Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Government of, by and for the middle man

As Naomi Klein illustrates so forcefully in Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, human calamity is great for business, at least in a macro sense.

Houses get knocked down by tidal surge? Sales of lumber and nails go up.

"Shock and awe" reigns over a decrepit, tin-pot power? The business of contracting "freedom" (and, of course, enabling Big Oil) goes through the roof.

Klein doesn't mention the tidal condition of Americans being up to their eyes in credit-card debt. But what better condition for capitalism? People keep buying, and with a spider's web of fine print, they become lifetime captors and profit generators for the money men. The merchants make a profit. The money men make a profit. GDP, baby. Bad-a-bing!

Much attention has been drawn to the number of homes being foreclosed at this scary moment. But consider this number: The average household owes 20 percent more than it makes each year. The personal savings rate is in the minus column.

Not all of the owing is simply based on goods purchased, understand. A lot of it is based on ratcheted-up interest rates, fees, penalties and steel traps in a barely accountable, accounting netherworld.

Consider the credit-card trick of offering to consolidate debts as a promotional interest rate, then applying one's payments to the newer debt. Meanwhile, the debt carrying the higher interest rate continues to burn holes down to Earth's molten core.

Last week Barack Obama invited executives from the nation's credit card companies to discuss the abuses associated with what they do. Now, you might say there's no such thing as abuse when profit (GDP) is the motive. Yes, you might.

"Caveat emptor," you say. That's why Texas continues to let loan sharks prey on the desperate with impunity.

What business had the president telling these hard-earning businessmen how to make their earnings?

Actually, it's the same kind of business that alerts the sheriff when a con man is knocking on doors offering to bring rain. Shame on the farmer for buying his spiel. But do we let the con man keep conning?

Speakng of fraud: We sorely miscalculated, in a GDP way, in assuming things were good when in fact, as Obama said, "40 percent of our profits came from a financial sector that was based on inflated home prices, maxed-out credit cards, over-leveraged banks and overvalued assets."

Well, things have changed, with things sinking so low that the federal government came to help prop up the banks that hold so much of the nation's consumer debt.

Since they asked for the government to be a partner, Obama has decided to be an active partner. Good for him and us.

Obama told the gathering that he seeks to find a balance between making a profit and using predatory practices, like thrifts' aforementioned practice of paying off the high-interest rate last. He wants to require the opposite, as does a bill in Congress.

Republicans in Congress oppose said measures, saying they will hurt lenders.

In other words, it's OK for the average American to be locked into a straight-jacket for life because it benefits an industry.

This reminds us of the argument against expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program. The argument is that a small percent of those now insured under private plans will shift to CHIP. Maybe that's true. But millions, all the rest, who have no health insurance will have it and the preventive, cost-saving care it brings.

So, which is more important, a marginal loss for private insurers, or a major step in insuring more children? That seems like a slam dunk in terms of human welfare.

But, too often we put the corporate weal ahead of the common weal. Our health-care system is designed to comport to the profit motive — the business of being a middle man — rather than one that uses cumulative health care dollars at the front end, and more wisely, through universal coverage. That can change if we stop thinking of human suffering as a venture opportunity.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Friday, April 24, 2009

How to secede in politics

Did I hear someone call Rick Perry an idiot? I do believe I did. Do a Google search joining "Rick Perry" and "idiot" and see.

Well, listen: You don't become Texas' longest-serving governor by being an idiot.

The man's no Rhodes scholar, but that's no pea beneath his camo cap.

When he played to an anti-tax crowd with words sounding vaguely amenable to secession, he was using his political noggin.

When asked to clarify, and he didn't, and in fact spritzed the flames of controversy with more home-brewed hooch, he was thinking. Thinking, thinking, thinking.

About how to beat Kay.

Hutchison, that is. Sen. Kay.

In the quest to win the hearts and minds of the hard right, the bloc that typically swings Republican primaries in our time, some are conceding a croquet-style "well-played" for Perry's saying at a Texas tea party:

"When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that."

