Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Snowe Job

I've been following politics in America for a long time, and I have to admit that I never saw Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe's decision not to seek a fourth term coming.

I'm not alone in that. A lot of people are surprised, but I suppose none of us should be. Snowe is, after all, 65 years old. She would be in her 70s when her seat will be up for election again. She is at the age that most Americans have been conditioned to expect to be retired — even though, given the state of the economy, few can expect to retire.

But Snowe has spent one–third of a century in Congress — and she is the only woman to have served in both chambers of a state legislature and both chambers of the U.S. Congress in a career that spans four decades.

She is also something of a dinosaur — a centrist in an increasingly conservative Republican Party. That fact has made her a true swing vote, courted by both sides on many issues.

Apparently, though, the obvious polarization in our national politics has played a significant role in her decision not to remain in Washington.

"I am a fighter at heart, and I am well prepared for the electoral battle," she said. "Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term."

From everything I have read, I have the impression that Snowe is popular with her constituents. In three previous Senate elections, her share of the vote went up each time. She was elected with 60% in the Republican year of 1994, re–elected with 69% in 2000 and re–elected again with 74% in the Democrat year of 2006.

My understanding is that she got consistently high marks from her constituents, even though the state has been trending Democrat in national elections, and she almost certainly would have won a fourth term if she sought it.

It would have been good news for Republicans if she had run for re–election — not because modern Republicans could count on her to vote the party line but because her withdrawal takes away what was probably a safe seat for the GOP and turns it into a tossup.

Things are complicated by the calendar. The deadline for gathering enough signatures to be on the ballots in Maine's primaries is March 15, as Matthew Gagnon observes in the Bangor (Maine) Daily News.

"This is not something that can be done by a political novice in two weeks," writes Gagnon, "indeed it is a difficult task for established figures."

Chaos can be expected, and that's bad news for Republicans, who need only a net gain of four seats (three if the Republicans win the presidency) to seize control of the U.S. Senate.

They were counting, I am sure, on retaining Snowe's seat. Because the Democrats were so successful in 2006, Republicans have only 10 seats to defend in the 2012 cycle — and, until yesterday, eight were considered reasonably safe (including Snowe's). Democrats had (and still have) good reason to be concerned about six of their seats, possibly more, but they have more breathing room now.

As Stuart Rothenberg observes, Snowe's decision "places [her seat] firmly in the center of the fight for the Senate majority." He rates it a tossup — a prudent position to take, given that no nominees will be chosen until the primaries on June 12.

Larry Sabato's "Crystal Ball" contends that the seat now leans to the Democrats — even though the candidates for the office are not yet known.

It is, at the very least, something of a field leveler. If Democrats can win Snowe's seat, that makes the mountain that Republicans must climb that much steeper.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Age Discrimination

From time to time, I send e–mails to the White House about issues that concern me.

When you do that, you have the option of checking a box that serves as a request for a reply. I did check that box the first couple of times that I e–mailed the White House, but, frankly, I don't do it anymore because the responses I received never addressed the specific issues that I raised.

Now, I realize that, in a nation of more than 300 million people, the White House must receive a huge number of messages from people every week — every day — so purely personal replies simply are not feasible.

I can't speak for anyone else who contacts the White House by e–mail. In fact, I'm sure there are people who indicate on their e–mails that they do want a reply — but I don't.

When I was younger, I used to write to members of Congress on issues that concerned me, but, eventually, I got tired of receiving responses that were clearly form letters.

And the replies I got from the White House always had a distinct form letter feel to them.

At least, the old "snail mail" form letters attempted to be personal. They were addressed to me by name, and some even threw in a sentence or two that actually related to my specific concern.

But the e–mail variety doesn't even do that much — this one from the White House addressed me as "Dear Friend" — so, as I say, I stopped asking for replies from this White House a couple of years ago.

That hasn't kept the White House from sending out those digital form replies to me, anyway.

Case in point.

For quite awhile, I have been concerned about what has appeared (to me, anyway) to be age discrimination on the part of employers. All the emphasis seems to be on discrimination against racial and religious groups in particular and against women in general. Next to nothing is said about age discrimination.

I'm not alone in this, by the way. I have spoken to many people, and the overwhelming consensus is that employers do use age as a means for eliminating a portion of the applicants for job openings.

I can understand the temptation. I recently heard an estimate that there are about four times as many applicants for any given job as there were for the same job (or its equivalent) before the recession began in December 2007. There simply aren't enough jobs to go around, and employers are understandably reluctant to hire older workers.

They are fearful that they will have to go through all this again in a few years.

(They might go through it with younger workers, too.)

I don't know what the answer is. That's one of the things Americans hire their presidents to do — come up with solutions to problems. And I've been concerned about this one for quite awhile.

So, even though I have had no satisfaction in writing to this White House, I went ahead and sent an e–mail on this topic to the president. I did not check the box that indicated that I wanted a reply. I guess I just wanted to express my concern.

