Archive for July, 2011

Winning is only half the job

Author: Barrett Rainey

Our Congress has, in its most recent mess, become a national disgrace. No, make that international. Anyone who doesn’t think so should probably quit reading right here. ‘Cause it’s not going to get any happier.

In my mind, there are two reasons for this. First: the 30 or so Tealiban members of the GOP House majority who’ve been totally irresponsible and who’ve been joined by previous members just waiting for reinforcements. Second: all the more or less responsible members – including “leadership” -who’ve been cowed by them and who’ve refused to use the parliamentary and political means at their disposal to shut them up. I fault this second category for poor parenting just as I would a couple who allow a screaming child to go unpunished in a restaurant or theater.

One of my favorite “talking heads” is David Gergen who has more personal government experience under his belt than most members of Congress. Likely a Republican at heart, he’s lent his considerable talents to both parties at the top in several official capacities and is now at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Gergen almost perfectly defined the Teapublicans in the House with these words. “They’ve learned how to win political campaigns but have no knowledge of governing.” Accomplishing half of what it takes to get to Congress but ignorance of how to do the new job and of the responsibility that goes with it once they unpacked their bags.

To his accurate description I would add only this: a seeming dedication to remain in that ignorant state.

Proof of my addition abounds. Item: A Constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. It is their holy grail. It fuels all their other deviant political desires. Yet it’s completely unattainable and unrealistic that it could be achieved in anyone’s lifetime. It would never survive a vote in Congress. But if Tinkerbell sprinkled it with pixie dust and somehow all the drugged members went along, it would have to be approved by the legislatures of 38 states. And that much pixie dust there ain’t.

More items: Many of them want the Federal Reserve eliminated and the gold standard brought back. They want to eliminate public voting for U.S. Senators and give the job to the 50 legislatures. They want Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, HUD, EPA and other agencies abolished. They’d double the Pentagon budget with the savings. More than that, they want to abolish or severely curtail Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Well, dismal as all that sounds, there may be some light at the end of the ol’ tunnel. We’re seven months into the tenure of those miscreants. So, they’re now the ones on the inside. They’ll be the incumbents at the next national elections about 15 months from now. Some say they won’t run for re-election – which you and I seriously doubt. But for the ones that do – which will be most if not all -they’ll face one of two scenarios.

The first: they’ll have accomplished all or much of their wacky agenda, hurting millions and millions of people and causing chaos in the operations of national government. The majority of voters of any political persuasion will have been adversely affected economically, socially or politically – but above all personally -and will be voting with a meat axe rather than a pen.

Or second: they’ll have accomplished little or none of their craziness, will have been stymied by an awakened majority of Congress that wants badly to survive, and will have disappointed their fringy “base” who’ve had it with politician’s excuses and they’ll be “cut out of the herd.” Because those folks can’t be satisfied with anything less that total victory. And victory NOW! They, too, have no clue of governing or process.

I don’t mean to be too rosy here. These idiots have already done great harm to the body politic. In the time they have left in the current term, they’ll do more. On a positive note, maybe Speaker Boehner will suddenly develop some steel in his spine and relegate these “back benchers” to the back benches. Maybe he’ll figure out that allowing himself to be pushed to and fro by this bunch is undermining his own career. He can read the polls. And he doesn’t want to see Nancy Pelosi back in the Speaker’s chair and sitting in the suite of offices he now calls “home.” No, Sir.

But it may already be too late for Boehner. All that talk of “jobs, jobs, jobs” has resulted in not one piece of legislation on his watch. Not one! The crazies have dragged his Republican agenda so far off course – and will continue to pull it further right – that creating anything like a governing consensus is not now – and may never be – possible in his remaining term.

If we voters show up at the polls in 15 months as angry as those polls show we are right now, Boehner may be a “dead man walking.” And he may have lots of zombie company.

I don’t mean to be impertinent. But I have a solution to the mess with the debt ceiling, budget-cutting and revenue enhancements. Really.

Here it is. Speaker Boehner should count the noses in his House GOP caucus of those whose votes he can count on to get a bare majority. Then he should go to the White House to meet with Pres. Obama. The two of them then put together a package of a two-year debt ceiling increase, budget cuts and revenue enhancements – tax code rewriting issues- as close to what can get the minimum required number of House Republican votes for passage.