Kudos, added Democrats, printing T-shirts with his picture and: "Class of 2009: Rick Perry — most likely to secede."

Political consultant Bill Miller told The Dallas Morning News "there's no downside for him" in making such an appeal. Considering the voters Perry courts, said Miller, "He can ride that horse all day long."

Except: Texas doesn't have a closed primary system. Anyone can vote in the Republican primary. The only encumbrance would be to get "Republican" stamped on one's ticket, of which the only bearing on one's dignity or future would pertain to voting in a subsequent runoff.

So, in addition to Bible-toting, NRA-joining, aborted-fetus-sign-waving voters, the March GOP primary for governor will draw pro-choice moderates, independents and, yes, many Democrats seeing that particular race as a place to influence the future of Texas.

This should be interesting. It's self-evident that Perry still owns many hearts in this great state. But the spell definitely has worn off in the Statehouse, even among his fellow partisans. Witness that the Senate voted to accept the federal stimulus dollars for unemployment assistance that Sagebrush Rebel Rick said he'd reject.

As for voters: Large numbers apparently became convinced he was more interested in partisan matters than their own when he handcuffed a legislative session to a second-time-in-a-decade congressional redistricting imbroglio.

His big campaign appeal in '06, just enough to gain him 39 percent of the vote, was about banning something already illegal — gay marriage. Again, well-played.

Judging by his relationship with lawmakers and the general public, you could say that Perry fatigue isn't something a soldier wears in a sandstorm.

As for those who vote: Constant and calculated appeals — Karl Rove-style? — to the compacted core of his party make Perry increasingly vulnerable as one who no longer appeals to a winning bloc.

Ultimately, this approach made George W. Bush one of America's least popular presidents, even if it worked twice on presidential Election Day.

Interestingly, while Perry was appealing to the compacted core, Hutchison reportedly was making inroads with another bloc entirely: Hispanics who increasingly are dictating the way elections are won and lost in this state.

Some will say that's no way to win a Republican primary. That depends on who shows up to vote.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Warrants for our proxies

Before addressing the legal/semantic mess we've built for ourselves, ponder with me an odd quote from Cuba's Raul Castro.

Last week, Castro said he's willing to discuss a wide range of issues with President Barack Obama — "human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything."

Maybe an interpreter put words in his mouth. But: "political prisoners"? No self-respecting dictator calls his prisoners that. Traitors. Spies. Enemies of the people. That's what a dictator says.

This brings up the subject of what a nation posing as leader of the free world says when accused of abusing human rights. Surely it's not: "Torture? Whatever you call it."

Sure, some are saying that techniques including waterboarding, sleep deprivation of up to 11 days, slamming a prisoner against a wall and introducing insects into confined spaces are not torture.

Others are saying, "So what? We got the information we wanted."

That's no defense, says retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern. Rather, it's the problem — bad information elicited under extreme duress.

McGovern, speaking in Waco last week, said the covert operations arm of the agency he served proudly from Kennedy through George H.W. Bush effectively gave a president "his own personal Gestapo."

That is manifest in the Feb. 7, 2002, White House memo headed "Humane Treatment of Detainees." It actually authorizes grossly inhumane techniques.

As McGovern spoke, the Obama administration was releasing CIA torture memos and saying it would not prosecute agents whom it believed had operated within parameters set by higher-ups.

That made big news. What didn't get much attention was this: A judge in Spain issued warrants for six former Justice Department officials, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for rubber-stamping the use of torture on Guantanamo Bay detainees. Spanish law gives its courts jurisdiction beyond national borders in cases of torture and war crimes based on a doctrine known as universal justice.

The judge, Baltazar Garzon, is the same one who issued an arrest warrant for former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet for killing and torturing prisoners.

Spain's government, likely under pressure from ours, says it doesn't support or intend to help facilitate Garzon's warrants.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York this week called for the impeachment of federal Judge Jay Bybee, who while an attorney under Gonzales helped parse the legalese behind what our proxies did to prisoners.

