Archive for June, 2011

We’ve been approved for a loan to refinance our home. A very large loan – at least for us. And I’m mad about it! Damned mad!!!

First, a little history to help understand why my angst level is so high. We built our home several years ago when interest rates were a couple points higher. As seniors, in an evermore expensive economy, we now would like the monthly payments to be a bit less. Lower interest rates can do that.

Recently, a retired, very intelligent friend of ours surprised us when he said – matter-of-factly – he had refinanced his loan online! Not what I expected to hear from someone about my age who is as aware of all the scams out there as I am. Remember Countrywide? He said it was “a piece of cake” and the process was not only thorough but unusually fast as well. Even low closing costs. He was a happy camper.

I ruminated on his story. At first, skeptically. Then, as I learned more about the process, it seemed worth of checking out. Not doing just yet. But checking out. I’ve got a little real estate and mortgage experience in my background, so I figured I knew the questions to ask and the pitfalls to watch for. I selected one of the more established names, went online and did my research. Everything seemed in order.

When the loan officer called to follow up, he was professional, patient and answered all my queries satisfactorily. O.K. We started the paperwork. Usual stuff: employment, gross income, credit. Nothing out of the ordinary except that, as retired people, our income isn’t what it used to be and the ratio of debt-to-income was higher than it had been before. Bit of a concern.

I faxed 18 pages of his required forms and our tax returns for two years. He contacted a local appraiser and got that part of the process started. Within a week, we got an email telling us the appraisal was about 25% lower than one four years ago but everything was fine and we could start the closing. Great!

Then, the more I reviewed the previous weeks conversations, double-checked the forms and put things in perspective, I began to get mad. And madder. And madder! Because it hit me what was happening.

How bad is our economy? Remember what the tipping point was along Wall Street – and internationally – that drove us into this deep economic ditch? Remember the greedy bastards who packaged all those overpriced and underperforming home loans, sold them as unsecured investment packages around the world, took their profits and watched as our economy went to Hell? The guys who made billions off the collapse of loans that should never have been made, many to people not able to repay them? Any of that sound familiar?

As I reviewed my oral and electronic conversations leading up to our “approval,” I remembered that not once – no, not once – was I asked for our assets. We own a valuable acre property next door, free and clear. We own two late model vehicles free and clear. I have an IRA of some size which was not asked for. Barb has her retirement. Never checked. And a few other things this guy in Phoenix would have no way of knowing about. Because he never asked! And we’re approved!

While I’m sure the major, well-known online mortgage company would perform for us, and I don’t worry about their ability to make the loan, what’s transpiring here is a national company is making a loan to people without having a clear picture of their assets or ability to repay! They are no more sure about that than all the other “mortgage companies” were over the last 10 years when they made hundreds of thousands of similar loans to hundreds of thousands of people who forfeited on them.

Has this country learned nothing? Has the agony of all this pain being inflicted on millions of people in this nation – and around the world – taught us nothing? Do thousands and thousands of foreclosed and abandoned homes not stand as constant reminders that we have to do things differently? What the Hell is going on?

Yep. We’ve been approved. Approved by a company that has no more real idea of our ability to repay than Winston, our family Rat Terrier. It is advancing a significant six-figure loan without all the facts, will package that loan with others and sell them all off in the second money market as securities for investors. And the damned investors will buy ‘em! And resell ‘em!

Are you a little clearer now why I’m not a happy camper about this? Do you see the idiocy of a wrecked national economy about to get hit with more of the same economic arsenic? I hope it makes you mad, too.

We cancelled the deal. No go. I got that mad. But we’ll probably refinance with a local company. If we do, this I promise: we’ll make the monthly mortgage payments and carry out our obligation even to the grave. But the hundreds of thousands of loans being made out there right now … the ones where the lender has no idea of the true ability to repay – are just like the ones that have cost you 30-40% of your home’s value in the last three years.

Well, you’re on your own there. Caveat emptor!

For several years, I’ve taken criticism from strangers, friends and some respondents to this column because of what was perceived as my lack of “support for the troops.” The rebukes always came after I said “Bring ‘em home.” Which I now say again.

As a veteran, that sort of criticism has stung at times. As though I were some sort of “peacenik” who had no idea what military service was about. Duty, honor, country, sacrifice, etc. I spent more time in uniform than most people who don’t make the military a career and have a pretty good idea what those words mean.

