Saturday, November 01, 2008

Obama through the prism of "All the King's Men"

Our Hillsdale reading group chose Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” as its book of the month. Actually, we chose the “story” not necessarily the book. Some of us chose to watch one of the two film versions.

We clearly are using the words "read" and "reading" loosely.

The discussion veered widely from the plot and characters even though the story's duplicity and corruption guided us.

The only person to address Warren's work directly was Robert, who couldn’t make the meeting. He wrote us a thoughtful e-mail. Here is part of it:

In the movie, there is one intriguing scene, which I ask you to consider in your discussion: The drunk adopted son of Willie Stark, the governor and protagonist, has crashed his car, severely injuring his girlfriend, who eventually dies. The girl's father visits the governor's official residence, the son confesses, and Willie offers to find a government contract for the father's trucking business to keep him quiet.

Of course, the father (later found beaten to death) refuses the offer, but makes the following comment: "I listened to you when you got started. I supported you. Your words were good then. Your words are good now. But, you're not. And I don't think you ever were."

Thus, the question is raised: Was the populist Stark ever about "helping the people"? Or, was it always about Willie Stark?

Nature versus nurture?

In other words, were the seeds of Stark’s corruption already within him or did the system plant the seeds?

We applied the question to trying to predict what a Barack Obama would do if he is elected president next Tuesday.

Here’s a sampling:

Sidney said he would launch a new New Deal replete with a CCC and WPA. The financial system will be totally revamped.

Joan predicted that Obama would revive the automobile industry, but Mike noted that the present “planned obsolescence” model for the industry first needed to be replaced. He expressed skepticism over whether the industry would accept a new economic model dictated by the electric vehicles that require virtually no maintenance.

Mike foresees an Obama jobs program that supports alternative energy and rebuilds the nation’s infrastructure. The unemployment rate will eventually go down as a result.

In general, Mike said that the entire culture of consumption needs to change,

Rick N. said that was unlikely, but said that Obama might be able to “change the conversation” by emphasizing community and its importance.

Dianna said Obama would bring the troops home, but Dick sees a shift of the forces to Afghanistan and a re-equipping of the military.

Rick N. predicted the tax burden would be shifted to the wealthy. He also sees an Obama Administration working in collaboration with world partners and being more conciliatory with adversaries.

Joan said there would be more racial harmony and more talk about community.

Harkening back to “All the King’s Men,” I questioned whether Obama would buck the lobbyists and the special interest. I doubted that there would be significant change in health insurance, for instance. I noted that it took Colin Powell to highlight prejudice against American Muslims and to chide Obama for utterly failing to address it.

I also said shifting troops to Afghanistan seemed to be moving from one quagmire to another.

Nor, on reflection, do I see “real change” or “change we can believe in” emerging from an administration that is made up largely of a cast from the Clinton years.

In short, my colleagues were more on the side that the “nature” of Obama — his innate character if you will — would shape his administration. My view was more that the political system would “nurture” half-measures.

No one seemed willing to lay odds on their predictions. We all were well aware that election day stood between our discussion and the inauguration of a new administration.

We are considering reading something by the late John Kenneth Galbraith as our next book. Robert Hamilton had suggested “The Affluent Society.”

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Sarah Palin: First Amendment "Maverick"

Sarah Palin, who graduated from The University of Idaho with a degree in journalism, no less, must have been skinning a moose when they covered the First Amendment in class.

Memo to our would-be vice president: that’s the one that says that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press or freedom of speech. It also guarantees your religious right to be blessed and protected in your church by a witch hunter — should you feel the need.

Sarah got the First Amendment terribly, frighteningly wrong in a radio interview on Friday:

Here’s what Sarah told the conservative radio host:

“If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.”

Hello, Sarah! The First Amendment guarantees the media, and anyone else for that matter, the right to criticize government officials and political candidates who are engaged in fear mongering, praising Boy Scouts, defending torture or extolling apple pie.

Alas, Palin, who is clearly no dummy, is astonishingly ignorant. Talk about a child, student and American citizen left behind.

While this little radio episode is all over the Internet, it will be interesting to see how the “mainstream media” cover it, if at all.

