Thursday, July 31, 2008

Beating Around the Bush

New revelations about the Bush Administration’s arrogant disregard for responsible governance seem to come cascading down around us every day. The latest comes in the form of a Justice Department investigative report that concludes that hiring decisions at the Justice Department were illegally politicized. In other words, the sign over the door read, Bushies Only. We suspected as much when former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, testifying before Congress on the firing of prosecutors claimed not to “recall remembering” being involved in or even being aware of the firing of prosecutors who were not Bush loyalists. Now, the report by the DOJ's own Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility states that
Monica M. Goodling, the White House Liaison at DOJ, and her deputies had broken civil service laws, run afoul of department policy and engaged in "misconduct" in the hiring and firing of prosecutors, judges, and other DOJ applicants/employees. Goodling is another Bush appointee chosen not because she was the best qualified for the job – she graduated from Messiah College and Pat Robertson’s Regent law school – but because she was a Christian conservative Bush zealot.

The Bush Administration has been infamous for its distortions and manipulations of the truth on many fronts. In another case, the panel that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on lead poisoning was planning to strengthen lead poisoning regulations in response to science showing that smaller amounts than previously understood could cause brain damage in children. Before the panel could act, then Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tommy Thompson, a Bush appointee, rejected the recommendation and replaced two members of the panel with individuals tied to the lead industry.

It was also under Thompson that HHS downplayed the true cost of the prescription drug benefit law by $150 billion. The actuary that pointed out the true cost was threatened with termination if he revealed to Congress his estimate.

Last month, the NASA Inspector General found that White House political appointees in the NASA press office "reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized" studies of global warming, toning down politically unwelcome conclusions. A news conference on global warming was postponed, according to a senior scientist, because the Bush Administration did not want any negative environmental news before the 2004 election.

Under the Bush Administration, scientists who work for and/or advise the federal government have seen their work manipulated, suppressed, or distorted, while government agencies under the direction of Bush appointees have systematically limited public and policy maker access to critical scientific information. The Union of Concerned Scientists has constructed a clever web site in the form of a periodic table illustrating the wide spread manipulation of science by Bush and his minions.

But hey, "Great job, Brownie."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

International Activities

This is the view from our son's apartment in Vienna, Austria. We were visiting our son and his family July 13-26 this year.

My grandson is just 3 years-old and already speaks German, Slovene, and English, sometimes all in one sentence.

My son's apartment is on the 21st floor of a building that overlooks Donaupark and that's within walking distance of the Vienna International Center (VIC).

He works at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in the VIC, which also houses the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

My son's wife works at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), so both hold positions in international organizations in Vienna.

We drove to Seattle on July 12th and flew out of SEATAC at 1845 to Copenhagen on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and on to Vienna via Austrian Airlines, arriving Vienna on Sunday, the 13th, at 1825. Flew SAS Business Class aboard Airbus-340. Excellent seats, adjustable to permit practically flat sleeping.

Overcast, rainy Monday in Vienna. Took brief walk in Donaupark, but spent most of the time indoors playing with grandson and getting reacquainted with his parents -- my son and daughter-in-law. Grandson's favorite plaything, other than the reluctant cat, is his train set.

Rode the U-Bahn to Heilingenstadt on Tuesday with my son and grandson and took a brief walk. There’s a large public housing project here, the "Karl Marx Hof," which looks a lot better than like housing in the States. As I understand it, every Austrian citizen is granted public housing – a basic apartment or flat -- if needed.

As we walk towards the Strassenbahn (electric streetcar) we pass a gypsy woman sitting at the side of the path begging. I drop a few euro coins in her outstretched hand. I come across a number of them at U-Bahn stops during my stay. They all seem to have a cane at their side.

Breakfast over here generally consists of bread or rolls, croissants, butter and jam, meats, like proscciuto and salami, and various cheeses, plus coffee or espresso, tea, or hot chocolate. I alternate between European and American breakfasts, just to keep my digestive tract as confused as my circadian rhythms.

After breakfast, we took a stroll on the Graben, which was crowded with summer tourists.

Part of our vacation was spent visiting in-laws in Celje, Slovenia. Stari Grad, Celje Castle, was built in the 2nd half of the 12th Century. It occupies a strategic location on a steep cliff overlooking present day Celje. We visited the castle on Sunday.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Freddie and Fannie

Well paid CEOs, Mudd on left, Syron on right

We are here in Vienna, Austria, reading an article in the International Herald Tribune about the financial troubles in the United States.Especially troubling is the prospect of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac failing. I sometimes wonder how many average Americans even know what these two institutions are and what they represent.

Freddie Mac is a stockholder-owned company established by Congress in 1970 to support homeownership and rental housing. According to its web site, Freddie Mac fulfills its mission by purchasing residential mortgages and mortgage-related securities, which it finances primarily by issuing mortgage-related securities and debt instruments in the capital markets.

Fannie Mae, according to its web site, has a federal charter and operates in America's secondary mortgage market to ensure that mortgage bankers and other lenders have enough funds to lend to home buyers at low rates. In 1968, Fannie Mae was re-chartered by Congress as a shareholder-owned company, funded solely with private capital raised from investors on Wall Street and around the world.

The Chairman and CEO of Freddie Mac is Richard F. Syron. Freddie Mac’s address is 8200 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, VA 22102-3110.

The President and CEO of Fannie Mae is Daniel H. Mudd. Fannie Mae’s address is 3900 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20016-2892.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock prices have plummeted on fears about their financial stability in a chaotic housing market where falling home values and rising defaults have contributed to large losses at the two companies. According to congressional budget experts, a federal rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could cost taxpayers $25 billion.

