Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Are Term Limits a Good Idea?

With New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the news for overturning a term limits law that would have prevented him from running for a third term, the question about the value of term limits has again been raised.

There’s nothing new about all of this. When a popular political officeholder cannot run again, there is always talk about why term limits are wrong. On the other hand, there was a loud sigh of relief by many that President Bush was unable to run again although with his present lack of popularity, that now appears to be a moot point.

I have to admit I have a lot of strongly mixed emotions on this issue.

At first blush from a standpoint of principle, I find this to be a no-brainer. A free election means being able to vote for whom we want to without interference from condescending lawmakers who do not trust our judgment in picking our leaders. I’m not even sure about the age guidelines in the Constitution for electing House and Senate members along with the President. After all, shouldn’t we decide on a candidate based on his or her merits instead of an arbitrary age requirement?

And despite these age requirements the Founding Fathers put into the Constitution, there was no mention of term limits. But it is felt that many of the early presidents adhered to
an informal two term limit until Franklin D. Roosevelt won a third and fourth term likely because we were in the middle of World War II. An argument can certainly be made that being forced to change presidents in the middle of a world crisis the size of WW II would not be a good thing.

After Roosevelt's death, the newly Republican Congress desired to establish a firm constitutional provision barring presidents from being elected more than twice. The rationale was a concern that without limits, the presidential position could become too similar to that of a benevolent dictator lasting not just four years but a lifetime, and that the position could become too powerful and upset the separation of powers. Hence, the Twenty-second Amendment was adopted.

As nice as this all sounds, it begs the question of whether this measure would have been passed by a Republican Congress if FDR had instead been a Republican president.

It didn’t take long for criticism to develop starting with the first president affected by the Twenty-second Amendment, Dwight D. Eisenhower to the present occupant of the White House, George W. Bush when after winning his second term, telling the media "I'm going to come out strong after my swearing-in. We have to move quickly, because after that I'll be quacking like a duck."

It can be argued that making someone a lame duck after an election victory doesn’t make for a productive final term in office. Looking at a number of number of presidential administrations, their second terms are often less productive than the first ones where they were driven by the incentive to become reelected.

Perhaps the most often used argument in favor of term limits is that our elected officials should not be allowed to make a whole career out of elected office. Those who have had their chance to serve should eventually step aside for new blood and new ideas to get into the system. But if someone is doing a good job and deserves to be elected, why shouldn’t we be able to keep that person? And besides, experience to be able to learn the ropes to become a more effective leader is certainly beneficial.

But unfortunately, experience allows too many politicians to learn the ropes on how to hold onto power sometimes to the exclusion of serving the needs of the electorate. This power of the incumbency is not a good thing because too many people are becoming reelected simply based more on their advantage of being an incumbent than on the relative merits of the candidates.

For those who are interested, I would like to offer a link to an interesting article The Power of Congressional Incumbency - How Unfair Electoral Advantage Damages Democracy. The article which focuses on Congressional elections (but some of it can be applied to other elections) discusses how few elections are really competitive because of the advantages of election financing and media coverage for the incumbent along with more subtle methods like re-districting to ensure a reliable bloc of voters for the incumbent.

I would like to offer part of the concluding paragraph from the article:

These are the realities of the current electoral situation in American Congressional elections: because of financial issues, media saturation, and rampant gerrymandering of districts, incumbents almost always win re-election, with the elections themselves thus rendered almost meaningless. Solving the problem will not be easy, since any attempt at reform can potentially run into Constitutional protections of free speech.

And for those who still question the power of incumbency, there are examples of dead incumbents winning reelection along with the latest example of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens who may still win reelection despite having just been convicted of seven felony counts of violating federal ethics laws.

So perhaps the reader can better understand my conflicting feelings on the issue of term limits. Earlier I argued that I disliked term limits on principle because we should be able to decide on candidates based on their merits without the condescending interference of term limits. But then there is a power of incumbency that itself often undercuts any real competition based on the merits of the candidates. And quite possibly, the only way to effectively deal with this excessive power of the incumbent is to impose term limits. Whew!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tax Cuts and Trickle-down

My favorite TV show and one that I look forward to every Friday night during the roughly 26 weeks a year it is on is Real Time with Bill Maher . For me, the show alone is worth the subscription to HBO. Although Maher is unabashedly liberal along with most of his guests, he does have his share of conservative guests to provide some opposing views even if that means the conservative guest will often be ganged up on by everybody else including the liberal studio audience. But this sure beats most of the conservative radio and TV shows that give little or no voice whatsoever to liberals.

His 10/24/08 show featured as the conservative guest,
Arthur Laffer. Few people may remember Laffer today but during the Reagan presidential years, he had a lot of visibility as the public face behind supply-side economics and tax cuts along with the trickle-down effect which holds that providing tax cuts to businesses and the wealthy eventually results in more revenue for the government and more prosperity for everybody else. Critics have derisively called this a recycling of the the horse-and-sparrow theory from the 1890s: If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.

Maher had Laffer on the defensive right away by mentioning a
TV appearance where he made an informal bet with a former financial advisor to Ron Paul on CNBC in August of 2006 that the economy would not go into a recession in 2007 or 2008. The bet that he lost was for one penny and his honor. During that 2006 show, he claimed that "the US economy has never been in better shape and wealth has risen" and that "monetary policy is spectacular."

But what was most interesting was Laffer admitting in the show that not all tax cuts are good. According to his theory illustrated by the
Laffer Curve:

1. If tax rates are too high then lowering them will stimulate the economy and result in more tax revenue.

2. But if tax rates are cut too low, then the result is simply less tax revenue leading to deficits.
So the problem is that most mainstream Republicans heard the first part but conveniently ignored the second part.

Although George H.W. Bush called Reagan’s tax cut plan
"voodoo economics" during their 1980 primary battle, Reagan won and got to implement his tax cuts. The result was the largest US deficit in history up to that time.

