Archive for May, 2010

Usually when your age reaches more than “three score and ten,” you don’t run into a lot of new experiences; just a lot of old ones repeated with an occasional twist. But I ran into one the other day. I’m still trying to figure what to make of it.

I was asked to say an opening prayer at a service club meeting. While most people outside of the clergy aren’t used to praying in public, it’s something I’ve done many times. Usually, pretty straightforward.

On this day, among other things, I chose to offer apologies to God for fouling His beautiful and irreplaceable environment around the Gulf of Mexico and prayed for wisdom and courage for those trying to figure out what to do. Seemed to me nothing else had worked at that time. And my life experience has been, when we are powerless and ineffective at something, it’s a good time to ask the Almighty to give us a hand.

Following the meeting, a local “ leading citizen” came up behind me as I was engaged in conversation with someone else, gripped my left arm tightly and said to the back of my head, “Your prayer was inappropriate.” Before I could turn and respond, he was gone.

In all my public life, no one had ever said that within the range of my hearing; much less to me personally. I was shocked for a bit. Needless to say, the “leading citizen” went to the end of the line in my view. Maybe started a new, lower one.

But it got me thinking: when is something said in prayer not appropriate? When, in conversation with the Almighty, is something deemed “inappropriate?” My guess is He’s heard it all. In my mind, He’s wise enough to figure what is and what isn’t. Appropriate.

I do remember a few instances when I felt what was being prayed for was wrong. When I heard a Kansas “minister” pray for “death for all homosexuals and others of their kind.” Minister is written in quotes because I can’t believe someone who believes in the God the rest of us do could truly be ordained, yet pray for such a thing.

Another was a guy in California who called himself a “minister” praying publically for the death of President Obama. Same quotes; same reason.

Though prayer hasn’t been a regular part of my whole life, it has been for a long time; long enough I find myself repeating things to a God who has an awfully good memory and doesn’t need reminding. I’ve offered many apologies for sins of commission and omission; asked for help for myself and others for many things; promised to live a better life probably a thousand times; tried to make deals if God would do this or that; prayed for loved ones and strangers who needed help. When prayers number into the thousands you’ve likely covered a lot of subjects. Prayerfully, certainly. Appropriately, I hope.

Prayer to me is a like a private telephone conversation. Just God and you. When praying in public, it becomes a party line with others listening in. I don’t mind the listening. But listener critique seems a bit arrogant.

I realizing each of us has different outlooks and values and, for the most part, that’s O.K. So I suppose it’s possible for someone to think something is inappropriate to him or her. I’ve seen clothes on some people (or almost on) in public places where I thought they were inappropriate. But I’ve never gone up to someone and said so. Hey, to each his … or her … own.

I know people who pray they’ll find a deer during hunting season. Now, not being a hunter, that seems a questionable prayer to me. Maybe even inappropriate given all the other truly important things God has on His plate. Still, even if the request was made at a public gathering, I don’t think I’d criticize it.

But when I apologized to God for yet another of our manmade disasters and asked for forgiveness and help putting things right, I must have crossed some line of appropriateness in this guy’s mind. So he made it a point of telling me behind my back and when I couldn’t respond.

I don’t think I’ll offer an apology. I think it’s best just to pass it along to the One who hears all things. Let Him decide. I can live with that.

In recent weeks, I’ve stuck some pins in what’s called the Tea Party. Gentle sticks but they’ve generated a few “passionate” … and sometimes printable … responses. Warning: those of the group who’re tender skinned would be well-advised to stop reading.

Several recent congressional elections across the country proved the group had little to no influence on outcomes, even in the closed Utah primary convention which the far right has controlled for years. With the exception of Rand Paul, generally, in open races, their candidates finished poorly. More proof bark was worse than bite. We’ll be hearing less of ’em. The Republican Party sure hopes so.

The group has no citizen-driven, national leadership. And, little by little, the intent of the paid muckrakers behind the effort is becoming more exposed. While many honest citizens truly supported some of the original rhetoric, the self-serving professional dividers agenda is now clearer. Many of those sincerely angry folks can’t … or won’t … support what is coming out.