My mother's was the first and most persistent voice among those that urged me to pursue a life dedicated to the written word — but she also used to tell me that actions speak louder than words, and that is the only kind of response I really wanted.

Nevertheless, here is the response I received in my e–mail yesterday (note: I have omitted the opening and closing sentences that thanked me for the original e–mail):
"In his 2012 State of the Union Address, President Obama laid out a blueprint for an economy that is built to last — an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.

The President believes this is a make or break moment for the middle class and those trying to reach it. What is at stake is the very survival of the basic American promise that if you work hard, you can do well enough to raise a family, own a home, and put a little away for retirement.

The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while more Americans barely get by, or we can build a nation where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. At stake right now are not Democratic or Republican values, but American values — and for the sake of our future, we have to reclaim them.

The economic security of our middle class has eroded for decades. Long before the recession, good jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores. Hard work stopped paying off for too many Americans. Those at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but the vast majority of Americans struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that were not.

In 2008, the house of cards collapsed. Mortgages were sold to people who could not afford or understand them. Banks made huge bets and bonuses with other people's money. It was a crisis that cost us more than 8 million jobs and plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we are still fighting to recover.

Three years later, thanks to the President's bold actions, the economy is growing again. Over the past 22 months, our businesses have created 3.2 million jobs. Last year, we added the most private sector jobs since 2005. American manufacturing is creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s. The American auto industry is back. Today, American oil production is the highest it has been in eight years. Together, we have agreed to cut the deficit by more than 2 trillion dollars. The President signed into law new rules to hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like the one we have endured never happens again.

When we act together, in common purpose and common effort, there is nothing the United States of America cannot achieve. That is why the President's blueprint for action contains policies that businesses can take, actions that Congress needs to take, as well as actions that the President will take on his own. The President intends to keep moving forward and rebuild an economy where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded — an economy built to last.

To watch the President's State of the Union address, read the blueprint for an America built to last, and connect with the President and Administration officials, please visit:"

My original e–mail was only two or three sentences, as I recall.

I stated my concern about age discrimination, and I asked the president to speak forcefully against it — and I got the text of his re–election stump speech.

Do you see anything in there about age discrimination? Me, neither.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Peering Into the Future

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Santayana

It really is amusing to hear diehard Democrats talking about the permanent damage that would be inflicted on the Republican Party if it cannot settle on a nominee before Easter.

And that, many of them are saying, is what we can expect if Mitt Romney fails to win the Michigan primary on Tuesday.

Granted, losing Michigan would be a bad thing for Romney — for several reasons.

First of all, it is never good when a presidential candidate fails to win his home/native state — just ask Presidents Al Gore (who lost his home state in 2000) and George McGovern (who lost his home state — and damn near everything else — in 1972) — and, while Romney made his name as an adult in Massachusetts and Utah, he grew up in Michigan.

Romney has been criticized by many in his party for not being sufficiently conservative. He's probably been the steadiest of the candidates, tap–dancing his way past the deep holes into which his rivals all seem to fall as soon as they are named the latest not Romney, but he has shown little positive movement within his party, even as the others have, one by one, dropped from the race.

Instead, the next not Romney emerges — and disgruntled Republicans gravitate to the flavor of the month.

Losing the state where he spent his youth could well be interpreted as further evidence to an increasingly skeptical Republican base that Romney can't close the deal.

Second, Michigan is a large state. Presidential candidates who can't win at least some of the largest states usually don't succeed in the general election — and the Republican rank–and–file are hungry for victory this year.

Consequently, the nominee's appeal to big–state (which usually means largely urban and suburban) voters is very important.

The outcomes are generally taken for granted in some large states. For instance, in the last 20 years, Democrats have been able to depend on winning the largest one (California) as well as New York and Pennsylvania and sometimes Michigan and Ohio. That's a pretty sizable base with which to begin in the Electoral College.

Republicans have carried Texas in every election since 1980, and sometimes they carry Florida. The GOP's big–state base isn't as big as the Democrats', but it's still a good start — and I really believe that Republicans are so eager to defeat Obama that they will vote for Romney, if he is the nominee, in spite of their misgivings.

I am convinced that Texas will vote for Romney if he is the nominee — even though most Texas Republicans probably would have preferred Texas Gov. Rick Perry before he dropped out and now are likely to support Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich in the primary, even if it is held in late May (as now appears likely) and the outcome in Texas will have no influence on any other state.

Such a streak is no guarantee, of course. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry Indiana and Virginia since 1964. In 2000, West Virginia voted for a non–incumbent Republican for the first time since 1928.

It's always possible that Texas will vote for Obama — but not very probable.

Records are made to be broken, and, likewise, electoral win streaks are made to be snapped. From 1904 to 2004, Missouri was on the winning side in every presidential election except one, but the Show–Me State voted for John McCain in 2008.

Missouri may start a new streak of voting with the winning side in 2012, but, until the votes are counted in November, clues to national voter behavior must be found elsewhere.

As polarized as American politics has become, the so–called swing states — the largest of which ordinarily are Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida — are probably the closest things to a bellwether that one is likely to find.

