Josiah Swampoodle

I understand that President Obama will be proposing a freeze on all expenditures that don't have something to do with preventing dying (Medicare) or encouraging it (the Pentagon). It's a strange choice of exceptions and in the interest of bipartisanship - i.e. bringing Obama together with the people who voted for him - I'd like to propose in the alternative that some of these frozen items, like the winter's snow, be considered shovel ready, which is to say, we push them away from the budget until spring comes along and melts them. This would cause an unprecedented drop in the deficit. Here are some suggestions for items that are shovel ready:

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
The war against drugs
Any education funding that requires more testing
Any bank bailouts or more aid to the Wall Street criminal class
Aid to Israel
Contracts with Blackwater
Wiretapping American citizens without a warrant
Government subsidy of the pharmaceutical and health insurance industry
Peter Orzag, Rahm Emannual and Arne Duncan, just to name a few

To put this in terms that even Arne Duncan might understand: indiscriminately freezing most domestic budget items is like checking all the answers on a multiple choice test. You can do it, but if you do, you flunk.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


From a speech by San Smith at a US Capitol rally, 1999:

I have three objections to our current system of campaign financing.

The first is literary. Being a writer I try to show respect for words, to leave their meanings untwisted and unobscured.

This is alien to much of official Washington which daily engages in an activity well described by Edgar Alan Poe. Poe said, "By ringing small changes on the words leg-of-mutton and turnip. . . I could 'demonstrate' that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be, a leg-of-mutton."

For example, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary described it in 1528 as meaning to "to influence corruptly, by a consideration." Another 16th century definition describes bribery as "a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct" of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving "money or other thing of value, with intent to influence" to a government official. Simple and wise.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time not so many months ago when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official "for or because of an official act" didn't mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like "inappropriate gift," "the appearance of a conflict of interest," or the phrase which brings us here today: "campaign contribution."

Another example is the remarkable redefinition of money to mean speech. You can test this one out by making a deal with a prostitute and if a cop comes along, simply say, "Officer, I wasn't giving her money, I was just giving her a speech." If that doesn't work you can try giving more of that speech to the cop. Or try telling the IRS next April that "I have the right to remain silent." And so forth. I wouldn't advise it.

My second objection to our system of campaign financing is economic. It's just too damn expensive for the taxpayer. The real cost is not the campaign contributions themselves. The real cost is what is paid in return out of public funds.

A case in point: Public Campaign recently reported that in 1996, when Congress voted to lift the minimum wage 90 cents an hour, business interests extracted $21 billion in custom-designed tax benefits. These business interests gave only about $36 million in campaign contributions so they got out of the public treasury nearly 600 times what they put in. And you helped pay for it.

Looked at another way, that was enough money to give 11 million workers a 90 cent an hour wage increase for a whole year -- or, to be more 1990s about it, to give 21,000 CEOs a million dollar bonus.

This is repeated over and over. For example, the oil industry in one recent year gave $23 million in campaign contributions and got nearly $9 billion in tax breaks.

The bottom line is this: if you want to save public money, support public campaign financing.

My final objection is biologic. Elections are for and between human beings. How do you tell when you're dealing with a person? Well, they bleed, burp, wiggle their toes and have sex. They register for the draft. They register to vote. They watch MTV. They go to prison and they have babies and cancer. Eventually they die and are buried or cremated.

Now this may seem obvious to you, but there are tens of thousands of lawyers and judges and politicians who simply don't believe it. They will tell you that a corporation is a person, based on a corrupt Supreme Court interpretation of the 14th Amendment from back in the robber baron era of the late 19th century -- a time in many ways not unlike our own.

Before this ruling, everyone knew what a person was just as everyone knew what a bribe was. States regulated corporations because they were legal fictions lacking not only blood and bones, but conscience, morality, and free will. But then the leg of mutton became a turnip in the eyes of the law.

Corporations say they just want to be treated like people, but that's not true. Test it out. Try to exercise your free speech on the property of a corporation just like they exercise theirs in your election. You'll find out quickly who is more of a person. We can take care of this biologic problem by applying a simple literary solution: tell the truth. A corporation is not a person and should not be allowed to be called one under the law.

I close with this thought. The people who work in the building behind us have learned to count money ahead of votes. It is time to chase the money changers out of the temple. But how? After all, getting Congress to adopt publicly funded campaigns is like trying to get the Mafia to adopt the Ten Commandments as its mission statement. I would suggest that while fighting this difficult battle there is something we can do starting tomorrow. We can pull together every decent organization and individual in communities all over America -- the churches, activist organizations, social service groups, moral business people, concerned citizens -- and begin drafting a code of conduct for politicians. We do not have to wait for any legislature.

If we do this right, if we form true broad-based coalitions of decency, then the politicians will ignore us only at their peril.

At root, dear friends, our problem is that politicians have come to have more fear of their campaign contributors than they have of the voters. We have to teach politicians to be afraid of us again. And nothing will do it better than a coming together of a righteously outraged and unified constituency demanding an end to bribery of politicians, whether it occurs before, during, or after a campaign.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Sam Smith

Define your politics issue by issue, not icon by icon. One reason progressive politics fares so poorly is because we spend too much time on individual campaigns and not enough on issues. While the former tend to drive away the independent, the skeptical and those who don't like a particular a candidate, the latter can attract all sorts to join with others who may agree only one issue.

Define your politics by issue by issue, not by ideology. It's a lot easier to get a cross section of people backing a particular issue than it is for them to buy into your whole philosophy of life. Use the former approach on the streets and save the latter for the bar. You don't need common ideology if you have common causes.

Use fewer experts from the Ivy League and more from Iowa.

Remember that most minority voters don't get to even look at a glass ceiling. But many of them run into locked doors every day. Pay much more attention to the latter.

Don't dis' those whose votes you need. Convert them with policies that actually help them. Do a good enough job and they'll forget about abortions and gay marriage.

The red states are not your enemy; they are an undeveloped market.

Remember that minorities have diversity, too. Just because a black politician talks about hope and change doesn't mean he's Martin Luther King. Especially if he's from Chicago.

Support small business. Nobody else does.

Support labor unions. Nobody else does.

Go after credit card usury. Nobody else does and everyone else would love it

Move economic issues back to the top of the list. Since the 1980s, liberals have forgotten this basic part of their heritage, which brought us things like an end to the depression, Social Security, a minimum wage and Medicare. Besides, economic issues are ones that best cut across geographic, cultural and ethnic lines.

Sing about it. Just about every successful great movement has moved along to the sound of its own music.

Stop harping on Glenn Beck. You're only helping to build his base. Follow Samuel Goldwyn's advice and "don't even ignore him." The more he becomes the issue the less important real issues become.

Personal to Keith Olbermann and Rachel Madow: A progressive movement can't be built on the mirror image of Bill O'Reilly or with endless sarcastic comments about your opponents. It can be built by people understanding and becoming enthusiastic about the policies you support.

No more stimulus packages for grad school liberals. One of the things many people don't like about traditional liberals is how federally oriented they are. This is due in no small part to an elite class that longs for jobs in Washington. Let them get these jobs on their own. Stop constantly designing stimulus packages for them with new federocentric legislation.

Rediscover subsidiarity: All national legislation with state and local impact should meet the standards of what the Catholic Church used to call the principle of subsidiarity: government power should exercised at the lowest practical level. There lots of ways to do this in federal legislation. Here are a few:

- Revenue sharing

- Giving money instead of orders for public education and other programs.

- Decentralizing government agencies like some of the best existing ones such at the National Park Service, Coast Guard and US Attorney - all highly decentralized and involved with local governments and communities.

- Not making too many decisions at the federal level.

- Supporting the 9th and 10th amendments that clearly limit the federal government's role but which traditional liberals routinely ignore.

Support the Second Amendment for three good reasons: it works, gun prohibition laws don't and you'll make all sorts of new friends. If you really want to change American politics, start a group called Gays for Guns.

Change the rules as well as the game. Support instant runoff voting, public campaign financing, more states, a larger House of Representatives with mixed proportional and district representation like Germany, state banks, and a constitutional amendment to end corporations' legal status as "persons."

Distinguish between good regulation and good jobs for regulators. New laws often favor the latter which is why we keep adding regulators but can't bring the Glass-Steagall Act back.

Sleep with the devil and your offspring may be crooks. Stop selling out so cheaply.

Support a shorter work week. It sure helped progressive populists in the past.

Don't forget the forgotten. Everyone talks about having a black president, but hardly anyone does anything about the huge number of young black and white males to whom we offer two main futures: incarceration or pain if not death on the battlefield. It is similar with the poor in general. They have not only been deserted by conservatives and centrists but by liberals as well.

Ditch the war on drugs. A great recession is a wonderful time to get rid America's most unsuccessful and expensive policy this side of foreign wars. It will save money, reduce the police state, limit prosecutorial discrimination against the poor, lower the crime rate and attract a lot of young voters who didn't even known they were progressives.

Don't be afraid to lead: When your movement is pretty much down to Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich at the national level, you know there's plenty of room for you. Most great movements have been led by those most hadn't even heard of a few years earlier. You could be one of them.

Don't be afraid to follow. One of the most useful techniques in organizing is to support the work of others. A mass movement is built by groups alternately leading and following each other. And one of the best ways to get respect is to give it.

Go local for both your lettuce and your democracy: One of the great failures of liberalism has been its great disinterest in local power. The closer government is to the people the more they like it and the more responsive it tends to be. Besides, if you can't be an effective progressive in the 'hood, then you'll be a pretty lousy one in Washington.

Turn public schools back to their communities. It worked for some 200 years until we decided to turn them into human drone development and detention centers where the young are taught to pass tests rather than to learn things.

Try to do the most for the most. If your politics clearly help the most, then they won't mind so much when you also help smaller groups within our society. But if you help minorities while ignoring the majority you're in trouble. Remember, everyone wants to be in show business.

Don't let anal retentives, turf protectors, budget bullies, ambitious lawyers and CYA bureaucrats kill good ideas. Given the state of contemporary political culture, it would be unlikely that Social Security, Medicare or a minimum wage could be passed today. That's not so much a reflection of our politics as it is of our culture. We have mainly learned how to say no. Progressives need to reintroduce the concept of yes.

Keep in mind the great 1960s saying: Our goal is not to overthrow the system but to make it irrelevant.

The history of our country has involved repeated conflict between the specifics of the soul and institutional abstractions -- between people and places on the one hand and, on the other, a succession of systems desiring to exploit, subjugate or supplant them. We need to oppose not only the bad systems of the moment but unnatural systems in general - all those that revoke, replace or restrain the natural rights of human beings and the natural assets of their habitats.

The first rule of staying free is to act free. The number of liberals and progressives that follow this rule is sadly small. Everyone these days seems to prefer to talk about balancing rights instead of exercising them. But the rights outlined in the Constitution weren't bargaining chips; they were permanent guarantees.

Don’t surrender the Bible to the right. Progressives leave the right's phony theological arguments largely unchallenged, but even an atheist can point out that the Ten Commandments doesn't say anything about abortion or gay marriage but sure as hell is down on adultery, stealing (even on Wall Street), bearing false witness (even in political ads) and coveting anything that belongs to your neighbor (even in the name of capitalism). The Bible also doesn't like usury and strongly suggests that the earth is the lord's and not the property of multinational corporations. The ultimate irony of right wingers is that that they are comprised in no small part of despoilers, usurers, war-mongers, hypocrites, idolaters and groupies of false prophets - all of whom are frowned upon by the book it pretends to follow. And its opponents, who are more faithful to the words that the conservatives only quote, are often such good Christians that they never say a mumblin' word about it all.

One of the best ways to revive democracy is to make sure that every organization, church, school, or club is run according to its principles.

Use the word 'progressive" and not 'liberal.' There are still a lot of nice liberals around with whom to make common cause, but the word itself carries too much baggage. Progressives are activists; liberals are a demographic. Progressives emphasize economic change; liberals in recent years have largely ignored it. Progressives convert their opponents; liberals rant about them. Progressives are grassroots; liberals are federocentric.

Encourage citizens to practice reciprocal liberty. No, we don't all agree on how things should be done, but we can all understand that we can't have our liberty unless others do as well. Both right and left spend far too much time trying to stop others from doing things their way. The trick is how as many as possible can do things their way as long as it doesn't hurt others.

Value tolerance. It's a word that isn't heard much any more but could ease a lot of our pain. Tolerance is often a necessary waypoint for people on the way to accepting new ideas. It's the trial period before full acceptance.

Create an alternative culture - Part of the misery of today's America is that there are too many people unhappy with the system who have live their misery alone. Part of the beauty of the 1960s was in varied alternative communities. Put down your Ipod and join with others who agree with you.

Educate more and scold less. Issues like climate change are complicated for many and hard to grasp, especially since our schools have devoted more time to teaching driving and creating drug free zones than they have to science. Help people understand issues and don't blame them for not.

Make change from the bottom up - Part of the illusion of mass media is that change can be organized like a TV series. Try it and typically one of two things happen: it fails or it becomes just more political mush. Too many web-based liberal organizations are simply more lobbying groups. They don't change politics, souls, or history. Despite TV and the Internet, change still comes from the bottom. Build from up there.