Bill Clinton’s modest tax increases resulted not only balancing the budget but produced a budget surplus by the end of his second term. And while some naysayers believe a budget surplus is bad because the government has too much of the taxpayers’ money, the surplus could have gone to either retiring some of the national debt or helping to keep Social Security solvent for when the baby boomers retire.

But we never got to find out since his successor, George W. Bush brought tax cuts back with a vengeance even while fighting an expensive (and questionable) war in Iraq. The result was turning a surplus into the largest US deficit in history surpassing that of Reagan's.

Even worse, the Bush tax cuts not only failed to generate enough revenue to run the government but these cuts which primarily benefited the wealthy have shown little evidence of any promised trickle-down effect. So while the wealthy have done quite well, thank you, the gap between the rich and all the others has appreciably widened and the middle and lower classes are struggling more and more to just stay afloat in an economy where jobs are evaporating.

So now we have Republican John McCain’s proposed solution to this sick economy — make the Bush tax cuts permanent while continuing the Iraq War to “victory” and cutting spending by eliminating ‘earmarks’ even though the total amount of these in the fiscal year 2008 budget
amounted to about $16 billion compared to the latest estimated 2008 deficit of $455 billion while promising (according to his website) a balanced budget by 2013. Incredible!

Back in 1789, it was Benjamin Franklin who wrote…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

Especially when viewed in this way, it’s no wonder that taxes are so disliked by everybody. Republican conservatives love to use the phrase “tax and spend liberals” and accuse liberals of “redistributing the wealth” with their programs. But whatever happened to Republican fiscal conservatives believing in balancing the budget? As much as they may hate taxes, they are necessary to pay for the government services we want or need. If a government program is something we really want or need, we should be willing to raise the taxes to pay for it. Running large deficits normally means that the shorfall has to be borrowed adding to the national debt which means that the bill is simply passed along to future generations to pay. But isn’t this just another more insidious way of redistributing the wealth?

Tax cuts to the exclusion of any other sane thinking like balancing the budget was not only the way during Reagan’s term, but is still the backbone of Republican Party economic policies today. The results of George W. Bush’s tax cuts along with their support by Republican John McCain (along with the opposition by Democrat Barack Obama) today form one of the most important policy differences for voters to choose from. But with the economy presently in shambles, it’s fair to ask ourselves before stepping into the voting booth, How are those Republican economic policies working for you so far?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Lessons to Be Learned from W.

For someone who is a political junkie in addition to liking biographies, W. would have to be on my must see list. Director Oliver Stone was making the rounds on the talk show circuit to promote his movie. From what he said on the shows it wasn’t apparent where he really stood when it came to President Bush. Perhaps he was being cautious about being too negative about his subject to avoid conveying that his movie would be a smear job on him.

While it is not my intention to be a film critic for the movie, the
review by Roger Ebert which I read after seeing the movie struck me as particularly astute. The reaction of many viewers of the movie, especially those who dislike Bush was that Stone went too far in making him a sympathetic figure. But Ebert concludes his review with this scathing closing paragraph:

One might feel sorry for George W. at the end of this film, were it not for his legacy of a fraudulent war and a collapsed economy. The film portrays him as incompetent to be president, and shaped by the puppet masters Cheney and Rove to their own ends. If there is a saving grace, it may be that Bush will never fully realize how badly he did. How can he blame himself? He was only following God's will.

But even so, just portraying Bush to be incompetent oversimplifies the story.

While America is still portrayed as the land of opportunity as in the 1963 song Only in America by Jay and the Americans which includes the lyrics:

Only in America
Can a guy from anywhere
Go to sleep a pauper
and wake up a millionaire

Only in America
Can a kid without a cent
Get a break and maybe grow up to be President

Maybe at one time this idealistic crap had some truth to it. But with the present economic conditions that have lead to ever increasing disparity between the rich and poor, those on the middle and bottom of the economic ladder are having an increasingly more difficult time finding opportunities as detailed in this NYT opinion piece The Land of Opportunity?

When questioned about the enormous income inequality in the United States, the cheerleaders of America’s unfettered markets counter that everybody has a shot t becoming rich here. The distribution of income might be skewed, but America’s economic mobility is second to none.

That image is wrong, and these days it abets far too many unfair policies, including cuts in essential programs like Head Start or Medicaid. The poor, we are told, can use their own bootstraps. President Bush got away with huge tax cuts for the rich in part because non-rich Americans, who make up most of the population, believe everybody has a chance of making it into the club. Unfortunately, the American dream is not that broadly accessible.

So while most other people have to struggle for opportunities at least in part because of the economic policies of President Bush, in W., we see that those in wealthy and powerful families like the Bushes are truly in the land of almost unlimited opportunity, unlike the fantasy land of opportunity most of the rest of us can only dream of. Seeing the story of W. and the unending number of opportunities that he had served up on a platter was more than a bit frustrating to watch for those of us who may be looking for our first break.

But others have gotten breaks. Some like Harry Truman even used those breaks to become president. But what they did with those breaks is what separates Truman (considered by many to be one of our best presidents) from W. who is often considered one of our worst.

In the movie, W. was shown in his younger years as a spoiled brat son of a patrician family. His life had a lot of drinking and carrying on but not much direction. But with support from his new wife Laura and a determination to show his worth to his father who approved more of his brother Jeb who was running to be the Governor of Florida, W. against the wishes of his parents, decided to run for Governor of Texas at the same time with the political advice of Karl Rove who would help him in the later presidential campaigns.

Political ambition or even the want for power is not in itself bad in my view. But what is equally important is what one wants to do with that power. Ideally, the power of a political career should be a means to an end of serving others. But when power becomes the ultimate goal, things can go terribly wrong.

Although born-again Christian George W. Bush spoke of compassionate conservatism to get elected in 2000, instead of following through on a plan to serve others, he pursued an agenda to finish the job of taking out Saddam Hussein that his father either couldn’t or wouldn’t do. And then the next agenda was maintaining power by getting reelected to a second term which was something his father was also unable to do.