Others with my outlook on Iraq and Afghanistan have taken some flak, too. We have a large Veteran’s Administration facility in our town. For many, many Friday’s, two groups of flag-waving people have gathered along the street hear the entrance. Separated by about 200 feet, one group has supported the wars; the other group has not. Lots of catcalls and horn honking from passing motorists, sometimes accompanied by shouts and gestures not suited for family hearing or viewing. Lots of flags and signs supporting the divergent views.

One interesting aspect for me is that both groups are made up mostly of folks over the age of 60. Both – based on some friendly faces I’ve seen – have veterans among them. So some of the supporting and opposing voices are coming from experienced people at two ends of the same pole.

While I don’t feel the need to justify my feelings on this subject, it comes as an interesting turn that the U.S. Conference of Mayors has gone on record with a resolution to end both wars – conflicts – whatever. A group normally concerned with potholes, sewer plants, street lighting and zoning issues has done something it has never done before: taken a stand on foreign military involvement. A stand that says simply “End it. Sooner rather than later.”

The reasons why these mayors have spoken up so loudly are – potholes, sewer plants, street lighting and zoning issues. With billions of dollars going down the rat hole in two unwinnable wars, they are watching the crumbling infrastructure of cities coast to coast as federal funding for our everyday needs dries up. Those needs, too, are legitimate functions of government.

To my knowledge, such national action coming from local roots in every state has never happened before. While the decision was not unanimous, it does reflect the continuing majority found in poll after poll among Americans. In many of them, more than 60% want us out. If not immediately then soon.

The mayors carefully noted the approximately $126 billion a year in direct war costs, 6,024 U.S. military killed and some 120,000 civilian deaths. But they also said “the severity of the ongoing economic crisis has created budget shortfalls at all levels of government and requires us to re-examine our national spending priorities.”

There is no question most of the American public is tired of watching our best efforts in these two countries drain treasure and lives. There is no definable victory to be won. We seek no conquest for national gain. There is no direct threat to our national security. More and more members of Congress as well as current and past administrations – even some in military leadership – are publically saying it’s gone on long enough and it’s time to get out.

While the mayor’s statement says we must “re-examine our national spending priorities,” I believe we’re at a time in our political, military and economic history when we need to re-examine ALL those national priorities. All are inextricably tried together and all are in need of both recognition of that fact and a major national effort to realign how each affects us all. And what’s best for us as a nation.

All countries – those that fail and those that survive – come to just such a time in their history. Without altering the precepts on which each is based, there is a moment when present conditions require new ways. When today’s needs must be met in different ways than they were yesterday. Honor the past but recognize the change. And adjust to it.

It’s no stretch to say our country is at such a point. Our politics and the resulting national government are not sufficient or seemingly capable of dealing effectively with our national needs. Our military has been badly used, allowed to be run with too much involvement of monied industrial interests and political self-service and needs to be redesigned to meet today’s realistic challenges. Our national economics have been unchecked and the result has been unnecessary hardship and suffering by millions of Americans.

The proof of all this is that so many of the things that affect each of us daily are not working. Government that is supposed to serve is controlling. A military that is supposed to protect has been thrust into “wars of choice.” An economy that is supposed to benefit us all has been perverted so it benefits only some at the expense of all.

The mayors are right. Re-examination should be the national drive in all that we are and hope this country to be. And now is the time.

Family values. Simple. Straight forward. Everybody knows what the words mean. Good for everyone. Right? Shorthand for all things good and honest. And God and country. Right? You really think so?

To me, the phrase “family values,” introduced into our American political lexicon 20-25 years ago, has become little more than an overused code for people who think their “family values” are – or should be – everyone’s “family values.” The words, as normally used by the political right, originated as shorthand for “God, Mom, the flag and the good ol’ U.S. of A.” Politicians have wrapped themselves in them – often absent any demonstrated personal sincerity – to show this particular voting base they are as honest, sincere and God-loving as the narrow electorate for which the phrase is a mantra.

The world is full of – as I like to call them – personal values. We have ‘em at our house; you do at yours. We like ours and they work for us. You probably like yours and they seem to work for you. Maybe we have some different ones on the same subject. But so what? That’s what this country is supposed to be all about, isn’t it?

