Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Health Care Reform: Debating the Public Option

After months of debate in the House and Senate over health reform, what is left to debate? The public options, of course.

The Public Option
The public option seems to be finally out of the bill. The House passed the Democrat-backed option. The Senate seems likely to drop it to get some bill to the floor for a vote.

I like the idea of a public option as competition between the private and public sectors. Many Republicans and some Democrats say it’s a bad idea. But what about the examples of the “public option” that are offered today:

  • Medicare for elders
  • Health care for members of the House and Senate
  • Health care for our armed forces

The irony of the Opposition
How many Representatives and Senators who are firmly opposed to you and me having a public option would voluntarily opt out of their public option and buy private insurance on the open market? When they put their personal health care on the line, maybe I’ll listen to their whining and talking points about the evils of public health care.

If it’s good enough for our Troops, isn’t it good enough for you and me?
Our brave men and women fighting overseas and supporting the effort worldwide get their health care from this same federal government. They have federally operated hospitals with doctors and nurses on the federal payroll. So, if it’s good enough for our brave troops, why is it bad for us?

But what will the reality be like?
The only problems with any health care program, be it private or public, are the complexity, the confusion, the paperwork, and the bureaucracy. I have to deal with Medicare and Medicaid as my mother is in a nursing home. It’s baffling and there’s no one to lead you through the maze of bureaucracy. So, my only fear with a public option is the same level of complexity that will make even its most ardent supporters cry for something easier.

So, would a public option be what we need to counter the money-making insurance companies? Is it inherently flawed? Or, is a good idea in theory, but once it makes it through the House and Senate. would it be so complex and full of red tape as to be not worth it?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Obama’s Nobel Prize Speech Pleases No One

Few were happy with President Obama’s speech after receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in Olso this week. It was the Peace Prize he won, but his speech certainly did not ring of “Let’s give peace a chance.” Rather, at times, it sounded more like a war speech and not a peace speech.

He reminded the audience in City Hall in Oslo that the United States is still in two wars. Just days before he announced his intentions to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. He even touched on echoes of the Bush/Cheney doctrine of a “special role” for the US along with its justifications for the US to take pre-emptive acts. At times, it sounded like he was formulating an Obama Just War Theory. He argued that evil exist in the world and that, at times, nations must take up arms to defeat this evil.

View from the Left
Those are the left were not so pleased with this position. Protesters in Oslo carried banners saying “You’ve won it, now earn it.” Many had hope that Obama would have started bringing troops home from both Iraq and Afghanistan by now. Others, including myself (see blog post), questioned giving Obama the Peace Prize without a track record to earn it.

Some commentators on the left (like Daniel Schorr on NPR and the New York Times editorial) thought his more balanced evaluation of the realities of international relations and even that his speech was elegant.

But is it just me, or does this thought pass your mind: it's like a minor "slap in the face" to your hosts to accept a peace prize while expounding theories of just wars?

View from the Right
I am sure this speech gained no traction with the right. Those who admire Sarah Palin or listen to Rush Limbaugh or agree with the ideas espoused by the “tea party” activists – most of these every day folks who are conservative thinking simply don’t trust Obama. From the right, Obama does not respect our country; he does not love America. And nothing he may say is likely to ever change their view.

Why Alienate Everyone?
Obama is an intellectual, a nerd if you will. As a fellow nerd, I can understand how he wants to intellectually balance all the input he has received on matters of war and peace. Having balanced all these conflicting viewpoints, he as formulated his own middle path that meanders through the issues, sometimes leaning right and sometimes leaning left. And often departing from previously stated positions, as I suspect he (like I) get a certain intellectual pleasure of coming down on a position that would have been unexpected before hand.

In short, before Obama was a liberal, he was a nerd. And this is what you’ll get from a president who is a nerd: a policy that, while intellectually sound, can baffle most of the people and please almost no one.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Slow Closure for Prisons That Detain Suspected Terrorists

Despite President Obama’s commitment to close prisons holding detainees suspected to be terrorists, the closure of such facilities is coming along quite slowly. Under the Bush Administration, detaining suspected terrorists without charges was par for the course. The hope was that under an Obama Administration, these facilities would be expeditiously closed. But, closures have been slow coming.

The closures were hoped to end the practices that violated the international standards of human rights and much of what the US stands for as a land of freedom and due process of law. The torture and abuse of prisons in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was well documented. Also infamous was the practice of “outsourcing” detention and torture known as extraordinary rendition. But lesser known cases of abuse and torture occurred in other military detention facilities such as Camp Bucca in Iraq, which finally closed in September 2009.

Still, other detention facilities remain open. One of the unresolved issues involves where to move the most dangerous of the suspects.

Granted, individuals suspected of being terrorists or plotting acts of terrorism, or supporting known terrorists, should be detained. It’s the practice of rounding up anyone who might be a terrorist that violates the spirit of law and due process.

As long as America still operates these facilities, we are not the nation founded on basic human rights that we proclaim to be.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Health Care Reform?

Well, the House of Representatives has passed a health reform bill (HR 3962) by a slim vote of 220-215. At this point, I don't know whether it's real reform, or just the culmination of political grandstanding by both parties and President Obama.

The Vote
The Democrats voted 219-39 while the Republicans were 1-176, with Rep. Joe Cao of Louisiana casting the lone “yeah” vote. Not exactly a resounding vote. Nearly 1/5 of Democrats voted against the bill. And it seems a lot of the moderate "pro-life" Democrat votes were "bought" by allowing them to vote "yeah" on an amendment prohibiting paying for abortions in the public option or in the insurance exchange pools. In all, it seems to me that everyone was voting with one eye on the 2010 midterm elections.

The Democrats want to report they gave the people health care reform. The moderate to conservative Democrats get a favorable "pro-life" check mark on their scorecard so the remain elegible for the litmus-test voters.

