March 31, 2010


Sam Smith

Interesting mayoral race is brewing in DC, where black Ivy Adrian Fenty, running for reelection, is clearly in trouble. Fenty is one of a new class of black politicians - well educated and superficially attractive -- but who were raised to think of themselves as God's gift to diversity and never went through those hard patches that make a truly good politician.

Three of the current black Ivies - Fenty, Obama and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick - quickly lost their political sheen, although Newark mayor Cory Booker seems to be hanging in there, and might even be a strong candidate for governor.

The DC races is particularly interesting because the city is still majority black - although becoming more white by the day. Fenty won every precinct in the city but started slipping almost from the start. In January, the Washington Post reported that Fenty's support among black voters has dropped from 68% to 29% and among whites from 78% to 57%.

Definitely running against Fenty will be Vincent Gray, the city council chair, a far more socially conscious politician and also far more liked. Gray is the sort of pol you don't even get that mad at even when he's wrong, whereas Fenty could be dead right and still piss you off.

Adding to the excitement is another possibility described by Washington City Paper's Loose Lips: "The contest could get considerably more competitive and unpredictable in the coming days: Millionaire developer R. Donahue Peebles said that he is 'planning to run' as well, backing off earlier statements that family issues would keep him out of the race.'"

At this point Gray seems clearly the best, but he's also the one with far the least money. Stay tuned for a race that uniquely features three quite different styles of blackness.

March 28, 2010


Sam Smith

When bad things happen, strange things happen:

- During a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, an American Indian named Wovoka claimed to have had a dream in which all his fellow native Americans were taken into the sky as the Earth opened up and swallowed all the whites upon it. The earth then returned to its natural state as a land where native Americans could live in peace.

According to Wovoka, to make this dream real, his native Americans were to follow these instructions: "When you get home you must begin a dance and continue for five days. Dance for four successive nights, and on the last night continue dancing until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then return to their homes. You must all do this in the same way. . . I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat."

The ghost dance culture would sweep across the tribes of western America as the dancers were losing their last hold on their beloved lands.

- As military supplies poured into the Pacific Islands during World War II, local peoples reacted to the sudden change by developing "cargo cults" that offered magical explanations for the flow of imports. When the war ended, members of the cults built imitation landing strips and aircraft to attempt to recreate the former reality and restart the influx of goods.

- The early 20th century Maji Maji Rebellion in Africa was spurred by a medium who offered medicine he claimed would turn German colonials' bullets into water.

- Sometimes the strange and the rational are strangely mixed as in America's first Great Awakening, both an expression of excessive evangelicalism and of nascent equality that would help to lay the philosophical groundwork of the American revolution. Unlike the hierarchal assumptions of the Enlightenment, the Awakening taught that under God all were equal, a principle that even attracted Benjamin Franklin, though he didn't care for the theology behind it.

- And sometimes the bad times produce not just the strange but the disastrous, as with the rise of Nazism.

Typically, the strange things were a reaction to events that had overwhelmed many and led them to seek solace in a simplistic and seemingly comfortably symbolic solution. Those reacting had not caused the problem; they had suffered and become disoriented as a result of them.

Nazism, for example, didn't spring up as just an evil virus. It fed on:

- Unhappiness in the wake of World War I

- The 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. There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, and a large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.

- The use of negative campaigning, a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi campaigns argued what was wrong with their opponents and ignored stating their own policies. Sound at all familiar?

- The collapse of the country's self image, falling from world leadership in education, industry, science, and literacy.

Like Ghost Cult dancers in the 19th century, World War II Pacific Islanders wondering where their cargo was, Africans beset by German colonialists, and Germans beset by economic and cultural decline, Americans today face an extraordinary assemblage of change, discouragement, challenges and uncertainties.

Add together the prospect of climate change, the erosion of democracy, the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, the decline of America's position in the world, rapid changes in both technology and social values, and the collapse of conventional conservative and liberal politics and we're lucky to have a reaction no stranger than that of the Tea Party movement.

When considering such developments it's good to keep two things in mind:

- They are reactions and not the events or movements that caused the reactions.

- What happens as a result of these reactions usually depends more on how those controlling major events behave than how those responding to them do.

In other words - silly, misinformed, prejudiced or even criminal as they may be - members of the Tea Party movement are not responsible for the longest indefensible war in American history, the exploitation of the economy leading to the current collapse, the degradation of the environment, or the disintegration of a liberal movement once responsive to the needs of the average citizen.

And so it doesn't help much to have those who contributed to the misdirection simply scold the discontented. Especially when a recent poll finds that 52% of Americans believe the average member of the Tea Party movement has a better understanding of the issues facing America today than the average member of Congress and 47% think that their own political views are closer to those of the average Tea Party member than to the views of the average member of Congress

And it doesn't help to create a counter myth that blames the Tea Party for our problems, when, in fact, it was the extremist center that created them. Name one of our crises to which we were driven by either left or right. This is not to say trouble can't come from the political edges but this time it was the centrist establishment - whose interest is more in power retention rather than in political policy - that started our present wars, degraded our environment, lost our jobs and chipped away at democracy and our freedoms.

This is not unusual in history. For example, one of the reasons members of the KKK wore hoods was because some of them were town officials, important businessmen or police officers. Today the extremist center doesn't have to wear hoods; the media just covers for them.

There is no doubt, however, that it is all quite strange. Consider, for instance, that a Democratic president and Democratic Congress have recently passed a healthcare bill based in no small part on principles outlined in similar legislation offered by conservative Republican Robert Dole in 1994.

Yet recent polling finds that a large margin of Republicans think it's terrible and a similar percentage of Democrats think its wonderful.

At such times, we shouldn't be too surprised if some voters are acting a bit confused or crazy. Or feel that they're losing control.