So to say that George W. Bush was simply incompetent doesn’t tell the complete story. With an agenda of little more than acquiring and keeping power, instead of following more moderate advice from those like Colin Powell, Bush as in his own words "The Decider" chose to follow the advice of those like VP Dick Cheney (who himself relished power and more than anybody else forged the false link between Saddam and 9/11) along with Karl Rove who helped to politicize so many governmental agencies through cronyism like the Justice Department and FEMA to name a just a few.

With a third term not possible and a VP who for health reasons was not able to run for president (some say he already was the de facto president during Bush’s terms), there was little incentive to accomplish much in the second term. So much of it was damage control — from Katrina, to the never ending Iraq war, and finally the economy. The result was going from an all-time high approval rating of 90% right after 9/11 (along with tremendous worldwide goodwill to support a country that had been attacked) to an all-time low of 26% in 2007 and worldwide goodwill that has evaporated as a result of our foreign policies around the Iraq War and the use of torture.

So is there a lesson to be learned from our experience with W.?
That moderate voice of reason in the movie’s war room scenes, Colin Powell apparently thinks so. Although Republican presidential candidate John McCain has done all he can to assure voters that he is not George W. Bush,
the transcript of Powell's Meet The Press endorsement of Democratic candidate Barack Obama suggests that there are a number of resemblances in the policies and behavior of W. to McCain.

In addition to McCain’s support of Bush’s Iraq War that Powell supported with his UN speech that he deeply regrets, there is also the feeling that McCain will do less than Obama in mending our international goodwill that was shattered under W. In addition, there is the impulsive judgment (like you know who) that gave us Sarah Palin as McCain’s VP pick, one that is controversial even among many conservatives. And then there is the McCain campaign that is said to be about “Straight Talk” but in recent months has morphed into another divisive negative campaign straying from issues (from the Karl Rove playbook) that W. used to win a couple of presidential elections. But is this all surprising given that the campaign is being run by Steve Schmidt who was
a top aide to VP Dick Cheney?

So ultimately, the question voters are asking is whether indeed a John McCain presidency would be W.’s third term if elected. We know Colin Powell’s answer. Now we just need everybody else’s answer on Election Day.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Conservative Activism on the Supreme Court

Back when VP candidate Sarah Palin was being interviewed by Katie Couric, Palin was asked about any other specific Supreme Court decisions besides Roe v. Wade that she disagreed with. She was unable to think of any.

I then tried to put myself in the position of trying to answer Couric’s question off the top of my head. Since I am not a legal scholar, I would not have a list of court cases rolling off my tongue without first doing some review of them. But there was one recent decision that would have quickly come to mind in showing how far to the right the Supreme Court decisions had become. I thought of the gender discrimination case brought up against Goodyear and how a woman was systematically discriminated against for a number of years. And the Court knew it, but let Goodyear get away with it!

Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. was decided in 2007 by a razor-thin 5-4 margin that most observers believe was split over ideology. The conservative justices believed that it was important to protect businesses from lawsuits that dredged up discrete acts of discrimination from years ago. The liberal judges felt that acts of discrimination in the workplace that occur over periods of time cannot be traced to a discrete starting time. Often discrimination is a trend that occurs over years. And perhaps most importantly, pay discrimination can be impossible to detect in a timely manner due to the secrecy that surrounds what most people in the private sector earn.

Nonetheless, the Court held that if Ms. Ledbetter didn’t sue within 180 days of when she felt the pay discrimination started to occur, she had no recourse. While this is in line with a conservative priority of protecting the interests of business,
a rare reading from the bench of a dissent by liberal Justice Ginsburg feels that the people who are supposed to be protected by anti-discrimination laws are getting the short end of the stick.

"In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination."

And this excellent article from Slate goes further by asserting that “Ledbetter basically grandfathers in longtime pay discrimination.”

Regardless of how one feels about this decision, I think we need to recognize that many if not most of the important decisions handed down by the Supreme Court are decided by ideology. Therefore, if we want decisions that we feel are right, it makes perfect sense to vote for presidents who will pick Justices based on our ideology (in addition to competence, of course). We know that Democratic presidents tend to pick more liberal thinking judges and Republican presidents pick more conservative thinking judges. In my view, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as someone is not selected who is regarded as extremely one way or another (like Robert Bork who was ultimately rejected by the Senate).

The problem that gets in the way is the conservative view that liberal judges are ‘legislating from the bench’ while conservative judges are using ‘judicial restraint’. An excellent op-ed piece that supports this conservative viewpoint is in this link.

So when liberal judges make decisions that conservatives don’t like, it is often called ‘liberal activism’. I’m OK with this as long as we can agree on also calling the other side ‘conservative activists’ when they make decisions based on their ideology. I feel that the decision in Ledbetter is a prime example of conservative activism. For an op-ed piece that supports this liberal viewpoint, see this link.

John McCain openly says that he is in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade. But the only way to ensure this is to select judges that agree with his ideology. That’s fair enough but he obscures this like most other political candidates do by babbling about how it’s all about ‘qualifications’ and that he would have no ‘litmus test’ on ideology.

But moderator Bob Schieffer cut through the BS in the latest third presidential debate:

McCain: Sen. Obama voted against Justice Breyer and Justice Roberts on the grounds that they didn't meet his ideological standards. That's not the way we should judge these nominees. Elections have consequences. They should be judged on their qualifications. And so that's what I will do.

I will find the best people in the world -- in the United States of America who have a history of strict adherence to the Constitution. And not legislating from the bench.

Schieffer: But even if it was someone -- even someone who had a history of being for abortion rights, you would consider them?

McCain: I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications. But I certainly would not impose any litmus test.