And the Republicans can say they did all they can to oppose socialist healthcare.

What's Still Baffling about the Republican Position
I'm still baffled about Republican mantra that this is a "government take-over" of health care. There is a public option, but that remains an option.

Clearly, the words "government take-over" are fighting words for conservatives. Clearly, politicians favor slogans and getting the base energized by charged slogans over a fare discussion of the pros and cons.

Between this tactic and the screaming opponents at the town hall meetings, it seems to me the Republicans don't like the essence of democracy: a fair and open discussion of the issues!

We also need to call out the Republicans on this: if government-run healthcare is so bad, why do the Republican representatives and senators accept it?

I don't think any bill the Democrats have proposed has been anything near perfect. Still, I think we have to call out the Republicans as being obstructionists in the public debate.

Republican Proposals
The Republican proposals, to counter the Democrat's bill, have read like the pile of scrap wood from the RNC party planks. Start with tort reform (limit those rare, but big settlements), throw in some enhanced competition among insurance companies, but leave the reality of many remaining uninsured. (After all, being uninsured is something you should be free to be.)

A Couple of Good Things to Say
It does appear that the new proposal will increase the number of people insured. And it does address the issue of denial of coverage to those with "pre-existing conditions." As someone with a "pre-existing condition" that precludes me from getting certain insurance coverage, I feel strongly about this aspect of reform.

The Mess We're In
The more I look at it, the best we can expect is to tack on a few modifications to the existing healthcare system. Perhaps, system is too kind a word. Some people have employee-provided insurance, some have government-provided insurance (Medicare, Medicaid), a few buy it, and many are uninsured.

Just as the "system" is so complex, the solutions only add to the complexity. There is no clear vission of a simpler, more understandable system. Instead, we're adding some additions to a structure built on a shaky foundation and with a questionable structural integrity. As an engineer, it doesn't appear to be a sound proposal.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Competent Person Appointed FEMA Deputy Administrator

Why is this news? Shouldn’t that be the norm?

Well, remember “Heck of a job Brownie” and the failed levees flooding most of New Orleans? (See photo at right to refresh your memory.) FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Administrator Michael D. Brown’s “qualifications” included judging Arabian horses. No real understanding of the work of first responders or what emergency preparedness means. FEMA’s response was slow as thousands were left homeless.

Contrast that with Richard Serino, now the Deputy Administrator of FEMA whose background includes 36 years with Boston Emergency Medical Services (EMS), much of the time as the EMS chief. Here’s someone who has an intimate knowledge of the work of first responders. Someone who knows what it takes to be prepared for any type of emergency, even when one least expects it.

So, what about that Pres. Obama, appointing competent professionals to important government posts!

I’m an engineer, and in my profession, you can’t make if you’re incompetent. Engineers can quickly tell who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t. Unlike politics and business, where a smile, a strong personality and always having something to say can make up for competence, in engineering, you can’t fool the laws of nature! So, I have a problem with any politician who appoints incompetent cronies.

So, I’m delighted to see competent individuals, like Richard Serino, appointed to important posts.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama Wins Nobel Peace Award! (But Why?)

So President Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize. But the first reaction of many is to ask “Why?”

While I appreciate their consideration of our new president, I think the popular response in America is “He hasn’t done anything yet!”

Supporters and opponents of the president alike are equally surprised and a bid dumfounded.

But this award shows the dichotomy of perception of Obama here in America vs. abroad. In Europe and elsewhere, Obama’s election as president was seen as a welcome change, a new dawn, a sea change in America’s attitude and policy on the international stage. Thus, it is no surprise that in Europe this award is highly lauded.

Still, in the US, even those who support Obama think it’s premature. Others note that the war is ongoing in Iraq and there is not troupe reduction there. And in Afghanistan, many point to the irony of a peace award given to a leader pondering a troupe build-up. In addition, Guantanamo still holds unindicted prisoners and Obama supports renewing key provisions of the Patriot Act.

An interesting sidebar: Republicans and the Taliban are equally critical of awarding the prize to Obama.

So why did Obama win? To me, the award is based on a perception abroad that Obama’s election represents a major sea change in American attitude and policy on international affairs. And, in some circles, international diplomacy being one, perception is reality. For many, it’s not the facts, it’s the attitude or the words.

But still, wouldn’t you feel better if it was someone or a group, maybe not well known to the rest of the world, working for years to bring justice and peace in their land?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Shout in the House

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson was formally rebuked on Tuesday by a vote in the US House of Representatives. No matter what else he does in life, Rep. Wilson will always be know for shouting "You lie!" during Obama's speech to Congress on September 9th.

While I don't agree with Rep. Wilson's views on health care reform, I don't think a Congressional rebuke was necessary.

I think of his shout as an analog "micro-tweet." It was more an interjection than an interruption. Unlike the protesters at some of the recent town hall meetings, the representative did not prevent the President from finishing his speech. He merely interjected a two-word tweet.

And it doesn’t stand up to fact checking.

So, I’d leave it at that.

Sure, it was rude. Sure, a grade school kid would know better. And I and most rational folks wouldn’t want to set a precedent of encouraging anyone to interrupt a speech because of a difference of opinion.

But he knows what he did. He apologized to the President. His actions have been judged in the court of public opinion (not to mention the late night comedy circuit).

Most think he was out of line. A minority applaud him. These are folks who don’t like the Obama Administration and like the idea of someone “putting to him." I say the rebuke only makes him more a martyr for their cause. The rebuke may be counterproductive and energize the opposition to reform.

Most importantly, the whole issue of the shout and rebuke is a major distraction from the debate over the important details of reform.