Boehner then should convene his caucus and say the following: “My name is John Boehner. For information of new members, I’m Speaker of the House of Representatives. I have here a bill to raise the debt ceiling and address other immediate national budget concerns. This caucus meeting will last two more minutes. Upon leaving this room, the full House will be called into session in 10 minutes. This bill will be placed for an immediate vote. It will pass.

“Upon the final vote, names of those voting “no” will be put on a list. My staff will begin searching bills already assigned to committees and any such legislation on which one of those names appears will be returned to my desk. From this time forward and until further notice, all proposed bills will come to my desk before committee assignment.

“Any proposed legislation now in process which contains the names of any who vote “no” this morning will be placed in a box beside my desk and will remain there. Any future proposed bills bearing any of those names will be added to the contents of that box. They will remain there.

This meeting is adjourned and I will see you on the floor in 10 minutes. Thank you for your attention.”

In political parlance, that scenario is called “hardball.” It’s politics at its toughest. And it’s high time the group of 80-90 newly elected who seem hellbent in taking this nation off a cliff should be introduced to the tactic. The dangers posed by their ignorance of governing require nothing less.

CAMPAIGN: Run or stand for office; a series of actions tending toward a particular end; a race between candidates for elective office.”

GOVERNING: Direct or strongly influence behavior; impose regulation as of nations; govern.”

The Teapublicans – or whatever they call themselves – obviously got into office by mastering the campaign part. But, though elected, they have displayed repeatedly they have no understanding of the craft of governing. It’s time for those who do, like Speaker Boehner, to conduct a hardball civics lesson using the current difficult topics as his teaching tools.

Boehner is no fool. He’s gone far beyond normal efforts to appease as many caucus members as possible without wielding the great power of his office. He’s done so for one basic reason: he wants to keep that powerful office and all the perks that go with it. But if he doesn’t take a stand now, he could very easily be dethroned. If not this time, then the next. Or the next. Eric Cantor is standing right behind him doing an excellent impersonation of Brutus. Right down to the phony smile.

Given the ego of anyone who wants the job of Speaker, I can’t believe Boehner wants to go into the history books as one of those who could have made a difference when this nation became the largest debtor in history but, instead, was one of those who chose to try to save his own career.

The time has come to kick some ass!

About a week ago in this space, I told you of a confrontation in our little southern Oregon community of some 21,000. It was a shameful affair wherein a few laws were likely broken and constitutional rights were certainly denied. I thought I’d update you on what’s happened since. Nothing.

On that warm Sunday afternoon in mid-July, a group of some 16 mostly senior citizens got together in a large county park to sit at a couple of tables, enjoy the weather and each other’s company, and chat among themselves. If there was any political connection, apparently several of the group had membership in, a liberal-leaning national organization. So most of the folks there were probably Democrats by voter registration. There they were. No signs. No flags. Just people sitting at tables under the trees.

Shortly, the senior gathering of 16 was confronted by another group more than twice its size, waving American and “Don’t Tread On Me” flags and carrying signs reading “Marxists,” “Socialists,” “Communists” and – well, you get the idea. And the 35 or so – some in camouflage clothing – were loud and persistent in their taunting. They brought a video camera to record their actions for posterity. And their own egos.

When it became apparent the newcomers wouldn’t leave, the seniors packed up and drove to a private home. The gang of 35 followed, tried to drive up the driveway to the private home, were told to leave but decided to block the end of that driveway for over an hour.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s office was called on 9-1-1. An hour-and-a-half later, a deputy called back to say things had been busy. He told those being denied their freedoms they should come to the office Monday to file a complaint. An hour-and-a-half!

O.K., let’s see what we’ve got here. While I’m no attorney, it would seem the smaller, older group was made up of people who were denied the right of peaceful assembly, the right of free speech, illegally forced off public property by threats and taunts, pursued on a public highway for no legitimate reason and improperly detained by blockade in a private home. It would also seem those senior, private citizens were unreasonably harassed and denied their civil rights. You could also throw in disturbing the peace. There’s also obviously threatening behavior that should have drawn a quick response from law enforcement types for which these people pay taxes.

And it’s all on video in the public domain.

We are now a week later. No comment from Sheriff John Hanlin. No comment from County Prosecutor Rick Wesenberg. Nothing from the police. No comment from the public parks department. Nothing from nobody.

The leader of the thugs – who noted at the time at least his folks “didn’t bring any guns” – is well-known around here. Known for some civic involvement and for politically being to the right of Attila The Hun. If there’s right wing activity, he’s likely in the middle of it. Or an instigator. Last time he ran for something he got about 18% of the vote.