So saying that someone who doesn’t agree with his view on Roe v. Wade is unqualified doesn’t constitute a litmus test? To his discredit, Barack Obama also said that he would not impose a litmus test. But this is also BS since there is no way that he would ever appoint a judge for the Supreme Court that was openly pro-life no matter what that person’s qualifications were.

But later in the debate, Obama clarifies his position:

I will look for those judges who have an outstanding judicial record, who have the intellect, and who hopefully have a sense of what real-world folks are going through. I'll just give you one quick example. Sen. McCain and I disagreed recently when the Supreme Court made it more difficult for a woman named Lilly Ledbetter to press her claim for pay discrimination.

For years, she had been getting paid less than a man had been paid for doing the exact same job. And when she brought a suit, saying equal pay for equal work, the judges said, well, you know, it's taken you too long to bring this lawsuit, even though she didn't know about it until fairly recently.

We tried to overturn it in the Senate. I supported that effort to provide better guidance to the courts; John McCain opposed it.

I think that it's important for judges to understand that if a woman is out there trying to raise a family, trying to support her family, and is being treated unfairly, then the court has to stand up, if nobody else will. And that's the kind of judge that I want.

Me too. When nobody was willing to stand up to school segregation, Brown v. Board of Education came along. Griswold v. Connecticut provided protection from government laws that would unduly invade our privacy. And although the controversial Roe v. Wade has been cited by conservatives as an example of liberal activism, liberals can argue that it is simply reaffirming our protection of privacy as already decided by Griswold. By this way of thinking, overturning Roe would be an especially egregious example of conservative activism.

While issues like the economy and health care are rightly at the top of the list of most pressing issues for voters, the importance of the future Supreme Court vacancies the presidential winner will likely have to fill during his upcoming term cannot be overestimated. I can hardly wait for Election Day to finally get here!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Reliving the 1960 World Series

Every October 13th, a celebration takes place at what remains of the Forbes Field outfield wall to commemorate arguably the most significant home run ever in baseball’s long and storied history. Bobby Thomson’s 1951 Shot Heard 'Round the World is perhaps better known and was equally dramatic but it only got the Giants to the World Series (which they lost).

On Thursday afternoon October 13, 1960, Bill Mazeroski hit a dramatic home run in the bottom of the 9th inning of
World Series Game 7 to send the home fans of Pittsburgh into total ecstasy and completing an improbable upset of the New York Yankees who had at that time, one of the greatest teams in history.

Roy Terrell, in his October 24, 1960 Sports Illustrated article,
It Went All The Way! had this to say about Game 7:
It was not a great game, in the sense that a no-hitter or a 2-1 victory in 11 innings is. In some ways it was not even a good game. There was only one error, which did not affect the outcome, but there were several bad plays by both infields, and the pitchers on both sides made far too many mistakes. Yet it was one of the memorable games of World Series history. The Pirates won 10-9, and no one who was there will ever forget it. For dramatic impact, for climax piled upon climax with never an anticlimactic moment, it was unique. There are many who say it was the most exciting baseball game ever played. Some say it was the most exciting game that ever will be played.
Even in the city with the losing team that year, The New York Times just a few months ago published
In 1960, a Series to Remember (or Forget).

I had just turned 7 years old at the time and my memories of that game are not all that clear. But I can clearly remember that my father was home to watch this game on our little black-and-white TV. (Back then to see the World Series on color TV, you had to go to a bar to watch it.) What was strange about this was that my dad must have taken off work which to this day is hard to imagine. But until 1971, every World Series game was played during the day. You would think that they would have at least scheduled Games 6 and 7 to fall on the weekend, but the Fall Classic was so important to baseball fans that people gladly arranged their schedules around watching the Series. Some people as in
this classic sports photo took off work to watch the games from more unconventional vantage points.

I was a little too young to actually sit still and watch the game. It wouldn’t be until the following year that my dad took me to Forbes Field to see my first baseball game that led to my falling in love with the game as a youngster. I just remember my dad jumping up and down and yelling at the TV quite often that day. And the nature of that game that had endless exciting twists and turns certainly justified his excitement although I couldn’t appreciate it at the time. Finally, he let out his biggest yell, and when I came in the room, I saw fans jumping out on to the field in waves. “They’re not allowed to do that. Are they?” I asked.

Since I was a little too young to appreciate that moment, I have tried to immerse myself in the reenactments of the home run and the game itself to try and make up for missing it when it happened. But to my knowledge, there is no TV replay of the game that has survived since it was likely recorded as a
kinescope which was a fragile form of recording that pre-dated video tape. So although there are newsreel videos like this showing the legendary home run, the only permanent record of the entire game remains the NBC Radio broadcast which includes the memorable call of Mazeroski’s home run by Chuck Thompson.

So the focal point of the annual Forbes Field celebration is a giant boom box that replays the entire NBC Radio broadcast (including commercials for the brand new 1961 model automobiles). Some people bring memorabilia from the game like tickets or scorecards. Some just sit on the grass in front of the outfield wall and take in the atmosphere. Still others are the honored guests — some of the Pirates who played in that game (although the publicity-shy Mazeroski seldom makes an appearance).

Each hit by the Pirates or out by the Yankees described in the play-by-play tape of the broadcast was greeted by cheering of the crowd just as if they were at the game. What was especially neat was seeing the ex-ballplayers’ faces as their names were being mentioned as part of the play-by-play of the game. During an especially intense at-bat by Dick Groat, you could see people gathering around him to see his expression as he listened and it seemed like his mind was actually flashing back to that moment. And then Groat gets a hit and the admiring crowd around him breaks out into a raucous cheer for him. And although he doesn’t directly say it, we know it makes him feel good — and why not?

And then the afternoon reaches its climax when the crowd saves its biggest cheer for Mazeroski's home run to end it all. The fans then shake hands and say goodbye and agree to meet next year to do it all over again.

I first went to this annual celebration a couple of years ago and returned this year for the second time. Both times, I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon and the camaraderie of the other fans. So what’s this all about?