Be tough on leaders, not on followers. Those with tightly defined ideas about how we should behave often make little distinction between people who merely accept the values of their culture and those who market and manipulate them. It helps to remember that we are all creatures of our cultures and often speak in their voice. This may not be an admirable characteristic but it certainly is a human one. After all, if it weren't for Rush, dittoheads would have nothing to ditto.

Forget the capitalist-socialist conflict obsession. Two questions help understand the futility:

- Do capitalists ever ride the public subway?

- Who will run the restaurants in the Marxist utopia?

Mix and match based on the reality of the situation and not on somebody's theory. And learn about co-ops, credit unions and community banks.

Define America. If you don't like the way the right does it, come up with your own description, stories and role models.

Speak United States. Most Americans don't talk about stimuli, transparency or infrastructure. But you'd never know it listening to typical Democratic politicians. Avoid the language of the corporate executive, pompous academic, hustling preacher, or boring lawyer.

Have fun. If you don't enjoy your cause, how can you expect others to?


Sam Smith - Thanks to the work I do, I'm constantly looking at percentages and other such figures developed after much, and often expensive, research. And as I do so, the ghost of Alice Darnell repeatedly arises, reminding me - as she did teaching my 12th grade math class - that a result can be no more accurate than the least accurate figures used to derive it.

Yet polling firms, government agencies, and others trying to prove a point to justify their existence, repeatedly tell us things like, "Candidate A received 46.7% in our latest survey." Further down, however, you learn that the poll is accurate only within 3-4 percentage points.

In the notoriously inadequate world of school testing, it can get even worse. The DC school system tells us, for example that 47.62% of fourth graders are "proficient or advanced in reading," a number that doesn't reflect how many students were sick on the day of the test or to what degree questions with multiple choice answers reflect actual reading skill or how many students read better than they take tests. But the score certainly reflects a test company's ability to con its clients and the lack of math skills of those running the DC school system.

My own research has found that 98.12% of the percentages I come across in news stories don't deserve their extra decimal points and journalists should round them up or down in a well-deserved attack on digital deficit disorder.

Friday, January 08, 2010


Sam Smith

You said we are in a war against Al Qaeda. When did Congress declare it?

Most estimates of Al Qaeda's size are in the thousands, or roughly the size of one American army brigade. Can you cite a previous time when so much of the American military did so badly against such a small force for so long?

Michael Doran, who served as Bush's NSC Middle East director, wrote after 9/11: "The script was obvious: America, cast as the villain, was supposed to use its military might like a cartoon character trying to kill a fly with a shotgun." . . . In a Foreign Affairs article in 1975, David Fromkin wrote: "Terrorism is violence used in order to create fear; but it is aimed at creating fear in order that the fear, in turn, will lead somebody else - not the terrorist - to embark on some quite different program of action that will accomplish whatever it is that the terrorist really desires." To what extent do you think America is doing just what the terrorists want?

Since 2000, according to your State Department, Al Qaeda has killed an average of 480 people globally each year or roughly the same number as are murdered annually in New York City. How do you think our military would do against a larger and more deadly enemy?

In the wake of the attempted bombing of the plane headed for Detroit, you have announced plans for greatly increased virtual strip and search of passengers. How many more attempted bombings will be necessary before you order the torture of air passengers to determine their danger?

Given that you and your predecessor have been unable to deter - by military force and intelligence agencies - several thousand guerillas from their activities, and given that this effort has effectively destroyed constitutional government in our country, might it not be time to experiment with a different course, such as ending our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, establishing civil relations with the Muslim world, and strongly opposing Israeli apartheid?

You and your predecessor have been responsible for more unnecessary American deaths since 2001 than has Al Qaeda. Is it not time, perhaps, to try something different?

Monday, January 04, 2010


Sam Smith

"An oligarchy," says Wikipedia, "is a form of government in which power effectively rests with a small elite segment of society distinguished by royal, wealth, intellectual, family, military, or religious hegemony. The word oligarchy is from the Greek words for 'few' and 'rule.' Such states are often controlled by politically powerful families whose children are heavily conditioned and mentored to be heirs of the power of the oligarchy."

Go back more than two decades and you find politicians like Nixon, Carter and Reagan who built their own political base; politicians such as Truman, Johnson, and Ford deeply rooted in conventional politics; Kennedy, whose family's oligarchic inclinations were cut brutally short and FDR, who was hated by many of the elites. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, national American politics became almost universally a game of inside ball in which the public had little role.

Those of both parties who get to the top have done so primarily because of their ability to satisfy an elite with the money to overcome the obstacles of traditional politics. Given the huge increase in private campaign financing and consequent mass media manipulation, ordinary democratic politics at the national level has virtually disappeared.

A chart by Open Secrets tells part of the story. The figures are in millions of dollars:

Between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, albeit not corrected for inflation, presidential campaign spending increased ten times. Between 2004 and 2008 it almost doubled. Note also the huge increase in the percent of funds raised during primaries, as candidates auditioned for the presidential role.

And the intrinsic ability of the elite to buy politicians has also increased. The top one percent share of the wealth went from 36% to 29% between the 1930s and the 1970s. Since than it has more than reversed, reaching 39% in 2008.

One of the beneficiaries of this shift has been Michael Bloomberg, who spent more of his own money on his past two New York mayoral campaigns than all the presidential candidates did in 1980 and almost as they did in 1984.

Other beneficiaries have been George W. H. Bush, his heir George W, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Each one got to the top primarily thanks to an elite that bought and called most of the major political decisions. This was, of course, far easier for the Bushes, born into high places, than it was for a Clinton or Obama who had to audition for the job. But the end result was much the same.

All this has occurred during a period when America was also suffering an unprecedented economic, constitutional, political, cultural, diplomatic and social decline. Barack Obama's first year indicates the trends continue and are clearly joined at the hip.

Some readers are undoubtedly already mumbling about conspiracy theories. That's not surprising in a country where the educated are taught to believe that history is primarily the work of great and evil individuals. The idea that a culture or constitution can fall apart without a specific plan or plot seems alien, but, in fact, history is far more the result of choices by important subcultures than we generally realize.

Where would religion, sports teams or pop music be without the unprescribed (albeit heavily manipulated) preferences of the many? Why should Yale alumni be exempt from the law of averages any more than Michael Jackson fans or an extended family of Orthodox Jews? If we presume Muslims to hold certain views and behave in certain ways, why not Harvard grads as well?

To be sure there are Ivy Leaguers, myself for one, who become, as Bill Mauldin put it, fugitives from the law of averages, but then you can't have a bell curve without thin edges as well as a big hump.

Each of our four oligarchic presidents attended Harvard or Yale and the least competent, George W, actually went to both. Here's another interesting similarity: George the Elder was head of the CIA with connections far preceding that post, George W was his son, and both Clinton and Obama fell within the CIA penumbra early in their adult life.

Now consider the interconnections of some of the lesser players.

George the Elder named Robert Gates as director of Central Intelligence and George W asked him to be director of national intelligence, a post he declined. He then became Secretary of Defense for both George W and Barack Obama, serving three out of the four oligarchic presidents.

Paul Volker, who chairs Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, was head of the Federal Reserve under Carter and Reagan and under secretary of the Treasury under Nixon.

Tim Geithner worked for Henry Kissinger's consulting firm before joining the Treasury Department under George W Bush. He was under secretary of the Treasury under Clinton. His maternal grandfather worked for Dwight Eisenhower and his father, Peter Geithner, was head of the Ford Foundation's microfinance programs in Indonesia being created by Barack Obama's mother. The Ford Foundation, incidentally, has long had ties to the CIA. Joan Roelofs writes of John McCloy, its chair in the 1950s, as thinking of the foundation as "a quasi-extension of the U.S. government. It was his habit, for instance, to drop by the National Security Council in Washington every couple of months and casually ask whether there were any overseas projects the NSC would like to see funded." Roelofs also writes that the Ford Foundation financed counter-insurgency programs in Indonesia and other countries.

Even ex-Skull & Boner Dana Milbank, in a 2005 Washington Post story, took note of the closed culture at the top: "With at least 18 senators, dozens of House members and several administration officials boosted by family legacies, modern-day Washington sometimes resembles the court of Louis XIV without the powdered wigs. . . At least seven of the 41 new House members are relatives of prominent politicians. These legacies take office along with the newly reelected president, who is the grandson of a senator, son of a president and brother of a governor. . . According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 45 women have been elected to Congress to fill vacancies created by their husbands' death."

None of this comprises a conspiracy, but definitely sketches a culture. Fifteen years ago, in a book on Bill Clinton, "Shadows of Hope," I tried to explain how the system worked in the capital:

[][][] How one comes to matter in Washington politics is guided by few precise rules, although in comparison to fifty years ago the views of lobbyists and fundraisers are far more significant than the opinion, say, of the mayor of Chicago or the governor of Pennsylvania. This is a big difference; somewhere behind the old bosses in their smoke-filled rooms were live constituents; behind the political cash lords of today there is mostly just more money and the few who control it.

Thus coming to matter has much less to do with traditional politics, especially local politics, than it once did. Today, other things count: the patronage of those who already matter, a blessing bestowed casually by one right person to another right person over lunch at the Metropolitan Club, a columnist's praise, a well-received speech before a well-placed organization, the assessment of a lobbyist as sure-eyed as a fight manager checking out new fists at the local gym. There are still machines in American politics; they just dress and talk better.

There is another rule. The public plays no part. The public is the audience; the audience does not write or cast the play. In 1988, the 1992 play was already being cast. Conservative Democrats were holding strategy meetings at the home of party fund-raiser Pamela Harriman. The meetings -- eventually nearly a hundred of them -- were aimed at ending years of populist insurrection within the party. They were regularly moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss, the Mr. Fixits of the Democratic mainstream. Democratic donors paid $1000 to take part in the sessions and by the time it was all over, Mrs. Harriman had raised about $12 million for her kind of Democrats. . .

The appeal of Clinton to these matchmakers went beyond mere political calculations. Clinton was not only politically realistic, he was culturally comfortable. He projected the image of an outsider, yet had adapted to the ways of capital insiders.

Official Washington -- including government, media and the lobbies -- functions in many ways like America's largest and most prestigious club, a sort of indoor, east coast Bohemian Grove in which members engage in endless rites of mutual affirmation combined with an intense but genteel competition that determines the city's tennis ladder of political and social power. What appears to the stranger as a major struggle is often only an intramural game between members of the same club, lending an aura of dynamism to what is in truth deeply stable.

The Yale law degree, the Rhodes scholarship, the familiarity with the rhetoric of the policy pushers all helped Clinton fit into the club. But perhaps most of all, Clinton knew when to stop thinking.

Just as the Soviets tolerated free thought only within the limits of "socialist dialogue," so debate in Washington is circumscribed by the limits of what might be called Beltway discourse. Ideas that adjust or advance the conventional wisdom are valued. Those that challenge it are ignored or treated with contempt. [][][]

Obama rose to the top in record speed in no small part because - as with Clinton - it was clear that he would fit into this ecology extremely well and, besides, he was the first charismatic black politician that the elite had come across who lent some shade to white male hegemony without endangering it. Like Bill Clinton, he projected the image of an outsider, yet had adapted to the ways of capital insiders.

And he was willing, in a phrase a Washingtonian once used to describe how ethnic hiring worked at DC law firms, to be "the Negro at the front door."

But while the party elite - led by the smug Democratic Leadership Council - was in a braggadocio mood during the rise of Clinton, things subsequently became more complicated. For example, Ari Berman wrote in the Nation that "Al Gore's promising New Democratic candidacy turned sour for the DLC when Gore, a DLC founder, switched to a populist strategy after trailing in the polls."

And after journalists Bruce Dixon and Glen Ford revealed in 2003 that Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama had been named by the DLC as one of its "100 to Watch" that year, Obama asked to be taken off the list.

As Dixon noted, "DLC endorsement is the gold standard of political reliability for Wall Street, Big Energy, Big Pharma, insurance, the airlines and more. Though candidates normally undergo extensive questioning and interviews before DLC endorsement, Obama insisted the blessing of these corporate special interests had been bestowed on him without these formalities and without his advance knowledge, and formally disassociated himself from the DLC. But like Hillary Clinton, and every front running Democrat since Michael Dukakis in 1988, Barack Obama's campaign has adopted the classic right wing DLC strategy."

In other words, whether Obama had asked to be vetted by the DLC or not, he was acting as though he had. He simply understood that the DLC's image conflicted with his own myth-making and didn't want to bear the burden of its logo.

Bits and pieces of the truth would come through, however. Paul Street of Z Magazine wrote: "Obama has lent his support to the aptly named Hamilton Project, formed by corporate-neoliberal Citigroup chair Robert Rubin and other Wall Street Democrats to counter populist rebellion against corporatist tendencies within the Democratic Party. . . Obama was recently hailed as a Hamiltonian believer in limited government and free trade by Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks, who praises Obama for having 'a mentality formed by globalization, not the SDS.'"

Even after disassociating himself publicly from the Democratic Leadership Council, Obama still had as his major economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, who was also chief economist of the conservative organization. Noted Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer, "Goolsbee has written gushingly about Milton Friedman and denounced the idea of a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures."
Henwood also reported during the presidential campaign, "Top hedge fund honcho Paul Tudor Jones threw a fundraiser for [Obama] at his Greenwich house last spring, 'The whole of Greenwich is backing Obama,' one source said of the posh headquarters of the hedge fund industry. They like him because they're socially liberal, up to a point, and probably eager for a little less war, and think he's the man to do their work. They're also confident he wouldn't undertake any renovations to the distribution of wealth."