Although obviously encouraged by hypocrites, hate-mongers and know-nothings of the political right, the failure of liberal politics also bears substantial blame for the Tea Party rebellion.

Instead moving firmly to resolves our crises - as did their predecessors in the New Deal and Great Society - today's liberals content themselves with being common scolds, attacking those who dare to express discomfort with the times. They reject, rather than redirect.

For example, one of the problems has been the over-centralization of a nonresponsive federal government. It's not about how big government so much as where it is. But can we discuss openly (even perhaps with "civil discourse") the status of the Tenth Amendment?

Apparently not without Chris Matthews comparing you to the bad guys of the pre-civil rights South. Or history professor Joseph Crespino writing in the History News Network: "Defending state sovereignty inevitably evokes memories of the civil rights era - when 'states’ rights' was the catchphrase of Southern segregationists."

This is easily as stupid an argument as some of those of the Tea Party movement, the difference being that arguers are far better situated in America's elite and so can get away with it without being held to account.

The contempt such voices have for rights specifically reserved for the states and the people under the Constitution only adds to the anger of others. I even feel some of it when a lawyer argues, for example, that my constitutional rights under several amendments as an individual are subservient to the commerce clause - because I still regard myself as something better than a truck.

Besides, it puts liberals out of sync with the rest of the country. A recent Rasmussen poll found that:

- Forty-three percent of U.S. voters rate the performance of their local government as tops compared to its counterparts on the state and federal level.

- Nineteen percent say state government is better than the other two.

- Just 14% think the federal government does a better job.

- And 25% aren't sure.

- Fifty-six percent of all voters believe the federal government has too much influence over state government. Only 12% percent say the federal government doesn't have enough influence over states.

From what I've seen as a journalist, this is pretty accurate. State and local government often works better than the federal government except in certain areas, the primary one being the redistribution of public funds for public purposes such as Social Security and Medicare.

Liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution -- having government carried out at the lowest practical level -- dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson.

Conservative columnist William Safire wrote once that "in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for 'power sharing,' a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of 'bureaucracy' were often leveled at centralized authority." But modern liberals have lost touch even with the recent past, preferring to embrace centralized authority. It makes them vulnerable to the charge that their politics is one of intentions rather than results -- symbolized by huge agencies like the Department of Housing & Urban Development that fail miserably to produce policies worthy of their name.

Conservatives, on the other hand, often confuse the devolution of government with its destruction. Thus while the liberals are underachieving, the conservatives are undermining. In fact, a sensible and democratic devolution of power should be high on the American repair list.

The question must be repeatedly asked of new and present policies: how can these programs be brought closer to the supposed beneficiaries - the citizens? And how can government money go where it works best?

My own priorities for devolution would include giving back the public schools to their communities, giving back the National Guard to the governors, and allowing far more local and state discretion with stimulus funds.

Here are some other thoughts from another non-Tea Party member, former Democratic Senator Gary Hart:

"Let's shift administration of domestic programs as much as possible to local communities, what Thomas Jefferson called elementary republics. And, since the 50 states have become targets since 9/11, let's make the National Guard, local citizen-soldiers, the backbone of homeland security. . .So long as we are one nation and one national community, we will have a national government, governed by elected officials. But, if local citizens are willing to take the trouble to participate in local decisions, there is no reason in the world why they cannot administer national programs according to their own local needs. At the very least, it might help us move on from a stale big government/small government quarrel which is getting us nowhere. What all of us want is effective government. . . and citizens who care."

The disparagement of state and local government by many liberals reflects not so much an ideological view as it does a form a snobbishness, which is to say they feel better qualified to run things than mere governors or city council members and, anyway, they don't want to be stuck in Des Moines. The Obama crowd strongly projects this attitude.

But without power resting close to the people, where they feel they can influence it, the alienation towards government in general inevitably grows, whether expressed in anger or apathy.

This issue is one leading cause of the current political fracture. But even more important is economics. Who's winning and who's losing? Before getting too mad at someone else's anger, it's good to figure out where that person rests in the economic pyramid. It will affect, and often not in a strictly logical way, how they feel about other matters.

During the whole healthcare debate, however, economic issues were swept aside. The fear of many seniors that their policies would be hurt, the uncertainty about premium costs, and the personal expense of obeying the individual mandate were largely ignored, but almost certainly were hidden factors in the opposition.

Worse as a visible and convincing attempt to revive the economy, the stimulus package has been pathetic.

Obama and the Democrats have been tone deaf on this. And the media has hardly noticed.

This is not new. Since the Great Society, liberals have increasingly lost interest in what used to be their main reason for existence: doing the most for the most. During the 2008 campaign, for example, neither Obama nor Clinton could find much time to discuss such issues as foreclosures, jobs, pensions, interest rates and so forth.

Bloomberg reports that a recent survey found, "more than 90 percent of Tea Party backers said the federal government is trying to control too many aspects of private life and more decisions should be made at the state level. At the same time, 70 percent of those who sympathize with the Tea Party want a federal government that fosters job creation."

It is this little understood inconsistency that crops up repeatedly in times of stress. Economic insecurity turns into hostility towards other things, including those of other ethnicities.

And the powerful play upon it. For example, it was the white elite in the South that convinced poorer whites that poor blacks were their true problem. And it has been the Republican elite in Washington who have egged the Tea Party on.

Those who perceive and deal with this anomaly are rare. Roosevelt, aided substantially by strong populist and socialist pressure, built a coalition around his programs that included many who would today be Tea Party members. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, amazing in so many ways, has never really gotten credit for how it furthered ethnic progress not just by civil rights legislation but by simultaneously improving the lives of many whites as well.

