November 29, 2012

The Federal Debt

By now, anyone who watches the evening news will be familiar with the "fiscal cliff," the dreaded leap into the unknown if Congress and the president fail to reach agreement on a perfect storm of tax and spending issues that all happen to converge after the 1st of the year. We have spent years kicking the can down the road. One more kick of the can sends it over the cliff.

Despite some reports that progress was being made, both sides remain locked in their respective positions and show no signs of giving anything away at this stage in the maneuverings. The president insists that any deal include tax hikes on the top earners. Republicans insist that any increase in tax rates for any group is just out of the question. Instead, they insist that the president solve the problem by cutting spending.

I just want to make one simple point. The federal debt is about money we have already spent. That's what debt is, unpaid bills for things you have already bought. Sure, you can also look ahead and see more of the same if you don't start living within your means, but that future debt doesn't have to happen if you do something about it, and doing something about it means understanding why you got into trouble in the first place. With that in mind, take a look at this chart prepared by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.


Another chart, taken from a report issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts,explains the variance between the rosy predictions of  budget surpluses by the Congressional Budget Office in 2001 and the reality of expanding deficits.


Both point to the same culprits: the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yeah, yeah, I know there are other factors, but if you take away the tax cuts and the wars, the amount of debt drops sharply and the downturn due to the housing bubble becomes a much more manageable crisis. Republicans don't want you thinking about that. They want you worrying about Medicaid and other entitlements. Not one cent more for poorer Americans; millions for contractors to rebuild Kabul and Baghdad. And don't even think about the richest. They are the most endangered group of all, if you listen to the Republicans.

Like many Americans, I fully supported the invasion of Afghanistan and had many reservations about invading Iraq. And, like most Americans, I welcomed the extra income in my family's budget when taxes were cut.  But to first cut taxes and then to embark on two major wars without collecting enough taxes to pay for them, well, what did you think would happen?

President Bush and the Congressional Republicans made the same choice that Lyndon Johnson and the Congressional Democrats did during the Vietnam War. Rather than forgo his Great Society, President Johnson chose to hide the true costs of the war in Vietnam, relying on complaisant Democrats and war hawks in Congress to go along with the charade. Everybody got what they wanted, so who was left to complain? Just as today, the fiscal chickens eventually came home to roost and the bills had to be paid. It was ugly then, and it will be ugly now.

Economist speak of guns and butter, military and domestic spending, war and peace. The idea is you can do one or the other, but not both, at least not unless you are willing to impose a tremendous tax burden on the people, something politicians of any era are reluctant to do. Anyway, politicians are not economists. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. So do we, the people.

Well, we've pigged out, and now it is time to make a New Year's resolution to reform our sinful ways. For what it's worth, I believe that if tax cuts and defense spending were part of the problem, then they damn well ought to be part of the solution.

November 27, 2012

4° Celsius

Those in the know on the global warming front have officially despaired of limiting the average rise in global temperatures to 2°Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit). Why? Simply put, it would take a massive world-wide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions above and beyond what has already been committed to in various international agreements. And you and I both know that ain't gonna happen any time soon. Even if all current pledges get carried out, "the world [is] on a trajectory for a global mean warming of well over 3°C." This, according to a report prepared for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

Here is the money quote from the report's Executive Summary:
Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C above the preindustrial climate. Even with the current mitigation
commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s. Such a warming level and associated sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, or more, by 2100 would not be the end point: a further warming to levels over 6°C, with several meters of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries.
The report goes on to detail the disastrous impact that a 4°C rise would have for the developing world. Agricultural production could suffer, and countries like Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, and parts of Africa would lose arable land to encroaching seawater. Given that these countries are poor to begin with, they would have enormous difficulties in finding the money to cope with the impact of climate change. Even the richest countries balk when they see the price tag attached to building seawater barriers needed to protect coastal megacities. But its not like we won't need to come up with billions of dollars to repair the damage from the extreme weather events that are a hallmark of a warming climate.

