Month: April 2008

Continuing Signs of the Decline of Civilization

One responsibility we take quite seriously here at the Valise is to report on the continuing signs of human devolution. Much like natural scientists who look for signs of Global Warming, we feel that it is our obligation to ferret out the evidence that we, as a species, are becoming less civilized, less intelligent every day. There are those doubters who look at each piece of evidence and are unable or unwilling to see the obvious pattern as it unfolds. We have finally reached the conclusion that there is no way to reach the IDs (Idiocy Deniers). In fact, their denials are simply more evidence of the inevitable unfolding of human stupidity.

So, here are two brief data points in today’s news (only two and brief so that we don’t lose any readers):

1. St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of the poor. This week, the Mayor of Assisi announced that he was banning begging in the city;

ROME (AFP) — Assisi, home of Saint Francis, the 13th century patron of the poor, has banned begging, an Italian newspaper reported Sunday. Right-wing Mayor Claudio Ricci has stopped people seeking handouts, lying down or sitting on the ground within 500 metres (yards) of town churches, other places of worship, squares and public buildings, La Repubblica said.The mayor of the town in northern Italy, told the newspaper his ban was designed to “preserve the sacred character of Assisi without damaging its welcome.

B. There was a time when you could expect something interesting (and funny) to happen at the Annual White House Correspondence’s Dinner. Those days are over.

President Bush put forward mock excuses on behalf of the Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as to why they were not in attendance. Taking a jibe at controversies which have dogged their campaigns, he said: “Hillary Clinton couldn’t get in because of sniper fire and Senator Obama’s at church.” He was referring to Mrs Clinton’s “mis-speak” when she erroneously claimed she faced sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia in the 1990s; and Mr Obama’s pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who criticised America in fiery sermons. The president admitted to being a “little wistful” at his final dinner, and video clips of his previous performances were broadcast. He finished by conducting the US Marine band in a medley of patriotic marches.

The commentary from the podium could not have been nearly as funny as the conversations that likely took place among the guests.

The White House Correspondents’ Association presented its annual awards during the dinner on Saturday in front of a crowd of VIPs, including author Salman Rushdie, singer Ashlee Simpson and actors Ben Affleck and Pamela Anderson. Mr Bush’s appearance at the event continues a tradition begun by US President Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

The small talk between Salman and Ashlee had to have been priceless. Given the choice, I would much prefer to have been invited to the first gathering in 1924. “Silent Cal” was arguably our funniest and most quotable president. See here and here

Washington Teacher Practices Civil Disobedience

Carl Chew, a Seattle science teacher, has been placed on two week suspension without pay for refusing to give his sixth-graders the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). Chew decided to practice civil disobedience by refusing to administer a test he considers harmful to students, teachers, schools and families.

Chew was interviewed by Linda Shaw of the Seattle Times.

“I did it because I think it’s bad for kids,” he said. He said he knew he would face consequences, and might even be fired. “When you do an act of civil disobedience, you gracefully accept what happens to you,” he said.

Chew had told the administrators at the middle school where he taught that he would not give the exam. He said they tried to talk him out of it. He then was suspended without pay from Monday through May 2, the day WASL testing ends.

“He failed to follow his duties as teacher,” said Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Patti Spencer. The district, she said, understands there are debates over standardized tests such as the WASL, but it expects teachers to fulfill all their responsibilities, which include giving state-mandated exams.

The WASL is given each year to students in grades 3-8 and Grade 10, and covers reading, writing, math and science. It is used to determine whether Washington schools are meeting the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. And starting this year, students must have passed reading and writing on the 10th-grade exam to graduate from high school

Chew may be the first teacher in Washington state to refuse to give the test. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state’s largest teachers union, said they didn’t know of any similar cases.

Juanita Doyon, director of the Parent Empowerment Network, an anti-WASL group, says she’s heard of only one teacher in the nation who has refused to administer a high-stakes test. That teacher works in Colorado. Chew, she said, “has taken a brave stand.

Chew issued a two-page, single-spaced statement listing all of his concerns about the WASL. It includes his contention that many questions on the test are unclear, notes its costs, and says teachers get little information about how to help students improve. The letter also says the WASL focuses too much attention on just a few subjects.

“I think it’s good for students to have basic skills in reading, writing and math,” he said. “But also to have good skills in P.E. and art and music and public speaking.” The WASL, he said, needs to be scrapped and replaced with a “gentler, kinder way of finding out what our students know and helping teachers educate them better.”

