Archive for September 2014


California just passed a law outlawing “single purpose” plastic bags. While many cities and counties have already done this, this law will apply statewide. It is a law to address the tremendous environmental damage these bags cause when they are disposed of. But with the signing of the bill, some are promising to put a proposition on the ballot next year to repeal it.

Why is change so hard? Well there are vested interests (the bag industry) that don’t like it. People should have a choice and object to a fee to use paper bags if you don’t have a recyclable bag they claim. Yet these laws have been flawlessly enacted in cities like San Francisco, and the grocery industry supported it because having one standard simplifies their lives. Oh, and why should my groceries carry the price of your paper bags if I use a cloth bag?

But forget all that. Why shouldn’t government act to end an environmental disaster and make you pay for the real impacts of your choices? Reminds me of Michele Bachmann (or was it Sarah Palin?) decrying our loss of choice when the incandescent bulb was regulated out of existence. See government should protect our wasteful ways and make the rest of you subsidize our poor choices. With this kind of logic we should not have energy standards on autos, appliances, or anything else. Hey! Safety regulations are an unreasonable intrusion on our right to get people killed. Now you understand why they want to do away with the EPA.

But our choices in the market place have impacts on all the rest of us. And as such, the government has a role in ensuring that the tyranny of the minority is not paid for by the majority. Why is change so hard when the benefits are so obvious?


Watching the grilling of the Secret Service boss, from both sides of the partisan divide, one wonders who is more defunct, the Secret Service or Congress. But I would argue they both suffer from the same disease, politics. Both played to power, and we expect Congress to, but not the Secret Service.

The failures of the Secret Service came to light because former and maybe some currently employed members went to the press. One has to asked why the Secret Service did not reveal how far the intruder got into the White House unless they have become politicized and are covering their butts. And if we hadn’t found out through the press, would anything have been done? As a side issue, kind of reinforces the need for transparent government, something we are loosing under the Obama Administration. He isn’t the first one, but he is by far the worst at going after whistle blowers.

But what is going on in the Secret Service? Well the reporter from the Washington Post tells us the former and current members report that the organization has become too much a lackey to power. Instead of protect and defend, it is to make everyone happy. I see a deeper thing here as part of the Secret Service’s move from the Department of Treasury to Homeland Defense. The politicization of leadership.

I know something about leadership in large organizations spending almost 12 years in the Air Force and 22 years working for the federal government mostly in the Corps of Engineers. What was most enlightening to me was the difference between a wartime Air Force, and a peacetime Air Force. A leader who excels in one, does not necessarily excel in the other. In peace time, things get politicized, and by that I mean telling your supervisors what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. In wartime nothing matters but results. In large bureaucracies speaking truth to power is a dangerous thing without enlightened leadership.

One of the things that comes through in the investigation of the Secret Service failures was that there were agents who had important intelligence that was ignored or countermanded. If your job is to protect and defend, you go over their heads. If your job is to survive and rise in the organization, you don’t rock boats. If your organization has become politicized, you don’t rock boats, but tell them what they want to hear. That is how you become a company man. See the CIA during the run-up to the Iraq war.

The Secret Service should not be an arm of Homeland Defense. They should be an agency whose primary purpose to protect and defend no matter how inconvenient that may be for some politicos. It should be an organization that works as a team where communications are open and flow in both directions. Where the objective is to err on safety, not some other bureaucratic goal. It should be an organization that protects and encourages active input from all their agents. Somewhere that all got lost to what was convenient.

This is not the only thing that gives one pause. Remember the prostitute episodes? There is something rotten in Denmark and I am not sure we are cultivating the kinds of leaders who understand how to fix it, instead of pandering to power and demoralizing their followers in the process. In a large bureaucratic organization you walk a fine line between being politically correct to survive in the organization, and seeing and correcting inefficient and ineffective processes that those in power have a vested interest in.

In my experience the ones who do survive have one of two things in their favor, an advocate at higher level, or an enlightened leader who cultivates those characteristics that will make them a great leader, but a troublesome follower. Sadly in today’s world what we see are leaders how are masters at the political game, but have no idea where to lead to.

Two Things to Note

The Supreme court in a 5 to 4 ruling moved to delay early voting in Ohio on Monday due to an appeal by the state. See just file an appeal and you can negate a law while the conservatives on the court try to find a way to side with those that want to limit the vote of minorities.

