Archive for July 2009

Vine/Wine Friday

End of JulyVine: It’s hot, damn hot.  We have had a string of hot stifling days, which is my cue to stay out of the vineyard.  Although the nights still cool down to the 60s, I would like to see a little more even weather (highs in the low 90s and dropping down into the 50s at night).  It slows the grapes down and allows the flavors to develop more fully.  Of course the other argument is that since we had such a cool June (I read an article that the tomatoes out here are a month behind), this weather is letting the grapes catch up.  My own uneducated view on this is that I would prefer more even weather patterns with a very long ripening season, but Mother Nature is not one for moderation.

I get asked a lot how my grapes are doing and the reality is I haven’t a clue.  It is true that we have good leaf development, lots of clusters that will require some fruit to be dropped in August, but as far as how the grapes are developing in terms of flavors, I just don’t know.  And I won’t know till about mid-September.  Verasion (turning red for the red grapes) has not occurred yet.  I did start a round of watering in mid July (about two weeks later than last year).  Based on that, I would say everything looks about two weeks late, but a lot can happen between now and October.

As far as work in the vineyard goes, I haven’t done much.  I did replace about 16 plants, mostly Grenache, but a few Viognier.  I put in a separate drip line for the new plants since they will require more frequent watering than the existing vines.  I also installed a separate watering system for my Viognier.  The Viognier are planted in the upper vineyard with the Syrah, but in an area that does not hold as much moisture and I am seeing if some additional water will facilitate more hardy growth.  Soon I will start some thinning of the leaf cover around the grapes.  This involves pulling off some of the heavy foliage around the grape clusters.  Most vineyards do some cover management.  The idea is to get a balance of leaf growth to grape bunch growth.  You want enough leaf growth to support growth of the grapes, but not too heavy so the plant is supporting leaf development over grapes.  I am always guessing.DSC_0392

Wine: Apparently Mourvedres are finally being discovered by the drinking masses.  The Food and Wine section of last Sundays Chronicle had an article on how California was discovering them.  Of the 800 or so acres in production here in California, one is mine.  For those unfamiliar with the wine, here is their description which I think is fairly accurate:

“These are typically hearty, well-structured wines, with deep red fruit flavors and a leathery edge. They bring the power and fruit of Zinfandel but add extra depth. And yet the flavors can be hard to nail down – brighter berry notes at times, darker hues at others. Trademark leathery, animal nuances can step forward, providing a signature; other times they lurk quietly. It is a difficult grape to comprehend, much less embrace.”

Mourvedre grows quite well up here with our cooler growing season.  It was interesting to note that the first two wines recommended were the 2007 David Girard Vineyard Estates Mourvedre, and the 2007 Donkey and Goat’s Prospector, both El Dorado County grown Mourvedres (vineyard manager Ron Mansfield).  Ron is the one who convinced me to plant my Mourvedres.  I have tasted both and they are quite good.  My claim to fame is that the Holly’s Hill 2007 Mourvedre Classique won a silver medal at the State Fair and has my Mourvedre in it.

For a food recommendation, my daughter was up here last weekend during the hot weather so for lunch I fixed a very simple Vietnamese chicken salad, but I substituted shrimp instead of chicken.  The salad uses Napa cabbage, cilantro, and green onions.  The dressing is peanut oil, fresh limejuice, fish sauce, and a little sugar.  The shrimp you peel and devein, coat in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast in the oven for about 4 minutes.  Then you just combine all the ingredients, sprinkle on some peanuts, and serve with a chilled Viognier.  It was light, refreshing, and just the thing for a hot summer day.  Carpe Diem.

Note the recipe (sans the shrimp) is from William-Sonoma’s Simple Suppers.

A Real Drive-By of the News

There were a few gems this week that for those paying attention, announce little nuggets of wisdom.  Too bad no one is listening:

  • The New York Times editorialized about big engine cars that the minor three are putting out there which may end up to be big sellers and help their bottom line, but will not help us in fighting climate change or our addiction to big oil.  The little nugget of wisdom?  Here once again, because gas prices are down, short term thinking is supreme and the market place really does work, but only in the short term.  If the government had the nerve to raise gasoline to $4/gallon (half of most European nations) then the American public would start making smart choices for our future, and we would not get “blind sided” when oil prices go out of sight again.  Oh, I know, that is big brother thinking.  We ought to be allowed to fall on our asses and fail as a country in the name of freedom in the market place (Mind Over Muscle).  Doesn’t someone have to do long term thinking?
  • Only one Republican (Lindsey Graham to his credit) on the Judicial Committee voted for Sonia Sotomayor.  It would seem that their point was that they are standing up for white men, the strategy they used so successfully in the South to represent veiled racism.  But one has to wonder what they are thinking when the party of white men cannot win in a Presidential election as we become a diverse culture.  Maybe they don’t care as long as it can effect local elections that have been gerrymandered to insure their success as long as they are faithful to this ignorant white base.  When I see these kinds of moves by the Republicans, I hope they may really be an endangered species (Senate Panel Endorses Sotomayor).
  • In California, Governor Schwarzenegger signed the budget “compromise”, but line item vetoed items that were agreed to in order to get agreement on this poorly crafted billed.  Bottom line was that the minority Republicans won big time by cutting everything and no plans for additional revenue for needed programs.  After this debacle, I doubt very seriously that the Democrats will come to the table and work with Republicans ever again.  That means that as things get worse in 2009 and 2010 and another “fix” is required, government will be totally stalemated.  That also means we fix both the state constitution and get rid of the 2/3 requirement for budget approval or we are looking at a failed state.  My bet is on the later.  Like so many other things that are facing us (health care reform, climate change, banking system out of control), until the consequences are dire, the status quo will have its way and the road chosen will be the easy one (Slimmed, Signed – But Still Shakey).
  • In a related story to the above, the Republicans have started a campaign about how a single payer health care plan will kill the elderly, from delay in treatments to the more nefarious idea that rationing will allow the government to just let them die as being no longer useful to society.  One has to really laugh at this one.  When Governor Schwarzenegger signed the California State Budget, he cut $80 million for counties to investigate child abuse, $110 million for medical services to the needy, $263 million from in-home supportive services, and I could go on.  Which do you think is going to kill more people (Media Matters)?  By the way, and of course no one is asking, does anyone notice that the rest of the industrialized world seems not to have this problem?
  • A new poll came out Wednesday that showed that a majority of Americans disapprove of the Presidents handling of the health care issue.  I have no idea what this means since we have no idea what is in it and what we will finally see.  For my own part I am very unhappy with the way he has handled it because I don’t think he has stood up for what will work instead of letting the bought and paid for Congress create something worthless to maintain the status quo with the health industry.  I hope the lesson he takes from this is that he now needs to get behind a specific plan and fight for it.  If anyone could finally debunk the Republican and Health Industry smoke screen, he can.
  • Finally in another related story to the California budget, a recent survey has found that in eight cities the prices of houses was up.  Now for many who think this crisis is over, that is as far as they will read, but the article does point out that this may be speculator buying and with a further increase in unemployment, things will begin to fall again.  Really?  You think so?  That to me is the obvious.  If you look at the California crisis, and it has to be somewhat the same throughout most of the nation, the California government took $24 billion out of the economy negating anything the stimulus package from Washington might have helped.  Those who are cheering on these massive cuts will soon find out that the ripple effect is going to hurt them badly with decreased business and unemployment.  The housing crisis has a long way to go before it gets better.  This is not some blip on the business cycle.  It is a wake up call that we need to restructure our economy.  But things aren’t bad enough yet for most to listen.  It is the other guy’s fault because he is wasteful.  Reality is about to come home to roost (Recovery Signs in Housing Market Stir Some Hope).

Well you get the drift on where I stand and it is somewhat pessimistic.  I don’t think we can ever resume business as usual and we are at a major turning point.  I just don’t think people are threatened enough to make the hard choices for change as evidenced by the failure of health care reform, the climate bill, the watered down stimulus package, failure to regulate the banks, deal with the mortgage crisis, or any of the other hard choices we have to make.  But if I am right, they will be.  The next several years are going to be very tough.  I hope I am wrong cause eventually I need to retire.

Mid Week Drive-By on Health Care Reform

Health care reform is probably dead.  As reported in the New York Times in an article entitled “Health Policy Now Carved Out at a More Centrist Table”, six conservatives, all well paid by the medical insurance lobby, are controlling our fate.  One of the great misrepresentations by our media is that these people are centralist.  They are conservative and they will continue to apply failed conservative thinking to tweak a system that needs a complete overhaul.  The group is led by Senate Finance Committee chairman, Max Baucas of Montana, who represents 0.32% of our population, and is the biggest beneficiary of health insurance lobby money.

The rest are as follows:  Olympia Snow of Maine (representing 0.43% of our population); Charles Grassley of Iowa (representing 0.99% of our population); Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming (representing 0.18% of our population); Kent Conrad of North Dakota (representing 0.21% of our population); and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico (representing 0.65% of our population).  Yes you got that right.  Senators representing 2.78% of our population, basically in conservative Middle America, are determining our fate.  Senators representing almost 1/5 the population of California or 1/3 the population of the State of New York will decide how the rest of us get health care.  Or as Howard Dean said yesterday on the Rachel Maddow show, what we will get is some reform of the health insurance, but the same dysfunctional health care system will be left untouched.  It is no wonder we are becoming a backwater nation led by Senators who represent Brithers and other morons who can’t think bigger than their conspiracy theories or their pocket books.

Just look at the discussion and the fear tactics used as to how to pay for it.  One of our major problems is that we have an employer based health care system.  The obvious answer is to end that whole concept and we pay a surcharge from our income that covers everyone.  Saying we can’t afford it is really kind of insane when no one asks if we can afford the Iraq/Afghanistan war, subsidies to agribusiness, or the bail out to banks who are now screwing us on credit cards.  What this battle is really about is those who represent the health care insurance industry and the rest of us.  Right now the health care industry drones are winning.

One last thought on the failure to reform health care.  My friend and golfing buddy, Tom Griffin, shared a real insight with me the other day as I was slicing a ball off the course.  Abraham Lincoln had it wrong.  He should have let the South secede and then we would not be held hostage to all these backwards thinkers (the whole Republican Party).  Here is one other thought for you.  If Senators were empowered based upon the size of the population they represent, the Republican Party would be an afterthought.  Maybe it is time to revisit that concept in the Constitution.  You can guess who would be against it.

Note something really important in this debate we are seeing played out in the media.  We don’t see any health care professionals who have studied the system helping us to understand what is being proposed or using their considerable expert experience to help us understand if it will work.  What we get is an endless political discussion which is about who wins, Republicans or Democrats.  I see that as the great failure of the news media today, their failure to educate instead of titillate.  That is one of the major reasons why we have little hope of making any real progress until things are dire.  The one exception was an interview on the Bill Moyers Journal with journalist Trudy Lieberman and Dr. Marcia Angell on health care reform.  It was depressing to understand from these two how failed our debate has become.

So we continue down the road of ignorance is bliss and our media allowing fiction and wild claims (Republican quotes from the Levin Group or anecdotal falsehoods about Canadian health care) to stand unchallenged and we march off, going nowhere.  I have very little hope anymore that real change is possible in this country.

The Republican Party is in Real Trouble or We All Are

Well we have all seen the Birthers, you know, the nitwits who continue to challenge the citizenship of President Obama.  What is shocking is that Republican Congressmen and women are pandering to this to these nuts.  Is this how low they will go to hold on to their base and is this how crazy their base really is?  The answer to that is yes and it is an indication of how far the Republican Party has fallen.  But there is a very dark side to this pandering and that is that they may be enabling some nut case who believes this stuff and thinks the President should be removed by any means necessary.  Much as the hate speech on conservative talk radio and from Bill O’Rilley undoubtedly egged on the killer of George Tiller, the doctor who performed legal late term abortions, this kind of pandering to nut jobs could be very dangerous for this country.

But what has really got my attention today was listening to the pundits talk about the political future of Sarah Palin.  Some seemingly intelligent people thought she just needed some polishing.  Their failure to grasp her lack of intellectual abilities or understanding of basic reasoning makes me wonder if they all have some form of brain defect.  Now not all Republicans are so blinded as was evidenced by the David Frum and
Ann Coulter argument about her prospects (Huffington Post).   But having said that, you have to wonder if Republicans truly are brain dead.  Do they remember the disaster of the George Bush Presidency and he has a whole lot more horsepower than she does, which is not saying much?  Throwing red meat to the faithful is not a platform to build a country on.  And that is all she does.

If you don’t believe me, just listen to her farewell speech (Palin Farewell Speech).  It didn’t make sense.  She is neither coherent nor thoughtful, not to mention illogical.  Just what we need in a leader, you betcha.  So without further ado, here are some of her gems:

“And it is our men and women in uniform securing it, and we are facing tough challenges in America with some seeming to just be Hell bent maybe on tearing down our nation, perpetuating some pessimism, and suggesting American apologetics, suggesting perhaps that our best days were yesterdays.”

Just who would be the one tearing down the nation Sarah?  Would that have been you when you tolerate the chants of kill him at your political rallies?  President Obama is offering us hope and restoring our reputation overseas so what are you talking about?  Oh, I get it, a strawman who the other brainless people you connect to can hate.  Anybody know what American apologetics is?

“Democracy depends on you (news people), and that is why, that’s why our troops are willing to die for you. So, how ’bout in honor of the American soldier, ya quite makin’ things up. And don’t underestimate the wisdom of the people, and one other thing for the media, our new governor has a very nice family too, so leave his kids alone.”

I would bet a lot of money no one is fighting for news people.  They may be fighting for freedom of the press.  Then she wants them to quite making up stories.  Would that be the Republicans in the House and Senate with their health care horror stories from Canada?  How can she be for freedom of the press and then tell the press what is made up and what suits her?  And then there is the family thing.  Here is the woman who trotted out her family as a down home political ploy, but it is unfair if then the press really looks at them.  Her real problem was that she can’t control them so we are back to her original conflict about freedom of the press and only reporting stories she approves of.  My guess is nobody gives a damn about the new governor’s family as long as he doesn’t try to use them as political flack like you did.

“…because you’re going to see anti-hunting, anti-second amendment circuses from Hollywood and here’s how they do it. They use these delicate, tiny, very talented celebrity starlets, they use Alaska as a fundraising tool for their anti-second amendment causes. Stand strong, and remind them patriots will protect our guaranteed, individual right to bear arms, and by the way, Hollywood needs to know, we eat, therefore we hunt.”

Oh where to start on this one. For some reason delicate, tiny, very talented celebrity starlets are very dangerous and are everywhere trying to stamp out hunting and take their guns away.  I have never seen one, but I trust her on this one.  Starlets are everywhere and you have to be wary.  On the other hand are assault weapons necessary for hunting in Alaska, especially from helicopters?  Apparently she doesn’t think people in Hollywood eat.  I would be somewhat disturbed if we gave everyone in LA a gun so they could hunt.  Oh, I forgot, they all have one and the usually “hunt” in liquor stores and 7/11s where the real food is.

“I resisted the stimulus package. I resisted the stimulus package and we have championed earmark reform, slashing earmark requests by 85% to break the cycle of dependency on a stifling, unsustainable federal agenda, and other states should follow this for their and for America’s stability. We don’t have to feel that we must beg an allowance from Washington, except to beg the allowance to be self-determined. See, to be self-sufficient, Alaska must be allowed to develop – to drill and build and climb, to fulfill statehood’s promise. At statehood we knew this.”

Oh, this one I truly love.  Here is a state that gets back from the federal government $1.85 for every dollar they pay in.  They are a welfare state and is why they wanted statehood.  Without the federal government this state would be on its ass.  Now here is the queen of cut taxes who is living on oil tax revenue and will sell her soul and rape the environment as long as she can keep it coming in.  She was against the climate bill that would have actually helped her natural gas pipeline plan.  So just exactly where does she stand on anything?

