Monday, April 26, 2010

Thinking Globally AND Locally

Today's question: In what context do you see ugly baseball caps together with nice looking men's suits? The answer? Twice a year - the NFL draft and the NBA draft. The young men selected come to the draft venue dressed to kill, then, when their names are announced, they put on the hats provided by the drafting teams for a predictable but strange effect.
This past weekend it was football's turn. I don't think I'd watch the draft if I only had one channel coming in with a blizzard going on outside. But it struck me that this ensemble actually carries a message from the otherwise not-too-articulate young men. "Yes," (pointing to the hat) "I choose this sport as my profession and will dedicate myself to it. But in return, you (pointing to the suit) must be prepared to pay an exorbitant salary, even if I'm hurt in your service." The average NFL career goes all of four years, so this year's group of future stars had better be "ready for some football."

There are talents we can recognize in others, but sadly lack ourselves. What's perplexing is when the gifted ones try to explain how it is that they do the things they do. I rented a surfing video recently. It is a subject in which I have zero personal experience, though watching those guys on the big waves combined with the gnarly (Is that still a term?) music is pretty darn exciting, even if it's just a DVD. This particular one had a scene in which one of the surfers explains how it's done. I listened hard, but the guy just made no sense to me. It was a little like hearing my father explain how he played the piano by ear, creating extemporaneous full arrangements while knowing only the melody. I never understood how that was done, either.

The world's airways were shut down over a good part of the world last week, and, for once, there was no one to blame. Nope, it was the fault of that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano, spewing ash which blew all over Europe, causing airports to shut down. A group of madrigal singers from one of our high schools was delayed for a week in Italy. Considering the alternatives just in Europe, I guess it could have been a lot worse. Ciao!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Real Message, Part II

In this space I once poked fun at our health care system by writing about a local plan to give away a colonoscopy exam as a prize for a drawing. This year I was shocked to discover that I was entered in the exact same lottery by a certain family member. The good/bad news? Someone else actually won. Readers here also win, because who cares about what getting your colon tested is like until it's your turn?

It's true that last week's title didn't have "Part I" attached to it, but these things keep turning up. And that's the case, I believe, because of the success of a certain political style of communicating called "staying on message". In part, it means everyone on "our" side says the same thing, using the exact same words, until the media and regular folks are also using them, perhaps without even knowing it. Did you ever refer to GWB with the phrase "He kept us safe"? You might have thought this was the product of your own brain. Sorry.
But I digress. This time around it's banking regulatory reform. You might think this would be a slam-dunk given the catastrophic economic meltdown of two years ago, but the Republican members of the Senate do not agree. Hard as it seems to believe, they would prefer no new regulations at all. Truth be told, they'd like to junk some of the ones already in place, but that's another story.
Senator Mitch ("McChinless") McConnell, having been tutored in the official company line by a GOP wordmeister, issed a statement in which he seemed to say that the proper response to such disasters in the future would do nothing and let troubled banks disappear altogether. And he's willing, he swears, to meet with Democrats on the issue, presumably to tell them why he feels this way, but not to join in the actual process of re-regulation. The depositors? Customers? Stockholders? I guess the market giveth and the market, well, McConnell doesn't say. Nor does he mention that the whole nasty mess came to us via...the Bush Administration, in which dedicated free marketers like Henry Paulson found that their faith in deregulation was closer to hubris.
Gosh knows I'm no economist, and my past experience in guessing future corporate earnings could be described as "professional" in only the broadest way, but over and over I see that deregulation of almost anything brings short term glee and ling term sorrow. And if the pros don't see these disasters looming, and they evidently do not, then the solution to the problem must lie not in members of Congress bought and paid for by banking interests, but by firm treatment from their opponents, most of whom turn out to be, yes, Democrats.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The REAL Message

Boy, lots of fascinating things going on in my life these days. Which do I tackle? What it's like to be the only tenor in the choir? The highlights of last weekend's antique show? My progress (or lack of same) as a tennis player? And some of the audience of this blog thinks these things are interesting? No wonder I find it more fun to pretend to be a pundit, writing about things that are a little,,,bigger.

For instance, there's the latest on our nation's Supreme Court. You probably heard that the Court's chief liberal, Justice John Paul Stevens, has announced just short of his ninetieth birthday that he plans to hang up his robe and retire. You might not have heard of Senator Orrin Hatch's announcement, made the same day.
Senator Hatch evidently still yearns for the time when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and swung a lot of weight in such matters. That's no longer the case, but the Senator still feels comfortable issuing a warning to President Obama. "Don't", he said in so many words, "try to put an activist on the Court. We (me and my forty GOP sidekicks) won't stand for that. Get what I'm a-sayin', Mister?"
Let's consider the whole situation for a moment. Does Hatch think that the President has given no thought to this matter since the ratification of Justice Sonja Sotomayor last year? That's not likely. Does Hatch believe Obama could win his support by nominating a "non-activist"? The term has no defined meaning, so that's pretty unlikely, too. Is Hatch really scared that a Senate filibuster opposing the nominee could hurt the country? I guess he wouldn't make threats unless he was willing to carry them out, right? So, what's Hatch really saying here, and who is his real audience?
The answer starts with the buzzword, "activist" judge. It's been used so much since the Nixon days that it has a built-in payoff. It supposedly refers to judges who overstep their judicial bounds by trying to enforce their will vs. Congress, but for easy purposes, it really just refers to judges who make rulings "we" (white religious folks who hate criminals and don't mind seeing them suffer, but kind of like anti-union corporations) oppose. So Hatch uses the code term, and to what end? Why, reminding the faithful folks back in Utah that old Orrin has their backs on this issue and will do everything he can to support "our" side against those awful liberals. After all, if he had really wanted to send a message to the President, there are a hundred ways to get it done without elbowing your way in front of the cameras and shaking your finger at POTUS. No, Hatch wasn't thinking of the next nominee at all, who won't be named for a few weeks anyway. Whoever he/she is, the Senator will be among the "nays". But thirty some years in the Senate teaches a guy how to deliver a message even when you appear to be doing something else.
I don't really object to Hatch's ploy here. Football coaches and executives do this kind of thing all the time. And there's nothing to keep Democrats from using it, either. It isn't illegal or unethical. I just want someone to know that I see it happening, and am not fooled.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Spring Surprises

The season is barely two weeks old and already there are things happening that most folks could not have predicted.

First, there's the President's little switch on the plans for more offshore drilling for oil. Evidently he's now more sure that the process can be done safely, even in a hurricane-prone region. I hope he's right.

Then there's the news that over one hundred Chinese coal miners were rescued after over a week of being trapped underground. Considering the way most trapped Chinese miners seem to end up, that's good news indeed, though I wonder how many of them are willing to go back down. My future wish for them is a real union - one with some authority, and the desire to put its members' interest ahead of production schedules and "cutting costs".

The NCAA would prefer that Bob Huggins NOT be the face of college basketball. His teams win, but he looks more like a member of the Russian mob than an "educator". He wears a black sweatsuit at games instead of a suit, and his reputation isn't squeeky clean. But in last Saturday's NCAA semifinal game between the Huggins-coached West Virginia and Duke, something happened that revealed a completely different side of the coach, at least to me. The WV star, Da'Sean Butler took the ball inside, where there was a collision. A second later, Butler was on the floor screaming in pain. Huggins was quickly at his side, trying to reassure his player in a manner that could only be called "tender" as he took his player's head in his arms and put his own face next to Butler's. Once again, I'm reminded that we can't really know people well just by seeing them perform on TV.

Finally, try to imagine a graph. This one starts with a single horizontal line representing the passage of time. Columns representing national job losses in a given month go DOWN from the line, with the length of the column determined by the number of jobs lost. A net positive jobs added is represented by a column going UP from the line, in the same fashion.
The last year of the Bush administration was brutal for jobs lost, as the downward monthly columns got longer as the year progressed. In January, 2009, the new administration takes office, and job losses continue near the same rate for a few months, but then the trend reverses itself to show fewer job losses (shorter columns). Finally, last month the economy actually ADDS jobs, and the column has a line going UP for the first time in about 30 months. The graph now looks like an upside-down pyramid, and if you are looking for work, you're now on the preferred side of the graph. Is it surprising? Yes it is, if you are a Republican who thinks tax cuts is the the answer to every economic woe. Of course, these folks are also surprised that they're wrong - again.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

What They Say!

I read something this week that gives new meaning to the phrase "raising the bar". A couple of years ago, one of the nearby high schools had a girl pole vaulter who was one of the state's best. She's still at it, competing for one of the large state universities in another part of the state. But what made my eyes pop was reading that she had given birth to a baby during the time in between. I'm not sure I can think of two activities less alike. Who was it that said that life sometimes can interfere? Oh yes, it was me. My best wishes go to both the vaulter/mom and her little son. If he has her athletic genes, well, the sky's the limit.

One of the issues being reconsidered these days is a leftover from the Clinton administration. It's the practice which says in effect, that our armed forces still prohibit gays or lesbians from serving, but that the services won't go out of their way to find out this little piece of information. It's known by its less formal name, "Don't ask. Don't tell".
A change requires the consent of Congress, who have called hearings to question those "in the know" as to whether we should change or keep the policy. We have allies on both sides..
I think I know the arguments here, but after centuries of warfare accompanied by at least as many centuries of gay individuals, shouldn't there be some solid evidence somewhere supporting the theory that inclusion of gay soldiers makes some kind of difference? Wouldn't this be especially true if the policy clearly hurt the troops' effectiveness? And wouldn't the lack of such evidence argue for a change in policy towards greater inclusion?
Enter retired U.S. Army General John J. Sheehan, called on to answer just these kinds of questions by Congress. Our country has many retired generals, but Sheehan not that long ago was involved in running NATO, a job you just don't get without being a formidable guy. At any rate, Sheehan gave it as his opinion that having gay soldiers is a bad idea.
And he had an example to cite. During the European conflicts of the 1990's involving the former Yugoslav republics, a detachment of Dutch soldiers was assigned to protect the city of Srebrenica. In the war's greatest bloodletting, the Dutch were outnumbered and forced to stand aside as the Serbian forces simply slaughtered all the Muslim men they could find. This tragedy was laid by General Sheehan directly at the feet of the Dutch army's practice of including "gays and liberals".
Well, there it is. No proof, statistical OR anecdotal, just a flat accusation which, by the way, the government of the Netherlands, who've been part of NATO now for a long time, did not take well. It boggles the mind what Sheehan as military supervisor would have done to set straight any subordinate willing to leap to such conclusions without some kind of evidence. Someone must have concluded that his audience, though members of Congress, wouldn't be as demanding in looking for the truth as he himself would have been.
Of course, Sheehan now is a private citizen and can say whatever he wants without being concerned about losing what must be a sizable pension. Does he feel that making this kind of statement makes him better known in this country? He could be right. Is it possible that his speaking fees just took a large leap up? Could be, since he no doubt thinks of himself as a better speaker than, say, Sarah Palin or Karl Rove. It could be that he just concluded that a little push back from the media would serve his cause well, as long as he and his potential audiences regard the news media as an enemy.