So, let’s put the Shout in the House in the past and let's get on with a civil discourse where all opinions are heard on this important topic of reforming health care!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Health Care - Do What's Best for You

The health care debate goes on and on. Tonight, President Obama spoke to Congress and the nation to describe his proposal. Using a combination of reason and passion, he tried to dismiss the misconceptions and outline what he's really like to see for reform.

Now, overall, I like his proposal for a number of reasons, but the two main reasons are:
  1. It leaves in place the existing coverage that many are satisfied with. No one has to change policies or try to get re-insured. So I can keep my good employer-based insurance, unlike a proposal floated by candidate John McCain.

  2. It adds a government-run program to compete with private policies. Now, this is excactly the kind of experiment I'm most interested in: direct competition between the public and private sectors. My philosophy about government is that it should do what it can do better than the private sector. So, let's see which approach is more cost-effective in providing health insurance.

Here's another interesting perspective (courtesy of Thomas Friedman, New York Times, Sept. 9, 2009): Obama's proposal is largely based on two Republican initiatives, yet it is widely decried by Republicans. The proposal closely resembles the health insurance program put into place here in Massachusetts by Republic Governor Mitt Romney. It adds in an idea for funding taken from John McCain's proposal.

But will the plan pass Congress? And if it does, what will it turn into in the Congress --- will it get overcomplicated, diluted, or heavy with bureaucracy? Even with a Democratic majority in both houses, the necessary compromises may result in a bill that barely resembles Obama's proposal.

And probably for the worst, it will receive no Republican support. This is highly unfortunate. With a greater balance in power in Congress, a more bipartisan bill might have emerged. Maybe on that would be more effective in addressing the full range of needed reform.

But, to me, it is clear that the key to the Republican strategy for gains in the 2010 midterm elections is to ensure the Obama health plan fails, or if it passes, that it is widely disliked by the public. So, I'm not optimistic about the success of true health care reform.

So, we may all still be where we are now: some of us will have decent employer-provided insurance. The elderly and disabled will have Medicare. Many will try to get individual policies. And many will remain uninsured.

If reform fails, health care will amount to doing what's best for yourself (if you can)!

Friday, August 28, 2009

End of an Era

The death of Senator Ted Kennedy brings a political era to an end. It began in 1960 with the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as President. His election at the young age of 43 was heralded as a time for new hope. The era saw two of John’s brothers serving in the US Senate. The three Kennedy brothers were household names throughout the US and around the world.

Tragedy hit as John was assassinated in 1963 and Bobby in 1968. We all remembered where we were, what we were doing when we heard the news.

For 41 years, Ted continued to serve in the Senate and carry on as patriarch of the Kennedy family. Proud of his liberal politics, he was often a lightning rod for conservatives. Still, the strength of his warm personality won over many of his political foes in the Senate, some who became close friends of Ted.

For me, the greatest legacy of the Kennedy family is the dedication to public service. The family was very well off and Ted and his siblings could have done what wealthy people do – just make more money and enjoy a lavish lifestyle. But they didn’t. The three brothers went on to serve the public in elected office. Others, like their sister Eunice (founder of the Special Olympics) and nephew Joe (founder of the non-profit Citizens Energy), worked in the non-profit sector. Perhaps JFK summed up this dedication best in his inauguration speech when he said “Ask what you can do for your country.” Yes, the family did still live well off, but because they were given more, they gave more.

One of Ted’s shining traits was being there for those in need. No stranger to great personal loss, Ted would be the first to call his senate colleagues in time of illness or loss. He even personally called all families who lost a member on 9/11.

But now he is gone. He will be resting with his brothers in Arlington National Cemetery. While some members of the next generation of Kennedys serve in political office, the three most famous brothers have now passed on.

And for those of us who lived through their emergence on the national political scene, the era of the Kennedys has ended.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More on Health Care Reform

The national debate on health care reform has provided the most entertainment in the political circuit since Sarah Palin’s debut last year, just about at this time.

We had the new version of the “do nothings” shouting down politicians and their fellow citizens alike at town hall meetings. We have the wild and crazy campaign of misinformation featuring the “death panels” who will decide who deserves treatment and who will be left to die. Other misinformation includes the idea that the government is taking over health care (therefore people would lose their existing coverage).

Perhaps most amusing is the right wing pundits comparing Pres. Obama to the Nazis. This last one is especially absurd if you recall the Arian supremacy plank of Nazism and happen to notice we now have an African American President.

Legitimate Concerns

There are some legitimate concerns about change. Many of us have good coverage at work and don’t want to see an end to this. (See my post on this topic.) Also, many like me have pre-existing conditions and may not be able to get coverage if we lost what we have.

So, there are many that have good or decent coverage who don’t want government messing with it. With this I agree.

Need for Reform

The basic need is simply the rising cost of health care. Not far behind this is the clear cross-subsidies where those covered are paying for those without insurance or those whose policy does not pay the full cost of insurance.

While many realize this problem, I’d say many are content to keep the status quo. After the recession and market fall, the rich and middle class are still risk adverse. Thus, even people who have rationally examined the issue are not open to change.

Basis of Proposals

As President Obama has explained, the idea is not to replace existing coverage, but rather to add a government program to compete with the private sector plans (e.g., employer plans, individual plans, group plans).

As a point of reference, today, there is a large, popular and successful federal government-run medical insurance program known as Medicare. This flies in the face of many of the arguments of adding another national program.

Possible Political Tactic

So, why all this opposition, particularly that organized by the right and by Republicans?

My theory is they are following the 1994 playbook. First, they put up a strong opposition to the Clinton health care reforms. Once this opposition was seeded in the populous, it was not long until this translated into widespread opposition of Clinton programs and then midterm victories for the Republicans.

As I see it, this full-court press on health care is not about health care. It’s a strategy to swing the American popular opinion from the Obama camp to the Republican camp, paving the way for Republican gains in the House and Senate in 2010.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Why Can't We Debate Health Care in a Civilized Fashion?