Chew stated that this was his first act of civil disobedience. Washington’s “Parent Empowerment Network” encouraged supporters to sent money to Chew to replace his lost wages, but Chew says he wont accept the money and requests that it goes, instead, to local groups that oppose high-stakes standardized testing

Chew said he didn’t tell his students about his plans.

“I simply let them know that I had something important to do during the WASL time, and expected them to treat the guest teacher with respect,” he said. “And I told them to do well on the WASL.”

And next year?

“I have let them know I’m never going to give the WASL again,” Chew said. At the same time, he added, “next year is a long way off.” In the meantime, he said, he plans to think about what might be a “win-win situation.”

Earth day 38

Here we are again. Earth Day 38. Have things changed since Walt Kelly and Pogo reminded us that we have met the enemy and he is us? Well yes, we have at least come to realize the problem. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we have the political will to make the necessary changes in time. In that journey we are on, we are still just taking the first baby steps.

Universal Health Care is a No-Brainer

Yesterday, PBS’s Front Line aired a program called “Sick Around the World: can the U.S. learn anything from the rest of the world about how to run a health care system?” The premise of the program was quite simple. The Frontline & Washington Post correspondent,T. R. Reid, visited five different capitalist democracies (Great Britain, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan and Germany) to see how each country delivered health care and to determine what, if anything, the United States might learn from those countries.

Quite honestly, this program should be required viewing for all Americans. In a little more than 10 minutes per country, Reid makes the case that other capitalist democracies have not just cheaper more equally available health care, but also better care over all, with longer life expectancies and lower infant mortality rates.

After listening to Reid’s cogent arguments, I became convinced that even the health care plans of Obama and Clinton are insufficient. If you were watching “Boston Legal” or some other program that conflicted with Frontline last night, I invite you to go here and watch the show in its entirety.

Idaho’s Singing Senator, Glen Taylor

It  was a pleasant surprise to read about Senator Glen Taylor, the “singing cowboy”, an Idaho politician few remember. Jasper LiCalzi, blogging for the Idaho Statesman, gives an interesting review of Taylor’s autobiography. I’m not sure, however, you should depend upon Taylor’s autobiography to provide the unvarnished “straight-forward” truth about his career.

When, for example, LiCalzi says that “Most observers believed there were questionable vote counting practices used against Taylor in the biggest  electoral scandal in Idaho history,”  I wonder what sources he has beyond Taylor’s autobiography?

I don’t believe there was ever any evidence of irregularities in the vote count in the 1956 primary.    it is true that Frank Church won the primary by just 200 votes, but narrow margins were not uncommon in those days. Taylor won the Democratic primary over Senator Clark by only 216 votes in 1944, but no one suggested a recount.

Taylor, in 1956, refused to concede defeat and claimed numerous irregularities in the counting and  canvassing of the returns. After failing to get the Senate committee on elections to investigate, he proceeded to conduct a house-to-house poll in an effort to prove that many more persons had voted for him then the returns indicated.  Although the chairman of the Democratic Party offered to help in a court action to clarify the record, Taylor was unable to provide any evidence of irregularities.

The real scandal, and a reason we ought to remember Talyor, occurred in the 1954 campaign. The Republican candidate was Herman Welker, a right wing Republican and strong supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Republican Party ( at both the national and state level) and  the Idaho media (particularly the Idaho Statesman) waged a smear campaign that was classic “McCarthyism”.

Taylor’s “record” with the progressive party was used against him. Allegations of Communist front associations were made. Senator Welker brought in two national “anti-communists” Matthew Cvetic and Herbert A. Philbrick to speak against him. The only “evidence” was that the Communist Party had endorsed the Progressive Party ticket of Wallace and Taylor in 1948. The Idaho Democratic Party  leaders did nothing to defend Taylor because he had refused to support Truman in 1948.  Consequently, Taylor  was convinced that the party would do anything to keep the nomination from him.

Taylor was an authentic Leftist/Populist and, as a result, appealed to a strong populist leaning among Idahonians since the beginning of the 20th century.  Someone should write a history of Idaho populism. If they did, Taylor would be a leading figure in the story.

Larry Grant Quits 1st District Race

 

 

 

As reported in the Idaho Statesman this morning:

Former Micron executive Larry Grant said Thursday morning that he will not run for the U.S. House in Idaho’s 1st congressional district.