Europe and the United States are meeting their greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, but keep in mind that the goals themselves were the bare minimum levels and are being met in the U.S. mostly by increasing production of natural gas through fracking, a practice which has its own burgeoning problems. Last year's mild winter didn't hurt either.

As for India and China, both are on a path to seriously increase their green house gas emissions. China is doing much better in the lip service department and may actually be getting serious about curtailing its use of coal, but experts warn that China's greenhouse gas emissions are unlikely to start falling before 2030. India, which recently suffered a catastrophic power blackout, seems poised to keep on firing up those coal plants.

In 2011, the wealthy countries reduced their emissions 0.6 percent last year, but developing countries saw their emissions grow 6.1 percent. Overall, the gap between what was promised in terms of emissions levels and what was actually pumped into the atmosphere is growing.

In an ideal world, we should have emissions of no more than 48.5 gigatons (44 metric gigatons) of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The most recent data puts current emissions at 54 gigatons. The gap is expected to continue to widen to between 8.8 and 14.3 gigatons. (A gigaton is one billion tons.) As a historical point of reference, British coal production in 1829 was 15 million tons. In 2011, world coal production was 7.9 billion tons.

The year 2060 is less than 50 years down the road. My youngest grandchildren will deal with a changing climate for their entire lives. This is their new reality. Their only hope is if my generation wholeheartedly joins with them to make a commitment to seriously address the problem of a changing climate. So far, the abundance of looming trouble is exceeded only by the lack of political willpower to deal with the problem.

My advice remains the same. First, do your own research. The internet abounds with web sites presenting all sides of this issue. I recommend Spencer Weart's web site, The Discovery of Global Warming, as a good place to start. Second, listen to your gut instinct. Anyone who has lived as long as I have knows that things are different. You can feel it in the air, literally. Mother Nature is putting on a global warming show-and-tell program for us. It's up to us to heed the warnings and do something. The ounce of prevention has already become too little, too late, but there is still time to educate yourself and your children about the new world they will have to raise their children in.

November 22, 2012

Chestnuts

My earliest memories of chestnuts are of scatterings of them on the ground beneath an old horse chestnut tree behind Georgie Casey's house on Beechwood Street. The fleshy green outer casing could easily be split open to reveal a beautiful brown seed inside. Something about the warm color of those chestnuts and the way they would feel in my hand, smooth and firm, made me, perhaps for the first time, really pay attention to something from the natural world. Of course, once the moment had passed, we would convert them to a pretend pipe, hollowing out a bowl and thrusting in a twig to perfect the illusion. Satisfied, we would walk about the yard like burghers from a Washington Irving novel, puffing contentedly on our chestnut pipes.

Other than that, my only exposure to chestnuts was once a year in my mother's turkey stuffing that she prepared on Thanksgiving Day. When I got married, I proposed adding them to my wife's stuffing, the result being the stuffing perfection that graces our Thanksgiving table. My main job--other than dish washing, no mean task in itself--is to remove the chestnut meat from its tough outer casing and a fibrous inner lining. This involves slicing an X on one side or the other of the chestnut and then heating it until it burst, either in the stove or in a microwave oven. They came out hot, which meant sore fingertips by the time the real job of extracting the nutmeat from the shell was done.

Chestnuts are considered to be a "brain" food because they are so high in complex carbohydrates, which is ironic given that the inner nut of the chestnut bears a strong resemblance to a human brain. The same could also be said of a walnut. The similarity in terms of the waves and inner folds in each is striking, as if, presented with a similar problem of housing a complex piece of genetic topography inside a protective outer casing, nature stumbled upon the same solution more than once.



Which got me to thinking about the brain in a new way, as a seed. I'm not sure what if anything that means, but when you think about it, there has always been a question of the relationship between plant or animal and seed or egg. Samuel Butler once observed that a hen is only an egg's way of making another egg. Are we just a brain's way of making another brain? Given that the entire purpose of the body is to provide a housing to protect and sustain the brain and to do its bidding when it needs observe something or wants to go somewhere, the question is not an unreasonable one.