Why, in the greatest democracy in the free world, can't we have a civilized, intelligent discussion of a very important national issue?

There have been reports of disruptions of town hall forums on the topic of health care reform. The disruptors shout down any discussion that is attempted. These demonstrations have been focused on Democrat Congressmen, particularly those supportive of reforms.

Accompanying this school-yard type bullying are the propagation of misleading information and outright lies about proposed changes. For example, some false rumors say you can't keep your existing private insurance or that the proposal is a single payer system (whereas it's a government alternative to private insurance). Today, President Obama spoke out about this misinformation.

Perhaps worse is the rhetoric of Rush Linbaugh and his ilk, comparing the proposed changes to Nazi programs, even comparing the logo for the proposed health program to the Nazi swastika. Rachel Maddow recently reported on these outrageous comparisons.

But isn't it ironic that Rush Linbaugh and others are labeling the Obama health care proposals as "Nazi" inspired while supporting this "mob rule" tactic of shouting down all civilized discussion. But, which is the really fascist tactic? Obama proposing a program that will be debated in Congress and throughout the country --- or, protestors shouting down any discussion of the issue? Add to that the death and other violent threats against Congressmen. As a result, some of these representatives are canceling public appearances to discuss health care.

What happened to democracy, where all sides are free to make known their opinions on current events? Why do these protestors prevent other citizens from exercising their democratic rights to debate this issue? Oppression of the practice of democracy sounds like fascism!

If the opponents of Obama's program have good points to make, why can't they present them to the nation in a civilized manner? If they have important facts and strong arguments, why do they resort to schoolyard tactics of intimidation and bullying?

So, again I say why, in the greatest democracy in the free world, can't we have a civilized, intelligent discussion of this very important national issue?

We have to say NO! to the bullies shouting down discussion at town hall meetings!

We have to say NO! to those knowingly propagating outlandish false claims!

We have to say NO! to schoolyard antics of shouting down anyone who doesn't agree with you!

We have to say YES! to acting like adults and having a lively debate about the real issues.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Two American Women Released in North Korea: Good News of Bad?

After former President Bill Clinton visits North Korea, two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were released from prison.

The women were held for five months after their arrest on March 17th along North Korea's border with China. There were accused of entering the country illegally from China. The two were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. However, they were held in a guest house and not yet transferred to the labor camp when Kim Jong Il pardoned them. They returned to the US with President Clinton on August 5th.

Was this is a happy outcome of private diplomacy or did it provide a diplomatic coup for Kim Jong Il?

Clearly, the journalists and their families and many Americans rejoiced that the unjustly imprisoned pair were free. Personally, I was very happy to see them reunited with their families and friends.

But what about the cost? Did the visit of a former US President reward North Korea for becoming a nuclear state?

Did it open a possible avenue for diplomacy with this reclusive leader and rogue state?

Or was this a follow-up to Clinton’s agenda of opening dialog with North Korea?

Commentators have expressed a variety of opinions. Conservatives and some scholars of North Korea have pointed out that the visit of Clinton will be seen as a great victory for Kim Jong Il. The critics see this as a bad move.

Which Path Should We Take?
But, in my opinion, Kim Jong Il is not your typical rational leader who plays by the rules and can be influenced by sanctions, criticism or a hands-off approach. The “Axis of Evil” label meant nothing and the North went on to develop their nuclear capabilities without regard to the constant criticism of the Bush Administration. The Bush approach did not accomplish anything. Our hands may be “clean” by not giving in, but we gained nothing.

On the other hand, Clinton was considering dialog with the North. While that did not happen on his watch, he did have a long talk with Kim Jong Il. Many speculate that the discuss was on a broad range of issues.

Some will say the North Korean leader is evil and maybe a little short of working on all cylinders, so therefore we should not talk, or at least not talk without conditions. But, we can continue to never talk and the North will continue their nuclear program. What does that get us?

My opinion is sometimes it’s best to talk directly with the devil. Engagement can provide opportunities for leverage. Maybe policy gains can be made.

So, while I’m not overly optimistic for a significant change in actions and policy in North Korea. But, maybe this trip has opened an opportunity for dialog that may lead to better relations.

Monday, August 3, 2009

In the Case of Professor Gates

This national headline story unfolded mere blocks from my home.

Yep, just down the street from me, on a dark side street the other side of the high school, Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested for disorderly conduct. The details have been well reported in the media. And comments and analysis has been piled on from all sides.

So what can I add? Being near to home, I thought I should comment. But what to say? So, this will be my home town perspective on the "non-crime."

BTW—I’m calling it the “non-crime” as charges were dropped.

The Scene of the Non-Crime
First I walked past the house at night. Between the street light spacing and the canopy of the trees lining the street, it is exceptionally dark in from of the house.

Perhaps, if it were better lit, there might not have been a report of a crime. Many other residences in the area (see photo at right) have well-lit front doorways, and there would be less suspicion about what is going on. Seeing two men try to force a dark doorway off a dark street might cause many a person to call 911.

The Socioeconomics of the Scene of the Non-Crime
The Professor lives in the most prestigious zip code in our fair city of Cambridge. In 02138, single family homes begin at well over $1 million. To me, the scene of the non-crime involved real estate that could go for something in the $1 to $2 million range. This is socioeconomically distant from the neighborhoods with the higher percentages of minority residents.

So, here’s some questions:

  1. If two black men were forcing a door in a poor minority neighborhood, would it have been less likely that someone would have called the police?
  2. If two white men were forcing a door in a well-lit area of my middle class neighborhood, would someone first ask what’s going on before calling the police?

Here my thought is that the more wealthy the neighborhood, the more likely the call to the police.