Instead, Grant endorsed Walt Minnick, a former timber executive who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996.

I am actually depressed about this. I followed Grant’s first campaign against Sali and was impressed by his dedication and hard work. He covered the state and probably talked one-on-one with more common Idahoans than any other candidate running at the time.

In contrast, I thought Minnick ran a lack-luster campaign in 1996. Neither candidate is charismatic, but Grant was willing to work hard and listen to voters.  Every time I attended an event for Minnick he appeared to be “playing at” being a candidate. 

I am sure the Idaho Democratic party brokered this deal because they know Minnick has lots of money that he will throw into the campaign whereas Grant’s campaign was always grassroots and short on cash.

I will support Minnick (my God, consider the alternative), but I hope Grant finds a way to serve Idaho progressives. His voice is needed.

 

Further Proof That Steve Jobs Can Predict the Future

First the iPhone and then the MacBook Air. Critics complained both lacked necessary features that made them more than mere toys. The Air was beautiful and all that, but without an optical drive, lots of ports, a large hard drive, etc., it isn’t really useful for serious work.

But, like a chess master, Jobs seems to be able to look two or three moves ahead of the rest of us. Even though Apple hasn’t pushed it, the real jewel is the 64g solid state drive Air. Why? Because we are soon to arrive at the time when the applications we need are housed on-line. You are probably aware of Google Docs
If not, you should check them out. Free, on-line applications that come close to duplicating Microsoft Office Suite.

This week, Adobe announced that it is offering a free on-line version of Photoshop Express. Not the full version of Photoshop, but great for quick photo editing and storage. Now you can take a photo with iPhone and immediately edit it with Photoshop Express.

Storage on the Air or iPhone don’t seem to be a real issue anymore. 64g might be all a “serious” user needs.

Worst President Ever?

“As far as history goes and all of these quotes about people trying to guess what the history of the Bush administration is going to be, you know, I take great comfort in knowing that they don’t know what they are talking about, because history takes a long time for us to reach.”— George W. Bush, Fox News Sunday, Feb10, 2008

As is the case with pretty much everything else, Bush is wrong about this. He has certainly “misunderestimated” how long it takes history “for us to reach”. There have been periodic polls asking historians to rank Bush’s presidency and he has always ranked in the lowest tier. See this 2006 article, for example.

But this week in an informal survey of 109 professional historians conducted over a three-week period through the History News Network, an unprecedented 98.2 percent assessed the presidency of Mr. Bush to be a failure while 1.8 percent classified it as a success.

Of course, some will argue that historians are premature to judge Bush while he is still in office. Ordinarily, that argument makes sense, but Bush has been such a failure there appears to be no way that time will result in a reappraisal. It is not as if there is real debate about his ultimate ranking among historians. There is an overwhelming consensus that Bush has been a failure.

The latest Pew Research Poll has the President’s approval rating at an all time low among the American public. But, it is important to point out that that professional historians base their judgments on different criteria than the general public. As the author of the survey points out:

Historians are in a better position than others to make judgments about how a current president’s policies and actions compare with those of his predecessors. Those judgments are always subject to change in light of future developments. But that is no reason not to make them now.

I will let the historians speak for themselves:

No individual president can compare to the second Bush,” wrote one. “Glib, contemptuous, ignorant, incurious, a dupe of anyone who humors his deluded belief in his heroic self, he has bankrupted the country with his disastrous war and his tax breaks for the rich, trampled on the Bill of Rights, appointed foxes in every henhouse, compounded the terrorist threat, turned a blind eye to torture and corruption and a looming ecological disaster, and squandered the rest of the world’s goodwill. In short, no other president’s faults have had so deleterious an effect on not only the country but the world at large.

Another stated:

With his unprovoked and disastrous war of aggression in Iraq and his monstrous deficits, Bush has set this country on a course that will take decades to correct,” said another historian. “When future historians look back to identify the moment at which the United States began to lose its position of world leadership, they will point—rightly—to the Bush presidency. Thanks to his policies, it is now easy to see America losing out to its competitors in any number of area: China is rapidly becoming the manufacturing powerhouse of the next century, India the high tech and services leader, and Europe the region with the best quality of life.

