toward him and his congregation.

       "Their love and prayers on my behalf and on the behalf of our church are like cathedral bells that toll many times louder and more powerfully than the tinkle of the dinner bells of hatred, bigotry and prejudice."

        Peace. On Earth, good will to men.

        John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:




Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Testing that serves students? Nah

    They're getting it, but they still don't get it.

    States are figuring out that it's not good policy to put so much emphasis on a single standardized test.

    Not only does it result in miscarriages of assessment, even when students get more than one try. It also warps and crimps the learning experience as schools focus on a thunderous drum-roll moment.

    Someone recently shared with me the picture of a child's wrist, red and almost bloody. The child had been gnawing on it as a state standardized test approached. This rat-in-a-cage angst is our creation, and our shame.

    But such pressure-cooker treatment of our children and their teachers is only one concern. A more significant, though barely ever discussed, problem is that the tests themselves hardly ever help identify learning problems when they could make a difference.

     It is sickening how much communal energy we invest in such pitiful diagnostic tools.

     Back during the 2001 debate over No Child Left Behind, Congressman Ted Strickland, D-Ohio,  committed the heresy of one who had looked through the platitudes about high-stakes testing.

     "In my judgment, educational testing should be used diagnostically to determine what learning impediments might exist and prescriptively to determine what methods might be best . . . (it) is not intended to be a measure of accountability or a factor in decisions about how much money a school district wins as a bonus or loses as a sanction." That kind of wisdom went in one collective ear and out the other. Congress signed on to the notion pioneered in George W. Bush's Texas about the end-all significance of standardized high-stakes tests.

      Texas since has wised up a little. This year the legislature took key steps to de-emphasize the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. For one, it jettisoned the high-school exit test in favor of end-of-course exams. For another, it authorized a shift from "gotcha" snapshot moments using TAKS to a "growth model" to measure how students were progressing.

        Last year Colorado lawmakers ordered a revision of state standards, and with it a new state test. Colorado State Board of Education last week said it would pull the plug on the Colorado Student Assessment Program — CSAP — in favor of a new test focused more on critical thinking. This sounds like progress. Or it sounds like new and improved reasons for gnawing on wrists.

         The problem remains that these tests aren't meant to help children. They are meant to catch teachers in the act of not delivering what the state wants. Unlike Congressman Strickland's idea of using assessments to help children, these tests, coming at the consummation of pressurized quests, are simply designed to ding those who don't measure up, student or educator.

         What's the alternative? The alternative is testing that is truly diagnostic: ongoing online assessments. What do I mean? I mean that instead of having everything stop at every school in the spring to test everyone, we design ways that see what children are learning as they learn it, or don't. If the state wants children to learn X or Y, it should have online exercises that, on an ongoing basis, and not just in April or March, ask the pertinent questions, and show children the error of their ways if they don't get them right.

     That way — heresy — instead of slapping the hand that is gnawed, the state would have a tool by which a child is actually learning from an assessment, and the teacher is seeing what the child's weakness is before the Big Test documents it. 

      Wait, you say; that sounds like a recipe for cheating. Well, we need to get beyond the notion that state testing is just for playing sheriff in a village of pre-adults. Testing should be designed to help them, not to ingratiate the man with the badge.

      Don't say we can't do this. Of course we can. This nation spends billions of dollars on standardized tests, toward the filling of bubbles on mountains of sheets of paper. It's just this side of the stone age. It's time to see how the state can facilitate learning and enthusiasm, rather than standing over children and teachers with a whip and a bass drum.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:   

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cost-of-fighting index

    Make that $1 million a soldier, $1 million a Marine.

    Or, one sixth of an elementary school. Or one rural fire station. That's what it will cost to deploy someone to combat in Afghanistan for a year.

     Time flies. According to White House estimates in the New York Times, three whole years ago the cost was $390,000.

     That puts the cost of Barack Obama's decision to deploy 30,000 combat personnel to Afghanistan at $30 billion. Or more than the annual budgets of the Interior and Commerce departments combined, with the Environmental Protection Agency thrown in.

    Credit Obam for not obfuscating this. He used the figure in his West Point speech — leveling with us, unlike the purveyors of cotton-candy assurances of costs and consequences when Iraq was in our cross-hairs.

    Obama said that he would work with Congress to lessen the effect on the federal deficit. That's one bit of leveling for which none should hold his or her breath.

     Yes, a few members of Congress are acting and talking responsibly about the matter. Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., are among a small group calling for a war tax. Talk about outrageous: To spend $30 billion, we cough up money to pay for it. Off with their heads.

      We await word from the new generation of Republican "deficit hawks" on to how to pay for the Afghan surge: Maybe by nuking the Interior Department and the EPA?

      It is more than fascinating to hear the GOP and the Tea Party megaphonies with their so-late-in-the-game bluster about deficits. Under the previous regime, deficits were just the price of doing business.

     So-called deficit hawk Phil Gramm, in an interview years ago in which I impertinently probed about Reagan-era deficits, said that what we did then to spend the Soviets under the table was "worth every penny." So, if it was worth spending, why wasn't it worth assessing Americans what it cost? Why instead assess future generations with interest added?

    Americans have got to start paying for the amount of government they are buying. That includes every American, regardless of income. Obey's proposal is most responsible:  a graduated tax increment on all income, starting at 1 percent for low-income earners, rising to 5 percent for high-income earners. A surtax, he calls it, because it would be a tax on income that is already taxed. 

     You can't do this, of course because (a) it will hurt the fragile economy; (b) it's a "jobs killer"; (c) Americans already pay "too much" in taxes. These pat responses have held reason in check for nearly three decades.

     Recall how the GOP assailed the tax hike on the wealthy implemented by Bill Clinton. It was going to destroy the economy. In fact, Clinton rode out of office on a wave of economic fitness we've not seen since, and with a federal surplus. Remember? Time flies.

     Economist Robert J. Samuelson could never be accused of anything but pure fiscal conservatism. But under the heading in Newsweek, "We want more government: Just don't ask us to pay for it," Samuelson suggests gradual increases in energy taxes, along with fiscal austerity measures like raising the Social Security retirement age, to confront a future in which, unless we start paying for the amount of government we buy, we could be in a Brazil-style situation, in which "default" — on our global debts — no longer is an unutterable word.

      Energy taxes? Oh, no. That would cost every American.

      Oh, yes. That's the point. And do we assume war costs no one?

      Do you realize that at the current course, annual interest payments on the national debt, an already-staggering $170 billion, will be approaching a trillion dollars — $799 billion — in 10 years?

       Yes, raise energy taxes. Gasoline taxes mean everyone shoulders the nation's escalating burdens, and all use oil more, um, conservatively.

       Yes, impose a war tax of the mold proposed by Obey.

