Wednesday, October 31, 2007

October 30, 2007

Jealousy is bad. Envy is bad. I know that. But I'm jealous and envious and cranky. The Red Sox won the World Series. Four straight, in fact. And it's the second time in four years.

Nothing wrong with their winning, of course. But I'm a Cubs fan and we used to have the Red Sox as companions in misery. When they won the World Series in 2004, it was their first championship in 86 years. We Cubs fans know about numbers like that. Our guys, swept out of the playoffs in three games this year, last won the Series in 1908. For the Red Sox to win two in four years seems, somehow, almost greedy.

And they may be back in 2008. They lost big stars from that 2004 team--Johnny Damon, Derek Love, Pedro Martinez--and won this year anyway. They have only one big star at risk this year--Mike Lowell, who was named the most valuable player in the Series. He had the best regular season of his career, and he's said he'd like to stay in Boston.

And the Red Sox' usual rivals, the Yankees, seem to be unraveling. Their biggest star, Alex Rodriguez, the youngest man ever to hit 500 home runs, has opted to become a free agent. The Yankees say they won't try to lure him back. The team could also lose closer Mariano Rivera, catcher Jorge Posada and pitcher Andy Pettitte to free agency or retirement, which would put them in the rebuilding business and probably out of contention for a season or two.

And the Cubbies? They went home early, as noted. No playoff heroics, lost three straight. Will they be any better next year? It's hard to know, but you probably wouldn't bet the rent money on a team that's gone a century without a championship. If losing can get to be a habit - and it can - the Cubbies' future in far from bright.

So, way to go, Red Sox! Good on you! I can't stand it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

October 29, 2007

You've probably heard by now about the fake news conference the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, as we affectionately call it) held last week during the California fires. Pretty clever--they gave only reporters fifteen minutes notice, so they couldn't get there and had to listen by phone, on lines where they could only listen, not ask questions. FEMA staffers asked the questions, which was, of course, just dandy for the FEMA boss who was answering them. No ugly surprises here.

Apologies afterward, of course. The FEMA question answerer confessed an "error of judgement." White House press secretary Dina Perino said it wouldn't happen again and was a tactic the White house would never employ.

But I don't know. Washington isn't, even on its best days, a pure search for truth; it's a battle between reporters and spokespeople who want to spin whatever the story is their way. The government, the individual politicians, Congressmen and others in the government want to tell you only the stuff that helps them sell their program or defend their vote. Truth? That's somebody else's gig.

So instead of scolding FEMA, maybe the feds should take this useful experiment and expand it. I mean, can't you just see W there behind the podium or out in the Rose Garden, taking questions from Ms.Perino and a few of her colleagues? Makes sticking to your message--something politicians usually want to do--a whole lot easier. I'll bet they'd love it at State and at the Pentagon too. Cancel those press passes! Make those clowns listen on the phone instead! Way to go, bureaucracy!

And if it works at press conferences, maybe it would have other uses. I mean, what if we taxpayers could be our own IRS, our own auditors, pay as much tax as we think we ought to pay. Could the government adapt to that? Would enough money come in for there to be a government? Don't know, but it might be fun finding out.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

October 24, 2007

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Mr. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may cost 2.4 trillion dollars. The Bush administration estimated, before it invaded Iraq, that that war would cost no more than 50 million dollars. Ooops. Still, 2.4 trillion works out to only about $ 8,000. for every man, woman and child in the country. I'm sure you're ready to pony up.

The really bad news is that more wars may be on the way. Vice President Cheney has called Iran "the world's most active state sponsor of terror," and promised "serious consequences." Maureen Dowd suggests in the New York Times that Cheney might attack even if he has to do it alone - like Slim Pickens riding down with the bomb in the movie "Dr. Strangelove." Well, at least that would be relatively cheap in both dollars and American lives.

But the Times also reports a Bush speech telling Cubans that the U.S. "will not accept a political which power changes from one Castro brother to another...."

How, for heaven's sake, did it get to be up to us who ought to run Cuba? We tried that once before anyway. We landed a U.S. trained force of Cuban exiles at a place called the Bay of Pigs, and they lost, big time. Why is this any of our business? No, it's not a democracy, but neither is Russia, neither is China. Are we supposed to invade and "reform" them too? What's going on here?

Once upon a time, the U.S. stayed out of wars unless it was attacked: American ship sinkings got us into World War One; Pearl Harbor, into World War Two. We were attacked; we hit back; and we won. It's been a lot murkier lately.