For now, I am content to let my brain contemplate itself. There is turkey and oyster-chestnut stuffing to be eaten, along with sweet potatoes and green beans and pies and some white wine to wash it all down. For those who would enjoy knowing the secret to the ultimate stuffing, I must disappoint you. This recipe will remain within the family, to be passed down, I hope, for many generations to come. That's okay, though, as I have discovered that each variant of stuffing is fiercely defended by its proponents as the one and only way to make stuffing. However you prefer it, I hope your Thanksgiving Day is a good one.

November 18, 2012

Black Friday

Well, it's that time of year again. First, the good news. Thanksgiving Day dinner with all the trimmings. We will be roasting a 22-pound turkey with a stuffing that includes chestnuts and oysters, plus homemade cranberry sauce, a gaggle of side dishes, topped off with pumpkin pie and maybe a mincemeat pie. That ought to hold the two of us until the grandkids arrive later in the weekend.

Now the bad news. Black Friday. This will be my first one since I started back in retail. Compared to working on an election day, when I might easily work an 18-hour shift, I'm not really too worried about a mere eight hours on Black Friday. Still, it will be semi-controlled pandemonium. I'm working the second shift, so business will be at a peak, as will frayed nerves and tempers. In the spirit of the coming Christmas Holiday--the real one, not the fake made-in-China retail version--let me give you some helpful advice from my side of the counter on things to do and not do on Black Friday, or most other days for that matter.

Let's begin with the Number One thing not to do. Do not--I am begging you--do not come up to the counter, take a quick look at my name tag, and then start calling me by my first name, as if this will somehow be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. So not true. Instead, you will self-select yourself as a half-smart, manipulative goober who thinks I am as dumb as you think I look.

God, I hate that, and so does everyone else in retail. Folks who work in retail can generally size most people up from 20 feet away. Use my first name and a good first impression will be instantly adjusted downwards; any initial wariness will be deepened. You really have nothing to gain by pretending to be my friend. We are there to work, not to be your friend. That doesn't mean I don't have favorite customers, but like all friendships, they emerge over time and out of a basic compatibility. Just treat me with simple courtesy, which does not include greeting perfect strangers by their first name, and you will get the best effort I am capable of at the moment.

Other things not to do on Black Friday? Well, how about not calling the store to find out if that pink and white blouse you saw three weeks ago is still available. Assuming your call ever gets to someone who could actually answer the question, that clerk will no doubt have a line 10-people deep. You think he or she knows or cares about your blouse? Really? And if, by some miracle, the clerk actually goes and looks, and comes back and says yes, we have it, why, for the love of God, do you wait until then to ask if they also have it in a size 12 Petite. ARGGH!

And what better day than Black Friday to inquire about that little mix-up in your order that happened a few weeks back, you can't remember exactly when it was, but you just thought as long as you were in the store you would take care of it, and no, you don't have the receipt and the tags are lost, and I think it cost $19.99, but I'm not sure, could you help me? At this point the clerk is checking out the dark looks from the other customers who have been already waiting in line for 15 minutes. Who to appease, you or the mob? Either way, it's a lose-lose. I give you short shrift and now you are unhappy and the other shoppers are no less irritated. I take the time to deal with you and the angst down the line grows ever thicker by the moment. Sigh. Next.

I remember one year, in the middle of Black Friday, while I had a line umpteen people deep, this little old lady calls up to inquire about the status of her special order of china, the one with a pattern that her Aunt Hilda had when she was growing up and which reminded her of the wonderful summers she spent in East Nowhere, and it was several several months ago and she hadn't heard anything about it, and would I please check the status of her order? All in this soft voice I can barely make out over the din. Wonderful. Let me just drop everything and run back to the stockroom and root around in a pile of papers that hasn't been organized since the Reagan administration and maybe, by the grace of God, your order is somewhere in there. I'll get right back to you. Yes. ma'am, it's no trouble at all.

