Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Keeping College from Becoming a Ripoff

When I made my decisions on what I wanted to be and where I would go to school back in the early 70s, my family's modest finances made me determined to be as frugal and practical as possible. Although I had a number of interests, my aptitude in math and science (especially electricity) suggested that I become an electrical engineer, a job that paid well and would give me reasonable job prospects.

Then it was a choice of college. Deciding to stay local to be able to commute and thus save money on room and board, my choices were between a good public university, Pitt, and Carnegie-Mellon, a private university renowned for its engineering school.

But Carnegie-Mellon costed three times as much and I didn’t believe it would provide an education that was three times better. So rather than apply someplace our family couldn't afford, I foolishly put all my eggs in one basket at Pitt. Fortunately, Pitt accepted me. And since I still commuted from home, I was able to find an evening and weekend job in a restaurant near home that allowed me to pay my own tuition in full. (Today with the price of tuition skyrocketing, minimum wage jobs do not pay enough to do this anymore.)

So what was the result of all of this? I received an education that was adequate but was decidedly more impersonal due to the large size of the school. And without experiencing any of campus life by living there, my social life was frankly not much of a life at all.

But I got through it all and although I took several months after graduation to find my first professional job, it happened and I then started to earn a comfortable living – all without any college debt to worry about. This all worked perfectly until my engineering job was eliminated in my late 40s. I then discovered that those over 50 with college educations nowadays are not in demand to say the least. So although my college education is now useless in finding work, it served me well for much of my adult life.

One thing I noticed back in the times when employment prospects were more normal was that many of my colleagues did not have engineering degrees like I did. Instead of learning a trade like I did in engineering school, there were many others who graduated with an assortment of liberal arts degrees. But that was OK. At that time, a prospective employer often used a college degree to judge whether somebody had enough brainpower to be able to make a meaningful contribution to the company. If they were smart enough, they could be then be trained in whatever specialized work the company needed. It all worked quite well – but that was then.

In a previous posting,
Our Jobs Crisis, I argue that unlike previous downturns that were cyclical in nature, this one is structural in which many of the jobs we have lost through outsourcing and other overseas competition may likely never come back. Even more alarming, many of these lost jobs have been in college educated professions like engineering and even law.

In my time, going to college with the expectation of using that diploma as an entry into the middle class was a reasonable one. But today, many college graduates who have borrowed heavily to get that diploma (especially to go to that prestigious private school) have encountered a nightmare where their degree is no longer in demand while at the same time they are expected to start paying off their debt – which cannot usually be discharged through bankruptcy.

While many of the degrees they offer may no longer have as much economic value in the workplace as before, schools that make money from student tuition have no real incentive to warn prospective students about all of this. Jack Kelly in a recent op-ed,
The costly college scam, summed it up this way.

The biggest consumer ripoff in America today is a college education.

The scam exists for the benefit of college teachers and administrators who make a comfortable living ripping off the gullible. If only people capable of doing college work were admitted to college, and only courses with academic value were offered, there would be fewer colleges and far fewer faculty.

But in addition to the traditional colleges, the for-profit education and career training industry has grown explosively in no small part due to the GI Bill which pays for veterans’ education. This worked well for our veterans after World War II when the economy was rapidly expanding, but in today’s economy with its chronic shortage of jobs, it appears that the schools are reaping all of the benefits far more than the students which has resulted in a Senate investigation of industry practices.

A wide-ranging examination of for-profit colleges by the U.S. Senate has homed in on how the schools recruit and educate veterans -- a lucrative source of federal funds for [Pittsburgh]-based Education Management Corp.

From August 2009 to July 2010, EDMC -- which runs the Art Institutes, Argosy University, South University and Brown Mackie College -- took in about $60.5 million from the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs. According to data compiled by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, EDMC was the third largest recipient of such funds in that span, behind Apollo Group Inc. -- which runs the University of Phoenix -- and ITT Technical Institute.

The HELP Committee, led by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has been holding hearings on the practices of for-profit schools -- exposing aggressive and sometimes fraudulent recruiting tactics, and the high debt loads and failure rates of their students.

So am I saying that we should all give up on higher education and accept a career that pays little more than minimum wage? Hardly. It is marketable knowledge and skills that allow some to command a higher wage than others.

For those who desire it and are fit for a white collar occupation, college is certainly worth considering. But with the selective job market we now have, it is crucial to research up front how present graduates in a certain field are doing before investing the considerable amount of time and money to obtain a particular degree. While college does have certain benefits outside of career training, the expense also has to justify itself in the form of increased income after graduation. And white collar occupations are far from immune to outsourcing; in fact some of them have been hit especially hard in recent times.

Is a private college really worth all of the extra expense (and debt) over a publicly supported one? As I noted earlier, my educational experience in a large public university like Pitt was a somewhat impersonal one. Private schools offer smaller class sizes and more personal attention. But the same can be said for the smaller branch campuses of public universities like Pitt. In addition, community colleges are a great value and worth considering for a year or two before transferring to a 4 year college.

Of course, not everybody is cut out for college or a white collar career.
Learning a trade that is in demand can provide just as much pay and satisfaction as many white collar careers. With the many unemployed sitting at home watching TV, commercials for different training institutes are blanketing the airwaves. But there is always the disclaimer in the fine print that employment and salary are not guaranteed. Do these places really enable their students to find jobs as advertised? Or do they leave their graduates high and dry with little more than a pile of debt to deal with? It takes some research up front to find this out – preferably by talking to previous grads of these institutions.

So although college can be a ripoff, it doesn’t have to be. When dealing with anybody who asks us to part with some of our money, we have the responsibility to be informed consumers – and education is no exception!

Post Script - January 12, 2011
Being an informed consumer is especially difficult when the schools who are supposed to be providing objective information on the employment prospects of its graduates resort to fudging their figures or are outright lying about them.

A recent NYT article Is Law School a Losing Game? is about the rude awakening many recent law school graduates have received when they discovered that the expensive degree they borrowed money to earn isn't yielding any job offers in the field despite law schools encouraging even more students to enroll.
[Michael] Wallerstein, who can’t afford to pay down interest and thus watches the outstanding loan balance grow, is in roughly the same financial hell as people who bought more home than they could afford during the real estate boom. But creditors can’t foreclose on him because he didn’t spend the money on a house.

He spent it on a law degree. And from every angle, this now looks like a catastrophic investment.

Well, every angle except one: the view from law schools. To judge from data that law schools collect, and which is published in the closely parsed U.S. News and World Report annual rankings, the prospects of young doctors of jurisprudence are downright rosy.

In reality, and based on every other source of information, Mr. Wallerstein and a generation of J.D.’s face the grimmest job market in decades.
This article is a 'must read' for anybody studying for or contemplating a legal career.

To get a perspective from someone on the street, I forwarded a link to the article to a friend of mine who is a lawyer to get some feedback. Her response below is pretty self-explantory.
It's very sobering, but not a surprise, we have usually have at least 2 unemployed attorneys volunteering for us to get experience, and our youngest attorneys have loan balances close to $200,000. (our starting salary is less than $40,000). I have no idea why anyone still thinks law school is a good idea.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Our Tax Cut Insanity

Imagine this scenario. A shopper brings $100 to the store to shop for groceries. After filling the cart she goes to check out and discovers that the total comes to $125. So what happens then?