Our corner of Oregon is uncommonly conservative compared to the rest of the state. You’d expect the Tea Party would be big here. It’s not. Almost non-existent in fact. Instead, what we have is a collection of splinter groups like the one(s) that rousted the seniors, depriving them of their constitutional rights. The spokesman for the fringe in this latest incident says he heads something called “Douglas County Americans For Prosperity.” Whatever the Hell that is.

I realize the conservative nature of most of my neighbors. County voter registration is about 60-40 favoring Republicans. Nearly all county office holders are of that party. Including the sheriff and prosecutor.

But what happened in the park and at a private home deserve significant law enforcement and legal followup regardless of any office holder’s political affiliations. Those who forced citizens out of a public park and staged a confrontation at a private home should not be allowed to get away with any of this. There is ample evidence – accompanied by video now on the Internet – that laws were broken, people were harassed and threatened for no reason and denied their guaranteed rights of peaceful assembly and free speech.

If law enforcement and other court officers in Douglas County, Oregon, let this slide – as it appears all are willing to do – then those we’ve elected to protect us may not be fulfilling the responsibilities they swore to undertake.

Even if you and I weren’t in the park that Sunday – or in that home – or on the calling end of that 9-1-1 plea for help – all of us have a stake in this. It’s our rights being challenged. Nothing less. All of us.

Poll after poll shows most likely 2012 voters are underwhelmed with our present crop of candidates for president. In both parties. But especially Republicans. Seems the baker’s dozen of oddballs, misfits and assorted nuts on the G-O-P list of possibilities are not to the liking of a lot of prospective balloteers.

The media puts a fine point on this dissatisfaction as those folks continue to search for somebody new by beating the bushes at every opportunity. Sometimes, in moments of extreme absurdity.

When astronaut Mark Kelly – also known as the husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords – faced the media at the National Press Club some days ago, one of the soul-stirring questions he had to answer was “Are you going to run for public office?” His too-patient answer to the overwrought inquisitor: “I’m the space guy in the family; she’s the politician.” My response would not have been so kind.

But it’s a question being asked in many, many places. Movie stars, musicians, business honcho’s and a lot of very unqualified, junior politicians. “Are you gonna run for office?” The nation’s fascination with celebrity. Good or bad.

If you can overlook the ignorance of throwing this query at Oprah, Mel Gibson, Sean Penn and Bono, it seems to me the media is simply amplifying the public’s obvious lack of interest in those currently on the political playing field. Especially nationally.

The first Republican state convention or nominating gathering is still months away. The November, 2012, election is almost a year-and-a-half out. So, most polling on any person or issue now is usually regarded as useless. But this subject of lack of voter interest in virtually all of the names may be worth paying attention to. By the parties and by you and me.

Our national political process is fractured and absolutely gridlocked. You can’t get a quorum on the value of motherhood. All the big names you know who have become household words are participants to one degree or another. Most of us find ourselves saying “a pox on all their houses.”

Politics – like nature – will not tolerate a vacuum. So, when the likely candidates are all in disfavor, some of the smaller fry make a professional move. And that’s a major reason why you have so many unknown, untested and unqualified people on the campaign trail. That and the thinking of a lot of better qualified, ought-to-be-candidates who won’t tolerate the messy gauntlet of running for office. Not for themselves or, as we’ve seen recently, for their families.

It’s also a time when the rich try their luck. Like the Romneys and the Huntsmans who can pour millions of their own into self-funding a run for office. Huntsman – a millionaire several times over in a family of millionaires – said in May he wouldn’t do that. “Good for him,” said I. Then his June campaign filing showed his personal check for $2.4 million. Little early in the campaign to break your promises but why put it off.

So, we have a political conundrum. We need good people who won’t run. And we’ve got many unqualified – and worse – who will. And are.

The presidency of this country is largely a “learn-on-the-job” situation. All recent presidents – all of them – have said they thought they knew what they were getting into but found the office and the responsibilities much different and greater than they’d expected. Most have been up to the subsequent challenge. Some haven’t.

So we have a stable of untried, untested merry-go-round horses at a time when this nation needs the best possible leadership to deal with a plate full of major problems. Some of which, if not handled with great skill and exceptional leadership, could sink us in a sea of never-ending debt and fracture our existence as a nation.