Which brings up another thing. Please, get to the point. I really don't need all the back story about how you got this dress in this particular color to match the bridesmaids colors in cousin Susie's wedding, but now the bride has changed her mind, all because her mother didn't like that color because it reminded her of the boiled asparagus she had at those miserable Sunday dinners she had to go to at great-aunt Agatha's house when she was a child, and you need a plum-colored dress, so could I please exchange these? I don't care. Really, I don't. I just want to take care of your problem and move on to the next customer.

Not that some stories aren't gut-wrenching tales of misery. There is a bit of the confessional involved when two strangers face each other across a counter. I remember the woman--a rough-looking lady with tats on her upper arms, her angry eyes fighting back the tears welling up in them--returning a whole bunch of baby clothes she had bought for her new grandchild but couldn't give because the daughter-in-law refused to allow her to even come in the house. Or the woman buying a nightgown for a friend recovering from chemo, or the young mother replacing the toaster because her house burned down, and she lost everything she ever had, or the lady going on a cruise that she planned with her husband who since divorced her and ran off with a younger woman, and now she can't decide whether to go alone on the cruise, but she guesses she will, seeing as how the tickets have already been bought and paid for. All these confidences exchanged in the time it takes to ring up a sale. No matter how hardened you get, you still feel some of their pain.

So enjoy your Thanksgiving Day holiday, and shop, if you must, on Black Friday. Just understand that most folks working in retail are no different than anyone else. Given their druthers, they will try to deliver pleasant and semi-competent service. They will do this in spite of seeing more of our hearts of darkness in a month than most will in a lifetime. All for the lowest pay the market will bear, under conditions that would wilt most customers in about an hour and a half. Be the one who brings momentary respite from the storm. For that, we will be truly thankful.

November 16, 2012

The Life of the Mother

Ireland is the focus of an uproar surrounding the death of Savita Halappanavar, a dentist born in India and living and working in Ireland with her husband, an engineer. She was 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to University Hospital Galway complaining of severe pain. Doctors conceded that the fetus was going to die, but because they detected a fetal heartbeat, and because as one doctor pointed out, "This is a Catholic country," she was denied an abortion, despite her and her husband's repeated requests. Two and a half days passed by, during which Savita was in agonizing pain. Finally the baby died, and soon thereafter, Savita also died of complications due to septicemia.

Ireland is indeed a Catholic country where abortion is basically prohibited, but twenty years ago Ireland's highest court granted an exception for cases where the life of the mother is in danger. The Irish legislature never addressed the specifics of how that exception should be administered by hospitals, so you ended up with a situation where doctors are extremely reluctant to act lest they place themselves in legal jeopardy.

Many argue that religion had nothing to do with it. They say this is a case of medical malpractice and that any reasonable interpretation of Irish law should not have barred doctors from performing what was clearly a necessary procedure to save the life of the mother. The Irish government has launched a series of investigations into the case. Meanwhile, activists argue that it is past time to clear up ambiguities in the Irish law and that Irish politicians should stop relying on the fact that Irish woman have much easier access to abortions in Great Britain.

These events clearly resonate here in the United States, where abortion was the center of controversies surrounding remarks made by a handful of Republican candidates. The push-back from voters has, I think, settled that question for now, but these people never stop trying. There is a small but persistent group in this country who, if they had their way, would allow no abortions under any conditions.

Savita Halappanavar's death exposes the contradiction at the core of the right-to-life movement with gut-wrenching clarity. Does the mother sacrifice her right to life the moment she becomes pregnant? Savita's mother went straight to the heart of the matter: "In an attempt to save a 4-month-old foetus they killed my ... daughter. How is that fair you tell me?" If you have a good answer to that question, I'd loved to hear it.