You can spend a day or two arguing how we got into Vietnam, but it's hard to argue that the U.S. was in danger. Vietnamese did not invade us. We lost that war and all the neighboring countries we said we were protecting, instead of being swallowed up by the Communists, stayed independent and prospered.

Iraq never invaded us either. The first President Bush threw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait after he invaded it, but that was that. This Iraq war, we started. Never used to do that. And for the record, Iran hasn't attacked the U.S. They threw out the shah, whom we helped but in power, but that was in Iran not New Jersey. Cuba's never attacked us either; in fact, we have a military base there.

This administration seems to think it's in charge of the world. It isn't. If you want to play emperor, guys, please go play it somewhere else.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

October 23, 2007

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani has, as the Washington Post's Richard Cohen reminds us this week, promised military action against Iran if it develops a nuclear weapon. This was, to put it mildly, a dumb thing to say.

If Iran has a bomb and we attack, won't they use their bomb? Maybe not against us--we're distant--but against, say, Israel which has bombs of its own? And where will we all be then? In some sort of nuclear, regional war probably. Who on earth would wish for one of those?

The United States is the only country that has ever dropped the bomb in wartime - two of them on Japan to end World War Two. Almost all Americans approved of that.

The bombs have gotten much bigger and better since then, of course. Mankind has for the first time, as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin reminded us a few years ago, the power to destroy God's created order. Whenever I think about that, I'm a little surprised that we haven't done it. We are Pandora as a species; we want to open the box.

But we haven't blown up the planet, haven't attacked each other. We have watched each other, contained each other, and talked to each other. Giuliani may feel Iran is special, but why? Many Americans thought the Soviet Union wanted to rule the world. Many feared Communist China. They became watchers and talkers, like us. India got the bomb. So did Pakistan, not exactly a model of stability these days as Benazir Bhutto's violent homecoming proved. But the planet lives.

What we do, we bomb owners, is watch each other and talk to each other. That's important because it will probably turn out that we can live with each other, can compromise our differences, and let the planet live.

I sometimes wish that Giuliani and the various other wannabe warriors running for president could spend a couple of days on a real battlefield. It isn't pretty, all those wasted young lives. And you never forget the smell.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

October 18, 2007

President Bush held a news conference Tuesday. The Washington Post led with Mr. Bush's declaration that he is still "relevant" to the government. Well, okay. But it's hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt or, come to that, Richard Nixon needing to tell reporters that they were relevant. I mean, they were presidents, so of course they were relevant.
This guy? Maybe he did need to say it.

I've thought for years that the worst president in my time was Jimmy Carter. Distinguished ex-prez, of course, but if you're old enough you remember the inflation; you remember his surprise when his friends the Soviets invaded Afghanistan; you remember the fifty-some Americans held hostage in Iran and Mr. Carter's unsuccessful helicopter raid meant to free them--they were finally freed, as it happens, the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated to succeed the one-term Carter. You remember the video of the president fighting off an attack rabbit while in a canoe (No, I'm not making that up.).

But nowadays, I'm starting to wonder. Mr. Bush could give Mr. Carter a run for his money. No attack rabbits, of course. But after a fine start in the days after 9/11, with the country united in pursuit of the Taliban, the Bush presidency has unraveled. We invaded Iraq for no reason that was ever adequately explained. It hasn't gone well but this president is stubborn and clearly intends to keep the war going and let his successor end it, if he or she wants to.

Domestically? Well, what would you list as the three major accomplishments of the Bush administration? Don't all speak at once, please; I'm trying to write down your answers because I can't think of any. Spying on Americans without a warrant? He likes that but it trashes the Constitution though, to be fair, freedom and privacy usually get abused in wartime.

Bush also said his veto power makes him relevant and that's true. But do you give high marks for vetoing expanded health care for children because he needs to spend the money on the war? Maybe not.

It's true the public gives the Congress as low a rating as it does the president, which probably proves that the voters are paying attention after all. And no, the Congress hasn't passed any of the appropriations bills yet. Maybe it's just a bad year for government at either end of Pennsylvania Ave. But we're more used to do-nothing Congresses than we are to incompetent presidents.

Oh well, there's an election coming up; maybe we can make things better. Maybe.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

October 16, 2007

The picture in The Washington Post was ordinary enough - a woman signing up for Social Security payments.
But it may really have been a picture of a government starting to collapse. That's because the woman was a baby-boomer.
The first of them, born after World War Two ended in 1945, are now sixty-two and eligible for Social Security.

Waves of boomers will follow and the system will gain millions of recipients while the work force paying the taxes to support the system will, relatively, shrink. The Post says Social Security will go into the red in 2017, ten years from now, and go broke in 2041. Medicare goes into debt in 2013 and goes broke in 2019.

