Thursday, February 24, 2011

One Mississippi, two Mississippi . . .

    You've got to respect Marva Beck's religion, in a quaint, Lake Wobegon way.

    The newly elected Republican has come to Austin with this belief to express: Texas government, "too big."

     Understand where she's coming from. To one from Centerville, almost anything of a Texas-size dimension would be a humongous.

     But Texas government "too big"? It's a bumper sticker that matches no reality.

     It reminds one of the Scripture phrases members of the Sanctified Brethren wore on their auto bumpers in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon. Ordered, as he described, from the Grace & Truth Scripture Depot in Erie, Pa., the most popular was: "The wages of sin is death. Rom. 6:23."

     The wages of sin may be death. But Texas government too big?

      You may believe that. You know, in your heart.

      But if you know Texas government, its responsibilities and the tasks it leaves on the table, you know: Texas government can and ought to be bigger, in the way of a state that touts its bigness.

      Too big? How about how Texas addresses, or not, its highway needs, while investing in the power of prayer and toll roads?

      How about a waiting list that swells like a NASCAR crowd for mental health services?

      To extend the NASCAR analogy: How about anything at all that would prevent a rebellious youngster from doing donuts in the dirt at the gruesome finish line that is the Texas Youth Commission?

     How about nearly criminal Medicaid reimbursement rates for the state's most vulnerable — no, not illegal aliens. We speak of the elderly in Texas nursing homes.

     No, Texas goverment is not too big. It would be plenty bigger if it owned up to needs other than those of the homebuilders lobby, the gun lobby, and the Texas Association of Business.

     Someone like Beck, who defeated former Democrat House leader Jim Dunnam for the District 57 seat in November, looks at a projected $27 billion shortfall through 2013 and tells the Waco Tribune-Herald from Austin that it means "government here is too big."

      Not to shake anyone's beliefs, but Dick Lavine has a better handle on that. The budget watchdog of Austin's Center for Public Policy Priorities for years has pointed out that Texas has dug itself into a deep budgetary hole — a structural deficit — not by spending too much, but by having a too-puny revenue stream for government that is Texas-sized.

      This worsened when under the guise of school finance reform, Texas cut property taxes and didn't find sufficient funds through a new business tax to make up the difference.

      The infantile claim that Texas government is too big reminds one of the faux compassion Gov. Rick Perry expressed a few years ago when, in the face of yet another round of budget cuts, he said the state would be responsible about meeting human needs. After all, he said, Texas didn't want to be "another Mississippi."

       It turned out that Mississippi, barefoot and toothless, was spending more per capita on its human needs than big, brawny, skyscrapers-and-snakeskin Texas.

       What a sad state — so many needs rotting in the sun while leaders delude themselves that they have done just about everything they can. No means, you know?

       Sure, this is not the time to talk about bigger government. Every state is hurting. Every state has a budget crisis. That doesn't mean we buy into the assumption that Texas has spent more than it ought over the last 20 years. That's not truth. That's fiction. That's Garrison Keillor characters.

       The fiction does, however, fit nicely on a believer's bumper sticker.

        Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:   

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The family that Skypes together

    Almost 30 years ago I came to appreciate an adage about friends that guides me still: Distance can't sever that which "want-to" holds intact. 

    Back then, a childhood pal had followed his muse to Japan, making it his home. The end of our friendship? Hardly.

   Just as we had done when he was on a bomb-sweeper in the waters off Vietnam, we kept in contact by letter and other means. In the intervening years since he left for Japan, I can count our actual face-time opportunities on one hand. Yet, though on opposite hemispheres, we've remained close.

    Times have changed. So have ways we interface. Recently he e-mailed a video clip of him speaking at the United Nations 10th Conference of Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan.

     Since the days when written communication was carried in saddle bags, our society has galloped at quantum leaps. Remember when faxes were our means of immediacy? Such a long time ago.

     The other night, my family demonstrated how far one can travel without actually going anywhere. We played a board game with one of the players in a separate time zone.

     This summer our son Michael, a grad student at the University of Texas, introduced us to the game Settlers of Catan. Popular among Gen-Xers, it's like Monopoly in bare feet, and with no jail.

     My wife, son Rob and I kept playing it after Michael went back to Austin, missing him all the while. The other night we changed that. We rigged up the means to include him in our next game, via Internet.

    For her birthday I'd given Becky the means to Skype — video conferencing — on her laptop. Game on.

    Shades of images from the International Space Station: There was Michael Saturday night, in head phones in a favorite coffee house, staring at a game board on our kitchen table 968 miles away.

    The matter of distance overcome, other problems didn't seem so insurmountable, like my wife's urge to hand the dice to the laptop screen showing Michael's face.

     At one point Michael had to visit the restroom, leaving his laptop unattended with the ignition on, so to speak. We imagined some bearded interloper taking control and demanding a spin of the dice. Didn't happen.

     At one point, white-and-black feline Oreo interrupted the transmission to make love to the camera.

     At one point Michael complained about a loud drone affecting his hearing. Sorry. Microwaving popcorn.