McGovern said it is absurd to focus on the lawyers when evidence points to direct authorization by President Bush and his innermost circle.

Many months ago, I wrote that impeachment of Bush and Dick Cheney was the answer — not necessarily to remove anyone from office but to question them under oath about alleged abuses. They're all out of office. What now?

New York Times editorial echoed Nadler's call for Bybee's impeachment, but within the framework of a search for the truth "after eight years without transparency or accountability." The Washington Post editorially called for an investigation comparable to the 9/11 Commission.

Truth and accountability. It is sadly comical to think of out-of-work Al Gonzales or one of his former lieutenants as the big fish in this operation.

For a nation that has been the world's foremost voice on human rights now to be so mute about something so counter to its principles is an embarrassment.

Ray McGovern says he came to work at the CIA headquarters every day under the John 8:32 inscription: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

Just who was that "you"?

John Young's column appears Thursday, Sunday and occasionally Tuesday. E-mail:

Monday, April 20, 2009

So, class, is civics just roadside distraction?

Admittedly, it was early in the morning for a discussion of civics. Who would have known that the subject that would cause hands to shoot up would be bluebonnets?

We'd been over several subjects, me and a dozen or so community college freshmen. Each subject might have sparked a reaction. Each was about engaging in our world. I'm not sure how the conversation turned to bluebonnets, but suddenly the room was flooding with ardent experts.

"Picking them is illegal," said one. "My mom said it's against the law," said another. One more student echoed the concern. Wow.

Now we were rolling. I almost hated to point out that they were parroting a myth, an urban legend. The Texas Department of Transportation even puts out press releases to dispel it.

This burst of concern and certainty was a civics lesson unto itself. Being like most of their peers, these young people are not well-versed on government. And what government they know (or think they know) is the punitive kind — the don't-litter, don't-jaywalk kind.

They aren't at all versed in the you-are-the-government kind. Why in the heck is that?

How could our state have joint custody of them 13 years, captive audiences to inform, and not inform them in school about what it does? How could appreciation for civics — citizenship, government — be so dismal?

The professionals of whom I asked this question shared my concern.

"A few of them will be scientists. A few of them will be authors. But everyone of them will be citizens," said Judy Brodigan, president of the Texas Council for Social Studies.

The retired teacher said that particularly at the elementary level, social studies is shunted off to the side for pursuits tested on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills — math, reading, writing and science. Hence, students lack a foundational feel for civics.

To Sharon Pope, a former educator who edits Social Studies Texan, the problem isn't state standards. They actually are commendable, she said. The problem at the secondary level is spotty emphasis and quality of instruction.

We are to assume that social studies gets more emphasis in high school because the state requires tests on it. That depends. Is the subject given the relevance it merits? Or is it just facts, figures and a "what's on the test" check-off?

Pope prefers to teach "concepts of power and responsibility." As a teacher, her textbook wasn't the textbook, she said. It was the newspaper. It was the wealth of information on the Internet. Therein, you've got conversation starters every day, like Texas' governor imputing that our state doesn't need the rest of the country if run by big-government types. An exercise, class: In what ways does Texas rely on the federal government?

Class, how are schools built? Who decides what students wear and why?

It takes no stretching to make government relevant to a child. None. So, why don't we?

Once again, there's that test, and our bunker-built construction around basic skills, reading, writing, arithmetic. The most injurious fact is that the students with the greatest need end up getting the least context.

Said Brodigan: "The students who most need [civics emphasis] are the most deprived. These are students whose parents don't speak English and know nothing about our system and such issues as citizenship. However, when they have reading deficiencies, the extra time is taken out of their social studies. It's a disservice."

What is school about if not to become a contributing, engaged citizen? Class, discuss.

John Young's column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail:

Friday, April 17, 2009

Now they're tossing tea?

I missed last year's protest. Fox News must not have covered it. Surely it happened.