And one of the most extraordinary governors of modern times, Louisiana's Earl Long, who gets virtually no notice for anything other than his bizarre behavior, had the South's real dysfunction figured out long before most.

Long was not driven by noble ideology but by good politics. At a time when nothing close was happening elsewhere in the south - and seventeen years before the passage of the Voting Rights Act - he increased the number of black voters from 7,000 to over 100,000.

Was it an act of virtue? No, it was an act of political organizing of a sort no one else dared to do.

How did he get away with it?

His programs for blacks hired 2,000 new black teachers at salaries equal to whites, led to a 50% decrease in black illiteracy and a tenfold increase in funding of black colleges.

But that was just part of the story. At the heart were programs that helped everyone regardless of ethnicity: pushing for a school free lunch program, building highways, bridges and other public works, 14 new trade schools and 100 new public schools.

Robert Wilfred Franson recalls a story from AJ Liebling's classic account, The Earl of Louisiana, in which Liebling, during a conversation with Long brings up the topic of prize fighting. Says Liebling: "I hear they've got a law here in Louisiana that a white boy can't even box on the same card with colored boys.".

"'Yeah,' said the Governor, 'but dat kind of stuff is foolish. If dere's enough money in it, dey're bound to get together.'"

"Said Liebling, 'I recognized the theory of an economic resolution of the race conflict.'"

This is a revealing story that is not told in the media nor in the history books. It ruffles the myth of good change being only the product of virtue and well-schooled intelligence. That someone as corrupt as Earl Long could do as much good defies everything the establishment stands for. And to suggest that who gets the money is key, is even worse.

Yet it happened again a decade or so later when two of the most corrupt men in Washington - LB Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell Jr - got more good legislation passed in less time that at any moment in Americna history.

They understood that if you want to solve a major problem like ethnic relations, you also have to look at how the money is flowing. And if you want to get into trouble, as Obama has, just ignore this issue and spend more on your war supplemental than you do dealing to handle foreclosures.


But Obama and the Tea Party reflect a much larger problem. The system has broken down and nobody is doing much to fix it. Simply berating those who react in simplistic and misguided fashion doesn't help things at all.

One real reason for our troubles is that the two major parties have morphed into political Mafia organizations with minimal interest in actual issues.

Further, beginning with Clinton, liberals cut a deal with the Democratic right not to cause too much trouble and have been living up to the bargain under two faux liberal presidents. To the extent they do raise any noise, it is through de facto ad agencies like Move On rather than with serious organizing. So far have liberals drifted from their former values that a recent poll finds 61% of them supporting full body scans at airports.

And the real left has become too weak to do anything much about it.

Thus, for Clinton and Obama, there was no pressure from the left and, as a result, no programs to reflect it.

Further, we cling to identities that no longer exist. Both liberals and conservatives have become two more demographic groups rather than political organizations.

Some time back I concocted a new political spectrum, based not on theory but on actual positions. On a number of issues Libertarians and Greens were closer than either were to the Democrats or Republicans.

This flies in the face with everything our politicians, media and academics tell us to think, but it is far more accurate.

So what do you do with such information?

One thing is to stop thinking so much about parties and more about issues.

This was dramatically demonstrated in a recent day-long meeting I attended, held by 36 activists - ranging from left to right - to discuss creating a crss-ideological antiwar, anti-empire coalition. The fact that we might not agree on taxation, education or agriculture didn't matter. We were picking one issue and working on it.

Besides war and empire, here are other issues open to a similar new fusion politics:

- Civil liberties issues such as Real ID, the Patriot Act, and warrantless wiretapping.

- Devolution of government to the lowest practical level.

- Conservation of natural resources, once often a non- ideological issue.

- Ending the war on drugs

We need to get over the idea that joining with someone of another set of beliefs is wrong even though you agree on one or more things. Some of the most effective political organizing in America has been achieved by ignoring that rule. As I have sometimes put it, if you find a gun-toting, abortion-hating nun who'll help you save the forest, put her on the committee.

One good reason for doing this is that the system doesn't want you to. It wants us to all stay in our little political boxes and act according to code.

Ignoring this rule is one way to start to change the system.

Another way is to stop taking orders from the system and start writing orders for the system.

A case in point is campaign finances. Now that the Supreme Court has removed all dignity from this activity, we can no longer expect the law's help.

But that doesn't mean we're helpless. One way to help revive democracy in our country is to make sure that every organization, church, school, or club is run according to its principles.

A great model for such gatherings is the New England town meeting. These are a far cry from the undemocratic political talk fests pursued since by every cynical politician and every public affairs TV producer desperate for a program idea.

Ken Bresler, who wrote a primer on Massachusetts town meetings, noted that "one reason that Massachusetts colonists revolted against Great Britain was the British attempt to ban most town meetings except by permission. In 1774, British soldiers tried to stop a Salem town meeting in progress, but the citizens barred the door of their town house and continued to meet."

New England town meetings were -- and are -- serious democratic business. Says John Gould in his book, Town Meeting, "Absolute independence characterizes town meeting. No one tells a Yankee how to vote, no one dictates, and only another Yankee can persuade."

Another early American model for reaching democratic decisions comes from the Society of Friends. The Quakers have always conducted their business on the basis of consensus. While the concept seems risky and time-consuming to those who have not observed or participated in it, people all over the country are adapting consensus as they come to realize that majority voting is often insufficient -- or even alienating -- in our increasingly diverse communities. The beauty of consensus is that people feel better after reaching it, for in its wake is clear evidence that one has done the best possible under the circumstances.

Of course, that still leaves conventional politicians as rogue agents. One way to deal with this would be to bring together a community of citizens - including from churches, small businesses, non-profits and schools - and design campaign finance standards for all candidates. If they agree to observe these standards, they get to use the group's seal of approval. Done right, and with enough consensus, it could dramatically change how finances were handled by candidates at both the local and state level.