Let’s see. At our house, a real value is that of the individual and that individual’s right to do what he or she thinks is best for him or her – or all of us – within lawful boundaries. We support ‘em. So, if a daughter or a sister is trying to decide how best to deal with a pregnancy, our family value is that – after some family discussion where family listens a lot – she and her doctor should decide. Other families have values that want a state or federal employee sitting in the counseling room to steer discussion away from abortion. Same situation. Different values. But ”family values” just the same.

We have some Hindu friends. A Hindu family value can include arranged marriages in which the couple has little or no say in the match-making. Very honorable in their family. At our house, we prefer to allow the situation to develop without parental interference, relying on the “family values” we tried to instill in our son or daughter to guide their course. Both respected “family values.” But different.

We have some wonderful Pentecostal friends. They say grace before each meal, even at restaurants. We occasionally say grace at home but not in public. It’s a family thing. Theirs. Ours. Works for them. Works for us.

We’ve helped one or more of our offspring buy a first car when they were teens because we thought a little help was the right thing to do. Other parents I know would never do that, expecting their teens to go it alone to learn responsibility. Both “family values.” Both seem right.

But the two-edged sword of these two seemingly innocent words meant to describe love, responsibility and honesty can cut deep gashes in the body politic when soliciting votes. Sen. Vitter of Louisiana, co-sponsored the “Defense of Marriage Act” as he pledged support of “family values.” Of course, he later was caught red-handed using prostitutes to take care of some values that weren’t so “family.” At least not his.

Sen. Ensign of Arizona, and Newt Gingrich loudly and repeatedly espoused family values while bed-hopping with members of their office staffs. One engaged in what appears to be an illegal payoff to try to keep it hushed up; the other guy divorced one, kept going, then divorced the second. Both claim they were – and still are – “family values” guys.

There are dozens of other known examples of this hypocrisy in public officials. And in business. And religion. Everywhere. Probably thousands on any given day. Which is why I’ve come to treat the phrase “family values” as someone telling me “Do what I say; not as I do.” The credibility and meaning – whatever there originally – are gone. The words are just code – shorthand – for some narrow-minded individuals telling me and mine that their “values” are the “right values” and those who disagree – maybe us – are wrong.

Acquiring, nurturing and developing values – individual or family – are good traits. All of us should occasionally take inventory of our system of values to keep them in mind and measure how well we’re doing in meeting them. We’d all be better for the introspection.

But before accepting others values as the “right” values in any conversation or in any polling place, we’d all do well to remember that each value is as different and as unique as we are – one to the other. There are some “family values” out there that my family wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole. Or with a vote, either.

I’m a sucker for a good salesman. Makes no difference what product or the service. I just like to watch a really good sales pro in action. But they’re getting harder to find and are becoming a vanishing breed.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with calling nearly any effective professional a “salesman.” To my mind, it’s a totally respectable moniker. Lee Iacocca is one. So was Billy May. Rev. Billy Graham is another. Ronald Reagan comes to mind. Each with a message or a “product;” each with enthusiasm; each earnestly wanting you to take what they offered because you’d be better for the experience.

Even in the more mundane world of daily commerce in our lives – cars, furniture, life insurance, real estate, consumer electronics – a good salesman stands out. He or she is the person you look for at the store; the person you want to find because you know you’ll get good information, experience professional service and walk away fulfilled with whatever you’ve been “sold.” Salesmanship – real salesmanship – is both a talent and an art form. It’s a beautiful thing.

But, boy, is it hard to find these days! For example, Barb’s getting ready to buy a new car. So I’ve been casting about on the Internet and phone to see what we can do. Four calls made. Four calls not responded to. Young fella up I-5 called, said he was the dealer’s I-net “customer service” representative. Took my information and said he’d respond with an email quote within the hour. That was two weeks ago.

Tried to buy a car in our little town a few years ago. “Salesman” had been with the company more than 20 years he said When it got to numbers, not only were they unacceptable, so was his stated attitude that “the dealership has to make a profit, too” and we should consider that in pricing. We bought out-of-town where there was some major market flexibility in choice and price. When I went in for service a few months later, he loudly upbraided me on the sales lot with customers and sales people in earshot. He wanted to make sure I knew selling cars was how he made his living, he had invested his time with us and we “owed him” the sale. “Owed him?”