Several state “tea branches” have sent many candidates for national office a questionnaire exposing what the money behind the effort really wants: return to the gold standard; mandated immediate 25% reduction in all government employment except military and homeland defense; investigations into “payoffs” of the President, Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the House; withdrawal from the U.N.; repeal of the hate crimes law; a “no” vote on any bill using the terms “social,” “economic” or “environmental justice.” And more fantasy.

But the power brokers most egregious, lame-brained demand is to abolish the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For those who aren’t constitutional scholars … including me … the 17th was adopted in 1913 to stop state legislatures from naming U.S. senators and to give that power … the vote … directly to the people.

Now if I were a true “partier,” taking to the streets with an honest desire for less government control in my life, why in the world would I want that? I wouldn’t! Nor do a lot of others who, so far, have been supportive.

But the money guys behind the curtain … the ones putting up the big bucks and calling the shots … they’d like it. They’d like it a lot!

Think for a moment. Remember the lousy U.S. Supreme Court decision a few months ago giving corporations the ability to throw unlimited amounts of dollars into congressional races? If state legislators suddenly had sole power to name all U.S. senators, guess what would happen in Salem, Olympia, Sacramento and all other state capitols? How many hundreds of millions of dollars would be tossed at the handful of people in each state who had the power to handpick the U.S. Senate? And all of it legal.

There were many horrible and outright crooked examples of the rich buying senate seats in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was really bad! Why do you think we citizens voted to amend our constitution and give the power directly to the people?

But Dick Armey and the others paying the Tea Party bills want to see it happen again. They aren’t a bunch of patriotic guys who love putting out millions of dollars for “love of country.” Not on your life! They want something. They want access to power by taking us voters out of the picture and owning the best “senators” money can buy.

This “tea party” thing is as hollow as a Trojan horse. The power behind it … read “money” … is coming from a handful of miscreants trying to grab more power. To do that, they’re capitalizing on the honest anger of a lot of innocent people. We’ve always had angry people when it comes to government; especially federal. I’m one of ’em! But the Internet and our electronic lifestyle make it easier to create a rallying point to round up those who have felt disaffected and give them a sense of finding like minds with whom they can vent.

I think most T-P participants are in that category: angry, frightened and needing to vent. But look above the local courthouse. Look at the “issues” being given to candidates for national office. Read the “grievances” being published as “candidate questionnaires.” Follow the money. The millions in advertising and huge costs of paid organizers aren’t coming from local groups. It’s Armey and the others fronting for right wing foundations and a handful of rich, self-described “patriots.”

We have what we’ve always had: two major political parties. The best advice for angry Republicans and disaffected Democrats: go home. Go back to the base. If the real answers aren’t there, they don’t exist.

When writing opinion columns as I do, you’re best advised to have enough facts to support your opinion while trying to keep emotions to a minimum. You’re about to read a piece where emotion is the trump card.

My anger at British Petroleum and our federal “regulators” is gut-wrenching and it’s hard, even for an old, experienced reporter, to concentrate on the basic issue. Each dawn, with each new detail, I have a new supply of anger added to what’s already there.

If God were to reach down and put a Holy finger in that opening 5,500 feet under the surface, oil flow would stop. But environmental damage from oil already afloat or on land will last longer than any generation now living. Scientific fact.

It makes no difference when BP got the license to drill over a mile underwater with no technical ability to do so safely. I don’t care if the permit came under the auspices of the Bushes, Bill Clinton or Thomas Jefferson. It was wrong. It should never have happened.

It’s no secret that, for many, many years, government agencies have been far too cozy with those they regulate. Makes no difference whether you’re talking cars, tobacco, airplanes, coal mines, banks, utility companies, defense contractors or offshore drilling. Pick an industry government is supposed to police and you’ll find favoritism, uneven enforcement and, in none-too-rare cases, quid pro quo’s.

It’s always puzzled me how licensing agencies overseeing an industry can also be watchdog and enforcer. Evidence it can’t be done is overwhelming. It’s like asking the DMV clerk to also make the speeding arrest. Two valuable jobs. Two different jobs.

BP gets the brunt of my anger. First, for knowingly undertaking drilling without adequate technology to do so safely. Then, when things went wrong, for hiding evidence, publishing dishonest figures about how much oil was leaking and carrying on a campaign of bluster and B.S. meant to hide the fact BP cannot end the carnage.