If God intended things to go like clockwork, (S)he surely could have created such a world. We didn't get that world. We got the world where things go wrong. Pregnancy is one of those things. The process of childbirth is just that, a process. Like any process, things can sometimes vary from the norm. When that happens, we are supposed to deal with it. That's the plan. We came equipped with intellect and judgment and ethics to help us deal with cases where things don't go as planned.

In my view, God placed that burden of choice on us purposely to inform our moral lives with the consequences of judgment. To dodge that responsibility by hiding behind the cloak of medieval theology is a choice that has its own consequences. In Savita's case, it really was a matter of life and death. Two lives hung in the balance. Only one could survive. Instead, both lives were lost. How do you not make the right choice is such a situation? You tell me.

November 14, 2012

Home Cooking

As parents, I think one of the most enduring gifts we can pass along to our children is a love of cooking. My wife and I both grew up watching our parents cook, as did our kids. My son and daughter are both highly proficient in the kitchen, and I have hopes for the grandchildren as well.

For many years, my mother cooked on a schedule, a necessity given tight family budgets of the late 50s and early 60s. I can't remember the exact sequence, but roast chicken was in the rotation, as was spaghetti and meat balls. I have vague memories of cube steak, the ultimate in economizing, along with dandelion greens salad. Friday was fish, and Saturday night was hot dogs and beans. Often, my mother would fix a pot of tomato sauce and just throw in chicken parts or pork chops and let it simmer for several hours.

Fast food did not exist, and we never had pizza that I can recall. Frozen anything was still in its infancy. Most vegetables came out of a can or the garden. I still remember some godawful yellow string beans and wax beans. Inedible and indigestible. As for asparagus, I avoided that up until just this year. I can endure it, along with mushrooms, which I have grown to like.

If we went on a road trip, my mother would make about a dozen or so pepper and sausage sandwiches on bulky rolls (topped with poppy seeds) and pack them in grocery bags. I can't remember if we had pizzelle, but I always had some for road trips. Who needs Mickey D's when you can have that!

On those rare occasions when my father cooked, it was a big to-do. He was limited to breakfast, as I recall, although he did create the grilled cheese with maple syrup specialty of the house. My first effort at cooking, in my early teens, was to essay cream puffs. I skipped right past the dull basics and went straight to dessert. They weren't too bad, although I suspect I had plenty of help.

I still like to cook. I just made up a batch of spaghetti sauce using a new recipe I found on my cell phone's recipe app. (You have to keep up, don't you know.) I cooked it in a slow cooker, although you could just simmer it in a big pot. I added a couple of ingredients, as I'm sure anyone would do when making their own sauce. I liked the recipe because it seemed kind of classic and simple. Plus, it makes a whole bunch, so if you like it, you are set for quite a few meals if you freeze it in portions.

Ingredients:
1 pound - Italian sausage (chopped links or ground)
1/2 cup - onion -- finely chopped
1 12 oz. can tomato paste
3 28 oz. cans Italian style crushed tomatoes
2 cups - water (1-1 1/2 if using crock pot)
4 teaspoon - garlic -- minced
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoon - sugar
4 teaspoon - dried basil
2 teaspoon - dried oregano
4 tablespoon - fresh parsley -- chopped
2 teaspoon - salt
3 red, yellow, or orange peppers cut into smallish chunks
A dollop of red wine

In a large pot, cook and stir the Italian sausage with the onions until the meat is brown; drain fat. Add remaining ingredients, except the spaghetti. Bring sauce to a boil; reduce heat. Partly cover, and simmer for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. (If desired, simmer in a crock pot instead of a pot. Lessen the amount of water to 1 or 1 1/2 cups if using the crock pot method). Makes 12 cups of sauce.

November 11, 2012

Thank You For Your Service

I've been back working retail for a few months now. One of the things we do is to give service members and their dependents a discount. It's good for business, and it's a nice thing to do. Our way of saying "thank you" to the men and women in uniform and the families who support them. It's better than being spit at, which has happened to me, but those were troubled times. Still, it's not something I would ever say to a fellow veteran. I don't know why, but for some reason, it just never felt right.