One historian indicated that his reason for rating Bush as worst is that the current president combines traits of some of his failed predecessors:

the paranoia of Nixon, the ethics of Harding and the good sense of Herbert Hoover. . . . . God willing, this will go down as the nadir of American politics.” Another classified Bush as “an ideologue who got the nation into a totally unnecessary war, and has broken the Constitution more often than even Nixon. He is not a conservative, nor a Christian, just an immoral man . . . .” Still another remarked that Bush’s “denial of any personal responsibility can only be described as silly.”

One respondent concluded:

It would be difficult to identify a President who, facing major international and domestic crises, has failed in both as clearly as President Bush.

Another noted:

His domestic policies have had the cumulative effect of shoring up a semi-permanent aristocracy of capital that dwarfs the aristocracy of land against which the founding fathers rebelled; of encouraging a mindless retreat from science and rationalism; and of crippling the nation’s economic base.

George Bush has combined mediocrity with malevolent policies and has thus seriously damaged the welfare and standing of the United States,” wrote one of the historians, echoing the assessments of many of his professional colleagues. “Bush does only two things well,” said one of the most distinguished historians. “He knows how to make the very rich very much richer, and he has an amazing talent for f**king up everything else he even approaches. His administration has been the most reckless, dangerous, irresponsible, mendacious, arrogant, self-righteous, incompetent, and deeply corrupt one in all of American history.

Are We Headed for the Next Great Depression?

The Nation has an interesting article that looks at our current economic situation. Although most pundits seem to agree we are in a recession, few consider the more dire possibility of a Depression on the scale of the “Big One” of the 1930s. The author, Jeff Faux, is not convinced that a depression is inevitable, but his analysis of the deregulation of the financial markets that began with Reagan in the 90s convinces me that one is not unthinkable.

Here are some quotes, although I suggest you go here and read the whole article.

This huge pyramid of debt was made possible by thirty years of relentless deregulation of financial markets, culminating in the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had prohibited banks from dealing in high-risk securities. In effect, Washington regulators became passive enablers to Wall Street’s financial binge drinkers. When they crashed–for example, in the savings-and-loan and junk-bond debacles of the 1980s, the Long-Term Capital Management collapse of 1998 and the Enron and dot-com crashes of the early 2000s–the government cleaned up the mess with taxpayers’ money and let them go back to the bar.

So here we go again. When subprime homeowners stopped paying, the prices of the mortgage-backed securities used as collateral fell. Banks demanded that their borrowers pay up or cover their margins. Panicked selling by borrowers further lowered the securities’ prices, triggering more margin calls and more defaults. Massive losses piled up at places like Citigroup, Countrywide, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, and cascaded back into the insurance companies. At the end of February, the huge insurer American International Group reported the largest quarterly loss, $5 billion, since the company started in 1919.

In mid-March, after anguished discussions between Federal Reserve officials and Wall Street moguls, the Fed agreed to provide $400 billion in new cash loans to banks and investment firms. Days later came the shock of eighty-five-year-old Bear Stearns going belly up. In an unprecedented deal, the Fed immediately lent JPMorgan Chase the money to buy Bear Stearns, taking suspect mortgage-backed paper as collateral. Bear’s stockholders had already taken a hosing when the stock crashed. The big winners were the company’s creditors and insurers, who were saved from the consequences of their bad business judgment.

We are now staring into the abyss. The Bear Stearns bailout has created a presumption of a safety net under any major stockbroker, in addition to any major bank. Rumors are that Lehman Brothers and Citigroup may be next. The Fed could handle a Lehman crash. But the collapse of Citigroup, the world’s largest bank, would be catastrophic, bankrupting businesses, other banks and consumers and cutting off credit for state and local governments. And it could stretch the Fed to the limit of its resources.

In the Nation article, Faux is giving us a worse case scenario. He agrees, but a reasonable scenario doesn’t sound all that rosy.

But well short of such a worst-case scenario, the country seems headed for major economic damage that will severely test whatever we have left of safety nets. It took five years from the time the recovery began in 1983 for the unemployment rate to return to pre-recession levels. Once we reach the bottom of this trough, it could be a very long time before American consumers, whose spending accounts for some 70 percent of our economy, crawl out of the debt hole and back into the shopping mall. The Japanese have still not recovered from their similar housing/debt crash in the early 1990s.

So, even the best case scenario requires immediate governmental action. But, at this point, the Administration’s plan is a bailout and a hope that the financial institutions will regulate themselves. Bush’s only concern is that we let the market work and avoid “over correcting.”