In the practical world, she would ask the checkout person to take away $25 worth of groceries from the bill. Or if she felt that all of her purchases were really necessary, she can put the shortfall on her credit card to pay back later.

Of course she could have complained about how much food has gone up. Or perhaps about how the store charges what she feels is too much for her food. She could have even promised herself that next time, she would go to the store with only a $75 shopping list of groceries.

But try as she may, she just couldn’t find $25 worth of groceries she could do without. So she puts the extra $25 worth on her credit card for this and future trips to the store.

So why not bring $125 each time to the store? Because she is convinced that each time she goes to the store, she will find a way to cut out that extra $25 and not have to put in on the credit card. But that never happens and the credit card balance keeps going up and up.

This grocery store scenario is a pretty good match to the behavior of Congress when it comes to our annual federal budgets here in the US. We don’t have enough tax money coming in to pay the total bill. So we borrow the rest and vow to spend less next year so we don’t have to borrow more.

But it never works out that way. While we all have our own ideas on where to cut the budget, there is not enough of a consensus to ever make it happen. For example, most liberals feel that we spend far too much on our military. But most conservatives feel that the military budget is untouchable. And many conservatives feel that we spend too much on entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. But liberals feel these are untouchable. So the process of making any significant cuts in the federal budget invariably leads to Congressional gridlock.

So it would stand to reason that if we can’t cut spending to balance our budget and not put more on the credit card, we need to raise taxes to make up the difference. But instead, the supply side economists starting with David Stockman who was President Reagan’s budget director, advocated for and helped to pass tax cuts with the idea of stimulating the economy to make up for the lost tax revenue. But instead, the lack of tax money simply resulted in a greater shortfall and the need to put more money on the credit card.

Paying less in taxes with the idea of “starving the beast” to reduce the size of government has long been a part of the conservative ideology. But tax cuts without corresponding spending cuts only puts us deeper in the hole which requires us to borrow even more.

But instead of learning our lesson under Reagan that tax cuts do little more than create larger deficits, President George W. Bush passed another major tax cut in addition to a major spending increase in the way of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The result was more record deficits and more borrowing – mostly from the Chinese. With the Chinese now owning so much of our debt, trying to deal with them on their often unfair trade practices that have drained us of jobs has become increasingly difficult.

A legacy left from the Reagan and Bush tax cuts is an attitude by the conservatives that we can get all of the government we need without having to pay enough taxes to balance the budget. Instead of being “deficit hawks” we now started to get
Republican excuses for the deficits.

Vice-President Dick Cheney famously told former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, that "deficits don't matter." What's interesting and alarming, however, is that different Republican factions believe deficits don't matter for opposite and incompatible reasons.

Supply-siders believe deficits don't matter because tax cuts so boost investment and productivity that the economy grows its way out of debt. The opposite, "starve the beast" faction, epitomized by tax tactician Grover Norquist, hope tax cuts will indeed create deep deficits that will then force spending cuts. But both things can't be true.

Under George W. Bush, the merry ideology calls for tax cuts in all seasons for all reasons. Spending has increased faster than under Clinton, and deficits have ballooned, yet tax cutting marches on.

Another huge byproduct of the Bush tax cuts was their benefit to the wealthiest which has resulted in a huge concentration of income and wealth at the very top of the food chain.

With the middle and lower classes now suffering economic hard times, it is hopeless to try and balance the budget by asking more taxes from them. This is what I argue in a previous posting
Make the Rich Pay Their Fair Share!

Due to technical reasons, the Bush tax cuts could not be passed as a permanent measure but instead are due to expire at the end of 2010. Logic would dictate that the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that created so much of the deficit should be allowed to expire. But for Republicans, tax cuts are a religion and the Senate Republicans have vowed to kill all legislation including unemployment compensation extensions until the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (their political base) are extended first.

Despite these tax cuts having been shown to do little more than increase the deficit and our credit card balance (the National Debt) now approaching $14 trillion, the conservatives’ insane fervor for tax cuts continues unabated, even for those who claim that they believe in balanced budgets. The classic definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results certainly applies here.

Even David Stockman, the man who helped to start it all has finally admitted to the insanity in a recent
60 Minutes interview.

(Extending the Bush tax cuts is) rank demagoguery. We should call it for what it is. If these people were all put into a room on penalty of death to come up with how much they could cut, they couldn't come up with $50 billion, when the problem is $1.3 trillion. So, to stand before the public and rub raw this anti-tax sentiment, the Republican Party, as much as it pains me to say this, should be ashamed of themselves!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Put Up or Shut Up Time for the Republicans

It was a pretty depressing election for Democrats. From their viewpoint, the only consolation that evening was that Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell lost. But the Republicans as expected took control of the House of Representatives. Can you say Speaker John Boehner? I knew you couldn’t.

For the Republicans, it was good news and bad news. The good news was that they won enough seats to recapture the House. The bad news is that they now have to help govern instead of just criticizing and obstructing the Democrats from the sidelines.

Anybody can be a critic. But it takes a lot more to be a doer.

Not that there’s anything wrong with criticism. It’s an indispensable part of a free election system. The other guys stink. We can do things better. Vote for us.

But what made things so maddening for the incumbent Democrats during the election was the claim that if the Republicans were elected, they would do things better — but without ever giving any real specifics on how they would do it.

For example, we are now running a budget deficit of about $1.3 trillion which to Republicans is unacceptable. Their plan to balance the budget is to extend the tax cuts to all including the wealthiest 2% along with mostly unspecified “spending cuts”. We don’t know exactly what they have in mind but the most consistent story is that defense, Social Security, and Medicare cuts are not on the table which is the lion’s share of the budget. With precious little else to cut, how do they propose to balance the budget while not only refusing to raise taxes but also swelling the deficit with more tax cuts for the wealthy? The math just doesn’t add up! But then again, they now have a chance to propose their own budget in the House to answer these questions.

And then there is the pledge to repeal “ObamaCare” and replace it with something better. But no matter how one feels about health care reform, there were a number of significant breakthroughs that were a result of the passing of this bill. For example, children can no longer be rejected for insurance based on preexisting conditions. (For adults, this kicks in by 2014.) Children graduating from college who cannot find a job with insurance benefits can stay on their parents’ policy until age 26. And now those with health insurance cannot be dropped by their insurer simply because they got sick. Lifetime individual dollar limits for coverage have also been dropped.

So for those who wish to repeal “ObamaCare”, which of these benefits do they want to see taken away? Or maybe they intend to keep the good parts while getting rid of those parts that they (or more likely the health insurance companies that financially support them) don't like. Admittedly, the stuff about repealing health care reform is little more than blowing smoke. Even if it somehow got past the Senate, the president would be ready with his veto pen. But it would sure be interesting to see how they would do their own healthcare reform bill. And because of the Republicans regaining control of the House, we will finally get to see what substance they are offering behind all of the rhetoric.