     At one point he sneezed. We pondered the extent to which computers are susceptible to rhinoviruses.

     At one point in the game we had a dispute, and had to perform rock-paper-scissors arbitration. The slight lag as the interfacing images rocketed around the globe made that problematic.

      Overall, however, it was a flawless run. The only problem: Michael won. That means I lost. Again. But I had popcorn, and he didn't.

       Oh, if my mom could have seen this. Gone for a quarter century now, I always think of her in modern terms, because she was always up for change. She'd be all over the Internet today, forwarding e-mails, surfing for recipes, posting photos on Facebook. We'd be teleconferencing every Sunday. Mom, we missed you at the dinner table Saturday night.

       Sometime before signing off — we'll play again soon — Michael joked, "They invented the Internet because it had military value. Now, this is what it's come to." Yeah, facilitating a family board game.

        I don't know. As pertains to our collective needs, I can think of no function more vital.

        Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From reality TV to the White House

     History calls on Rob Dyrdek.

     A nation awaits word. Run for president, Rob. Run as a Republican. You have what it takes.

     Mainly, and most importantly, you have a reality television show. Make that two. That makes you doubly qualified.

     One could not help but think of Dyrdek, he of MTV's "Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory," the other day when Donald Trump appeared before the Conservative Political Action Conference and all but announced he's running. He told the crowd that he's anti-abortion and pro-gun, and with his own reality TV show, he's as close to qualified as one can get to the GOP nomination, judging by the prospective field.

     Trump joins reality TV figure Sarah Palin as both make moves toward throwing their hair in the ring.

     When Trump does, he will have broken the by-now-accepted rule for becoming a Republican presidential contender: Quit your job. Write a book. Get on the Fox News payroll. Mush for face time like it's the Iditarod.

      Mitt Romney, you piker.

      Rob Dyrdek is no piker. He's a skateboarder, and a brilliant businessman.

      Unlike Trump, he doesn't do business suits. He wears mostly oversized T-shirts, and a ball cap that seems not to fit his head that well. He also makes money hand over jewel-encrusted fist. He is all over MTV with a show — his second show — about living the Generation Y dream and punking his pals. He endorses and invents products. He has cornered more markets than Procter & Gamble. He's everything the leader of our country should be. Did I mention he has a reality TV show?

       Sure, Trump and Palin will have challengers. Rachael Ray has yet to reveal her intentions. So, too, the Kardashian sisters. Simon Cowell. Dr. Phil. Dr. Oz. Dr. Gupta. We wait for the field to form.

       People talk up the possible southern challenge of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. But, really — if you want to win the South, kitchen queen Paula Deen is the choice in the red states, with heavy backing by big dairy.

       All along, while Palin has perused the political landscape through her designer rifle scope, I've mentally compared her qualifications to that of Dyrdek, the skateboard king whose reality ratings put hers to shame. Nielsen numbers aside: To be honest, it's no contest.

      Oddball entrepreneur Dyrdek is smart verging on spooky. Palin is, well, simply spooky as someone presuming to lead the free world.

      We are told that having written a best-seller certifies Palin as high-brow and visionary. Pending this month's sales figures, that could apply as well to "Jersey Shore" hot-tub philosophess Snooki. She has a book out, too. It's called A Shore Thing. Really.

     If Snooki's book isn't a best-seller like Palin's, such a distinction is no empty boast for TV talk sister Chelsea Handler. Her My Horizontal Life is No. 20 on the New York Times list.

      Always trust market forces when deciphering wisdom. They will not mislead.

     Oh, and George W. Bush's new book rationalizing his presidency is at No. 5, though somehow classified as non-fiction.

       When it comes to winnowing down our reality stars for the nation's No. 1 job, one can understand why Donald Trump might rise to the top. The times call for a businessman to run the country, sort of like Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney did all those years ago.

       Regardless, and more crucial: A TV star is what the people demand in times of uncertainty. Ronald Reagan, whom Palin loves to quote trashing Medicare, was that before he was president. And what a president he turned out to be.

       All of this is to affirm, by review, that the presidency is no fantasly for one Rob Dyrdek. 

       Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

It’s anti-choice, and anti-American

  A. Baseball. Hot dogs. Motherhood. Birth control pills.

    Q. Name four things that are as American as apple pie.

    Anyone who would exclude any of the items above is living deep, deep in another century.

    Someone, please, ask the Republican Party in which century it intends for us to reside.

    A report a couple of years ago in The New York Times Magazine described what we hereby discuss: a politically driven "war on contraception."

    Anyone who wages war on contraception wages war on mothers. That means you, Congressman Mike Pence.

    Pence, R-Ind., has sponsored a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation's front-line stalwart in reproductive health care services for the poor.

    Such a horrible mistake can't happen anytime soon, because Democrats control the wiser chamber, and Barack Obama holds the veto pen.

     But one could see it happening otherwise. This is because the Republican Party has stopped using its brain on women's reproductive health. Instead, it is using its tailbone — or, more precisely, the cartilage connection to it that is the religious right — the tail that wags the dog.