And therein lies the problem for so many potential voters. Especially Republicans who are stuck – at least for a year or so – with the naysayers, road-blockers and ideologues in Congress. That means the next president is going to have to generate great respect and herd these sheep with a lot of persuasion and a very big stick. Are any of those now out on the hustings qualified to do that? Any one of them? Is there a Reagan, a Roosevelt, a Johnson, a Kennedy or a Bush The Elder among them? Not likely.

The stakes in the presidential crap shoot are too great for us to make a mistake at the polls. And so far, what we’re being offered seem to be someone else’s political “mistakes.”

A few days ago, a group of some 18 mostly senior citizens gathered in a community park in our little Oregon town of Roseburg (pop. 21,500). It’s very safe to say these people represented a distinct minority around here – politically speaking.

They were out on a sunny afternoon to sit at picnic tables, chat with each other, talk of the need for peace and discuss current events. If there was a loose political connection it was they associated themselves with though most, if pressed, couldn’t really describe the national liberal organization or how it operates.

Within a few minutes, about 35 people showed up. Some in camouflage clothing, mostly male, waving “Don’t Tread On Me” and American flags. They carried signs reading “No to socialism in America,” “Communists,” “Marxists” and “Socialists.” They confronted the seniors chatting at the picnic tables while one of their number captured the “action” on video.

The interlopers claimed to represent the Tea Party and something called “Douglas County Americans For Prosperity.” A guy named Rich Raynor did most of the talking. They taunted the surprised seniors, calling them “Communists” and “Marxists.”

When it was apparent the newcomers wouldn’t stop, the seniors adjourned to the home of one of their number. As they prepared to leave, the harassing continued. “Take your Marxist agenda with you,” one of the taunters says on the video.

The so-called MoveOn group went to the home of Dean and Sara Byers who live at the end of a long private lane. The pursuers tried to follow but, when challenged, they decided to put up a blockade at the end of the drive. And there they sat for over an hour.

Raynor says if this these seniors try to meet again, his cohorts will show up to make the public aware of their “communist front” because he “can’t stand for America becoming a fascist nation.” He says the fact they stopped the meeting and went somewhere else “proves they have something to hide.” It’s not our fault we outnumbered them,” Rayner said. “The philosophy they espouse is not live-and-let-live. I fear for my children.”

When I consider Mr. Raynor and his ilk, I, too, am concerned for my descendants!

To say these mouthy thugs represent whatever “grassroots” believers may be left of the Tea Party in any American community would be wrong. Some of the innocents may still be caught up in that fraud. But these Oregon hypocrites represent only themselves. And they do so at their own embarrassment.

The most amazing and troubling contradiction these people engage in is, while wrapping themselves in the Constitution as the “Holy Grail,” their conduct ignores its protection while they espouse how they want to ignore or change the rights it guarantees. Denying others their protected rights of assembly and free speech while practicing their own is exhibit number one.

Our little corner of Oregon claims to be overwhelmingly conservative. And it is. But what these simple-minded folks did is not “conservative” any more than some seniors having a pleasant gathering in a park is “liberal.” Much less “Marxist.” With their idiotic signs and child-like taunting, they broke several laws and denied constitutionally guaranteed rights of others who were breaking none. Then, in a moment of lunacy, they posted their lawbreaking activity on the Internet with flags waving. By their own hand, these people have offered ample legal evidence of harassment.

Alone, these social outcasts have always been with us. Now, with the umbilical of the Internet, they seem to be more in number. Maybe they are. But it also may be the few have simply discovered a way to connect; a way to pass their twisted, hateful and most often false vitriol from one to the other in a closed world they’ve created in which they feel safe and protected.

If one or more of those Roseburg seniors has the financial ability to do so – or wants to collect a few dollars from the rest of us – I’d like to see court action brought against these jerks. Maybe a few thousand bucks from their collective pockets would inflict a little deserved pain.

I don’t know if this sort of thing is happening elsewhere. But it is here in my backyard. It’s a cancer seen too much recently. Maybe a little public light radiating on this growth will eradicate it. But I wouldn’t count on it.

Personally, I take no pleasure in the bit-by-bit unraveling of Rupert Murdoch and his worldwide media conglomerate. But as a journalist, I am enjoying every bite being inflicted on his 80-year-old carcass and the certainty that he will have a much-reduced influence in the otherwise honorable calling of media ownership.

We are used to seeing numbers 1-10 on scales of measurement. In the matter of Rupert Murdoch and his contribution to journalistic integrity, I’ve long put him at about -6. And even that may be generous.