       While we're at it, let's establish a mechanism that is the reverse of Social Security's cost-of-living index. It would be the cost-of-fighting index. As the cost goes up, so will our taxes, steadily, uniformly, until we decide we have fought enough, or paid too much for what the fighting achieves.

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Brown snow, browning evergreens

    What American researchers were finding up in the Rockies over the summer put a new twist on "purple mountains' majesty."

   Try, pink, or tan, or just brown where it should have been white — white as snow.

    That's what they were examining: snow with an ominous glaze of dust that had blown across time zones and oceans. It was dust that is one more signal of a planet in distress. And the thing is, the migrating dust itself is contributing to that distress.

       Climatologists call it a very troubling sign of desiccation — a long word for two short ones: "drying up." The dirt has been carried in winds from as far away as China, they say. It's not a condition confined to our own snow fields. Seasonally, increasing amounts of dust have accumulated on snow fields in the Andes, the Himalayas and China's Tian Shan range.

        Significance? The darkening of the snow from dirt and dust increases its conductivity of solar heat, causing it to melt faster. It also makes a major contribution to global heating.

      This sounds very exotic and not exactly germane to must of our earthly travails, until you hear someone who analyzes water supplies for a network of farms discuss it. Recently, a researcher for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Southern Colorado, which divvies up water rights from the Rio Grande, used terms like "Martian winter" and "dramatic" to describe the sped-up snow melt in the San Juan Mountains. That doesn't mean the farms won't get what they need. It does mean that a very real climatological phenomenon is happening.

       Snow isn't the only thing browning when it should be gleaming in the summer months. Massive stands of lodgepole pines are browning, not because of dust but because of a merciless pine beetle infestation sweeping across the Rockies.

        You probably don't want to hear that this has a lot to do with global warming, too. Sorry, it does.

         Longer summers, shorter periods of killing frost, give the pine beetles more time to survive, thrive and work their misery as they migrate north. As it is, the killing of the pines in some of the Rockies' most stunning forests is a slow-motion inferno that doesn't give off the billows of smoke that get people running.

         A stark projection issued by state and federal foresters in January was that every large lodgepoll pine forest in Colorado and southern Wyoming will be dead within five years. And guess what: These endangered forests are crucial carbon sinkholes that moderate greenhouse gases.

         A recent poll by the Pew Research Center finds that just as indicators of global distress continue to mount, Americans' concern about the matter is declining.

        Pew found that the number of people saying there is strong scientific evidence that the Earth has gotten warmer over the past few decades is down from 71 percent a year ago to 57 percent this year. Only 36 percent believe man-made pollution has anything to do with the warming conditions, down from 47 percent last year.

      Andrew Kohut of the research center suggested that the strains faced in the American economy are the key reasons for this.

      What? You mean evidence of global warming is contingent on Dow Jones and the unemployment rate? Apparently so.

      Even with Pew's troubling numbers, one can find encouragement in the fact that a majority of those polled — 56 percent — feel the United States should join other countries in setting standards to address global climate change.

      Maybe there is still hope down here in the fruited plain.

        John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Invasion of the Red Menace

Over the river, through the woods, to my house they go.

Sweet potatoes.

Up the interstate, along the Front Range, marched up the sidewalk, ringing at the door bell.

Sweet potatoes.

The horror.

This being our first Thanksgiving back in the brisk Mountain West, where the holiday actually nudges up to the bounds of Currier & Ives propaganda, we are having a favorite aunt come for dinner. She is bringing sweet potatoes.

Living where she is, Colorado, and having not had the advantage of the informational campaign I waged for a quarter century in Central Texas, she still harbors the impression that sweet potatoes are food. I think we have convincingly impressed upon the reading public that said assertion can only be swallowed under a layer of marshmallow cream.

And I'm no fan of marshmallow cream, either.

Let me backtrack a few lines and acknowledge that sweet potatoes are fitting food. Livestock finds them quite appealing. And my dogs like sweet potato treats. They also will eat june bugs.

All along, in addition to advising people about the chief falsehood about sweet potatoes — that you can eat them — I've striven to make my commentaries positive. Positively pro-sweet potato, I am. I have told readers of all the ways you can use sweet potatoes in ways other than putting them in your mouth and asking your esophagus to do what God never intended of it.

I tried that once. Once.

Pro-sweet potato? Yes, I yam. Who brought to readers' attention the many new and exciting uses for sweet potatoes, such as using them in mill tailings to help remove arsenic from gold mines? As George Washington Carver is witness, I've touted sweet potatoes' utility in making ink, and plastic, and ethanol. Vicious correspondence from the United States Sweet Potato Council did not acknowledge as much, but should have. I'm all for growing sweet potatoes if they can wean our dependence on foreign starches, just as long as people understand the truth. I mean, you can make lighter fluid with dinosaur carcasses, but you wouldn't want them for dinner.

To that end, it's time to trot out, by request from so many, the annual recipe that best employs the specious tuber (and harms no stunt animals in the process):

Young's Sweet Potato Barbecue

Take 6 bags of potatoes.

Take one bag of cement mortar, add sand and water.

Stack potatoes in four contiguous walls of about four feet high, using trowel to apply mortar affixing each in place.

When four equal walls have been built, let dry.

Obtain iron grill, place on top. Using lit charcoal briquettes, cook large T-bone steak on grill.

How much more pro-sweet potato can one be? I'm so pro-sweet potato that when Aunt Sandy brings her side dish to our house I will graciously allow her to place it out on the deck for serving purposes, while we dine inside.

No, not in the house. You realize that, just sitting, steaming in the casserole dish, cooked sweet potatoes are emitting molecules into the air, molecules which glom onto human skin, hair follicles, walls, upholstery and carpet — deep, deep in the carpet fiber.

I realize that large numbers of Americans have not received my informational message, so I will endure. Wednesday's New York Times, for instance, has a commentary by Jessica Harris calling sweet potatoes "a culinary reminder of our national history and deserving of a place at the Thanksgiving feast."

Not if one brave man can alert a nation first.

John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Not about race? Prove it

   If 5,000 Canadians froze to death trudging across the snow fields of northern Minnesota to find work, how would you respond?

   Would you say, (a) "They deserved it. They broke the law." (b) "What a horror. Pass the french toast." (c) "We need to build a wall."

   That many people have died since the mid-'90s in America's merciless southern borderlands. Our response: (d) all of the above.

    A group aligned with the Catholic Church, calling itself No New Deaths, has chosen another response: water and supplies, and lifesaving intervention for people crossing the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona. Two years ago, a pair of No New Deaths volunteers faced a federal felony rap for doing so. The charges ultimately were dropped, but their story raised the question: Is American compassion dead of dehydration when it involves these people?