Mr. Syron was paid about $18M in 2007. Mr. Mudd was paid only $12M. Their combined salary of $30M apparently reflects their success in guiding these shareholder-owned companies to their remarkable debacle. I'm sure these gentlemen would appreciate a letter from citizens grateful for their sound judgment and management expertise. Please enclose your check or money order.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Going to hell in a handbasket

Dear Friends --
I remember when I was younger, much younger, I used to listen to my parents and their friends talk about how the world was “going to hell in handbasket!” I never understood what that meant. I mean, what is a handbasket, and how do you go to hell in one? On top of that, I didn’t think things were so bad when I was growing up.

Well, I still don’t know what that particular phrase means, but I tend to agree with the sentiment now. Maybe people my age just get cranky -- feel as though nothing’s as good as it used to be. But maybe not. Maybe there’s something to that observation. I’ll tell you something for sure – fishing’s not as good as it used to be. Here in my home state of Washington native salmon are on the brink of extinction. So that’s not a cranky old feeling. That’s a fact.

I’ll tell you something else. When I grew up in Los Angeles back in the middle of the Twentieth Century, you could smell the orange blossoms in the spring, and you could look up in the night sky and see the millions of stars, then wake up in the morning and see the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains off to the East. Unless you think smelling exhaust fumes and squinting out with burning, red eyes at an orange-brown sky is a good thing, then I expect you’d agree things were better in LA then.

But these are just my personal recollections. And they probably color my thinking about a lot of other things – like the way we live, the way we bring up our children, the way we run our country. Things like that.

It never would’ve occurred to me when I was graduating from college in 1961 that kids going to school today, Elementary School at that, would be searched for weapons because 12-year olds and younger are shooting each other to death. I used to worry about my kids when they were growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, but I will tell you, I never worried that they’d go to school one day and get gunned down.
There’s been a lot of press over the years about efforts to get the entertainment industry to tone down the violence in films, television, and video games. I agree with that, and I’d add the Internet to the list. But the industry argues that there’s “no evidence” that the subject matter in these media influences people’s behavior. In fact, they argue that the films and television that they produce simply reflect society itself. You know, I don’t buy it. The biggest “e business” on the Internet is pornography and it isn’t there because it’s producers are simply “reflecting society.” It’s there because the scumbags of the world are out to make a buck any way they can. Pornography debases society and no one needs a statistical study to know that.

I’ve never watched a whole lot of television, but I’ve watched it for some fifty years and I’ll tell you what – in today’s television, from comedy to drama, almost nothing seems to be out of bounds. In the past, sponsors seemed to take some responsibility for the content of shows on which their name and product were advertised. Now, their primary concern is ratings. In other words, they’re interested in what percentage of their target audience is watching, not what they’re watching.

Corporate “social responsibility” seems to be on the decline generally. Senator John McCain once tried to get a bill passed that would’ve held executives personally responsible if their companies withheld evidence of product defects that resulted in injury or death. Members of the Senate beholding to industry special interests killed the bill. What’s worse, they were able to do this anonymously. Frankly, I feel strongly that one of the greatest threats we face as a democratic society is the unchecked influence of corporate and other special interests on our government. When George W. Bush, in his preliminary debate with John McCain before the 2000 Presidential Election, said that he wouldn’t support Campaign Finance Reform, I decided right then and there that I wouldn’t vote for him – ever –and I didn’t. I’m sorry that he was ever elected president, but I least I didn’t vote for him. Little did I know that not supporting Campaign Finance Reform would be the least of his mistakes.

Of course, I’ve got a lot of reasons for not voting Republican: I am in favor of paying down the debt, and saving Social Security, rather than making big tax cuts – who ever heard of cutting taxes during a war? I think we need to spend more money on education, not on the military (despite my 20 years in the Air Force). And I favor teaching science in our public schools, not hocus-pocus. George W. Bush wants creationism on the curriculum along side evolution. I say, “Nuts!”

Well, I’m rambling, but I’m old and that’s what old folks do sometimes. Now let me tell you what I’m reading. I’m reading an article in my automobile dealer’s magazine, of all things, “Drive,” from Subaru. It’s telling me that today 116 square miles of rain forest will be destroyed; 250,000 newborns will join the World’s exploding population; “at least” 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste will be released into our air, water, and land; Americans alone will throw away enough garbage today to fill the Superdome in New Orleans twice; some 40 to 100 species will become extinct. I’m a cranky old guy that, like my parents before me, thinks things are getting worse rather than better, and this article is telling me that at the end of today, “the Earth will be a little hotter, the rain a little more acidic and the water a little more polluted…crowded cities will be more crowded and the air…will be a bit dirtier…the web of life will be a bit more threadbare. Tomorrow it starts all over again” Hey, this is my automobile dealer talking to me! Guess what I’m reading in Audubon magazine, for crying out loud!

And speaking of “drive,” I don’t like paying more than four bucks for a gallon of gas any more than the next guy, but drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge isn’t an option for me. It won’t have any impact probably in my lifetime, and haven’t we done enough harm to the environment? By the way, my son and his family live in Europe. They pay well over $8/gal for gas. They get along.

So here’s what I’m doing:
1. Vote the Republicans out of office – they had their chance and screwed things up royally. Let the Democrats screw things up for a change.
2. Turn the water off while I’m brushing my teeth -- turn it back on when I need to rinse.
3. Write this essay (don’t you find it helps to get things off your chest?)

I’m also thinking about meditation. If I understand it, you sit there and try not to think about anything. Hey, that could help. When I told my wife, she said, ”Meditation, hell. You need medication!” She could be right.