As things work now, it's a little like letting the criminal class - i.e. politicians - write the laws. We need to find new ways to encourage or embarrass them into doing better.

I think of this approach as a new fusion politics, politics that shakes up the current sick rules of politics by bringing people together in new ways to make better rules.

And there's hope in it. To get a sense of this, I'll close with a story from the North Carolina History Project abut some old fusion politics. It describes well what can happen when you start to change what everyone thinks are the inevitable rules:

||||| During the 1890s, a national phenomenon called Fusion politics united political parties. In some western states the Populist (or People's Party) and the Democratic Party united, but in North Carolina the movement, spearheaded by agricultural leader Marion Butler, combined the Populist and Republican parties. In the presidential election of 1896, the Populist Party found itself ironically backing the Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan at the national level, while joining forces with Republicans at the state level.

The term Fusion is somewhat misleading, for it implies a merger. The parties maintained separate executive committees and merely cooperated whenever feasible by forming joint electoral tickets. In the Tar Heel State, the Populist and Republican parties disagreed on certain national issues, such as the tariff, the gold standard, and silver coinage. The parties, however, agreed on many state issues, including education, voting rights, and restoring the charter of the Farmers' Alliance. . .

Prior to 1894, Marion Butler, chairman of the state People's Party and editor of The Caucasian, held secret meetings with black and white Republican leaders, including former black Congressman Henry P. Cheatham and future Governor Daniel L. Russell. Finally, Butler and other Populists met with Republicans. Among the Republicans present were silver leader John J. Mott and Congressman Richmond Pearson. They helped the two parties' leadership reach a tentative agreement that divided political offices according to the parties' electoral support in the General Assembly districts; a similar agreement was also made for U.S. House of Representative seats. The parties' leadership also divided statewide offices to ensure that, for any office, either a Republican or Populist (not both) would run against a Democrat.

On August 1, 1894, the Populist Party convention endorsed a combined slate for state offices. On August 30, the Republican Party convention followed suit. The die was cast.

In the 1894 election, the Fusion alliance of Populists and Republicans swept the state. Fusionists won control of the legislature, elected several Congressmen, and secured some statewide offices. They immediately pursued a reform agenda. First, Fusionists elected Marion Butler to the U.S. Senate for a full six-year term and Republican Jeter C. Pritchard to the two-year vacancy created by the 1894 death of Senator Zebulon B. Vance. Second, they repealed the County Government Act of 1877 and restored county home-rule. Third, they set the legal interest rate at six-percent, increased funding for public education, and for state prisons and charitable institutions. Perhaps the greatest legislation of Fusionist rule was ensuring that all political parties were represented by election judges at the polls and requiring designated colors and party insignias on ballots so that the illiterate had a political voice. The reforms were highly successful and popular. The election law alone led to an increase of registered voters by over 80,000.

The Fusion agreement for the election of 1896 was not reached until September of that year. In November, the Fusion legislative victory was impressively larger than in 1894. The entire statewide slate of Fusionist administrative officers was elected. Republican Daniel L. Russell handily won election as governor.

For the first time since Reconstruction, Democrats were totally out of power. ||||

Sadly, old style fusion politics was so successful that the two major parties worked hard to get rid of it. Today, only eight states even allow it.

But nothing can stop issue by issue fusion except our timidity. It's time to try some. And who knows? Maybe even some Tea Party members will join us.

March 22, 2010


Sam Smith

Did you know the soda I bought yesterday at a convenience store cost $19.90? Or that it costs you about $13,000 to drive your car? Or that the property tax on what you thought was a modest home is $17,000?

How did I reach such figures? The same way politicians and the media have been doing in recent years: just multiple everything by ten, but don't tell any one.

It's so much more impressive, for example, to think that a healthcare bill is going to cost a trillion dollars than only one hundred billion.

Of course, if you watch carefully you discover that the use of this ploy is selective. For example, you don't see it much when estimating the cost of the Afghanistan war in which we may well be for a decade.

The ten year inflation has crept up on us quietly. Nobody told us about it. And It's dishonest and confusing, but most of all, it's extremely useful for those trying to cut the budget for something.

While you can't expect politicians to reform, it's not unreasonable to demand that the media stop multiplying budget figures by ten. Just tell us what it will cost each year.

If we don't stop this digital inflation now, the next thing we know our kids in kindergarten will all be sixty years old and the Washington Post will be running editorials on the severe problems of premature aging.

We've got enough problems with reality to the first power. Stop multiplying it by ten.

March 19, 2010


Sam Smith

As noted here before, the healthcare bill is a horrible mixture of the good and the bad. Because, in the end, it will improve healthcare for many people, it is probably best to pass it and deal with its problems later, but it still remains in large part a god awful measure. Here's a rundown on some of the good and the bad:


The Obamites brag about the bill providing new healthcare for 32 million people:

- In addition, nine million of these, according to the CBO study, are presumed to be people moving to a another form of healthcare - i.e. from their employer based insurance (4 million) or presently non-group insured (5 million) moving to exchanges.

- Half of the improvement (16 million) would be due to improvements in Medicaid and CHIP. You don't need a 2000 page bill to do that.

- Subtract the Medicaid and policy shifters from the calculation and you end up with only about 16 million new people getting insurance. And this is not, for the most part, because the Democrats are providing it (although there will be tax credits to help some). A big reason will be a hidden tax known as the individual mandate. Thus Obama and the Democrats are claiming credit for giving people something when they are instead requiring them to do it with their own funds. This would be like claiming credit for increasing millions of people's incomes by reinstituting the draft.

- In sum, about 16 million people are being substantially helped and about the same number are being manipulated into thinking they are getting more than they are.