     No, not Canucks. Mexicans.

     A reasonable individual, one who draws a harder line on these matters than I do, took pains to say, "This isn't about race. It was about respect for the law, about public safety," and, of course, public costs. All are legitimate reasons to want workable immigration reforms.

     Those concerns are shared and appreciated by Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network — except that rather than aligning itself with wall-builders and Minutemen, her organization is on the side of humanitarian groups like No More Deaths.

     Her message: If it's not about race, then why can't we have workable reforms that reflect social realities?

      Reality: The need for the labor provided by undocumented workers is self-evident. Anyone in the Southwest who has his roof replaced has heard none but Spanish words overhead amid a gritty, sun-scorched task.

       Reality: No matter what walls we build, no matter what law enforcement response we provide, the demand for such labor will draw people across the border.

       Sure, numbers have declined with the draconian crackdown seen in the last two years, including the imprisoning of thousands. But no penal or structural response is going to resolve the problem — just as you can't curb illegal drug trade without curbing demand.

      When Allen talks of "comprehensive immigration reform," she's not using the language of the wall-builders and the private detention center contractors.

      She's saying this: It's time to get real about labor realities. Dramatically increase the number of H-1B visas so people can work here legally. Make that a ticket to legalization if the person abides by the law and carries out the compact of citizenship.

      Many people who are galled by illegal immigration point out that their own ancestors came legally, sometimes after long waits. The problem now is that such considerations are in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security, an agency sworn to shut off cross-border traffic. Few Mexicans, therefore, have any realistic hope of plugging into the system and meeting the compact in question. Yes, that means no chance to honor the rule of law.

      Allen's organization supports legislation poised for unveiling soon that would put the task of setting the numbers of H-1Bs in the hands of a newly formed labor commission. Its determinations would be based on the realities of the moment, and would vacillate accordingly.  The commission would look at the efficiency of the naturalization process so that people who would give their lives to clean our hotel rooms, repair our roofs and harvest our fields truly would see a reason to play by the rules. In the process, they would be contributing through taxes to the benefits, like public schools, they would receive.

       Allen's response to people who want to see immigration laws mean something once again, and for a shadow population to buy into the responsibilities inherent, is: "We want the same things."

      On the other hand, if one's base desire is to tamp down swelling numbers of brown-skinned people, it's easy to understand why immigration reform comes down to taller walls, border troops and arrests even for humanitarian acts.

       John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Who gave away the moon?

 It's not "'Jon and Kate Plus Eight Attorneys." It's not, "on 'Oprah,' Sarah Palin unveils her road map for world peace."

 That an American probe just discovered water on the moon is not big news, judging by what one hears. Still, you'd think we'd be hearing a lot about it.

 I'm not talking about the fact that water on the moon raises any number of questions and possibilities about what's out beyond Earth's gravitational pull. I'm talking about the fact that water's presence on the moon means that we  — Americans, vanguards of free enterprise and planned obsolescence —swiftly could be getting down to exploiting the moon for every ounce and drop of its commercial potential except for one thing:  Someone 40-plus years ago blew it.

 Yep. Just as they did with the Panama Canal, they gave away the moon.

 I know what you were saying when you heard the moon has water. You were saying, "Get those snow machines blowing. Ski lodges. Hot tubs. Expedia, book me a suite at Marriott by the Sea of Tranquillity."

 Maybe you were thinking of vast mineral opportunities, with water to feed slurry lines criss-crossing the once-uncrossed moonscape.

 At minimum, you were thinking of at least six dozen Starbucks. Admit it.

 Not so fast. (Don't you hate it when someone tells America, "Not so fast"?)

 In 1967, Congress signed onto the United Nations Outer Space Treaty. What it said was that no country can own the moon or the planets or wherever we might plant a corporate logo in outer space.

 Not only that, but the treaty prohibits us from deploying nuclear weapons on the moon and other celestial launch points. Fudge.

 Where is/was America's outrage? Where is Glenn Beck when we need him? Where was he in 1967? Probably bawling his eyes out over something juvenile as he prepped for a career.

 The Outer Space Treaty stands to be a major roadblock to any number of designs on the moon, such as colonization – all right, condo-lization. It would mean that whatever our intrepid entrepreneurs wanted to do, once the sky really is no limit, they would have to clear with Ethiopians and Poles.

 That doesn't mean mankind couldn't do something ambitious with the moon. It just means that, for instance, KBR and Halliburton couldn't do it via no-bid contract. This just doesn't sit right with Americans who've abided by the old adage, "What's good for General Motors is good for the galaxy."

 Imagine the possibilities in running the moon as we've run our world in recent years. We could contract out lunar security to the private army hired by Xe – formerly Blackwater Security. It could guard against other nations – China, for instance — landing on lunar soil (our soil) and setting up snow-cone stands at predatory prices.

 Write tax laws accordingly, and the moon could be the most attractive off-shore haven in the solar system — corporations fleeing Earth's surly bounds and setting up home offices roughly the size of a body-piercing kiosk at the mall.

 This could be our chance to show the world that we really aren't completely inept at nation-building. Many of us once were certain that if we reduced Baghdad or Kabul to a moonscape, we could create new nations over there in our own image. Well, so it didn't work. Well, here's a more manageable moonscape.

 We have the know-how. We have the venture capital. We have big rockets. And the moon has water.

 So, that age-old question for those who wish the rest of the planet would go away: How can we get out of that treaty?

John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A short 'pro-life' quiz

   You know a Republican primary is approaching when, like leaves falling in the wind, candidates drop nuanced positions on reproductive rights and lie prostrate before blustery anti-choice absolutists.

    That's the case in Texas, where Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison seeks to return home to redecorate the governor's mansion. Thematically, to that end she has air-brushed from her political portrait a somewhat gutsy and moderate voting record on abortion rights.

   The senator's two-syllable spiel now is that she is "pro-life." Next question. Pressed, she'll say the National Abortion Rights Action League gives her a next-to-rock-bottom ratings on related votes in the Senate. Next question.

    In Colorado, the presumptive front-runner among Republicans, former Congressman Scott McInnis, once the national chairman of of Republicans for Choice, says now that he is simply "pro-life." No nuance. Next question.

    No shadings of gray, either, from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose flexings of moral certainty cause hard-right groups like Eagle Forum to swoon.

     Pro-life, eh? It's amazing to hear supposedly thoughtful people dismiss an issue of such consequence with one prefix, one hyphen, and one word. We shouldn't let them get away with it. "Pro-life" is one of the emptiest propaganda terms of modern times. Sorry, folks, but no candidate who uses that term to sum up what he or she stands for should be permitted a "next question" without answering a few more. 

      Whether you support abortion rights, or want the procedure banned, or want something in between, you should demand more from a policy maker than an empty and basically gutless phrase.