The Obama administration is complicit for not using sanctions and other hammers it holds. There could be two reasons for that. I’m guessing here, but it could be (a) it doesn’t want to shove BP to the brink of bankruptcy or force it to take some other legal move to slither out of long-term responsibility and/or (b) our government and the military have no better tools for the situation than BP. I have to believe there are credible reasons for the limited federal reaction. If there aren’t, we’re in more trouble than an oil disaster.

By now, the President should have gathered the best technological brains from any source and charged them with finding fast solutions. The military and the National Guard should have been tasked. All agencies should have been assigned to whatever jobs need covering. And the heads of Interior and Homeland Security should have been told to solve the problem in a short, specific time. Or else.

While we all will feel the effects of these millions of gallons of crude in our lives one way or the other, it’s the people of Louisiana who will really suffer. Hurricane Katrina, bad as it was, caused nowhere near the long-term damage. You can rebuild a house or a few blocks of businesses in a matter of weeks or months. But the youngest of us alive today won’t live long enough to see complete restoration of the tidelands, tributaries, coastlines and wildlife being destroyed daily.

Louisianans who’ve lived for generations in the tidelands and know nothing but the fisherman’s or the shrimper’s life are seeing their livelihoods and their worlds end. Imagine yourself in the timber business when suddenly, every tree in Oregon disappeared, making Douglas County look like the eastern two-thirds of Wyoming. Everything you know gone. Nothing left.

It’s not enough to get the polluting stopped. Whenever that happens. It must never happen again. What better motivation could there be for a complete overhaul of federal licensing and regulating in ALL industries? What better time for both political parties to create the actual system of government oversight and security we thought we had?

Government should take the leading role in the Gulf of Mexico. Now! BP should be made a captive and subservient player. All government power … all of it … should be brought to bear and the fire under BP kept so hot their British feet don’t touch the ground. There will be time enough for investigations and finger-pointing and all the political posturing.

There should be no Democrats; no Republicans. Only Americans. And their guts … all of them … should hurt as bad as mine!

Reading the …you’ll pardon the expression … tea leaves of elections is often an imprecise practice. But primaries just concluded at home and nationally seem a bit more understandable.

Where I live, in Southwest Oregon, there was almost no evidence of the national anti-incumbent feeling in voters. We soundly returned a county commissioner to office; a Democrat in a Republican county no less. We elected an assessor, a 30+year employee of the office. Not precisely an incumbent but close. We didn’t throw any office holder into the street as happened elsewhere. There was obviously no significant groundswell to “throw the bastards out.”

There certainly was nationally. Not hard to see coming but the intensity … and the careful selection … were. Voters didn’t succumb to slaughter; they used a scalpel. Witness Pennsylvania where a 30-year Republican senator in a Democratic sheepskin was tossed. But a few miles away, in an open seat congressional contest in the same state, a Democrat won in a traditionally Republican district that went strongly for John McCain in 2008. Electoral surgery at it’s best.

The most noise, of course, was in Kentucky where a lot of the national media credited the Tea Party with Dr. Rand Paul’s victory in the GOP senatorial contest. My take? Not so much.

Paul, one of six in the Republican primary, got 58% of 353,000 votes; about 205,000. Given his desire to abolish the IRS, the Dept. of Education, opposition to the American With Disabilities Act, going back to the gold standard and wiping out the 17th amendment to the Constitution, yes, he probably got some hardcore Tea Party support that could have gone elsewhere.

But consider: in the Kentucky Democrat primary, 520,000 votes were cast for five candidates: about a third more than for all Republicans. The winner, almost statistically tied with the runner up, got more votes than Paul. So did the guy who was second. The two of them received more than all six Republicans.

So what? Well, in November, will many of those Republican voters who selected someone besides Paul change their minds and support him and his goals six months hence? Doubtful. And Democrat voters: will a lot of them decide in November to support Paul and his, shall we say, “unique” positions? Again, doubtful. Voting moderates and progressives in both parties won’t go for Paul.

So, looks like Democrats may pick up a new GOP senate seat. And if there’s any thanks, it should go to … the Tea Party. That’s what I mean by looking closely at candidates and numbers, where numbers came from, how many and who’ll be there in November. Most often, primary elections don’t tell you much. In Kentucky, I think they did.

Now, back to my area, Douglas County, Oregon. While the national mood … and mine … was to get rid of some incumbents, consider our legislative races: Reps. Prozanski 97%; Krieger 98%; Hanna 99%; Freeman 99%. “House cleaning,” you say? This is why there is … and will continue to be …an incumbency advantage no matter the noise in our streets. “My guy’s the good guy but your guy’s the bad guy.” You’ll never get ‘em; even with term limits.

I’m told our local voter turnout of 47% is pretty good. Then, given all the fuss and feathers around here the last few months, with people opposing or protesting this-that-and-the-other, why did more than half of my neighbors ignore the election? Given that media attention to the few and the loud, wouldn’t you expect more ballots? I did.

Now, here’s a kicker: three local Tea Party sympathizers, who’ve chastised me for my low opinion of the group, didn’t mail in their own ballots! Not one. “Waste of time,” sums up their responses. Now that’s “courage of your convictions.”

There’s a widely held but badly mistaken perception that primary elections aren’t important. That’s dead wrong! Where do the names on the November ballot come from? If the aforementioned legislative incumbents hadn’t won Tuesday, they would be gone. Now.

My take? I’m disappointed. Better turnout than nationally but I don’t think 47% is all that good regardless of past numbers. We didn’t get our right to vote easily. And we haven’t kept it without great cost. There’s a ballot with your name on it. But more than that, it’s been preserved by a lot other people who took a bullet with their name on it.

As you walk down the streets in your hometown this week or go about your shopping or even sit in church, imagine that more than one out of every two people you see didn’t vote. That’ll put a face on it for you!

For those of us who follow political and business news in our Northwest neighborhood, there have been some interesting stories lately about efforts of the three states to attract … or keep from losing … major companies.

A thought-proving piece came recently from Randy Stapilus of Ridenbaugh Press dealing with a column by Ben Jacklet, editor of Oregon Business Review magazine, read by business leaders around Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

Remember measures 66 and 67 we voted on a few months ago in Oregon? Remember those threatening posters about “job killing taxes” opponents tacked up all over the place at a cost of a couple million bucks? Remember the threats that, if passed, those two measures would drive businesses out of Oregon? “Job killing taxes” was the threat.

Well, according to Stapilus, Jacklet remembered, too. So he wrote a March 24th, story to his readers, reminding them of all that hysterical rhetoric. He waited a week or two, read the responses to his piece … which he described as mostly “setting new standards for vitriol” … and wrote another story.

This time, he drew a line in the sand. “I still am lacking the name of a single job-creating investor or executive who is, in fact, leaving Oregon because of Measures 66 and 67.”

He made his point. He’s waiting. So are the rest of us.

Plain fact is, there are other factors that may be more important to attracting … or losing … business than taxes. Forbes publishes a “Best States For Business” rating annually. It lists these categories as most important to business decision makers: labor supply, regulatory environment, economic climate, prospects for growth, business costs and quality of life.

Idaho, for example, has bragged for years about a stable, “three legged” tax structure: sales, property, income. “Predictable, steady, business friendly.” But, as Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire is fond of pointing out, Idaho’s income tax is graduated and there is a tax on corporate profits. Zing! Still, taxes important? Yes. Job killing? No.

So, in recent months, our friend Gov. Butch Otter has been fighting his own battle, contacting major corporations, recruiting them on behalf of the Gem state. “Predictable tax and regulatory policies are what employers need … to maintain operations through this rough patch.” “Patch” being our recession.

So, what happens as he writes? While Washington State has a business and occupation tax on gross receipts … and Idaho doesn’t … Wal-Mart closed operations in Lewiston, ID, in March, moved across the border to new and expanded facilities in Washington State, adding jobs in the process!

It’s not just taxes. Washington has a better-funded public education program and a very good and diverse transportation network. If you’re Wal-Mart, a ready, trainable workforce and options to move your goods around can trump taxes if the numbers work otherwise.

Sure, taxes are a factor. No question. But, as in the Wal-Mart case, taxes were not THE factor. Or Wal-Mart likely would have stayed put.

Those who litter our landscape with scary … and false … warnings about taxes next time the question is put to us, need to look at the complete business environment before going ballistic. As is the case with all of us, businesses have many requirements to make them successful. And profitable. Tax load is only one condition.

Roseburg Forest Products, Reser Foods, Waremart, Bi-Mart, Nike, to name a few, are not going to close up shop to avoid some increased taxes. Be they temporary or permanent. As long as the total corporate environment allows stability, growth and profitability, they’re not going to quit Oregon in a tax huff. There are too many other factors to consider. If a corporation is well-run, it’ll adjust pricing, conform overhead to changed conditions or alter some of the ways it does business.

Any large company stalking out across our borders, looking for greener and cheaper pastures because of 66 and 67, would probably have other problems. But, as the folks at the Oregon Business Review found with their statewide challenge, that apparently hasn’t happened.

I am not anti-corporation. I’m happy when companies make a profit if they do so as honest corporate citizens. But lavishing millions of bucks on dire and specious warnings to us neighbors, as in the terribly well-funded but losing 66 and 67 example, did not support honesty or help their corporate images.

The 66-67 onus now passes to Democrats in Salem. We were given specific reasons why legislators needed our approval. And more money. It’s up to them to see that those new dollars go to exactly the purposes advertised. It’s up to Republicans to make sure that happens and to help “git ‘er done.”

I’ve recently been introduced to a new political concept that, while possibly appearing misleading in label at first blush, seems to accurately describe a political outlook held by some people.

The term is “faith-based” politics. It has nothing to do with any formal religion. It’s used to describe those continuing to cling to … and believe … facts found to be untrue but who won’t stop believing them.

“Birthers” are, in this definition, a “faith-based” group. They continue believing Pres. Obama was either foreign-born … in the face of documentation from the State of Hawaii … or that living overseas as a child disqualified his legal right to be president. They file court cases only to find, every time, courts have no authority to challenge election of a sitting president. That’s strictly for Congress. And this Congress has seated Barak Obama while rejecting all challenges. One judge even told a Florida “birther” attorney to “never come back.”

Those still clinging to this thoroughly baseless argument do so with an ardor described by some as “faith,” as though someone is faced with a direct challenge to a doctrine of his/her beliefs.

Another group is made up of people in mostly middle and lower income brackets saying Obama is going to raise their taxes. There is no shred of evidence, no bill in congress, no statement made by a reputable source supporting the charge. But I meet people almost daily who are as deeply rooted in that as in a religious teaching. They have “faith” in what they “believe.” Not conflicting facts.

Imagined gun control fits, too. Though he’s said repeatedly, while campaigning and since taking office, that he has no intention of getting into it, Obama continues to face charges he’s lying. I’ve long believed those who fear government-sponsored efforts to control firearms have more to be afraid of in the courts than with politicians. The issue is political poison. But, someday, some judge in a little nowhere court in a little nowhere county might start something that could be a direct challenge to some sort of gun ownership. In the courts.

The “czar” concept is another “faith-based” contradiction. High-level jobs going back to FDR have been filled by presidential appointees for specific tasks. But Obama alone is blamed for creating another level of “illegal” bureaucracy. Not true. Still, believing as though it were a faith teaching, some people just won’t let it go.

Neal Gabler of the LA Times recently wrote “faith-based political ideas are like religious fundamentalism; there is no hope for negotiation. Our constitution was a negotiated document but the concept of negotiation is eliminated from this brand of ‘thinking.’ These people want their ‘faith’ ideas established now and they reject negotiation.”

It would be easy to dismiss this business as unimportant. As Gabler points out, we are a nation founded by and through negotiation. We pride ourselves for trying to accommodate many points of view. We call it our national strength. We are at our very best when we find ways to include all.

But suppose people in top decision-making positions adopted a “facts-be-damned” attitude in science, technology, political thought and other fields. If some project didn’t conform to beliefs already held, and proven facts were ignored, imagine the disasters that could lead to.

We got into war in Iraq because of this kind of “faith” approach to national policy: conclusions made and actions taken without facts to support them. Or, in the face of facts that should have led to different conclusions, thinking was based on “faith” in previously held “beliefs.” Weapons of mass destruction?

When people ignore fact or evidence to the contrary to unswervingly believe in discredited ideas and take that to the ballot box, it can result in setting a national course to disaster.

Consider: we already have members of congress in both houses not only advocating for some of these discredited subjects, several have actually introduced legislation to force the rest of us, through law, into accepting their way of thinking.

The concept of “faith-based” politics is getting attention these days by people making large incomes getting groups of people to move one way or another politically. Limbaugh, for example, recently read on the air a phony college term paper attributed to the president dealing with distribution of wealth. When someone on his staff told him within minutes the document was not Obama’s and was written by someone else as satire, Limbaugh said on the air, “Well, phony or not, we know that’s how he thinks and I believe it.”

If you don’t think this politics of “faith” in discredited or false information is for real, I submit his own words.

It’s real. And it’s dangerous.

Newspapers from Oregon to New Delhi to Cairo are, as they have always been, battling for readers. What makes the current struggle life threatening for many is the explosion of places readers can go for news, especially electronically.

It should be noted at the outset, I am not an employee of a newspaper so the view expressed is distinctly my own. As always.

There are many reasons why what’s happening worries me greatly. Coming from a mostly broadcast background, trained in news immediacy, I’ve never been a print advocate for much more than historical record or in-depth coverage. For many years, until print learned how to deal with broadcast and found its own niche, that was a valid point of view. Now, not so much.

Some major players in this fragmenting of news sources are seizing the moment to change how information is “shaped” and, thus, which facts are presented. Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, among others, is a case in point. He worries me. A lot.

An Australian by birth, schooled in the rough-and-tumble of British tabloids, Murdoch’s moved his properties from the “just-report-don’t-editorialize” history of news and staked out prominent space on the political right. His outlets, print and broadcast, deliberately contain and support that view while most others try to report impartiality.

The New York Times, on the other hand, worries me as well by drifting left of center, often reporting more liberal “facts.” MSNBC, too. In England and France many outlets are on one side or the other of the spectrum. Regularly.

Newspaper history, especially, is filled with this sort of “singular-point-of-view” publishing. Papers of the 20’s and 30’s in this country often put editorials on the front page, hammering issues … and people … they didn’t like. Hearst in San Francisco and McCormack in Chicago were especially known for their attacks. We survived.

But what worries me now is illustrated by national civics test from the International Studies Institute. The 33 questions were on American government and had been given to 2,508 persons nationwide. None of the questions were tricky; all could be found at the high school level.

Here is my concern. Average citizens scored a failing 49%. College professors came up with only 55%!

So what? Well, with news sources not only fragmented but moving to their own political viewpoints, how does the reader/listener know what is true … or what is not … if they don’t understand the basics of how our nation works? If someone tells you an apple is really an orange and you don’t know anything about apples or oranges, you may just accept a “fact” that isn’t true.

A second problem is studies show many people, content with listening/reading news supporting their beliefs, stay where they are, not reading/listening to sources that differ. I regularly get mail from people directing me to their news “source” while telling me they don’t trust any other.

If someone (a) doesn’t understand the nation’s civic structure and (b) hears/reads only one point of view, slanted but comfortable “facts” become “real.” So when it’s time to vote on an issue or elect someone from a field of candidates, who casts the “informed” vote?
While we’ve survived this sort of media slanting before, things are very different now. Our world has speeded up. We are bombarded with information from many sources. We are expected to absorb things faster and make decisions quicker. We compact information into texts, e-mails or other abbreviated forms so we often don’t have background or time for informed decision-making. We don’t sit by the fire in the evening, reading, listening and considering our world in quiet conversation.

This combination of a single-sided “news” view passed off and accepted as abbreviated “fact” coupled with modern demands on our time and attention is worrisome. So is the finding that only about half of college professors can pass a high school government exam!

While some newspapers will disappear … some already have … others will find new ways to fill their vital information role. I don’t fear for their futures.

But I do fear this one-sided, one-bias view of institutional reporting we are already seeing will spread as some journalistic entities seek to survive. I worry “fact” will replace accurate fact and that this will lead to important community and national decisions being made by many of us without necessary understanding of those decisions.

Add to these factors … faith-based politics. “What’s that,” you ask? Well, we’ll discuss that in a column or two.