But the Democrats' current dire predictions for the Republicans if they have no presumptive nominee long before their convention in Tampa are not based on bellwethers.

They are based on a flawed faith in the conventional wisdom that once anointed nominees after only a couple of small states (led by New Hampshire) held their primaries.

Extended battles for the nomination were presumed to be fatal to a party's hopes for success because the nominee would be bruised and bloodied by the process — until Obama outlasted Hillary Clinton for the Democrats' nomination in 2008 and went on to be elected.

Of course, he might not have been elected if it had not been for the economic implosion in mid–September 2008. Before that happened, there was considerable angst in the Democratic Party, with some Democrats openly suggesting that Obama should have picked Clinton, not Joe Biden, to be his running mate.

After the economy imploded and was losing jobs at a six–figure monthly pace, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Today, I hear Democrats saying that, because recent numbers have been favorable to Obama, he is becoming an increasingly sure thing for re–election. Five months ago, Republicans were saying almost the same thing — except they were talking about how the numbers showed Obama was destined to lose.

Both parties have been on the right track, but they ignore the conventional wisdom I've been hearing since I was in college. It's held up pretty well over the years, and it still seems plenty valid to me.

Here it is — in a nutshell.

My political science professors all used to say that an election that involves an incumbent is always a referendum on that incumbent — and voters make up their minds about incumbents about six months before they go to the polls.

If that part is true, then the window is still open for both Obama and his eventual opponent, whoever that turns out to be. But it will be closing soon.

Here is how things have looked for recent presidents who sought second terms about six months before the voters went to the polls:
  • George W. Bush was narrowly re–elected in November 2004.

    His second term was such a disaster that it is easy to forget the fact that, in early May 2004, most polls showed his approval ratings just below the 50% mark, roughly even with the number who disapproved.

  • Bill Clinton's approval ratings were stuck in the 40s for most of 1995, but he rebounded and, by early May 1996, his approval numbers were in the mid–50s.

    He was re–elected by a comfortable margin in November 1996.

  • In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, George H.W. Bush was so popular that none of the top–tier Democrats wanted to run against him in 1992.

    But, by May 1992, a sour economy had taken its toll, and Bush's approval numbers were in the low 40s. He lost his bid for a second term to Clinton that November.

  • Ronald Reagan appears to have become the role model for all modern presidents and presidential wannabes — regardless of party.

    Republicans have been comparing themselves to Reagan for a long time, but recently Democrats have been getting into the act. Obama's supporters have been holding out Reagan as proof that a president can overcome high unemployment.

    With an unemployment rate that is significantly higher than the one that existed when Reagan asked for a second term, that isn't hard to understand, but it might be hard to duplicate. Reagan's approval numbers in May 1984, when joblessness was declining sharply, were in the low 50s and on the rise. He was re–elected in a landslide.

  • Obama and his supporters may try to compare their administration to Reagan's, but it is most often compared these days to the administration of Jimmy Carter — and the Carter presidency offers a cautionary tale for Obama.

    In May 1980, Carter's approval was in the low 40s. It was the last time Gallup found 40% or more of respondents approving of the job he was doing.

    Gas was selling for around $1.25 a gallon in May 1980. The price had been about 85 cents a gallon five or six months earlier.

    There were other factors involved in Carter's unsuccessful bid for a second term that fall, but the impact of the higher gas prices on American budgets can't be discounted.
Keep an eye on gas prices in the next couple of months — and see what kind of influence they are having on Obama's approval numbers.

I've heard experts speculate that gas prices in most parts of the country will be around $4/gallon by early May — which is, of course, when the higher prices usually kick in prior to the summer driving season. If that happens, I expect Obama's approval numbers to drop to 40 or lower.

And if that happens, it won't really matter who the presumptive GOP nominee is. He will win.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sad Times for Journalists

We live in a Through–the–Looking–Glass kind of world — where everything is the opposite of what it should be.

I tend to see that contradictory nature most vividly in my field of study, journalism — or, put in more general terms, communication.

Sometimes I look back on the scope of my life, and it takes my breath away to realize how much things have changed — I mean everything.

When I was growing up, we had three TV networks. Today, we have hundreds of options.

When I was in graduate school and I had research to do, I had to go to the university library, and I might spend days looking for one item. I guess you still need to spend some time in the library, but today, a lot of that legwork can be done from the comfort of your home with your laptop or desktop computer.

When I was a child, I expected it to take hours, days, maybe weeks to get a response to an inquiry about something. Today, people get agitated if takes more than a few minutes.

Modern people seem to think it is their right to have immediate access to any information they want whenever they want it — but they forget (if they ever really acknowledged it to begin with) that someone still has to do the dirty work.

With the entire world seemingly in turmoil — never mind the political squabbling in this country (and the only thing new about that is probably the intensity, which is a byproduct of all the information delivery methods that are available to us today) — it may never have been more important to have good, experienced journalists on the ground where events are unfolding.