     To that end, I've devised a short quiz to test the innards of those who seek to end questions by saying, "I'm pro-life."

      Question 1:

       Do you oppose abortions (a) in all circumstances, period; (b) except in cases of medical necessity; (c) except in cases of rape and incest; (d) except in cases of medical necessity, as well as of rape and incest?

        If you answer (a), you are dismissed further from the discussion, because you are beyond discussion, so fixated on prenatal life that you have rationalized away the life of the woman.

         Question 2:

         If you would allow abortions only in cases of medical necessity, how do you propose that government enforce the law? You should know that a physician has only probabilities as guides when determining if a woman's life is gravely endangered by gestating to term. What government agency would you create to guarantee that each procedure met the criteria?

        Also, we must presume that inquests would be required for each (alleged) miscarriage, which could of course have been physician-caused. Please suggest an agency for that.

         Question 3:

         If you would ban abortion except in cases of medical necessity, rape and incest, how would you enforce the latter exceptions?

         For those who would grant such exceptions, but who claim the "pro-life" tag: How would you sculpt a law so that a rape or incest victim didn't relive her horrors on the delivery room floor? Would you require her to press charges and identify the assailant? Could we try the assailant in sufficient time to allow a safe abortion for the victim? The clock ticks. The abdomen swells.

          Really, candidates. I want to hear you explain these matters. As for those blithe absolutists, like Gov. Perry: You would require a rape victim to carry the rapist's child. Really? So easy for you to say.

          I'll give rhetorical credit to the absolutists when they claim the term "pro-life," except they have no idea, and don't want to know, how enforcing their morals would cause suffering, despair, and acts of desparation.

       On said subject: No contradiction is more visually impaired than "parental consent" laws that disregard the fact that when a teen gets pregnant, she is the parent.

       So. Pro-life? What do you mean? Unless you explain what you mean, and how exactly you would write law to enforce what you mean, you trivialize that which you seek to sanctify. That would be life.

     John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Church of the Almighty Dollar

    In case you missed it, Allen Stanford is to be a knight no more. The Texas quick-buck baron is going to have his knighthood stripped by Antigua and Barbuda.    

  Quite a fall for the guy — Sir Allen to you and me. He'd be a saint if a Caribbean nation were so empowered. As it were, the next best thing it could do was shelter him from taxes.

   If what we're reading holds true, Stanford, awaiting trial on charges of running a $7 billion ponzi scheme through his offshore bank, is one twisted piece of driftwood.

   His former finance chief, James M. Davis, recently pleaded to fraud-related charges in a Houston federal court. In the process he revealed fascinating things.

  For one, Davis said Stanford spent $200,000 to buy off an Antiguan bank regulator. Included: $8,000 for two tickets to the 2004 Super Bowl in Houston.

   Also, Davis said Stanford conducted "blood-oath brotherhood" loyalty ceremonies to enjoin insiders against revealing the dealings that finally brought U.S. investigators in waves to salty and once-secluded beaches.

   It's odd that Stanford would have brought bodily fluids into the equation, when all he had to do was bring out the Bible that he and his company exalted.

   Starting meetings with prayer. Bowing heads with new clients. These things, reports Bloomberg News, were business as usual for the Stanford Financial Group.

   Well, yes. Stanford was a good Baptist boy. He met Davis when they were roommates at Baylor.

   And isn't that the way? How often do we hear about godly board chambers that are really greed-ly board chambers, looking for any way to avoid rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's?

   How often do we hear about sods raking in 10 figures who claim their Christian faith drives their every movement and fills every moment? Too many times. What version of the Bible is up on that corporate shelf? Surely it's not the blunt Bible that says, in Luke, "You cannot serve God and wealth."

      It's rather amazing to hear how tuned-in some Christians are about isolated admonitions in the Bible, say about sexual orientation, while feigning deafness per Jesus' repeated insistence on forsaking riches.

     Now, one could certainly justify amassing great wealth upon the urgings of saints like Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. But not the man who said "Sell your possessions and give to the poor." It's so much more soothing to turn to Friedman's, "Boost your possessions and move offshore." That's why so many love him.

     We are in the midst of a national debate about how, or whether, to close the abominable gap that leaves 40 million Americans without health insurance. We appear frozen at the prospect of making it slightly less profitable to be the health insurance middle man, as profits are the only imperatve, the only truly American virtue, we know.

     We are frozen at the thought that insuring all Americans will carry costs with it, as if building highways, invading other nations and subsidizing a host of industries with tax shelters doesn't. Of course it costs. We choose to spend our money that way.

     We have been told by any number of groups and politicians that this is a "Christian nation," whose policies should reflect as much. They don't mean it. The last thing they would ever want would be a nation that shuns the amassing of wealth and weapons, and concentrates instead on matters divorced entirely from fleshly functions and philosophies that divide.

  Regarding the knight from Antigua: How much different is he, really, from so many who put profits above all else while claiming to adhere to a set of saintly principles?

   Not so different.

   John Young is a syndicated columnist. E-mail:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who's picking on Faux News?

  Ever since it became a boil on the face of news gathering, I've been waiting for someone, anyone, to truly and convincingly defend Fox News — Faux News to those of us who defend news gathering as a craft verging on a profession.

   I keep waiting and waiting. But at every opportunity the apologists for this sorry operation confirm exactly the point of its detractors: Fox is not driven by the pursuit of truth in the pure sense, that of William Allen White, James Reston and David Halberstam. Fox is interested in the numbers it can harvest by appealing to a culinary crowd that wants its news baked just so.

   From a business standpoint, you can't fault it. Indeed, at a time when the news business isn't such good business, you'd be inclined to exalt it. But let's not.

   Just as Rush Limbaugh's Arbitrons are used to justify his version of truth telling — you know, let the market decide if a man is a visionary or a circus buffoon — so, too, with Fox News. The ratings don't lie. And neither would Fox. It's all about news. The spin is over there. You know, elsewhere.

    It's a fascinating proposition. Only Fox is committed to truth, say its fans, while the networks and the "mainstream media" are a liberal cabal. That kind of statement should cause any rational person to cock an eyebrow.

     When I hear that only Fox can be trusted, the needle on my mental polygraph starts to scrawl the name of Edward R. Murrow in my frontal lobe. What a crock. The "only" part is what betrays the crockery. You can object to what ABC does from time to time. You can deride CBS on this or that. You might think the New York Times blew it here or there. But nobody gets it right every time, except apparently Fox News. It's the only news source we can trust, or so I'm told.

     Actually, all we can trust it to be is of the slant Rupert Murdoch said it would provide at its inception — an alternative to the liberal media. Slanted, and proud of it, and ringing up the profits because of it.