The Socioeconomics Setting of Racial Profiling
At first one might expect more racial profiling to occur where minorities live. But is that true?

I’ve read that there are many incidents of citizen and/or police profiling in the richer non-minority communities. In these areas, there may be a greater assumption of “what are you doing here” when say a minority person (particularly a man) is seen in a very wealthy white neighborhood.

I’ve heard stories of minority municipal workers and others with legitimate business purposes stopped and questioned in some of the richer suburbs of Boston for little more than “working while being black.”

So here’s the irony: it’s a wealthy neighborhood, but this is the black man’s house. And it’s the owner that is being questioned.

Was It Racial Profiling?
This is the charged question and some will say “yes” and other will say “no.”

At first I suspected that the caller to 911 called because she could see the race of the men forcing the door. But she said she couldn’t tell, and having seen the lighting at the scene, I’d agree that it would be hard to determine skin color in the poor lighting.

Still, if you were Prof. Gates in your own home with the cops asking you to identify yourself, I think you’d be saying to yourself “This would not be happening if I were white!”

And then: “If this is happening to me, a Harvard professor, what is going on when police stop other black men who do not are not from such a privileged status?”

On the other side are the police who say they followed procedures. But do these procedures work?

Standard Operating Procedures Don’t Guarantee the Desired Outcome
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) can be a good thing in a business, in manufacturing or even in law enforcement. When there are so many possible choices, SOPs can narrow the range of decisions that need to be made.

Police SOPs can attempt to take prejudices out of the discretion that law enforcement officers have. In this case, it seems that Sgt. Crowley followed the proper procedures. In other words, there is no basis to criticize his actions.

But, we still had a controversial outcome.

The Irony of a Racial Confrontation in the Most Liberal City in Massachusetts
Some have pointed out of the irony of a racial incident in the most liberal city in Massachusetts. This is as though “liberal” or “progressive” meant “post-racial.”

So, perhaps there is an expectation that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen here.” Might this be a thought in Prof. Gates’ mind: “How can this be happening in Cambridge?” Maybe his anger was in part from the incredulity of the situation.

A couple of additional thoughts:

  1. Latent racism exists in even the most progressive communities and individuals (including me).

  2. Prejudice and segregation took longer to be routed out in “more liberal” northeast than in the “more conservative” south.
  3. The local politicians, though quite liberal, have been unusually reticent, restrained and balanced in their comments. While I had expected a strong outpouring in support of Prof. Gates and maybe the sacking of the police commissioner, instead, the local response has been quite mild.

My Conclusion
The bottom line for me is that this shouldn’t have happened.

Not that the police can be faulted for following procedures. But sometimes, the best outcome involves a little more discretion and a little less simply following standard procedures.

Though the professor may have been highly agitated and upset, my preferred outcome would have been for the police to leave him alone once his identity was determined.

Friday, July 3, 2009

With Liberty and Justice for All: A Year in Review

Independence Day on July 4th represents the birthday of freedom for America. As our nation has completed its 233rd year, it is time to assess the state of liberty and justice in this land.


The last year saw an historic change, as the Bush Administration gave way to the new administration of America’s first African-America President, Barack Obama. Not only was this a change in party and racial background in the office of the president, but also there was a fundamental change in how liberty and justice would be applied both here and abroad.

While the Bush-Cheney Administration was intent on limiting liberty and justice to protect us from the “terrorists,” the Obama Administration brought the hope of a return to our principals of liberty and justice for all.

Foreign Relations: How Do We Treat Our Enemies?

In this regard, the US has always had enemies. The names change – British, Spanish, Germans, Russians, terrorists – but there have always been one or more enemies and we can expect this in the future. And there will always be evil in the world. The attacks of 9-11 are not the only incidence where evil deeds have or will result in the death of innocent people.

But, the question is how we deal with the perpetrators of such evil deeds.

Under Bush-Cheney, the deeds of terrorist were raised to a level of concern greater that of past enemies of the US. New methods were needed:
Indefinite detention conveniently fit the loophole that some terrorists are not agents of a particular nation, and therefore not soldiers protected by international convention. Nor were they criminals, as they were committing acts of war and not crimes. This loophole was large enough to round up even suspected terrorists. Clearly some were associated with terrorists groups, but others may have been little more but in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Extraordinary rendition was also applied to these combatants. This is a fancy term for out-sourcing the imprisonment, torture, and possible execution of captured alleged terrorists. Some subjected to rendition were nationals of friendly nations such as Canada and the UK.

Special interrogation was the fancy term for what most would call torture. While Cheney argues to this day that waterboarding is not torture and was effective in gaining information, most Americans were not proud of a nation that used torture in interrogations carried out by the CIA, military or even government contractors.

Change Under Obama?

So far, we have seen positive steps under the new president. We’re seeing administration officials call waterboarding and other “special interrogation” methods as torture. We’ve heard the call to close the prison at Guantanamo. But we have heard of no call to end indefinite detention for these prisoners.

While official use of rendition appears to have ended, it was disappointing that the Obama administration still claimed “state secrets privilege” in February in regard to a lawsuit against Boeing Company for arranging rendition flights. (See my posts Rendition Revisited and Rendition Revisited-Update.)

Domestic Issues

Under Bush/Cheney we saw a reaction to the attacks of 9-11 that coupled fear with restrictions on liberties. Whereas FDR proclaimed “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” we saw Bush/Cheney emphasize the need to fear the terrorists. The change in administration has been accompanied by the end of this fear campaign.

On the liberty side, we saw greater restrictions for airline passengers, more surveillance cameras in public areas, and the wiretapping of citizens’ oversees calls. In this category, as the memory of 9-11 faded, there was some let-up, but most of these still remain.

Civil Liberties

The constitution guarantees equal rights for all. But theory and practice often diverge.