The individual mandate is unconstitutional. As constitutional attorney David Rivkin has explained, it goes far beyond the standard judicial excuse of regulating interstate commerce: "What's unique is the mandate [is] imposed on individuals merely because they live - not connected with any economic activity, not because they grow something, make something, compose something. Merely because they live. And this is absolutely unprecedented." Even when the government decided to ban drinking during Prohibition, it at least had the decency to pass a constitutional amendment.

Although the Democrats and the media don't want to talk about it, it's worth noting that even the Congressional Research Service would only go as far as to say that Congress "may have" the power to impose mandates but also called it the "most challenging question" of the measure.

If this provision is upheld in the courts, nothing would prevent the government from, for example, ordering people above a cetain BMI to buy memberships in private health clubs and to attend them at least three times a week.


By requiring new insurance from inefficient private providers instead of through a government program, the administration is subsidizing the insurance cabal by billions of dollars. Further, even though the public option provision fell far short of what it should have been, Obama's back room deal with the industry to knife it is one of the strongest reasons why he should not be encouraged to run again for president.


An amazing number of provisions won't go into effect for four to nine years. One of the problems with this is that if, during this period, the GOP gains control of the Congress, there is nothing to stop them from stalling these programs further. In addition, the Democrats are playing an extraordinarily dangerous political game - taking immediate credit for things that may not happen for years to come. In fact, the first significant benefits to anyone will not occur for four years according to the CBO calculations.

For example, not until 2014 would employers be banned from denying coverage or providing higher premiums for women or older people. What if our civil rights laws had been written that way, say, giving restaurants four more years to ban blacks?


The reconciliation bill includes additional Medicare drug funding, closing the so-called doughnut hole in coverage.


Business Week: "Already in the Senate bill, a higher Medicare payroll tax will be assessed on individuals who make more than $200,000 a year or families with income of more than $250,000. The reconciliation bill includes an additional 3.8 percent Medicare tax on unearned income such as dividends on these high earners."


Business Week: "Under the Senate bill, if an employer with more than 50 employees doesn't offer coverage and has just one employee who qualifies for a new tax credit, the company must pay a fee for every full-time employee on its roster. The reconciliation bill raises the penalty to $2,000 from $750, though it subtracts the first 30 employees from the calculation.


Not currently addressed in the bill.


The liberal Center for Budget Policy & Priorities claims that "this legislation [will] produce the greatest gains in health coverage since the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid 45 years ago." This is an insult to Medicare and Medicaid, which were, after all, public programs and not regulations. There is a huge difference between providing someone with something and ordering them to buy it.


The legislation includes a flagrantly anti-constitutional provision, as described by the CBPP:

[] The legislation would establish an Independent Payment Advisory Board to develop and submit proposals to slow the growth of Medicare and private health care spending and improve the quality of care. The President would nominate the board's 15 members, who would require Senate confirmation, for staggered six-year terms.

If the projected growth in Medicare costs per beneficiary in 2015 and thereafter exceeded a specified target level which it almost certainly would do in many years the board would be required to produce a proposal to eliminate the difference. The board could not propose increases in Medicare premiums or cost-sharing or cuts in Medicare benefits or eligibility criteria; it would focus on proposals for savings in the payment and delivery of health care services.

The board's recommendations would go into effect automatically unless both houses of Congress passed, and the President signed, legislation to modify or overturn them. If the board recommended changes that the President supported, the President could veto any congressional attempt to block them, and a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate would be required to override the veto.[]

This provision is contemptuous of the basic concept of our constitutional government.


One of the big sleepers in the bill is the plan to "institute efficiencies" in Medicare programs. In fact, Medicare is far more efficient than any private insurance plan in the country.

Consider this snippet from CBPP: "The legislation would reduce annual payment updates to hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, hospices, ambulatory surgical centers, and certain other providers to account for improvements in economy-wide productivity. It would also reduce payments to home health agencies, skilled nursing facilities, and inpatient rehabilitation facilities." And just what will happen to service and its availability?

Remember: one person's efficiency is another's lack of service.


CBPP - Within months, insurers that offer coverage of policyholders' children (including in existing plans) would be required to allow adult dependents younger than 26 to be added to such coverage. In addition, new insurance plans would be barred from excluding children's pre-existing conditions from coverage and would have to cover certain preventive services at no charge to enrollees.


Saving the best until last. As the CBPP puts it:

"The plan would expand Medicaid up to 133 percent of the poverty line for all children and adults younger than 65 who are lawfully residing in the United States and not eligible for Medicare. This would mean that millions of low-income parents, as well non-disabled low-income adults who do not have dependent children (and who are generally ineligible for Medicaid today except in a small number of states with waivers), would become newly eligible for health coverage through Medicaid. Medicaid is the most cost-effective way to provide comprehensive and affordable coverage to people with very low incomes and thereby ensure that the low-income uninsured gain coverage. "


The bill will provide about 16 million poor people with significantly better health care. It will force another nine million or so to buy health insurance, softened by tax credits.

It will put some restrictions on the insurance companies in return for providing them a multi-billion dollar annual subsidy.

It will declare the right of the government to order you to buy something whether you want it or not, and will it establish a budget commission with supra-constitutional powers. Both these provisions would be struck down by a rational Supreme Court (such as we haven't seen in some time) or the Constitutional shall have to be "deemed" substantially amended.

March 17, 2010


March 11, 2010


Sam Smith

March 04, 2010

SomeRulesForWriting LLC (SRFW)!

Sam Smith

Of all the losing battles in which I have taken part, one of the most annoying, because I am reminded of it daily, is the struggle to preserve the English language or - as my high school math teacher put it - to speak United States.