The “investment advisor” in our area, assigned by the national company that holds my retirement annuity, says he can’t “advise us” because we won’t sign a contract for his other retirement planning services. I’m retired. It’s too late to plan. I just need to be updated on changes in my own plan. He can’t – or won’t – do that. A company I’ve been with for more than 20 years.

A young local fella trying to sell us his services to do some plumbing work we needed made a good sales presentation. We signed him up. Before he finished the work, he criticized how we had positioned our home on the acreage, told us our landscaping was wrong, added materials not covered in his bid and presented us with a higher bill.

A good salesman – a really good salesman – instinctively knows that whatever the goods or services in question, what he/she is really selling is himself/herself. Lots of people sell houses, cars, insurance, boats, carpet cleaning, furniture and swimming pools. When we go to their place of business, we are buyers. We know what we need or want. So, all that’s necessary to have a successful experience is someone who knows that, knows the merchandise or service, is both persuasive and enthusiastic, and who makes us feel we are the reason that person is in business. It’s really very simple.

Politics requires salesmanship, too. Enthusiasm and product knowledge are key. So is a personal appeal to the voter/buyer that our interests are his interests. What we get, far too often, is a change of message after the deal is closed – after the election – that “If you knew what I know you’d agree with me.” Salesmanship? Or bunko?

A good salesman – regardless of product or service – is one who gets us to do what we wanted to do all along but the reason we acted now is because of his/her knowledge, positive personality, enthusiasm and leadership.

Because we are a technology-driven society, becoming more and more linked to electronic tools rather than human interaction, really good salespeople are going to be harder and harder to find. We are being forced into a “check-the-box-on-the-screen” method of buying and away from the professional one-on-one presentation with a handshake at the conclusion.

That may be more efficient for the seller; may be a better use of the marketer’s dollars. But it makes for a colder and more impersonal marketplace for we consumers. I don’t want to just be happy with the new HDTV. I want the feeling – that good warm feeling – that a professional did the very best he/she could do and invested part of their own life in our satisfaction.

That’s real salesmanship. That’s really being SOLD!

Scofflaws can be the death of you

Author: Barrett Rainey

Aside from being a more coarse society, we’re also a nation of increasing numbers of scofflaws.

Evidence is all around us. People who leave their garbage cans at the curb all week instead of just collection day. RV’s and other man-toys parked for months at neighborhood curbs in violation of local ordinances. Vehicles parked heading the wrong way into traffic. Trash thrown toward a garbage can but left on the sidewalk when it missed.

And don’t get me started on driving violations that endanger anyone within striking distance. You know: “I’m here. I want to go there. Get outta the way.” And more DUI’s reported every day.

But the most common scofflaw activity crossing my radar these days is talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving. With no exaggeration, it’s something I see every day, though Oregon has a law that makes it a primary offense for which a driver can be stopped and ticketed. Fairly expensive ticket, too.

Now I know officers can’t be everywhere. That’s what the violators of our new law are counting on. They think they can sneak in a call here and there without getting caught. Maybe it’s a game to them. Not to me. Not when I could be the unintended victim of their “game.” If it were up to me, I’d double the fine and demand forfeiture of the phone. First time! Jail if caught again.

Then there’s the matter of texting while driving. Now you and I might have more safety-conscious thoughts about that. But there are fools out there … damned fools out there … doing it. I’ve watched ‘em.

The texting-and-driving issue comes to mind because of a new study by the Highway Loss Data Institute. Never heard of ‘em but apparently it’s a fairly significant outfit.

Bottom line of the Institute’s research: “Laws against mobile devices to send and receive text messages while driving don’t reduce crashes.” What’s more, such bans don’t just fail to decrease the number of accidents: they may even increase the risk of more!

That surprising bit of data made me delve even further into the lengthy tome. Seems these legal bans have created more dedicated scofflaws. The reason the prohibitions don’t work is not only are people ignoring them, but they’re holding the phones lower … out of sight … and paying even less attention to their driving. They’re actually increasing the danger!

While noting the added risk, the Institute soft-pedaled possible solutions. One proposal made would be development of software to restrict texting features when vehicles are moving. The other would be the availability of more cars with equipment to read received messages aloud and voice-recognition systems to accept vocal responses. “That way, the report concludes, “the driver’s eyes are on the road.”