Some would say that we should all get a life instead of reliving an event over and over from many years ago. Maybe they are right, but on the other hand, we celebrate other things on an annual basis whether it is a birthday, an anniversary, or one of the many holidays.

For many, it harkens back to when baseball was played more for the love of the sport than just the money. Back then, before free-agency the ballplayer had to accept whatever salary the owner offered if he wanted to play. Many players had to take off-season jobs to help pay the bills. With free-agency, the players now have the mobility to play for whichever team offers the most money. That’s good for the player but it often means that players for the local team whom we have gotten to know and love will often leave for another team that is willing and able to pay more. Fans of small market teams like the Pirates feel that their team is little more than part of a farm system for the big market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. Sixteen years in a row of losing baseball in Pittsburgh makes one especially yearn for those World Series days.

But more than anything else, it is about a story from long ago when we were all younger. It was an exciting story. Especially when listening to the radio broadcast again, we remember full well that the outcome was really in doubt — but it had a happy ending (for Pirate fans) that we can return to for comfort again and again. As children, we took comfort in stories with happy endings. With all of the troubles of the world surrounding us today like the economy, terrorism and the like, we adults also need to make that occasional comforting escape from reality to help us keep our sanity. I’m already looking forward to next year’s celebration!

Post Script - October 14, 2010

How a near pristine black-and-white reel of the entire television broadcast of the deciding game of the 1960 World Series — long believed to be lost forever — came to rest in the dry and cool wine cellar of Bing Crosby’s home near San Francisco is not a mystery to those who knew him.
1960 Series 'feels like yesterday'
At least 1,000 gathered in Oakland to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mazeroski's series-winning homer

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Is It Time to Finally Scrap the Electoral College?

As Barack Obama is so far holding on to all of the ‘blue states’ won by John Kerry in the previous presidential election and John McCain possibly losing a few of his ‘red states’ who voted for President Bush, the trend of this election is clearly in Obama’s favor especially with an economy in such dire straits. I argued in a previous blog article that the economy would not play as large a role as other divisive issues like abortion, gay rights, and gun control. But I underestimated how profoundly this economy would affect so many people in such a negative way. The loss of one's job or the fear of losing it, can get people’s attention in a hurry!

But while we are talking about red and blue states, it soon may be time for our nation to consider whether we want to continue our present Electoral College system of electing presidents or scrap it in favor of a national popular vote. Why now? From a practical standpoint, the only time we can attempt to do this is very early in a presidential term. When you consider that our presidential campaigns last about 2 years, it would be awkward if not unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game for the candidates. And in addition, since this would require a time-consuming amendment process to the Constitution, we need to get a running start as soon as possible after this upcoming election if we are ever going to do this. Assuming we want to.

But do we need the Electoral College? Our Founding Fathers wanted governmental power to be shared between the state and national governments. This is reflected in not only our presidential system which consists of 50 individual state races (and later the District of Columbia) but also our method of electing US Senators by the state legislatures
until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment. But this also indicated a condescending distrust from a different era that they had for people directly electing their leaders. Which is all the more reason for us to consider amending the Constitution.

There are a number of
arguments against along with arguments in favor of keeping the Electoral College which can be explored in each of the links. But a few of the arguments deserve some special mention here.

Whoever gets the most votes should win! It’s the simplest but the most compelling argument in favor of a national popular vote. Any system where someone who gets fewer votes but still wins cheats the electorate. Of course, Al Gore in 2000 (along with two other candidates in US history) got more votes but lost. And had John Kerry in 2004 managed to get a few more votes to allow him to win Ohio, he would have won over President Bush despite winning fewer votes. Neither result should have had the opportunity to happen!

One of the most often used arguments in favor of the Electoral College is that smaller population states get some attention from the candidates that they normally wouldn’t in a national popular election. However, it has been shown that what determines whether a state gets any attention by the candidates is how evenly divided the electorate is between those candidates. This means that in addition to smaller states being ignored now in presidential elections, there are also a lot of larger population states that get no attention (such as New York, California, Texas, and Illinois) because these states already have solid majorities for one party or another. Now the candidates (wisely under the present system) devote all of their time and campaign money towards the roughly 12-15 ‘swing states’ whose electorates are more evenly divided (and thus closely contested) while mostly ignoring the rest of the voting population.

Everybody’s vote should count equally! For example, in a state where one candidate wins by say, 10 million to 9 million, the 9 million votes for the losing candidate then have no bearing whatsoever on the overall election result in an Electoral College system unlike for a national popular vote. For those voters whose candidate has no chance to win in the state they live in, what’s the use in voting? That’s not fair!

So I am one of those who are in favor of scrapping the Electoral College. But first there is one big argument against a national popular vote that has to be addressed.

Back in 2000, when a recount was required in Florida to decide the Bush-Gore election, the country was in turmoil and the world was watching to see how we were going to deal with a recount over a number of weeks where there were problems with ‘hanging chads’ on punch ballots along with other irregularities. What if we had a national popular vote that was close enough to require a recount? If it was that difficult to conduct a recount in just a few counties of Florida, what would it be like to recount the entire national vote?

Unfortunately, we have a hodgepodge of state and local election procedures that vary in
the form of ballot used along with controversies around whether electronic voting is vulnerable to technical glitches and vote theft. Until these problems are solved to the point where we have uniform standards and confidence in the conduction of our voting process across the country, these problems may cause even more difficulties in a national popular election where they are harder to hide in a state’s election totals.

But we shouldn’t use one sometimes poorly run system (our elections) to justify the existence of another system that needs to be changed (the Electoral College). All it means is that we need to get to work on election reform as an equal priority while we decide whether the Electoral College is something we still really need or is just an anachronism from the 18th century that needs to go. This is not just an issue for political junkies to kick around. This is more important than that. This is an issue of fairness to all of our voters!