While all his newspaper, radio and television holdings are seemingly not as out of control as the British tabloids in his stable, many flirt with the same precipice as the News of The World. Content is crafted not so much to inform as it is to influence; not so much to report as to report a point of view.

Advocacy is an honorable and worthwhile part of the media spectrum. When published as such, or at least labeled as such, the user can be informed and helped to understand a given point of view. But when passed off as regular news – as it is with Fox Broadcasting and the Wall Street Journal in this country – it is philosophy in the guise of news. Murdoch’s empire is a leading practitioner of that lowlife style.

Lest you think I’m being too hard on Rupert, remember, he sits atop the largest single package of media sources in the world. He’s a tough old Australian. He calls the tune. If anyone thinks he and his uppermost subordinates aren’t acutely aware of what’s been happening in the newsrooms of his empire on a daily basis, they are underestimating the situation. And him.

Remember, too, the current journalistic mess in London is not the first time; only the most recent. Twice before, NOTW was “investigated” for much the same unprofessional behavior. Results of both inquiries whitewashed employees and their outside accomplices and life went on. The big difference this time is charges have sucked in members of the British royal family, prominent politicians and law enforcement as well as Murdoch’s top-level management. The flames are too big and too widespread for any of Murdoch’s henchmen and a couple of fire extinguishers.

I don’t mean to sound like an “old-timer” chewing on sour grapes. This sort of media integrity failure is something many of us who’ve been in the business much of our lives have worried about for a long time. The primary reason has been changes in ownership from media professionals to investors and “bean counters.” From individual and most often private ownership to large companies with stockholders concerned more with profit than professionalism.

In the 1970’s, commercial radio in our country became a Monopoly game with combines of investors – many of whom had no media knowledge – scouring the country for stations. Any stations. The idea was to amass as many as possible as quickly as possible – often at exorbitant prices – then take the whole debt-ridden package public, thus passing off huge debts to groups of unwary investors. The “packagers” would then return to their previous obscurity in Montana or elsewhere. And investors were stuck with properties nowhere near prices they had paid for them.

It was fraud on a huge scale and – because of rules changes by some key political appointees – legal. Television owners watched this economic windfall and put “For Sale” signs on their places of business. A couple more political decisions – accompanied by some friendly court rulings – and most newspapers, TV and radio were no longer owned by people you knew and trusted. Profit – more often than not – replaced community service and responsibilities for informing that community. Newsrooms were closed. Sales staffs enlarged as the new investor-owners tried to dig themselves out of the huge debts they had bought into.

Murdoch was one of the buyers. But he started earlier and was one of the smarter ones, adding only what he needed to make himself relevant in very large world markets i.e. New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Delhi, Sidney, etc. Profitability was crucial to him but with his worldwide reach and his politically conservative views, reshaping world political opinion shared an equal seat at the Murdoch corporate table.

Murdoch knew of the decay in his London newspaper. He had to. What he didn’t count on was the eventual reach into Windsor Castle, Scotland Yard and the London Police Department. Some of his lower minions, unfettered with professional morals – with bosses similarly inclined – got out of hand and walked Murdoch right to the gallows.

My wish is that he “twist slowly in the wind” for some time and that his fortunes become smaller. And ownerships fewer. A sign should be permanently affixed to his old body warning other media owner-power brokers of the deception of power and fortune based on unprofessional business practices.

Murdoch has spent his life building an empire run by his own rules. It’s well-past time he learned the rules that apply to the rest us have his name on them, too.

Our lives are affected daily by government, quasi-government and private bodies most of us are never aware of. Not that we necessarily need to be most of the time. But, occasionally, one draws my attention and I start poking around for more information. The latest subject of such inquiry is the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Legislatures of all 50 states belong. NCSL’s prime role seems to be to research issues in support of members while being a clearing house of information between and among them. According to its mission statement, NCSL exists to “ensure(s) state legislatures a strong, cohesive voice in the federal system.” In other words, it’s a watchdog and lobbies Congress.

NCSL holds four main positions: (1) minimizing federal government effect on state laws without providing funding of federal mandates; (2) reminding the feds to “resist the temptation to preempt state laws;” (3) being vigilant that Congress pass no legislation and adopt no regulations violating the integrity of the intergovernmental fiscal system;” and (4) assuring “states be allowed maximum flexibility in crafting solutions to domestic problems.”
All of that sounds pretty good. But closer examination is worrisome. At least to me.