Road apples!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The problem with using cell phones while driving is not where your eyes are. Or where your ears are. The problem … the real problem … is where your head is.

At our house, we own two vehicles equipped with hands-free calling equipment. Both make phoning while driving legal in Oregon. I’ve tried it. And the use of the system doesn’t make me any safer behind the wheel.

Here’s why. Try it yourself. But don’t drive while trying it. Just sit. Get comfortable. Now start singing “America The Beautiful.” Out loud. Go ahead. Start singing. Keep it up. Sing one whole verse. I’ll wait.

Now, start singing the same refrain again. Out loud. But, silently, in your head, begin counting backwards from 57 while singing the words you just sang flawlessly. Go ahead. Sing out loud and count. See how far you get before you make a mistake; either with words of the song or the sequence of numbers. You will not be able to simultaneously do both to the end without error. Guaranteed!

Laws that allow hands-free phone calls miss the point entirely. Again, it’s not where your hands are. It’s where your head is. And now, in Washington State, California, Minnesota and Louisiana where driving and texting are illegal, scofflaws are taking their consciousness even further away from their driving. And crashes are increasing.

Sometimes, the result of a scofflaw’s illegal activity can seem harmless enough: wrong way parking, garbage tossing. But other times, it can be deadly: texting a pizza order while staring at the keyboard in your lap instead of the car coming at you in whose lane you are now driving.

It won’t be me doing the texting. I promise. But I may be in that other car. In my own lane. While you’re ordering a pizza you won’t live to eat.

Using one’s personal health issues have never seemed to me to be appropriate for an opinion column. But that’s what this one’s about. We don’t feel good at our house and, because it may help you recognize a possible problem at yours, it’s worth some chat.

Barb and I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). She first came up with it 12 years ago. Professionally diagnosed. She’s had it off and on but it hasn’t bothered me. Until now. And I seem to have a good case of it. Medically, women are more susceptible than men but, when men get it, they seem to have worse problems.

SAD is a type of depression, usually occurring at the same time every year. Most get it in the late fall; fewer in the spring. Your grandparents probably called it “winter blah’s” and just kept going. But, as with most human conditions, research has shown it really is much more than that. It can cause physical and mental problems going beyond the blah’s. Those include depression, hopelessness, anxiety, no energy, social withdrawal, oversleeping, loss of interest in activities, appetite changes, weight gain and problems with concentration. Sounds like a recipe for depression to me.

Lest you think I’m going a bit far with this, medical research has proven, as with other types of disorders, more extreme cases of SAD can produce suicidal behavior, social withdrawal, school/work problems and substance abuse. See? Not kid stuff!

There is even “spring and summer SAD” and, in a cruel quirk, reverse SAD. The former has symptoms of mania – called “hypomania” – with elevated moods, rapid thoughts and fast speech. The latter is really a form of bipolar disorder.

Back to the basic SAD. There are three usual causes. One occurs when reduced levels of sunlight in the fall/winter months disrupt your internal clock – circadian rhythm – which lets you know when to be awake or sleep. Depression is the usual result of such a change.

The other two causes involve your melatonin and serotonin levels. Melatonin hormones help you sleep. Seratonin is a brain chemical affecting mood and production can decrease because, of all things, reduced sunlight. Both can usually be adjusted with prescriptions.

SAD is most often found in people living further from the equator: less sunlight; more darkness. Now, my medical background is a week spent on the campus of FUBAR Medical. So my depth of understanding here is not the same as your physician’s. But I’d bet, in our house, this onset of SAD has a direct connection with the clouds, rain, snow and hail we’ve experienced consecutively for about eight straight months in SW Oregon. The weather here -and the Northwest in general -has been continuous episodes of long gray days, clouds, darkness and cold, unseasonable temps. Really depressing. Locals hereabouts talk about it daily.

O.K. So SAD is real and it can create real problems. That’s medical fact. What do you do about it? Doctors have come up with three treatments: medication, psychotherapy and – wait for it – light therapy.
Medications normally are bupropion used in an extended release version and antidepressants like paroxetine, sertraline, fluoxetine and venlafaxine. All are common prescription drugs.