Everybody who follows the news knows this is happening, except, maybe, the presidential candidates of both parties who pretty much ignore the hippopotamus sitting in the living room. Republican Fred Thompson has proposed cutting benefits for future retirees but not for anyone getting payments now. None of the others has said anything much, as far as I know. And of course it's painful. There are only two ways to fix the system--cut benefits and/or raise taxes. You can understand why candidates don't like to recommend either of those.

And it's not as if we were saving money to pay the boomers when it's their turn. The budget deficit for fiscal 2007, the year that ended September 30th, was 163 billion dollars. That's way down from what it was two years ago but, still, that's a whole lot of money. And, no, the Congress hasn't passed any of the appropriations bills for this year. And, yes, the President has vetoed a bill expanding health care for poor children. Congress will try to override the veto but will probably fail.

All this suggests a government which is fairly dysfunctional. And that suggests there ought to be a market for a presidential candidate who says this and who campaigns with passion for big, big changes in the way the government works. Big calls for big changes.

But I haven't seen that candidate. Have you?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

October 10, 2007

Nine Republican candidates debated the economy and some other stuff yesterday. It turns out they're all for tax cuts. Well, of course. If the budget is already in the red, and you're fighting a war in Afghanistan and another in Iraq and maybe thinking about one in Iran, why wouldn't you want to cut taxes?

One of the longshots, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, noted that "the system is built to spend," not cut. He had that right, of course. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani bragged he'd cut taxes twenty-three times. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney noted that, as mayor, Giuliani had favored a commuter tax. Well, of course he had. City mayors like commuter taxes because the people who pay them live in the suburbs, not the city, and don't vote in city elections. And Giuliani and Romney argued over who'd cut taxes the most. "I led; he lagged," Giuliani said. "It's a nice line, but it's baloney," Romney answered, "I did not increase taxes....I lowered taxes." And so it went.

Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, a newcomer to the race, did not bring the crowd to its feet, but performed respectably and offered an actual specific on cutting spending: cut benefits for future Social Security recipients, though not, of course, for anyone getting the payments now. And that was about as specific as anyone got.

The fact is, of course, that if what has made the United States strong for generations is its middle class, we're in real trouble. The rich are getting richer; the poor are getting poorer. The gap between what CEOs get and what their employees get is the biggest it's ever been and it's growing. The middle is shrinking. A lot of the old union manufacturing jobs have vanished, victims of cheaper labor in other counties or of automation. No one can fix that. The remedies are long term, like adapting to the information age, making our living in high tech jobs where we still have an edge on lower-wage countries, and above all educating our kids to compete in this new and ever-changing world. But there wasn't much talk about that; it might mean more government programs and this was theoretically an anti-government crowd, except that government keeps growing no matter which party is in charge.

The candidates also talked about whether they'd consult Congress before going to war. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas pointed out that the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to declare war. Mike Huckabee noted that presidents might not always have the luxury of consulting that document. John McCain said he'd bypass Congress if "the situation is such that it requires immediate action." Like invading Iraq? I don't know. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, a Sunday. Resistance started at once--no orders needed from anyone in Washington for that. Congress declared war the next day. I hope we keep the Constitution around. I like it.

So it was a little frustrating to watch. Fewer candidates and more follow-up questions might have helped. The voters will start helping us with the first part of that in just a few months now.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

October 7, 2007

"Do not go gentle into that good night," the poet Dylan Thomas wrote. "Old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light." And maybe that's good advice. But not for us Cubs fans. The light's died too regularly, too often every September--or occasionally, like this year, in October-- but it's died for ninety-nine straight years now. Too many for rage. A soft, resigned sigh maybe, but that's about it.

"99 Seasons and Counting," the New York Times correctly headlined, "Cubs Go Out With a Whimper." Well, they are the newspaper of record. Of course, they got it right. Ninety-nine years since they won the World Series. Is there a longer losing streak in any professional sport, anywhere? I doubt it. Next year they'll be going for a century. You'd be a fool to bet against them.

This year, the Arizona Diamondbacks beat them three straight. The suspense went out of the third and last game early when the Diamondbacks' leadoff man, Chris Young, hit Cub starter Rich Hill's first pitch for a home run. You can cite statistics: the Cubs scored only six runs in the three games; their cleanup hitter, Aramis Ramirez, went 0 for 12 in the series; and so on. But it isn't any of that, it's just Cubness.