It’s an embarrassment to the political system and American education that a politician so ignorant of the First Amendment could have risen so far — even to be governor of Alaska or mayor of Wasilla, let alone candidate for the vice presidency of the nation.

Meanwhile consider, in full, the First Amendment, a cornerstone of our democracy.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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Haven't we read this somewhere before?

Political reporting and its clichés get skewered here. Enjoy.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sound-bite socialism and other political follies

If American politics ever could get beyond sound bites, smears and gotchas, we might actually learn something.

The good news is that Prof. Barack Obama may, just may, be on the verge of clearing the air and opening the discussion.

John McCain and his campaign are another story.

McCain’s accusing Barack Obama of “spreading the wealth” is a case in point. Of course the "wealth" of the working and middle classes (it's called "labor") have been spread to the rich since the dawn of capitalism.

Look no farther than Cindy McCain, who inherited her millions from her father’s beer distribution company, which, in turn, was made profitable by its hundreds of truck drivers, mechanics, warehouse workers and accountants.

They worked; she profited and spread that profit to John.

John McCain clearly doesn’t have a problem with spreading the wealth. His problem is with spreading it equitably and fairly.

Which brings us to the McCain campaign’s charge that Obama is a socialist.

Here is part of the Wikipedia definition of socialism:

Socialists mainly share the belief that capitalism unfairly concentrates power and wealth among a small segment of society that controls capital and creates an unequal society.

Sound familiar? The definition continues:

All socialists advocate the creation of an egalitarian society, in which wealth and power are distributed more evenly, although there is considerable disagreement among socialists over how, and to what extent this could be achieved.

For most Europeans, this, and the guarantee of certain state-provided services such as health care, are givens. Frankly, recalling Christ's admonition to the rich man, I don't see how it is possible to be a true Christian without being a socialist. Which may be why Europe developed "Christian Socialist" parties. Shocking!

I am particularly fond of line from George Orwell that American conservatives strangely ignore even as they worship him. Wrote Orwell, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” (from “Why I write”)

“As I understand it” leaves room for healthy debate. But in America, socialism in any form is considered unworthy of discussion.

Which brings us to George W. Bush, who is nationalizing large chunks of the financial industry. Could it be that our worst president will in the dying days of his administration turn out to be a socialist? He clearly is willing to use socialist tools as part of his effort to save the wreck wrought by American capitalism.

And yet we don’t hear the McCain campaign calling the Bush Administration’s policies socialistic.

Wonder why….

Maybe it’s because McCain voted to support the socialistic bail-out. Or maybe it’s because McCain values the other non-socialistic parts of the Bush program: the tax cuts for the rich, the cronyism on behalf of Enron and Halliburton and Big Oil, the exporting of American jobs, the union busting, the efforts to privatize Social Security, and the resistance to truly reform health care.

Why can’t we delve into such matters? Why is political discourse here so slap dash and innuendo laden? Why is it that a word like “socialism” is used pejoratively and so little understood? Why can’t we explore the ways that wealth has been spread in one direction, from the assembly line to the executive suite with its stock options, seven- and eight-digit salaries and golden parachutes?

Is the problem with the corporate-owned media as I’ve suggested? Is it in our educational system? Is it in political pandering and timidity? Or is it a part of American isolationism, exceptionalism and arrogance?

When can we begin to talk openly and honestly about ideas well worth exploring?

Next Wednesday?

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Oregon ballot returns signal bad news for GOP

So far we have poll-driven coverage of this presidential campaign. But the polls could be wrong, which means the coverage could be wrong even though it is having an apparent band-wagon effect.

Could it all be built on fantasy election coverage?


But here in Oregon some ballot counting has already begun. Not of votes, but of ballots returned by mail thus far. And the ballot-count doesn’t look good for John McCain or Gordon Smith.

This morning, the web site had an incisive analysis of what’s going on.

While the rate of ballot return is down over four years ago by 19 percent, it is down a lot more in Republican rural Oregon than it is in Democratic urban parts of the state.

That means that many Republicans are sitting this one out. If it is happening here in Oregon, it probably is happening elsewhere.