     Barack Obama and his team are calling Fox's hand on this matter. And what is wrong with that? If Fox can call itself a news organization, the White House can call it a partisan propaganda machine. Free speech. Yes? Free association, too. The White House says it will be less inclined to play into Fox's numbers game than it might be in dealing with actual news organizations that didn't get into the news business to play semantics games.

      We report; you decide? It depends.

      Charles Krauthammer, slamming Obama for what his spokespeople have said about Fox, says that what's at issue is that Fox is one media outlet that's not cowed by him. It's being punished, he says, for holding the president accountable. This argument might hold water if it applied in any sense to the previous administration and the flag lapel-pin legions stirring the pot over at Fox for a war that never would have been waged had the truth been known about its pretexts.

       For sure, Fox was not the only entity in parade regalia. The New York Times was used by the Bush administration like few others in history. For too long ABC, NBC and CBS were mute about pre-war claims that turned out to be flotsam. But nobody beat the drum for war like Faux News. So, Mr. Krauthammer. When you say this news organization is the one ("the only one") to challenge the president, you'd better be specific about which president.

       I said I keep waiting for defenders to actually offer a defense for Fox News, but they always end up agreeing with the point made by those of us who see it with disdain. At some point, after prosecuting the idea that it really is a news organization and a good one, they invariably end up saying, in effect, " We need Fox, because it gives us what the liberal media won't."

   My point. Obama's point. Folks, we know you're watching and listening. Are you listening to yourselves?

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Not my idea of 'Texan'

    I remember being at many enjoyable places with my grandfather, M.K. Young. But I knew his favorite place, regardless of locale: the fence line.
   Wherever he was, he went to the stranger next door. Whatever the circumstance, he struck up a conversation. In the campground. In a son's neighborhood. At a roadside stop. It was his way. I came to think of it as the Texan way.
   "Friendship" is Texas' motto. I long considered that to mean welcoming, quick to shake a hand, slow to cast aspersions or to harp on divisive distinctions.
   In most ways the state has held up to that in my estimation. Yet some ways . . .
    Texas has begun a governor's race that, before it officially was a race, was already as mean as they come. The incumbent, banking on the grumpiness of 39 percent of the general election voters last go-around, seeks to lock in the same bloc in the Republican primary. Rick Perry says Kay Hutchison isn't conservative enough. Look, he says: Back in the '70s she didn't support Ronald Reagan for president. She supported the incumbent president, Gerald Ford. Egads. Her camp points out that Perry, at the time a Democrat, was Al Gore's Texas chairman in 1988.
    Sad to say, Texas has modeled a lot of mean. In 1994, Republicans promoting George W. Bush for governor sparked a whisper campaign questioning Ann Richards' allegiance to the heterosexual world. About the same time, agents of the religious right took over the state school board with gay-baiting smears and assertions that their foes would order schools to hand out condoms.
      In Waco, a bitter battle raged for years at Baylor University over the direction of President Robert Sloan. His idea of "intentional Christianity" in the classroom alarmed and alienated many God-fearing educators, and chased some away, while drawing others so inclined. Sloan is gone. Efforts to produce regimentation and to enforce group think are not.
     The Baylor regents are trying to force the Baylor Alumni Association to give up its independence and meld with the university. What is portrayed as a gesture of reconciliation amid a lingering philosophical conflict, many in the association see as a hostile takeover.
     This may sound like one of those arcane "Baptist things." It's not. Indeed, the issue is as fundamental as free speech. The association, which oozes love for the university and its traditions, also has a publication, the Baylor Line, which is not afraid to air the controversies surrounding the institution. Shutting up the Line and making the association a regent mouthpiece is what this is about. Though they could jeopardize future relations with Baylor, the alumni aren't caving.
     In recent years the association and the university reached an understanding to allow them to coexist as separate but supporting players, and to agree to disagree from time to time. The regents appear to have decided that so much as a speck of disagreement is a speck too much.
     In a commentary in Baylor's student paper, The Lariat, immediate past student body president Bryan Fonville noted the role an independent alumni association played in Baylor's audacious move in the 1990s to proclaim autonomy from the Texas Baptist General Convention. Those were the days when independence and intellectual integrity were paramount for Baylor.
     At some point in subsequent years, what became paramount was a test of fealty to a ruling clique. Either you were with "them" or you didn't support Baylor. (Sounding a lot like a certain Texas-spawned presidential administration and its divisive rhetoric.)
     I see in a university, or a state, what my grandfather saw in a neighborhood: a community of shared interests and collegial differences. To discuss isn't to tear down. To differ isn't to denounce. To agree that we can disagree is the definition of neighborliness, as is ending a conversation with an outstretched hand.
     That's what Texan means to me. You?
      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

‘Didn’t go there to fight a war’

   This nation still can't decide if war is a joint responsibility we all share, or if it's something we hire out, like catering.

    Eight years in Afghanistan, six in Iraq, and we still treat warfare as just one of many service industries.

    The Bush administration ban on photographing coffins returning home from war, since lifted by this administration, was explained as being a nod to grieving families. But if war is a communal experience, as it once was, we are all the grieving family. The photo ban was a not-so-subtle gesture that war as waged today is a business in the proprietary sense, and only remotely our business.

     With the invasion of Iraq, having an all-volunteer fighting force made it possible to make warfare a speculative exercise rather than an act of necessity.

      Then the massive role of contractors further distanced the average American from the notion of war as something we do, rather than something for which we simply get billed. And, on that note, all we did was borrow to pay for it, and pass the note to future generations.

     Now a gripping account in the Los Angeles Times brings to mind how detached we have become to the military actions we have waged. T. Christian Miller reports on the plight of a contract worker, maimed by a roadside bomb in Iraq while driving a truck for KBR. He came home to marginal medical support and virtual anonymity, though his sacrifices and risks were equal to any in uniform.      

     More than 1,600 civilian workers, U.S. employees though not all Americans, have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

     "Many of the civilians have come home as military veterans in all but name, sometimes  with lifelong disabilities but without the support network available to returning troops," writes Miller.

      The contractor force represents tens of thousands of people, mostly Americans, hired to do any number of things in these war zones.

      In this endeavor, they are much like the temps who have helped corporate America get the job done without the benefits of full-time workers.

      Sure, the pay doesn't fit into that comparison. In most cases contractors' salaries are scandalously high compared to what we pay military personnel.

        However, the point: These are people we send to prosecute a war, to secure and occupy nations, and — who are they? Are they accountable to us? Are we accountable to them?

       The example of Blackwater Security, which so and so outraged the world that it legally changed its name — say hello to Xe — should have told us what is wrong with our propensity to hand over military functions to nonmilitary entities.