Modern technology makes it possible for those journalists to transmit their findings halfway around the globe in a matter of minutes, if not seconds — but that doesn't change the fact that they put their lives on the line to do it.

And sometimes they lose those lives.

This morning, news reaches these shores that an American journalist and a French journalist have been killed in heavy shelling in Syria.

I don't know if much will be made of their deaths in this country. The American journalist was interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN hours before her death, but neither was a household name here.

Neither, for that matter, was Anthony Shadid, a New York Times journalist who died recently of an apparent asthma attack while covering the conflict in Syria.

Shadid's death got some notice in this country, mostly from other journalists who were familiar with the two–time Pulitzer Prize–winner's work.

But it was overshadowed by the extensive coverage of the death of pop star Whitney Houston.

I'm not sure what that says about our national priorities (and I mean no disrespect to Houston — 48 is too young for anyone to die).

But it can't be good.

Too many people are under the mistaken impression that citizen journalists with no training in journalism can do the job as well as professional journalists can.

Whenever I hear people saying that the man in the street, equipped with a laptop, can gather news efficiently and adequately, I want to ask something like this:
  • Would you permit a citizen doctor to perform surgery on you?

  • Would you trust a citizen architect to design your home or workplace?
As the son (and grandson) of trained educators, there was a time when I included citizen teacher on that list, too — but Rick Santorum has taken some of the wind out of those sails.

It isn't that I agree with Santorum. I don't. And I believe the decline in national standards that would inevitably result from a mass decision to home school a majority of American children would prove my point.

But Santorum is riding the crest of a semi–popular position — so it isn't an effective argument for me at the moment.

Still, it doesn't change the fact that it has always taken training to do the demanding jobs the way they need to be done.

There can be no more demanding job, I think, than reporting from a war zone.

The training and experience those three journalists had was invaluable — and their loss cannot be measured.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

When East Met West

"This was the week that changed the world."

Richard Nixon

In hindsight, I don't think I really understood the significance of what was happening when, 40 years ago today, Richard Nixon began his historic trip to the People's Republic of China.

I wasn't old enough. I had a general understanding of the fact that the United States had been fighting a war in Vietnam (actually, I couldn't remember a time when America wasn't involved in that conflict — for awhile, I guess I must have thought that Vietnamwar was all one word, like damnyankee — and I must have figured that it was a constant fact of life). I knew that there was another war being waged — called a "Cold War" — but I didn't know what that meant.

To my young mind, Nixon's trip to China seemed terribly contradictory. As I understood things (and my understanding was shaped considerably by my Democratic parents, who made no secret of the fact that they loathed Nixon), Nixon escalated American military involvement in Vietnam, presumably because of the belief that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, so would the other countries in the region, and that could not be allowed to happen — yet he went to great lengths to ease tensions with the Communists in China.

And, later that year, he went to the Soviet Union, where he ushered in detente and signed the Anti–Ballistic Missile Treaty. It didn't make sense to me. Nixon, I had heard, was a virulent anticommunist. Why was he going to such great lengths to be a friend to the Chinese?

I have come to understand that Nixon was walking a diplomatic tightrope, trying to end a war in southeast Asia without yielding the territory to the Communists while simultaneously opening lines of communication with the Communist superpowers.

I have also come to understand that Nixon was one of the early practitioners of triangulation. His visit to China threw genuine fear into the Soviets, who were concerned about the possibility of an alliance between the Chinese and the Americans. Consequently, they were more agreeable to detente.

That was the key, I was told. Only Nixon, with his anticommunist credentials, could have done something as globally stunning as his trips to China and Russia in 1972, playing one against the other and, essentially, getting more from each than he originally sought.

By anyone's standards, that would be a particularly challenging mission, but, in the spring of 1972, while the Democrats were trying to settle on a nominee to face Nixon in the general election that fall, Nixon went to China and got tons of free publicity.

In a different (yet still similar) sense, it was the foreign policy equivalent of Lyndon Johnson's domestic agenda, most notably his support for civil and voting rights legislation.

Racism was never confined to the South, but it was most prominent there, and, for that reason, I have heard it said, it took a president from a Southern state who rose from humble beginnings to get those laws pushed through Congress.

When LBJ told the nation "We shall overcome," it had more significance than it would have if it had come from the mouth of Johnson's patrician predecessor from New England.

Similarly, when Richard Nixon told the nation that his trip to China had changed the world, it had the weight of legitimacy behind it. Nixon was often — and justifiably — criticized for not being honest and sincere, but his visit to China went beyond the man and embraced the moment and charted a new course for the future.

So many things have changed in the 40 years since Nixon's trip to China. Before he went there, most Americans probably thought of a medieval culture, a closed society, when they thought of China. Or they thought of the stereotype of Asian markets producing inferior goods.

After television brought images of the modern China to America, that perception was changed forever.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Godspeed, John Glenn

Fifty years ago, writes John Noble Wilford in the New York Times, America "needed a hero."

I suppose the same could said of many times in America's history, but, as Wilford observes, "Americans had yet to recover from the Soviet Union's launching of the first spacecraft, Sputnik, in October 1957 — a rude jolt to our confidence as world leaders in all things technological."

In hindsight, it's probably as remarkable that the United States beat the Soviet Union to the moon as it was that Americans got there at all. In 1962, as Wilford points out, American confidence had taken a considerable bashing. When John F. Kennedy challenged America to commit to landing on the moon before the end of the 1960s, the nation really had little reason to believe it could.

But then, writes Wilford, "a Marine Corps fighter pilot from small–town America stepped forward in response to the country's need. The astronaut was John Glenn, whom the author Tom Wolfe has called 'the last true national hero America has ever had.' "

Glenn was made to order for the role of national hero — but he knew he didn't do it alone. On Saturday, he told the surviving members of Project Mercury, at an event commemorating Glenn's historic flight, that they were "the people who made it work."

That was true enough, but it was Glenn who put his life on the line.

His flight 50 years ago today lasted less than five hours, but he made history as surely as Neil Armstrong did seven years later when he walked on the moon. And he displayed a boyish wonder as he experienced things no American had ever experienced before.

He was the first American to orbit the earth, and he did so three times that day, observing at one point, after witnessing sunrise from orbit, "That sure was a short day. That was about the shortest day I've ever run into."

As the sun rose, Glenn observed what he described as "fireflies" outside the capsule. Neither he nor the people at NASA knew what he was seeing — it was later determined that they were ice crystals venting from the spacecraft — but Glenn simply could not contain his amazement.

"I am in a big mass of some very small particles," he said. "They're brilliantly lit up like they're luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little: they're coming by the capsule and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they're all brilliantly lighted."

The scene was beautifully re–created in the 1983 film "The Right Stuff."

It was in the book "The Right Stuff" that Wolfe called Glenn the last American hero. In truth, though — and, perhaps, inevitably — what Glenn did 50 years ago today was his heroic peak. The rest of his public career had its ups and downs.

Glenn was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, beating the incumbent for the Democratic nomination after giving his "Gold Star Mothers" speech in response to his opponent's charge that he "never worked for a living."

"[L]ook those men with mangled bodies in the eyes and tell them they didn't hold a job," Glenn said, speaking of his comrades in the military. "You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job."

Glenn might have been vice president. His name was mentioned among the leading contenders for the second spot on Jimmy Carter's ticket in 1976, but his keynote address to the Democratic convention was unimpressive, and Carter chose Walter Mondale instead.

In 1983, there was considerable talk about Glenn as a possible challenger to President Reagan, but Glenn and his staff were worried, as it turned out, about the release of the film version of Wolfe's book late that year. Wolfe had written in glowing terms about Glenn as a hero, but Glenn's staffers felt Wolfe portrayed Glenn as a zealot, and there was anxiety about how a movie that reinforced that image might be received.

As it turned out, reviewers saw the portrayal of Glenn as heroic, and Glenn tried to capitalize on the favorable publicity, but once again, he lost to Mondale — who went on to lose a 49–state landslide to Reagan.

A few years later, Glenn was one of the "Keating five," a group of senators who became ensnared in the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s, but he was cleared by the Senate commission that investigated. Instead, he was found to be guilty of "poor judgment."

His judgment may have been questioned, but he always seemed to retain the image of hero.

I remember having a G.I. Joe, like many boys my age, and one year I received a space–age accessory on my birthday to go with it. It was a one–man space capsule for the G.I. Joe that was apparently modeled after Glenn's Friendship 7.

I don't recall any identifiable marks on the capsule, but I do remember that the capsule came with a recording, about three or four minutes long, of dialogue from Glenn's space shot — including the "Godspeed, John Glenn" wish for good luck from Mission Control as liftoff began.

I suppose the idea was for children to listen to the record while they played with the space capsule. In that way, they could simulate things they saw on television. Well, that's what I did, anyway. In the make–believe world of my bedroom, my G.I. Joe was a space traveler, and the capsule was his vehicle for trips to strange new worlds.

Space travel certainly was heroic in those days. It may seem terribly routine to folks in the 21st century, but there was nothing routine about it in 1962.

It was the dawning of the age of the Space Race in the United States.

Now 90, Glenn told Todd Halvorson of Florida Today that space travel isn't just about going places but doing things once you get there.

"[I]t's not only seeing how far we go into space, and eventually being on Mars, and maybe sometime having a base on the moon," he said. "But to me, of equal importance is to maximize the research return."

America got a lot of return on its investment on this day in 1962.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Latest Reminder That Time Marches On

Bob (Bob Newhart): Jerry, why would she spend so much for a watch?

Jerry (Peter Bonerz): She loves you, Bob.

Bob: She'd better have a better reason than that.

"The Bob Newhart Show"

Warning: This may have the ring of a good old days syndrome story, but bear with me. We're all entitled to them, and this is mine — or, at least, my latest one.