Clearly, minorities are making advances, but poverty is still afflicts minorities to a greater degree. While some of this is economic disparity, there is also a correlation between economic means and the ability to ensure one’s rights are protected in legal and civil matters. We still see a much higher percentage of minorities in prison. Affirmative action remains controversial.

Women’s Rights

The presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton raised the hope for women of crashing the ultimate glass ceiling. On the other hand, the choice of Sarah Palin for Republican vice presidential candidate was more problematic – clearly she did well as mayor and governor, but was not quite ready for the national stage and this became quite evident.

Women have generally arrived at the place where they are accepted in professional settings, but the economic disparity remains. And also the glass ceiling.

Immigration Issues

The question of what to do with millions of illegal immigrants remains a hot issue. Bush gets a positive mark from me on advocating a guest worker status, realizing the reality that so many have lived here a long time and contribute to the economy and their communities. However, while there remain many who want to deport all undocumented aliens, there is simply no political will for this. Therefore, the undocumented remain in this legal limbo where they remain here but lack many essential civil rights.

Perhaps most preposterous of the Bush-Cheney era proposals is the wall on the Mexican border. In many places, this would be like a prison wall with multiple fences and watch towers. Maybe it works in the desert border of Arizona or New Mexico, but along the winding Rio Grande River in Texas, the wall would be back some distance from the river bank, thereby appearing to cede territory to Mexico and leaving a good number of citizens and their property in this DMZ between the wall and the riverbank.

Trumping this preposterous idea was the funding provision exempting the wall construction from all federal laws and regulations! Like the terrorist, the illegals are such a threat that extraordinary means must be taken.

GLTB Rights

During the Bush-Cheney term, there was no spoken support for gay rights, even if the Vice President had a more inclusive view that the party line (because of a close family member). Under the Obama administration, there is some movement for additional rights for partners. However, “don’t ask, don’t tell” remains. At this point in time, when we all know gay people either in our family or at work or elsewhere, this policy no longer makes sense.

Gay marriage states are increasing, despite the referendum loss in California. As I mention in my post, I’d like to see the state get out of the marriage business – they’ve only been involved for 100 to 200 years of human history. I say let government administer legal contracts between people and let other institutions of society (e.g., religions) define “marriage” as they see appropriate. Lagging behind gay rights is transgender rights. Some states are enacting anti-discrimination provisions, yet understanding of these issues is lagging behind the progress for gay rights.


So, on this 4th of July, what is the overall status of “liberty and justice for all” in America? Definitely, the nation took some major steps backwards in the previous administration. While there has been positive motion under the current administration, we are not where we should be. Some policies and procedures of the Bush-Cheney administration have not been reversed. Minorities and women still have a ways to go to gain full equity. And “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a policy whose time has past.

While the struggle is still ongoing, we still remain a nation founded on the principal of liberty and justice for all. Happy Independence Day!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Supreme Court Rules Strip-Search of 13-Yr. Old Girl Illegal

As reported by the AP:

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that school officials violated an Arizona teenager's rights by strip-searching her for prescription-strength ibuprofen, declaring that U.S. educators cannot force children to remove their clothing unless student safety is at risk.

In an 8-1 ruling, the justices said that Safford Middle School officials violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches with their treatment of Savana Redding. The court ruled that the officials could not be held financially liable but left it to lower courts to decide if the school district could.

In my post of April 21, 2009, I expressed my outrage of the violation of this girl's body by school officials looking for ibuprofin! Can you believe that? For the sake of finding maybe a couple of ibuprofin pills, they made her expose her breasts and her pelvic area!

I still say this is sexual abuse. And not far removed from rape and child abuse! Though the intent was not sexual, just the same her body was violated by having to expose herself to school officials.

In any other workplace in the US, the firm would be sued and management fired if a woman was required to expose her breasts and pelvic area for any reason!

While the Supreme Court ruled strongly in favor of justice for Savana Redding, they ruled that the officials could not be held financially liable. But I question if they should not be charged with indecent assault!

School officials have no right to violate the bodies of students. Period.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Does a Majority of Regular Churchgoers Favor the Use of Torture?

I heard a most unusual and upsetting statistic today on NPR: a majority of churchgoers favor the use of torture in certain circumstances.

Now, maybe it's just me, but I'm a regular churchgoer, but my understanding of the 10 Commandments differs. Granted there is no commandment: "Thou shalt not torture." But Jesus said "Love thy neighbor as thyself." All in all, I can find no reason to deliberately torture a human being. Period. Under any circumstances.

A commentator on NPR mentioned that there may be other factors contributing to this statistic. Perhaps those self-identifying as "regular churchgoers" then to be Republicans. Maybe they really believe terrorists are uniquely evil and in that there's a loophole. Who knows, but I, for one, don't understand it.

Torture is never acceptable. Period

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Building A Bridge to Islam?

Our President Barack Obama has taken a major step in reaching out to the Muslim world. In a historic speach at Cairo University, he pledged "to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims," as reported by NPR.

Building a bridge over the great cultural and religious gulf that separates Islam and the West, the President quoted frequently from the Quran, as well as the Bible. The son of a Kenyan Muslim, his personal history itself is founded in both Islam and Christianity. As such, Pres. Obama has gone where no Bush could go.

I believe that reaching out in this manner is a positive step, not only for peace and understanding in the world, but, if sucessful, will prove more effective than any occupation or regime change. Clearly his words touch the hearts of many Muslims. And this follows in the traditions of Rev. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi, reaching out in peace, across cultural divides.

While the speach was well-received, some, such as Hamas and the Iranian government were not impressed. One speach will not undue 8 years of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld. One speach will not transform America from the great satan to a great friend. One speach will not change the hearts of radicals and terrorists.

But we are on a much better path: the path to a new dawn of hope!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Murder Is Never Justified!