“Yes, America must look north to the future for security, for energy independence, for our strategic location on the globe. Alaska is the gate-keeper of the continent.”

There is not one analysis that says if we drilled all the oil in Alaska it would make a dent in our energy/oil dependence, and it would make our climate warming issue worse.  As far as the gate-keeper stuff goes, we here in California have been overrun with Eskimos taking jobs away from hard working white people.  Do they make this stuff up?

“Now, people who know me, and they know how much I love this state, some still are choosing not to hear why I made the decision to chart a new course to advance the state. And it should be so obvious to you. (indicating heckler) It is because I love Alaska this much, sir (at heckler) that I feel it is my duty to avoid the unproductive, typical, politics as usual, lame duck session in one’s last year in office. How does that benefit you? No, with this decision now, I will be able to fight even harder for you, for what is right, for truth. And I have never felt like you need a title to do that.”

I think she said I am quitting because I don’t want to face all the problems I have created.  I want to go to the lower 48 and cash in while the cashing in is good.  Because we all know that getting rich off stupid and gullible people is a Republican virtue and is the American thing to do.  Money after all is the only measure of success and if I can continue to chuck read meat to morons while offering no coherent plans for our future, then that is God’s purpose for me.  Besides I can even get more media attention, which of course I hate.  I wonder if Ann Coulter is threatened by another Republican woman making less sense than she does?

If this is what the Republican Party think is something to admire and is Presidential material, then they have totally lost their way. If appealing to the base by attack and ridicule is more important than thoughtful alternative plans, then they are no longer a party, but a mob.  And If the rest of us  don’t see through her politics of the mean and spiteful, her language of exclusion, and her total lack of knowledge or intellectual curiosity about the larger world, then we are all in big trouble.  Or maybe I am old and I don’t get the new way of speaking where you just throw in nouns, verbs, and adjectives with words that excite the base and it really doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not.  If that is the case we are no longer a thinking nation.  I will leave you with one of her opening paragraphs and if you figure out what it means, please let me know:

“And getting up here I say it is the best road trip in America soaring through nature’s finest show. Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun. And then the extremes. In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice fogged frigid beauty, the cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs? And then in the summertime such extreme summertime about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than just some months ago, than just some months from now, with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving and reminding us that here, Mother Nature wins. It is as throughout all Alaska that big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future. That is what we get to see every day. Now what the rest of America gets to see along with us is in this last frontier there is hope and opportunity and there is country pride.”

And I thought there could not be a worse communicator than George Bush.

The View from the Hinterlands

Sometimes I watch the news and then I just have to turn it off.  I walk outside and into a world far removed from Washington, partisan politics, and strife in general.  I live on about 22 acres in the Sierra Nevada forest, three of which has been cleared and I have planted grapes.  The view from my patio is spectacular as I sit on the top of a hill and overlook most of the valley.  It is deadly quiet up here so you can, in fact, hear yourself think.  And that is my saving grace.  I like to think it gives me perspective on much of the political dialogue taking place.  Instead of getting caught up in it, I can remove myself from it and really think about it.  It is funny, but when you are removed from the constant bickering and strife, things can become fairly simple and clear.

So without any further long-winded pontification on my brilliance, here are what I think are no-duh revelations about current events:

  • The Gates affair is much a do about nothing except that people do and say stupid things sometimes when we let our emotions get the best of us.  I am sure the officer involved probably wishes that he could have defused the situation better and I am sure the Professor wishes he wouldn’t have over reacted to the situation.  But we are colored by our backgrounds and we are human and sometimes we don’t do the smart thing.  I bet the President wishes he hadn’t characterize a situation he knew little about.  But he is human too and his own experiences colored his view.  Maybe we can all learn something here instead of trying to turn this into some major racial incident.  Maybe we all just need to take a breath.
  • We are going nowhere with health care.  The Senate is full of old, fat, white men who simply are out of touch.  The health care issue is relatively simple, unlike what you hear from these dinosaurs.  The present system is unsustainable and for profit medicine has no workable model in the world.  The profit motive is simply unsuited for providing medical care.  Insurance companies make money by not providing care.  It is as simple as that.  They do it by denying claims or enrolling only healthy people.   See Paul Krugman’s blog for a more in depth analysis.  The only thing that is going to work is a single payer system that WE ALL PAY FOR and endowing that system with the incentives to minimize costs, not pile them on with fee for procedures plans.   And yes there will be rationing.  You can’t have everything and I hate to break to you, but it already exists.  But the reality is that they will pass something token and the truth of the above analysis will finally dawn on the rest of you when the system finally collapses.
  • In Afghanistan, we have good intentions, but it is time for the Muslim world to save themselves.  There is no doubt in my mind that we are helping many people, especially women from being victim to 5th century thought.  But the investment necessary to really make a difference would be better spent on our own disasters at home.  Bringing a tribal society into the 20th century is a noble undertaking, but so is providing health care for all our citizens.  My own view is that the Muslim religion and its adherents, except for a very few, live in a world that demeans women and is designed to maintain the status quo of male superiority.  Yeah, Yeah, I know.  You can find verses in the Koran that show women to be equal.  The Koran is much like the Bible in that you can pretty much find whatever you need to justify anything.  The reality is that until they modernize themselves and fight their own battles, we are tilting at windmills.  Governments run by the Taliban have repeatedly failed and are extremely unpopular.  If they harbor Al Qaeda we can do what we did before and set free a few cruise missiles.  Fly away little missiles, fly away.  It is time to take care of our own problems.
  • Sadly the economy is not getting better because we have not done anything about the structural problems that are the root of our problem.  Surges in the market are simply a reflection of people wanting to get back to business as usual.  But what was driving our economy before was bundling and selling debt.  Much of that debt is still out there and you have to keep asking yourself, what are we going to bundle and sell to the rest of the world now?  Until that question is answered and we start down that road, what will happen is that the incentives that led to the greed and excessive profit taking are still in place and we will simply repeat our blunders, only bigger.  The issue in this country is unemployment and when we figure how to gainfully employ our nation, all the rest will fall into place.  Green energy anybody?
  • Sarah Palin and other like-minded Republicans are intellectually bereft.   Even if you hate “govment”, you have to ask yourself when they babble their fear the government, market place will solve all pabulum, okay, but what is your plan and how will that help?  Even on health care, the Republicans have presented no alternative plan on an obviously failed system and on the economy, they have offered to do nothing as the way forward.  Many Republicans view the Bush Administration as an aberration from Republican governance.  It was anything but.  I look on the Republicans much like I do the Taliban.  Put them back in power and that will be their final undoing.
  • Finally compromise among the Democrats on a way forward may be worse than doing nothing.  If by compromise, and I hold as evidence the economic stimulus plan, they mean producing a plan that is so watered down as to be ineffective, they are putting the nails in their own coffin.  It would seem that they have no confidence in their progressive agenda and are doing everything to thwart it.