Turns out, I'm not the only veteran who feels that way. I came across an article on NBCNews that talked about how a lot of servicemen, both former and active, feel uneasy when a total stranger walks up to them and says, "Thank you for your service." After years of thinking I was a horrible human being for feeling uncomfortable during those rare moments when that happened to me, it was something of a relief to know that I wasn't alone in those feelings.

I know what you're thinking. Why is that a problem? Shouldn't I be appreciative of the sentiment behind the words? Yes ... and no. Yes, I am happy that people have finally stopped blaming the warrior for the war, a phenomenon unique, perhaps, to the Vietnam War. But no, if in your mind you are seeing G.I. Joe when you hear that I was in Vietnam. That was someone else, not  me. I was the unfortunate son, a draftee who wasn't exactly rushing to enlist in an excess of patriotic fervor. And, like most veterans, I never saw actual combat. So, if you do, by chance, come across a real hero--who in my opinion is just about anyone who has endured Afghanistan or Iraq or been in actual combat--be sure to thank them for me, too.

Look, I totally get that Vietnam was unique in the American experience. Feelings towards soldiers have evolved, especially after 9/11, and this is as it should be. What the men and women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have endured is unimaginable to someone of my era who was pretty much guaranteed a single one-year rotation, as opposed to the endless re-deployments we see today. The families also deserve our full measure of respect for their sacrifice.

Like I said, Vietnam was unique. No doubt about it, that influences my view of things. A critic of my small Vietnam memoir--yes, there are those who failed to be taken in by the magical spell of my words--noted that I was still angry about the war. Like most critics, he missed the point. (Inside literary joke, there.) True, I remain upset that it took so long for the public to recognize that the Vietnam vet was hurting in ways seen and unseen. That recognition is partly behind the current generosity of spirit towards our men in uniform. We don't want to make the same mistake twice.

But we do continue to make the mistake of thinking that wars are the answer to certain problems. War is never a good answer to any problem. My anger in the book was directed at those who seemed to forget the lessons we should have learned from the Vietnam  War: "... war is never inevitable, rarely necessary, and almost certainly not worth it in terms of outcome versus expectation."

I apply a simple test to any military venture that is urged upon us by the statesmen and politicians. Would I want my grandson or granddaughter to die for whatever cause was used to justify a given war? There are times and places where the answer would be, "Yes." But not nearly as many as the times we have been asked to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way.

So, by all means, let's support our men and women in uniform and their families. We should all be grateful for the choice they made to serve their country. If you want to express your appreciation in words and with a handshake, well, what better day than on Veteran's Day, when we honor the service of all soldiers, past and present.

But if you were to ask me, I would say that the best thing we can do to honor their choice is to make our choices on war and peace in a thoughtful and measured way. There is nothing worse than a war we come to regret or doubt. There have been too many of those, just in my lifetime. An end to all wars is perhaps too much to hope for, but an end to unnecessary wars, to wars of choice ... that should be doable.

November 8, 2012

Forward?

So, now what? Another election, another four more years of ... more of the same? Let's hope not. Unfortunately, after all the dust settles, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that little has changed. Obama is still in the White House, the Republicans control the House of Representatives, and the Democrats control the Senate. And over on Fox News, they are still searching for the next Ronald Reagan.

So the stage is set for the next big drama, the fiscal cliff. This plot has everything you could want: taxes, deficits, and big government. The players know how to hit their marks. Both sides have their well-rehearsed lines memorized. Republicans will continue to say "no" to tax hikes. The Democrats will insist that the rich pay more taxes as part of any deal. Both sides say they want to cut government spending, but the devil is in the details.

The irony is that the details don't really matter. What matters is the symbolism of a deal being struck. Main Street and Wall Street both want the same thing. They want certainty. It really is that simple. Something, anything. Just get it done and move on. That's all anyone is asking.