Post Script: I received in my comment feedback, an interesting (and likely more workable) alternative to amending the Constitution which I think is worth including at the end of this posting instead of just being hidden among the comments:
The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Every vote would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes — that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 21 state legislative chambers, including one house in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and Washington, and both houses in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These four states possess 50 electoral votes — 19% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

The website provides more details.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Confessions of a Former OJ Junkie

Last Friday, October 3rd the wire services announced the verdict convicting O.J. Simpson on charges of armed robbery in an attempt to retrieve what he said was sports memorabilia that had been taken from him. With a heated presidential campaign and a scary financial crisis with its proposed controversial Congressional bailout dominating the news, not many paid much attention. But exactly thirteen years ago to the day, an eagerly awaited verdict surrounding this same person was witnessed live by an estimated 150 million viewers!

For those readers who are not old enough to remember the OJ Murder Trial or want to refresh their memories, an excellent resource is the 2005 PBS Frontline documentary commemorating the 10th anniversary of the verdict which for those with access to a broadband connection can be viewed online in its entirety
in this link. For those wanting a more concise summary of the trial, check out the Wikipedia article.

I was one of those 150 million viewers watching on a large screen TV set up at a nearby shopping mall food court so we could watch the verdict during our lunch hour. I was an OJ junkie. I often talked about the trial at work during lunchtime and at the water fountain. When I came home, I caught the end of the day’s trial proceedings on TV. And every weeknight, I watched Rivera Live or perhaps Larry King Live depending on who had the most interesting OJ guests on that night. Besides Geraldo, there were Stan Goldman, Jeffrey Toobin, Gerry Spence and other commentators who were regular ‘guests’ in my living room each evening.

And when they announced the “not guilty” verdict over the TV at the mall to the hundreds assembled, I was one of those in the crowd who yelled obscenities at the TV saying over and over “You’ve got to be (bleep)ing kidding me!” “There’s no (bleep)ing way he could have gotten off!” “I don’t (bleep)ing believe it!” Some of the other white people sitting around me were yelling some of the same things. But some of the black people in the crowd were applauding. At the time, I didn’t pay too much attention to that, but when I saw the news accounts of the huge cheers of black groups in response to the verdict, it became clear that this was going to be one of the most controversial legal verdicts ever — but split very much over racial lines.

It’s hard to say when I first started to become so engrossed in this trial. Perhaps the daily installments from the courtroom gave it the flavor of a soap opera storyline. You never knew what unforeseen twist or turn was going to happen each day so you just had to tune in. But in one important way (other than the reality of the trial), this story was very much the opposite of the traditional soap opera murder trial storyline. Usually in the soap operas, one of the good guys (or gals) gets charged with a murder that we know they didn’t commit (because we got to see the murder taking place). And after several months of dramatic suspense, the true murderer is finally revealed to all! But in this real trial, for many of us the evidence against Simpson appeared to become more and more overwhelming. And what became my obsessive reason for viewing was to see justice be done especially to help the victims’ family members get some closure and possible healing someday. After showing the courtroom celebration of Simpson and his legal team at the news of the acquittal, the camera then panned over to the stunned agony of Fred and Kim Goldman, the father and sister of one of the murder victims, Ron Goldman. Seeing their anguish made me a whole lot angrier than just seeing Simpson acquitted.

Even today, the OJ Murder Trial is talked about if not studied in many law schools. This law school website for example, outlines the mountain of
incriminating evidence that in my mind is every bit as convincing today as it was back then. While differing beliefs on whether there was a reasonable doubt of OJ’s guilt is understandable, when the differences were so split based on race, there just had to be something else behind all of this. After all, it makes no sense that blacks and whites can look at the same evidence and come up with mostly opposite conclusions from one another.

But as time passed and OJ apparently had no luck in “finding the real killers”, more members of the black community came to admit that they cheered for the verdict not necessarily because they thought Simpson was innocent, but because of what they felt was a racist criminal justice system (especially the LA Police Department) getting taught a lesson. As Simpson defense team lawyer Alan Dershowitz said as part of a
PBS Frontline interview:

Frontline: Was the verdict intended to send a message to the LAPD?

Dershowitz: Well, Johnnie Cochran's closing argument was, you have to teach a lesson to the police of Los Angeles. And it's interesting, because he was reviled for that, and I was, and many others were. And then the police scandal emerged in Los Angeles just a little while later. I got a number of public apologies on radio talk shows, from hosts and others saying: "You alerted us to this scandal before it happened. We could have stopped it. We wish we had listened to you."
If like me, you do not believe in the logical fallacy that two wrongs make a right, then it was no less wrong to release a double murderer just because the racist treatment of the black community by the LAPD was wrong. For those who feel differently, would they like to make this argument face-to-face with members of the murder victims’ families?

It is ironic that the recently concluded O.J. Simpson Las Vegas Robbery Trial revolved around this same principle. Simpson admitted to taking sports memorabilia, but justified it based on his assertion that these items were stolen from him. The prosecution said that even if those items were stolen, it’s no less of a crime to steal them back (especially at gunpoint). Despite what were said to be plans for an acquittal party, the jury rudely put a damper on those party plans by convicting Simpson and sending him to prison, perhaps for the rest of his life.

And while nothing can bring Nicole and Ron back, we can only hope that Simpson now behind bars will at least bring some belated closure and healing to their family members and allow them to move on.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The VP Debate That Didn't Live Up to the Hype

The long-awaited October 2nd debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin indeed produced record TV ratings for a VP debate. Usually, VP debates are for political junkies who can’t get enough talk about policy issues. But close to 70 million people tuned in to this event compared to only about 52 million for the long anticipated first McCain-Obama presidential debate.

But this was to be no ordinary VP debate. The curiosity factor over Palin was undoubtedly the big reason for people tuning in. In the few interviews that Palin gave, she gave what many (including some conservative commentators) thought were embarrassing answers. Would she crash and burn under the debate questioning? We all just had to tune in to find out!