Okay I will now turn the TV back on and wonder why they can’t see these obvious truths.  I think I am destined to take these ‘truths’ to my grave.

The Conventional Wisdom and Enforcing the Law

I was watching one of the news media shows where they had a balanced panel of commentators discussing whether it would be to the Democrats advantage or disadvantage to push for investigations of the Bush administration (torture, wire tapping, leaking classified information to the press).  I put balanced in italics because each of these commentators is a mouthpiece for their particular political persuasion.  That means that everything they say is crafted to make their party affiliation look good, so very little honesty goes on here.  But what you do hear is the conventional wisdom of Washington.  That is, what is the incestuous Washington talking heads thinking is reality.  On this particular day, the conventional wisdom is that this would be bad for the Democrats to hold the Republicans accountable for breaking the law.  It would hurt their agenda.

I think they have this so wrong as to be almost stupefyingly ignorant.   Their thought (a rare agreement among the whole group) is that it would detract from the Democrat’s agenda of health care, energy, and the economy.  Now for the conservatives on the panel, this position is very self-serving.  Why would they want to expose the depth of their depravity?  But as usual, the Democrats on this panel are about a mile behind the public and fail to see a jugular exposed when they see it, much less know what to do with it.  And more importantly, they fail to see that their agenda means nothing if they don’t stand up for their basic beliefs in the law and our Constitution.

But here is the real crux of the issue:  The American people have been on this free ride where sacrifice and accountability have been eschewed for having it all now.  They are seeing the results, except for the Bankers and the wealthy, who have reaped the benefits of this system of short term gains.  They know this can’t go on.  They are looking for core values that give them hope for the future.  The Republicans are looking stranger and stranger as they try to maintain the status quo when most Americans are demanding change.  They have no plans for the problems that face us but to either deny them, or to block any attempts to fix them by the Democrats, which might look like success.  But if Democrats become more interested in their agenda than in their core values, they start to look like Republicans where the ends justifies the means.

The very essence of change in America will begin when we start standing up for our core principals, even when doing so might be painful.  And Americans are hungering for belief in something again.  What the Democrats are missing is that these investigations will expose the Republicans for the valueless party they are.  It will de-legitimize them in the eyes of most Americans.  It will actually make change easier in the future once Americans have been exposed to the crass hypocrisy of the present Republican Party and see a party that is willing to risk short term gains for the long term good when they stand up for their values.  It will establish the Democrats as the party of values and real change instead of just more of the same.  Most importantly it will reestablish the rule of law, fairness, and the supremacy of the Constitution, what America is really about.

I won’t fool you and tell you this will be easy.  I won’t tell you that some Democrats are not going to get mowed over in the process because they enabled some of this stuff.  But that is the whole point.  What is important is never easy and sacrifice is required.  Look at the health care debate.  The whole thing is revolving around being revenue neutral.  Why?  People hear revenue neutral and they think no sacrifice.  It is going to cost what it costs and we have to do it.  Pay for it with a surcharge across all wages and salaries.  It is a shared burden.  That’s a new concept.  The point here is that it is time for honesty and the American people are looking for leadership that embodies honesty.  When the Democrats say that their agenda is more important than honesty, they have put their agenda at risk.

There is one other side benefit of pressing forward with these investigations.  It may save the Republican Party from itself.  If you believe in a two party system, but both of the two parties are now in the Democratic Party with the Republican Party the lunatic fringe, then exposing the baseness of the Republicans and how the caved in to power will be the first step in helping them rebuild themselves.  Until the nation is forced to look at what they have wrought, and reject them totally, they will continue to pander to the psychos in their base, and not bring responsible plans to the table for our future.  Tearing them apart is the first step in healing this nation and restoring a responsible and viable Republican Party.

So as usual the Washington Press and the political pundits have it exactly wrong.  They are looking for the short-term gain, instead of the long term win.  But that has been both our politics and economic philosophy for the last 30 years.  I guess change is really very hard.  President Obama has fallen victim to this shot sightedness.  Hopefully he is starting to see the light.

The California Train Wreck

California has “solved” their budget crisis with lots of cuts and no spending increases.  Actually they solved it with 31 bills, which according to the Sacramento Bee, stitched “together a multibillion-dollar patch for the state budget consisting of deep cuts in nearly every government program, tricky accounting maneuvers and big and small reforms in the way California does business.”  In other words, they fixed nothing and it is a cautionary tale about attempting to tweak a failed system instead of replacing it altogether.  Worse yet, they may have crippled California for years to come.

When the deal was complete there was a picture of the Governor and state legislators beaming brightly and I thought how appropriate.  They are celebrating on their own graves.  It is a reflection of how out of touch we are as a people when we celebrate any agreement, even a bad one, as a win.  Here is a sampling of some of their gimmicks:

  • They cut $5.7 billion from elementary, high schools, and community colleges – Fantastic!  We are already 43rd in the nation for student spending.  Now some third world nations are surging ahead of us.  Oh, and don’t worry, we will pay it all back again when we are flush.  I guess today’s kids are throw-aways.
  • They cut $2.8 billion from state colleges and Universities.  They directed a 1-day furlough each month for the professors and asked the professors not to have that a teaching day.  Perfect!  California has been a leader in R&D and now we are undercutting the very basis of our economy.  Good professors will simply migrate to where they can earn a decent wage in a very competitive business.
  • State workers continue to be furloughed 3-days per month (that’s a 15% pay cut).  Recently there was a toxic waste spill on the highway and it took 12 hours to locate a crew to clean it up because they were all on furlough.  Every wonder why state workers must cough up 15% of their wages, but the rest of us get to ride on their backs?
  • They cut health programs and social services by $2.4 billion just when people are losing their jobs and need a safety net.
  • They sold their soul like other coastal states by allowing drilling offshore and putting at risk the very thing that makes California so beautiful.  If California gets dependent on offshore drilling like other states, think we will make any hard decisions about reducing our use of oil and gas to save the climate?
  • They “borrowed” money from local governments as though these institutions don’t need the money they get from the state to perform their functions.  Once again, though, not to worry, it will be paid back sometime.
  • They reduced money to prisons, but refused to release non-violent offenders so this ought to work out well.  Our prisons are already a cesspool and our policy to throw people in jail forever has come back to haunt us in cost we can’t afford, but why address that problem now?

On sure there were a few good things in there like getting rid of some of the high paid commissions California established as playgrounds for term limited pols.  But all in all it is a disaster.  They kept tweaking a failed system instead of ripping out the guts of the system and doing real reform.  As always the Republicans got their way with no tax or revenue increases and the budget crisis was solved on the backs of the poor, our children, and of course government workers.

But the last laugh may be on those who think we can solve this like we have solve so many other problems, on the backs of the powerless.  Our conservative friends have not asked for one sacrifice from their minions who think government is just wasteful and taxes are bad.  Note they asked state workers to take a 15% pay cut but would be shocked, shocked, shocked if they were asked to anti up 15% to help solve the problem.  But their comeuppance is not far around the corner.  The impact of all these cuts on the economy in California, both in the short term, and in the long term will be catastrophic.  In the short term with all the decreased spending, they will see their business shrivel up.  In the long term, their failure to invest both in our children’s education and our infrastructure will further advance California’s decline.

What needed to be done was a real overhaul of our financial system with an eye to the long term.  Step one would have been to throw out the State’s constitution with its over 400 amendments and start over.  Then face the reality that we need to pay for what we ask for, and pay for what we need.  This crisis should have been solved with a shared sacrifice and the dedication to plan for our future even if paying for that future costs us today.  Instead, like everything else we have done in this nation, we look for the free ride and never ask ourselves for sacrifice.  So let’s continue down this feel good road where we continually kick the can down the road and our children’s future is jeopardized by our selfishness today.

By the way, health care reform anyone?  I am sure we can do it the same way California balanced their budget – smoke and mirrors and no real sacrifice from those who can afford to sacrifice.  Let our children worry about tomorrow.  I want to go to the lake and water ski.  I wonder why the boat ramp is falling apart?  What the hell is wrong with those Parks people that they let this area get into such a state?

Jimmy Carter’s Malaise Speech and President Obama

Yes I saw the President’s Press Conference on health care last night.  He clearly understands the issues and he was quite convincing, even to the dunderheads out there, that doing nothing is a road to disaster on health care.  But did he take on his critics toe-to-toe and put his stamp on a health care plan that would really work?  No he did not (See yesterday’s blog, Adrift).  From my point of view, the Republicans are the enemy.  They have done so much to damage this country and if they are successful in their latest push to stymie all action, the country could be irrevocably damaged.  It is time to quit making nice with people who are the enemy to progress and start attacking them directly to debunk their claims and show the American people the bankruptcy of their ideas.  Until we do, we are lending credence to their ideas by our polite inaction.

We are facing a real crisis, not just in health care, but who and what we are as a people.  In a microcosm it can be seen as a few very well off defending the status quo (that would be the Republicans) at the expense of the rest of us.   It hasn’t gotten any better and bold leadership is required.  That’s what reminded me of Jimmy Carter and the speech he gave in July 1979, called by the press the “Malaise Speech”, but was really called “The Crisis of Confidence” speech by his speech writers.  The economy was in the doldrums, inflation was out of control, and gasoline prices had gone through the roof.  President Carter thought a long time about this speech, and then he looked the American public in the eye and told them the truth.

He spoke of a fundamental threat to American democracy and that threat was a crisis of confidence.  The failure to believe in our future “is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.” He went on to say that we were losing faith in government and ourselves to serve as rulers and shapers of our democracy.  He pointed out that our identity is no longer defined by what one does, but one owns.  That we are piling on material goods that do not satisfy our longing for meaning.  It was first class tough love.  Then he said:

“Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the Federal Government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our Nation’s life.” Does any of this sound familiar to you?  Could it not be today?  Here is the real gem: 

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”

The other path he laid out was one of dedication and initial sacrifice and it included energy independence and conservation very similar to the plans we hear talked about today.  It was a bold plan, and had we followed it, we would not have the energy crisis and climate crisis we face today.  He asked Americans to suck it up, understanding that such a path will be expensive, but a valuable investment in our future.  Finally he said:

“I do not promise you that this struggle for freedom will be easy. I do not promise a quick way out of our nation’s problems, when the truth is that the only way out is an all-out effort. What I do promise you is that I will lead our fight, and I will enforce fairness in our struggle, and I will ensure honesty. And above all, I will act. We can manage the short-term shortages more effectively and we will, but there are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems. There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.”

Well the joke was on Jimmy.  He had stood up as a real leader and told people the truth and they returned his leadership with electing Mr. Feel Good, Ronald Reagan, who told us that we just needed to feel good about ourselves and then started us down our path of self interest, government is evil, and wealth and greed are a sign of a healthy market.  That would be the first path President Carter warned us about.  And all the rest is history so I guess the joke is really on us.  For those who don’t believe this, just look at the numbers.  It was from those early days of the Reagan revolution that we started developing the real deficit and the wealthy grew wealthier while the poor got poorer.  And now we face almost the identical problems (sans the inflation, but quite possibly deflation) and I am wondering just which road we will take this time.  Sadly, if I listen to the Republicans, I know.  Tell me President Obama, will you show the same courage President Carter did even if you suffer the same fate?

Adrift

Do you get the feeling that we are drifting?  I think the Obama drop in the polls reflects that feeling.  We had high hopes to change the direction of the nation and yet we seem to be drifting along on the currents of left over Republican policies.  I will grant you that the devil is in the details of change, but real change has not happened.  Let’s look at a few of our failed attempts:

  • First and foremost was the financial crisis.  So we bailed out the banks to save them from collapsing and they paid us back by raising the rates on credit cards, not lending, and there has been no real change in the way they do business.  We are swept along on the current of the status quo.
  • We enacted a stimulus package which was not focused on real programs for a new America, but a collage of spending in too many directions that has not been effective at either stopping the loss of jobs or investing in a new direction.  We just invested in the same tired old projects that have gotten us nowhere.
  • We had high hopes for turning our war policies around.  Yet we are simply ramping up to spend another decade in a very backward part of the Middle East with no real end game.  We continue to waste vast sums of money and American lives in a region of the world that has little strategic value and we need the money at home.
  • The end of torture, hooray! But then the cover-up continues.  Secrecy under the guise of protecting national security becomes supreme again, and we consider indefinite detention.  This is not change; it is a kinder, gentler, supremacy of the Executive Branch.  When will we be grown up enough to deal directly with the facts our government seems so intent on protecting us from?
  • With much fanfare the House passed a climate bill with cap and trade policies for controlling carbon dioxide emissions.  But it was so watered down to protect coal interests and to court conservative Democrats from the Midwest that the real change was wrung out of it.  The Senate, it would appear, can’t even stomach this anemic bill.  So we continue to buy subsidized gasoline and nothing changes.
  • Health care reform is lost in the myriad details of trying to hold on to the old system.  The rest of the industrialized world has figured this out and yet here we sit trying to reinvent the wheel.  On this one, the whole enterprise begs for leadership.  It needs someone to standup and say simply a single payer system, reconfigured to incentivize savings, paid for with a surcharge on our taxes (we all share), and a role for private insurance as an extra to the basic coverage.  But instead it is left up to the lobbied Congress who thinks in the last century to devise a plan.

So we are adrift, falling back into old ways and falling further behind as a nation.  Unemployment grows, the middle class loses more ground, the mortgage crisis continues, but the market had a surge so we are saved, or so we are told.  I will give President Obama his due.  He has changed many things, but where we really need him, he has failed.  That need is a vision of the future and a detailed road map to get there.  His fatal flaw was thinking that Congress, that bastion of the status quo and easy money, could rend change from within.  So he gave them a rough road map and said go to it.  They changed the destination back to the same trip we have been on for all these years.

If we have any hope of a future, one that our children are better off than we are, then we don’t need just leadership, but bold leadership.  Instead of allowing the give and take of Congress to gang rape an idea into submission, the policy and its details must be laid out in stone.  What works is no longer debatable.  Where is the line in the sand where doing any less will not only be unacceptable, but seen as counterproductive?  Where is the courage to say no if the plan is not enough?  Where is the courage to tell people what they don’t want to hear and push for policies that while not popular, will work for our future? He promised he would ask for sacrifice and then we are asked for none.   If you want alternate energy and get off our addiction to oil, then price gasoline like the rest of the world and use the tax to move us on.  It isn’t popular, but it will save us.

President Obama could take a lesson from Abraham Lincoln.  He was never very popular during his presidency and he had to make hard decisions that did not endear him with the electorate.  He did what he had to do, in his mind, to save a nation.  And he was one of our greatest Presidents.  President Obama faces that dilemma.  Does he want to be a popular president who just scratches the surface of change, and in effect leaves us no better off than we are?  Or does he want to risk his popularity by standing firm for what will take this nation in a new direction; to lead us, to educate us, to convince us?  To date it would seem that he is pursuing the former and tricking himself that it will make a difference.  In the meantime, we are just drifting.

Health Care, Rationing, and the Obvious

If you are following the health care “debate” at all, then you know the scare words.  They are government run medicine, lack of choice, rationing, and growing the deficit (we can’t afford it).  They are making this thing so difficult when it is so simple.  But more about the solution later, now let’s attack the scare tactics.

In case you didn’t know it, most of your health care is government run anyway.  Who do you think sets up the tax incentives so that you have employer provided health care?  That costs around $200 billion in tax revenue each year.  Who do you think underwrites much of the medical research?  Who do you think licenses doctors or approves medicines?  And where the government is the single payer, Medicare, it seems to work fine.  Right now your single payer is the health insurance industry and you don’t think they spend every waking hour trying to figure out how not to pay?  What part of making a profit don’t you get?  And right here we will do away the lack of choice argument.  The government PAYS.  They don’t own the hospitals or employ the doctors.  Hello? Are you paying attention?

On the cost side, the present system incentivizes doctors to do more procedures.  The more stuff you do, the more you make as a piece of the total pie.  Many hospitals have accounting systems counting each Kleenex tissue, that drives costs to the roof ($200 aspirin anyone?).  There are tons of good ideas about how we can reduce the cost of health care while delivering the same service, but it is not going to happen as long as the whole food chain (health care industry and physicians) make money on the status quo.  Do nothing and the cost will continue to spiral upward.

The other concern is that the program has to be revenue neutral, not increase our debt.  Well boys and girls, you already pay for universal coverage in hidden fees for emergency room visits of the poor. By law, emergency rooms cannot refuse care, but it gets passed on to you in our health insurance costs.   On balance, considering the steep fees we already pay for our plans, we could probably fund this whole thing with a 1-2% surcharge on our income tax.  Remember, the cost of your insurance that you or your company pays directly disappears.  You could take this benefit in cash.

Finally, there is the idea of rationing, which was my purpose for this blog in the first place.  Of course there is going to be rationing.  There already is.  I will point you to a wonderful article written by Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University (Why We Must Ration Health Care), in the New York Times Magazine. He covers it all and this is just an attempt at a summary of the major points.  It is estimated that about 20,000 people die each year from inability to afford health care or the medicines they need.  Large medical plans routinely deny end of life procedures that would have marginal benefit.  Think about it this way, if we the people, spend $100,000 to extend your life 6 months, how many people could we have helped with that money that would have allowed them to live years.  Of course there is a cost/benefit analysis decision going on.  Right now it is done much more under the covers and usually falls disproportionately on the poor.  Note that while the poor get treated in emergency rooms, their outcomes are far poorer than people with insurance for the same type of injuries (mortality rate is 37% higher than insured patients).  Don’t tell me we don’t ration.

But we are selfish people, and while in the abstract we can see the logic in this argument, when it comes to our loved ones, or ourselves, there is no price too large (assuming you have the cash) to extend their lives even a few months.  The trouble is, generally it is not your cash you are spending.  And the problem as a society is we can’t afford (in the dollar sense) to think this way.  That is one of the reasons why our medical costs are skyrocketing.  You know the funny thing is that other industrialized nations perform better than we do in the overall health and welfare of their citizens, and they do ration health care.  But just so you don’t believe the hype, a recent Gallop poll of both the British and Canadian system (which would not be our model) showed that 73% were quite happy with their system as opposed to 53% in our own country.  So you can find the isolated case (the anecdotal proof which proves nothing, but the Republicans love it) where some poor person could not get the treatment to extend his life 6 months to see his new grandson, but in general, you have a society much better off for it.  If this seems like big brother to you, just remind yourself we do the same thing right now, only it is by class.  The rich get everything, and the poor die younger.  And our costs are much higher than anyone else’s.

But there is an easy solution.  Accept that our system will be based upon a single payer system like Medicare.  It will be funded not by gimmicks, but by a surcharge on our income similar to the way Medicare is funded now.  There will be rationing.  You may not get that liver transplant at age 85.  But if you want additional coverage, you can buy private insurance to supplement it for your special needs.  Doctors and hospitals are still private institutions that negotiate rates with both the federal government and insurance companies.  It is so simple, so elegant, establishes the single payer, preserves the private system, and incentives could be put in place to reduce costs through wellness and efficiency programs.  Note the Australians have a form of this system and it works fine for them.  Will we get it?  Not with the current crop of retrogrades in Washington who still think we can’t afford it, except for themselves of course who have full government coverage.  Some are just more special than others.