    The pitch: Because some Planned Parenthood chapters perform abortions (using private dollars as the law dictates), it should receive no Title X funding for all else it does.

      An important aside here: Anyone who supports reproductive rights should say "thank goodness" for clinics that provide a safe means of terminating unwanted pregnancies. The alternative — back alleys, coat hangers, assorted desperation measures (read "Cider House Rules") — is what pro-choice Americans should fight now and forever.

       Back to Pence's abominable bill: Targeting Planned Parenthood ignores two things: (1) Every service it performs is protected by the law; (2) The vast portion of its services help women avoid wrenching crises — crisis pregnancies foremost, but also sexually transmitted diseases and more.

       Pence is like the clueless protester outside of the clinic who tells young women, "Don't abort." But, then, the first woman is there to get birth control pills. The second is there to get a Pap smear. The third is there for fertility counseling. Yeah, she's trying to get pregnant. Rep. Pence, you should be ashamed.

     This bill seeks to sacrifice all on the altar of anti-abortion politics. But who does more to prevent abortion than the very agencies and entities helping women make medically sound decisions? How many abortions has Mike Pence prevented in his entire life? How many more abortions, in wrenchingly inhospitable settings, would result from undermining the infrastructure by which poor women make sound decisions?

     But, then, this is not about abortion. This is about contraception, who can have it, and who can't. It's about policymakers who are openly hostile to family planning and, as such, are divorced from reality.

     A 2005 Harris Poll reported that 90 percent of Americans supported the availability of contraception. Check that. The poll said that 90 percent of Catholics supported the availability of contraception. The percentage for Americans as a whole: 93 percent. 

     And, so? During the George W. Bush administration, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., wrote the White House repeatedly seeking an answer to the question: What is your position on birth control? Finally after five letters, she got a response from an assistant secretary of health. The administration, it said, "supports the availability of safe and effective products and services to assist responsible adults in making decisions about preventing or delaying conception."

      Smart. Sound. And in line with how Americans think and live. So, what in the blazes is today's Republican Party thinking?

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Justice comes to the party

      Now, isn't that special? Rep. Michelle Bachmann held a Capitol Hill soiree the other day. And who showed up to speak but Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

      We can only imagine what Justice Scalia had to say to members of the House Tea Party Caucus at the "constitutional education class" Bachmann arranged.

      Maybe he said that none should expect him to reinforce anyone's political leanings at such an event. Maybe he scowled and growled that even being invited presented for him a graven conflict of interest.

      More likely, Scalia, with words, winks, nods, grunts or ticks, merrily reinforced the political stylings of his inviters — all the while appearing above the fray.

      What system of signals could a justice contrive for a politically drenched gathering for tea and "constitution education"?

      One lump for, "Obamacare is toast."

      Two stirs for, "Ditto Roe."

      One cream for, "Corporations are people, too."

      One stir for, "Kiss my affirmative action."

      Now, now. Justice Scalia. You needn't be so coy.

      Once we had actual justice, the even-scales kind. Now we have judges who, like many assigned to do government's bidding in a privatized world, contract out their services.

       Gone are the days when justices were philosophical free agents — the Warrens, the Stewarts, the Blackmuns, the O'Connors. Here now: federal courts apportioned like legislatures, with partisan patronage. Only in this case the government contract comes as a lifetime gig. Haliburton-esque.

      That the Scalia wing of the U.S. Supreme Court — Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas on Scalia's coat-tails — boycotted the 2011 State of the Union is a sign that we no longer have a Supreme Court that shares symbolic chambers. We have a court that caucuses in cabals, like — ewww — lawmakers do.

     Scalia has a brilliant mind. Clearly, however, he is less interested in equanimity than in appeasing the political faction that freshens his cup. If this is a mischaracterization, he should fire his social secretary.

     University of Texas law professor Lucas Powe told McLatchy-Tribune newspapers that by Scalia "is taking political partisanship to levels not seen in over half a century." To which his ideological kin say, "Yea, baby."

     So, too, with Justice Thomas, whose wife organized a group seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It's all good, the political right will say. As with our news sources, we don't expect objectivity or even detachment from those who interpret the law. We expect central casting.

     Scalia came through in a big way recently when he said that the 14th Amendment doesn't apply to women victimized by sexual discrimination. He remains of the crowd that says the Constitution only means what its authors had in mind: that "equal protection of the law" protections were assigned to emancipated slaves alone. Any other court interpretation is judicial mischief.

    That couldn't be more out of touch with the way society now interprets the 14th Amendment. And that's just the way the right wants it.

    As said, justice has now become a political game, and that genie isn't going back in the soda pop bottle. Where does that leave us? It leaves us, or should leave us, understanding the stakes inherent in populating the executive branch.

     Back in 2000, a lot of political centrists bought the spiel that George W. Bush was a centrist, too, even when he said that Scalia and Thomas were the kinds of justices he'd appoint. It was not an idle threat.

     The bench having become a political playing field, consider what kinds of politicians you want your president to appoint when the opportunity arises, and vote accordingly.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: