Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The trials of Jeb Bush

Paul O’Donnell took Jeb Bush to task on Sunday. A woman is being systematically and deliberately killed, he said. It is time to set aside the legalisms and use your executive powers to save a life. Leave the consequences for later, this is a time to act. O’Donnell, a Roman Catholic priest and spiritual advisor to the Schindler family cut to the chase. You have embraced this family's cause, you have chosen to ride the whirlwind, it is time to stand up and be counted.

If Jeb Bush believes what the family believes and has recounted to the media, he has no choice but to act. Terri Schindler has been described by Tom DeLay as lucid and by Bill Frist as responsive. Her father suggested yesterday that she is aware and trying to talk. Only days ago, her mother exclaimed that her daughter spoke to her and pleaded for her life.

If this is the truth and Jeb Bush believes it to be so, he must act. No court order can justify allowing a woman who is conscious and aware to be denied nutrition and hydration. But Jeb Bush does not believe these statements. Jeb Bush believes the medical testimony, which contradicts the family’s claims, and indicates that all cognitive brain activity ceased years long ago.

Jeb Bush has only begun to feel the sting of his embrace of the Schindler-Schiavo affair. Three quarters of Americans polled understand that this was a private matter that should have been left a private matter. Congress had no business getting involved, and the President and Congressional leaders who led this charge have been rightly seen to have acted for political advantage, whatever degree of sincerity also may have influenced their actions.

The politicians who rushed to embrace this family’s tragedy are guilty of the most egregious form of pandering for political gain. The abject cynicism shown over the past few weeks in the name of winning the hearts and minds of the social conservative base of the Republican Party has led even the staunchest pundits from the other side of the aisle to shake their heads in wonder. Bill Frist, in pursuit of primary support for his coming presidential bid threw medical ethics aside as he practiced distance medicine from the well of the Senate. Tom DeLay sought the support of social conservative groups by equating in God’s eyes DeLay’s suffering at the hands of the House Ethics Committee and his Democrat rivals with Terri Schiavo’s end of life struggle.

The President’s admonition to those involved in the Shiavo tragedy to “err on the side of life,” has left his brother and others in his party, to say nothing of himself, vulnerable to being viewed as cynical at best and deeply hypocritical at worst. For the Schindler family and Father O’Donnell, what is at issue is not the nature of the medical diagnosis or even the niceties of legal process, but the simple fact that she remains alive. Their statement is simple and compelling: if she can live with nutrition and hydration, she should be allowed to live. To cease medical intervention is not the same as denying nutrition and hydration. It is hard to quarrel with the humanity of that standard.

Jeb Bush has found himself trapped between those who demand that he demonstrate moral courage and intervene, and his own unwillingness to act in an extra-judicial manner. By failing to act, he is demonstrating that his support of the family was more calculating than sincere. Father O’Donnell knows what he is doing. He knows that Bush sought political advantage in championing the cause of the Schindler family, and saw the cynicism of his embrace in the moment the “culture of life” rhetoric. O'Donnell demanded that Bush act with the courage of his stated convictions, while knowing full well that he would not.

The Schiavo case has unearthed the deep fault line between morality and faith, and the task of governing in a democracy. Jeb Bush, as Governor, routinely makes decisions that affect end of life care. To say it more bluntly, governors and legislators routinely make laws and pass budgets that do not err on the side of life. Just this month, the Miami Herald reported on an investigation into the deaths of four disabled Floridians in the wake of budget cuts and resulting changes in nursing care for disabled residents.

At the same time, in Texas, the Texas Advance Directive Act signed into law by the President Bush when he was governor provides a legal process for ending life support––for ending life–––even when it is against the wishes of the family in the event of an inability to pay the cost of continuing care.

The task of governing demands that our leaders make hard decisions. If "erring on the side of life" is to be set as the standard, the President and his brother should stand to account first for their own actions, before judging others. In this case, there was no need for action by Congress or for the national spotlight to be focused on the Schiavo tragedy, and the public understood this immediately. Perhaps in this case the blind pursuit of political advantage will rebound against those who found themselves eager to talk the talk, but who were unwilling to walk the walk. This cynical hypocrisy is the true target of Father O’Donnell’s words.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

On Easter morning

It is 7 am on Easter Morning. I have just received my coffee at Starbucks, when Hank, a man whom I often see here, mentions how appreciative he is that places are open on Easter. Everything used to be closed on the holidays. Except the movie theatres, I commented. That’s right, Hank said. Then after reflecting a moment he added, I’ve heard the Jews go to the movies on Christmas. Then go out for Chinese food. He smiled. Don’t know if it’s true. I assured him it was.

A good friend, a man rarely moved in my experience to political passions, wrote to me from his BlackBerry:

Where was the Democratic leadership when the Terry Schiavo issue was hitting the fan? Where were the politically conservative Republicans during this egregious abuse of political strong-arming by the religiously conservative Republicans?

There is no balance in this political moment. In our modern era of political warfare, the forces of the right and the forces of the left are normally arrayed across the battlefield in full armor. Through talk radio, cable television, Internet and direct mail, the issue of the moment is flogged and the positions blogged. As members of the left decry manipulations of Karl Rove, the corrupt calculations of Tom DeLay and the heartless preachings of Rush Limbaugh, the right inveighs against the godless and biased media, Hollywood, the cultural elites and George Soros, and its timeless, immoral enemies embodied by Ted Kennedy. Every issue is fodder for this millennial conflict and every happening viewed through the lens of partisanship and assessed for its strategic possibilities.

But not this time. This time, while the supporters of Terri Schiavo’s parents, representing a large part of the core of the social conservative movement, have staked out their position, there really is no other side. In this moment of life and death, the personalization of politics has gone too far, and even the Congressional leaders who initially saw this moment as ripe with political advantage, including Tom DeLay and presidential aspirant Bill Frist have since backed away

The rage of the social conservatives is directed at the courts, and their apparent indifference to the central issue of life. It is targeted at the perceived indifference of society and its pro-death bias. In what appear to be the closing moments of the drama, Jeb Bush––the true scion of the political dynasty of Senator Prescott Bush––is being held to account by the Schindler family for his unwillingness to use executive power in the face of judicial intransigence. For those of faith who have embraced this cause, the notion that civil law would confound God’s law is simply unacceptable.

It is Easter morning. Will a God who resurrected his only son not intervene and save the life of Terri Schiavo? This is no metaphorical question, for the central issue in this drama is the intertwining of religious belief and modern medicine, the nature of faith and facts. The Schindler family and their supporters believe that her condition is temporal, even possibly reversible. Life itself is the imperative, and that she is alive is irrefutable. In contrast, the medical facts that have been placed on the record before 19 judges and the Supreme Court appear to be equally irrefutable. No brain activity for years. A dissolved cerebral cortex. Reduce brain size. Eye and facial movements that are merely motor responses to stimuli. These medical facts are confounded by the more simple statements of the family. I spoke to her, Mary Schindler states, and Terri said I want to live.

In the face of this mother’s grief, there is no stepping forward to argue the case for the rule of law, the importance of the judiciary, and the overreaching of the Congress. We are a nation of parents and children. No parent can feel anything but empathy for the Schindlers, and feel the depth of their pain. They are in the midst of the greatest family nightmare one can imagine, and whatever one’s views of how that family tragedy has unfolded, we all become deists in knowing “there but for the grace of God…”

Death with dignity cannot be achieved in the midst of a family conflict overseen by the courts. The apparent dissolution of the family brought together by the marriage of Terri and Michael Schiavo over issues of money and litigation over the course of her illness has resulted in a public dispute played out in black and white that thoughtful observers know must in fact be rich in complexities, for that is the nature of family disputes. Add to the mix a media and punditocracy only too willing to conspire in the politics of personal destruction in pursuit of ratings and viewers, and a circus, however tragic, was assured.

Those on the other “side” of this issue tread lightly when drawn out on cable shows. They speak respectfully of the family, while trying to draw attention to the fact of serial judicial reviews over the years, and consistent findings of fact along the way. But how can one argue against the logic of one more test, of taking a little more time? In the court of public opinion, the videotapes of Terri Schindler are powerful evidence that she is aware and alive. One cannot help but have moments of doubt as to whether the judges have seen what you have seen. The sadness of the moment permeates and no one is prepared to join the battle that the Schindler forces seek.