I was scanning the news stories on news web sites this morning when this item caught my eye.
A nickel boost in the first–class stamp price to 50 cents is part of the U.S. Postal Service's latest plan to stop bleeding red ink.

You can read the entire article if you wish.

But the bottom line, I guess, is that the Postal Service sustained more than $3 billion in losses in the last quarter of 2011 — and the Postal Service, like so many other businesses, essentially relies on the revenue it gets from the holiday season to keep it going for the rest of the year.

When the holidays aren't happy, they aren't happy.

And the Postal Service's representatives were downright gloomy when they appeared before lawmakers to make their latest request for an increase in stamp prices.

I understand their predicament. Really, I do.

It may not be quite as dire as presented — I mean, it's virtually a given that, when someone comes to Congress to ask for something (usually money), the worst–case scenario is presented as a possible outcome if the wish is not granted (even if that worst–case outcome is unlikely).

I don't know if it is a remote possibility in this instance — I studied economics in college but only what I was required to take to get my degree — but there seems to be no question that traditional mail service has been struggling. It's been that way for quite awhile.

And things do seem to deteriorate more rapidly now than they did when I was a child.

So I don't doubt that there is something of a sense of urgency behind this request.

To the man in the street, though, I can see how it might seem a little excessive. The Postal Service just raised its postage rates at the start of 2012 and now, less than two months later, it is back before Congress asking for another increase.

"It's only five cents," some people will say — undoubtedly comparing that figure to the recent increase in gas prices.

And there is a certain validity in that. Everything is relative. And a five–cent increase in postage rates really pales next to the 50–cent spike in gas prices I have witnessed in the last couple of months.

But the commodities are not really comparable. That 50–cent increase represents about one–sixth the previous marketplace value of a gallon of gas. A five–cent increase in the postal rate is about one–ninth more than we're paying now.

The proposed price hike for stamps, therefore, is not as steep as the increase in fuel prices has been (or, if analysts are correct, will be). I guess it is really more about that five cent figure. It triggered kind of a stream–of–consciousness flashback.

See, five cents is what individual stamps were selling for when I was a child.

Today, five cents is the amount of the requested increase. The going rate is nine times what it was when I was a child.

Everything costs more now, of course. When I was a child, you could get a gallon of gas for about 30 cents. And you could get a brand–new car for a couple thousand dollars.

When you compare today's prices to the late 1960s and early 1970s, everything looks like a bargain, doesn't it? A loaf of bread cost maybe a quarter back then. Milk probably ran about a dollar a gallon. I remember seeing TV commercials for McDonald's that promised a burger, fries and a drink "and change back" from a single dollar bill. Boy, those were the days, huh?

Well, not entirely. I mean, minimum wage was about $1.50 an hour. If you were earning $10,000 a year, you were probably considered middle to upper class.

Everything is relative.

Those thoughts, in turn, reminded me of an episode of The Bob Newhart Show in the early 1970s — when Emily gave Bob a fine watch for his birthday. He had no idea when he left the apartment that morning that it was the most expensive watch on the market, but he soon found out, courtesy of his friend Jerry the dentist.

"You don't just pick those up in a drug store," Jerry said. Turned out, he was right. Bob phoned a reputable jeweler and found out what such a watch cost.

Later in the episode, after Bob had confronted Emily about the cost of the watch, sparking a memorable fight, he confessed what was really bothering him.

"When I was a kid," he explained, "I used to think of everything in terms of ice cream cones. I loved ice cream cones. Something that cost 20 cents was two ice cream cones. A dollar was 10 ice cream cones.

"And, when I found out how much this watch cost, I felt like I had been run over by a Good Humor truck."

The times, they truly are a–changing. Sometimes it seems they're changing too fast.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Palin's Pronouncement

As hesitant as I am to give Sarah Palin credit for, well, anything, I actually do feel compelled to give her some credit for her observation that a brokered convention would not necessarily be a bad thing.

Folks who perpetuate the idea that it would be bad for the Republican Party, she said, have "an agenda" — which, admittedly, sounds a lot like her usual conspiracy theory talk defaming everyone in the media or the party establishment — but suspend your disbelief and/or skepticism for a few minutes, OK?

While I won't rule out the possibility that Palin is playing the rest of us for a bunch of suckers and laying the groundwork for a "Draft Palin" movement in Tampa later this year, I will concede that she makes a valid point or two, especially when you consider recent electoral history.

Four years ago, the Democrats' nominating process dragged into the summer, and the pundits said it would mortally wound the nominee.

And, I suppose, it could have if 2008 had been an ordinary political year. But it wasn't.

You couldn't tell that right after the conventions. In the first half of September, the Democrats were struggling in the polls, and there was talk that Barack Obama had made a tactical error in choosing Joe Biden to be his running mate. Some Democrats openly fretted that Hillary Clinton should have been the running mate.

Seemed like business as usual — perhaps all those months of infighting really had taken their toll.

But then the economy imploded, and voters became determined to change directions. In the last six weeks of that campaign, the tide turned irreversibly to the Democrats. If Obama had needed two ballots or more to win the nomination in August, it probably wouldn't have mattered by Election Day 2008.

From the vantage point of 2012 (and in the eventual long–term context of history), the outcome of the 2008 election might look inevitable, but it was hardly certain at the time.

Anyway, Palin's assertion challenged the (pardon the pun) conventional wisdom that conventions do not serve the same purpose in the TV age that they did in the first 150 years of the republic's existence.

In the last half century, conventions have been about making the best possible use of the free air time the parties received. Organizers of modern conventions want things to be decided outside the view of the cameras. They want their primetime coverage to present a picture of a united, harmonious party to the national audience, enthusiastic about its nominees and its platform and ready to do battle in the general election campaign.

They don't want their conventions to be discussions about important issues that engage the viewers instead of entertaining them, and they don't want prolonged battles for the nomination. They want bands and balloons and cheering delegates. Perhaps they are fearful that if a convention goes past the first ballot — and previously committed delegates are free to vote in any way that they please — that is an invitation to chaos.

But that is not necessarily so.

Democrats have been holding presidential nominating conventions since 1832. Republicans have been holding such conventions since 1856. Originally, parties made important decisions at their conventions. They nominated their candidates for president and vice president, that's true, but they also defined who they were and what they stood for in their platforms.

In a nation that was still growing, still emerging and constantly facing new challenges, that was important. It helped Americans decide which directions they wanted to take, what kind of country they wanted to have. It was the essence of democracy.

The platform–building process is still important today, but the debates (such as they are) take place weeks before the convention — under the watchful eyes of the presumptive nominee's staff.

And their overwhelming concern is how it will look on television.

Before television came along, few Americans saw what went on at a party's convention, and most read about it through the media filter. It didn't matter to them if the acceptance speeches were delivered before 10 p.m. or at 3 in the morning — or if it took several ballots to decide on a presidential nominee.

The modern assumption is that a multi–ballot convention will be a negative. But Palin says it doesn't have to be, and I agree with her on that.

A convention in which viewers do not know the outcome could generate a lot of interest, and I think that would tend to attract viewers, kind of like an athletic contest between evenly matched teams.

No organizer wants to see something like what unfolded in the streets of Chicago in 1968, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the image the country sees. Instead, it could see a group of Americans calmly and rationally discussing the pros and cons of issues that affect their countrymen and the candidates who propose to lead them.

In the past, multi–ballot conventions have sometimes produced compromise nominees, and that is one possible scenario. No one really knows what to expect, in no small part because neither party has had a multi–ballot convention since 1952, when TV was still in its infancy.

The Republicans' most recent experiences with multi–ballot conventions — in 1948, when the GOP needed three ballots to settle on Tom Dewey for the second straight election, and in 1940, when the Republicans picked Wendell Willkie after six ballots — weren't especially good.

Dewey was defeated by Harry Truman (Mitt Romney has been compared to Dewey), and Willkie lost to FDR (Newt Gingrich has suggested that this year's convention might resemble the one in 1940).

But in the pre–television days, open conventions were known to produce Republican nominees who won sometimes — Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, James Garfield in 1880, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and Warren Harding in 1920 — so it is not unprecedented.

Likewise, multi–ballot conventions produced some winners on the Democratic side — James Polk in 1844, Franklin Pierce in 1852, James Buchanan in 1856, Grover Cleveland in 1884, Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and FDR in 1932.

Don't misunderstand. There is no guarantee that an open convention will produce a winner. Nine multi–ballot Democratic conventions produced losers as did three other Republican ones (in addition to the two previously mentioned).

And you can add political scientist and historian to the lengthy (and still growing) list of things that Palin is not.

But this much is certain. Both the winners and the losers of the last 14 presidential elections were nominated in one ballot

Could a multi–ballot nominee fare any worse?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston's Troubling Death

Less than 24 hours ago, the word began to spread that singer Whitney Houston had been found dead in her hotel room.

There have been paroxysms of public mourning ever since. It's gotten to the point where I really feel that this is the flip side of the Michael Jackson experience. And that is appropriate, I guess. Even in his lifetime, Jackson was known as the "King of Pop" — and, more than once, I have heard Houston called the "Queen of Pop."

And both had well–publicized battles with drugs. (I'm not talking about the light stuff, either.)

Tributes have been pouring in, and, appropriately, there will be one at tonight's Grammy Awards. It's really too soon to put together the kind of star–studded salute that the Grammy organizers would have preferred for someone of Houston's stature, but, as the executive producer noted, the Grammys would be "remiss" if something wasn't done.


So Jennifer Hudson — who is, arguably, this generation's Whitney Houston — will perform. And more garments can be rent.

These accolades are coming in while the effort goes on to determine the cause of her death. The Los Angeles Times reports that police have found no evidence of foul play, but there is always the issue of drugs and/or alcohol, which figured prominently in Houston's professional decline.

At this point, the Times says police have found no evidence that drugs played a role, either, but it will take time to reach a conclusion on that.