Psychotherapy is what it is: you and the medical counselor in talk sessions that may or may not include some drug therapy.

But light fixtures? Yep. Light fixtures. And special bulbs. It’s called phototherapy. When Barb was diagnosed years ago, we were told to buy special florescent bulbs for the room in which she spent most of her time each day. That was her studio. While light from these special bulbs didn’t appear much different, in her case, it worked. After a few days, she began to feel more like her old, cantankerous self.

Bulbs in many sizes are available at the large home improvement stores. While florescent tubes and special regular-sized bulbs can take care of a whole room or house, you can also get small, portable light fixtures to place next to a favorite chair where you spend a lot of time. Shine it right in your face.

While used widely, no one is quite sure how this light therapy works except that the special bulbs mimic outdoor light which fools the brain into producing the right chemicals to improve your mood. While there are no known side effects, it’s still a good idea to talk to your doctor before investing in special lights. You need to know just what kind to get and where to use them.

Well, there you are. A whole column on our health problems at home. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Think I’ll head to Home Depot. How about you?

Though I don’t know a whole lot about the methodology of polling for this and that, I find the process interesting. I also find a lot of them – at times – misleading. And some just flat wrong. While they often come very close to an outcome, say in some elections, they can also be twisted this way and that for the purposes of the user.

Case in point. Did you know that Pres. Obama recently polled higher among Republicans than when he was elected? True! Eight points higher. Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor is the source. But the same sampling also found his approval rating overall dropped from 53% to 51%. As I said, those are the numbers. Who uses them – and how – is what you need to be concerned about when interpreting.

I sometimes come up with theories swimming upstream against the national “conventional Beltway wisdom” by taking some of this polling data and tweaking it for my own journalistic ends. Like this.

Repeated polling shows more and more of us want out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Numbers vary a bit from poll to poll but all are now well over 55% and climbing. No matter how the question is asked, the results seems pretty uniform. End both wars. Stop the killing on all sides. Stop spending billions and billions in places that pose no immediate threat to our security in wars which have no winnable outcomes. Take care of massive debt and other problems at home.

Using that data and some other polling on the President’s day-to-day job ranking – which this far from an election doesn’t mean squat – I’ve got a scenario in my head that is at once improbable … and possible.

Nearly all the talking heads – and people fearing for their job security in Congress – say if there is no improvement in the jobs numbers, this administration is toast. Republicans say that a lot though in their time in a House majority they’ve passed three doomed abortion-connected bills and not a word about jobs. Still, they do say it a lot.

My own sense is that employment is not going to get better soon. For many reasons, nearly all of which government by either party can’t do much about. You can’t legislate lasting jobs. Employers have learned to operate cleaner and meaner. Many jobs just no longer exist because of changing technology. And on and on and on.

So, is the President toast for the 2012 election? Maybe. Maybe not.

Have you noticed all the little high-level huddling around the Pentagon and the National Security Council the last week or so? Watching the black limo’s and military staff cars go by it seems like quite a parade.

I’m getting the feeling that one of these days – not sure just which one – there’ll be an announcement regarding those aforementioned countries. Could just be – as we did in Viet Nam, we’ll declare victory, tell the world we’ve fulfilled our obligations and we’re coming home in much larger numbers than anyone has talked about previously.

There’s not a speck of evidence in the day’s news to warrant that idea. Nearly pure speculation on my part. Nearly.

But – it could just be the talking heads are watching the wrong polls and their inbreeding is blinding them to some other numbers dealing with public sentiment on other issues. Having been in the Washington D.C. press corps, I can attest to the lack of knowledge of life outside the Beltway and the herd mentality that dominates daily thinking among the faux literati.

The Obama re-election team is headed by several very intelligent people, some of whom don’t live inside that Beltway, preferring to operate out of a national re-election headquarters in Chicago. Maybe it doesn’t seem so to us in the Northwest, but the air in Chicago is a lot clearer than it is in the District of Columbia. Political air.

You stop pouring billions of dollars into Iraq and Afghanistan month after month, divert the bulk of those hundreds of billions to job retraining and badly needed infrastructure rebuilding in nearly every state, heavily invest in the future of our educational system and, before you know it, life will be better. For everyone.

As I said, polling is an inexact art. Outcomes can be skewed by various users. The next election is about 17 months away which is several lifetimes in the political world. No one knows what surprises await day by day. Or poll by poll.

But suppose – just suppose – a President stops the hemorrhaging of lives and treasure and the national economy becomes the benefactor of a more stable future. More jobs? Sure. Better jobs? Certainly. Voters are going to turn the guy out of office for that? I don’t think so.

I could be as wrong about this as that ol’ part time Alaska governor is about American history. But it’s an interesting alternative to the conventional wisdom. Isn’t it?

As a persistent watcher of the human condition – not to mention human foibles – hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters always catch my attention. Not just because of the destruction and misery involved. But because of the opportunistic criminal element you’ll always find hanging around such events.

Each of these calamities imprints its own tragic effects on the affected. Loss of life, property and, in come cases both, always top the news in their aftermath. There’s a cycle of being stunned, the grief, anger and the resilience that is certain as sunrise. People will eventually begin to rebuild. Or they’ll occasionally move away.

But my interest is nearly always piqued by how long before the looting starts. And it always does. There’s an element in our society – as a whole and in each little community – that will wait just so long before swooping in – buzzard-like – to look for the valuables among the piles of wreckage. And to take whatever treasures are found.

What this speaks to is the tendency in all of us to sometimes go about our business as if there were no laws or moral impediments affecting our lives. Even good people – God-fearing people – seem to have moments when they engage in activity that is forbidden or illegal.

One I see every day as I cruise about our little community – every day – is people talking on handheld cell phones while driving. In Oregon, that’s an offense for which you can be stopped and cited. The fine is usually $100 or so. The fine ought to be for any cell phone use while driving. Period! But it’s not. Yet.

I’ve watched perfectly respectable people slip a small item inside a larger one before going to the checkout stand at the store. I’ve seen people take two or three newspapers from an unattended rack instead of just the one they paid for. I’ve seen people switch tags on new clothing so their purchase is cheaper. Little things. Petty things. An action they would punish their children for. But, at the moment, it was OK for them.

Maybe we visit a friend and park on the wrong side of the street, heading the wrong way into traffic. Against the law. Maybe we park in a handicapped space because we won’t be long; change lanes while driving but don’t signal; turn a corner into the far lane; drive 45 mph in a 30 mph zone. All illegal. All can draw tickets and fines. We do ‘em anyway.

Comes now a new “it’s-OK-everybody-does-it” crime for an otherwise honest citizenry. People are stealing coupons from newspapers in the rack or lying in someone’s driveway. Coupons for everything and by the hundreds. In some of the major papers, this can run from $300 to over $1 thousand of value. Just for the Sunday edition.

The circulation director for the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, staked out a newspaper rack and watched a woman go through every Sunday paper in it, taking coupons out of all. Her excuse: “People just throw them away.” In other words: “I’m helping to avoid waste and more junk in the landfill.”

A woman who runs a legitimate coupon service told the same newspaper she has watched people driving through neighborhoods, taking editions from driveways. She said people have complained they bought a paper at a rack and found someone had stolen the coupons from all of ‘em.

So, when the mood hits, moral teachings, proper upbringing and a knowledge of right and wrong aside, good people – God-fearing people – will become scoff laws.

I’m not medically qualified to have some sort of comprehensive theory for all of this. But it does seem to speak to a criminal tendency in all of us that creeps out from time to time. We may never steal a TV set after a tornado or loot a furniture store we find unlocked. I seriously doubt many people get up in the morning with the thought that they will try to bend the laws a bit before sundown just to see what they can get away with.

But the tendency to put our own desires above the law is a common trait exhibited in many ways. Most of us effectively suppress it. Most of the time. If we think of what we’re doing at all when we cut a moral corner, we’ll probably rationalize it with “Well, everybody does it.”

So next time there’s a national disaster, note how long before the National Guard is brought in to stop looting. Next time you buy a newspaper from a rack and the coupons are gone, remember someone probably as honest as you got there before you put in your money.

And when the cell phone rings while you’re driving in Oregon some time, well, do what you think is right. Maybe not the same as legal. But who’ll know?

I know. I know. By now you think I’ve got an obsession with the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. It’s not true. No, it’s not. Until you mention her name and “President of the United States” in the same breath. Unless you say “That ain’t no way Sarah Palin is going to be President of these United States.”