Like so many things in our culture, the decline of language is not primarily due to less educated Americans. In fact, rappers and hip hop artists are among the few who still care about how words sound, the value of metaphor, and saying something different for a change. The damage has been primarily done by the business world, lawyers, advertising agencies and academics who have an insidious affection for cliches, abstractions and obfusacation.

As an editor I struggle as best I can, but I admit, for example, to letting many corporate capitals remain in the middle of words simply because their prevalence wears me out.

Still, for the benefit of any who still would like to treat our language with at least as much respect as we do other endangered creatures, here are a few suggestions:

- Capital letters belong to things that you can find on a globe, on an office door, or in a telephone book. They do not belong on words just because you like them or think them important.

- The intrusion of capital letters in the middle of words may have been cute the first time it was tried, but now it just makes a lot things harder to read. Capitals belong only at the beginning of words or in a string of initials. And your third grade teacher was correct: words do have spaces between them.

- As a wise teacher once said, one is allowed only three exclamation points in one's life. Use them with care.

- Do not put the initials of something in parentheses after you have written its full name. This slows down, and perhaps insults, the reader. Consider you and your readers to be brighter than the attorneys who came up with this awful idea.

- Just because you're mentioning a corporation, you do not have to put LLC or Inc after its name. Among other things, these trailers have the odd affect of making a business' legal status seem more important that what it does.

- To describe itself, each ethnic groups gets just one word of its own choosing and no hyphens.

- Avoid any words created at the Harvard Business School or similar institutions.

- Avoid any words used in by the bar association but not in the local bar.

- Being opaque is not intellectual. In fact, if you're going to bother to write something at all, it's a kind of dumb way to go about it.

- Ciches don't inspire. They are the literary equivalent of airport security announcements. When you hear them, you just wish they'd be over.

- Avoid vague words - like transparency or accountability - that are overused and under-defined.

- Read everything you write aloud. If you stumble or bore yourself, write something different.

March 03, 2010


Sam Smith

In the past few days, one of the top black politicians in the country has announced he's not running again, another has temporarily surrendered his key congressional position and a former top black politician has been stripped of all his positions on the DC city council. All because of scandals which are, by today's unfortunate standards, less than impressive.

There was a time when this would be news, but neither the media nor white liberals seem much interested in anything except excoriating these men and seeking retribution for their sins.

Which would be fair enough if they were the only politicians who misused their positions, took trips paid for by special interests, or wangled contracts for their buddies.

In fact, however, the cases of David Paterson, Charles Rangel and Marion Barry are pathetically low in the hierarchy of contemporary corruption.

Consider, for example, the recently released (but barely reported) list of presidential diplomatic appointees who previously had been bundlers for the Obama campaign.

Or consider this item a few years back from PR Watch:

"Alexander Cohen reports that non-profit groups that 'draw their members, their boards and even some of their funding from medical and pharmaceutical-related companies' paid for roughly one-third of the 3,600 sponsored trips received by hundreds of FDA employees since 1999. 'The sponsor of the most trips was the Drug Information Association, which footed the bill for more than 600 trips taken by FDA employees.'"

Or consider that the illegal drug industry is reportedly the size of the legal pharmaceutical industry, in other words one of the largest in the country. Yet, judging from the lack of media reports or prosecutions, the illegal drug industry is the only one that never makes a contribution to a politician, never lobbies for anything, and never provides under the table services.

Or consider that, measured by the size of favors delivered in return for campaign contributions, Marion Barry - now stripped of his council posts for some typical (for him) favors including a $15,000 deal - was probably Washington's least corrupt mayor of modern times. The current mayor, Adrian Fenty, has returned developer and business favors so extensively that he has become one of the few black politicians ever backed more by white voters than those of his own ethnicity. But nobody calls this bribery; it's called economic development.

I have no problem with prosecutors going after even lower level corruption, but it would be nice if the establishment, including white liberals, would be a little less sanctimonious about it all.

One of the few defenses of Marion Barry came from Harry Jaffe, a white writer for the DC Examiner. Among his arguments:

[][] At 73 -- after surviving the civil rights movement, a bullet from the Hanafi Muslims, 30 plus years in office, addiction to cocaine, prostate cancer and alcoholism -- Marion Barry still often comes off as the smartest, most well-versed, quickest member of the city council.

- Barry's institutional memory is deeper and wider than anyone's now in the government. Having used and abused the system for decades, he knows how it works.

- When he was first elected mayor in 1978, he opened up city hall to D.C. blacks who had been shut out of the government forever. He still makes African Americans believe they have a connection to the government, through him.

- Barry is often the only city council member who will advocate for poor folks. Whether it's job training, drug treatment or affordable housing, the Ward 8 council member will make sure his colleagues get an earful. Granted, he may be all talk and no action, but we need to be reminded of the other half.

- Democracy is an imperfect process, but voters have elected Barry time after time.

- Barry infuriates many middle class whites; he's always stickin' it to the man and getting away with it.

- He makes some of his colleagues look good, in comparison. [][]

There is little doubt that white liberals in Washington have long been incensed over Barry, but I'm not sure it's all that much about ethnicity. For example, they voted strongly for Obama whom they saw as of their breed in every regard save color.

Or consider the difference in how the media and liberals react to Governor Blago than they do to Eliot Spitzer. Or how the sexual misdeeds of David Letterman, Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton seem less game for ridicule than those of pols considered culturally sub-par to the liberal establishment - such as John Edwards, Paterson, or Barry.

Clinton and Edwards are an interesting example. Both were pulled out of the unclassy south by the Democratic Abandonship Council, which had the role of determining not just political, but cultural, acceptability for the party (Obama also made the list until the DNC connection became too embarrassing and he then denied it).