Dr. George Tiller, one of the nation's few providers of late-term abortions, was serving as an usher during Sunday morning services when he was shot in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church in Kansas, as reported on NPR.

How can anyone claiming to be "pro-life" murder a man in cold blood in the House of the Lord? No matter our opinions of abortion, this is a crime that violates the civilized system of laws that our nation is built on, AND desicrates a House of the Lord!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cheney Still At It

Last week, President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney presented two divergent view of the interrogation of suspected terrorists. While our President is calling for an end of anything that could be considered torture, the former Vice President advocated for "enhanced interrogations." Cheney claimed that these techniques were legal and have saved lives. He even defended the use of waterboarding.

But the issue is not about effectiveness or legality, it is about what America we want to be. Are we to be a nation that employs interrogation methods like waterboarding, something I would consider to be torture?

Or are we to be the beacon of freedom and justice to the world? Why should we employ torture in the cause of freedom and justice? It makes no sense to me.

I can only conclude that Mr. Cheney has been seduced by the "dark side." In how many stories, historic and fiction, do we see a leader advocate oppressive means to protect the freedom of the people?

Our President is right. We must say "no" to torture!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Supreme Court Hears Case of 13-Yr. Girl Strip-Searched by School Officials

Is this an outrageous or what? Strip searching a 13-year old girl because she might have prescription-strength ibuprofen!

NPR reports:

The Supreme Court seemed worried Tuesday about tying the hands of school officials looking for drugs and weapons on campus as they wrestled with the appropriateness of a strip-search of a 13-year-old girl accused of having prescription-strength ibuprofen.

Savana Redding was 13 when Safford, Ariz., Middle School officials, on a tip from another student, ordered her to remove her clothes and shake out her underwear looking for pills. The district bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
Her lawyer argued to the Supreme Court that such a "intrusive and traumatic" search would be unconstitutional in every circumstance if school administrators were not directly told the contraband was in her underwear.

NPR also reports:

Vice Principal Kerry Wilson took Redding to his office to search her backpack. When nothing was found, Redding was taken to a nurse's office where she says she was ordered to take off her shirt and pants. Redding said they then told her to move her bra to the side and to stretch her underwear waistband, exposing her breasts and pelvic area. No pills were found.

I find this intrusive search for a possible prescription drug to be an outrageous violation of her rights. Wasn’t it sufficient to check her bag and pockets? How could one ibuprofen be such a threat to the school that a strip search was necessary?

Furthermore, since she had to bare her breasts and pelvic area, I find this very close to rape and child abuse. Granted there was no physical contact or penetration, but think of the extreme personal embarrassment and the visual violation of one’s “private parts.” Rape is not a sexual crime; it is a crime of power – a person in a position of greater power violates the private parts of another.

This is just another example of women of all ages can becoming the victims of abuse of our right to privacy.

In my view, this school official should be liable for sexual abuse!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Afghan women march to protest restrictions

Women in Kabal, Afghanistan marched to protest Taliban-like restrictions passed by the Parliament. As reported in the Boston Globe, these restrictictions on women would allow such practices as marital rape -- a woman cannot say "no" to her husband's sexual demands.

This is a nation where most women are uneducated, and where the Taliban burn schools that educate girls and harrass and even harm girls who try to go to school.

These brave women were met by a mob of men yelling "Get out of here, you whores."

The contrast in freedom is so striking. Here in the US as in much of Europe and other nations, women are educated, travel independently, can choose to live alone or with a partner of their choosing(even one of either sex), and work to independely support oneself. In parts of Afghanistan (and now parts of Pakistan, too), women cannot travel unescorted, cannot work to support themselves, and cannot even divorce from their husbands should they be abusive.

Even in the US, there was a time years ago when women were 2nd class citizens, couldn't vote or own land, and were little more than the property of their husbands. But brave women stood up and protested, and won the freedom that women enjoy today.

We should all honor the stuggle of these brave women in Kabul and hope someday their daughters will enjoy the freedoms they fought for.

Captain Freed from Pirates (But Are We Satisfied with the Outcome?)

The Obama Administration took the cool, calculated approach to freeing Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk-Alabama. This wasn't Jack Bauer. Or Mission Impossible. No shock and awe.

But look at the outcome:
  • The ship reached its destination with the entire crew, less their captain
  • The captain was freed unharmed
  • No ransom was paid
  • The pirates: 1 captured, 3 dead

Clearly the score is US 1, Pirates 0.

But somehow I suspect that many are not satisfied about the military approach. No going in with guns blazing. No retaliatory bombing of suspected pirate holdouts in Somalia. Rather, the military tried negotiations and then, when the opportunity presented itself, took out the 3 pirates simply and efficiently with just 3 shots.

I, for one, prefer the "think first, act deliberately" approach rather than the "act first -- just do something" approach.

But will the American public be satisfied with military success with a limited expenditure of adrenaline?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

We're Going Up?

Just after I blogged about the economy going down, what happens? It goes up! Ah, the joy of being a pessimist!.

(Being an engineer, I get paid to think about what might go wrong, so being a pessimist is a occupational hazard!)

MSNBC proclaimed today: "Dow ends at almost 2-month high." Quoting that byline: "The stock market rally continued Thursday, driving the Dow Jones industrials above the 8,000 mark for the first time since February and to its highest close in nearly two months."

Maybe I can put that Bruce Springsteen song on hold for a while.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

We're Going Down, Down, Down, Down

Bruce Springsteen sang "I'm going down, down, down, down. I'm going down, down, down, down. I'm going down, down, down, down."

This downfall in the economy hasn't been a real "crash" like the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday.

Instead we keep going down, down, down, down. (Then we take a break.) Then we resume going down, down, down, down. (Then another break.) Then, we keep going down, down, down, down.