And then there were the numbers. Obama raised substantially more funds from the financial and health industries than did John McCain. And his top ten campaign fund sources included those working for Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase & Co. All of this, of course, was hardly mentioned by the larger media.

The most fascinating thing about Obama's rise was that it involved moving from a state senate seat to the White House in just four years. Other than a military hero soaring on public enthusiasm, the most logical explanation for such a rapid elevation was that the candidate had been chosen by those able to make it happen. After all, Obama was not only no hero, he had been an undistinguished state senator and an equally uninteresting member of the US Senate. If you go back and read his vaunted 2004 convention address, you'll find nothing exceptional about it, provided you want something more than safe cliches from a safe black candidate. Obama's campaign addresses would be similarly unimpressive, yet hailed in the elite media for their rhetoric despite the fact that if you asked anyone to quote Obama, the best they could come up with was "hope" and "change."

What really mattered was described by Ken Silverstein of Harper's in 2006, "If the [convention] speech was his debut to the wider American public, he had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention."

In October 2003, five years before Obama's presidential election, "Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker and corporate board-member who chaired Bill Clinton's presidential transition team after the 1992 election, placed calls to roughly twenty of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home. That event marked [Obama's] entry into a well-established Washington ritual-the gauntlet of fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets through which potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists."

Jordan had also been among those - including Robert Rubin and Katherine Graham, who were called to Washington's F Street Club in 1991 as part of a similar effort by Pamela Harriman on behalf of Bill Clinton. C. David Heyman in the 'Georgetown Ladies' Social Club,' writes that Harriman was seeking to get Rubin's Goldman Sachs involved. She succeeded: Goldman Sachs became Clinton's largest source of funding. (It was only in second place for Obama but brought in nearly twice as much money).

Another account of Obama's vetting came from Paul Street in 2008:

[][][] Drawing on his undoubted charm, wit, intelligence, and Harvard credentials, Obama passed this trial with shining colors. At a series of social meetings with assorted big 'players' from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama impressed key establishment figures like Gregory Craig (a longtime leading attorney and former special counsel to the White House), Mike Williams (the legislative director of the Bond Market Association), Tom Quinn (a partner at the top corporate law firm Venable and a leading Democratic Party "power broker"), and Robert Harmala, another Venable partner and "a big player in Democratic circles."

Craig liked the fact that Obama was not a racial "polarizer" on the model of past African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Williams was soothed by Obama's reassurances that he was not "anti-business" and became "convinced. . . that the two could work together."

"There's a reasonableness about him," Harmala told Silverstein. "I don't see him as being on the liberal fringe."

By Silverstein's account, the good "word about Obama spread through Washington's blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices, and this accelerated after his win in the March [2004] Democratic primary." Elite financial, legal, and lobbyists contributions came into Obama's coffers at a rapid and accelerating pace.

The "good news" for Washington and Wall Street insiders was that Obama's "star quality" would not be directed against the elite segments of the business class. The interesting black legislator from the South Side of Chicago was "someone the rich and powerful could work with."

According to Obama biographer and Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, in late 2003 and early 2004:

"Word of Obama's rising star was now spreading beyond Illinois, especially through influential Washington political circles like blue chip law firms, party insiders, lobbying houses. They were all hearing about this rare, exciting, charismatic, up-and-coming African American who unbelievably could win votes across color lines. . . [His handlers and] influential Chicago supporters and fund-raisers all vigorously worked their D.C. contacts to help Obama make the rounds with the Democrats' set of power brokers. . .

According to Mendell, Obama now cultivated the support of the privileged few by "advocat[ing] fiscal restraint" and "calling for pay-as-you-go government" and "extol[ling] the merits of free trade and charter schools." He "moved beyond being an obscure good-government reformer to being a candidate more than palatable to the moneyed and political establishment.

"On condition of anonymity," Silverstein reported two years ago, "one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn't see him as a 'player.' [][][][]

Early in life, Obama had hints that he was among the chosen. David Mendell recounts that "His mother really built up his ego when he was a child. I think she felt like, here's this African American child, growing up in a white family, whose father has left him. He may suffer from some self-esteem issues. So she built his character up from the very beginning. She told him he was from almost a superior race of people and that he had this extraordinary intellect, that he was someone very special. And he was taught from the time he was a small child that he was a special person, to the point that he seems to still believe that today. He would tell people, 'I'm descended from kings,' and stuff when he was a kid."

Yet one of the interesting things about Obama is the number of times the carefully prepared fairy tale goes astray.

For example, Bill Blum recounted, "In his autobiography, 'Dreams From My Fathers', Barack Obama writes of taking a job at some point after graduating from Columbia University in 1983. He describes his employer as 'a consulting house to multinational corporations' in New York City, and his functions as a 'research assistant' and 'financial writer.' The odd part of Obama's story is that he doesn't mention the name of his employer.

"However, a New York Times story of 2007 identifies the company as Business International Corporation. Equally odd is that the Times did not remind its readers that the newspaper itself had disclosed in 1977 that Business International had provided cover for four CIA employees in various countries between 1955 and 1960. . . .

"In his book, not only doesn't Obama mention his employer's name; he fails to say when he worked there, or why he left the job. There may well be no significance to these omissions, but inasmuch as Business International has a long association with the world of intelligence, covert actions, and attempts to penetrate the radical left -- including Students for a Democratic Society -- it's valid to wonder if the inscrutable Mr. Obama is concealing something about his own association with this world."

Obama would not have been the first or last young Ivy League type seconded to the agency. As Lyndon Johnson said to an aide, "Just remember, the CIA is filled with the Yale and Princeton graduates whose daddies wouldn't let them into their brokerage firm." Some of these relationships would turn into a career, some were only a passing experience - but even the latter added to one's credibility in dealing with those in high places.

And once again Obama had a good precedent. Bill Clinton, according to several agency sources interviewed by biographer Roger Morris, worked as a CIA informer while briefly and erratically a Rhodes Scholar in England. Although without visible means of support, he traveled around Europe and the Soviet Union, staying at the ritziest hotel in Moscow. During this period the US government was using well educated assets such as Clinton as part of Operation Chaos, a major attempt to break student resistance to the war and the draft.

While Clinton got a free trip to Moscow complete with an expensive hotel room, the similarly fiscally strapped Obama - shortly before working for BIC - took a three week jaunt to Pakistan, again a fact almost totally obscured during his campaign. As ABC's Jake Tapper remarked in April 2008, late into the campaign, Obama's sudden incidental reference to the trip to Pakistan "was news to many of us who have been following the race closely. And it was odd that we hadn't hear about it before, given all the talk of Pakistan during this campaign."

Questions have been raised about Obama's time at Columbia as well. Politico noted that "There's not a whole lot of information available about Obama's time at Columbia University in New York, which he attended for three years after attending Occidental College in Los Angeles for one year and from which he graduated in 1983."

Fox News contacted 400 Columbia University students from the time Obama was there and none could recall him. Wayne Allyn Root, who ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket, also graduated in 1983 and says, "I don't know a single person at Columbia that knew him, and they all know me. . . The guy who writes the class notes, who's kind of the, as we say in New York, the macha who knows everybody, has yet to find a person, a human who ever met him. Is that not strange?" Root added that, like Obama, he was "Class of '83 political science, pre-law. . . You don't get more exact or closer than that. Never met him in my life, don't know anyone who ever met him."

The NY Sun noted another anomaly: "Contributing to the mystery is the fact that nobody knows just how well Mr. Obama, unlike Senator McCain and most other major candidates for the past two elections, performed as a student.

"The Obama campaign has refused to release his college transcript, despite an academic career that led him to Harvard Law School and, later, to a lecturing position at the University of Chicago. The shroud surrounding his experience at Columbia contrasts with that of other major party nominees since 2000, all whom have eventually released information about their college performance or seen it leaked to the public. . .

"In contrast with the rest of Mr. Obama's life story, little is known about his college experience. He attended Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years before transferring to Columbia in 1981. The move receives only a mention in Mr. Obama's 1995 memoir, 'Dreams from My Father,' which instead devotes that chapter to his impressions of race and class struggles in New York."

In any case, Obama moved on to Harvard Law School.

Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker described the Obama of the time: "Before [Obama] went off [to Harvard], he said to some of his community-organizing buddies he needed that credential, that Harvard Law degree, to access the corridors of power and to have that credential because he wasn't going to get that as a community organizer in Chicago."

He had already made some headway along those lines, as Mendell told PBS: "Folks like [former judge, U.S. representative and University of Chicago professor] Abner Mikva and [lawyer and former Federal Communications Commission chairman] Newton Minow had taken him under their wing and really thought a lot of this guy. They saw the potential that he had. . .

"Harvard Law, I think in his own mind, really helped him establish himself as an elite person in our society. It taught him that he could manage various worlds. . . "

And Obama played the card well. Professors and fellow students at the time he was at Harvard Law remember Obama rising above mere human conflict to a purportedly higher level of bipartisanship and avoidance of cultural conflict.

Keith Boykin recalled, "Barack was always supportive and sympathetic to our campaign for faculty diversity. He spoke about it at one of our rallies. But he was not actively involved in the protest movement. Nor did he need to be. His presence alone made the case. And even if he agreed with the cause of the movement, he didn't need to be involved in the more radical protests we launched because our tactics were controversial on campus."

A Boston Globe article in 2007 reported:

"While other students were determined to prove the merits of their beliefs through logic and determination, Obama preferred to listen, seek others' views, and find a middle way.

"Classmates recall an especially emotional debate in the spring of 1990 over affirmative action, which conservative students wanted to abolish.
Presiding over an assembly of 60 mostly white editors in a law school classroom, Obama listened to impassioned pleas and pressed conservatives to explain their reasoning and liberals to sharpen their thinking. But he never spoke about his own point of view or mentioned that he believed he had benefit ed from affirmative action.

"Obama was so evenhanded and solicitous in his interactions that fellow students would do impressions of his Socratic chin-stroking approach to everything, even seeking a consensus on popcorn preferences at the movies. 'Do you want salt on your popcorn?' one classmate, Nancy L. McCullough, recalled, mimicking his sensitive bass voice. 'Do you even want popcorn?'"

But what works for the editor of a university law review impressing a bunch of powerful professors and fellow future lawyers seldom adds up to leadership in politics. It's a style that has been called OTOH BOTOH - on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand. It is a politics of endless safety valves and of constantly adjusting to the crowd. But OTOH BOTOH Obama wasn't elected president to represent both sides of an argument, especially not by those of his black and white liberal constituency that worked so hard on his behalf. If his campaign rhetoric had been a label on a food package, the product would have been removed from the shelves by the FDA.

The remembrances of Harvard Law School days seem a perfect prelude to Obama's handling of the healthcare legislation, one of the worst examples of leadership on behalf of a major positive issue of any president in the past 50 years.

And here is one of the big problems with the elite club approach to selecting future leaders. The insiders pick people who won't cause any trouble and can be counted to find positions where nothing much happens so the pickers can continue with their game. But because truth and wisdom are rarely to be found in the mushy middle, you often end up with one more seemingly competent chosen one actually botching things up. And the public, having been sold a bill of goods, ends up wondering what the hell happened, with some of them getting quite mad.

Some will deny that an oligarchy exists. But consider a few more examples. The Vietnam war was escalated and mangled with an extraordinary degree of help from members of the Harvard faculty. The current fiscal crisis and subsequent sweetheart deal with the banks owes much to people like Robert Rubin, who went to Harvard and Yale; Ben Bernanke, who went to Harvard; Larry Summers who not only went to Harvard grad school but became president of the university; Austan Goolsbee who went to Yale and was a member of Skull & Bones; Peter Orzag, ex of Princeton; and Paul Volker who went to Harvard grad school.

And once again, Clinton provides a model. Parked at Little Rock's Central Flying Service during Clinton's first big economic meeting had been more than 50 corporate jets. This amounted to about one corporate jet for every seven participants, not including those company planes waiting at other airports around town. It would also turn out that Clinton's cabinet, while diverse in color and sex, was remarkably uniform in other respects. In the fall of 1993, Knight-Ridder published an analysis that found that 80% of Clinton's first 518 appointees were from the Washington-Boston corridor or the west coast. More than half came from DC or its suburbs.

In my book on Clinton I wrote

[][][] Politics used to be about remembrance. The best politicians were those who remembered and were remembered the most -- the most people, the littlest favors, the smallest slights, the best anecdotes tying one's politics to the common memory of the constituency.

Politics was also about gratitude. Politicians were always thanking people, "without whom" whatever under discussion could not have happened. . .

Above all, politics was about relationships. The politician grew organically out of a constituency and remained rooted to it as long as incumbency lasted.

Today, we increasingly elect people about whom we have little to remember, to whom we owe no gratitude and with whom we have no relationship except that formed during the great carnie show we call a campaign. [][][]

We could change all this if we got mad enough. We could demand public campaign financing. We treat any contributions over a certain amount as the criminal bribe that they are. We could favor candidates with histories we know and who have actually helped us rather than those who just suddenly appear in our lives like a new American Idol contestant. We could do things to strengthen third parties and make major parties more responsive - such as instant runoff voting. We could emphasize - as the right has done - issue politics, forcing pols to pay attention to things they would rather ignore. We could help Congress become an equal member of government again and give more power to state and local government where the influence of ordinary citizens is far greater.