The plain fact is, in sessions since the 2010 national elections, many legislatures across this country have been engaged in “social engineering.” In the Northwest, Idaho is a prime example. In the Midwest, it’s Wisconsin. I’ve tried to ignore such claims by more liberal voices, but the evidence is overwhelming. They are.

In Idaho and Wisconsin – throw in Ohio and Michigan – union busting by legislation has made front page news. As it should. New attempts to curb or eliminate abortion have also surfaced, often using very similar-sounding bills. Social programs like Medicaid have been cut using all sorts of excuses even though Medicaid at the state level – such as in Idaho – draws two dollars of federal money for every one put up locally and recipients are pretty-well disenfranchised without the aid.

These are not, by far, the only examples. But they are valid ones. And if you look at the legislation used to accomplish these “engineering” goals, the similarity is very evident. That’s because the source seems to be the NCSL. It’s almost “fill in the blanks.”

States have used NCSL originated bills for years because NCSL has researched the subject matter and has had staff create sample bills that can be shaped locally depending on the different state laws. Most of the time, that has been a quite helpful – and quite economic – tool because of NCSL’s clearinghouse role with information from all 50 states.

NCSL has a governing body and a committee system filled by members of legislatures of the states. So, it could be argued, whatever political tilt states reflect so, too, does NCSL. Sounds like representative government at its best.

But what about member states like Idaho, Alabama, South Carolina and Utah where one party so dominates the legislature that it is the only voice heard? Idaho’s legislative leadership, for example, is so overwhelmingly far to the right of center that any representative member sent to an NCSL committee or board will reflect only that view. Moderates need not apply. Liberals certainly not!

As I follow the activities of the National Conference of State Legislatures, I’m finding more positions out of the mainstream and more of its work output representing far more conservative positions than the general public.

Take the issue of increasing taxes. Most polls show Americans favor raising taxes on the wealthy. As high as 70%. Most also favor tax reform to even the load. Yet no such bills came out of the NCSL this year. What did show up were legislative samples of bills to cut, reduce or eliminate some taxes and curtail or end abortion. So, if the NCSL has been the originating source of some of these bills in the various legislatures this year, it would seem the current membership has moved it away from bipartisan representation and into a more conservative role than most of us.

The NCSL may still be a worthwhile organization providing valuable research and good information to the 50 states. But this year’s showing of nearly identical bills in the various legislatures – bills to change the social fabric of a nation if enacted unilaterally – is a concern.

You may never have heard of the National Council of State Legislatures. But we might all be better served – and more informed – if more people heard of the group. And kept an eye on it.

In the end, I’ll be cremated after my passing so there won’t be a gravestone on which to carve personal information. If there were, those who know me would likely put on it “Here Lies One Curious S-O-B.”

Having what Jimmy Carter calls a “flypaper mind,” I like to look under, into and behind what catches my attention. Today’s musing is the result of two “world’s apart” items that collided in my curiosity. They connect for me. See if they do for you.

For some 30 years or so, Idaho’s poorly financed public education system has been propped up by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. It has saved Idaho education from harm more than once when the legislature didn’t do it’s constitutionally required job of adequately providing for public schools. In some ways, the Foundation has become the “payer of last resort” for Idaho education, not only funding new methods of learning but often filling very real needs unmet by one stingy legislature after another.

This year, Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Governor sprang a surprise on the people of Idaho by launching a significant overhaul of K-12 education. Neither man mentioned what was coming during their successful re-election campaigns a year ago. They waited until after to drop the bomb.

As details began to surface, many Idahoans were angry enough to try to kill the package before it became law. As usual, the Idaho Legislature turned a deaf ear to both mad constituents and common sense, hastily enacting all of it. So, the angry did the only thing the angry can legitimately do in such matters. A statewide petition campaign was begun to force a vote by the citizenry. Signature gathering happened quite quickly and Idahoans – parents and otherwise – will have a say at the polls.

One of the more surprising elements of this deal was when the aforementioned Albertson’s Foundation announced a $25 million grant to the State, underwriting much of the cost of implementing what the legislature approved but, as usual, failed to fully fund.

There are many facets to the proposed reform. But one of the most controversial seems to be furnishing all lower grade students with personal computers, thus reducing the number of teachers in the classroom. Teach ‘em on the computers and the Internet, says the Superintendent. So, it’s likely many of those Albertson’s grocery dollars, flowing to the Foundation from large holdings of Albertson’s Corporate stocks, will be used to buy those computers and, incidentally, cost a lot of teachers their jobs.