The we have Hong Kong where protests are going on to allow them to vote for their leaders, not have China select them so then they can vote. Isn’t it amazing how hundreds of thousands of Chinese are risking their lives to vote, and less than half our population avails themselves to that right?

Remembering Job (in the Bible)

There is that biblical story we probably all remember of God testing Job’s faith by visiting calamity upon calamity upon him in a bet with the devil that he would not lose his faith. Now one might use this as an example to question a God that purportedly has our best interests at heart, but that is not my purpose today. The one thing about this story that sticks with me is that until you are tested, your faith, honor, word, beliefs are really so much noise and hot air. It is easy to believe something if it is easy to believe something.

We see this played out almost everyday when something really horrific happens to someone and some people lose their faith. How could the God who is their fairy godfather do this to them? Others who survived this horrific event see this as an affirmation of their faith. See, he protected us. In another instance, are you or are you not a thief if you have never had the opportunity to gain by it? Are you a faithful and true husband if you have never been tempted to cheat? If you have never had to make the choice? What are your real values when push comes to shove?

I raise this in light of our political environment. We elect politicians every day who say one thing, and then when they get into office do another. The most glaring example is our President. The drone war and secrecy come to mind. But how far we have fallen is becoming apparent when both he and Congress’s abdicated their responsibilities in going to war with ISIS. They (Congress) are being tested in a very difficult decision and they ran away from it because they could be held responsible for their actions. The President claims he has the power when as a candidate he repudiated that claim. It is values and logic convenient to the moment.

In other words, I have faith in the God of expediency and the easier path, not in holding to my values although I could face dire consequences for them. The decision to go to war with ISIS is a complex and difficult one. It should be discussed and debated at the highest levels (See Britain). Instead we see shirking of duty from both the President to ask for a declaration of war, and a Congress to decide if it is justified. Maybe we are doing the right thing, and maybe not. To tell you the truth, I haven’t really decided yet nor am I hearing a debate that will help me shape my opinion.

What would happen if we simply walked away? Would ISIS form their dreamed of caliphate and eventually attack America or would the region devolve into civil war, working out their own social issues and be too preoccupied with their own local battles to be an international threat? In forming a coalition are we becoming part of the problem and enabling societies that abuse their people? I just don’t know, but we are not having that debate and deciding as a country which way to go. The Republicans claim they don’t want an imperial presidency, yet if the decisions are hard that is exactly what they want so they can avoid blame if things go south.

As for the President, he is running with the ball. But along the way we found out some of his values went the way of expediency. I have a friend who cautions that the great accommodator was always that and that is what we elected. I would say that he was clear about some of his values and we never thought those would be thrown overboard to deal with the reality of presidential politics. He certainly was clear on the need for Congressional authorization to go to war. He was clear about how secrecy hurts government. Candidate Obama would never have approved a drone killing program that is so opaque we have no idea who they kill and how it is authorized and justified.

So we wonder why America is floundering, domestically and internationally. We seem to have no guiding plan, and anti-intellectualism and faith based thinking are on the rise, leading us to ignore our real problems. And the reason is simple. Right now there is no there there, in leadership, either in the halls ofCongress, or in the Presidency.

Congress is about being re-elected and that requires stirring up the base, and from the Republican side that means lies and false issues. The real issues and their complex solutions don’t get mentioned because it is easier to generate hate and be against things than it is to explain solutions. It generates an electorate poorly informed and voting against their best interests, but in keeps conservatives in power. The only values are the ones that are poll tested.

For the President, he is trying to do the right thing, but along the way he cast off some of his base values or found that the expediency of office made them cumbersome. And along the way he lost his way. And now we have all lost our way and leadership is no where to be found. The story of Job and the compromises we have made give you lots of food for thought and while I do not believe in God or in Job, the story is one we play out everyday and in most cases we fail the test.

Interesting Connections or I am Just Weird

Religion and I always have had a rough relationship. Since I am distrustful of authority, it would just be natural that I would be doubly distrustful of a god. After all who put him in charge? Ah, one of the basic arguments against a god. But there was a better one today, or at least our “belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.” It comes from David Barash in his op-ed piece, God, Darwin, and My Biology Class.

Basically what Professor Barash is saying (read it) is that when you finally understand the complexity the evolutionary process can develop (demolishing the intelligent design bullshit), and see that:

… although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

Oh yeah, I know, god moves in mysterious ways or is too great a power to understand. Sorry, you are dealing with a person who distrusts authority and telling me to just give up my reason for trust is pissing into the wind. And the more I use my intellect and witness what religion can be used for, the more I find it distasteful.

So that brings me to ISIS and their use of religion (Islam) to justify acts of barbarism. And quite frankly is no great leap of logic to understand how the Right is using religious type thinking (faith based beliefs) to try to perpetuate a failed economic and social model. On the ISIS thing, you don’t need a god or a religion to decide what is moral, and no it is not situational. It comes from your mind grappling with the human condition. That is why the whole idea that cultures cannot be judged is bogus. Islam and the way they treat women is an abomination clear and simple.

But maintaining the status quo and keeping one’s power has always had a religious basis. When you really come to the conclusion that there is no god, and what we are looking at are different philosophies about the nature of man, like the process of evolution, some are amazing advances, and some are “ethical horrors”. Believing in a fairy godfather that will show up and make things right for the righteous is the first step in denying what evolution gave you, the power to think. And once you have suspended your power to think, it is easy to believe anything as long as it benefits your own ends.

In reality our Founding Fathers were grappling with this when the wrote the Constitution. What the religious fail to understand is that the Constitution is not founded on Christianity, but on philosophy borrowed from Christianity and the thinking of Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. In the latter case, a way to get god totally out of the Constitution. Now we are back sliding.

I see the anti-intellectualism and the pure stupidity worshipped in the Republican Party as faith based thinking taking over again (See Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Steve King, Louie Gomert to just name a few). They are the chosen people, God is on our side, and the rewards we wrest from the rest are justified because, well, we deserve it. It is the ISIS logic justifying an end using a religious faith based logic that my ideology can’t be wrong because I have god (righteousness) on my side.

So my point is very simple. If you give up God and that anyone is chosen or special on this planet (no America does not have a manifest destiny and God Bless American is a lie) then you really have to judge an idea on its merits, and on a common sense of morality. In that light, a lot of what we and others are doing should be judged quite harshly.

The King Fire and What We Should Learn From It.

The fire advancing twoard the house

The fire advancing twoard the house

The fire got to less than a mile from my house. In the steep canyons around where I live, a mile by foot is a long way, but by raging flames, can happen rather quickly. It had my full attention. We had packed up and were ready to leave in a moments notice. I bought a scanner and I listen to everything that was happening. Brave fire fighters with some help from Mother Nature got this thing under control. But as the smoke clears slowly, there are some lessons here for all of us.

The Imensity of it i

The imensity of it early in the fight coming right at you.

The first is that although we think we control most things, we don’t. Fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, raging storms, or even an asteroid can change everything we thought was the basis of our lives and immutable. That is not said to make us more fearful, but to be more thankful for what we have and remind us it is a gift to be enjoyed. Nothing is permanent. Watching the fire roar up the canyons was an awesome sight that gives you a glimpse into the power and randomness of Mother Nature. There are no guarantees.

A corollary to this is that climate change is bringing drier forests and more ferocious storms our way. To deny this borders on lunacy. And we are surrounded by lunatics who not only refuse to do anything about it, but want to gut government’s ability to deal the consequences.

I live in a very conservative community who hates government, yet hung flags everywhere thanking the fire fighters. It is time we connected the dots. These brave fire fighters are the government and it was our tax payers dollars at work that saved our asses. And for the fiscal conservatives, it might be a whole lot cheaper to spend money to prevent these things, than to deal with the consequences of our denial.

Speaking of the fire fighters, the crews came from all over the nation, and our prisons. These were mostly young motivated men and women who had an important job to do. There is a lesson here. Public service, when we see how it helps all of us, gives meaning to the job and makes people proud to do it. So why do we tear down other public servants like teachers whose dedication is no less intense, yet results are harder to see. And note that prisoners who fight fires are much less likely to go back to a life of crime. Could it be that having meaningful jobs is the real road to salvation for the poor? And note these are government

When the fire got close, laying down a retardant line

A backburn and a tetardant line on the near side of the ridge


A giant pyrocumulus from the house.

A giant pyrocumulus from the house.

Oh, and if each of the fire commanders did not coordinate under a central command, this massive 97,000 acre fire would never have been conquered. There was a unified command between The National Forest Service and Cal Fire. Could it be that some things are just too big and complex to leave it to local control? Is this an example where a coordinated approach is the only way to effectively do things? In the same vein, whether it is immigration, voting rights, environmental pollution, even global warming, the solutions will take national coordination, not anarchy of the local jurisdictions.

Finally, it was nice to see the community come together to face this threat, each neighbor helping out the next, and all of us behind the fire fighters who were on the front lines. People offered places to stay for evacuees and to even keep their animals (horses, llamas, you name it). The hate and division we see in our politics around our problems were totally absent when this immense fire threatened all of us. I wonder if it is possible to see some of the problems in our own political lives as threats to all of us instead of hunkering down to try to make sure we get our share?

Laying down a retardant line in the steep canyon.

Laying down a retardant line in the steep canyon.

It will take months to get the smell of smoke out of our clothes, hair, cars, furniture, and our house.  I may have lost some of my grapes to smoke taint.  Not everyone wants a smoky Mourvedré.  Only a few lost their homes and believe me thousands were at risk, another example of how well the fire fighters fought this blaze.  In the end, this was the largest force ever mobilized to fight a fire and they did it beautifully.  I can not thank them enough, and yet I think they know that.  They represent what America can be if we work together to solve our problems and they make us all proud.

A large Air tanker laying down a retarant line

A large Air tanker laying down a retarant line.  The air war was magnificent to listen to amd watch .

On a personal note, packing up with time to think is an interesting exercise. Facing the real threat that we would loose everything, you focus on what is really important. The 4-7 Ps is a start (People, pets, photos, papers, prescriptions, phone, personal computer). But what cloths to take? Well when you pack your bag with the stuff you really like to wear, you wonder why you keep all that other stuff. I walked through the house going through everything that would be hard to replace and putting that stuff in my bag. There wasn’t much. Most stuff wasn’t that important.

And maybe that was the most important lesson. Stuff isn’t that important. We just have our loved ones, friends, and the moment. The rest is just distraction. I did pack up some wine.

Happy Days?

When was the last time you picked up the paper and said, “Yes!”, to some article that made you feel progress was being made? Well if you are a Dodger or Angel fan maybe, but for the rest of us, sports is a distraction, not a defining accomplishment. Trophies don’t send our kids (except for the select few) to college or build new roads and bridges. Fighting ISIS/ISIL/al Qaeda or whomever may or may not keep us safe, but it is money not spent on nation building at home.

Here is an example of the stuff in the paper this morning in the who cares/what-me-worry/so what category:

  • Bill Gross leaves Pimco to join Janus – I guess big news if you are a millionaire, but we are talking about the .1%
  • Jostling begins over Holder’s position – It is all about who wants the job, not what they could or would do to make our lives better, like protect voting rights
  • Global response to Ebola is too slow – And we think a Republican Congress is going to fund this effort unless it is somehow linked to a terrorist threat?
  • Flights Grounded in Fire in Air Traffic Control Tower in Chicago – Another sign of our aging FAA system
  • Man tried second time for killing of teenager in Florida – Court TV is now fully imbedded in our entertainment culture news media
  • Derek Jeter Hero in Last Home Game – We need our heroes even if the accomplishment is a giant distraction from our real problems

And I could go on and on, but is there anything there that says we are doing anything positive? It is like staring at a car wreak. We can’t seem to help ourselves, but there is nothing there to learn, just the gore of the moment. Here is what I would like to see in my fantasy newspaper:

  • Congress Passes Carbon Tax to Accelerate Development of Alternate Energy
  • New Voter’s Rights Bill Passed Standardizing Access, Voter ID Requirements, Internet Voting, and Early Voting Protecting Minority Rights, and Making Election Day a National Holiday
  • Congress Passes New Infrastructure Bill to Create Jobs and Jump Start our Economy
  • Minimum Wage now $15/hr Nationwide and is Keyed to Living Wage Standard
  • Congress Passes Dream Act and Reforms Immigration, Streamlining Immigration, and Legalizing the Millions of Undocumented Workers in this Country
  • Women’s Equal Pay Act Passes
  • Student Debt Act Passes Refinancing Student Loans at Federal Favored Bank Rate
  • Single Payer Option for Healthcare Added to Obamacare
  • Gay Marriage Declared Basic Right
  • Guantanamo Closed
  • Torture Report Released in Full along with New Freedom of Information Act Greatly Restricting Classification of Documents and Information
  • Drug War is Over
  • Embargo on Cuba Lifted
  • New High Speed Rail Authorized in Northeast Corridor and West Coast with Full Federal Funding to Prevent Poor Planning Due to Local Politics
  • VAT to Replace Most Personal Income Tax
  • School Testing to be Greatly Curtailed as the Nation Adopts Scandinavian School System Approach Establishing Full Funding for Professional Teachers
  • R&D Funding to be Restored to Full Funding for Science, Medicine, and Social Sciences as the Nation Restores Policy Driven by Science and Data

Now that would be a good day.  Never going to happen as long as we continue to elect Republicans and Democrats who are not progressives (Republican Lite).