But as long as we submit willingly to the icon con - tying our future to a fantasy candidate instead of engaging in a real politics of issues and ideas - the oligarchs will keep arranging political marriages between the public and candidates about whom we know little and to whom we owe nothing, and we will keep on losing every major election

Monday, December 21, 2009


Sam Smith

In the movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela proposes the outrageous notion that one of the best ways to deal with ethnic conflict is to get both sides doing something they mutually find more important than disliking each other. This is not a popular idea among liberals, black or white, too many of whom prefer to scold, outlaw or regulate, as if all respect, decency and friendship required was enough frowns or the proper legal terminology.

Nelson Mandela knew better and used rugby, rather than rules, as an early tool for remaking South Africa. In doing so, he had to overcome not only the resistance of whites but of blacks who saw rugby as an evil symbol of the land under apartheid. Mandela managed, nonetheless, to turn the game into pride that was mutually shared.

Although we seldom notice it, we have more than a little evidence in this country that Mandela's approach works. Consider that sports teams are among the most integrated institutions in the land or that a shared search for goods at a shopping mall does a better job of bringing ethnicities together than many law firms or the US Senate have managed. Or how we take cross cultural experience for granted when eating at an ethnic restaurant.

But as with so many things these days, when we think about such matters we tend to impose institutional and regulatory solutions even though the conflict is based on beliefs and assumptions as personal as one can find.

Mandela's approach was subversive of prevailing values but not unique. After all, Saul Alinsky's organizing efforts were based in part on bringing normally separated or antagonistic groups together to take on the establishment. Earl Long's power in Louisiana was based in part on his success in getting blacks registered in one of the most segregated states in the union. And Martin Luther King Jr. said that "Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right." He told his colleagues that among their dreams should be that  someday their enemies would be their friends.

Two years after the riots in DC, when the gap between blacks and whites in the city was enormous, a small biracial group of us formed the DC Statehood Party. It was years before I realized how strange that was because, at the time, we thought nothing of it. Political equality just seemed far more important than ethnic divisions. Besides, our leader had shown us how. Julius Hobson lived a life beyond such divisions. As a Marxist he knew he knew money was the driving cultural force. And he was a black man married to a white woman who was also a mentor to black nationalist Stokley Carmichael. Like Mandela, he refused to live by the cliches.

Mandela was subversive in another way. He was an existentialist. While even intellectuals tend to trivialize existentialism as simply an obsession with angst and despair, that is gross misreading.

Existentialism is the idea, as Sartre put it, that one's existence precedes and defines one's essence. We are what we do. This is the obverse of predestination and original sin with their presumption of an innate essence. It is also at greatly at odds with the assumption of ethnic or cultural impermeability.

In fact, some existentialists argue that we are not fully us until we die because until that moment we are still making decisions and taking actions that define ourselves. Even the condemned person, one said, has a choice of how to approach the gallows.

Wrote Sartre: "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism . . . Man is condemned to be free. . . From the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does."

In a world dominated by dichotomies, debate, definition and deconstruction, existentialism suggests not a result but a way, not a solution but an approach, not goal but a far and misty horizon. It is, says Robert Solomon, "a sensibility . . . an attitude towards oneself, an attitude towards one's world, an attitude towards one's behavior."

Mississippi writer Tom Lowe put it this way, "The truth lies neither in the left or the right or in some middle-of-the-road position that borrows from both sides. The truth is that we are responsible for everything we do and for everyone and everything our behavior affects, and that responsibility extends to our collective, as well as our individual, behavior. Responsibility is like a seamless web -- we are all connected with each other and ultimately with the entire world. It encompasses the choices we make in our capacity as spouses, as parents, as voters, as stockholders, as corporate officers, as employers, as public officials, and as purchasers of goods, but it extends to the entire planet."

This sense of being individually responsible yet part of a seamless web of others produces neither certainty nor excuses. One can, one must, be responsible without the comfort of being sure. Camus once admitted that he would be unwilling to die for his beliefs. He was asked why. "What if I'm wrong?" And when he spoke of rebellion, like Mandela, he also spoke of moderation:

"There does exist for man, therefore, a way of acting and thinking which is possible on the level of moderation which he belongs. Every undertaking that is more ambitious than this proves to be contradictory. The absolute is not attained nor, above all, created through history . . . Finally, it is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests. . . The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas of optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue."

This existential combination of what Alfie Rohl described as "both affirmation and rebellion" goes to the heart what Mandela was about.

As the poem Invictus was being recited in the film, I found myself mouthing the words to myself. I was suddenly taken back to the table where, as a young boy, my father used to make us recite poems at Sunday lunch. Invictus had been one of my favorites.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

The same poem Mandela gave rugby team captain Francois Pienaar,  my father had given me. And I suddenly realized why I had always liked Mandela. It was not just for what he had done but because of a poem we had both read that had helped us grasp the still subversive idea that the best way to overcome overbearing negative cultural forces is by the personal witness of individuals demonstrating another way.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Sam Smith - On a number of occasions I have noted the lack of real numbers in the healthcare debate. This is somewhat corrected in what follows, bearing in mind that the enumerators have a vested interest in the bill's passage. Nonetheless, much as the bill is one of the worst contrived social measures ever to come this close to passage, it also seems that the measure helps a large number of people if at extraordinary and corrupt cost.

I think the problem in part is that these days the politically active - liberals in this case - tend to pay too much attention to the game and not enough about what the game is about. You shouldn't play games with people's lives and health.

The arguments against the bill rightfully point out the insidious subsidies to the insurance industry and the costs, but fail to provide any substantial proof that there are not significant positive benefits buried in the slime. Absent that proof the balance is in the bill's favor.

If this is true, then voting the bill down will hurt many people and deny many others needed progress. That doesn't however, mean that progressives are without power to make their point.

The easiest way is to openly help make Harry Reid history. He's headed for defeat anyway, and aggressive progressive assistance would wake up a few other Democrats.

The other way, even it seems a little wild, would be to start a drive to run Howard Dean for president in 2012. Dean, after all, is the guy who got the Democratic Party in good enough shape to elect Obama who then treated him like dirt. Obama is in far worse condition than the Democrats or the sycophantic media want to admit. The mere existence of a Draft Dean movement could shake things up substantially and positively. And that's from a guy who doesn't even agree with Dean on what to with the Senate health bill.

The point is that defeating legislation to make a point is not always the best strategy, especially if a lot people will blame you for their continued problems with health insurance. It may sometimes be better to live with the bad deal and get your political justice elsewhere.

Some stats

Families USA - 707,000 people in Virginia will gain coverage by 2019 under the Senate health reform bill. Based on Congressional Budget Office data, also shows that, without health reform, a Famlies USA report finds that 182,000 people in Virginia will lose health coverage by 2019. In 2007 and 2008, the average number of uninsured people in Virginia was 1,049,000, but that total will rise to 1,231,000 if the bill fails to pass.

Nationally, the number of uninsured will reach 54 million in 2019 in the absence of comprehensive health reform.

The Senate bill requires insurers to offer coverage to every person who applies, regardless of health status, age, or gender.

The Senate bill will help millions of middle-class families who simply cannot afford health coverage by creating a new health insurance marketplace where they will be able to purchase quality coverage, regardless of gender or health status. In addition, the bill will make premium subsidies available to families with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($88,200 in annual income for a family of four in 2009).

Currently, in 42 states, adults without dependent children are not eligible for Medicaid at all-even if they are penniless. The Senate bill will make all individuals who have incomes below 133 percent of poverty (about $29,330 for a family of four in 2009) eligible for Medicaid regardless of whether they have dependent children or not, substantially increasing the number of very low-income people with health coverage.

Progress Report - The Senate bill has a number of provisions to contain costs and "ensure that working class Americans will no longer go without basic health care coverage," says American Progress Action Fund President John Podesta. It would lower insurance premiums by an average of 8.4 percent, provide subsidies for people who cannot afford insurance and "represents the largest single expansion of Medicaid since its inception." According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill covers 31 million currently uninsured Americans, extending coverage to 98 percent of legal residents. And according to the CBO, the amount that subsidized individuals would pay for insurance coverage "would be roughly 56 percent to 59 percent lower on average than the non-group premiums charged under current law."

Also, "the bill also ends insurer discrimination against women -- who currently pay as much as 48% more for coverage than men -- and gives them access preventive services with no cost sharing."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Sam Smith

This is a lousy time. We're in the worst economic collapse since the 1930s depression. We can't get out of one war we were never able to justify. We are escalating another war we can't even explain, let alone justify. The environment is deteriorating. Nobody around the globe seems to respect America any more, including many of our own politicians. Our manufacturing economy caved, and so did the hedge fund economy that replaced it. Our Constitution is gaining the feel of a long out of print book. Our politics have never been more corrupt. And the president who was meant to be our messiah has turned out to be only the first syllable of that dream.

We've been in a lousy time for some time. What's happening is not new, only worse. We're finally reaping the full harvest of thirty years of greed, corruption, intellectual dissembling, political intrigue, environmental contempt, and journalistic adultery in which the media deserts its readers and viewers to have endless affairs with its sources.

Basically, America as a nation is in a state of collapse. The First American Republic is over. We don't talk about it that way because it's too shocking and embarrassing, but our politics, economy social values, and culture seem to be in free fall and there doesn't seem anyone who is both interested and powerful enough to do anything about it.This does not, however, mean our communities or even our states are in a similar state of distress.

This is a crisis shared by conservatives, liberals, the middle and the indifferent. The conservatives react with anger, the liberals with delusion or depression, the middle by remaining muddled, and the indifferent by clinging to their detachment.

This happens to cultures. Which is why we use Timex watches instead of Mayan calendars to tell what day it is. And while it is happening, other strange and gratuitously disruptive things happen as well.

For example, widespread myths arise that attempt to explain it all. Here are several examples:

The Indian ghost dance

A ceremonial religious dance connected with the messiah doctrine, which originated among the Paviotso in Nevada about 1888, and spread rapidly among other tribes until it numbered among its adherents nearly all the Indians . . . from Missouri river to or beyond the Rockies. The prophet of the religion was a young Paiute Indian, at that time not yet 35 years of age, known among his own people as Wovoka, and 'commonly called by the whites Jack Wilson, from having worked in the family of a ranchman named Wilson.

About the close of 1888, he was attacked by a dangerous fever. While he was ill an eclipse spread excitement among the Indians, with the result that Wovoka became delirious and imagined that he had been taken into the spirit world, and there received a direct revelation from the God of the Indians. Briefly stated, the revelation was to the effect that a new dispensation was close at hand by which the Indians would be restored to their inheritance and reunited with their departed friends, and that they must prepare for the event by practicing the songs and dance ceremonies which the prophet gave them.

Within a very short time the dance spread to the tribes east of the mountains, where it became known commonly only as the Spirit or Ghost dance. . . - Access Geneology

Cargo Cults

The most widely known period of cargo cult activity occurred amongst Pacific islanders in the years during and after World War II. First, the Japanese arrived with a great deal of unknown equipment, and later, Allied forces also used the islands in the same way. The vast amounts of war materiel that was airdropped (or airlifted to airstrips) onto these islands during the Pacific campaign between the Allies and the Empire of Japan necessarily meant drastic changes to the lifestyle of the islanders, many of whom had never seen Westerners or Easterners before.

Manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents, weapons, and other useful goods arrived in vast quantities to equip soldiers. Some of it was shared with the islanders who were their guides and hosts. . .

With the end of the war, the airbases were abandoned, and cargo was no longer dropped. In response, cults developed within remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow the followers with deliveries of food, arms, jeeps, etc., from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had happened to the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use.

Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles. They carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses. In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of airplanes out of straw and created new military-style landing strips, hoping to attract more airplanes. The cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches. - Wikipedia

The Sarah Palin Cult

As in the aforementioned examples, the Sarah Palin Cult has arisen during a time in which traditional culture and values were breaking down. The Indians were reacting to the invasion of the whites and the Melanesians to the aerial invasions by U.S. and Japanese forces. The Palin Cult can perhaps best be seen as a reaction not to Democrats or to a black president, but to modernity itself. Life has moved on and left it behind.

It is not unusual in these situations for the mythology to be driven by a relatively few manipulators and con artists.

This does not mean, however, that the believers are con artists. The believers are trying to maintain their traditional values and culture and have been given little help in moving into a new time. Liberals excoriate them, the media doesn't explain things well, and the politicians take advantage of them.

In a recent interview with Wired, Whitman College sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard, discussed the problem as it relates to climate change:

"Climate change is disturbing. It's something we don't want to think about. So what we do in our everyday lives is create a world where it's not there, and keep it distant. For relatively privileged people like myself, we don't have to see the impact in everyday life. I can read about different flood regimes in Bangladesh, or people in the Maldives losing their islands to sea level rise, or highways in Alaska that are altered as permafrost changes. But that's not my life. We have a vast capacity for this. . .

"In order to have a positive sense of self-identity and get through the day, we're constantly being selective of what we think about and pay attention to. To create a sense of a good, safe world for ourselves, we screen out all kinds of information, from where food comes from to how our clothes our made. When we talk with our friends, we talk about something pleasant. . .