I’m going to make a jump to that other story here so hold on. Albertson’s LLC, now wholly owned by Supervalu, Inc., operates 217 stores in Western and Southern states. It is currently eliminating self-checkout lanes in all 100 stores that have them. You know the ones. Where shoppers must deal personally with a computer.

A spokesman for Albertson’s LLC said “We just want the opportunity to talk more to our customers. That’s the driving motivation.” She also said replacement of those machines would mean hiring more employees.

Well, that may be the official company B.S.. But experience tells me most shoppers have rejected self-checkout hassles with computers. I’ve been in many Albertson’s stores in recent years and self-checkout stands are vacant more often than not. Store employees tell me they get a lot of complaints about them Most people don’t like ‘em and won’t use ‘em. Most of us shop so infrequently what we learn about dealing with the computers one week we forget by the next trip. Just get us get checked out and gone.

Kroger, with 2,500 stores – including Fred Meyer – is the largest grocery chain in the country and Kroger is taking self-checkout stands out of some stores on a test basis. Others are, too. Companies don’t just decide to replace computers so they can add the larger operating expense of more employees on the payroll. That same payroll that was supposed to be greatly reduced by – wait for it – computers. But people, it seems, want to deal with other people.

So, here’s another jump as we tie all this together.

What we have here is a foundation whose multi-million dollar income is from stock in a national grocery chain. A national grocery chain that, after more than a decade of trying to get humans to work with computers in more than 100 stores, is getting rid of computers because people won’t use them. But the foundation, sustained by those tens of millions of dollars, is using some 25 million of them to develop software and buy computers to replace humans. Teachers.

As noted, thousands of Idaho parents are already opposed to what the Albertson’s Foundation is underwriting; so opposed they’ve forced Idaho’s new education law to a statewide vote. They want to stop it before it gets off the ground because they want teachers for their kids; not computers.

Anybody else see the irony here? Or is it just my flypaper mind?

The “floating a trial balloon” process has been around about as long as politics. It’s simply a method of anonymously putting out an idea which may be controversial, unpopular or maybe it’s a plan to change some long-standing institution or direction of government. It’s a common political tool used by all.

But when Pres. Obama sent up a “balloon” the other day, leaders of his own party – and a lot of his more liberal base – reacted as if he’d stepped on all their toes. No, make that “stomped.”

Through a couple of spokesmen, the Prez was said to be “open” to making some changes in entitlement programs: Medicare – Medicaid – Social Security. Nothing specific. Just “open” to the idea.

BOOM!!! Within minutes, Democrats in Congress were fighting to get in front of TV cameras, red-faced and choking with emotion. They were alternately indignant, angry, frustrated and wanting to send the White House a message that there would be no way – NO WAY – any changes to any of the three would get past them! No, Sir!

Well, in this scribe’s humble opinion, they can bluster and posture for the folks at home ‘til Hell freezes over. But changes there will be. Because changes there MUST be. Congress has made that an inevitability: Democrats by loading up the three programs with all sorts of goodies; both parties by taking money out of those dedicated funds to finance other government spending. Both have used dollars set aside for specific purposes to pay for other things or to create a phony balanced budget appearance. There have been many, many hands in the till.

Medicare and Social Security are two very successful government programs of pure socialism. If you examine the books for each, you’ll find they’ve brought in more than enough dollars to be self-sustaining and both have provided exactly the benefits for which they were created. Hundreds of millions of Americans have been greatly assisted by both. The fact is it’s been congress after congress creating shortfalls and red ink which have made both programs appear economically unjustifiable as designed.

Congress has also spent too much time finger-pointing when talk of mismanagement or fraud comes up and has been unwilling to go after those abuses – and abusers – with the full weight of government. Mismanagement and fraud there are and the buck for weeding them out stops on Capitol Hill.

But some changes are necessary. Eligibility age is one. When Medicare and Social Security were created 40+ years ago, Americans were retiring in their 60’s and dying in their 70’s. Both numbers are higher now. Entry age needs to be indexed upward. Slowly. Gradually. But up.