Clinton played by the rules, at least politically. He drove the country to the right and proposed nothing dangerous to the LLC wing of the party. Edwards, however, not only ran on the only truly Democratic platform in 2008 among major candidates, he dared to bust into the line by challenging the two assigned ceiling breakers, Obama and Clinton. So, even before his sexual misdeeds were exposed, he was on the dump list of Democratic insiders.

As for Clinton, it is claimed by the liberal elite that all he did wrong was to have sex with Monica Lewinsky. This is completely untrue.

In fact, he admitted to one of the same offenses which are getting the current crowd in trouble: lying under oath.

Clinton made a deal with special prosecutor Robert Ray under which he admitted that he had made false statements in the Monica Lewinsky case and surrendered his law license for five years.

Ray's final report claimed he had enough evidence to indict Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice and obtain a conviction in the Lewinsky case, but he declined to do so. FBI agent IC Smith summarized in his memoir, "He concluded Clinton had been punished in other ways, citing the $850,000 paid to settle the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, his contempt of court citation, the fines of $25,000 and $90,000 in attorney fees he had to reimburse in that case. Further, he cited the final fine of $25,000 and suspension of Clinton's law license in Arkansas. . . . It's interesting the most significant punishment in the whole saga was meted out by two female natives of Arkansas."

As for Rangel's problem with improperly paid-for travel, Little Rock Worldwide Travel provided Clinton with $1 million in deferred billing for his 1992 campaign trips. Clinton aide David Watkins boasted to a travel magazine, "Were it not for World Wide Travel here, the Arkansas governor may never have been in contention for the highest office in the land." In fact, without the Worldwide largesse, it is unlikely that the cash-strapped candidate could have survived through the later primaries.

Add to this the fact that Clinton was the complacent governor of one of the largest illegal drug-trading states in the union, that Hillary Clinton escaped prosecution because her falsehoods had just missed the indictable level, and that Whitewater was actually a real estate rip-off that hurt quite a few people - and the sins of the current crop begins to fade.

But here's the difference. The Clintons were and still are beloved by Democratic liberals and much of the media - thus the facts of the matter have been simply blacked out.

In my decades of covering corrupt politicians I have learned to look for a few things:

- Are the politicians tithing to the people as earlier generations of corrupt politicians routinely did? Few, and none of the aforementioned, would get much relief from judgment on this ground, but Barry - for the reasons mentioned by Jaffe - would probably stand the best chance. Clinton, for example, helped to destroy the Democratic Party and Rangel has been a big supporter of the war on drugs which has been more deadly to young black males than was the Vietnam war.

- Are the politicians corrupt because they are intrinsically evil or just not smart or wealthy enough to hire the right lawyers to figure out how to get away with it? Until we have public financing, all politics is corrupt, so we should be careful about beating up too hard on guys who came up from the street and never learned how legally to pay off developers and others.

- What sort of legal corruption is going on? This tends to be far more costly and dangerous to the public than the illegal version.

- Are the people who are outraged by the corruption of lesser pols expressing a true desire for virtue that might extend to steps that would restrict lobbying efforts in Congress and state legislatures or slow the gentrification of cities, or are they essentially making a class-based judgment about people they feel are basically tacky?

In the present examples, it would appear that the real problem is not the size or damage of the corruption, but the class and style of those committing it. The message once again is clear: if you want to be corrupt, do it right. The white establishment would be happy to offer you scholarships and legal assistance to show you how.

March 01, 2010


SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - No one in the major media or at RIAA is going to admit it, but the remarkable decline in music buying provides more evidence that when you turn a creative task over to a bunch of lawyers and greedy executives, everyone loses.

The music industry has been killing itself for sometime. And not just by the RIAA suing pre-teens for illegal downloading. The entire environment for music has been overwhelmed by restrictions that have undermined the way music has spread since the beginning of time: namely by sharing it.

Although I can't find any data on this, it seems clear, for example, that ordinary people just don't sing as much as they used to. And when they do, they don't have as many people who know what they're singing. One reason for this is undoubtedly the compartmentalizing of the music industry so punk rock fans don't care about country and vice versa, but it seems that a major part of the problem is also that it is hard to find the music to share. For example, the juke box - with its implicit assertion of containing the 50 best tunes - peaked in the mid-sixties. In the late 1940s three quarters of all records made in the U.S. were for juke boxes. But by the 1980s, audience selected music had largely been replaced by computer driven selection.

Musicians today also write their own music to a much greater degree than in the past, in part to avoid copyright problems.

The term "cover" - used to describe the playing of something someone else recorded - helps to explain the problem.

Writes Wikipedia: "In popular music, a cover version, or simply cover, is a new rendition (performance or recording) of a previously recorded, commercially released song or popular song. In its current use, it can sometimes have a pejorative meaning-implying that the original recording should be regarded as the definitive version, usually in the sense of an "authentic" rendition, and all others are merely lesser competitors, alternatives or tributes (no matter how popular). However, Billboard-and other magazines recording the popularity of the musical artists and hit tunes-originally measured the sales success of the published tune, not just recordings of it, or later the airplay that it also managed to achieve. In that context, the greater the number of cover versions, the more successful the song."

In other words, we are literally disparaging the thing that made popular music popular. After all, without covers we have little in common.

The term "cover version" wasn't even coined until 1966.

Noted Wiki: "Prior to the mid-20th century the notion of an original version of a popular tune would, of course, have seemed slightly odd - the production of musical entertainment being seen essentially as a live event, even if one that was reproduced at home via a copy of the sheet music, learned by heart, or captured on a shellac recording disc."

There may be some legal reasons for this. For example, a bar that doesn't play cover tunes is less likely be attacked by the attorneys for the industry corporados, another way in which lawyers are killing popular music.