"In other cases of high–profile figures dying unexpectedly, the investigations lasted for months and included detailed toxicology tests," reports the Times. "It took nearly three months for the coroner to officially rule on the death of Michael Jackson in 2009."

Whatever the results of those tests may suggest, I think it is fair to say that Houston's history of substance abuse did play a role in her death.

It may not have been directly caused by a lethal dosage of drugs — either prescription or illegal — but I believe it was helped by a culture that condones the demonizing and criminalizing of drug users. Not all people who use illegal drugs are addicts, just as not all people who consume alcohol are alcoholics, but society insists on treating them as if they were.

If things get out of hand, alcoholics can seek help without being ostracized. (There have even been times, in fact, when it was trendy for alcohol abusers to seek professional help.) The former cannot. And that can influence one's general willingness to seek medical help in any emergency.

It was reported last year that Houston was going back into rehab, and it was reported only a few days ago that Houston had been acting erratically in public. Those two items alone suggest that there was something wrong behind the scenes.

Maybe they were related. Maybe they were not. There may be some medical factor at work here that no one knows about, something that went undiagnosed during Houston's life.

I recall that, when I was a teenager, a boy who was a few years younger and had a talent for basketball was at practice one day when he collapsed and died. Turned out he had a rare heart condition. He'd passed all his physical examinations over the years, but no one had ever pinpointed the tiny genetic defect that would end his life at the age of 14 or 15.

Perhaps something similar will be uncovered as these tests are conducted.

And if that turns out to be the case, it will be a tragedy — especially if the post–mortem conclusion turns out to be that she died in spite of what should have been easily observable symptoms that something was wrong. Her reason for ignoring such a condition could have been innocent — or it could have stemmed from a desire to obscure her use of illegal substances.

If substance abuse was treated like other diseases in this culture, maybe those around Houston could have encouraged her to seek medical help that might have saved her life. And she might have heeded their advice — absent the stigma.

But this culture prefers to criminalize people for their weaknesses. Today, when the political debate includes discussions of budgets with deficits in the trillions, there are those who want to test people who apply for government assistance, be it unemployment benefits or food stamps.

(This is in spite of the fact that the Fourth Amendment — part of the Bill of Rights in which patriotic Americans always swear they believe — protects American citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures and requires judicially sanctioned warrants that are backed by probable cause.)

The discussion raises an issue that was at the heart of the founding of this country — freedom from the tyranny of the state.

If the state can seize someone's bodily fluids without probable cause, it can search someone's home or automobile just as easily — and, freed of that tedious restriction of having to look for specific evidence of a specific crime, the state could seize anything and use it as evidence of anything. Facts be damned.

Without my Fourth Amendment rights, the police could burst into my home, whether I was there or not, seize a steak knife from my kitchen, claim that it was used to stab someone I didn't know with no proof that I was present when he/she was killed and throw me into jail indefinitely.

I don't know what Houston's financial situation was like at the time of her death or what kind of impact her substance abuse may have had, but I gather that the general perception is that, because of her success, she left behind a considerable estate.

Be that as it may, the only real difference between well–to–do addicts and underprivileged ones is the availability of funds.

Money affords the affluent the means to acquire the drug(s) they want and the silence of their supplier(s). Things are a lot more complicated for the underprivileged. But it is reasonable to believe that, unless there is a good, sound reason to think otherwise, if someone applies for unemployment assistance, that person will use it for necessities — food, clothing, shelter.

Instead, there are those who would happily make them the scapegoats for a persistently terrible economy and require them to jump through more hoops to get a few hundred dollars so they can put food in their bellies and clothes on their backs.

That mindset is plenty for substance abusers to fear even if they already have the funds that give them access to the substances they abuse. It is this criminal attitude as much as anything that contributes to the early deaths of good people.

It reminds me in many ways of the early years of the AIDS epidemic — when the prevailing mindset was that, if one was sick with AIDS, it was probably because of his own reckless (and possibly illegal) behavior.

Worse, there were those who added to the stigma by suggesting that AIDS victims deserved to die. (I continued to hear people say that, by the way, even after many well–publicized cases of people who got sick through blood transfusions.)

Consequently, it was no surprise that many AIDS victims retreated into the shadows. Granted, there was little in the way of treatment for them in the early years, but that was largely because funding for research was scarce. Many simply chose to suffer in silence.

Even as they were dying, many insisted that the cause not be mentioned or that more innocuous phrases (i.e., "complications from pneumonia") be used in their obituaries. I always thought it was indescribably sad that someone would be so concerned about appearances on one's deathbed.

Our culture lost so many good people in those days because of that destructive mindset. It still exists, and it still judges harshly, indefensibly, neglecting people because of their weaknesses and labeling them criminals.

Whitney Houston may or may not have contributed to her own death, but there is blood on society's hands.

As a culture, we failed her, just as we fail the others like her, regardless of their social standing, with our smug, superior, judgmental attitudes.

It's too late to help Houston. Is it too late to help the others?