        Comments by the wife of the severely wounded KBR contract worker profiled in the Times are telling. Indeed, they speak for a nation which thought that in invading Iraq it was simply doing some international fumigating. We would take out a tyrant and then excuse ourselves along a trail of rose petals.

        "He didn't go over there to fight a war," said Linda Lane, whose husband Reggie came back with one less arm and permanent brain injuries. "He went over there because [KBR] said, 'You'll have armed guards. They promised big money. 'You'll be protected. No problem."

        Yes, and Iraqi oil would pay for the whole thing.

        Of all the things-not-to-do as modeled in Iraq — failure to acknowledge age-old blood feuds, failure to prevent looting after the fall of Baghdad, failure to scope out the magnitude of securing a country the size of California in a power void — none approached the failure to treat this as an actual war, rather than something possibly on a video screen.

      As they rolled off to war, I wonder how many of the 18- to 20-somethings in the tanks and personnel carriers harbored recollections of  "Adventures of GI Joe," the popular TV cartoon series of their youth. In it, gunfire was ceaseless, and harmless, kicking up sand and melting into the backdrop. It was the kind of war anyone would sign up to fight.

    Likely most of them knew they weren't embarking on that, a cartoon show. What were we thinking?    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.







Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The high cost of decomposing

  I still prefer to be barbecued. Or broiled —  however it is that my remains can be reduced to the kind of dusty nutrient that makes fields and ravines grow greener.

  If it can't be the Viking way — by floating pyre — let my bones retire the cremation way.

  That doesn't mean that folks promoting a new, back-to-nature form of burial haven't got my attention and admiration. The same goes for local governments that are making it possible. For some unfathomable reason, their numbers are few.

   Fort Collins, Colo., the new city of my residence, is one of the nation's first to facilitate so-called green funerals — burials in which the body truly is committed to the soil with or without preservatives, and in a container that will decompose along with it. Hear, hear. Let a thousand flowers bloom with this approach to dying and decomposition.

    Fort Collins has set aside a one-acre section of a city cemetery for people to be buried without a vault or embalming. Burial could take place in a shroud or a cardboard container. The city director of cemeteries told the Denver Post, "We're basically going back to the 1860s." It's about time.

   The section in the Roselawn Cemetery won't be treated like the rest. It will be seeded with wildflowers and left to act like fertile ground, as opposed to compartments with sod roofs. Plots will have unobtrusively small granite markers.

   Burial will be allowed in nothing more than, say, a favorite robe or a Broncos stadium blanket, if a grieving clan can bear to part with it.

   People who promote green funerals do so not only because it suits their eco-sense. They also do it because the approach is dramatically less expensive than standard practice. And let's face it. Per benefit to all concerned, living or dead, few services are less cost-effective than the prototypical American funeral. I mean, compare your average mortal sendoff to your average tailgate party. On which would you want to plunk down good inheritance?

    However, imagine: a funeral that doesn't require a coffin, average price: $2,000 (with copper and brass caskets,  $10,000 and beyond.) Imagine not needing a crypt and traditional cemetery plot. Embalming? Optional, of course. (Fort Collins didn't require it anyway.)      

    The city has yet to arrive at a price for the plots to be used.

    Admittedly, a "green" cemetery would take a little more ongoing maintenance than the traditional cemetery, where all the work is done at the front end. A cemetery without vaults naturally has settling at each plot, so staff will have to bolster each of them.

     As for other concerns about being buried the way our forefathers were laid to rest, much of it is bunk.

     The reason for burying people the way we do it is to maintain a nice, tidy surface at the cemetery near you.

     Creeping water tables? A grave would have to be quite deep to have such a thing come into play. Fort Collins' new section will have the bodies under two feet of soil.

     Microbial concerns? Ashes to ashes, nutrients to nutrients. Ultimately, we're all compost. Let Mother Earth welcome us back.

     No, I haven't convinced myself to forgo the furnace. I like the idea of what's left of me wafting in an alpine breeze from a precipitous rock formation.

   But in the contingency that I live so long that mankind runs out of kindling or fossil fuels to light 'er up: Make it cardboard and a green burial for me, dear inheritors.

   John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Help for all those Audie Murphys

     A book from my childhood about Medal of Honor winners has a chapter about him: "Too Young to Fight."

     The Texas boy lied about his age at 17, his face and physique betraying him to the Marines and Paratroopers who turned him away. Enlisting in the Army at the stroke of 18, he was nicknamed "Baby." Then he become one of World War II's most highly decorated warriors. From there, Second Lt. Audie Murphy graduated to the rank of movie star and, away from the set lights, to basket case.

    When I wrote recently about 'Baby" Murphy's largely untold battle with psychiatric wounds, I heard from a chorus that jointly expressed this thought: What person is ever seasoned enough for this? Combat, that is.

     Eighteen — yeah, that's a man. And pimples are facial muscles.

     A two-term Iraq veteran who's had success dealing with his own post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wrote to say that he despairs over so many brothers and sisters in arms who won't acknowledge they carry the same weight, and won't seek help.

    Then again, I heard from a veteran in Austin, Texas, who had sought help, and wanted everyone to know what worked for him. He called it a cure. "It" is EMDR.

    Eye Motion Desensitization and Reprocessing is a mouthful. It causes the unversed to think "quackery" by the sixth or seventh syllable. It's not. It's a tremendous breakthrough that could help countless war veterans and others who are dealing with trauma.

    The procedure was discovered and refined by San Francisco behavior therapist Dr. Francine Shapiro. She found that effecting a pattern of side-to-side eye motion with a trained practitioner somehow can dislodge crippling things from the brain's right hemisphere — deeply buried impressions and memories that, said Shapiro, "are beyond verbal comprehension."

   This is a major departure from traditional psychotherapy because it doesn't involve talk.

   "Talk doesn't affect the emotional brain or the physical brain," said Waco, Texas, therapist Sharon Rollins. "EMDR works on all levels," just as REM (rapid-eye movement) plows the fields of sleep.

   If anyone thinks this is a fringe activity in a clinical nether world: Rollins is one of 35,000 EMDR technicians nationwide. She said she became convinced of the procedure's worth in dealing with her own personal trauma.

    Austin therapist Sue Hoffman, past president of the EMDR International Association, said that not only could more veterans benefit from the procedure, but so could family members. She has treated several military wives.

      When facing psychiatric illness, she said that too often "a veteran tries to numb it" with alcohol or drugs. Additionally, in many cases, PTSD will be suppressed for years before it explodes in destructive behavior.

      Audie Murphy made all the rounds as a war hero, always keeping his youthful chin up. When Hollywood discovered him, he made dozens of movies, often re-enacting actual battle scenes from his To Hell and Back experience. Having talked to veterans who climb under the bed at the sound of an engine backfiring, I could only imagine what such movie making did to Murphy's psyche.