Where will all of this lead us? The public has spoken with a singular voice in disgust at political manipulations perceived in the Schiavo affair. Will this have any impact on the protagonists once the moment has passed? Will the confluence of forces fighting for Terri Schinder’s right to life see in their own actions the imperative of becoming more expansive in their efforts? If only God can take life, how can the death penalty be countenanced? How can the apparatus of the conservative movement not join with the American bishops of the Catholic Church in fighting to end the death penalty?

The lack of respect across the political spectrum is one of the contributing problems to the depth of our political conflict. Can empathy for the Schindler family lead to some modicum of respect for their view of life? Will the threats of physical retribution against the judges and intentional undermining of the faith in the legal system give pause to the leaders of the right as we stand near the precipice?

Tom DeLay, himself the master of understatement and architect of comity, has claimed that God brought Terri Schiavo to us “to elevate the visibility of what is going on in America… attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others.'' The challenge that our Democratic and Republican leaders face is, at least, to recognize that everything is not about Tom DeLay, and that he and others need to recognize, as the public has, when things have gone too far.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Bully pulpit

The vitriol in the Terri Schiavo case is testing the convictions of the protagonists. Noted jurist and former pest control specialist Tom DeLay lashed out at the Supreme Court in the wake of their decision to forego intervention in the case. "When this tragic episode is resolved, the Supreme Court will have some serious questions to answer about its silence and arbitrary interpretation of federalism, but those questions will have to wait for now."

Now, exactly what does he mean by these threatening words? Judges in this country are beginning to hear harsh words of retribution and in response to rulings that spark controversy. Following the recent murders of a judges family members in Chicago, this month the semi-annual Judicial Conference raised the issue of the need for greater security for federal judges with the Department of Justice and the U.S. Marshall’s service.

Tom DeLay, who holds unmatched power within the Republican controlled House of Representatives, knows that his words have a powerful effect on the Christian Conservative base of the Party. He also must know that he is playing with fire, and may yet move individuals from peaceful dissent to more violent means of expression. It is important to remember that the Right-to-Life movement already has a history of spawning individual acts of domestic terrorism in the name of protecting what they view as innocent life. They have already committed murder in the name of protecting the sanctity of life. How could a judge involved in the Schiavo case not have good reason to fear for their his or her own safety?

But Judge DeLay is not alone in his irresponsible abuse of his position of power. Senate Majority Leader and presidential aspirant Bill Frist has entered the fray in a transparent effort to play to the base that will be critical to his pursuit of the oval office. Dr. Frist first challenged the validity of the medical diagnosis based upon his review of a home video, and then undermined the public confidence in the judiciary through his attacks on the failure of the legal system to reach the conclusion that was demanded by he and Judge DeLay.

What is at issue here is more than the fealty of the Republican leadership to the traditions of conservatism and the core tenets of the Republican Party. Yes, due process in the courts should be supported and respected. Yes, the elevation of state issues to the federal level should be avoided. And yes, the founders specifically sought to prohibit legislative action that involved itself in matters of individual rights and liberties. But Judge DeLay and Dr. Frist have found something more important that adhering to these core principles of their party. What is most important, in this era of determined political warfare, is keeping the pot stirred, for as Judge DeLay so artfully pointed out, someone must held to account here.

And so they should. DeLay and Frist are national leaders. They have a right to pursue their partisan agendas, without question. But they owe their primary obligation of duty to upholding public faith in the Constitution and our system of democracy, particularly as we tout its virtues in the international stage. Every issue cannot be allowed to be fodder for political strategy. At some point, after the voting is done, the antagonists must be able to unite in their common commitment to the nation. Just as Goldwater and Humphrey, and Reagan and O’Neill could share a drink and a laugh after a hard day, DeLay and Frist need to remember where the game of politics ends and the business of governing begins.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Culture of life or culture of politics

Spiro Nikolouzos has been diagnosed in a persistent vegetative state since 2001.  A patient at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston, he is ventilator-dependent and receives artificial nutrition and hydration through a feeding tube.  On March 7, the Houston Chronicle reported that St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital had invoked the Texas Advance Directive Act and determined that further treatment would be medically inappropriate and would be discontinued in 10 days unless another facility agreed to accept his transfer.