Flag-waving protesters last April packed town squares to denounce out-of-sight deficits and unaccounted-for dollar signs.

Surely it happened: an orchestrated national repudiation of a president and his political enablers in Washington.

That is, surely it happened last Tax Day, before the repudiation that happened on Election Day.

If all this didn't happen last April, and if you hear what the town-square speakers say this April, you'd think the guy who arrived in January, Barack Obama, invented deficit spending. Which, if you listen to Fox News, most surely he did.

As he caused the financial system meltdown. As he caused the collapse of housing and the auto industry. As he caused the 8.5 percent national unemployment rate.

That may have been the case in each instance, but I missed it. What I did see was:

Our government was putting tax cuts, particularly for those of considerable means, above the business of balancing the books. This happened not when the economy was in dire straits and needed triage. It happened when one party controlled the government and could, well, do what it wished.

I saw our government roll tanks into a foreign land based on false claims, then put all the expenses on a credit card known as "supplemental items" — off-budget.

Combine Iraq with invading and occupying Afghanistan, and we've spent $536 billion — headed to a trillion dollars — and with no clue how to recover the costs.

Those costs weren't reflected in the $482 billion deficit Obama inherited, part of a doubling of the national debt over the preceding eight years, now at $11 trillion.

Surely protesters were gathered denouncing these matters last April. Surely they were worried about passing costs onto future generations when they, as taxpayers, could have ponied up for the "onward march of freedom." Then again, they could have and Fox News didn't cover it.

What Obama has done as president sounds outlandish to some. He has borrowed to pay for highways, schools and infrastructure. Sort of like what we have been doing in Iraq.

Iraq has its problems, yes. As do we.

Ever since tax-cut maven Ronald Reagan winked and grinned through the blossoming of runaway deficits, we've found reasons not to deal with the infrastructure that makes this country operate smoothly.

The tax-day protesters probably think what Reagan did was just fine, cutting taxes and then shifting spending priorities from domestic needs to military needs.

They'll say the largest peacetime defense buildup in American history was worth every dime. So, why wouldn't one want to pay for it with one's own dime?

They'll denounce the tax-and-spend liberals, like Jimmy Carter.

Yes, Carter, the president who made so many enemies with domestic spending cuts. What? Don't recall? It's probably because Fox News wasn't around to report it.

Enemies were made with the "Carter hit list" — federal spending projects the administration determined the nation could do without. Carter was trying to rein in the deficit, while dealing with a reeling economy.

Barack Obama says the deficits must and will be addressed, but right now the nation's economic swoon must be arrested.

Call me crazy, but I actually find it refreshing that people are protesting — now — about deficits. It always intrigued me as to why so-called fiscal conservatives were so mute on the matter, say, last April.

Wednesday, Obama made a point to highlight the tax breaks built into his stimulus package — maybe to placate the Tea Party honkers. I wish he hadn't.

Dating back to Reagan, with the winking consent of the governed, we've bought more government than we want to pay for, while cutting taxes on a whim.

Deficits? The issue isn't taxation without representation. It's misrepresentation about the function of taxation.

John Young's column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Civil servants? Heaven forfend

Big weapons commanded the big letters in the headlines relaying the policy shift in the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates would de-emphasize outer-space missile defense in favor of defenses on terra firma. He'd emphasize smaller ships over big ones. He would phase out the F-22 fighter and cancel a $13 billion splurge for a new class of presidential/vice presidential helicopters.

As significant as the announcement was, a matter just as weighty was buried in the coverage or hardly even reported. Bulletin: Our government has fallen out of love with big-ticket private contractors.

At the same time, it has come to appreciate again what civil servants do.

Within reforms of a procurement process under which weapons prices have shot into the stratosphere, Gates will hire "tens of thousands of civil servants to do the work," reports The New York Times, "since contracting that out to the private sector has not proven efficient."

Oh, really?

You mean, "contracting out" isn't necessarily the best way to meet the needs of the military and taxpayers? You mean we'd rely again on "bureaucrats" whose only interest is the public interest?

What? A motive other than profit?

This does not compute within the robot-like march over eight years to privatize everything our government does.

Let's say the robot did a heckuva job.

Months before Hurricane Katrina, FEMA hired a Florida firm to coordinate evacuations after hurricanes. It subcontracted and subcontracted.

You know the drill.

Post-Katrina, an investigation found that the subcontracting chain popped a sprocket, or maybe its commandants were on the golf course. The American Bus Association had an armada of buses ready to stream to the gulf. They never left the lot.

In Iraq, contracted security firm Blackwater USA really showed us what you can get away with if you aren't tied down to impediments like public accountability and/or scruples.

Blackwater did its job so well that it had to change its name, to Xe. A practice pioneered by renamed tobacco giant Phillip Morris (now Altria), it's a corporate version of the witness relocation program.

You see, corporations can morph and merge and divest and rebrand and relocate.

Our government, however, remains, well, ours.

Lone Star debacle

One of the too lightly reported stories in Texas is the debacle of privatizing of human services dating back to the 2003 Republican takeover of the Legislature.

A host of privatization initiatives either fizzled or blew up in policymakers' faces. The most prominent was the attempt to contract out enrollment and access to a host of human services including food stamps and Medicaid. Not only did Texas end up offering jobs back to great numbers of "bureaucrats" Gov. Rick Perry said we'd not need, but, with Texas' experience as inspiration, the U.S. Senate passed a bill (ultimately watered down) that would have barred privatizing food stamp programs.

Privatized schemes that didn't provide better services were part of the abomination. Another was the obscene sums made by contractors and middle men. In 2003 when Texas was dropping thousands of children from the Children's Health Insurance Program in the supposed name of austerity, an auditor found that the state overpaid a vendor $20 million to administer the program, including millions for individual consultants.

This brings us back to those much-reviled figures: civil servants. You know, like soldiers, and engineers, and public health workers. Oh, and teachers.

Who needs 'em? Can't a machine do what they do? Can't we devise one that does government? A drone craft, say, that Westinghouse or GE or Lockheed can build and operate?

I'll bet they'd say they could. For a price.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Our seed-corn squanderers

Uh, oh. Here they come with charts, ominous charts — as scary as the times. In lines of red: deficits, crippling deficits, unconscionable deficits, the Obama deficits.

The speakers pace back and forth, pointers pecking. And I'm wondering:

Where were these birds the same time last year? Likely they were clucking about how the Bush deficits were insignificant as a portion of the GDP. Or they were saying that whatever the cumulative and long-range price, it was all the "cost of freedom."

Right now, our feathered friends are doing an exceedingly good job stating the obvious:

Just as we did when we financed two wars simultaneously amid round after round of tax cuts, we are borrowing to pay for the federal stimulus package hammered out by President Obama and Congress.

Any way you look at it, we're talking a lot of money foisted onto future Americans. That is not good.

But observe a stark difference: The borrowing that preceded Obama didn't correspond to an economy in the tank, to 13 million people without jobs.

It was borrowing rain or shine, bubble or fizzle, gallop or shuffle. Every step of the way, the federal government was painting itself into a narrower corner with blue-sky tax policies and blank-check spending initiatives for the military.

Yes, some in the flock denounced this. Others saw it as part of the continued process of starving government into submission, Reagan-style. Deficit by design.

So, whadya know? A real, honest-to-Steinbeck, grapes-of-wrath calamity has befallen our land, the type that screams out for an activist government, the type that put FDR in our hearts and on our dimes.

We can all argue about what vehicles the Obama administration chose for its fiscal activism. We can argue about the efficacy of its tax cuts. (Is having $18 more in one's paycheck really a job-producer?)

But, get real. This crisis calls for bold action. Indeed, a growing list of economists is accusing Obama of being too meek.

I'm thinking: Surely we knew such a day would happen, that the economy would tank. Back when the sun was shining and the fields were brimming, and we could have acted with smarts and long-range acuity, who let these birds consume our seed corn?