"Stanford University psychologist Jon Krosnick has studied this, and showed that people stop paying attention to climate change when they realize there's no easy solution. People judge as serious only those problems for which actions can be taken.

"Another factor is that we no longer have a sense of permanence. Another psychologist, Robert Lifton, wrote about what the existence of atomic bombs did to our psyche. There was a sense that the world could end at any moment.

"Global warming is the same in that it threatens the survival of our species. Psychologists tell us that it's very important to have a sense of the continuity of life. That's why we invest in big monuments and want our work to stand after we die and have our family name go on.

"That sense of continuity is being ruptured. But climate change has an added aspect that is very important. The scientists who built nuclear bombs felt guilt about what they did. Now the guilt is real for the broader public."

And there is another aspect that psychologist Bruce E. Levine noted:

"When one already feels beaten down and demoralized, the likely response to the pain of shame is not constructive action, but more attempts to shut down or divert oneself from this pain. It is not likely that the truth of one's humiliating oppression is going to energize one to constructive actions.

"In the United States, 47 million people are without health insurance, and many millions more are underinsured or a job layoff away from losing their coverage. But despite the current sellout by their elected officials to the insurance industry, there is no outpouring of millions of U.S. citizens on the streets of Washington, D.C., protesting this betrayal. . .

"U.S. citizens do not actively protest obvious injustices for the same reasons that people cannot leave their abusive spouses: They feel helpless to effect change. The more we don't act, the weaker we get. . .

"The U.S. population is increasingly broken by the social isolation created by corporate-governmental policies. A 2006 American Sociological Review reported that, in 2004, 25 percent of Americans did not have a single confidant. (In 1985, 10 percent of Americans reported not having a single confidant.) . . .

"Today, increasing numbers of people in the U.S. who do not comply with authority are being diagnosed with mental illnesses and medicated with psychiatric drugs that make them less pained about their boredom, resentments, and other negative emotions, thus rendering them more compliant and manageable.. . .

"When human beings feel too terrified and broken to actively protest, they may stage a 'passive-aggressive revolution' by simply getting depressed, staying drunk, and not doing anything -- this is one reason why the Soviet empire crumbled. However, the diseasing/medicalizing of rebellion and drug 'treatments' have weakened the power of even this passive-aggressive revolution."

A good politics would recognize the problems and help people do something about them. For example, recycling has moved into our culture with little fuss; natural foods are prominently featured in supermarkets and buying locally makes both liberals and conservatives happy. But our politicians and media, from Obama on down, are tone deaf when it comes to climate change. They don't know how to sing the song. And so they talk endlessly about cap and trade when most Americans don't know what the hell it's about. And so the right has a field day.

It's the same way with healthcare. The healthcare bills have good parts but they are buried in payoffs to insurance companies, policies that raise unnecessary issues such as mandated purchase of insurance, and a massive indifference to the individual costs of some of the programs. So, again, the right has a field day. An earlier generation of Democratic politicians would have come up with something simpler and much more weighted toward what real people wanted. This crowd could never have gotten Social Security, a minimum wage or Medicare passed. They are too technocratic and autocratic. And they don't know how to listen.

Many liberals think everyone opposed to them is just another Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly. But Noam Chomsky described it much better:

"If you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances. I listen to talk radio a lot and it's kind of interesting. If you can sort of suspend your knowledge of the world and just enter into the world of the people who are calling in, you can understand them. I've never seen a study, but my sense is that these are people who feel really aggrieved. These people think, 'I've done everything right all my life, I'm a god-fearing Christian, I'm white, I'm male, I've worked hard, and I carry a gun. I do everything I'm supposed to do. And I'm getting shafted.'

"And in fact they are getting shafted. For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined, the social conditions have worsened, the children are going crazy, there are no schools, there's nothing, so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Well - Rush Limbaugh has answered - it's the rich liberals who own the banks and run the government, and of course run the media, and they don't care about you-they just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on.

"The reaction we should be having to them is not ridicule, but rather self-criticism. Why aren't we organizing them? I mean, we are the ones that ought to be organizing them, not Rush Limbaugh. There are historical analogs, which are not exact, of course, but are close enough to be worrisome. This is a whiff of early Nazi Germany. Hitler was appealing to groups with similar grievances, and giving them crazy answers, but at least they were answers; these groups weren't getting them anywhere else.

"The liberal Democrats aren't going to tell the average American, 'Yeah, you're being shafted because of the policies that we've established over the years that we're maintaining now.' That's not going to be an answer. And they're not getting answers from the left. So, there's an internal coherence and logic to what they get from Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest of these guys. And they sound very convincing, they're very self-confident, and they have an answer to everything-a crazy answer, but it's an answer. And it's our fault if that goes on. So one thing to be done is don't ridicule these people, join them, and talk about their real grievances and give them a sensible answer. . . "

And Levine notes:

"When people get caught up in humiliating abuse syndromes, more truths about their oppressive humiliations don't set them free. What sets them free is morale.

"What gives people morale? Encouragement. Small victories. Models of courageous behaviors. And anything that helps them break out of the vicious cycle of pain, shut down, immobilization, shame over immobilization, more pain, and more shut down.

"An elitist assumption is that people don't change because they are either ignorant of their problems or ignorant of solutions. . . An elitist who has never been broken by his or her circumstances does not know that people who have become demoralized do not need analyses and pontifications. Rather the immobilized need a shot of morale."

Where is the morale for these people coming from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party? It's a rare commodity. Just consider how little attention liberals have paid of late to foreclosures, job loss, credit card interest rates and so forth? It's so much easier just to dump on Glenn Beck and his viewers and feel superior about it.

So if the liberals won't help the way they did in the New Deal and the Great Society, where is the help going to come from?

When politics fail, you need movements, movements formed around issues, not a political institution. Movements that deal with things people really care about - like where they are going to find a job or how they are going to keep their house - not things that are, at best, 23rd on their list like that "transparency" the Obamites never stop talking about.

It's happened before. The abolition movement, union organizing, the civil rights movement, the 1960s. . . All you need is a big enough space - like the one the two parties have created - for someone else to fill.

And it doesn't initially have to happen on a national level. In fact, it seldom does. The sit-ins of the civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement are examples of local action transforming a whole county. We are not limited by either Sarah Palin or Obama. We can create oases of environmental, economic and political decency wherever we live and with the aid of the Internet share what we've learned and learn what others have discovered. Along the way we may find allies we never expected, even ones who own guns and don't like abortion.

If Obama can't save you, as appears to be the case, maybe you're part of a real answer. Why not give it a try?


Sam Smith

While no one that we can find has produced a comprehensive, factual summary of who and how many will be helped or hurt by pending healthcare legislation, it is clear that the measure will cut both ways - and to an uncertain degree will prove iatrogenic, i.e. the procedures will create new disease.

It may not be so obvious. Consider, for example, a comment by Dr. Steffie Woolhandler of Physicians for a National Health Plan: "In our studies, we found that 62 percent of all bankruptcies in the United States are due at least in part to medical illness or medical bills and that the majority of folks in medical bankruptcy started that illness with private health insurance."

The pending healthcare bill greatly increases the chances of bankruptcy in two ways:

- By mandating purchase of health insurance by many currently uncovered Americans, which the legislation's authors think they can afford, but which their checking account may say they can't.

- By subsidizing to an inadequate degree private health insurance plans - with the same effect.

I've not seen one article that addressed this issue.

And while there have been pieces about the potential loss of coverage under Medicare, many of these have been disingenuously dismissive. This is a serious question, all the more so because of the strong effort on the part of some Democratic senators and the nefarious Peterson Foundation to undermine both Medicare and Social Security.

Further, much of the statistical arguments and review have centered around budgets rather than human life. There is no Congressional Humanity Office to detail what effect a measure like this will have on our lives.

There is no doubt that the pending legislation is one of the greatest subsidies ever granted to a private industry. There is no doubt that much of the legislation is indefensible both morally and pragmatically. There is no doubt that some people will be helped and others hurt, but no seems interested in determining how many of each and in what ways.

Oddly, the Democrats promoting this legislation may be digging their own graves. It is predictable that after any such a complicated bill is approved, unfortunate details of the measure will trickle out, especially around election time. There are few things worse for politicians than for it to be discovered that they voted for some bad policy they didn't even know they were approving. In 2010 and 2012, the healthcare bill could easily be as risky as a highway around Baghdad.

Still, just as there are strong arguments for handing your wallet to a robber, so there are strong arguments for voting for this measure. If it saves tens of thousands of lives, the fact that it also unconsciously subsidizes the health insurance industry is a problem we may want to put on hold.

But it would help if some of the honest players in the battle could give us some of the basic facts such as how many people will be positively or negatively affected.

One thing is sure. Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have left us feeling far more ill than before. And we don't need iatrogenic politicians on top of all our other problems.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Sam Smith

One thing is clear as the climate change debate chugs along: we need to teach math better in our schools. And it wouldn't hurt if journalism schools taught some math as well. 

For example, it is apparent that those who argue that one good snow storm destroys the case for climate change never got a good introduction to odds and averages.

An exception seems to be baseball. I have never heard a critic of ecological theory argue that a good hitter's failure to get to base in a particular game  indicates that he should be immediately traded. Sometimes it's because he swings badly and sometimes because the pitch is low and outside, but nobody says that's proof he's a bad hitter.

Yet, have one cold winter and they want to dump climate change.

I'm mystified by this. How can a culture that understand formulas like

have such a hard time with temperature variations?

My only explanation is that sports writers have done a far better job getting people to understand (or just accept) things like odds and averages than scientists or journalists. The unfortunate thing is that too many seem to think they only apply to sports.

Maybe we should forget about Copenhagen and have a Monday Night Climate Countdown.

There are some other people good at figuring out odds and averages, such as poker players.

Over a decade ago, I offered a poker player's guide to environmental risk assessment. Key points included:

1. Figure the stakes as well as the odds.

2. The odds of something happening at any moment are not the same as the odds of something ever happening. In ecological calculations - especially ones in which the downside could ruin your whole millennium - it is the latter odds that are important.

3. When confronted with conflicting odds, ask what happens if each projection is wrong. Temporary job loss because of environmental restrictions may come and go, but the loss of the ozone layer is something you can have forever.

4. When confronted with conflicting odds, remember that you don't have to play the game. There are other things to do with your time - or with the economy or with the environment - that may produce better results. Thus, instead of playing poker you could be making love. Or instead of getting jobs from some air or water degrading activity, the same jobs could come from more benign industry such as retrofitting a whole city for solar energy.

5. Don't let anyone - in industry, government, or the media - define an "acceptable level of risk" for your own death or disease. They may not have the same vested interest in the right answer as you do.

6. If the stakes are too high, the game is not worth it. If you can't stand the pain, don't attempt the gain.

Lately I've been wondering how a successful stock market investor might figure out whether global warming was a good investment.

Most stock market charts look much like climate records kept by NASA - an awful lot of detail in a small space that is hard for the impatient or untrained to figure out.

But there is one kind of chart that addresses the key issue: which way a stock really headed. It's called a point and figure chart. It consists of columns of Xs and Os - the former indicating a rising stock, the latter a falling one.

The neat trick is that you only change directions if the stock moves a certain amount - typically three points. What this does is to eliminate minor fluctuations and emphasizes the important stuff.

For example, let's say you bought a stock for 20 and it went up to 22. You would do nothing, but when it hit 23 you would show three Xs in a column.

Now let's say the stock goes down to 21 and then back to 23. You would do nothing because it hasn't moved three points. But let's say it goes down to 18. Then you would show five Os.

A normal chart of such things shows change in neatly divided time frames. Point & figure charts don't care much about time - mostly about movement.

I tried this approach on global temperatures since 1880 as reported by NASA. Using as the basis the average temperature for 1951-1980, here's what resulted:

Note the consistency in the patterns until 1981. Then suddenly there is a breakout combined with rising peaks. This is known as an ascending triple top breakout - and in the stock market it's a really good thing. The stock continues to rise and fall but the peaks keep getting higher. If this is a stock you may well want to buy it, but if it's climate change you don't want it at all.

Note also that the temperature has bounced up and down 3-6 points about a dozen times since 1880 just like the stock market. And just like the rest of life, come to think of it.

Of course, to those who think climate change is a purely ideological or theological issue, none of this means much.

Still, if someone tells you that the snow outside proves there's no global warming, remind them that in 2009 Albert Pujols only got a hit 33% of the time. 

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Sam Smith

With his expansion of the Af-Pak war, Barack Obama has now fully established himself as the Bernie Madoff of change and hope. He had been well on his way, what with all those billions for banks and so little for troubled homeowners and small businesses; his continuation of Bushic unconstitutional assaults on civil liberties; and the convoluted corruption of the health care issue. But a war that he can not explain or defend with any modicum of logic pretty well seals the deal.

While those of us who thought he was a con man from the start no longer find ourselves so lonely, there remains the problem of what to do about it.

My sense is that the infatuation over Obama was based on much larger problems including the iconization of politics, an excessive infatuation with words over deeds, as well as naive assumptions of what having the first black president would be like. Few recognized that true equality among ethnicities includes a balanced dispersal of sins and weakness as well as virtues.