Since then, the Nikolouzos case has bounced from trial court to one Houston appellate court and then to another Houston appellate court and back to trial court.  The bottom line (as reported in Friday's Houston Chronicle) is that the patient's family has been given until Wednesday to produce proof that a hospital or nursing home has agreed to accept Mr. Nikolouzos.  Failing that, it would the hospital's prerogative under the Texas statute to discontinue life-support against the interest of the family.

The Texas law that allows hospitals to cease life-support against the interest of the family if the family is unable to pay was signed into law by then-Governor George Bush. Today, Florida Governor Jeb Bush has sought an independent medical opinion to justify new legislative action in the matter of Terri Schiavo.

We have headed into uncharted and dangerous waters here. As suggested in How dare you, Joe, political leaders are heading off the deep end in search of what they perceive to be political advantage. I am a cynic you suggest Judge DeLay? It is sincere pursuit of the culture of life, you say? The family of Spiro Nikolouzos is united in wanting him kept on life support. They are in your home state of Texas. Where are you when his life is in question.

I am steadfast. Our political leaders have no business in this domain.

Monday, March 21, 2005

How dare you, Joe?

“Regardless of what you think of this case,” intoned Congressman turned pundit Joe Scarborough, “the husband has behaved in a deplorable manner.”

I have read the Supreme Court brief filed by the parents of Terri Shiavo. I am not sure what I think of the case. That brief makes a compelling argument that modern testing has been foregone and that the presumption of the medical diagnosis that has prevailed may be in error. Of course, this is based on a brief for the parents, and does not present the alternative perspective. The perspective that apparently has convinced one court after another along the way for years.

The current period of political warfare and fractious public discourse is characterized by an inability to agree on the facts before the screaming starts. On any given issue, little effort is made to recite and agree upon a given set of facts before proceeding down the familiar path of charge and counter-charge, personal attacks and righteous declarations. This has never struck me as clearly as today, when a woman’s life is at question, and due to whatever ill-conceived set of circumstances, the nation has been drawn into one family’s tragedy.

All of us in our lives have dealt with or will deal with a circumstance of terminal illness of a dying friend or family member. All of us in our lives have had to face or will have to face the terrible decisions that arise in those situations. All of us in our lives know or will come to know the terrible pain, guilt and anger that such events inflict upon the survivors as well as the injured or dying. The dignity and respect with which we deal with death––our own and that of our loved ones––is one of the greatest challenges we face in our lives.

I remember as if it was yesterday sitting in my grandmother’s bedroom in New York City. She was sitting up in a chair, her body ravaged by cancer, knowing that she had lived a full life and not wanting to let it go on any farther. “David,” she implored, her voice weak but clear, “Why can’t you just give me a pill? Please, would you do that for me?” I felt impotent, sitting there. This woman whom I loved and who had always loved me back knew that her time was over. She was content and clear in her wishes. Could I not just do this one thing for her?

Some years later, as my mother was dying of cancer, I spent days with her in the hospital. Unlike her mother, she was content to live through the chemotherapy and spend the time that she could just talking, or listening. Her friends and family gathered around her during those last days, and it was a magical time of connection and connectedness. I have seen little of her friends since those weeks, but the connections from that time remain.

How dare they turn this one family’s tragedy into a public spectacle? How dare those politicians in Washington presume that through their actions they are acting in the public interest rather than in their incessant warring seeking just one more wedge to divide us from ourselves. This story is not about a culture of life, it is about a culture at war with itself. It is not about the sanctity of God’s gift of life, for if it were these self-same politicians would be rising in rage at a child dying in a Texas hospital whose families can no longer afford to pay, or the impending execution of an inmate at a Texas prison. But they do not.

How dare you, Joe, for your ratings and sense of your own righteousness, bring this family tragedy out into the public square and deem yourself fit to pronounce judgment?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Education in the information economy

Last week, in a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, by Penn educational historian Marvin Lazerson and co-author of The Education Gospel questioned the continued validity of America’s belief in education as a silver bullet for solving society’s problems, and as the singular force for enabling upward mobility and pursuit of the American dream. Lazerson noted that in their book, they conflated education and schooling, and it is here that an important point should be made.

Twenty or so years ago, as the new world order was opening up and the United States manufacturing base was visibly in a period of decline, Peter Drucker suggested that in the future the American worker would be a free agent. Gone were the days, Drucker suggested, of graduating from high school or college, taking a job at GM or US Steel and staying there until retirement day. In the future, each worker would have several employers, and perhaps even several careers. Drucker’s most challenging suggestion was that over the course of their work life, each worker would be responsible for continually upgrading the set of skills and experience that they brought to the marketplace.

The demands that this would place on the individual worker seemed to me at the time to be an intolerable basis for a social contract, and ones to which the American worker would be hard put to adapt. But Drucker’s prognostication has in large measure proven true. Today, workers have shifted from manufacturing to service and from low-tech to high-tech. But perhaps most importantly, changes in industrial organization have placed new demands on worker adaptability and creativity and driven labor productivity to unforeseen levels.

How has our educational system responded to these dramatic changes in economic and social organization? Over the past twenty years, college participation rates have skyrocketed, from the 30% to 70% range. Higher education, it would seem, has become a requirement for individual competitiveness in the new economy. Across the country, educational options have expanded in the non-profit and for-profit sectors with increased investment in community colleges and other adult and alternative education options.

During this time, however, our traditional institutions of schooling have remained remarkably unchanged, ill-serving the needs of society and of the individual. At the K-12 level, the No Child Left Behind Act is moving education away from creative thinking and experiential learning toward curricula and pedagogies that are designed around regimens of standardized tests. At the college level, curricula is driven as much by historical practices and faculty interests as by any new vision of higher education in a networked universe and information-based economy.

As information technology evolved, military study groups within the Pentagon considered the implications of military strategy within a networked universe, and the work of those study groups has directly affected changes in military organization and strategy. Notions of Network Centric Warfare inverted the traditional organization chart and challenged the traditional military to view the individual soldier as the focal point, or forward node in an information network. In the network centric model, information resources are organized in support of each individual soldier, information flows both ways through the organization, and strategy evolves from static to dynamic.

This shift in military doctrine and organization mirrors shifts in industrial organization described by management guru Tom Peters, among others. Over the past twenty years, large, inflexible organizations have been replaced by flexible, fast moving organizations that place a priority on feedback loops between management and line workers and customers, which enable organizations to respond quickly to changes in customer demand or product deficiencies.

So where are our traditional models of schooling in the networked universe? Lagging, I would suggest, lagging dangerously behind. The implications the emergency of the networked universe on schooling must be no less dramatic than they have been for other areas of society and the economy, but our educational institutions are hard pressed to think and change and evolve. Individuals have adapted, however, and information network literacy is becoming second nature for children growing up today. Accessing information to meet their needs is what students learn today, however they are learning it despite, not because of, the best efforts of our traditions schooling institutions. Education, I would suggest, is not diminishing in importance within society, but rather a greater and greater portion of the education relevant to an individual’s future is taking place outside of the classroom.

Here is a question. What does it mean that students go online to find term papers and essays to submit in school? What is the problem that that fact illuminates? Is it simply that our society is decaying, students are amoral, and cheating has become acceptable? Or might it perhaps also suggest that teachers have failed to keep up with the kinds of questions that should be asked, questions that would not limit the use of available networked resources but rather would demand their use, and require and challenge the kind of thinking that students need to develop in order to succeed in a networked universe.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Congress, heal thyself.

There is just something galling about it.

I am not a fan of steroid use in baseball. But there is something galling about the spectacle of watching Tom Davis and Henry Waxman pontificate about doing the right thing. Congress has for years been unwilling to substantively address the problem of money in politics, and yet given the opportunity to sit in righteous judgment of another industry, they do not hesitate. After all, it is great television

We live in a free market, and behavior that is reinforced will be repeated. Congressional action to curtail the influence of money in politics has always foundered on three simple facts. First, it takes money to run for Congress. Second, incumbents have a significant advantage in raising funds over challengers. Third, everyone wants to be reelected. Accordingly, each member of Congress must deal with their own assessment of the corrupting influence of political contributions. One might feel that it is fine, as they are happy to represent the interests of their large donors. Another might feel squeamish and defensive, but rationalizes that the money game is a fact of political life.

Fine. I recognize the alchemy of money and politics will forever be a fact of life, and is certainly nothing new. But the increased cost of running for office, combined with the increased transparency afforded by the Internet, has made the problem worse. Legislation ranging from overarching legislation like bankruptcy reform to hidden riders in obscure bills is bought and paid for. And even if you believe that any given piece of legislation is good, that the moneyed interests in that instance are aligned with the public weal, just the appearance that legislation is bought and paid for undermines our democracy and the credibility and integrity of the institution of Congress.

Baseball players who take steroids do so because of the strong incentives in a market economy to do what it takes to succeed. That is a simple fact. Brady Anderson, a long aspiring player who came up on the Red Sox, came to camp one year with the newfound body of Adonis. That year he hit 50 home runs, twice his prior total. Lenny Dykstra, who with Wally Bachman was a smaller player who survived in the sport on grit, became a hero in Philadelphia with a body unrecognizable from his Met years. Did they take steroids, or was it just a workout regimen? I don’t know. All I know is that many of their teammates, seeing these average players turn into big money sluggers must have seen them as inspirations of what was possible in the new world of performance enhancement.

Does Tom Davis take bundled PAC money from contributors with an interest in federal legislation? What sources of funding support the Waxman-Berman political machine in Los Angeles? How about others on the Committee? Like in so many other areas of the information age, perhaps disclosure is the best we can do. Did Sammy cork his bat? Was McGuire’s body acne chemically induced? Has Barry Bonds’ hat size grown? I do not know. What I do know is that baseball players, like Congressmen, will seek out ways to gain an advantage over their competitors. That does not make them bad. It just makes them rational actors in a free market economy.

Should some things be illegal and laws be enforced? Of course they should. Steroids? Yes, because it filters down from the professional to the amateur ranks, particularly as amateurs hope against hope of becoming professionals. How campaign contributions that to a third party observe have all of the appearances of legal bribery? I think it would be a good idea, but have watching several efforts at campaign finance reform over the years I simply do not believe that Congress will ever approve changes that threaten their own power in a meaningful way. Like baseball players, they are simply too rational.

I could just use with a bit less of the self-righteousness from our Congressional representatives who by their own conduct are placing a far more important institution than baseball at risk.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The rage of Bob Taft

Bob Taft chaired the Committee on Un-Republican Activities.

Taft, a man of great stature, the former Senator from Ohio and Presidential aspirant, looked down from the chair to the witness that had been brought before the committee. He felt disdain, utter disdain for the man who had brought shame upon the party that he had done so much to champion.

First, he said, tell us about your management of the national budget. You inherited a budget that was in surplus. We had an opportunity to retire the national debt and leave a legacy to our children of moral and fiscal strength. In two regards here, you have committed sins against our party and our nation. You cut taxes and led the nation into fiscal profligacy, and you fought a war without paying for it.

The witness squirmed in his seat and began to protest. We needed the tax cuts to promote economic growth!

Quiet! Taft thundered, his 300-plus pound frame trembling as he raged. So you are a Keynsian! Just as I suspected.

Taft went on. You took the nation to a war on some speculative fears and theories, and have tarnished our nation’s name, spent our treasure, and overseen the murder of our youth. Foreign adventurism is anathema to all that we stand for!

The witness sat up proud in his chair. I was defending the nation against her enemies, he protested.

Quiet! Taft enjoined. The world is full of dictators. The war you chose was not against those who attacked us, but rather was a contrivance to settle family scores. Believe me, I know about family scores and family honor. These are things to be settled, but as men of honor, not in ways that despoil the public purse.

The witness remained silent, realizing that to question the chair was futile.

And you have run roughshod over the very civil liberties that are the core of our Party and our nation.

But the terrorist…the witness blurted out, unwilling to hold his tongue.

Terrorists, nonsense! Without civil liberties we have no nation to defend, Taft went on, each of us must defend our homeland, but we can never walk away from our core values as a nation. The gummint can never be allowed to trample on the rights of the individual, not as long as our Party, OUR Party still lives. If you were half the Republican I am, you would understand.

I am half the Republican you are, the witness rebuked, a grin slipping across his face.

Quiet! Taft screamed, angry now that things had turned personal. I will not countenance your efforts to resort to personal attacks. Your Grandfather would be ashamed at your conduct here today, and your conduct as President. Prescott Bush was a friend of mine, sir, and a true Republican. And you, sir, are no Prescott Bush.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Remembering Bob Byfield

Where are all of the Republicans? My grandfather, Bob Byfield, was a true Republican. He believed in small government, the power of private enterprise and balanced budgets. At one time an observer at the United Nations representing the New York Stock Exchange, he was an internationalist but wary of foreign entanglements. Prudence at home and humility abroad. Hmm, sounds like the platform of George W. Bush in 2000.

The Republican Party has lost its foothold in reality, to say nothing of its own roots. Fiscal prudence and individual liberties are no longer the hallmark of the party deeply entrenched in power these days. There is no problem that cannot be addressed through cutting taxes and laying the costs on our children.

Take Social Security. Please. I am a believer in the need for Social Security reform. George Bush has pointed to real problems in the system. It may not be a crisis yet, but once certainly is looming.

The problem is simple. People are living longer, while years in the workforce remain constant. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was brilliant. Faced with the problem of elderly people living in poverty, he created an income support system for retired workers at age 65 at a time when average male mortality was 59. It was not a pension system--which is to say that the benefits were not paid for from invested contributions--but rather it was a pay-as-you-go system. The tax rate was 1/2 of 1%, and only workers who paid into the system received benefits. Yes, when the system was created there were 15 workers paying in for every retired worker taking money out, but that was simply a function of the fact that only workers who had paid in to the system received benefits, so it took years for the system to mature. By the 1970s the system was still OK and the ratio of workers to retirees had falled to 3 to 1.

Today's problem is not simply the ratio of workers to retirees, but rather the ratio of live people to dead people. The system was brilliant when most people died before their eligibility started, and is problematic when average mortality is approaching 80 while the age of eligibility has stayed at 65. This problem is not going to go away. People are going to keep living longer, and even as the system has developed attributes of a pension system--with built up reserves set aside to pay future costs--attention must be paid to the fundamental economics of the system.

However, as is his wont, the President has proposed to solve the problem by cutting taxes. That is what the proposed reform is, simply stated. The proposal will take half (of so) of a person's social security taxes and put them in a private account. This is the same as a tax cut: first we (the gummint) took your money, now you get to keep it. The condition is that you must save it. So it is a tax cut with the funds deposited into your IRA instead of your checking account.

Now, having cut the tax revenues flowing into the social security system, the program will not have enough money to fund its ongoing payments to retirees. The resulting annual program deficits--referred to in polite company as “transition costs”--will be paid for through the issuance of bonds, thereby passing the unfunded current program costs on to our children.

Sound familiar? This is how we are funding the Federal Government. Our annual budgets are X dollars. Our annual revenues are Y dollars. X is bigger than Y, so we borrow money though issuing bonds to pay for the annual shortfall. Who pays back the bonds? That would be our children. Or better yet, somebody else's children.

Tax cutting Republicans have honed their talking points over the years. Those of the Jude Wanniski/Jack Kemp supply sider school argue that deficits are temporary, that tax cuts engender economic growth that will drive up governmental revenues, and ultimately fiscal balance will be achieved without the need for draconian cuts. Those of the David Stockman/Newt Gingrich starve-the-beast school argue that after cutting taxes, deficits will force budget cuts, and through cutting expenses balance will be achieved. The theory was there on both sides.

In either case, these were not the talking points of Bob Byfield. Bob, a Republican of the Old School, believed in balanced budgets first, theory second. But most of all, he believed in integrity. If you want to cut taxes, cut costs. If you want to spend, pay for it. Whatever you do, Bob would say, do not finance current consumption on the backs of your children. Or of mine. That is the greatest moral failing.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Hillary's metamorphosis

Was it on the day of George Bush's second inaugural that we were introduced to Hillary, the conservative Christian? I had long wondered when this shift to the center would take place. And I understand, that like Robert Byrd who was born again in Jesus Christ some sixty years ago, Democrats do not need to apologize for their faith.

It just seems that way.

Senator Clinton has been all the rave in the news. New York Republicans have thrown their support behind her. No doubt about it, if they were Democrats they would pull her lever. Nationally as well, she has won the plaudits from her counterparts across the aisle as a strong colleague. Someone they can work with.

Then came the comments of a good friend of mine. A real Republican insider and long-time strategist. Hillary will win, he pronounced. Primaries and general. Cannot be beat. Tom DeLay––he threw in for good measure––is a crazed and scary person. Bad for the party.

Now, I am usually one with a sense for having my lever pulled, and I took the remarks on Tom DeLay as my friend's fairly transparent effort at playing to the crowd. But I took the Hillary line. Hook and sinker and all.

It took a while, but now the picture is coming clear. My good friend––and I will not hold this moment of duplicity against him––was playing me. What a perfect strategy for 2008. Whomever the candidate that will emerge from the Republican side, whom better to face than Hillary, the bete noir of the Republican faithful. I have not listened to Rush for a while, but I bet if I tune in he will be singing her praises as the strongest candidate for the wandering Democrat Party.

Ah, if it works, it will have been brilliant. If they can rehabilitate Hillary enough to put her in the general election, then it will all come tumbling down. Filegate. Vince Foster. National Healthcare. The cold and calculating rise of a politician who has done nothing of substance in her life but plot and scheme her way to the top.

Is my chain being jerked or is it paranoia? Remember the old adage. Just because you are paranoid, it doesn't mean people aren't out to get you.

I Just Don't Get It

I am not a blogger by nature. I am trying to set aside time to write each day, and this is a new discipline for doing that. First it was screenplays. Loved that. Then op-ed pieces. I dabble in speechwriting. And writing a blog. It is all so narcissistic, but there we are.

Forget writing. Who has the time to read these things. I reminds me of our five years in Berkeley. A trully wonderful and hedonistic place to live. We would go to Betty's for breakfast on a Tuesday. 10 am and there was a half-hour wait for a table. In the middle of the week. I would look around and ask myself "Who are these people? Don't they have a job?" Then, of course, I would realize that I was there...

So I was taking a look at Bitch.PhD where the bankruptcy bill came into the cross-hairs. I came upon this rant:

"People, well my very financially secure brother, say to me that there is no reason I have credit card debt. Well, let's see: Turned in my dissertation the DAY the furniture was being picked up to move us to my first faculty job. University did not cover all of moving expenses. Debt. University pays only once a month, and first check did not get deposited until October. Debt. We moved for my job leaving my partner trying to find one. It takes him 4 to 5 months. Debt. No one answers all the questions when you're negotiating salary. You find out you MUST contribute % of salary to your retirement. You realize you get paid pretty crappily when you add all this in, plus your husband's insurance until he gets a job and can get it himself. DEBT DEBT DEBT.

"AAAAGH... and that's without kids. I believe many people think that being a professor is a cushy, financially rewarding job. And while I acknowledge that other people don't have the privilege that I have, I want to just scream at times. Particularly now as we try to buy a house and all that damn debt is coming back to haunt me."

No kids and a university job? I think financial literacy is more of a problem than I thought. I am not a fan of the bankruptcy bill. I have not read it, but I know governmental corruption when I see it. You cannot take the money without having to deliver the goods. Someday. And MBNA does not spend its money foolishly.

In contrast with the following:

" Okay, I bought 5 pairs of Victoria's Secret underwear, but they were on sale and yes, I could use that $20, but what's life without good underwear? I think this whole credit card debt thing and bankruptcy and social "in"security is why I'm sort of panic stricken. What if I can't pay off the debt? I now have tax debt that is more than my credit debt. What if Mr. Geeky doesn't get tenure..."

Mr. Geeky?