     Unknown to most, Murphy experienced every dimension of PTSD, then known only as battle fatigue or shell shock. He suffered from insomnia. He lashed out in frightening ways at his wife.

      The Department of Veterans Affairs now operates a  Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans at the Waco VA Medical Center, a hospital threatened with closure until two years ago. One of the center's initiatives is to track 1,000 veterans, upon their return from war, for the rest of their lives.

     Let's hope they all get help the moment they need it. No human being is fully prepared for what these men and women have endured, no matter what the movies say.

     John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Under ‘accountability’: Blame the bricks

  What to do with a "failing" school:

   Summon a demolition party with torches? Convene priests and exorcize it of pedagogical demons?

   Convert it to a prison, the destination to which we assume students are bound due to the building's failure? Yes, the building's failure.

    All of the above fit neatly into the set of superstitions behind 21st century school "accountability." Yes, the 21st century.

    If we can't take educators to the dunking pond for a school's rating, we shall condemn the bricks.

    Submitted: You have a perfectly functioning school building. But because of the immense social challenges it faces, the school is pronounced "failed" and forced to cease existing.

    The Austin Independent School District faced that prospect this summer. The Texas Education Agency threatened inner-city Pearce Middle School with closure for failing to meet state testing targets.

    Fortunately for all concerned, the state approved a "repurposing" plan and allowed it to stay open.

    Imagine: Your family has a middle school within walking distance. You like the teachers and administrators. But because of a state-mandated numbers game, you are told that your school is being shut down. The cross-town bus loads at 7:15 a.m.

    We are to presume that something was seriously wrong at Pearce. So said state Education Commissioner Robert Scott repeatedly. Still, was "accountability" helping or hurting any effort at Pearce to get things right?

     At a Texas school I know much better, Waco's G.L. Wiley Middle School, the state's hammer-on-the-head approach hurt as much as it helped.

    Under pressure from the state as low-performing, Wiley ceased to exist as a school last year. The stately building of red bricks and pillars served generations as a secondary school. But it had the toughest of all challenges in a pocket of poverty. Schools never "fail" where the SUVs roam. But where hubcab theft is the only growth industry, schools can't get anything right. Right?

     Sure, Wiley had chronic problems with test scores. What ultimately caused its demise, though, was sagging enrollment.

    The key reason for that, paired with the stigma of getting tagged a "low-performing" school, was that the district has a magnet middle school, G.W. Carver Academy, only a few blocks away. Carver does great things with an integrated curriculum — fascinating themes like space flight on which all core subjects come to bear.

     Carver's curriculum is in Technicolor. Meanwhile, Wiley parents complained that their middle school was more of a drill-and-kill, test-driven, monochrome production. Drill and kill? Well, at Wiley it was raise test scores or die.

      If Wiley students had been afforded the same opportunities as those at the nearby magnet school, their school might still be a school.

     That said: Anyone who has much involvement with inner-city schools knows the fallacy of the statement: "They refuse to change." In fact, the problem is the opposite: no stability, too many top-down teaching edicts, a rotisserie of personnel as one "new team" cycles in with "new focus" and then cycles out when results don't satisfy policy makers.

      Get the best educators to the scene so they can make a difference? Good luck. A system based on shame does not do that. Just the opposite.

      Seasoned teachers avoid can't-win situations. And don't assume that bonuses or higher pay will get them into the mix. A recent study by The Education Trust found that inexperienced teachers predominate in Texas schools where poverty prevails, calling it an "educationally deadly" trend.

     Too many states, and Washington through No Child Left Behind, think they can berate schools into excellence. No, they can't.

   The last Texas Legislature made some concessions to this reality. It tweaked the school accountability system to make it less punitive and aimed more at monitoring individual student growth, rather than taking incriminating subgroup snapshots.

    But you can't blame Texas educators for wondering if it's just another verse in the same old torch song.

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why keep playing Reagan's game?

    Scanning the ranks of the noble Tea Party protesters — exiles of conscience, taxed into penury without representation — it's hard to ignore one impression:

    For oppressed people, they haven't missed many meals.

    Also: Apparently they had their attentions turned to the buffet table throughout the Bush administration. 

    They certainly weren't protesting when a Republican administration and Republican Congress drove up the deficit without a care in the world.

     Granted, that regime had a care: "global war on terrorism," it was. (Was it four words or one?) But the deficit? No.

     Now, by George, the Tea Partiers are right. Regardless of ideology, anybody should be concerned — OK, alarmed to the point of hair loss — by the deficits facing this nation.

     And so we ponder the number $900 billion.

     That's the rough cost of the principal health-coverage bills in the two chambers of Congress. President Obama and Democrats have said they will find a way to make thie initiative deficit-neutral, largely through cuts in Medicare and new fees on insurance companies that offer so-called Cadillac health plans.

        Whether an income tax hike for wealthiest Americans is in the mix seems clearly in doubt after Obama's speech to Congress. That's unfortunate.

     It should be in the mix — just as the tinkerers press on with the very cuts and economies the system needs. 

      Tax hikes should be pressed for one simple reason: The biggest reason we are in our current hole is tax cuts without any means of mitigating the fiscal crevice created for pure political expediency.

      Citizens for Tax Justice points out that the cost of the Bush tax cuts was more than two-and-a-half times the cost of the health reforms Obama proposes. The loss of $2.1 trillion over 10 years from the Bush tax cuts includes $379 billion in interest on the national debt.

      And while Obama seeks to help working Americans without insurance, the Bush tax cuts saw 52.5 percent of the benefits go to the top 5 percent of taxpayers.

       For this price tag, we got . .  . ? A killer recession.

       We didn't use the money to improve our infrastructure. We didn't use it to match federalized "accountability" hyperbole for K-12 education. We didn't treat a college education like the investment of a nation on the move. Instead we found more ways to stick college students with crippling debt.

       It's time to address the cost dimensions necessary for health care reform and to raise the money needed to pay for what we need.

        This nation has missed many opportunities to raise revenue to pay off its debts. The biggest missed opportunity was when, under Ronald Reagan's urging, Congress streamlined the income tax. It resulted in a better system with fewer loopholes. So, what did we do with the money that a better system could raise to wipe out burgeoning Reagan-era deficits? Nothing. The Gipper demanded a "revenue-neutral" plan.

       Since then, except for a brief moment during the Clinton years, we have refrained from raising income taxes, trying to find arcane means of paying for what we need — like user fees, stealing from trust funds, and, of course, borrowing from the Chinese. We built a sleek, progressive revenue superhighway, then placed orange cones at its ramps to keep traffic off it.

    Invest in what it takes so that Americans aren't taking hangnails and migraines to emergency rooms? "Outrageous," say the Tea Partiers.