Need is another eligibility factor that should be modified. Warren Buffett, Ross Perot, George Clooney and other millionaire-billionaire types don’t need government support in their later years. But they get it. They shouldn’t. Medicaid is already “means tested.” That’s just a process of determining assets and other abilities to pay and adjusting the benefit amount. More assets – less subsidy. Fewer assets – more subsidy. That’s how it was supposed to work. Social Security and Medicare need to be indexed the same way.

The idea that once some social concept is put on the books it must stay the same forever is ludicrous. Keeping these three programs exempt from changing with the nation’s demographics means some who need assistance aren’t getting it and others who are receiving benefits don’t need them. If liberals serving at the pleasure of voters at home can’t see that and can’t make their supporters understand both the logic and necessity of amending the basics, they ought to be replaced by politicians up to the task.

If the president is really open to change, good for him. There are changes that make sense. Politically and economically. If the voices of outrage are just ass-covering theater, knock it off!

Barb and I had an experience recently that angered us and gave us feelings of frustration we’ve never known in our rather lengthy lives. We were refused major credit. First time.

Now you may have recently had this happen to you and, when it did, were as put out as we were. That’s not the way the process is supposed to work. You live responsibly, pay all your bills on time, handle credit honorably for 50 years while creating not one angry creditor. So the process of getting bank financing in keeping with your modest lifestyle is just one of the expectations of being a good citizen. Well, Virginia, not any more.

I won’t bore you with all the details. Let’s just say with a credit score in the low 800 range, no consumer debt, a manageable house payment, a signature line of credit at a local bank and assured retirement incomes, financing an RV through a nearby, longtime reputable Oregon dealer would seem a slam dunk. So we thought.

That’s not the way it is in the new reality. These days, in consumer lending, if you have it and don’t need it, you can probably get it. But if you don’t have it and need it, you likely can’t. Regardless of your lengthy previous history.

We’ve heard a lot about banks we bailed out with our taxes refusing to lend much of that cash infusion back into the economy. Yet we’re being hammered by TV and newspaper ads telling us of the billions those banks are putting out every week as “good citizens.” Week after week. So which is the truth? Depends, I guess, on whether you’re a shareholder they’re trying to reassure or a consumer. Or very gullible.

The recreational vehicle business has been a major casualty of our recent economic calamity. In our Oregon neighborhood, boat builders and sub-contractors took the brunt and some disappeared. Lane County suffered heavily because of manufacturing and supplier jobs that disappeared at Monaco, Country Coach, Marathon and others. The ones still there, along with many dealers, quickly refinanced debt, dumped inventory, cut back nearly everything and hunkered down.

Because of those realities, I suspect our initial rejection was tied somewhat to the large RV dealer who doubtless took a major hit, and to his relationship and creditworthiness with various past lenders. No outfit in the large RV business with that huge inventory could be unscathed. Just looking at consolidation of sales lots and sharply reduced staff speaks volumes.

Bankers now want you to be buried in these major purchases. If they can get you in 30%, for example, then their exposure is no more than 70%. That means if you default the first day, they can go to auction and likely walk away with little or no loss.

Well, that may be good business for them. But it’s too large a pill for this consumer to swallow. Not only do we have a long list of enviable, responsible credit documentation to put on the table, we’re also one of the millions of families whose tax dollars kept some of those major institutions afloat and saved their shareholders butts when they were the ones making risky loans and overextending their own resources. Which, after all, were our resources. We depositors. We taxpayers.

For our part, Barb and I long ago severed lengthy ties with large national lenders we banked with for decades and are once again in a more comfortable and more personal relationship with a fine, smaller Oregon-based institution. Some of these little banks have remained relatively healthy through the maelstrom and a few now seem more so than a year or two ago. Umpqua Holdings, for example, has even grown by cherry-picking assets of some smaller regional banks that went under.

All of us find ourselves in new economic circumstances after the near crash. With layoffs and cutbacks, some have heavier loads to carry than others. But there are many real changes for each of us. While I’m not your cockeyed optimist, it seems safe to say we’ll survive but with many adjustments.

A similar successful adjustment process can’t be forecast for all big banks. This is where political power needs to be used. After all, we – you and I – put up billions of bailout bucks for these institutions. We’re shareholders in some. With rights. And among those rights are expectations that, while banks will lend more responsibly, they will not cut off credit to similarly responsible consumers. That turnover of dollars is what makes our economy work.

If the government hammer needs to be used on a few of those guys, I say swing it! Hard!


Postscript: We were eventually approved by a lender of our choice; not the dealer’s. Better terms, too. But the experience still hurts.