Before the 1960s, a musician dropped by a local music store, handed over 25 bucks, and got an under the counter 'fake book' that contained the chords, melody and lyrics of all the tunes a musician was meant to know. One effect of this was to contribute to a common culture of music that has now largely disappeared.

People just don't react to music the way a lot recording executives, lawyers and even musicians think they do. For example, as late as 2002, an ABC poll found that 38% of Americans considered Elvis Presley the greatest rock star ever. Jimi Hendrix came in second at four percent and Michael Jackson tied Lennon, Jagger, Springsteen, McCartney, and Clapton at 2%. In all, pollees list 128 different names. Even among 18-34 year olds, Presley beat Hendrix 2 to 1, albeit getting only 19% of the votes.

In other words, we love what the industry considers the past. One reason: it is something we can, as a culture, share.


Sam Smith

The difference between losing your grandmother and losing a technology is that it's much harder to replace your grandmother than it is a technology that, after all, almost inevitably vanishes because something better has come along.

Hence perhaps the silence about the disappearance of Loran as of last month - a navigational system that aided millions to get where they were going and prevented innumerable deaths and accidents.

After reading that the Coast Guard had shut down its Loran stations, I went to the basement to find some remnant of my last small portable Loran. There was nothing. Not even a well-fingered manual. Clearly, GPS had been such a joy that I had not the faintest nostalgia for its predecessor.

Loran also had the misfortune of being on the way out as the Internet was on the way in. Thus even finding online evidence of its existence and utility is not that impressive.

On the other hand, it was important enough to me to at least say good bye.

Like the day I made it home in a summer fog from an outer island in Casco Bay while a number of other vessels, following only each other, ended up on a mudflat.

Or the times while operations officer and navigator of the Coast Guard Cutter Spar, I tried to focus on the Loran screen while the vessel was taking 30 degree corkscrew rolls as we searched for a fishing vessel in trouble. It wasn't a happy experience save for the fact that without that device we wouldn't have known where the hell we were.

Here's how Wikipedia describes the principle:

"The navigational method provided by LORAN is based on the principle of the time difference between the receipt of signals from a pair of radio transmitters. A given constant time difference between the signals from the two stations can be represented by a hyperbolic line of position. If the positions of the two synchronized stations are known, then the position of the receiver can be determined as being somewhere on a particular hyperbolic curve where the time difference between the received signals is constant. . .

"By itself, with only two stations, the 2-dimensional position of the receiver cannot be fixed. A second application of the same principle must be used, based on the time difference of a different pair of stations. . . . By determining the intersection of the two hyperbolic curves identified by this method, a geographic fix can be determined."

By today's standards, it had numerous deficiencies including the inability to tell you where the nearest Starbucks was.

And by today's standards, the whole character of navigation in the 1960s seems almost medieval. The Spar was a buoy tender and for every one of our 170 buoys we knew the correct angles of three fixed shore objects such as a tower or building. On each wing of the bridge a quartermaster would take hold a sextant horizontally and read off the bearings between two of the objects.

A single screw ship, the Spar was not easy to maneuver and we approached the buoy location dead slow, the quartermasters calling out their angles: "76 degrees, 13 minutes on the left -- correcting." From the other wing: "82 degrees, 52 minutes on the right -- uncorrecting." I would stand on a wing of the bridge with a chart and three-arm protractor keeping up with the position of the ship. As the position plotted over the right black or red dot on the chart I would tell the captain, "She's on." He would cry to the chief on the buoy deck below, "Let her go." A seaman swung a mallet to the chain stopper. Fifteen tons of sinker and buoy were released and as she settled into her position, a final check on the angles was made we backed away.

Buoy tenders were unusual vessels in a number of ways, one being that they went places - such as close to rocks or sand bars - that 180 foot vessels weren't meant to approach. But the scariest days for me  were setting buoys in a channel leading to a naval base. Most buoys could be a bit off and no one would notice, but anyone coming up the channel could see if these were aligned. 

I had come aboard the Spar as navigator with only sailing experience and thirteen weeks in OCS behind me. I was to lead men who knew much more than I did.

My first test was on the bridge. The captain suggested I take a navigational fix. For piloting fixes, one sighted three shore based - and charted - objects using the peloruses on either wing of the bridge. These were compasses on a stand with telescopes mounted on top so one could read the bearing and see the object at the same time. Once having read the bearings, you stepped into the pilot house and with a parallel rule transferred the data to the chart. If all went well, your three bearings met in a point or tiny triangle at the exact position of the ship. If all did not go well, such as one of the bearings being off, you were left with a bloated triangle and a far vaguer idea as to where you were.

My first triangle was considerably larger than desired. Beside me was my first class quartermaster, Bill Miller, a QM2 and a seaman assigned to my department. I couldn't really see, but I felt the executive officer and the captain looking over my shoulder as well. I kept my eyes glued on the chart without saying a word, thinking desperately what to do next. The holy spirit put the right words in my mouth. I turned to Miller, shrugged, and said, "Not bad for a fucking reserve, huh?" I could tell from the reaction that I had passed the test -- which was not, after all, to prove how good I was, but to admit that I wasn't.

The sextants and pelorus we used every day because we were in sight of land. The Loran was saved for search and rescue missions and long trips. 

And for the day that the Nantucket lightship went off station. Both its radar and Loran were busted and we were assigned to get it back on station. By this time I had come to think of direction in new ways: declining angles, invisible curves emanating from Loran stations I would never see, and tiny triangles that defined the core of your existence. But to use one's own actual Loran position and relative radar position to another vessel to direct that ship to its desired destination was something no one had told me how to do, yet thanks to my high school math teachers it worked well enough for government work.

I sometimes think of that moment while toying with the nifty GPS in my car and wonder if humans in their politics and culture will ever be able to make as much headway as we have in moving around since the days of sextants and Loran.