But past history has not been encouraging. For example back in 1994, the Republicans defeated
"HillaryCare" and in the following years after gaining control of both Congress and the White House, the number of people without health insurance skyrocketed with no real attempts at reform during that period. Now that the Democrats have finally passed a health reform bill into law, the Republican game plan is to again defeat it but this time by repealing it.

Call it political spin, but I now believe that the Republican regaining of the House may well be a blessing in disguise for the Democrats — and maybe the country in general.

We know the Republicans are good at winning elections. But can they govern once they win? Or are they like the dog that chases after cars and then doesn’t know what to do when it catches one?

New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie in this
recent Meet the Press appearance sums it all up with his usual brutal honesty:

When you talk about the response from the voters on Election Day, something's very curious. We know some of the feelings about the Democrats, about President Obama 's policies, but look at this from the exit polls in terms of the opinion of political parties . Republicans didn't fare too well either; 52 percent unfavorable rating. What does that say about the Republican Party today?

You know, I think what it says is what I was saying all over the country, that's it's put up or shut up time for our party. You know, we lost our way last decade, David. We did, and people expect us to do better. And if the Republican Party wants to come back, they're going to have to do what they said they were going to do. I mean, because if they don't, we're going to be sent to the wilderness for a long time, and we're going to deserve it!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Stonewalling the Media

As the Democrats await their fate in the upcoming election, there is one Senate race that even among all of the crazy races has perhaps captured the most attention. And that is the Nevada US Senate race between Democrat and Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle.

Sure there are many other races where Tea Party candidates have adopted positions that are well out of the political mainstream (even for many Republicans!), but Sharron Angle is in a league of her own.

Brian Greenspun, the publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun in his editorial
Nevadans can show how smart we are (Or, by electing Sharron Angle, we can prove the reverse is true) sums up just a few of Angle’s provocative positions.
Angle would dismantle Social Security and Medicare, calling them biblical sins; do away with Veterans Affairs; not require insurance companies to pay for mammograms, and screenings for prostate and other cancers that we know can save lives with early detection; or refuse to require background checks for sex offenders. These are all norms of American daily living that people take for granted and expect that those who we elect won’t take them away. Angle would.

Even worse, she has stated publicly how she really feels about Nevadans crushed by this meltdown. She believes people who need unemployment benefits to keep their homes and food on their tables, until there are jobs to be had, are just spoiled!
The list goes on and on. There is her position that even women who are impregnated by rape or incest should not have access to abortion. And then there are her proposed Second Amendment “remedies” in response to actions by Congress she disapproves of. A little armed insurrection anybody?

But this is not about criticizing her ideas as strange as they may be to many of us. Elections are about competing ideas and candidates should air their different views to allow the voters to make their own informed choices.

But what angers me (and should anger you too) is the strategy of Angle (and many other Tea Partiers) of stonewalling the media when they try to do their job of asking follow-up questions of the candidates to defend their positions. Or as the Sun editorial puts it:
People’s right of access to information about their government is paramount. People who wish to seek and hold public office have no right to withhold themselves and their views from voters. Angle, obviously, disagrees with the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Founding Fathers who wrote it and the vast majority of Americans who live and die each day defending it.
Angle has been seen many times walking away from media questioners, but the latest is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for me. Check out the video of the latest attempted interview of her in this link.
Reporters from the CBS and NBC affiliates surprised the tea party favorite at McCarran International Airport, where they asked her questions about national security and unemployment. Angle responded, "I will answer those questions when I am the senator."

Pressed further, she added, "The two wars that we are in right now are exactly what we are in."
How profound. This is more than just an isolated incident; it represents an attitude on her part. Appearing on conservative-friendly Fox News, she came out with a whopper that even left the Fox interviewer flabbergasted.
"We wanted [the press] to ask the questions we want to answer, so that they report the news the way we want it reported."
The strategy these candidates use is to put out some right-wing talking points (some say it's demagoguery) to fire up the base, but at the same time avoid answering questions by the media (except for friendly questioning on Fox) to explain or defend their positions.

For example, Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul cancelled a scheduled appearance on Meet the Press rather than explain his controversial remarks on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Sarah Palin never appeared on any of the Sunday political talk shows during her VP run in 2008. It was only when ABC’s Charles Gibson asking her about the Bush Doctrine and CBS’s Katie Couric asked her about which newspapers she read that her lack of knowledge on the issues became painfully apparent. And then there was the recent infamous incident in Alaska where Republican Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller’s private security guards handcuffed a reporter for approaching the candidate with questions after a public town hall meeting.

One would think that when a candidate refuses to answer questions, the voters would respond by not voting for that person!
But Angle, Paul, and Miller all lead in the polls this weekend before the election so this basically dishonest strategy is apparently working. (But fortunately not for California GOP gubernatorial candidate
Meg Whitman.)

We shouldn’t let them get away with it!
It should stand to reason that if certain candidates are going through all of this trouble to avoid defending their positions, isn’t it reasonable to ask what they are hiding? Isn’t it possible that some of their extreme positions would be indefensible in the face of media scrutiny? And that they know it!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Freedom to Hate

I can’t help but wonder if the framers of the US Constitution’s First Amendment would have placed at least some restrictions on hate speech if they had seen some of the most infamous examples in history such as from the Nazis, the KKK, and most recently the Westboro Baptist Church, a virulent anti-gay hate group in Topeka, Kansas headed by Fred Phelps which has gotten national attention for their picketing of military funerals.

It is their worldview (not mine) that since God hates homosexuality and the US Government and its military tolerates homosexuality, the tragedies that America has suffered like 9/11 along with the military deaths from the wars are a retribution from God.

For those seeking to understand more about the WBC, a fascinating one hour BBC documentary (which you can watch online in the following link) The Most Hated Family in America
is written and presented by Louis Theroux who not only reports on the family’s strange (to say the least) views, but also probes some of the church members on their beliefs and even tries to reason with them (without success). It is scary to hear how all of these people think exactly alike in what amount to a cult environment.

The US Supreme Court has recently heard arguments from the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder who initially
won a lawsuit against the WBC for “defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress” as a result of their picketing Corporal Snyder’s funeral only to have a higher court throw out the award based on First Amendment protections.

Ruling on this case is not so easy since hate speech
unlike in most countries in the world is protected by the First Amendment. But there are also the rights of citizens not to be harassed by hate from others.

However, even the First Amendment does not provide absolute protection of free speech. There are
Exceptions to the First Amendment such as for obscenity, child pornography, libel and slander. But the most applicable exception here is known as Time, Place and Manner Restrictions.

Even speech that enjoys the most extensive First Amendment protection may be subject to “regulations of the time, place, and manner of expression which are content-neutral, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” In the case in which this language appears, the Supreme Court allowed a city ordinance that banned picketing “before or about” any residence to be enforced to prevent picketing outside the residence of a doctor who performed abortions, even though the picketing occurred on a public street. The Court noted that “[t]he First Amendment permits the government to prohibit offensive speech as intrusive when the ‘captive’ audience cannot avoid the objectionable speech.”

This has led to the use of so-called Free speech zones.

Free speech zones have been used at a variety of political gatherings. The stated purpose of free speech zones is to protect the safety of those attending the political gathering, or for the safety of the protesters themselves. Critics, however, suggest that such zones are "Orwellian", and that authorities use them in a heavy-handed manner to censor protesters by putting them literally out of sight of the mass media, hence the public, as well as visiting dignitaries.

There is a misconception that the Westboro picketers are always in the immediate vicinity of the funerals. But there have been a number of laws passed to restrict how close the picketers can get to funeral services. In the case of the Snyder funeral, the picketers were said to be about 1000 feet away and their presence was apparently not even known to the Snyder family until they saw the protesters afterwards on the local newscasts.

The ACLU whose position protecting the right of the WBC to picket is
in this blog posting (by a gay person no less). Instead of trying to outright prohibit the hate speech of the WBC which would almost certainly be struck down by the First Amendment, separating the picketers and the object of their wrath by enough of a distance appears to be a workable compromise. The only question left would then be to determine how much separation is enough to prevent needless intrusion without being overly restrictive on free speech. In cases like this, it always comes down to the same question: Where do we draw the line?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Make the Rich Pay Their Fair Share!

Today, the Republicans unveiled their "Pledge to America".

House Republicans offered their “Pledge to America,” a combination campaign platform and legislative agenda, on Thursday morning, saying that jobs will return if spending slows and tax rates are kept from rising.

The Republican leaders called on the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi
, Democrat of California, to immediately begin a debate on the items on their list, including making lower tax rates for all taxpayers permanent, holding back federal spending, repealing the health-care overhaul enacted this year and reducing the federal deficit.

Most of the Democrats are in favor of keeping the Bush tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year for all except the 2% who make over $250,000 per year. But the Republicans desperately want to keep those tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans.

So this leaves us with two questions: Is it morally right to increase the tax rate on the richest from about 35% as it is now to about 39% as it was during the Clinton administration? and…Will keeping the tax cuts for the upper 2% permanent truly reduce the federal deficit?

The moral question is a bit trickier than it seems at first. Just saying that because these people are rich we have a right to take more of their money is not a satisfactory argument by itself. After all, it is their money. But while many of us over the last decade have struggled financially,
the very richest have gotten even richer because of preferential tax treatment.
The top 400, all of whom are worth at least $1 billion, saw their combined wealth increase 8 percent this year, to the dizzying total of $1.37 trillion, according to analysis from CNN.

This means the 400 richest people in America account for about 2.6 percent of the nation's private wealth.
The idea of giving tax cuts to the very rich was that if they prospered, the rest of us would also prosper. But that has proven to be a false as
income inequality is at an all-time high.
Income inequality in the United States is at an all-time high, surpassing even levels seen during the Great Depression, according to a recently updated paper by University of California, Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. The paper, which covers data through 2007, points to a staggering, unprecedented disparity in American incomes. On his blog, Nobel prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called the numbers "truly amazing."

...while the bottom 99 percent of incomes grew at a solid pace of 2.7 percent per year from 1993-2000, these incomes grew only 1.3 percent per year from 2002-2007. As a result, in the economic expansion of 2002-2007, the top 1 percent captured two thirds of income growth.
But income inequality in itself is not as much of an issue as long as everybody is doing reasonably well. But when the middle and lower classes are getting hammered while at the same time the rich are getting richer, it is no wonder that there is talk of class warfare. Even conservative economist Ben Stein was moved to write a 2006 op-ed, In Class Warfare, Guess Which Side is Winning?

It turned out that [multibillionaire Warren] Buffett, with immense income from dividends and capital gains, paid far, far less as a fraction of his income than the secretaries or the clerks or anyone else in his office. Further, in conversation it came up that Mr. Buffett doesn’t use any tax planning at all. He just pays as the Internal Revenue Code requires. “How can this be fair?” he asked of how little he pays relative to his employees. “How can this be right?”

Even though I agreed with him, I warned that whenever someone tried to raise the issue, he or she was accused of fomenting class warfare.

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Morals aside, another part of the article brings us to the second question about how we can reduce the deficit which just about all conservatives claim to be important to them.

Put simply, the rich pay a lot of taxes as a total percentage of taxes collected, but they don’t pay a lot of taxes as a percentage of what they can afford to pay, or as a percentage of what the government needs to close the deficit gap.
Our recent experience has shown that there are only two realistic ways to try and close a deficit gap — cutting spending and/or raising taxes. Even conservative economic gurus such as former Fed chief Alan Greenspan (along now with Florida GOP Senate candidate Marco Rubio) have now admitted that
tax cuts don't pay for themselves.

The solution given by those on the political right is never to raise taxes but instead to cut spending to balance the budget. But as Ben Stein observes:

The imperatives for [increased] spending are built into the system, and now, with entitlements expanding rapidly, increased spending is locked in. Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt — all are growing like mad, and how they ill ever be stopped or slowed is beyond imagining. Gross interest on Treasury debt is approaching $350 billion a year. And none of this counts major deferred maintenance for the military.
It is telling that although the Republicans’ Pledge to America aims to hold back federal spending and reduce the federal deficit, it offers no specifics on how they would actually cut the budget. And let’s face it, if the Republicans are not in favor of cutting defense spending and the Democrats are not in favor of cutting entitlement spending e.g. Medicare and Social Security, what else is there to cut?

So despite those on the right who say that we are all taxed enough, the only way out of this mess is to bring in more tax revenue to pay for what we want and need our government to do. But especially with the lower and middle classes hurting so badly, we can’t ask more of them. But we can certainly ask the wealthy who have prospered so well in recent years from preferential government tax treatment to carry more of the load.

The concept behind what is called
progressive taxation is that the wealthy who can most afford it, are required to pay higher tax rates than others who are less able to afford taxation. In addition, raising marginal tax rates on the wealthy has been an important safety valve for when our government has had to make unexpected large expenditures, such as for wars and during the Great Depression (see chart). At times our top marginal rate for the wealthy has been over 90% during wars. What is unprecedented is George W. Bush conducting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars while at the same time, offering a tax cut to the wealthy. No wonder we turned the budget surplus under Bill Clinton into a huge deficit in such short order!

Even most liberals do not favor us returning to the days of 90% tax rates for the wealthy. That is unfair to them! But when
The Angry Rich are fighting so bitterly to keep their tax rates from reverting from 35% now to 39.6% when Bill Clinton balanced the budget, that is unfair to the rest of us! When those (especially the wealthy) who make their money from dividends and capital gains get to pay a much lower rate than those of us who work for a living, that is unfair! When hedge fund managers whose annual incomes are sometimes over a billion dollars can through a tax loophole pay at only a 15% rate, that is unfair! When instead of raising the Social Security taxable income above $106,800, we get the absurd idea of raising the retirement age to 70, that is unfair!

So if we are really about fairness, there is one thing that we can do. We must make the rich pay their fair share!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Koch Brothers - The Most Powerful People You've Never Heard Of

Frank Rich’s column from August 29, The Billionaires Banking the Tea Party was in my opinion, one of his most significant columns in recent memory. But his column was inspired by an equally significant one by investigative reporter Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, Covert Operations - The billionaire Koch brothers war against Obama which chronicles in detail, not only the extensive money spent but also the building of an entire infrastructure in the form of think tanks and foundations created to promote their libertarian views along with defeating those of progressives.

As Rich writes:
Another weekend, another grass-roots demonstration starring Real Americans who are mad as hell and want to take back their country from you-know-who.

There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising: the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the “death panel” warm-up acts of last summer. Three heavy hitters rule. You’ve heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans. But even those carrying the Kochs’ banner may not know who these brothers are.
And here are excerpts from the Mayer article:
The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.  
In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.  
Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said, “The Kochs are on a whole different level. There’s no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I’ve never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times.”

The anti-government fervor infusing the 2010 elections represents a political triumph for the Kochs. By giving money to “educate,” fund, and organize Tea Party protesters, they have helped turn their private agenda into a mass movement.
The article in The New Yorker is a lengthy one that goes into considerable detail about the Koch’s behind the scenes manipulation of the US political process. It is hoped that the above excerpts will encourage the reader to check out this interesting article in its entirety.

So what’s the big deal about the Koch brothers’ participation in the political process? After all, it’s a free country and people should be able to support whom they wish to.

The problem is not whom or what they support. It is an issue of transparency. There is a world of difference between those who support a position simply because they believe in it and others who do it because they are on someone's payroll. For example, if a scientist promotes views that question climate change, much of his credibility would depend on whether or not he was being paid by somebody who has a financial stake in denying climate change. To not be given this information amounts to deception.

Adding to the deception, money can be funneled into non-profit foundations with benign names such as Americans for Prosperity which appears to be a grassroots organization but unknown to most people was established by the Kochs to promote their political agenda. And because organizations like these are non-profits, they are not required to disclose their financial backers.

With this background in mind, I will conclude with
my comment to Frank Rich’s article.
I am reminded of when Mickey Mantle made appearances on talk shows touting the benefits of Voltaren, an anti-arthritis drug. But then later it was revealed that he was a paid spokesperson for the drug without disclosing this to the viewers. [link to story] Today, ads that have endorsers, especially celebrities are required to disclose that they are compensated. To do otherwise is considered to be deceptive advertising.

Today, many of the political protests are little more than deceptive advertising in that they are often organized and paid for by commercial interests whose identities are not disclosed.

Regular viewers of the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC know that she has regularly taken on organizations such as Americans for Prosperity [
link to video] for promoting the viewpoints of its financial contributors who are largely undisclosed. While it is good that MSNBC (and the NYT) are doing this, do we see the same thing being done at NBC or ABC or CBS whose news shows attract a much wider audience? It appears that they are afraid to take on these organizations for fear of being labeled as “too liberal”. But this is not a liberal or conservative issue. It is about transparency and as long as the mainstream broadcast networks continue to look the other way, this deception of our citizens will continue.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Our Jobs Crisis

It’s easy to get really depressed over the massive amount of unemployment that is everywhere — especially for those of us without a job. But when it looks like all is lost and hopeless, there is NYT columnist Bob Herbert to remind us that perhaps we may be looking at things a bit too optimistically!

In his August 9th op-ed column
The Horror Show, he leads off with this.

The employment situation in the United States is much worse than even the dismal numbers from last week’s jobless report would indicate. The nation is facing a full-blown employment crisis and policy makers are not responding with anything like the sense of urgency that is needed.

We’ve got more and more people in our working-age population and fewer and fewer jobs to go around…there are now 3.4 million fewer private-sector jobs in the U.S. than there were a decade ago. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the worst job creation record since 1928 to 1938.
We need to take into account that there are roughly 150,000 new workers entering the US job market each month due to normal population growth. So if about 130,000 jobs were lost in July
according to the government report, this means that about another 280,000 were added to the unemployed. Those who gave up looking for work or forced to take part time work aren’t counted as unemployed or the figures would be even worse! This means that the longer a period of severe unemployment goes on, the deeper we get into a hole.

According to the NYT article
Jobless and Staying That Way, the light at the end of the tunnel is a dim one indeed.

[T]he Obama administration predicts that unemployment will drop to 8.7 percent by the end of next year, and eventually sink to 6.8 percent by the end of 2013.

To reach that level, the economy would have to add nearly 300,000 workers a month over the next three years, according to Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland. Even in the first half of the year, when the economy grew at a healthy 3 percent, it added fewer than 100,000 jobs a month.
This has led many to question whether what we are experiencing is just a temporary bump in the road or a long patch of bad road ahead with no end in sight. It has been said that this is the worst economy we have had since the Great Depression. And while the numbers during that time were worse, there are a number of reasons why what we are going through is different (and arguably worse) than in previous downturns.

Previous recessions have always been treated as cyclical events. Sure things were slow and people lost jobs, but once the economy picked up, the jobs came back. But what we have experienced in the US especially in the last decade has been the permanent loss of many jobs. So while we are technically no longer in a recession, those who are unemployed are feeling no relief because we have not been able to deal with the fact that many of these jobs will never come back. Global competition has been taking its toll on the manufacturing sector for some time now. But we at least had the comfort in believing that only the low-tech jobs would be sent overseas and that we could rely on a growing white collar economy to offset that. But the growth of the Internet in the last decade along with its ability to effortlessly transfer information from around the globe has totally changed all of that.

What were once jobs we thought were safe such as in engineering and science can now be readily outsourced to India and elsewhere to save on labor costs. There seems to be no safe harbor from all of this. Even
legal work is now being outsourced to India. And occupations that can’t be readily outsourced such as teaching are falling on their own hard times due to government budgetary struggles. Surely, the health insurance industry which has been prospering during all of these hard times doesn’t have to resort to outsourcing. But they do.

So how to we place all of these people in new jobs to replace the ones that have been permanently lost? Retraining is a logical place to start and has been suggested by many. But retrain for what? I remember being told several years ago when I first lost my job that Information Technology (IT) was the job of the future and all I would have to do to save my career is go to school to retrain. But as many have found out, IT is the job of the future — but not in this country. If there is indeed a chronic deficit of jobs for jobseekers, we can’t solve this by retraining people for jobs that simply don’t exist in adequate numbers!

This also creates difficult decisions for those who are considering attending college. At one time, a college degree usually provided a reliable ticket to prosperity. But many of the college educated such as Alexandra Jarrin whose heart-wrenching story is told in
99 Weeks Later have been living a nightmare.

Ms. Jarrin had scrabbled for her foothold in the middle class. She graduated from college late in life, in 2003, attending classes while working full time. She used to believe that education would be her ticket to prosperity, but is now bitter about what it has gotten her.

“I owe $92,000 for an education which is basically worthless,” she said.

What makes her situation even worse is that student loans cannot usually be discharged through bankruptcy.

The first step in trying to solve a problem as large as this is for our leaders to truly acknowledge how really serious this problem is. It is inflicting permanent harm on many workers and their families who are in dire straits. Something urgently needs to be done — soon. If the private sector cannot or will not provide adequate jobs, the government must step in to create them. This is what was done during the Great Depression. We have a great deal of urgent work that needs to be done such as rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and converting us to using more renewable energy and fewer fossil fuels. Anti-government naysayers will complain that it wasn’t the government created jobs that ended the Great Depression but was instead World War II. But the effect of World War II was indeed, a massive creation of government jobs.

But government created jobs can only be used as a bridge to when the private sector can finally create enough jobs on its own. It is generally agreed that most of the new job creation
is generated by small businesses. If so, we have to concentrate on helping that part of the economy instead of just the big players which is what we do now. Money has to be freed up for loans that will help existing small businesses flourish along with helping those who wish to start their own businesses. Unlike the large behemoths, small businesses tend to do their manufacturing locally and in addition, tend to value more experienced workers — a boon to the older displaced workers who have especially suffered through all of this.

Not surprisingly, we are on the wrong path. A
jobs bill intended to help small businesses was recently filibustered by the Republicans. Apparently the true Republican priority is to help big business — the same ones who in many cases are hoarding cash and refusing to hire anybody!

Bob Herbert certainly has it right to label this a crisis. But unfortunately, too many in Washington from both parties are content to make
excuses rather than making the tough choices needed to tackle this crisis head-on. We need and deserve better from them!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Just Count Votes

Once in a while, it’s nice to be able to share some thoughts with a wider audience than those who normally read my postings here. So I sent a Letter to the Editor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in response to executive editor David Shribman’s August 8, 2010 column, Rethinking Elections.

Some people who didn't like the way the 2000 election turned out are trying to overturn the Electoral College with a power sweep around the Constitution.

[A]s the country contemplates fiddling with the Constitution while Rome burns, six states have enacted the National Popular Vote plan to pack the Electoral College (with the measure having passed both houses of the legislature in an additional four states). This accounts for 73 electoral votes, more than a quarter of those required to activate the plan, which would go into effect when enough states adopt the measure to account for the 270 electoral votes needed to elect a president.

One of the arguments for the measure is that it would make the votes of all Americans, not just those in states with big electoral-vote totals, more meaningful.

A copy of my response printed in the Sunday, August 15, 2010 edition of the Post-Gazette appears below. An additional point I wanted to make but couldn’t due to space limitations was that nowadays with our present Electoral College system, the only ‘meaningful’ voters in our presidential elections (the ones who get almost all of the attention from the candidates and media) are those who happen to live in the so-called swing states with competitive races.

Just count votes

In response to David Shribman's Aug. 8 column,
"Rethinking Elections," I am a person who deeply distrusts simplistic thinking. But nonetheless, here is my simplistic view of the electoral process -- including presidential elections.

Whoever gets the most votes should win. Any electoral process that undermines this is fatally flawed and should be replaced!

Admittedly, the end-around that some states are using to try and nullify the Electoral College is a bit underhanded. The chances of doing this by passing a constitutional amendment would be non-existent since the Republicans are happy with the system the way it is.

I suspect that in 2000, Bush supporters didn't feel too bad about their candidate winning despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore. But had John Kerry not lost Ohio by a razor-thin margin in 2004, he would have won despite President Bush winning the popular vote. And then it would have been the Republicans who would have joined the chorus to get rid of the Electoral College.

All this can happen because a candidate winning a state by, say, one vote gets the same result as winning that same state by a million votes, which makes the additional margin of victory effectively meaningless to the national result. Why should some votes count more than others?

I believe that dumping the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote would indeed be positive reform that would have far fewer unintended (and negative) consequences than the system we have now.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Please Watch 'Gasland'

So what would you do if you had some farmland acreage and somebody approached you to sign a lease that would pay you about $5,000 per acre to allow them to drill for gas on your property? Filmmaker Josh Fox had such an offer for his family’s 20 acre property near the Delaware River in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania.

$100,000 is hardly chump change! But before signing anything, Fox decided to check out a story about people in nearby Dimock, PA who were suffering ill effects that they believed were a result of their well water being contaminated by the gas drilling that had already started there. In addition, it was said that people were actually able to light their running tap water on fire! So he investigated and filmed what he saw there. This lead to Fox following up on similar stories from other areas around the country where gas drilling has been taking place for some time.

The collection of stories resulted in a documentary titled Gasland. Video clips from some of these visits are on the
official website of this movie.

In June, the movie premiered on HBO and is available to subscribers for viewing on demand through the month of August. Here is a partial synopsis from the
HBO website.

Gasland is Fox’s urgent, cautionary and sometimes darkly comic look at the largest domestic natural gas drilling campaign in history, which is currently sweeping the country and promising landowners a quick payoff.

However, as Fox discovers, the drilling process called hydraulic fracturing or fracking, [developed by Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s former company] was exempted by the Bush-Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005 from the United States’ most basic environmental regulations, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Natural gas companies have installed hundreds of thousands of rigs in 34 states…Each well requires the use of fracking fluids – chemical cocktails consisting of 596 chemicals, including carcinogens and neurtoxins, as well as one to seven million gallons of water, which are infused by the chemicals. Considering that there are approximately 450,000 wells in the U.S,. Fox estimates that 40 trillion gallons of chemically infused water have been created by the drilling, much of it left seeping or injected into the ground across the country.

Whew! So what does the oil and gas industry have to say in their defense? Fox was unable to get an on-the-record comment from any of the companies doing the drilling. But when executives from the various companies appeared together in Congressional hearings, it was their position that this fracking process causes no harm to anybody’s drinking water.

In addition, Energy In Depth, a Washington, D.C. based PR group supported by the oil and gas industry, has created a web page Debunking GasLand with a list of claimed factual inaccuracies in the documentary.

Not to be outdone, Fox assembled a group of experts to compile a 39 page web document,
Affirming Gasland which Fox calls "A de-debunking document in response to specious and misleading gas industry claims against the film."

Affirming Gasland is especially informative for those who would like to understand this issue more since it copies the text of Debunking GasLand and then does a point-by-point rebuttal that Fox and his experts have prepared. And incidentally, in Affirming the experts are explicitly identified next to their words; Debunking does not identify the sources behind its writing.

Gasland falls short of stating categorically that the polluted well water that the many people in his film are dealing with is the result of the gas drilling. This would require an investigation by a government agency. But there is compelling circumstantial evidence that is part of each person’s story in the movie. The well water was never bad before. After the drilling, the water starts to look bad and people start getting sick.

The drilling companies can (and do) argue that their drilling had nothing to do with the bad water. And the lighting of running tap water that was shown in the film? Naturally occurring methane pockets as a result of drilling the water well. Not their fault. In essence, they are saying “trust us” — just like we trusted BP.

Unfortunately, the federal government in the form of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been mostly absent through all of this, likely due to the federal environmental exemptions given to the gas drillers. This leaves the individual state agencies to serve as the watchdogs. But with state governments under tremendous financial pressure to cut costs, the lack of money and manpower to effectively do their jobs is only getting worse.

One step in the right direction would be for Congress to pass
H.R. 2766 and S. 1215 which would repeal the exemption for hydraulic fracturing in the Safe Drinking Water Act and get the EPA on board.

If you haven’t seen it, I hope you will take the time to watch Gasland to help you make up your own mind on the subject. For those without HBO, find a friend who has HBO and watch it together! It is available On-Demand anytime thru August. After that, it will be available on DVD. You won’t be sorry!

In the meantime, here is a 23 minute
PBS video interview of Josh Fox which includes video highlights from the movie.

Drilling has been already been underway out west where many thousands of gas wells have been drilled. With the industry now starting to concentrate on the
Marcellus Shale formation, some people in Pennsylvania and the surrounding states will soon be asked to sign a lease to allow gas drilling on their properties. Only these people can decide if the money offered is worth it to them.

For the rest of us, we must decide whether the environmental price of hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ to obtain our natural gas is worth it to us.
This is an important question. We also need to weigh in the risk of
gas wells exploding and hurting people. If nothing else, we owe it to ourselves to become more informed on this issue so we can come up with some intelligent answers!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Remembering Bobby Fischer

One of the more interesting recent stories was about the exhumation of chess champion Bobby Fischer's body to extract a DNA sample for a paternity test. Obviously, the people fighting for a share of his estate have an interest in all of this. But how is it that a mere chess player can make headlines two years after his death? This must be especially puzzling for those who are too young or weren’t even born when the 1972 World Chess Championship took place in Reykjavik, Iceland between the American chess genius Bobby Fischer and the defending champion, Boris Spassky from the Soviet Union.

Yes, the Cold War was still going on and any rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union was going to attract a lot of attention. But this was extra special. On one hand, there were the Russians who with help from their government, turned out chess champions like a machine. In fact since 1948, every World Championship (conducted every three years) was one Russian competing against another. But here was the brash American hope who in addition,
had openly accused the Russians of cheating by arranging the results of games between them in tournaments Fischer participated in. Clearly, Fischer was considered the best player in the world at that time, if not the greatest ever. But he had never defeated Spassky while losing to him three times. Something had to give.

Although chess never had any widespread following before the 1972 championship (at least in America), back in the 1950s, news did appear about a sensational chess prodigy who accomplished unheard of chess feats for someone his age. In fact, he made an appearance on I’ve Got a Secret as shown in this
video link. While his face was not yet recognizable to the panelists, he was presented as “Mr. X” because by then his name would be. If you look at this very young looking 15 year old, it’s hard to believe that he was the reigning US Champion as host Garry Moore pointed out. But there was another fact about him that was even more amazing. It turned out that he won a game that was so brilliant, it was dubbed at the time The Game of the Century, and retains that name even to this day! That game was played two years earlier when he was only 13! Chess fans can find the video annotation of that game here.

The 1960s were a period of maturing for Fischer. His dominance in the US Championships each year clearly established him as the best American player and among the world’s best, but he was unable to get to the World Championship match until 1972. The anticipation of him finally getting there was by then
receiving worldwide media coverage.

The match in Reykjavik was a media circus. There was not only the anticipated match between the superpowers, but there was further tension as to whether they would even play due to Fischer’s unending list of demands over the match conditions. After blundering away Game 1, Game 2 was forfeited by Fischer for not showing up. His opponent, Boris Spassky could well have not given in to the demands and retain his championship by forfeit. But Spassky in the spirit of sportsmanship didn’t want to win this way. So he decided to give in to Fischer’s demands so he could beat him legitimately over the board. And why not with a substantial 2-0 lead in the match? So Fischer showed up for Game 3 — and beat Spassky for the first time in his life! Here is a
video showing some of the goings on in Reykjavik.

Normally, a chess match like this would be covered by the chess publications along with a few wire service reporters. Not this time. Reporters from all over the world converged on the match. National newscasts and even local newspapers and sportscasts provided daily coverage of the match. And New York’s WNET and then PBS made chess and television history with
live coverage of the match that drew a record audience.
[The show] spiced the menu with visits from passing grandmasters, writers, and simply friends who happened by. They all happily jabbered about the developing positions, explained strategy and predicted moves. When one of the players in Reykjavik pushed a pawn or slid a bishop, a bell rang in the studio and everyone shut up for a few seconds before bursting into a new round of analysis. New Yorkers loved it, and soon the match spread around the country as other major cities began carrying it on their own PBS affiliates. This was something special.
When Spassky resigned Game 21, Fischer had finally attained his World Championship for which he had devoted his life. At that time he was arguably the most famous person on the planet. Public adoration and great riches were offered to him. But once he finally achieved his ultimate goal at age 29, the question now was “What next?” And perhaps for the first time in his life, Fischer had no answer.

In a previous blog post, Why We All Need Balance I wrote about the extreme difficulties some (including Fischer) can have finding fulfillment in their lives after they have reached the summit. Although he could have made millions by endorsements and playing, more than anything else, the loner in him wanted isolation and he soon dropped out of sight.

When it came time to defend his World Championship in 1975 against another up and coming Soviet superstar, Anatoly Karpov, Fischer who had not played a single serious game as champion was at it again with his unending demands over the match conditions. But unlike Spassky, Karpov apparently did not care so much if he won the championship by forfeit. So this time when Fischer did not show up because his demands were not met, he lost his title without either man playing a single move.

So it was back to isolation. What were seen as mental quirks during his playing days, the occasional anti-Semitic comments and paranoia became far more frequent and severe. Slowly but surely Fischer was becoming a raving madman once he no longer had chess to occupy his mind.

After turning down all of the previous lucrative offers to play, in 1992, 20 years after his championship win in Reykjavik, Fischer who by now was broke, accepted a multi-million dollar offer to play an exhibition match with Spassky. But this time, there was one big catch. The sponsor insisted that the match be played in the former Yugoslavia — which was being punished by UN sanctions. If Fischer were to play and accept the money, he would then be subject to a fine and jail time in the US. At a news conference at the tournament, Fischer waived a copy of the ‘cease and desist’ order from the US government — and then spat on it. From now on his evil rants would not only denounce Jews but also the US. His most infamous rant was during a radio interview in the Philippines where he applauded the recent September 11 attacks on America.

Fischer defeated Spassky again and pocketed the prize money. But now he was a criminal under US law and could never return without being arrested. This meant that he could not be there when his mother died in 1997 followed by his sister in 1998 which likely drove him even more over the edge. He was later arrested trying to leave Japan when it was discovered that his passport had been revoked by the US. He was then held in a Japanese prison for eight months while fighting extradition to America to face charges. It was then that the government of Iceland stepped in and granted Fischer citizenship and asylum for ‘humanitarian reasons’ along with gratitude for his part in putting Iceland on the map during his 1972 match with Spassky. He again lived a reclusive life in Iceland before dying from kidney failure in 2008 at age 64. Only five people attended the funeral in accordance with Fischer's wishes.

So when appraising Fischer’s life, we have to make a judgment on whether he is to be despised for his hate speech against Jews and other Americans or pitied for being mentally ill. What makes the anti-Semitism so difficult to understand was that his mother was Jewish. And now evidence exists to suggest that his real biological father was also Jewish. It’s one thing for somebody to hate Jews. But his poisonous rants were so over-the-top and so completely divorced from reality that it is hard to read or listen to them and not come to the conclusion that this was from a truly sick mind. Dick Cavett who had Fischer on his show three times in the early 1970s, offered this thoughtful retrospective on what was then
a very different Bobby Fischer.

As part of his chess legacy, he has given us
My 60 Memorable Games which came out in 1969 and is still considered one of the best chess game collections of all time. In addition, he is still considered one of the very best to have ever played the game. (Former World Champion Garry Kasparov who had a more enduring career at the top since Fischer’s exit is now the consensus ‘best of all time’.)

But for his many admiring chess playing fans (including me), it was his fighting spirit that made Fischer so special. Since the player of the white pieces moves first and thus has a small technical advantage (similar to having the serve in tennis), many of the top-flight chess masters have adopted a strategy of playing solid defenses with black to get a draw and then use their turn with the white pieces to squeeze out victories. It’s solid strategy but it leads to a lot of boring draws. Instead, Fischer with black usually adopted more risky fighting defenses going for the win. His great success with the black pieces was responsible for some of his incredibly dominating tournament and match results over his rivals.

I can't sum it up any better than with this passage from the New York Times
obituary for Fischer.
Mr. Fischer won with such brilliance and dramatic flair that he became an icon, an unassailable representative of greatness in the world of competitive games, much as Babe Ruth had been and Michael Jordan would become.

It was Bobby Fischer who had, single-handedly, made the world recognize that chess on its highest level was as competitive as football, as thrilling as a duel to the death, as esthetically satisfying as a fine work of art, as intellectually demanding as any form of human activity.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Memo to the Hard Right - It's Our Country Too!

Last week I watched the MSNBC documentary, Rise of the New Right which if you missed it, can be watched online in the preceding link.

I can’t say there was anything really surprising to me as one who follows politics daily. But even so, there was a sad and frankly uneasy feeling about the political landscape here in the US that has become more of a battleground with those on the hard right wishing more to destroy their opponents than working with them to enact new legislation.

For example, there is this quote from Rush Limbaugh:
We need to defeat these bastards. We need to wipe them out.
Then there is Alan Keyes who said this about President Obama:
We’re either going to stop him or the United States of America will cease to exist.
In addition, there are those who feel the president is illegitimate and should be removed because they believe that he was not born in the US. And then there is Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) who became famous for his
Waterloo quotation:
If we're able to stop Obama on [health care reform], it will be his Waterloo. It will break him…
What is even more disturbing is seeing militia training to fight what they call “tyranny” by our government which the dictionary defines as “cruelty and injustice in the exercising of power or authority over others.”

In that defintion, we get a clue on what this is really all about — power!

These people on the hard right are angry simply because they are not presently in power (even if it was due to a legitimate election) and will do whatever they can to get back in power.

Unfortunately, this creates a powerful disincentive to cooperate with the party in power. For example, if the Republicans were to work with the Democrats on passing legislation, the result would likely be a successful Obama administration. But if this happens, how will the Republicans ever get back in power? Even so, a one-dimensional strategy of obstructionism can backfire in the long run. So how better to justify their total non-cooperation with the other side than to label them as illegitimate?

So it will be interesting to see how much the electorate will buy into all of this come the mid-term elections this November. Perhaps the most interesting races will be for the US Senate in Nevada and Kentucky where Sharron Angle and Rand Paul will use their hard right Tea Party ideology to as they like to say “take our country back”.

Maybe they will. But then again they may find out that for those of us who don’t go along with their extremist views — that it’s our country too!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Meddling in our Primary Elections

Ever since Congressman Joe Sestak scored his stunning upset over long time incumbent Senator Arlen Specter in the recent Pennsylvania Democratic primary election, many questions have been raised over what kind of job was offered to Mr. Sestak by the Obama administration to get him not to run against Specter.

Perhaps just to inflict a little zinger on the Obama administration for supporting his opponent, Sestak did admit in interviews that he was offered a job but has declined to provide any more details.

Since then the Obama administration has taken a
"trust us" position in response to repeated questioning on this matter.

“Lawyers in the White House and others have looked into conversations that were had with Congressman Sestak,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “And nothing inappropriate happened.”

“Improper or not, did you offer him a job in the administration?” asked the host, Bob Schieffer.

“I’m not going to get further into what the conversations were,” Mr. Gibbs replied. “People that have looked into them assure me that they weren’t inappropriate in any way.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the “trust us” response from the White House has not exactly put the matter to rest. With Mr. Sestak’s victory over Mr. Specter in last week’s primary, the questions have returned with intensity, only to remain unanswered. Mr. Gibbs deflected questions 13 times at a White House briefing last week just two days after the primary. Mr. Sestak, a retired admiral, has reaffirmed his assertion without providing any details, like who exactly offered what job.

Chances are that the job offer was done carefully and vaguely enough to avoid any problems with the law. But the continued evasion of questions by Obama’s press secretary coupled with the refusal of Obama himself to take questions in a news conference have left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. It is telling that the collection of New York Times Readers' Comments to this article were about as uniformly negative towards Obama as any I've ever seen from this mostly liberal readership.

But even if the job offer was not illegal, did it do a disservice to the Democratic voters in Pennsylvania?

A NYT editorial
Unintelligent Design takes a very blasé view of it all.

There doesn’t seem to be anything terribly unethical about the White House offer of an unpaid advisory position to Joe Sestak if he would bow out of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, in which he later defeated Senator Arlen Specter.

Meddling in Congressional races is an expected and even an important part of any White House political operation, even those that claim to be different from their predecessors. If Mr. Obama had meddled a little earlier and more intensively in the United States Senate race in Massachusetts earlier this year, he might have been able to prevent the election of a Republican, Scott Brown, to the seat long held by Edward Kennedy.
What the editorial writers failed to mention was that the above example is about a general election. A Democratic administration supporting a Democratic candidate running against a Republican candidate makes perfect sense. But a Democratic administration “meddling” in a primary election within its own party raises serious concerns.

Contested primary elections exist for a good reason. Without them, the candidates to choose from in the general elections would be little more than those who were handpicked by political bosses in those proverbial smoke-filled backrooms.

The results of the primary election of course proved that the Pennsylvania Democratic voters preferred Joe Sestak over Arlen Specter on their ballot in November. But if the Obama administration had been successful in preventing Sestak from running, the voters would have never had this choice!

Shortly after Arlen Specter announced his switch to the Democratic Party, he made it a point to stress that he would not be an automatic 60th vote for the Senate Democrats. But after having said that, he has fully cooperated with the Democrats on every crucial vote since then. Having primary opposition in the form of Sestak most certainly had something to do with that.

Now more recently, we have another
story about the Obama administration meddling in another primary election.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs faced fresh questions about another backroom political deal - the first involving a Pennsylvania candidate, now a Colorado hopeful - that put the Obama administration on the defensive. The White House acknowledged that it had contacted former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff about possible jobs in hopes of persuading him to skip the Senate primary.

One can’t help but wonder how many other deals like these have taken place.

Gibbs defended the White House's involvement in primaries as Democrats struggle to maintain their majorities in the House and Senate in a tough political environment.

"I think the leaders of parties have long had an interest in ensuring that supporters didn't run against each other in contested elections," Gibbs said.

What this really means is that the party leaders are much more interested in preserving the jobs of their incumbents than providing real choice for the voters. This is especially bad in a political system where in the US, the two major parties exert so much control over the election process.

Choice is an absolutely vital part of free and fair elections. If the Obama administration wants to put its political muscle into backing a particular party candidate, that’s bad enough. But to try and actually take voters’ choices away by eliminating primary candidates seriously undermines the democratic process. Instead of just dismissing this as politics as usual, we should be outraged!