Most of all, however, Obama represented a triumph of a generation of liberals dramatically different from their predecessors, most markedly in their general indifference to issues of economic as well as ethnic equality.

This heavily professional liberal class never once - in the manner of their predecessors of the New Deal and Great Society - took the lead in pressing for economic reforms. It wasn’t that they opposed them; they just never seemed to occur to them.

They, after all, had risen in status even as much of the rest of the country was slipping. Over a quarter of a century passed and the best the liberal Democrats could come up with was to slash welfare and raise the age for Social Security.

Obama was the epitome of this new generation: well educated, well connected and well toned in rhetoric. But far distant from the concerns of so many.

So it is small wonder that the O'Reilly, Becks and Palins rose to the fore. They simply hijacked the populist tradition of the Democrats and turned it into a rhetorical toy with which they could play in any manner they desired.

It wasn't the first time it had happened. Germany's willingness to accept Hitler was the product of many cultural characteristics specific to that country, to the anger and frustrations in the wake of the World War I defeat, to extraordinary inflation and particular dumb reactions to it, and, of course, to the appeal of anti-Semitism. But, bearing in mind all the foregoing, there was also:

- A collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.

- The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs, and rising property taxes. Many of the actions were taken in the name of efficiency, an improved economy and the "rationalization of production." There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a hyped version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.

- The collapse of the country's self image. Thomas Childers points out that Germany had been a world leader in education, industry, science, and literacy. Much of the madness that we see today stems from attempts to compensate for our own battered self-image.

This is only a caution, not a prediction. But without a strong populist progressive movement, based on the economic and social well being of all Americans, we run a serious risk of further disintegration.

The first thing that needs to happen is for there to be a clear distinction between smug, self-serving liberalism contemptuous of so many Americans and a populist progressive movement that seeks unity with those many liberals prefer simply to condemn.

The magnets for this unity are such obvious yet ignored issues as the creation of jobs, the preservation of pensions, decent treatment of endangered homeowners, an end to credit card usury, respect for local decision-making, and, yes, a healthcare plan based on providing financial assistance, not bureaucratic nightmares.

Such a movement would have to be formed issue by issue. It can not rely on empty icons or over-packed ideology. If one agrees on how to handle foreclosures but disagrees on abortion, leave the latter for another day. It is by working together on the things upon which we agree that both respect and power are gained.

Such principles were almost a given in much of the best organizing of the 1960s and 70s, but they have become obscured in a time when one's political identity is so tied to the ego and so indifferent to real progress.

We need to return to issue politics. To get out of the comfortable church of our own ideology and on the street with reality and real people. In the words of one populist of long ago, "we need to raise less corn and more hell."

Obama has had his chance. He blew it. It's our turn now. If we don't take it, we'll have far more than Afghanistan to worry about.

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Monday, November 30, 2009


Sam Smith

The pending health care legislation is as corrupt, cynical and contemptuous of simple decency as any bill I've seen in over a half century of covering national politics. Which still leaves the question of what to do about it.

After all, living in the Mafia neighborhood that contemporary America has become, survival can easily, and wisely, take precedence over principle.

For example the Institute of Medicine estimates that around 18,000 Americans die because of a lack of health insurance. A study in the December issue of American Journal of Public Health puts the figure for those 18-64 at 45,000 lives lost a year. Does one ignore such numbers in order to stand on principle against an indefensible payoff to the health insurance industry?

Or consider these assets of the pending legislation as outlined by Joshua Holland for Alternet:

[] According to the Congressional Budget Office, Medicaid expansion alone would offer public insurance to more than 10 million low-income Americans who would otherwise be without. . . More than nine in ten people who lack insurance in America fall beneath 400 percent of the poverty line, and every one of them will get some help getting coverage. . .

"The House legislation is a watered-down bill that would do little to contain America's overall health-care costs, but would help contain the family health-care expenses of tens of millions of real working people, while covering 36 million who would otherwise be uninsured." []

But now look at another side of the story. How many people will die or become ill because of provisions in the measure?

For example, the Medicare cost-cutting raises a serious threat to elderly. How big a threat one can't tell right now, but you can get a sense of the problem by considering the recent report favoring a drastic reduction in mammograms. Thanks to the strength of the women's movement, this suggestion was quickly squashed, but what about similar cuts in examinations or services to those under Medicare who are less likely to cause a fuss?

Further, we are looking at a system in which the standards for care will be judged for both health benefit and budgetary efficiency by the same government agencies. The conflict of interest is enormous and will especially affect those whose illnesses and response do not match the government-approved average. How many people will die or suffer continued bad health as a result? To what degree is there a submerged bias in the bills against older patients suffering what might be called statistical deficit disorder? What will be the death rate as a result of seniors giving up Medicare Advantage? What will be the health effects of the mandatory mandate on a family that is about to have their house foreclosed and simultaneously faces criminal charges for not paying protection money to the insurance industry? We seem to have forgotten that beyond the poor are a huge number who need only be slightly pushed to go over the edge.

It is useful to recall that Obama's original point man in this sick game was Tom Daschle who said that health care reform "will not be pain free" and that seniors should accept more of that pain rather than treating it.

Daschle pushed for a federal review body modeled after the one in Britain that distinguished itself by such things as a rule that elderly patients couldn't get an expensive eye drug until one of their eyes went blind. It took three years of protest to reverse that decision.

Now, quietly snuck into the stimulus package, we have something called the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research, which consists of 15 government officials and no outside experts. This body will be making purportedly unbiased evaluations of treatments but every official on it will be actually serving two gods: health and the budget.

In short, we are moving from a de facto triage system based on income to one based on appropriations.

And on age.

The silent and widespread acceptance of huge cuts in Medicare as part of "health reform" is an indicator of where the elderly really stand in current political priorities. As Cecil Connolly of the Washington Post noted last summer, "It appears seniors are the net losers under bills" then pending in the House.

No small part of the reason for this is that our health "reform" is being designed on an economic rather than a medical or moral basis. Since seniors are less productive than younger people, their lifespan simply isn't that important to a government so fiscally obsessed.

You can get a sense of how this works from an article in the Boston Globe by Linda Bilmes of the Harvard Kennedy School and Rosemarie Day of Massaschusetts' health insurance authority:

"The premature death of thousands of Americans can be translated into monetary terms using the economic "value of a statistical life.'' . . . A recent study by Stanford economists has demonstrated that the average economic value of a year of human life is about $129,000. Most insurance companies, and many countries around the world, already use a variant of this concept. They implicitly ascribe the value of an additional year of human life at $50,000 by setting that as the threshold for approving treatments. (Any treatment that costs $50,000 will be reimbursed if it is predicted to add another year of life for the patient)."

Significantly, no figures were given for the elderly, retired or infirm but it is clear from the subtext of the current debate that those in charge know whose lives they want to save and it ain't your grandmother.

There are other problems lurking behind the teleprompters. For example, the National Committee to Preserve Medicare and Social Security notes:

[] The health care reform bills now before Congress contain an unpleasant surprise for older Americans: Age-based increases in health insurance premiums for those under 65. This is nothing more than a giveaway to the private insurance industry.

At first blush, it might appear that this is justified assuming that as we age, we cost the health care system more. In fact, age is far from an entirely reliable predictor of health care costs, accounting for less than 20% of the variation in costs across age groups. A healthy 55-year-old may well consume fewer health care dollars than a 35-year-old who is obese or has diabetes.

Both the House and Senate bills include provisions to eliminate coverage for pre-existing conditions, which clearly serves the public interest.

Permitting premiums to rise with age contradicts the intent, if not the letter, of that regulation as aging can reasonably be considered an immutable, pre-existing condition. Moreover, the new regulation disproportionately affects Americans between 55 and 64, who already shoulder a financial burden for health care that is higher than any other age group, regardless of insurance status. . .

Here's a question for policymakers and the public to consider: Will the proposed age-rating of premiums, coupled with the absence of a robust, affordable public option, push more older Americans into the pool of people unable to afford health coverage?. . .

A recent Harvard study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that American adults under 65 who lack health insurance have a 40 percent higher risk of death than those who have coverage. Ailing and uninsured people in their 50s and 60s will likely add to the strain on Medicare's budget as they seek care for neglected health problems as soon as they become eligible for this entitlement.

The private insurance industry stands to make big profits from the millions of new customers it will pick up through health care reform. Adding to its bounty by putting the squeeze on the finances of older Americans is not only unjust, it is poor economic policy. []

Add to this the efforts by a powerful coalition that wishes to gut both Social Security and Medicare, epitomized by the insidious Concord Coalition and Peterson Foundation, as well as a development reported recently by Chris Bowers in Open Left:

"Of all the various blocs and gangs that have been formed in Congress this year, Senators Bayh, Conrad, Feinstein, Lieberman and Warner have managed to form the most regressive one yet. Currently, these five Democrats are demanding that Speaker Pelosi hand over all relevant Congressional power to an independent commission that will be allowed to slash and partially privatize Social Security and Medicare, or else they will allow the United States to default on its debt."

Writing in Global Research, Shamus Cooke gives rare attention to still other hidden ills of the healthcare legislation:

[] And although the final bill has yet to be crafted, there exists general agreements as to what the end version will look like. Americans will be forced to buy shoddy corporate insurance with no limit to the cost, no guarantee of quality, with large premiums and other tricks to further gouge consumers. If a public option emerges in the final bill - by no means a guarantee - it will be shrunken enough to insure very few people (2 percent of the U.S. population).

But it gets worse. How this health care "reform" will be paid for has implications that dwarf the above atrocities. . .

The two biggest cost saving schemes are the most damaging. The first is the enormous attack on Medicare. Since its inception, the corporate elite wanted this program struck down. Now they have their man for the job - a Republican could never get away with such obvious treachery. . .

One way that both Congressional health care bills will gut Medicare is referred to as "forced productivity gains" - cost saving measures essentially; trimming the fat.

What are these savings? The most mentioned device - by politicians and media alike - is the reduction of "wasteful tests" and procedures that doctors routinely perform, an idea that the health care mega-corporations love. It will save them billions, while having catastrophic effects on the health care of millions of people. . .

Another piece of Medicare that's being trimmed is Medicare Advantage, a favorite program of the elderly because of its comprehensive services. . .

Finally, The Senate health care bill attacks Medicare by reducing payments to doctors by 25 percent. If doctors receive such a drastic reduction in pay, they will simply refuse to see Medicare or Medicaid patients; people will thus be insured only on paper. The newly insured Medicaid patients under any new congressional bill will be sorely disappointed.

Once Medicare is undermined in the above ways, the corporate sponsored right-wing will make a very convincing argument that "Medicare doesn't work", leading to future cuts that will further destroy the program.

The second hidden disaster in financing a congressional health care bill is the tax on so-called "gold-plated" or "Cadillac" health insurance policies that some employers offer their workers. This tax is supposedly meant to apply to the health care policies that "elite" employees receive. . .

As it turns out, many, if not most workers in unions will be included in this tax, which, under the Senate version, will include any plan worth more than $8,000 for individuals and $21,000 for families. Hardly elite, considering the still-soaring costs for health care.

If this provision were to pass - and it's very popular in Congress - the immediate reaction would be very predictable: employers would immediately drop their health care plans, forcing workers into the now-forced purchasing of inadequate health care. . . []

But facts have never been important in this debate. For example, the Democrats have done their best to conceal how long it will be before provisions actually go into effect - such as the much touted ban on denial due to preexisting provisions. Nor will anyone admit the truth that a real advantage of the mandatory mandate is that the administration can claim - dishonestly to be sure - that it is not raising taxes. It is. The affected are just sending their checks to an insurance company rather than to the IRS.

In the end, the legislation will save lives while simultaneously causing other deaths. Not only does no one know the real numbers, but no one that I can find has even tried to come up with such figures. How do the saved uninsured match up against those driven out of existing plans (such as Medicare Advantage and so-called "Cadillac" programs) and how many seniors will die prematurely because of added costs or efficiency measures that claim their tests to treatment aren't worth it? I suspect there will be a net saving of life but that's not what all of us being created equal and with inalienable rights was meant to be about. None of our founders mentioned cost effectiveness as a precondition of human decency.

It's all a sad example of America's cultural and political collapse. This crowd - from Obama on down - could never have gotten Social Security, a minimum wage or Medicare passed. And it probably wouldn't have bothered them all that much, since today's politics has no higher goal than next quarter's campaign contributions.

Still, in reacting to it, this is a different situation than, say, being a conscientious objector in which one refuses to join in the killing and where virtue and effect are in sync. If, as I suppose, more lives will be saved than lost under the healthcare bill, then it is worth backing however cruel the choice - because you can't stand on principle in this instance without contributing to the damage. It seem that we have to pay the protection money to the insurance mob, save some lives and then turn to fighting the struggle on better ground.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Sam Smith

Last May, the Republican National Committee condemned Obama and the Democratic Congress for leading America towards socialism. Since then the line has been picked up by numerous others on the right including the tea baggers, a group that believes it is standing for true American rights by invoking memories of a fight that was actually about merely getting Americans some representation in the British Parliament and not about full independence.