And most viewers were happy to finally get the answer to that question. Seeing Palin maneuver her way safely through the debate, even if it meant ignoring some questions that were posed gave many a sense of relief. But for those of us who tuned in to finally hear Palin give some substantive answers to important questions, the debate was a tremendous disappointment that was not worthy of all the hype.

In my mind, there are three things that make the debate. One obviously is the candidates. We had a contest between an outgoing person (Biden) who enjoys talking about issues and policies going up against another outgoing person (Palin) who is clearly more comfortable avoiding issues and policy details in favor of talking mom and apple pie feel-good stuff to her conservative base. For better or worse, this came off as advertised.

But the other two important factors were the format of the debate and the moderator. Both were disappointing. The previous presidential debate allowed more than ample time for the candidates to rebut each other in addition to asking each other questions. In fact the moderator, Jim Lehrer did his best to get the candidates to talk to one another instead of just him. Getting the candidates to ask each other questions leads to more provocative and thoughtful exchanges. If the moderator were to ask some of those same questions, it would likely make that person appear to be biased which for most is something to avoid at all costs. Using this same format for the VP debate may have resulted in a tremendous improvement over what we got. A debate format that doesn’t really include follow-up questions as part of the structure makes it too easy for one or both candidates to evade answering questions that are not to their liking. And Governor Palin took full advantage of this by repeatedly resorting to rehearsed talking points to defend herself from these questions, sometimes completely changing the subject.

I can now say that I have watched more than a few political debates on TV. And in the overwhelming majority of them, I can’t recall getting too worked up either way about the moderators. Usually, these are solid professionals who do a competent if not necessarily an outstanding job. The moderator for the VP debate, Gwen Ifill of PBS certainly is on the list of solid professionals in most people’s book including mine. But Gwen may have been a victim of what is known in the sporting world as ‘working the officials’.

Although it was known at the time she was selected (and approved by both sides), Ifill’s book on emerging black politicians (including Barack Obama) scheduled for a January publishing was recently used by conservative commentators to
question Ifill's impartiality. Although, this was all rightly dismissed, Ifill was in the situation where any sharp questioning of Palin for whatever legitimate reason could be construed as bias so I believe that as a defense, she kept the questions away from provocative subjects as much as possible.

But more importantly, in a format for this debate where the candidates have more limited opportunities to ask follow-up questions of each other, the moderator must assume at least some of this duty. And with more time constraints on the answers, the moderator owes it to the viewers that the answers stay on topic as much as possible. When Palin was asked to respond to Ifill’s request to respond to Biden’s criticism of the McCain health care plan, she announced, “I would like to respond about the tax increases.” While to Ifill’s credit, she doggedly pursued Palin until she finally responded about health care, she should have maintained control by making Palin answer the question at hand about health care first before allowing her to speak on a totally different subject. And when Palin said, “And I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear…”, this should have been a tip-off that Palin was trying to gain control over the running of the debate. This is where in my opinion, Ifill should have put her foot down and asserted her control as the moderator. But possibly fearing she may have come across as looking impartial, she let the remark slide by.

On the other hand there is this article written before the debate by Jack Shafer on,
Don't Blame Gwen Ifill If the Veep Debate Sucks which argues that the die was cast for this debate once the format was agreed to:

According to the New York Times, the McCain campaign pushed for this (format) arrangement, which is more restrictive than the two-minute-response, five-minutes-of-open-discussion format of the first McCain-Obama debate, because the looser "format could leave Ms. Palin, a relatively inexperienced debater, at a disadvantage and largely on the defensive."

The veep format at Washington University favors Palin, if Andrew Halcro is any guide to her debate techniques. Halcro repeatedly debated Sarah Palin in their contest for the job of Alaska governor in 2006. He writes in today's
Christian Science Monitor that Palin was the "master of the nonanswer" in debates. He continues: "During the campaign, Palin's knowledge on public policy issues never matured—because it didn't have to. Her ability to fill the debate halls with her presence and her gift of the glittering generality made it possible for her to rely on populism instead of policy."

So we know why the McCain campaign wanted this arrangement. But why did the Obama campaign agree to it? My guess is that having the lead and the recent momentum in the campaign, the Obama campaign also used this format to their advantage to help make sure Biden didn’t make any mistakes by either talking too long or getting into a verbal slugfest with Palin that could be viewed as bullying her.

Now the debate is over and Sarah Palin has at least acquitted herself as someone who can navigate a debate, albeit a tightly controlled one. Since she was able to do this, you would think that the McCain campaign would now finally allow her to interact more with the media and (shudder) answer their questions. But as of now, there are no plans for her to appear on any of the Sunday morning interview shows or any other news show between now and the election.

While of course the choice is theirs, if Palin is going to remain off-limits to media questioning, perhaps the media should consider responding in kind by cutting off some of the fawning media coverage of what sometimes appears to be little more than photo-op sessions. Earlier this year before Obama finally made his trip to the Middle East, McCain was taunting Obama almost daily in speeches about how long it had been since he visited Iraq. Perhaps Obama should now return the favor by asking each day how long McCain intends to shield his running mate from media scrutiny.

But many on both sides see Governor Palin as little more than a distraction from the real competition which is between the two presidential candidates. And with such a crucial choice in these difficult times to be made by the voters, she may well be doing us all a favor by keeping a low profile until the election. But if this latest news item from the campaign trail
Palin Says Obama Pals With Terrorists is any indication, that is little more than wishful thinking.

If nothing else, the debate gave us a brilliantly funny Saturday Night Live parody of the event which in case you missed it, you can watch here in
this video link.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Trying to Make Sense of the Wall Street Crisis

It’s hard for me to watch all of the news about the financial turmoil surrounding Wall Street and the proposed bailout solutions from Congress without feeling scared. At one time, it was apparently just about some high-flying firms that were getting their wings clipped. But with news of the many mortgage foreclosures, it became apparent that a lot of people away from Wall Street were also getting hurt (not the least by the stock market losses). And if no solution is found to this whole mess, it has been said that companies not able to obtain credit to operate may well have trouble making their payrolls which may lead to more people losing their jobs.