And the worst part is that no one knows how to stop the fall. No one knows where we're going or when we will hit the bottom. Not the President, not the Secretary of the Treasury, not stock brokers or financial advisors.

But in an almost surreal way, we're not panicing. Maybe it's the air conditioning and sealed windows, but we never had business men jumping from office buildings like in '29. We don't have former stock brokers selling apples or pencils on the street. It's bad on paper, but our life goes on. Yeah, we're not retiring at 65, and we cut back on things, but life goes on.

So for now, we're going down, down, down, down; we're going down, down, down, down; we're going down, down, down, down.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bush Administration Memos Shown to Support the Repression of Rights

As reported by the AP and NPR (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101360891), the Obama Administration has released many anti-terrorism memos from the Bush Administration. As the report states:

"The conclusion, reiterated in page after page of documents, was that the president had broad authority to set aside constitutional rights.

"Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure, for instance, did not apply in the United States as long as the president was combating terrorism, the Justice Department said in an Oct. 23, 2001, memo.

"'First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully,' Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo wrote, adding later: 'The current campaign against terrorism may require even broader exercises of federal power domestically.'
(source: "Obama Releases Secret Bush Anti-Terrorism Memos," by The Associated Press)

In a related statement, the Obama Administration also spoke out against the use of waterboarding and requiring a return to complying with the Army Field Manual for interviewing suspected terrorists.

I, for one, hope this is the change we've been looking for -- the return to constitutional rights and the rule of law!

Monday, February 23, 2009

To Stimulate or Not to Stimulate?

To Stimulate or Not to Stimulate?

That is the question for Republican governors. Whether they should be a populist and spread out the manna from DC, or to take a stand, no matter how politically ill-advised, and refuse these tainted funds.

Now, neither I nor the President and his advisors, nor most economists have any real idea of how to get the economy out of this nose dive. How low will it go? But, the President has chosen action over inaction.

When unemployment hits 10% and multitudes of the former middle class have lost their homes, woe to any governor who “stood her/his ground” and refused the stimulus funding.

Even our former Gov. of Mass. Michael Dukakis, a man didn’t know how to say no to federal aid, once refused federal highway funding for low priority improvements (as a transportation engineer, I agreed it wasn’t something that was not really needed). But, he had to quickly make a 180 and agree to taking the funds.

I don’t know if the stimulus will do anything long-term for the economy.

But I’ll bet that governors who refuse the stimulus will have a short political life, especially with double-digit unemployment!

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Stimulus: Is It Pork?

One of the recent criticisms of the Stimulus (particularly from Republicans) is that it is full of pork.

Anytime the government spends, there is a high probability that pet projects or programs (a.k.a, “pork”) will be included. And when the biggest spending bill ever works its way through Congress, there’s no way it can survive without picking up some pork along the way. Granted, no “earmarks” were allowed, but there are other ways to get pork in a bill.

I think it was Tip O'Neil who said "One person's pork is another person's bacon" or something similar. (Apologies to those who keep Kosher.)

Does the Stimulus Bill contain pork? I say: “Tell me something new!”

The real question is: To Stimulate or Not To Stimulate.

To be continued………….

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

President Speaks in Coherent, Complete Sentences

For the first time in 8 years, we heard a President respond to press questions in coherent, complete sentences. Now, that's change we can believe in!

That said, the tone of the press conference was somber. There is no end in sight to the economic downturn with the stock market headed down and unemployment rising.

The answers were long, though generally well thought-out. No funny sound bites. No fodder for SNL or Leno or Letterman. In some ways, almost boring.
As I've said before in this blog (see Sept. 2008 posts), our leaders don't really understand the economic downturn or what will work to reverse the trend. This applies to Pres. Obama.
While I don't pretend to understand it either, I do know we have but 2 choices:
  1. do nothing, or
  2. try to spend our way out.

Some conservatives prefer a tax cut. But the total value of a tax cut will not be realized in the economy as some portion will go to savings or debt reduction.

Spending, paticularly on infrastructure can have a factor of 1.4 or so in terms of economic benefits. First, the money employes people in infrastructure construction. Then, materials for this construction a purchased (trickling back to suppliers, manufacturers and delivery companies). Then, with ample work, the construction workers will be more likely to buy consumer goods. All in all there is a trickle impact through the economy. Finally, the improved infrastructure has an overall positive impact on commerse, be it do to better roads, more reliable utilities, or ending a load restriction on a bridge that cause truck traffic to detour.

While we clearly have an intellegent leader, our economic future remains uncertain.

Rendition Revisited -- Update

The trial opened but the Obama Justice Dept. has kept to the Bush line regarding maintaining secrecy.

Most disappointing.

Some in the media have excused this as being too soon for new administration to implement policy changes.

But where's that change we can count on?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Rendition Revisited?

How will the Obama administration redress the human rights violations of the Bush Administration's policy of extraordinary rendition?

Today’s New York Times reports a hearing next week in San Francisco regarding a lawsuit filed on behalf of five detainees against Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of the Boeing Company, that arranged rendition flights that delivered detainees to nations where they were later tortured.

In the article, it states:

“The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in the Federal District Court in San Francisco in May 2007. It was dismissed last February after the Bush administration asserted the ‘state secrets privilege,’ claiming that the disclosure of information in the case could damage national security.

"In the appeal, to be heard Monday by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the civil liberties union argues that the government has engaged in an inappropriate blanket use of the privilege and that the case should be allowed to proceed.”

So, will the Obama administration end this blanket use of the claim of state secrets? Will there be positive movement by this administration in breaking from the past administration’s use of rendition leading to “out-sourced” torture? Let’s hope that change has come.

Reference: “Claims of Torture Abroad Face Test Monday in Court,” New York Times, February 6, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/06/us/politics/06torture.html?ref=todayspaper