We are paying for attitudes that put the next earnings quarter and the next election cycle ahead of long-range concerns.

Among those concerns: highways, health care, levees to hold against flood tide, schools saddled with mandates but not the dollars to execute them.

Ronald Reagan said government is the problem. As Katrina is our witness, we inspired a generation of leaders to make his words prophetic.

They will denounce "pork"— earmarks, for instance, all of 2 percent of the discretionary budget. They'll denounce foreign aid (4 percent). Point out that even without the off-budget costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is 59 percent of the discretionary budget, and . . .? They'll change the subject.

But back to the subject of deficits: Now, we're told, they are despicable, irresponsible. This time last year? They were the American way.

John Young's column appears Thursday, Sunday and occasionally Tuesday. E-mail:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anti-abortion zeal and the blessed flood

The appeal from Fargo, N.D., was heartfelt and reverent. A flood threatened to consume a city. Prayers were solicited.

The exhortation, however, left one confused. Were we to pray to spare Fargo? Or were we to pray to punish it?

Punish it for allowing women to end unwanted pregnancies with a legal medical procedure. Surely, that's not what the prayer thread suggested. Or did it?

The confusion came in an e-mail forwarded my way. It was an appeal for good thoughts directed to an area where much of a town was evacuated, where citizens shivered and strained to hoist sandbags against catastrophe.

The cresting Red River has pulled back, averting the worst. Still, as of this writing, many operations in the Fargo-Moorhead area are closed.

One participant in the e-mail thread finds that worth rejoicing. Why? Because, the writer assumes, one of the operations shut down has been North Dakota's only independent abortion provider, the Red River Women's Center.

The commenter called the flood a "gift from God" in having people link arms at river's edge, it said. "Another great thing about this flood situation: no abortions! I hope this flood lasts forever if it will mean no abortions . . ."

In other varied forums, people of zeal were saying that flooding was God's revenge for abortions in Fargo.

The thing is, if the waters had said intent, they did not hit their mark.

The clinic, which is in downtown Fargo, faced no flooding and didn't close, said its director in a phone interview. A snowstorm did prevent its doctor from arriving. But flood? Sorry to disappoint anyone.

Meanwhile, families were uprooted and businesses were closed in other communities along the Red River. And their offense against goodness and decency was . . ?

One reason the Fargo clinic was drawing scrutiny is politics. In the days before the flood, anti-choice groups had gathered in Fargo to mount an effort to make North Dakota the first "abortion-free" state.

That would be some trick. Every hospital that delivers babies performs abortions. Why? Because abortion at times is a medical necessity. You may want to ban all abortions that aren't doctors' calls based on medical necessity. That would put you in dicey clinical territory.

A bill that passed the North Dakota House would, if Roe v. Wade were overturned, ban all abortions in the state except those deemed medically necessary. I'm wondering how any bill could be crafted to navigate those ethical straits. People of zeal in the Dakotas want to try.

In one way, I am in absolute solidarity with the folks so devoted to ending abortion. I, too, would wish for a world without it.

Then again, it would be a world where education and contraception were linked arm in arm so that every child was a choice. It also would be where rapists and lecherous uncles did not prey on the defenseless. In other words, I'd be wishing for a fantasy world.

Abortion as a right has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court for more than three decades.

Some would have us believe that abortion wasn't going on before then. But, of course, it most certainly was: For women of means, skilled professionals would do it in a hush-hush way. For those of lesser means, shady practitioners would do it, with nothing safe at all about it. For those desperate and without other options, deadly, self-induced abortions would beckon.

Making laws declaring fertilized eggs persons, as the North Dakota bill would, is not the way to fewer desperate women. Neither is shutting down lawful abortion providers.

Empowering women to make reasoned decisions, while arming them with the means to prevent unnecessary pregnancies, is the way to less desperation and fewer abortion dilemmas.

An appeal for floodwaters most certainly won't do it.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald.