Sunday, November 30, 2008

Writing Is My Labor of Love

On this, my 50th article posted since my entrance into the blogosphere, now is a good time to reflect on it all including the attitude that many professional writers have for those writers like me who are not paid to write. This includes not only bloggers who publish online but also authors who have self-published books in print media.

Thanks to fellow blogger John McIntire, a.k.a. MacYapper, I have another example of how some professional writers like Mike Seate of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review feel about amateur writers in his article
Mourn not for the end of pointless blogging which includes the following:

As a paid, professional journalist, I find it troubling to have chosen a profession that's attracting more imitators than the new Beyonce video. Writing is a tough gig, and the fact that millions of people choose to do it for free is a mystery to us paid writers.

You can read McIntire’s complete response to Seate’s article in
his blog posting, which argues that bloggers are more interested in just being themselves rather than imitating Seate. In addition he says that just because a writer is paid does not necessarily make him good.

But I would like to add an important point to the discussion:

Just because a writer is not paid, it does not necessarily make him bad.

All of those who are now professional writers were at one time unpaid writers whose talents were noticed and valued enough by someone to get an opportunity to write professionally.

Most amateur writers frankly need not give up their day job. But in addition to those who write simply for the enjoyment of it are undoubtedly others with talent who are waiting and hoping for their opportunity to write professionally. So to dismiss all unpaid writers as being unworthy of being read smacks of ignorance and prejudice.

In addition to being a blogger, I have also made a writing contribution as a self-published cookbook author. Unfortunately, the same attitude of ignorance and prejudice is more than apparent there too. Virtually all mainstream media outlets have made a decision that all self-published books are unworthy of attention and are best ignored.

This attitude is conveyed loud and clear by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Book Editor Bob Hoover in an article written back in 2000
Caught in a tangled Web of self-publishing.

Because vanity (self-published) books are not edited, checked for accuracy -- and perhaps even libel -- or polished by rewriting, this and most major newspapers do not review them. More often than I care to remember, I've listened to and been insulted by self-published authors who have dropped a few bucks on their book to discover that the paper won't touch it.

It's not pleasant to confront a prickly author with this policy, and while one or two of these books mistakenly slipped past me in eight years, I've stuck to it -- out of sheer necessity. The policy is a sensible way to limit the field considered for mention.

I am not totally unsympathetic to this viewpoint. After all, in this digital age the number of self-published books has become overwhelming. Trying to find the gems among the ever increasing pile of self-published books is no small amount of work. But in simply choosing to ignore all self-published books, the mainstream media is simply taking the lazy way out while doing a disservice to deserving writers along with their readers. As even Hoover laments:

Despite the steady outpouring of mediocre unoriginal books, it's never been harder to find a publisher who'll pay you to write.
More than ever, traditional publishing houses (ones that pay its authors instead of the other way around) along with literary agents are for the most part unwilling to spend any time or take any chances on previously unpublished authors. They know that the path of least resistance is to go with authors who are already well known by the book reading public rather than take a chance on a promising newcomer. So for even the most talented new authors who wish to write professionally, sometimes their only chance is to self-publish a book to show the world their stuff and hope to someday be ‘discovered’. Others resort to blogs to try and accomplish the same result.

So how do we sort out the promising writers without making it an overwhelming task? To begin with, the plain truth is that the great majority of blogs and self-published books are written for little more than the enjoyment they bring to their writers along with family and friends.

But for those few who may have the talent and ambition to write for a wider audience, companies who offer self-publishing services need to establish some
recognition programs like iUniverse (who I used to self-publish my cookbook). This would help to establish some standards for content and editing which separate books that have a realistic chance for commercial success from the rest of the pack.

While we see an unending parade of authors from the mega publishers hawking their books on the talk show circuit and elsewhere, it is often overlooked that local authors with talent can be at least as compelling for their audiences. Talent shows for aspiring entertainers have been around forever and are still going strong as today’s reality shows like for example, American Idol. Why not also give aspiring writers a chance to show their stuff?

Instead of asking media outlets to read through a pile of unsolicited books, they can instead invite interested local authors to submit an electronic sample of a dozen or so pages of their book along with perhaps a marketing plan to show that the authors are really serious about marketing their work. From that, the most promising submissions can then result in an invitation to send the complete work for review and possible featuring in an article or interview. This would all take a bit more work than simply ignoring all unpublished authors, but the payoff would be thrill of seeing the launch of new local stars into the writing field. Blogs are even easier to evaluate since their format already presents a tidy list of writing samples for the interested reader to check out.

As for me, my blog has been a labor of love that has already created a great deal of satisfaction for me in getting to share my thoughts with readers. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it would be even more satisfying to have a wider audience and perhaps even get paid to do something I love. All people like me are asking for is a chance to have our work read and judged on its own merits instead of just being brushed aside as unworthy without even being read. To those who have had the opportunity to make a living as a professional writer, we just want the same chance to attain success that somebody once gave you when you were starting out. Isn’t that only fair?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Let's Move Up the Presidential Inauguration Date

There have always been a number of ideas for Constitutional Amendments to be considered. I feel that some like one to make flag burning illegal are decidedly frivolous. On the other hand, others like getting rid of the Electoral College are ideas which should have long ago been adopted.

It seems like everybody just can’t wait for President-elect Obama to finally take over the presidency. Usually, the wait isn’t that big of a deal but we have a full-blown financial crisis to deal with. Among other issues, the American Big Three automakers are crying for a relief package and especially GM is unsure whether they can wait until January 20th before having to file for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, an unpopular lame duck president is pretty much biding his time until then. Why do we have to wait so long?

For those who think this wait is bad, there were even worse crises to deal with that lead to the passage of
the Twentieth Amendment in 1933:

This amendment's primary purpose was to reduce the amount of time between the election of the President and Congress and the beginning of their terms. Originally, the terms of the President, the Vice President, and the Congress began on March 4, four months after the elections were held. While this lapse was a practical necessity during the 18th century, at which time a newly elected official might need several months to put his affairs in order and then undertake the arduous journey from his home to the national capital, it had the effect of impeding the functioning of government in the modern age. This was seen most notably in 1861 and 1933, as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt each had to wait approximately four months before they could deal with the crisis conditions (The Civil War and Great Depression respectively) the country was in.

Back in 1933, it was decided that 'the modern age' back then didn’t require a whole four month wait to get ready for a new presidency. But back at that time, the airline industry and even TV were in their infancy. Now with the computer and Internet as part of today’s modern age, the need to keep the inaugural date of January 20 in keeping with the world of 1933 makes even less sense.

While some extreme views believe in a new president taking over immediately after the election in November, it is necessary to allow some time for the new president’s transition team to make appointments and assemble a team to govern. A natural date for the new president’s inauguration can be on (or right around) January 3 when the new Congress is sworn in.

So is it worth it to go through the considerable effort to pass a Constitutional Amendment just to move up the presidential inauguration date a mere 17 days? For most of the inaugurations, especially when the president is being sworn in for a second term, it may all seem frivolous. But for 1861, 1933, and now 2009 it is anything but. This is why we should have the foresight to enact an amendment now to move up the presidential inauguration date to January 3rd so we can better deal with a future crisis during the presidential lame duck period.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Sweet Deal for US Agriculture

Right now, the fate of the American automobile industry is in the hands of Congress. The choice is between bailing the industry out with loans or forcing the companies to file for bankruptcy with the hope that they are not later forced into liquidation.

Then there is another way that some countries have resorted to saving their industries. And that is subsidizing their domestic industries while at the same time imposing tariffs on competing imports. Would anybody ever consider saving the Big Three by the US government subsidizing purchases of their products while imposing tariffs on competitors like Toyota and Honda?

The answer from most everybody would be a resounding ‘no’. After all, that’s protectionism! We’re the US and we believe in free trade! And besides, many of us like our Japanese cars and don’t want the government to tell us which cars to buy. But while few of us would ever want to resort to protectionism to save the US auto industry, why do we accept these same practices when it comes to US agricultural products like corn and sugar?

Corn in addition to feeding animals and humans is now being used for two other specific purposes, corn ethanol and high fructose corn syrup. Both of the latter two generate tremendous profits for the main player in the corn industry, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). But ADM could not even participate in these areas if it weren’t for government subsidies and tariffs to make it possible.

The idea of replacing at least some of our imported oil with a renewable domestic agricultural product is certainly attractive. But the price of corn ethanol was not competitive with gasoline, so the US government gave this product a helping hand in the form of a $.51 per gallon subsidy. But a number of unintended results happened. With so much of our corn crop going into fuel, the price of corn tripled. And since corn is used to feed farm animals that produce some of our meat, the price of that went up too. In addition, the price of other farm staples like wheat went up aggravating world food shortages because farmers found it more profitable to raise corn instead.

But as it turns out, corn is a terribly inefficient way to make ethanol
compared to sugar cane which is widely grown around the world and has helped countries like Brazil to completely wean itself off foreign oil. How does the corn ethanol industry not only survive, but thrive? Simple. The US government slaps a stiff tariff on imported sugar so that the domestic US price of sugar is double the world price. And just to make sure we don’t work around the sugar tariff by importing sugar cane ethanol from Brazil Congress has imposed a tariff of $.54 per gallon on imported sugar-based ethanol in order to protect corn producers from competition.

But wait, there’s more! What does this do for all the US manufacturers who use sugar in their products? Some like candy makers have been
moving to locations outside the US to avoid the sugar tariffs. While some manufacturers like Hershey who have moved facilities to Mexico claim labor costs are the reason, much lower costs for a crucial raw material undoubtedly make the move even more attractive.

So with the price of sugar being kept artificially high through tariffs to protect the corn industry, the corn industry can then take advantage of this situation to offer its own solution to the food industry in the way of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Because of the resulting cost advantage, this product has now been substituted for sugar in most of the processed products we consume.

HFCS has come under increasing
scrutiny as a possible contributing cause of obesity or even type 2 diabetes. However, the evidence is not conclusive and The Corn Refiners Association is mounting a media campaign to refute these claims. But whether the claims are true or not, HFCS would be a moot point if it weren’t for the subsidies and tariffs supporting it to begin with. For more, please check out this link Tariffs and Subsidies - The Literal Cost of High Fructose Corn Syrup.

The Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (ADM) has been the most prominent recipient of corporate welfare in recent U.S. history. ADM and its chairman Dwayne Andreas have lavishly fertilized both political parties with millions of dollars in handouts and in return have reaped billion-dollar windfalls from taxpayers and consumers. Thanks to federal protection of the domestic sugar industry, ethanol subsidies, subsidized grain exports, and various other programs, ADM has cost the American economy billions of dollars since 1980 and has indirectly cost Americans tens of billions of dollars in higher prices and higher taxes over that same period. At least 43 percent of ADM's annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the American government. Moreover, every $1 of profits earned by ADM's corn sweetener operation costs onsumers $10, and every $1 of profits earned by its ethanol operation costs taxpayers $30.
So while many in Congress are saying “drop dead” to the US auto industry because they are supposedly against corporate welfare, some of the same people apparently choose to look the other way when agricultural companies like ADM feed at the public trough. Other than contributions, how has the corn industry amassed so much political clout? Much of it can be explained by the Iowa caucuses held each presidential election year. With this contest at the crucial beginning of the primary election cycle, some presidential candidates have spent a considerable amount of time and resources to pander to Iowa voters. And with corn being a major industry in Iowa, you can bet that most candidates are not going to raise much of a stink about corn subsidies even though they mostly benefit large corporations instead of the typical small farmer there.

And what about President-elect Obama? He has come out in support of sugar subsidies as detailed in this link
Obama Sends Strong Sugar Policy Signal.

While this political stance is somewhat understandable since Obama represented an agricultural state, our protectionist policies for agriculture need another look to determine where to go forward from here. In a
letter to farmers supporting the 2008 Farm Bill, he admitted, “With respect to the sugar program specifically…it’s true I have had concerns about the program…”

One of the major ways to try and improve the plight of US industry should be to revisit and if necessary renegotiate many of the trade agreements we have with other nations to make sure that we have the same access to their markets as they have to ours. Many other countries resort to protectionist policies to the detriment of US workers. The choice of Bill Richardson for Secretary of Commerce who is an experienced international negotiator is an encouraging first step in the right direction.

But having said that, it is most difficult to persuade other nations to change their protectionist policies when they have the ready argument that we also have protectionist policies of our own. So if we really want to promote ‘free trade’ to the world, we have to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Greed of Insider Trading

I was stunned to see the article in my local Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, SEC charges Mark Cuban with insider trading. Although Mark Cuban is probably best known for his high-profile ownership of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, he is also a Pittsburgh native who has had some Pittsburgh Pirates fans dreaming of him to someday buy the team and use his vast wealth to turn that sorry team around.

One part of the article really raised some questions in my mind.
During a phone call that lasted almost nine minutes, according to the complaint, he promised to keep the information about the stock sale private but then "became very upset and angry" and said, "Well, now I'm screwed. I can't sell."

He later called his broker and told him to sell all his holdings in the company, the complaint said. At the time of the sale Mr. Cuban owned a 6.3 percent stake, which made him the company's largest-known shareholder.

"Sell what you can tonight and just get me out the next day," he said, according to the complaint.
Other than his broker ratting on Cuban which would be hard to believe, how can the SEC know so much detail about a particular phone call unless they were tapping his phone? And if they were tapping his phone, what were the reasons for doing it? The answers should make for an interesting trial for the media to follow.

But the biggest question and what makes this all so stunning is: Why would somebody so incredibly wealthy take a chance of going to prison over trying to keep from losing (for him) such a paltry sum of money?

OK, we’re talking about $750,000 dollars which is more than many have made in their entire lifetimes. But Cuban’s net worth is said to be over 2 billion dollars. Keeping in mind that a billion dollars is 1,000 million dollars, it is clear that the amount of money in question is a small fraction of 1% of his net worth.

Would anybody be foolish enough to risk a prison sentence for that? For now, we must presume Cuban to be innocent until proven guilty. But what about
Martha Stewart with an estimated worth of over $600 million who was convicted of a similar crime centering on insider trading?

According to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in a federal indictment, Stewart avoided a loss of $45,673 by selling all 3,928 shares of her ImClone stock in late 2001. The day following her sale, the stock value fell 18%.
It’s hard not to wonder what Stewart and Cuban (if he is found guilty) were thinking of. Moral values aside, when large amounts of a particular stock are bought or sold by individuals right before a major company announcement that affects the price of the stock, this immediately raises a giant red flag to the SEC for them to investigate. Could they be like other people in these positions with such giant egos that they didn’t think they could ever be caught?

The laws around insider trading are actually quite complicated. For those wishing to learn more, check out
this article in Wikipedia.

Most surprisingly for me, I learned from the article that there are those who have made
arguments for legalizing inside trading. It has been argued by some that inside trading is beneficial in that it makes the markets more efficient. Others argue that it is a victimless crime since both the seller and buyer are entering into a transaction voluntarily. In fact, it is the US that enforces insider trading laws far more stringently than many other countries.

While large investors with their resources inevitably have some advantages over smaller investors, one of the hallmarks of the US stock markets is their regulations that do their best to keep all investors on as level a playing field as possible. The stock market is more than just a place for high-flyers to make their millions. It is also a place for the average person to invest his or her savings for things like college tuition or a secure retirement that are a part of the American Dream. The advantage that those on the inside gain from trading stocks is offset by the losses of those on the outside that don’t have the system rigged in their favor.

While there’s always the slim possibility that the janitor may stumble onto inside company information while cleaning out the trash cans, in the real world the people with the access to the beneficial inside information are the rich and powerful in the corporate boardroom along with those who are rich and powerful enough to have connections to them. For these people to try and take advantage of inside trading to make even more money is little more than outright greed. Let’s face it, the rich and powerful have enough legal advantages over the rest of us.
We certainly don’t need to add any illegal ones!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Should We Bail Out the Big Three?

It wasn’t too long ago that we were agonizing over whether we wanted to see a bailout package approved to rescue financial companies like AIG. Because it was said that doing nothing would result in the credit markets drying up and causing businesses to perhaps shut down, Congress held their noses and voted for it. The results so far have some banks using the bailout cash to buy other banks instead of using it for loans which is not what anybody had in mind for this money. So from this we have learned a lesson that if our government is going to offer money for bailouts, we have to be especially careful to attach enough strings to the offer to make sure the money has the desired effect.

So now the Big Three automakers, GM, Ford, and Chrysler are financially reeling and asking for government loans to keep them going. While nobody is going to help a smaller company stay alive in such a situation, the automobile industry and all of the other industries that support it represent a huge number of US jobs. Is this another example of companies that are too big for us to allow them to fail?

I think that this is really a tough call because if presents a conflict between what we should do as a matter of principle and as a matter of practicality.

As a matter of principle, this is a no-brainer. Free enterprise capitalism owes its success to the principle that the strongest companies, the ones that do the best job of satisfying its customers, will survive and thrive while the weakest ones die off. Governments that try to meddle in this process to keep the weak companies alive are doing a disservice to its citizens.

Making this situation more uncomfortable is while it may be bad for government to get involved with rescuing companies in the first place, our recent experience with the financial services bailout tells us that if we also need to attach enough strings to the money, sometimes even dictating to the company how it should be structured. So the government is not only helping to finance a private company, it is also running it. This takes us even further from the free enterprise system we prize.

And especially with these companies getting more than their share of criticism over the years (much of it deserved) for being unresponsive to the car buying public, it is easy to understand a lot of the sentiment especially from conservatives like David Brooks in his NYT op-ed piece
Bailout to Nowhere that allowing the Big Three to go into bankruptcy may be best for us in the long run.

This is an excruciatingly hard call. A case could be made for keeping the Big Three afloat as a jobs program until the economy gets better and then letting them go bankrupt. But the most persuasive experts argue that bankruptcy is the least horrible option. Airline, steel and retail companies have gone through bankruptcy proceedings and adjusted. It would be a less politically tainted process. Government could use that $50 billion — and more — to help the workers who are going to be displaced no matter what.
While many believe that bankruptcy is the equivalent to going out of business, there are two main
types of bankruptcy available to US businesses. Chapter 7 bankruptcy is the kind where the company does go out of business and its assets are sold to satisfy creditors. But under what is called Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the company stays in business and gets a breather from creditors in exchange for submitting to some control from the courts and possible restructuring of the company to give it the best chance to eventually pay back the debt. So for those who advocate bankruptcy like in this Fortune article GM: Better off bankrupt, they are referring to Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

But alas there is the conflicting practical aspect to all of this. In normal times, forcing the Big Three to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy instead of getting bailed out makes sense. But these are far from normal times. We have an economy that is in the worst shape since The Great Depression of the 1930s. While Chapter 11 bankruptcy is seen as strong medicine for these ailing companies, the cure during this weakened economy may prove to be a fatal blow to these companies leading to Chapter 7 bankruptcies which most people agree would be a disaster for the US. Among other things, pensions and health insurance from these companies may be lost. Can we afford to take a chance of this happening?

There are a couple of other arguments against forcing the Big Three to resort to bankruptcy. One is that credit even for financially strong companies is still tight. For companies in bankruptcy, adequate lines of credit may prove to be impossible to obtain. The other argument is that car shoppers may be reluctant to buy from a company who they fear may go out of business.

Automotive News, an auto industry publication makes their case in an editorial titled
The Cost of GM’s Death.

Even if GM could get debtor-in-possession financing to keep the lights on (which it can’t), Chapter 11 means a collapse of sales and a spiral into a Chapter 7 liquidation.

GM’s 100,000 American jobs will die. Health care for a million Americans will be lost or at risk. Hundreds of GM’s 1,300 suppliers will die. Their collapse could take down Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, perhaps even North American transplants. Dealers in every county of America will close.

The government will face greater unemployment, more Americans without health insurance and greater pension liabilities.

Criticize Detroit 3 executives all you want. But the issue today is not whether GM should have closed Buick years ago, been tougher with the UAW or supported higher fuel economy standards.

In the next two to four months, GM will run out of cash and turn out the lights. Only government money can prevent that. Every other alternative is fantasy.

While President-elect Obama is in favor of government financial help for the Big Three, many Republicans in Congress are cool to the idea. While it is unclear that anything will happen during the lame duck session, perhaps the coming year and a new president will result in a meeting of the minds and a way to help the US auto industry weather this financial storm that is battering so many other businesses.

As a condition of the government loan, it is reasonable to first require the management of the Big Three to offer a viable plan (perhaps involving some company reorganization) to show how they can turn their fortunes around and compete with the Toyotas and Hondas.

I would like to conclude with an excerpt from Bob Herbert’s NYT op-ed article 'Drop Dead' Is Not an Option:

It’s easy to demonize the American auto industry. It has behaved with the foresight of a crack addict for years. But even when people set their own houses on fire, we still dial 9-1-1, hoping to save lives, salvage what we can and protect the rest of the neighborhood.

This whole matter needs some intensive thought. At the moment, Washington has tremendous leverage over the failing auto industry. The government should craft a rescue plan that is both tough and very, very smart. That means dragging the industry (kicking and screaming, no doubt) into the 21st century by insisting on ironclad commitments to design and develop vehicles that make sense economically and that serve the nation’s long-term energy security requirements.

What I would like to see is creative thinking on both ends of the bargain. Let the smartest minds design a bailout that sparks a creative revolution in the industry.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Silent Power Struggle

It was nice to see President and Laura Bush extend a warm welcome to President-elect Obama and his wife Michelle during their first visit to the White House that will become their residence starting on January 20th. After all, Bush said that he wanted to extend the same warm welcome that the Clintons extended to them at the end of their term.

But while all of this ‘making nice’ is going on, beneath the surface is a silent power struggle going on between the outgoing and incoming presidents. While all of the attention understandably surrounds the incoming president, the outgoing president can take advantage of his low visibility out of the spotlight to use executive orders and pardons to address some unfinished business before leaving office.

This has been true of all outgoing presidents, but with a president who has been so notorious for his expansion of executive power during his term, perhaps we need to keep more of an eye on him.

A New York Times editorial
So Little Time, So Much Damage does just that.

While Americans eagerly vote for the next president, here’s a sobering reminder: As of (Election Day), George W. Bush still has 77 days left in the White House — and he’s not wasting a minute.

President Bush’s aides have been scrambling to change rules and regulations on the environment, civil liberties and abortion rights, among others — few for the good. Most presidents put on a last-minute policy stamp, but in Mr. Bush’s case it is more like a wrecking ball. We fear it could take months, or years, for the next president to identify and then undo all of the damage.

But the Obama transition team is not asleep at the switch. In addition to the high visibility part of the transition like filling cabinet positions, they are busy with another agenda as described in a Washington Post article Obama Positioned to Quickly Reverse Bush Actions.

Transition advisers to President-elect Barack Obama have compiled a list of about 200 Bush administration actions and executive orders that could be swiftly undone to reverse White House policies on climate change, stem cell research, reproductive rights and other issues, according to congressional Democrats, campaign aides and experts working with the transition team.

Few citizens including many political junkies have much of an understanding of executive orders. The best article I have found to explain this subject in a Q & A form is a Wall Street Journal blog, Executive Orders 101. And for a more conventional encyclopedic summary there is this article from Wikipedia which itself includes a number of interesting links for those wishing to study this subject in more detail. Interestingly enough, executive orders are not even explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution.

Even so, most of us feel that it is desirable when necessary to give the president some powers to get things done without being bogged down by the Congressional decision-making process. But obviously, this power can be abused. Although these executive orders have been made by many administrations from both parties over the years, is it fair to make a bigger deal out of what President Bush is doing now in his final months of office?

It has been well documented that President Bush is the most unpopular president since these popularity polls have begun many years ago. In addition, the electorate has sent a resounding message that a solid majority of them do not like the Bush policies. Toward the end of the election campaign, even John McCain was openly critical of the Bush years. Given this, you would think that Bush should at least have the decency to just keep things running until the new president comes on board with his policies.

Instead, this administration has been about seizing as much executive power as possible to the point of distorting the spirit of Constitutional checks and balances between the branches of government. While those on the Republican side may approve of this conduct, surely they should realize that when their party is no longer in power that the Democrats may very well feel entitled to do the same thing once they take over the presidency. And that is not a positive trend for our way of government no matter which party one supports.

It's no wonder that so many people are anxiously
counting down the days until Bush finally leaves office!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Can We Talk About Same Sex Marriage?

The New York Times in their editorial Equality's Winding Path the day after this historic Election Day summed up how bigotry still exists in the US:

Even as the nation shattered one barrier of intolerance, we were disappointed that voters in four states chose to reinforce another. Ballot measures were approved in Arkansas, Arizona, Florida and California that discriminate against couples of the same sex.

As the editorial points out, struggles over civil rights never follow a straight path. While we have obviously come a long way from the days of slavery and then segregation and after many more years finally to the election of a black president, there were many setbacks along the way. So while full equality for gay people may indeed be part of our future, unfortunately they too will have to suffer setbacks like this.

Two big questions at this point are 1. How did a measure like Proposition 8 which bans same sex marriage ever pass in such a liberal Blue State like California? and 2. How much will the election of Barack Obama change the landscape for gay rights?

To answer the first question, there are many liberals who support gay rights in the form of
civil unions but draw the line when it comes to marriage. Even within the Democratic Party, it is hard to think of any presidential candidate other than Dennis Kucinich who has come out in favor of same sex marriage. From a political standpoint, it’s probably a lot safer to support gay rights in the form of civil unions instead of being subject to attack as being ‘too liberal’ for supporting gay marriage.

Then there is the issue of the large black turnout for Barack Obama
that voted heavily in favor of gay marriage bans. How can a group that has fought its own battles with discrimination not be on the same side with another group fighting its battles? The best guess is that many blacks still look at homosexuality as being more of a religious/morality issue than a discrimination issue. Many blacks who attend conservative Christian churches get the message that homosexuality is immoral. While we clearly have no choice over our race, it is still not clear to many whether our sexual orientation is indeed a matter of choice. This in turn affects our attitudes on whether gays should be a protected class of people under the law. I have very strong feelings on this subject. The interested reader can refer to one of my previous postings, Sexual Orientation Is Not a Choice.

So what’s the difference between marriage and civil unions? The short answer is — as much or as little as the prevailing law allows. One of the reason some favor civil unions instead of marriage is to be able to grant some rights of marriage but deny other rights that may be considered too controversial like for example, the right to adopt children.

So where does President-elect Obama stand on this issue? He like most other mainstream politicians does not believe in same sex marriage. But like most Democratic politicians, he believes in civil unions. However, he also spoke out against the aforementioned Proposition 8 in California that would make same sex marriage illegal. One has to wonder if he is trying to politically straddle the fence and
have it both ways.

Interestingly enough, a look at
Obama's website does not show gay rights listed as one of the long list of ‘Issues’. One has to look under ‘People’ to find his positions on LGBT issues which includes the following:

Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples equal legal rights and privileges as married couples.

If we are to take him at his word, then this begs the question. If he wants to really give same sex couples equal legal rights and privileges as married couples, why not just allow them to marry and be done with it?

Perhaps a clue is given by Rev. D. McGee of San Francisco in this excerpt from his comment to the NYT editorial mentioned at the beginning of this article:

As an Evangelical clergyman who is African American, I do not support same sex marriage. Yet, as a lifelong victim and descendent of discrimination, I am not for any substantive discrimination based on sexual orientation. I believe the problem is cultural and semantic. Same sex "partners" should enjoy all the rights of married couples. But, to best avoid confusion, the term "marriage" must be reserved for male and female couples!

While this view may seem strange to some readers, I feel it reflects the views of many people, even liberal politicians who while they don’t want to deny equal rights to same sex partners, find the idea of same sex marriage to be ‘too liberal’ for their voting constituencies.

So if gays are offered what president-elect Obama supports in the way of civil unions that give same sex couples equal rights and privileges as married couples, is this an acceptable compromise? That is for the gay community to answer but it can be argued that half a loaf is better than none.

Having said that, I have some problems with civil unions to address this issue. For one, unlike marriage laws that are much more established and standardized from one area to another, there are a seemingly endless number of different types of civil unions in different localities that vary widely in the privileges they allow. And because civil unions are a new concept, they do not instruct business, the courts or other agencies how to apply the centuries of kinship-related doctrine, custom and law to these arrangements which is one of the primary differences cited between marriage and civil unions. So for those who really want to grant equal privileges to same sex couples, instead of forcing everybody to navigate through all of these legal difficuties, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just to allow these people to marry?

What is more troubling to me is that much of the resistance to same sex marriage comes from religions who not only spread their disapproval of homosexuality to their congregations but also
publically supported Proposition 8. The Mormons in particular provided significant financial support to help pass Proposition 8, much of it from outside of California.

What is overlooked here is that while marriage ceremonies may or may not be performed by clergymen, it is first and foremost a legal contract entered into between two people signified by a marriage license. While religions certainly have the right to their own views on homosexuality or anything else, imposing their views on whom people can enter into legal contracts with may well be crossing that line that separates church and state here in the US.

All the legal stuff aside, hopefully this historic election of a black president will lead to more tolerance in our country for people who may be different from us. Other countries like Canada have legalized same sex marriage and the world didn’t end. Even for those who may not approve of homosexuality, if allowing them to marry would result in a happier and more complete life for them, can’t we at least have the kindness and tolerance as a society to grant them that wish?

Post Script: Please check out this incredibly moving Special Comment by Keith Olbermann: Gay marriage is a question of love

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Is This the End of Partisan Politics?

For me, watching Barack Obama’s decisive victory was most satisfying. I found it to be an awful moment when someone as knowledgeable and intelligent like Al Gore lost to someone who appeared to me even back then to be a intellectual lightweight. And then there was the controversial way the election was resolved by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision that appeared to be divided based on partisan politics.

But that was OK. Surely enough people would catch on to President Bush and replace him with another knowledgeable and intelligent candidate like John Kerry. But enough people apparently felt that it wouldn’t be a good idea of replace a “War President” before the war was over — even if that president made an ill-advised decision to go to war in Iraq to begin with.

This year the Democrats put up still another candidate who was knowledgeable and intelligent. But this time, the candidate had what the previous two were lacking — the ability to excite and inspire. That was enough to finally get over that last hurdle and on to victory. For those studying political campaigns, I think what they will get out of this election is with all of the round-the-clock cable and Internet coverage devoted to campaigns, it’s awfully hard to win nowadays without creating enough ‘buzz’ or in plain language, excitement. Barack Obama’s great oration skills helped to create his buzz. And while John McCain’s VP choice of Sarah Palin seemed reckless then and even now, she certainly created a lot of buzz. A case could be made that if McCain had instead selected a more solid VP candidate, he may have never gotten as close to winning as he did with all of the excitement that the youthful Obama’s campaign was generating.

Since the polls before the election pretty much predicted an Obama rout, I was very curious to compare how the various cable networks were going to cover the evening. So in addition to my usual choices of CNN and MSNBC, I was especially curious on how right-leaning Fox News was going to cover what could well turn out to be a Republican meltdown so I kept the remote control in my hand the entire evening to switch between the three channels.

Of the three, Fox News provided the most surprises for me during their election coverage. For one thing, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly were nowhere to be found. Were they excused for the evening to give Fox’s coverage a less partisan feel? Or did they not want to be there to endure and have to explain the likely beating at the hands of the liberals that was to come that evening? As Fox likes to say, You Decide.

Another surprise was how quickly Fox called the various races especially compared to the other networks. I thought that perhaps they would be in denial and put off calling Republican defeats as long as possible. But they called the crucial Pennsylvania and Ohio contests along with most of the other ones ahead of MSNBC while CNN seemed to be in its own time lag when announcing their projections.

The 10 o’clock (Eastern Time) hour pretty much foreshadowed the fat lady singing at 11 when the results from the West Coast Blue States would surely put Obama over the top. But since the results of these states cannot be talked about until the polls officially close, the networks had to pretend until then that the election wasn’t really over. But the folks over at Fox, even including Karl Rove said that the party was over and didn’t mince any words in saying it.

Finally at 11 o’clock (ET) when the California polls finally closed, everybody instantly announced the Obama victory (like we should have been surprised). At that point, I was especially interested to see how the right-wing pundits at Fox were going to behave. And that was to be my biggest surprise.

Overall, they were magnanimous in praising Obama for his victory and had nothing but good things to say about him. The host, Brit Hume said that all of the talk about Obama being dangerous doesn’t square up with the image he got from speaking to Obama in person. Bill Kristol and Karl Rove were similarly kind to Obama. Hey, don’t you guys remember that this was the guy who “pals around with terrorists”?

Even the reliably right-wing opinion page of the
Wall Street Journal started out their President-Elect Obama article with a “Hearty congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama.”

With Obama tirelessly talking about reaching across the aisle to Republicans, are we finally going to get past all of the partisan politics that has dominated the landscape in recent times? With things being in such bad shape, perhaps this provides the best incentive for both sides to work together and solve problems instead of engaging in gridlock.

Call me a cynic, but in my mind there is a powerful disincentive to bipartisan politics for the party that is out of power. Just suppose that President Obama with bipartisan support turns out to have a wonderfully productive four years. That would be great for America, but how would the Republicans ever recapture the White House? Or any of the seats in Congress they have lost.

Here are some post-election
comments from Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner:

The Republican leader acknowledged that those results are "deeply disappointing," as Democrats look likely to pick up more than 20 seats in the House. But he had a message for people who would like to see Republicans "surrender" and "give the new administration and the Democratic leaders of Congress a free pass":

"It ain't gonna happen," Boehner wrote colleagues in a letter distributed Wednesday. "It must not happen."

Despite Barack Obama's decisive win Tuesday night, Boehner argues that "America remains a center-right country."

"Democrats should not make the mistake of viewing Tuesday’s results as a repudiation of conservatism or a validation of big government," he says in the letter. "Neither should we."

And finally, I just had to check out Hannity & Colmes on Fox News the night after the election. And there as one of the guests was none other than Joe the Plumber who went into a rant of conservative talking points. So for better or worse, life has returned to normal.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The World Is Watching

While those of us in the US are thinking about Election Day and who is going to lead our country, I recently came across a wonderful New York Times video titled Cuba Watches the U.S. Election which I would like to share with you.

It is understandable that Americans are preoccupied with this election. After all, some have said that it is the most important election of our lifetimes. New voter registration has soared and people across the country have stood in lines for hours just to get the chance to vote early.

But from the video above along with reading about detailed US election coverage by many foreign publications, it is obvious that the international community is no less interested than we are in the outcome. The only difference is that they can’t vote.

I have always had a difficult time understanding why we still continue the
US embargo against Cuba after over 45 years other than the political pressure from some Cuban-Americans who still have a blind hatred towards Fidel Castro. While the aim of the embargo was to put pressure on Castro to bring democracy to the Cuban people, most of its critics feel that the effects of the embargo have done more to hurt its people than the government.

Who can forget
Barack Obama's Berlin speech from July in front of an estimated 200,000 people? For the video of that speech, see this link. Although John McCain put down Obama as a “celebrity” as a result of his tour of the Middle East and Europe, it is hard to remember any American receiving so much positive attention in Europe especially since our relations with the world have soured so much under the policies of President Bush.

I think that the main problem we have in our attitudes toward some foreign countries is that we only think of them in terms of their leaders and not their people. For example, when we think of Cuba we think of Castro and when we think of Iran we think of Ahmadinejad. But this overlooks that behind all of the windbag rhetoric spouted back and forth by the leaders of our countries are ordinary citizens who are just trying to get along as best they can. Although there is still anti-American government propaganda in countries like these, the Internet and other forms of electronic communications have allowed people from all over the world to get to know what the American people are really like.

Perhaps the most controversial part of Michael Moore’s movie Sicko was when he took some of the people in his movie (including 9/11 rescue workers who got sick from the toxic fumes) unable to afford US medical care to Cuba for medical attention. And while Moore’s many detractors would say this was nothing more than a stunt, if you can watch the heartfelt emotion between the Cubans and their American visitors
in this video clip without shedding a tear yourself, you must have a heart smaller than The Grinch himself!

While those outside of our country cannot vote for our president, there is nothing stopping them from taking sides on whom our next president should be. Clearly Barack Obama has created the most excitement with his youth, energy, and willingness to engage our other world leaders on at least some diplomatic level whether they be friend or foe. In Cuba, many feel that Obama would
do the right thing and take steps to normalize US-Cuban relations. Others like New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof although not picking a candidate feels that this election will be an important step in having the US once again Rejoin the World. It is no wonder that the world is watching!