They lift your heart occasionally, as in the 2003 playoffs, which they went on to lose when a fan caught a foul ball a Cub could have caught. In 1984 they took the first two games in Wrigley from the San Diego Padres. I saw the second of those. You could feel the crowd starting to believe. Foolish, of course. San Diego won the next three and that was that.

So here we are again. Lovely ballpark. Pretty good kielbasa. Losing club. I'd say, "Sic transit gloria Cubbies," but that's wrong too. The glory left long, long ago. Face it, Cubs's just not our century.

Wait 'til the next one?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

October 3, 2007

Sputnik--that little Soviet moon that went beep-beep--soared into orbit fifty years ago this week beginning a space race and a space age which haven't turned out quite the way we thought they would.

The race started off as you'd have expected--great thumping of chests and gnashing of teeth in America because, gee whiz, aren't we the ones who are good at this stuff? Well, no. Their rocket worked. Ours, the Vanguard, soared four feet into the air and then blew up. We didn't catch up right away either. Their Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. The United States did catch up in time, of course. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, not two cosmonauts, were first on the moon. Alan Shepherd, in Apollo 14, was the first to play golf there--couple of shots with a 6-iron back in 1971. But then the race seemed to end. Apollo 17 was the last moon mission; NASA had planned a few more but scrapped them. Did anyone care? Was the moon race a Cold War race that ended?

We, and they, and other countries, launched a lot of satellites. But with a few exceptions like the Hubble telescope, they looked not out at the planets but back here at the earth. You remember the famous split infinitive on the old "Star Trek" shows? "To boldly go where no man has gone..." That's not what happened. Instead, we used satellites to change life on earth. We bounce TV shows off them. We make telephone calls using them. We survey the earth and the oceans with them. If that box in your car tells you to make a left turn as you're driving to Grandma's house, that's satellite stuff, too. Countries' armed forces use satellites to spy on other countries' armed forces. But it's earth stuff, not space stuff.

Will we go out again? This president has talked about going back to the moon and on to Mars. But talk is cheap. Space travel is very expensive and NASA is not spending money on new hardware for such voyages just now. And the Soviet Union has, of course, imploded. The U.S and Russia still man the international space station, but it isn't finished.

Will we go out again? The last few decades have taught us that we don't always win the wars--Vietnam, Iraq--and that we don't seem able to give all our children a decent education, don't seem able to end hunger in our land. Will we go once more a-roving?
I used to think so. Now I'm not so sure.

Monday, October 1, 2007

October 1, 2007

I've been reading a lot of stories lately about how Hillary Clinton is becoming the "inevitable" Democratic nominee. Don't bet big money on it. Nothing is more fragile in politics that inevitability, especially when nobody--that's nobody--has voted yet. I should know; I'm old enough to remember President Muskie. For those of you who aren't, Edmund Muskie was a popular Democratic senator from Maine. He'd gotten good reviews as Humbert Humphrey's running mate in 1968. In the early days of the '72 campaign, the polls showed him the frontrunner among the Democrats; some showed him beating Richard Nixon in a general election. It didn't last. The Democrats had some new rules in effect in '72, and Iowa held its first-ever presidential caucuses that year. A fairly unknown South Dakota senator, George McGovern, had studied the new system, campaigned hard in Iowa and finished, as we all wrote, a surprisingly strong second to Muskie. Then, in New Hampshire, Muskie choked up, or broke down, while denouncing the publisher of the Manchester Union Leader for printing attacks on Muskie's wife, Jane. It made for dramatic TV footage. I remember a voter in some other state a week or two later saying, "I was for him until the day he sat down in the snow and cried." In fact, Muskie was standing the whole time. Did he cry? His face was wet, but a lot of that was snow. "Cry" was a verb we mostly didn't use. But he did choke up, break down, whatever - and that was pretty much that. Last time there was Vermont Gov. Howard Dean--way ahead in fund raising, way ahead in endorsements, Al Gore, Bill Bradley and a small army of governors and senators. And then, instead of just awarding him the nomination, Iowa held those pesky caucuses again. Gov. Dean finished third and that finished him. John Kerry was the nominee and, of course, lost to George W. Bush. So inevitability is tricky. Clinton is doing what frontrunners do--playing it safe, ducking questions, straddling issues. "Don't make a mistake," is the frontrunner's mantra. But that in itself can be a mistake. While Clinton's favorable ratings are up in in most polls, so are her unfavorables--high thirties, low forties, somewhere in there. And she's been in our faces for sixteen years now. Voters may want someone new. Anyway, to paraphrase Mr. Yogi Berra, it ain't over.