That's not the only mistake made by those complaining about the threat of socialism. If Obama is leading America anywhere, it is - like his immediate predecessors - towards fascism. Socialism is about the state running things on behalf of the public; fascism is about the state running things on behalf of corporations. Adrian Lyttelton in his book on Mussolini wrote that "fascism can be viewed as a product of the transition from the market capitalism of the independent producer to the organized capitalism of the oligopoly." It was a point that Orwell noted when he described fascism as being but an extension of capitalism. Lyttelton quoted Italian Nationalist theorist Affredo Rocco: "The Fascist economy is. . . an organized economy. It is organized by the producers themselves, under the supreme direction and control of the State."

This is the way we have been heading for some time and Obama has merely joined the club.

Still, all the talk got me thinking about what avoiding socialism in America would truly be about. What if we set out to rid ourselves of all intrusions of this purported political curse? Here are a few things we might do:

- Return to the old system of fire fighting in which blazes were handled by private fire brigades hired by private insurance companies. Brooke Harrington described the practice in Economic Sociology: "If you wanted a fire brigade to come to your aid in . . . emergencies, you had to join a kind of club with private membership fees. It worked like this: you ponied up the fees, the club gave you a plaque to put over your front door, and then if fire swept through the neighborhood, the club dispatched help, but they only assisted paying members. So if you didn't have that plaque over your door, the fire rescue teams would pass you right on by. It would not be uncommon to find that your house burned down while the one next door would be saved." Sounds a little like our health insurance system.

- End public education. Public schools - which strongly aided the growth of America - are about as socialistic as you can get. Obama, it should be noted, is trying to help reduce this deleterious influence by converting public schools into profit-making charter operations.

- Close down all federal highways or sell them off to the highest bidder so they can turn them into profit-making roads using tolls.

- Abolish Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and all other such welfare programs.

- End all government interference with the banking and financial industries. This would have recently saved us hundred of billions in bailout funds.

- End all veterans programs including closing veterans' hospitals.

- Sell off all public transportation to unregulated private interests.

- Close all public hospitals, end public subsidies to other hospitals and privatize all ambulance service.

- End all government regulation of food or health products.

- End the practice of government plowing streets after a snow storm. As Boston mayor James Curly put it, "The Lord brought it; let the Lord take it away."


Feeling better yet?

Bet you never realized what a bunch of closet socialists we are.

We got there, though, because - instead of hurling theories and cliches at each other - we decided on a case by case basis who could do a particular job best. And the funny thing is, it's worked pretty well.

People who complain about the threat of socialism remind me of the man from Virginia who went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran's hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. When he retired he went on Social Security and Medicare. The other day he got into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, parked in the public lot, took Amtrak to Washington and went to Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Sam Smith

Although America's politics is increasingly being driven by myth - witness the stunning decline in those who believe that global temperatures are rising - the media, academia and political activists tend to act primarily with dismay and disgust or to satisfy themselves by labeling the myth followers wing nuts. Serious consideration of this huge factor in American life is largely absent.

Little time is spent on how to educate people on a complex or scientific matter, to help them deal with probabilities as well as certainties, or how best to convince rather than merely to condemn.

Here's a thought for starters: Bring together journalists, philosophers, pollsters, historians, anthropologists and activists to put the matter on the table. Begin with the premise that myth is normal in any culture; it even has important healthy functions. But what happens when, as now, myth gets out of hand? What causes this? How do we stop myth from being self destructive? How, metaphorically, do we return safely from Jonestown to the First Baptist Church down the street?

If there were such a conference - or, better, a series of conferences - here are some of potential topics:

What causes myth to change its role in the same culture?

How important are different segments of the culture in this: education, religion, media, political campaigns etc?

How does this shift reflect a failure to understand basic things like the variations in a multi-year chart of global temperatures? What can be done about this?

How do we raise the understanding of probability in dealing with such matters? For example, I often use the poker analogy in dealing with the environment, emphasizing such points as considering the stakes as well as the odds.

What is the best response to cynically created mythology such as the idea in the recent Maine campaign that gay marriage would damage heterosexual marriage or endanger children?

What is the media's responsibility in handling such issues and how could it do it better?

What are effective ways to move someone from myth to reality?

To what extent does the over-complexity of solutions (or of their administration) - i.e. the healthcare bills - contribute to mythology? Is the lesson that we should more often break such solutions into smaller, more comprehensible parts?

To what extent does burying questionable items in a complex solution - i.e again the healthcare bills - contribute to mythology and undermine support?

To what extent does the establishment's tendency to say "Case closed" on matters with continuing doubt work against reality and spur myth? For example, the World Trade Center attack was certainly not likely the creation of George Bush, but that doesn't eliminate unanswered questions about what happened in government before the attack or about the construction of the towers. To act as though it does seems to encourage, rather than eliminate, myth. This happens over and over, often because the government wants to put a matter aside and the media is too willing to help.

How can we teach honor for unanswered questions without embellishing them with unsupported theoretical conclusions?

The government often has a two track goal: solve a problem and appear that it is solving it. Often, the latter effort - as in the case of swine flu - can work against the former. You can test this out by trying to discover precisely how many people have died after taking the vaccine. I could find only one report, a minute number in a Chinese sample. But government public relations types don't think like that. The want everything to appear far more rosy and far more certain than it may actually be. How do we deal with this?

What do history and anthropology tell us about myth and how it helps and damages a culture?

And that's just for starters. The important thing is to start, to recognize that myth is not something you change by name calling but by dealing with it as a force as real and important in its own way as climate change. And something that may severely damage our approach to such issues as climate change because we forget in this scientific and technological age that not everything that matters can be easily measured.


Monday, November 09, 2009


Sam Smith

Have pity on me. Say a prayer. Drop a penny in the pond on my behalf. In a few days I have to go to a non-profit's strategic planning meeting. It's a great organization that does great things, but - like so many non-profits - it periodically seeks to cleanse and refresh itself by turning what it does into indecipherable abstractions. I'll survive and maybe there'll be some good food, but, as a general rule, I don't do strategic visions.

Still it's happening all over America. "Strategic plan" and its semantic variations have appeared on Google seven million times just in the past month. On the Review's list of cliches that's right between "empower" and that ultimate expression of corporate insincerity - "any inconvenience" - you know, the one for which everyone apologizes.

Strategic planning, in its non-military sense, got its start at the Harvard Business School in the 1920s. Not long after we had the Great Depression. The concept had a revival in the 1980s and contributed to the philosophy and practices that have left us with the Penultimate Great Depression.

Coincidence, perhaps, but bear in mind that in the 1950s - when the economy was booming - we were turning out only 5,000 MBAs a year. The number of people in business who had any idea of about strategic planning was minute. By 2005, we were churning out 142,000 MBAs a year and we had huge trade and budget deficits, a disappearing auto industry, one of our most costly and disastrous wars, a growing gap between rich and poor, and a constantly projected inability to care for our ill or elderly.

Worse, everyone in the country had been infected by corporate verbiage and values. And, often unconsciously, much of America had bought into the rightwing and absurdly simplistic Reaganesque view of life and the very voices that should have been among the loudest in opposition - non-profits - signed up as well.

Non-profits found that it helped to adopt the language of business. It made them seem responsible rather than just over-idealistic do-gooders. It also reflected one of the most misguided assumptions of the educated elite: if one can understand, identify, manipulate and be loyal to abstract principles, the specifics will obediently follow.

Editors and reporters, among others, know better. Reporters run into this sort of language constantly at news conferences and elsewhere. They have a professional term for it: bullshit.

And editors know that a reporter may come up with a great idea for a story and even have a strategy for carrying it out, but if the journalist doesn't know how find the right sources, or ask the right questions and write it all down, the strategy won't work.

Over the past three decades corporations have done an incredibly effective job of turning Americans into just so many more corporate employees desperate for a strategic vision that will foster formulations of actions and processes to be taken to attain the vision in accordance with agreed upon procedures in order to achieve a hierarchy of goals. It has - with bombast, bullying and baloney - convinced an extraordinary number of Americans that its childishly verbose and coldly abstract culture is transferable to every human activity from running a church to driving a tractor across a field.

Unfortunately, life doesn't work like that. You need to look no farther than the military to see this. During the post-war period when the US military devoted more effort to strategic planning that at any time in its history, it has also had the sorriest record. Over and over, the problem has been an attractive general principle overwhelmed or sabotaged by reality and facts.

Now bounce back 150 years to a war in which general strategy was more than balanced by specific generals. At one point a White House aide complained of General Grant's drinking and Lincoln invoked his best management practices - which was to tell the aide to find out what Grant was drinking and give it to all his other generals. Put that in your vision statement.

And the key battle at Little Round Top was won by a general named Joshua Chamberlain who had studied theology, taught ever subject except science and math and was fluent in nine languages. He had, however, never study military strategy.

In any specific situation, a general strategy can quickly lose value without supporting virtues like wisdom, sufficient staff, adequate budget, imagination, energy and good fortune.

But of course, if all else fails, you can always fall back on your mission statement.

Like most people, I never read mission statements except under duress or when I have nothing better to do, like standing in the lobby of a pretentious restaurant waiting to be seated.

Gordon Luk
said it well: "The easy and fun way to test whether a mission statement. . . is garbage is to negate it and see whether it still holds up. If a mission statement does not make sense for a company not to do, then why even bother stating the obvious?

"Striving to be a leader in a field? Of course you are – you better not be trying to come in dead last…

"Trying to connect people to passions or interests? Hell, why not disconnect them instead!. . .

"Douglas Adams wrote frequently about the human penchant for continuously stating the very, very obvious. Mission statements take that principle to the extreme, to the point where we even believe that we're going to persuade people about something or other by making an official public statement about what we are going to do that would be insane to negate."

Occasionally a mission statement rises to the occasion. The alternative newspaper Eat the State had one that read: "Missions were created by the Catholic Church to subjugate Native Americans in California. We oppose them." And a small computer consultancy business in West London posted a sign: 'We are not ruled by a mission statement, we are smarter than that'. But when you start to count the number of organizations - from religious to non-profit to social to political - that feel they can't get along without some gobbledygook on the inside cover of whatever they're publishing, you know the corporate cultural invasion is complete.

Which doesn't mean you shouldn't have plans, think about where you're going, discuss alternatives and figure out what you do best. But the better model should be the pragmatism, inventiveness and realism of small business culture which still provides most of America's new jobs - as many as 75 percent in some experts' view. Most small business people don't have time to sit around a table coming up with empty adjectives to describe their efforts. And they tend to call the people who buy their stuff customers rather than stakeholders, which makes sense, given that the pre-corporate definition of stakeholder was someone who held the bet during a gambling match and handed it over to the winner. Not a particularly exciting or profitable role in life.

Here's how David Weinberger put in back in 1999:

"Mission statements are vapid because they think of business as a march to a goal or a war of conquest. Businesses are far more complex than that. . . Further, missions are things you accomplish and are done with. Businesses, on the other hand, generally aim for long-term existence. The board doesn't get together and say, "Well, we've accomplished our mission of being the world's leading supplier of high quality wombats to blind gombricks, so I guess we can just shut it all down now. Good job, lads!"

"Businesses often are more like farming than like making war. How can we get maximum sustainable yield from this ground? And what happens when the ground changes radically? Are we going to keep trying to grow potatoes in the layer of ash, or are we going to see this as a splendid opportunity to succeed with ash-loving radishes?

"So, yes, write up something about your commitment to treating your customers well, building great products, and contributing to the lives of your employees and your community. Heck, even admit that you're in it for the money. But one thing is certain: if your mission statement achieves the usual goal of fitting on the back of a business card, then it's just about guaranteed to be empty of anything worth saying."

Which is why I don't look forward to my afternoon of strategic planning. We will declare, no doubt, some fine principles, but life is controlled not by the glories of the grand but by the uncertainties, blessings and perversities of the specific. It is in organizing the latter in some rational, useful, imaginative and, yes, enjoyable fashion that life becomes better. As Benjamin Franklin noted, happiness is not the result of great strokes of good fortune, but of the "little felicities" of every day.

Meanwhile, if you are still curious about my personal vision statement, please consult my optometrist.

Friday, November 06, 2009


Sam Smith

The recent murders at Ft. Hood recall Pascal's observation that "Men never do evil so cheerfully and so completely as when they do so from religious conviction."

Of course, the assumption in this country at the moment is that only Muslims are evil, which ignores Christians doing evil to Muslims in Afghanistan or Jews threatening to nuke Iran in the name of civilization.

In the end, it doesn't make much difference whether your husband or son is killed by a Muslim major in Ft. Hood, an American drone in Pakistan, or a Israeli soldier in Gaza. In each case the dead are victims of violent religious and cultural hubris.

The media, though, was quick to smell the bait. Even before Fox News had corroborated the suspect's name, Shepard Smith asked Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, "The names tells us a lot, does it not, senator?"

Replied Hutchison, "It does. It does, Shepard."

And the White House, joint chiefs and national security advisors treated it all as another wartime crisis rather than a solitary case of madness.

Which is logical, perhaps, because it is getting harder and harder to separate individual and mass insanity.

We assume there are people who are crazy and those who are rational but when your government reacts to those that brought down the World Trade Towers with an eight year futile war in Iraq that has killed, by the most conservative estimates, over 40 times as many innocent people, that line disappears.

Or consider that the war, along with that in Afghanistan, was the creation of politicians blithely willing to cause that many deaths to win reelection and supported by generals and admirals who thought it was a good idea and who then ordered Major Hasan and tens of thousands of others to engage in battle as an absolutely indisputable act of responsibility.