My guess is that conservative voters aren’t motivated to cast their ballots for McCain or, in Oregon, for Gordon Smith, who’s portraying himself as best buddy to high profile liberal Democrats like Teddy Kennedy.

I mean really!

The Smith strategy is back-firing. The only thing that might jar loose those conservative voters would be a surprise visit by Sarah Palin. Problem with bringing in the moose-hunter is that Smith might pay the price among rational, moderate Republicans.

He’s stuck in a political no-man’s land.

So our ballot count here might be proving those polls to be right after all. Voters aren’t buying what the Republicans are selling.

It's about time.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Taxing Question: Who's in the Middle Class?

Every time I hear John McCain accuse Barack Obama of raising taxes on the middle class, my reaction is “Huh?”

But today it hit me. In August McCain famously told Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in Southern California that you aren’t rich until you make $5 million a year.

Could me mean that making less than $5 million a year are “middle class”?

If so, Obama, who has said he would raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year, would indeed be raising taxes on the middle class, at least as McCain defines it.

Somebody needs to nail McCain on his definition of “middle class.” A simple show of hands would do the job. Obama might ask all those who make more than $250,000 a year, to raise their hands.


In front of certain country club Republican audiences (in Arizona?), the response might be different. McCain, like fellow multi-millionaire George W. Bush, lives in a bubble.

(Another question: If you did raise your hand, would it really be unfair for you to pay more in taxes?)

It probably doesn’t matter with only six days left in the campaign and Obama firmly ahead, but a working definition of middle class would straighten out the back and forth about taxes. It would explain which class would and wouldn't won’t be taxed under Obama’s plan.

The clarification would also put the lie to John McCain.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Health Insurance follows Airlines' model

What’s happening to my Medicare “med advantage” insurance is a little like what’s happening to the airlines industry.

Regence Blue Cross/Blue Shield sent me a required notice the other day titled “How Your Plan Will Change for 2009.”

The good news, such as it is, is that my monthly premium will remain the same: $75.

Not to forget that BC/BS pays for a menu of services beyond what’s covered by Medicare. I still make modest monthly Medicare payments too. And of course, like you, I’ve been paying into Medicare all my working life.

Now the bad news. It’s like the airlines charging for your checked bags, a pillow and blanket, lunch and god-know-what-next (Oxygen masks? Peanuts? Seat belts?)

The insurance notice tells me that out-of-pocket maximums have been raised 33 percent.

The inpatient copay for hospitals now applies to the first five days, rather than three.

Skilled nursing facility care had no copays for the first 25 days. Now it’s $25 per day.

Copays for doctor’s office visits go from $5 to $10.

On and on it goes. There are 13 other hikes. Add them up and this is not nickel and dime. It’s more like $25 and $50 per item per year. The only way to avoid them is not to need medical care. At age 66, I’m finding that isn’t possible.

Don’t get me started.

Last year I might have been able to afford this sort of gouging. This year, given the Republicans’ masterful handling of the financial industry, that’s no longer the case.

When is this country going to get health care right?

Frankly, I’m not holding out a lot of hope for Barack Obama’s making this significantly better. After all, how much of what we pay the insurance companies goes into the pockets of lobbyists? Gucci Gulch isn’t going away.

While the government is into buying banks, it should do the same with insurance companies. And it should go all the way. It should run them for the people, not the plutocrats.

Let’s face it, we need universal health care coverage. That’s the only way health care in this country will be, as Obama proclaimed in the last debate with “The Maverick,” a right, not a privilege.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Plan A or nothing ...

This Sunday morning, out of the prolonged silence of Quaker worship, a Friend spoke referring to the idea of always having a “Plan B” just in case “Plan A” doesn’t work. He observed that when it came to acting out of love — which he called “Plan A” — there is no Plan B.

Different options don’t work.

And if for some reason what you are doing under Plan A isn’t quite working out (we all know the feeling), you don’t give up on love’s plan; you rework it.

I have that feeling about war and conflict too. We either love each other or we destroy each other.

It’s Plan A or nothing.

Today, brilliant with color, God’s own Plan A was on glorious display.

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