But the proof of my continued lowest expectations of this former half governor continues to roll in daily. I don’t go looking for it. It’s just there!

Latest evidence of “she ain’t got a clue.”

She was in Massachusetts this week. Made a stop in the village where Paul Revere – in the knowledge base of nearly all American second graders – lived and made his famous ride.

In the respected Katie Couric tradition of asking gotcha” questions, one of the breathless reporters in her wake asked what she thought of Paul Revere. Now that’s really down and dirty.

Her response – word for word: “He who warned, uh, the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and um, makin’ sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.”

As Hillary Clinton queried three years ago, “Who do you want answering the phone when it rings in the White House at 3 a.m.?”

I don’t think the historically challenged Alaskan could find the phone at 3 a.m..

As the current crop of frustrating – and probably doomed – Republican candidates runs around, trying to organize the deck chairs on the good ship Titanic, there’s a continuing sideshow which both attracts and repulses me. It’s a “sideshow” because it can’t possibly be a “story” in anyone’s definition.

And that is the love-hate relationship between Sarah Palin and the national media. In my estimation, as in most such match-ups, there will be an angry fallout in the end as one destroys the other. My money’s on the media surviving.

Palin delights in kicking the media’s backside. And the media keeps coming back, saying “Do it again. Oh, please, again. Just one more time.” She does and the sick relationship continues another day.

Because of this abnormal condition, whenever she deigns to enter public view, the sycophants with cameras and microphones help her suck up all the oxygen in any given room. The rest of the candidates can climb on chairs, do back-flips off the head table and present whatever their message de jure might be, but Sarah-baby’s presence in the neighborhood at the same time will leave ‘em all alone.

This is not politics. This is marketing. Absolutely pure marketing. This is not a possible presidential candidate “testing the electoral waters.” This is Jack LaLanne or the late Billy Mays or Ron Popiel hawking the latest Ronco gadget, a whizbang new blender or battery acid remover. She just holds up the product – her – and the marketing folks spin and spin. And spin some more. Almost always for free.

She calls the media degrading names. They love it. She travels without an advance itinerary – advance appearance schedules are standard campaign must-dos – and the media camps out here, there and everywhere else without a clue, waiting for the magical moment the right wing Tinker Bell may actually show up. Her people say she’s going to be here, but she shows up over there. They love it! She signs up for a speech, then cancels. “Oh, do it again,” comes the media chant.

I give the woman very low marks – just above Michelle Bachmann – for her qualifications to even be in a campaign, much less the possibility of actually becoming President of the United States. A certain disaster in heels. But she takes a backseat to no one in her ability to grab a product off the shelf and put it right in your face with the message, “Ya gotta have this!.”

Rather than appearing with presidential candidates, her peers are Brittney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton and Snookie. The model is purely interchangeable. Each is a paparazzi delight for a few months or a couple of years. Each has – or will – return to anonymity when the 15 minutes of personality fame are over.

There have been some very qualified women in national politics in my lifetime: Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Geraldine Ferraro, Hillary Clinton, Margaret Chase Smith, Olympia Snowe, Helen Gahagen Douglas and a few others. Though each had a strong personality – a requirement to be successful in politics – each was professionally capable because she was equipped for the job by study, intelligence and dedication.

Anyone see Ms. Palin fitting into that list? Now? Ever?

Marketing is essential in politics. We call it “campaigning” but it really is nothing more than regularly exposing the “product” to see if we want to “buy” it. Nobody gets anywhere in politics without marketing.

But in Palin’s case, I call it the “$19.95 syndrome.” All that stuff you see on your TV for $19.95 is marketed. We don’t know which Chinese factory it came from or whether it’s durable or even if it works the way that TV pitch guy shows it. Often, after you’ve paid your $19.95 and open the box at home, you try to use it once and it winds up in the garbage.

Palin is a $19.95 marketer first class. I gotta give her that. You can’t get from Wasilla to nightly spots on the news networks without knowing how to pitch the product. Even if the product is a person. Either she has the talent for it or she has found someone she trusts who can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. She’s raking in the big bucks and has absolutely no desire to give up millions for a job that is one of the toughest and most demanding in the world.

No, Sir. What you’ve got here is hat but no cattle. Sizzle but no steak. Buyer beware.