Whose in Charge?

With light rain this morning and the containment line well developed around the south end of the King fire (where I live), I am unpacking my bags and thinking other thoughts. To wit, who the hell is in charge and who put him/her/them there. Now she who must never be mentioned here would argue that if we put the “hers” in charge the world would be a different place. But I remind her of Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Phyllis Schlafly. Oh and who is the congresswoman from Tennessee? But she replies every group has a few wing nuts.

What got me thinking about this is a few articles this morning about not acting quickly enough on Ebola (Nicholas Kristof) or the failure of Republicans in Florida to admit to global warming or that it is man made and do something about it when they will be up to their knees in sea water in Miami by mid century. Who are the people who continue to make really bad decisions that we seem to support?

You can go back to the Iraq war, but that is just the beginning. Ronald Reagan gave us supply side economics and greed is good, and our economy has been declining since. The Republicans who control the House and the Senate through the filibuster, still push this stuff and it continues to fail. Many Democrats still buy into austerity economics when the world is a screaming example of their failure. Speaking of who is in charge, why have not the Democrats done something meaningful about the filibuster? Remember that it was Bill Clinton who then started leaning right and passing legislation (with the help of fellow Democrats) to remove regulations on the banks and that turned out so well.

We are the only industrialized country who does not have high speed rail or a single payer health care system, it doesn’t work well, and we still claim it is the best in the world. Who is in charge again? We look at history and how Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt saw capitalism out of control and brought us progressive government and did great things. Now we are regressing, haven’t done anything great in 40 or 50 years, our infrastructure is falling apart, corporations now own Congress (again), and the voters are clueless. Who is in charge again?

But we do blow things up really well and if the military needs money, well there will be a rush to say yes. We wage war by proxy and our civil rights and privacy are really non-existent anymore, and we never have really examined our legacy of torture and abuse. We still keep prisoners accused of nothing in prison in Cuba, and we are turning into a nation of secret keepers (including the report on torture), while turning our press into lapdogs for the Washington elite. Who again is in charge and making all these wonderful decisions?

We are. Nothing I have said above is hyperbole. I can give you a ton of links to substantiate it all. But I don’t bother. Nobody clicks on them and intellectual curiosity is dead. But as we are distracted by the latest hot button, ISIS, who remembers Michael Brown? That is the nation we are becoming. Who again was that kid blown away by a vigilante? We don’t know because our problems run so deep, we can’t remember them anymore. Like a dog trying to concentrate on his master when a squirrel appears.

Could someone even get elected if they really addressed our deepest problems and honestly told us that major fundamental changes have to take place. I don’t think so, because we are in charge and we do nothing hard anymore. It might be painful.


You know, like the terrorists, we are getting very good at blowing things up, but when was the last time we built something really wonderful? I haven’t a clue and this troubles me greatly.

King Fire, ISIS, and Ebola


Laying down a secondary containment near my house for a back fire.

Sorry, once again I have been distracted with that pesky King Fire that could completely wipe us out. That along with maybe losing about half my grape crop to smoke taint has had me distracted. The fire is about a mile from here and they lit massive backfires yesterday. It’s scary when you can see the flames. My daughter keeps asking when they are going to get control. The honest answer is when winter comes. We are so dry out here that the perfect fire storm was just waiting to happen. I just thank almost 6000 firefighters for their tireless efforts.

Anyway, on ISIS, what is your plan? It is easy to point out all the risks, but the risk of doing nothing seems to overshadow that. I guess we will just have to feel our way along. That kind of approach begs all kinds of criticism, but once again, when you hear it, ask what their plan is. The Middle East is a festering mess of 5th century customs and tribes. It is going to be a long slog to pull them into the 21st century, especially when we armed them.

Ebola is a whole other problem. Remember the book “Hot Zone”? Well with the spreading of the disease in Africa and the projection that this is going to be a long term problem, I believe the odds of it mutating into an airborne virus is very really and then it would spread like wildfire even here in the West. So while we are quaking in our boots that somehow ISIS will come attack us, the real threat may be that thing most are ignoring because, well it just affecting Africans. I am not sure if we will ever get the concept that we are all in this together.