The American people have taken on the role of a mediator during a particularly messy divorce. In effect, they have ordered both sides back to the bargaining table. For the last four years, the Republicans have been governed by one overarching goal, preventing the re-election of Barack Obama, mostly by lock-step opposition to nearly every thing he proposed. The electorate has sent the Republicans a message: get over it. Republicans now have a simple choice. Make some sort of deal or continue the obstructionism and risk being swept out of the House in the mid-terms.

Don't think that's likely? Take a look at who for who in this election. Susan Page, writing in USAToday, summed it up this way:
On Obama's side this time: More than nine of 10 African Americans and nearly seven in 10 Hispanics. A solid majority of women and two-thirds of unmarried women. About six in 10 of voters under 30. More than 90% of Democrats and nearly 90% of liberals. More than six in 10 of those who never attend religious services.
On Romney's side: Six of 10 whites and nearly six of 10 seniors. A solid majority of men and of married women, and nearly two-thirds of white men. More than 90% of Republicans and of conservatives. He won high-income voters, evangelical Christians, and those who attend who attend religious services every week or more often.
So, let's see. Democrats appeal to women, Hispanics, blacks, and young people. Republicans appeal to white males (angry or otherwise), conservatives, evangelical Christians, and the 1 percent. You tell me which party has the brighter future.

My solution to the current political impasse: Let's bring in celebrity chef Robert Irvine of the show "Restaurant Impossible." I can see him now, his massive arms wrapped around the shoulders of Obama and Boehner: "All right, you two, here's the problem. There's no one in charge! The front of the house is not talking to the back of the house! The staff doesn't know who to follow! You two have got to get your act together!! Work as a team, and we can make this the success I know you want it to be. Don't, and you will fail."

It's as simple as that. And as complicated.

November 5, 2012

Ohio: The Next Florida?

Today, in bit of a departure from the canons of internet blogging, I'm going to write about a topic I actually know something about: elections. I worked six years in elections management and have seen all the good, the bad, and the ugly elections you could ever want to see. But, if you believe the article I read on NBCNews.com about four things that could screw up the counting of this year's presidential election, this could get really ugly.

Superstorm Sandy has held the nation's attention, but the still-evolving legal storm in Ohio over the counting of provisional ballots may prove to be far more damaging to the democratic process. It all began when the Ohio Secretary of State decided to issue an absentee ballot application to every registered voter in the state.

Just to back-up a second, there are actually three types of votes cast during an election. First, there are the ballots cast on Election Day, which includes in-person early voting, for those states that have it. Second, there are absentee ballots, typically for voters who will be out of town on Election Day or who may be incapacitated or otherwise unable to vote in person. Finally, there are provisional ballots. These are used when there is a question about the legitimacy of the voter or the vote being cast.

In Ohio's case, by sending every voter an absentee ballot application, an unavoidable train wreck was set  in motion. Here is the problem in a nutshell. Every voter who requests an absentee ballot will be flagged as potentially voting an absentee ballot. Some will indeed vote that absentee ballot and return it. Others won't vote at all. Some will go to the polls and try to vote there. That's when the trouble begins.

Since the deadline for voting by absentee ballot is Election Day, there is no way to know if a given voter has sent in an absentee ballot that wasn't received, thereby possibly resulting in a double vote. That's where the provisional ballot comes in. The whole idea is that the ballot is cast but the vote isn't counted until after the election, when workers review the records of votes cast on Election Day and compare them against the provisional ballots. Only when it is shown that a provisional ballot is the only ballot cast will it be counted.

Talk about time-consuming. I have been there and done that. As of this weekend, 238,678 Ohio voters who requested absentee ballots have not returned them. Any hope of a quick outcome from Ohio--which is one of a handful of states that will decide the election, nothing to get excited about folks--well, that ship may have sailed. Under Ohio law, the tabulation of provisional ballots won't even begin until Nov. 17th.