     What were they saying when our we were spending billions on the hospitals and general infrastructures of Iraq and Afghanistan without any means of paying for it?

      By the way, the cost of those wars combined has reached an oddly familiar figure — $900 billion. That sum, advises, would pay the salaries of nearly 15 million elementary school teachers for one year.

      Or, based on what Congress is saying, it could make sure that no American goes without health insurance.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Waste of a perfectly good radio

When my hands held it again for the first time in decades, I felt the electricity that made it such an exciting gift for an 8-year-old.

A radio I could hold in my hand — pop music, sports, news — all at my command in a genuine leather holder.

By appearance, that radio — a Sun Mark 8 — emerged in near-perfect condition when I pulled it out of the time capsule of a long-undisturbed childhood drawer.

As anyone would, though the battery surely had been dead since Nixon's administration, I tried it. No dice.

Surely it had other issues. Surely the battery had corroded and left an inoperable mess. I pried off the back of the radio. There, looking pristine as if it had just come off the hardware store shelf, a yellow-and-red Ray-O-Vac 9-volt gleamed. That noble battery had served its purpose and over all the years had not spoiled its nest.

I inserted a new 9-volt, not really expecting to hear anything when I turned on the thing on. It was, after all, nearly 50 years old. The first pop I heard was a revelation of life. So, I searched the dial and found . . .

Rush Limbaugh.

And not just on one frequency. He was on three. Whatever else was to be found in a search on the dial was all a mumble. About pork bellies, maybe. Sigh

But why the surprise and disappointment? This priceless heirloom was an AM radio. The AM radio which once upon a time enunciated more than political monotone has gone the way of popcorn poppers and 45 rpm records.

Realizing how functionally worthless my prized transistor radio had become, I was reminded of another radio that showed up once upon a Christmas stocking. My Rocket Radio was red and shaped like a spaceship. It didn't need batteries. You just had to find some metal onto which a wire to the rocket could be affixed with an aligator clip. Then you got radio.

One catch: You couldn't choose the station. You got whatever station on which the Rocket homed in.

Sadly, that just about sums up AM radio, circa 2009, regarding information and commentary. Whereas just about any newspaper opinion page will avail a variety of opinions — if not in syndicated and staff offerings, then among the letters to the editor — today's AM talk is all hard-right talking points, all the time.

The unimaginable tempest over Barack Obama's education pep talk to school children had the taint of AM talk hype all over it. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it "silly." Most times one can appreciate Obama's above-the-fray composure in the face of such slights. But at times one wishes that for once Team Obama responded with the kind of fire the Limbaughs and Savages of the airways issue forth.

Call the uproar moronic — much AM ado about nothing.

The fact is, a lot of what keeps AM talk so revved is the taking of nothing and making it into something, particuarly if self-serving or party-induced.

For instance, right-wing talkers have gone on and on about the threat posed by Obama to their First Amendment rights should the Fairness Doctrine be reintroduced. What has Obama said? He's said he doesn't support any such thing. Just as he's said he doesn't support a government takeover of health care or policies that take away one's coverage or choice of physicians.

Doesn't matter. Listen to the crackling on the AM dial.

I don't know what to do with my perfectly good AM transistor radio. Maybe I should put it back in the drawer with the pristine-looking Ray-O-Vac battery in it, to inspire someone's wonder when, plugging a new battery into it decades hence, it works like a champ.

I bet it will. But considering the downhill trajectory of AM radio, I'm not anticipating that my descendants will get anything worth hearing.

John Young is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Border wall is eco-catastrophe

   PRESCOTT, Ariz. — "It's no wasteland."

   No, not this mountainous berg where seemingly everyone over 65 wants to live.

   Sergio Avila is talking about the U.S.-Mexico border, which bobcats, ocelots, jaguars, mountain lions, black bears and so much more inhabit.

    Avila, a biologist with the Sky Island Alliance, is a lonely voice pointing out how political forces in America are subdividing a biome, in disastrous ways.

    At a colloquium at Prescott College, he described how the ongoing construction of the U.S. border wall brings ecological devastation — most particularly among the species that migrate and otherwise reside in a region with only natural barriers.

    This is made possible in fast-track fashion because Congress and the Bush administration strip-mined environmental safeguards from the legislation enabling the border fence.

    Congress also removed all fiscal common sense from the hysteria-derived gambit, as some segments south of San Diego cost $21 million a mile.

     That underlines a message Avila wants people to understand: "It's a wall. It's not a fence."

     It's a wall that not only blocks animal migration and destroys habitat. In its furious dust-raising construction, it causes air and water pollution. It also diverts rivers and floodwaters.

      Ah, but does it divert migration of Mexicans entering our nation illegally? In some cases, yes. In other cases, a medieval device called a ladder foils Washington's greatest designs.

       The amazing thing about this is that the Bush administration sought to justify it, at least in part, on ecological reasoning.

       Just look, said then-Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff, at all the trash left by the non-Americans crossing the border. A wall will stop that and save the environment, he said.

      But: Just in case a wall would cause other environmental effects far more long-lasting than sandwich wrappers in the sun, Republicans inserted in the Real I.D. Act of 2005 — the immigration grab-bag that included this monstrosity — a pretty puppy called Section 102. It allows Homeland Security to waive all standard environmental safeguards associated with giant infrastructure projects like this.

      That means that the 30-plus species of mammals in the region in question, as well as the owls, migratory birds and more, are all at risk. Federal policies typically take such matters into consideration. Not in this case.

      But it's a wasteland — no? Hot, dry, inhospitable to creatures in Bermuda shorts?

      What it is, as least in the borderlands of Arizona, is "one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world," said Avila. It is where a tropical ecosystem shakes hands with a temperate North American cousin. Don't be misled by the hulking presence of the Sonoran and Chihuahan deserts. The area teems with life. And we are destroying it.

      People can always outwit wall-builders. But nature has problems with obstructions. Avila shows sobering photos of how flood waters surging up against the wall dividing the border town of Nogales caused homes on the Mexican side to be submerged.

    Just the price of — what? Do we assume that such walls really accomplish what they seek to do?

       People living in the border areas point out the futility in trying to wall off the border. For one thing the terrain is too unforgiving in many places. For another, as observed day after day, what jaguars and ocelots can't master, wily human beings will as they seek to feed their families.

      It's the cats who will starve, or turn their attention to cattle or human beings to put food in their mouths.

       The border wall may be America's greatest boondoggle in terms of cost and benefits. So, why does it proceed?

      Why, particularly, when the administration and Congress behind it are now consigned to the dust. This Congress can put a stop to it. It ought to based on fiscal concerns alone. At minimum, it needs to yank out the provision which treats environmental protection as wholly alien.

    John Young is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: