Archive for February, 2010

There’s no one within earshot who hasn’t heard “Get government out of my life” or some such on TV, radio and even on a sign or two in our far Southwestern corner of Oregon. It’s the slogan for somebody mad about something.

So I’ve been thinking about that; about getting government out of our lives. Great idea! Where to start?

Well, how about Bonneville Power, the federal power grid and all that rural electrification stuff.? Let’s cast those out. Cut those federal billions and state and county millions out of our highway system. Now you’re talking.

Medicare, Medicaid and VA health care billions. Strip ‘em! Don’t forget Hill-Burton dollars that build hospitals and government grants of millions to put health care in under-served rural communities. Or medical research.

Wow! We’re rolling. OK, chop the FBI, Oregon State Police, county and local law enforcement. You’re getting at real government interference there. Don’t forget obnoxious water and food certification programs. How about the military? We’re talking BIG billions. And all those local installations that hire all those people. Cut! Cut!

Take government funding and oversight out of our public education system. That’ll really help. Federal Pell grants for college kids interfere, too. No reason for school meals paid for by government. Feeding kids is a parent responsibility. And senior programs. More damned nuisance.

Who could forget ever-popular OSHA interference with private businesses because of some silly worker safety issues. Oh, and government timber sales, market subsidies and government forests. Those VA and FHA loans that keeping builders building. Out, damned spot(s).

What’s next? How about local police and fire? School busses? And sewer and water systems all government built Did I mention the FAA and air traffic control networks? More government meddling. Be gone!

Wow! Getting into it and really figuring out how much government interferes with your life is empowering. Who would’ve thought? No wonder those people are mad. They’re right. It’s way too much!

OK. So, by now you’ve figured out I’m not serious about this cutting business, right? Au contraire, mon ami! I agree. We need less; not more. But where to cut? Aye, there’s the rub.

People don’t really mean “get government out of my life.” No, they mean “get government … that I don’t like, that keeps me from doing something, that I don’t understand, can’t see the value in, seems useless or doesn’t work … out of my life.” And I’d bet the farm each one has a list that doesn’t agree at all with mine. We each look at “government” through our own prisms and see clearly only our own view.

I’ll get more than my usual off-the-wall e-mails by saying this but it’s true: most of these folk are scared more than wanting to cut anything. Savings are being lost, bankruptcies and loan foreclosures are hitting record heights, homes devalued, jobs disappearing, many families stressed as never before, institutions we trusted have failed us and the bad guys most responsible for this chaos are being handsomely rewarded.

To a large extent, they see government failure. Failure to protect. Failure to use proper oversight powers given it. Failure of both parties in congress and legislatures to act fiscally responsible while ignoring our basic needs that government has proper roles in filling. They see many of those they elected ignoring them and their needs. They see unresponsiveness. And they’re scared. For the first time in their lives, the system doesn’t work..

It’s all true. And more. But if you “get government out” you aren’t going to fix it. If you try to separate yourself, you’ll find you can’t. Real opportunities to “cut government” are not available to us. We have no power there.

But we do have two powers that work. One, learn how the political game is really played … learn the rules … learn what those who failed us already know … become government literate … get involved. Stay inside the rules. They did it. So can we.

The second power is information coupled with action. Become an informed voter. Stop listening to sound bites or ideologues and learn the issues. Forget parties. Learn which are the qualified candidates regardless of label. Make them tell you the truth. Keep after ‘em. If you don’t get reasonable, intelligent answers, drop ‘em and keep looking. And when you’ve got good, real information. use it! At the ballot box.

The issue isn’t less government; it’s good government. How it works is up to us. So if it isn’t working, don’t abandon it: fix it! Become knowledgeable and active. We really are the power. Government, like fire, may be a poor master. But it can be a damned good servant.

Because I used to be in the same family of brothers and sisters in the national media, it grieves me to criticize ‘em from time to time. But this is one of those times.

In the last couple of weeks, two routine stories were blown into far more importance than either warranted and we were smothered with both.

One was former President Clinton’s latest medical experience placing a stent in a blocked artery. Now, I don’t want to trivialize surgery. We’re always warned there’s some risk with invasive procedures, especially involving anesthesia of any type. And always when involving the heart.

But Holy Sanjay Guptal! We were inundated! Especially by CNN and MSNBC. As scalpels were being sterilized, each network repeatedly ran retrospectives of Clinton’s public life as though he was about to shuffle off this mortal coil. Or already had. I thought Wolf Blitzer was going to have apoplexy a couple of times. And Olbermann sounded like he would wind up on a bed in the same surgical suite.

On the other hand, our friends at fearless Fox just about ignored the whole thing. Face it, you’ve got to have those fringy Hannity homilies every day.

The honest value of the Clinton medical story was, seems to me, somewhere in the middle of those extremes. From the git-go, doctors said this would be routine as such practices go. Clinton would be on his feet by the end of the day, out of the hospital in 24 hours or less and back to his office in four days. And that’s what happened.

One little tidbit did interest me, though. His wife, our Secretary of State, received a call telling her Clinton was in the hospital while she was meeting with President Obama in the oval office. Really? That was her first inkling? Interesting. If I’m to be a patient at Mercy, my wife has already studied the x-rays and has consulted with the cutter a day before.

The other super-saturation was Ms. Palin’s over-hyped appearance at the Nashville Tea Party whatchamacallit. Less than 600 people paid $350 a pop to hear and watch her $100,000, 45-minute wanderings and platitudes. But, because it was on the weekend and real news other than Haiti was scarce, the nation was way overexposed to whatever she said. I’ve read the text and find no news meat.

The Lindsey Lohan of Republican politics gets far too much attention for the value of her words. The endless media speculation about whether she’ll run for president is laughable. She doesn’t want to be president. Quitting the people of Alaska midterm was the first hint. She wants to be a political personality, not an officeholder. Her heroes aren’t former presidents. They’re more likely Newt G. and Rudy G. and Fred T. and Ron P. She doesn’t want job responsibility and limited income. She wants money! Big money. And no responsibility.

Quick example: she can’t take money from her PAC for personal gain. So she uses PAC dollars to buy 70,000 copies of her book wholesale; about $10. That pumps up publication numbers artificially. Then she gives the copies away for donations to … what else … her PAC. No dollars out of her pocket. But, as the author, she gets about 10% cash for each sale. If the book sells for $20, she gets $2 times 70,000 and it’s all legal. Money. Attention. Ride those horses as far as they’ll go.

Media excesses simply contribute to the lowered esteem in which we value those information sources. There was a time when you reported the facts and the facts determined how much attention … or how many inches … the story received. Always seemed like a good process to me. Now we get endless lead up information, the actual event, then hours and hours or even days and days detailing what happened and what we should all think about it.

In these two instances, other things are at work. These are “personalities.” Bill Clinton is larger than life and, whatever you think about him, he’s news. Worldwide news because overseas, especially, he’s held in high regard for the good works of the Clinton Foundation. He attracts attention without trying. Always will.

The pathetic Palin saga is something else. She’s angling for attention 24-7. In her world, attention … pro or con … sets the dollar value on her perceived worth for speeches, rallies, talk shows and super market ribbon cuttings. Eighteen months ago, she couldn’t have picked up $200 for the Nashville musings. Now $100,000. Fame equals dollars.

In one case, the media overblows. In the other, it creates. In both cases, far too much. But which “personality” will you still be hearing about five years from now?

A cherished freedom in our country is, I believe, becoming one of our greatest dangers: our highly regarded, lawfully protected freedom of speech.

As a reporter most of my adult life, I’ve been in several fracases … in court and out … dealing with free speech, always the devout defender even if I disagreed with the particular speech. Many gray haired professional journalists have had similar bouts with an individual, a company or government agency trying to stop them from publishing or trying to nail them for having done so. Comes with the territory if you’re serious about what you do and you do it long enough.

Traditionally, courts have been staunch partners defending speech and those who practice the craft. In my experience, limited instances of decisions going against a reporter involved speech so blatantly libelous or facts so obviously wrong it took little judicial intelligence to warrant punishment.

The very real danger I see now is the Internet and its anonymous nature making it nearly impossible to identify a “reporter” or source so libel, slander and other defaming information can be stopped and justice applied.

Disinformation has been around for centuries. Two things make it more threatening now. One is ease of transmission; simply striking a key. The other is it can be untraceable, even by those who know how. A source can be anyplace in the world. Material can be routed through thousands of computers and networks. A verbal “bomb” can be created anywhere, then put in the system for later “detonation.”

Hardly a week goes by I don’t hit “delete” a dozen times to stop the spread of baseless, defamatory e-mails. That’s not because I’m the target for such road apples. My correspondents are as typical as yours. Good people. I destroy some of the trash in my inbox because it’s false, libelous, misleading, racist, or … well, you fill in the blank. You’ve seen it.

Usually none of this stuff originated with those who sent it to me. They merely passed along information new to them, wanting to share their experience. Normally, I appreciate the effort, look at what they sent and shovel it along to others with whom I regularly correspond. Most of us do.

But the volume of libelous, racist and baseless information is increasing, much of it directed against the president and members of congress or national policy. A lot of it quotes “reliable sources” and some even looks authentic. Some will say “this was checked on Snopes” as if that adds automatic credibility.

Sometimes, you’ll find an accompanying official-looking news release or “YouTube” clip. Sometimes foreign newspapers or government bodies are used as sources or a new book or speech by an “authority.” On checking, many times, phony.

Part of the problem is too many otherwise innocent people getting information about their world from too few sources. Many stay with those telling them what they want to hear, using information confirming what’s already believed and reinforcing prejudices with bad information because they don’t get other input with which to make an informed judgment.

So when something flies into the inbox, it may be true. Or specious, slanderous or false. But, with limited frame of reference to contradict, it’s believed and we want our friends to see it so we send it to 10 other Internet addresses. One false e-mail is now 10. Each 10 can make it a hundred and that hundred a thousand. Within minutes!

The danger I’m seeing is some of this fabricated stuff is showing up in otherwise well-informed places … even mainline media. Recently, someone locally, articulate and well-read, told me a “fact” I had previously checked and found baseless. He later checked and apologized. But not everyone he’d told got the word. Now it’s out there. As fact.

Great as our strengths have been as a nation, we’re in the midst of nervous, unsettling, economic and socially perilous times. That’ll continue because many institutions and some of what we’ve known and trusted aren’t going to be the same. Ever. As familiar points of reference disappear we must get used to new ones. Doing so, as individuals we are ripe to fall victim to “facts” that aren’t so.

Faced with a daily hammering of misinformation and disinformation, truth and facts can be lost. Or warped. Well-meaning but uninformed people can innocently add to the successes of those who practice deceit professionally or others who don’t check things out. Or don’t care.

More than ever before, the practice of free speech is dependant on that speech being responsible and informed. The threat to it is primarily in our hands. Or our fingers.

Interesting reactions to the “Second Thoughts” posting regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous decision allowing unlimited corporate and union spending in political campaigns has prompted a second chapter on a more Oregon note.

Nearly all responders agreed with dangers I cited i.e. undue influence, support for unqualified candidates while blocking good ones, etc. Even the minority, citing free speech, said there’s already too much money in politics and too much corporate and union involvement.

Well, my friends, let’s take a last look at Measures 66 and 67 in the rear view mirror and (1) see who paid to get them on the ballot, (2) who paid to get you to vote yes, (3) who paid to get you to vote no and (4) how much. All info has been compiled by the public interest group Common Cause from campaign report filings with the Oregon Elections Division in ORESTAR.

Two political action committees (PACs) were the heavy hitters just to get “66” on the ballot putting in $960,196: Oregonians Against Job Killing Taxes (64%) and Taxpayer Defense Fund (20%).

To know who those groups represent, you’ve got to look deeper. Oregon Bankers Association was the largest contributor to “Oregonians Against” with $100,000. Associated Oregon Industries and its PAC put in $125,300 combined. Roseburg Forest Products $45,000. There were many more large member checks.

As for “67,” again “Oregonians Against” put up $330,036 (68.7%) and “Taxpayer Defense” 97,140 (20%). Members of this group: Oregon Bankers, Weyerhauser, Roseburg Timber, Oregon Forest Industries, Stimson Lumber, Seneca Jones Lumber, Assoc. Oregon Loggers, Cascade Timber Consulting and Lone Rock Timber Mgt. And more. Total for both measures just to get to the ballot: $1,803,830.

Once there, supporting the “yes” campaign: Oregon Education Assoc. and the National Education Assoc. $2,093,120; Local 503 Service Employees International Union, national SEIU and the SEIU State Council $1,870,728; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) $1,145,009, American Federation of Teachers $500,000 and even Planned Parenthood kicked in $5,742. Total from the “yes” folks: $6,849,579.

To urge your “no” vote: Oregon Local Grocery PAC and NW Grocery Assoc. $356,700; Assoc. General Contractors $294,917; Assoc. Oregon Industries and PAC $241,280; Oregon Car Dealers $152,900; Phil Knight at NIKE $112,221 and many, many more. Even the Portland Trailblazers lobbed in $5,000. “Oregon Against…” put up $3,419,430. The total “no” funding came to $3,940,000 after the group paid out $610,072 to people to gather your signatures on their petitions.

So, you’ve got more than $12,000,000 to get the issues on the ballot and influence your vote; $12 Million+!

Now, I’m just an old guy from a small Oregon town. But it seems to me that $12 Million could have gone to far better uses than expensive … often misleading … advertising; especially considering the people’s overwhelming “yes” vote. For less than $75,000, you could have done a good statewide poll and learned citizen sentiment on the subject. The issue apparently had already been settled.

As for paying more than $600,000 to people to stop folks on the street and get them to sign their names on petitions with explanations no more detailed or consistent than any one signature gather may have had … well … that puts a lot of steam under my old collar, too.

In terms of population and national political influence, Oregon is one of the smaller states. And, to be fair, the SCOTUS decision did not impact the 66 and 67 campaigns. Still, at least in my mind, there are two issues here that tie them together: money in politics; too damned much of it. Undue, outsized corporate and union influence; too damned much of it.

Suppose this whole 66 and 67 issue had been fought out in California or New York or Pennsylvania. We’d be talking hundreds of millions of dollars per state! And we haven’t even come up with examples of campaigns by individuals for office. Hundreds of millions more!

Wherever you fall in the political spectrum, these kinds of dollars and these kinds of influences should concern you about the future of our democracy. Even scare you.

The federal government is three distinct branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Each has a defined role. But when one of them makes a bad decision …undeclared war or open season for destroying our political system … it is incumbent on the other two to take corrective action.

The president has already said the SCOTUS decision must not be allowed to stand. Some in congress have mumbled something similar. If you consider yourself to be a political activist … or even if you don’t … this is one national wrong that must be righted.

You want to defend the Constitution? Now’s your time!