But what really makes this so scary is not only the magnitude of problem and its proposed solutions but also their complexity. Especially when looking at the
110 page draft of the bailout proposal previously voted on by the House of Representatives, it is obvious that those of us who are not economics or finance experts are going to have a tough time understanding all of this enough to have an informed opinion. What’s even worse is that many of those in Congress who will be making crucial decisions on what action is taken don't have a whole lot more expertise on this than we do!

So for better or worse, most of us have to rely on the experts to help sort this all out. But as we know, experts often disagree — sometimes strongly. For example, watching CNN the afternoon of September 29th when Congress voted down a proposed bailout agreement, one expert after another talked about how the sky would fall without the bailout agreement being adopted. Then later on the same channel, Lou Dobbs and his experts declared victory in the failed agreement. And then there is Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson who takes on the role of the super expert who not only proposes the bailout but will also administer it almost single-handedly. But then it is pointed out that Paulson has been so wrong so many times in the past about this emerging crisis. Is this the man to lead us out of the woods?

The other problem with
TV experts is that too many of them instead of trying to make things understandable for the layperson are more concerned with impressing people with their knowledge. I guess that’s all about job security. But there are resources for the layperson who is willing to invest a little time and effort to learn more.

The New York Times has a very worthwhile collection of articles called Times Topics on subjects including
Credit Crisis, Credit Crisis - Bailout Plan, and the especially informative Mortgages and the Markets. For those who are not willing or able to read through all of this, since I have nothing better to do, I took the time to do some research and as a public service just like President Bush is “The Decider”, I will assume the role as “The Explainer”.

So how did this mess come about in the first place? The quick answer is ‘too much overaggressive lending — especially with home mortgages’. For lenders, there is a choice between making safe loans to rock-solid borrowers (who command the lowest rates of interest) or aggressive loans which carry more risk but command higher fees and interest. Some lenders may diversify their loans to try and get the best of both worlds.

But home mortgages are unlike most other loans because the ‘security’ behind the loan, the house, is normally an appreciating asset. So as long as the price of homes keeps going up, there is little apparent risk to lenders in even the most aggressive loans to borderline borrowers. The worst that can happen (from the lender's viewpoint) is that the house is foreclosed and the lender gets to take over an appreciating asset to resell while also pocketing the higher fees and interest associated with such loans.

But the price of homes can’t keep going up forever! When the housing market got overheated in many locations and property prices got beyond reason, the law of gravity took over and the resulting deflation of housing prices blew up in everybody’s faces. When this happens, some lenders can owe more on their mortgages than what the house is worth on the open market and may choose to walk away from their mortgage. Others facing financial distress from job loss or perhaps medical expenses are also losing their homes. The result is that the lenders are stuck with a whole lot of depreciating assets with nobody to take them off their hands.

A notable prior example of this was back in the 80s and 90s when Westinghouse Electric Corp. decided they wanted to make higher returns than what could be made in a stodgy electrical industry and decided to get more into the business of lending money to businesses along with commercial real estate. As a Westinghouse employee during these times, I was one of those wondering what was going to happen to my job as a result of their later difficulties. An outstanding series of articles published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled
Who Killed Westinghouse? is still available in the newspaper’s online archives.

A July 1986 strategic plan put together by consultants under (CEO Douglas) Danforth called for even faster growth, with an emphasis on riskier but more lucrative corporate and junk bond financing, speculative commercial real estate loans and direct loans to developers.

The message, former Westinghouse Credit employees say, was go out and make deals, deals, deals. Let the dark suits and pencil pushers have their Gateway Center offices. One Oxford Centre, the financial subsidiary's home, is where the action was.

Like other finance companies, Westinghouse Credit was virtually unregulated and proud of it. It liked being a lender of last resort. It welcomed deals its regulated brethren, banks and thrifts, couldn't or wouldn't do. And for good reason: It got hefty upfront fees and charged high rates.

Just before he retired, (CEO John) Marous did take one final action to calm the ratings agencies and maintain Westinghouse Credit's high ratings. He signed a support agreement stating that the parent company would repay any debts and cover any losses at the financial services subsidiary. In other words, Westinghouse Electric would make up any shortfalls. No one knew at the time, but it was the beginning of the end.

When the risky loans started to go bad, Westinghouse had no choice but to eventually sell off many of its businesses to avoid bankruptcy.

In today’s crisis, we have a number of Wall Street firms that have been burned by the large number of bad mortgage loans which in turn have hurt the value of securities they sold that were backed by these same bad mortgages.

The proposed bailout calls for the government to take on these bad loans and perhaps profit in the future if or when the property values come back. But while this is objectionable to many who feel that we are rewarding the bad behavior of the lenders, most (but not all) of the financial experts feel that if we do nothing, the resulting squeeze in available credit funds that allow businesses to do their day-to-day operations, including their payrolls, may trigger an even more severe recession that will result in more large-scale job layoffs even outside the financial services industry.

So this was why many legislators held their noses and voted for the bailout plan even though there were parts they didn’t like since they felt the alternative of doing nothing was worse as related in this excellent commentary by Rep. Jim Marshall (D-GA) whose background is in business, finance, and bankruptcy law.

It’s back to the drawing board to try and come with a plan enough Congressmen will approve. Many of those who voted against the bailout feel that instead of the government just taking over the bad debts, the individual homeowners should receive more direct assistance at least in the form of reworking the bad mortgage loans to make them more manageable by the homeowners just like we do with other loans in bankruptcy. In addition, some feel that additional regulation to prevent some of the overagressive lending causing the crisis in the first place is needed.

Congress wants to get home for recess as soon as possible for the campaign season. I think we all hope that this will force them to come up with a good agreement quickly. The situation is urgent. Did I mention scary?