Oh, but wait. It gets better. Just last Friday, Secretary of State Husted issued an order requiring voters to fill out the identification section of the provisional ballot. Normally, this would be done by poll workers, a process required by state law. The kicker is, if the voter somehow screws it up, the provisional ballot will be tossed out. All of this is going to court, which will create confusion long after the election is over. This comes on the heels of another legal battle caused by Mr. Husted's open defiance of a court order to allow in-person early voting, something he feels is un-American.

If Mr. Husted's shenanigans throw Ohio and the election to Romney--and a lot of folks think that is what is going on here--the level of disaffection and distrust with the political process will spread even deeper into the center. Not that this is anything new for Ohio. Mr. Husted follows in the footsteps of a previous incumbent of his office, Ken Blackwell, who at one point four years ago said he would reject voter registration forms if they were not printed on 80-pound thickness cardstock. 

All of which goes to something I have maintained for years. When you want to really screw things up--whether it's malice, zeal, or stupidity--nothing beats an insider. All the election conspiracy theorists who worry about outside influences somehow disenfranchising us by monkeying with the voting machines or hordes of illegal aliens suddenly surfacing to vote on election day, they are looking in the wrong direction.

November 2, 2012

The Rising Tide

A few years back, I got interested in the topic of global warming and started doing my own research, a process I recommend to anyone who has questions about the reality of a changing climate induced by human activity. Just about all the sources agreed on two things: sea levels would inexorably rise and extreme weather events would occur more frequently. As a side note, the experts also predicted that sea levels would rise more rapidly along the East Coast of the United States as compared to the rest of the world.

The numbers have borne this out. Seth Borenstein, in an AP article published on June 15, 2012, for the Christian Science Monitor, reported that "sea levels have gone up globally about 2 inches (5 centimeters). But in Norfolk, Virginia, where officials are scrambling to fight more frequent flooding, sea level has jumped a total of 4.8 inches (12.19 centimeters), the research showed. For Philadelphia, levels went up 3.7 inches (9.4 centimeters), and in New York City, it was 2.8 inches (7.11 centimeters)."

What makes the rising tides so especially ominous is that people like to live near the oceans and seas and the river deltas that feed into them. Roughly 40 percent of the world's population lives within 100 meters (60 miles) of a coast. Fifteen of the world's 20 megacities (populations over 10 million) are sensitive to sea level rise and increased coastal storm surges. In the United States, 23 out of 25 of the most densely populated counties are along a coast.

Rising tides affect a growing proportion of the world's population. As that happens, the impact of extreme weather events is magnified. As once in a century storms roll through almost yearly, the cost in lives and money rises right along with the tides, and the measures needed to ward off the encroaching seas are measured in the billions of dollars.

We are facing some pretty ugly choices ahead. It's one thing to write off the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, but are we ready to do the same for lower Manhattan? Baltimore's Inner Harbor? Most of  lower Florida? (Let me get back to you on that one.)

As the political rhetoric about the debt heats up, think about how much the clean-up for this one storm will cost. A big share of that burden falls on the federal government, and, as we all know, shit rolls downhill, so guess who will be footing the collective bill for all this? Global warming may have received scant mention during the campaign, but you better believe it will become a major political issue.

By then, of course, it will be too little, too late. When it mattered most--when we really could have done something about this--the political process completely failed us. The science tells us that it would take a massive effort to limit (not prevent; that ship has sailed) the impact of global warming on the climate. Not only is such an effort not in sight, the talk is all about growing the economy, growth that will be based on burning even more fossil fuels.

For many of us, our gut instinct is telling us that this is not like it was a few decades ago. The science will confirm what you gut has been telling you. Climate change is not something to worry about twenty or thirty years from now. It is happening now, faster and with more intensity than was predicted even a few short years ago. Nature is adjusting on the fly, and unnatural disasters, like the temperatures and tides, are rising at an ever-accelerating rate. Like every other species, we are just along for the ride at this point.