Or think about one little symbol of all this. Pull up a photo of the Joint Chiefs, those responsible for conducting wars like Iraq and Afghanistan and sending people to fight in them. Notice their chests bedizened by ribbons.

Now ask yourself: in what other field of human endeavor could one wear ribbons indicating areas of service, major campaigns, training, unit achievement, and personal accomplishment without people regarding you as completely mad?

And in what other job can you wantonly kill so many people and be treated as a normal human being?

None of this excuses Major Hasan but it puts his acts in perspective: a uncontrolled act of madness in a deliberately insane system.

We don't think about such things much, because most of us don't have to. The business of war has been outsourced to the weakest parts of our economy, to victims of our pathological economic system among others.

This is one reason there are so many suicides amongst soldiers. War is no longer a one time misery; troops are being recycled through it because there are too few to take their place.

One of the reasons, although we don't talk about it, is that an increasing number of people see war as a crazy idea of which they want no part. For the better off, that's a choice, but for others madness is simply the best job they can find.

The good news is that while perhaps a third or more of history's major wars (in terms of fatalities) have occurred in the 20th century, since WWII the death rates have gone down. We seem to be tiring of war but don't yet know it.

Which is good, all morality aside, since the only war America has won since the 1940s has been the invasion of Grenada and no government has surrendered to us since Japan.

There is a parallel madness to be found in other aspects of our uberculture - our approach to the environment, economy and education for example. This can lead one to an alternative subculture, depression or violent acts. The more we tend to the first course, the more haven we offer to those who might otherwise slip into the latter.

It's not easy to do but it helps to bear in mind when something like the recent killings occur that it is only a small outward and visible sign of a massive inner and invisible madness that can drive us crazy as well.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


Sam Smith

Voting for the first time in Maine, I have had the pleasure of another first: an election in which 50-70 percent of voters in my town agreed with me on six out of seven referenda (including supporting gay marriage). There was one city council member running unopposed and I haven't heard yet about the three slots on the sewer district, but I took the advice of an old friend (and a Republican) on that one so it doesn't really count.

The fact that I got to vote for who was on the sewer district, however, does count. After all I spent some four decades in Washington DC, trying to convince people that we should have an elected attorney general and comptroller and only now has a bill for the former been submitted to Congress. Submitted to Congress because DC is still a colony of the U.S. and the world's greatest democracy doesn't want its capital deciding for itself whether to have an elected attorney general.

The other evening I got another taste for what local democracy felt like. I attended a meeting concerning an alternative agricultural center whose manure runoff during the wettest summer in Maine history had helped cause the nearby clam flats to be closed.

The farm (with which I've been long involved) quickly removed cattle from the area and took other corrective steps; the meeting was about where to go from here. There were representatives from three state agencies, the local shellfish commission, the local clamming and oyster trade, the farm, not to mention the clam warden. It was all chaired by the head of the town council.

I calculated that attendance - around 50 - represented approximately six percent of the population of the town. In DC this would have meant a crowd of 3500, something I never saw. Secondly, in my former home the issue would have likely become highly controversial and full of superfluous rhetoric. I had been a neighborhood commissioner there and worked my way through problems like this and it wasn't fun.

But the participants at the Freeport meeting made rational arguments and proposals, listened to the others present, were clearly interested in facts, and sought to find a solution that worked for everyone, both clammers and coastal farm. It was an extremely complicated issue including when and how the water sampling is done, identifying the cause of variations, relative fecal contamination of wild and domesticated animals, shifts in animal location, length of stay in that location, and geography of location.

By the end of the evening, both interests had joined to pressure the Department of Marine Resources to open the flats sooner than they had planned.

I mentioned to a friend afterwards that maybe we should send the whole lot down to Washington to work out a solution on the healthcare bill.

It was also nice, I thought, to be talking sensibly about real manure rather than, as during most of my life, ranting about the fake stuff that is spread so wantonly in Washington.

On election day, the one issue where I was in the minority concerned school consolidation. The state, inspired by the bureaucratic obsessives at the Brookings Institution, had required school districts to consolidate. A number didn't like it for good reason: for example, it would cost money or the districts were too far apart. For more than fifty years, America has been consolidating school districts and the main effect has been to replace educators with bureaucrats and wardens,

But while Freeport voters supported the consolidation with a 62% majority, 79% of Pownal voters, the next town over - and ordered to consolidate with us at a considerable increase in expense - rejected the plan. Since the plan survived statewide, Freeport won and Pownal lost. It's a hell of a way to start a relationship.

But it is part of the bureaucratic myth that we are all the same as long as the data says so.

The clamflat meeting - arranged within the community - and the school consolidation - imposed from outside - reflect the difference between what John McKnight called associations vs. institutions:

"The structure of institutions is a design established to create control of people. On the other hand, the structure of associations is the result of people acting through consent."

Here are some of the characteristics McKnight found among associations in contrast to institutions:

- Interdependency. "If the local newspaper closes, the garden club and the township meeting will each diminish as they lose a voice."

- Community is built around a recognition of fallibility rather than the ideal.

- Community groups are better at finding a place for everyone.

- Associations can respond quickly since they lack the bureaucracy of large institutions.

- Associations engage in non-hierarchical creativity.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the importance of localizing food. It makes excellent sense but a question keeps coming to mind: why lettuce and not democracy?

One of my big disappointments in politics has been the indifference of liberals - the sort who boost local food - with keeping democracy close to home as well. They often talk about it as though it was some sort of holdover from the states' rights days of segregation.

A growing number of people who identify with new liberalism see themselves as experts and take it for granted that the wisest decisions will be made at the top and then passed down as regulations.

These decisions - like school consolidation - tend to rely on data that wipes out the normal variations of human existence. This data turns judgment into an indentured servant instead of just informing it.

Thus we have a stimulus package that creates innumerable obstacles for state and local government, an education plan that wipes out the very system that taught America to be what it became, and a healthcare plan that absolutely no one understands.

Until we rediscover the value of community, it will only get worse. We will find ourselves increasingly, as Bill Mauldin once put it, fugitives from the law of averages.

Propelled by the rapacious ambitions of their members, neither national party cares about this. But then they don't care about local food either and that didn't stop that movement from coming to life. Our goal should be to bring democracy, as well as our lettuce, as close to home as possible.


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - Having lived most of my life in the gay friendly city of Washington, I wasn't prepared from some of the nastiness involved in the Maine gay marriage debate. Especially the sick video that claimed that the state's schools would be teaching gay marriage in class.

And while I knew the Pope was the George Wallace of gender, I had never been this close to the repulsive cruelty of the Catholic church on the issue, not to mention hypocritical - given the behavior of more than a few of its priests.

Finally, I realized too late how easy it was to slip into the media's assumption that this was just another issue - and not a major test of morality. It was only after the returns came in that it occurred to me how little the difference was between denying gays entry into marriage and denying a black kid's entry into a school or that kid's parent's entry into a restaurant. It was not just gay marriage being judged, but the rest of us as well. A minority's rights is not a gift to be bestowed but a strong reflection of our own honor and decency. And we failed.

A vote for the establishment of religion

Among other reasons, the banning of gay marriage is illegal because its purpose and origin is based almost entirely on the principles of certain religions. To ban gay marriage is to establish some religions' beliefs as superior to those of others. Specifically, the Maine gay marriage vote makes the following lesser religions compared, say, to the Catholic Church:

The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, Ecumenical Catholic Church, Church of God Anonymous, Alliance for Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Unitarian Universalist Association, which all approve of same sex marriage

The United Church of Christ, Episcopal and various Quaker groups leave the decision to clergy, congregations or local governing bodies. And, adds the Interfaith Workig Group, the Presbyterian Church (USA) allows the blessings of same-gender unions with terminology restrictions.

So the result was not just a repeal of gay marriage but a totally unconstitutional vote to restrict the rights of the aforementioned religion

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Sam Smith

After nine months of political extremism - bankrolling huge banks, escalating the Afghan war, treating local public schools like they were just another federal agency and finding new ways to subsidize the health insurance industry - it may finally be time for a little moderation. There's an awful lot of talk about moderation and bipartisanship in Washington, but not much evidence of it. So here is a political program that would be both more moderate and more popular than that of our bipartited president and Congress:


Just stop them. They're not doing us any good. We don't win them, they cost a lot of money, make a lot of people mad at us, and kill people who in no way deserve it. And if you can't stop them, at least stop escalating them. Remember: every new soldier sent to Afghanistan is one more problem you'll have to add to your exit strategy.

A major reason we have so many wars is because of pressure from former schoolyard bullies now at the Pentagon and from presidential advisers and journalists feeling insecure about their testosterone level. Stop pandering to these types and you not only save a lot of lives, but hundreds of billions of dollars as well.


The Democrats have blown it. So why not drop the whole thing and come up with a moderate health reform bill. One that would do some of the things that everyone would like - like barring denial of insurance for preexisting conditions. Then expand Medicare to those 55 and older and to children 5 and under. Expand Medicaid. You can get your money from TARP and from the Pentagon. There's lots of it floating around these days for bankers and Afghanis. Why not use it for a good purpose instead? Sure the insurance companies will be furious, but who cares? Mike Huckabee has already come within spitting distance of Obama in two polls and sucking up to Blue Cross won't help Obama a bit.


One difference between Washington politicians and real people is that the latter like to see public works; the former settle for infrastructure. Further, the stimulus bill was so full of verbal infrastructure that people didn't notice how little public works there was in it. We don't need a second stimulus package; we need a real first one. For a model, look at Roosevelt's administration, whose Works Progress Administration employed 8.5 million people in its seven-year history, working on 1.4 million projects, including the building or repair of 103 golf courses, 1,000 airports, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,900 schools, 8,100 parks, 12,800 playgrounds, 124,000 bridges, and 125,100 public buildings. Harry Hopkins got the same number of people working in four weeks as Obama promised he would in two years. In fact, Hopkins got about the same number of people working in four weeks as Obama has lost so far this year.


The Democrats have done hardly anything to put a dent in the foreclosure crisis. One reason is because they like banks too much. The other is that they're afraid that helping those in foreclosure or in danger of it will annoy others who say, "I've paid my mortgage; why haven't they?" Two ways to deal with this: decentralize foreclosure adjustment decisions to local courts and start a shared equity program in which financial aid would be paid for by a percentage of government ownership. Get this going now, and by the time most of these homes are sold, the government will have actually made money.

Some other things that would help:

Reduce credit card interest rates. End rampant usury.

Expand unemployment benefits

Limit rate increases on adjustable rate mortgages

Create state owned banks like the one that has worked well in North Dakota.

Support the creation of more credit unions and co-ops.

Expand our rail system and rail service - with the emphasis not on business class high speed rail but on everyday service for real people. The expansion of transportation has historically been one of America's great economic spurs.


The war on drugs has been the most deadly conflict for Americans since Vietnam. It has greatly increased criminal drug activity and sends people to prison for using something milder than vodka and less dangerous than cigarettes. If we were to decriminalize the possession of marijuana and cancel all existing marijuana possession charges, we would be starting on the path towards sanity.


There are at least five amendments that are in deep trouble.

The First Amendment: This is in trouble because it has fewer and fewer powerful advocates. Police intimidate demonstrators, principals harass student newspapers, and liberals pass hate crime bills. Ordinary folks still like the idea, however, and it's a wonderfully moderate concept.

The Second Amendment: Contrary to liberal mythology, gun laws are pretty ineffective. When DC passed the toughest gun law in the country, its murderers failed to notice and the death rate soared. This is partly because if you're about to kill someone, the threat of ancillary gun charges are of minimal significance. There are, on the other hand, places like Alaska and Maine that have high gun ownership and low crime rates. Further, there are Americans who like to hunt, like to feel safe in their house, and believe in their constitutional right to bear arms. Even if you don't agree with them, you're not doing anyone (including yourself) a favor by hassling them. Support their rights and you've may find yourself with allies on actual important issues.

The Fourth Amendment: There is a varied and broad constituency that has been subjected to illegal searches by the government, from wiretaps to warrantless raids.

The Tenth Amendment: This amendment, which leaves to the states and the people those powers not specified in the Constitution, is routinely abused by the feds. Arne Duncan's unconstitutional interference with local public education is but one example. Washington officials of both parties have increasingly sought to secure more power for themselves at the expense of state and local government. Liberals are repeat offenders, some even giving the impression that they hold lower branches of government with contempt. This doesn't win votes. It annoys people, makes their lives more difficult, and leads them to think of you as arrogant.

The Fourteenth Amendment: This amendment, designed after the Civil War to give personhood to former slaves and their descendants, was kidnapped by business interests to include corporations as persons. This is why corporations can get away with buying elections. As Al Gore explained, after an 1886 decision by the Supreme Court, "the 'monopolies in commerce' that Jefferson had wanted to prohibit in the Bill of Rights were full-blown monsters, crushing competition from smaller businesses, bleeding farmers with extortionate shipping costs, and buying politicians at every level of government." Corporations need to lose their personhood.

Five ways to preserve and restore the Constitution. There's nothing more moderate than that.

In fact, all the aforementioned are much closer to the American consensus than much of what is being proposed in Washington, or has been for the past few decades. And there isn't a obfuscating trigger, mandate, option or TARP in the lot.