What's All This Then?

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

It’s been a while since I gave any thought to Cindy Sheehan - and I greeted the news that she was "retiring" from anti-Iraq war activism with little more than a mental shrug.

As a mother who lost a son in what she and many others believe was and is not only a senseless war but one that we created on the basis of lies and misinformation - she has my sympathy. But if there needed to be a public face and voice to protest our involvement in Iraq - it should have been someone other than Sheehan.

Almost from the beginning she was too strident - too insensitive to the feelings and beliefs of others who had lost sons and daughters in the conflict and who disagreed with her views - and too expansive in her protests - extending them from the Iraq war to issues far removed from the loss of her son. There is plenty wrong in our country - and we discuss it all the time. It’s one of the things that makes us great. It’s one of the things that helps us survive presidencies such as the one to which we will bid a thankful farewell at the end of next year. But by the time she "retired," I think Sheehan had become a symbol for general "anti-Americanism" with incidents such as her buddy buddy meeting with USA hater Hugo Chavez - and that perhaps did more harm than good for her cause.

And though she now denies it, when she blamed Israel for the Iraq war and for being the cause of acts of terrorism, she received automatic membership in the "Kooks of the World" club, whose members include the "We Destroyed the World Trade Center Ourselves" crowd. In fact, somewhere along the line, she joined that crowd too.

Back on August 15 , 2005 and again on August 18, 2005 - I chastised President Bush for mishandling Cindy Sheehan when she began her odyssey in Crawford, Texas. Had he spoken to her then - bought her a cup of coffee and held her hand - perhaps she and maybe he would have been spared some pain. Certainly her. I’m not sure if Bush feels pain over the daily slaughter of our young men and women in Iraq.

Anyway, I wish Mrs. Sheehan well and hope that the pain that she feels for the loss of her son will diminish in time. But I think the dialogue about our involvement in Iraq will not suffer from her absence. It perhaps will even gain more clarity without her voice.

Monday, May 28, 2007

It’s Memorial Day and I’m not blogging - and my wife is taking the week off so I don’t know how much time I’ll have to comment on the passing parade for the rest of the week. . But I checked to see what I had written about Memorial Day in the past and found two commentaries - one on June 1, 2004 - and one on May 30, 2006.

If you’re a reader of this blog and have a few minutes, I think they’re both worth a second look because the feelings that I have about the day are the same today as they were in 2004 and at this time last year. The feeling that what we are truly "celebrating" - if that’s the right word - is our failure as a human species to settle our differences in some manner other than war. And that there’s something not quite appropriate about greeting each other with "Happy Memorial Day."

Take a peek and see if you don’t agree.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

It gives me no pleasure to write what I am about to write, but I have finally come to the conclusion that George W Bush is a nitwit. Not necessarily the Chauncey Gardiner kind of nitwit. because I don’t think he lacks intelligence. But intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful presidency. Years ago, a congressman who had known several presidents before Carter, told me that he was the most intelligent of them all - and we all know what kind of four years we had under Carter and, in his dotage - of his skewed ideas about the Israeli/Palestinian question.

But intelligent or not - and after six and a half years in office probably quite knowledgeable about things of which he was totally ignorant before he became president - he is still a nitwit - in the manner of a serial monomaniac.

I caught glimpses of his press conference on Thursday- and of course, as with all his speeches and press conferences, a transcript is available on line. Some people, perhaps more cynical than I - and hard as it may be to believe, there are such people - would say that having created the disaster that is Iraq, Mr. Bush is willing to go to any lengths - to sacrifice any number of young American lives - to make everything come out the way he and his neocon advisers envisioned their grand plan for restructuring the entire Middle East and to protect what may be left of his "legacy." That’s the cynic’s analysis. But I think he is a nitwit because he actually believes the ridiculous things he says.

It may be that he didn’t start out believing them, but as the grand plan collapsed shortly after it was trumpeted as a victory, I think he reached into the depths of his psyche to find a rationale for the sacrifices of the young men and women that he continued to send to the maelstrom that Iraq had become - and that’s what you see in the answers he gives about Iraq in his press conferences.

He is still using the same clichés that he’s been using since he started defending what some have described as the worst foreign policy adventure in US history - but I think he has convinced himself that the aphorisms that he keeps repeating are what he truly believes. Think about it for a moment. He made a decision to take an action that turned out to be a disaster. We have lost more American lives in Iraq than were lost on 9/11/01 - and I speak only of the dead. Thousands more have had to face a future without limbs or vision or with diminished mental capacity. He is responsible for all of that. How does a person live with such horrors on his conscience without believing it is for a higher cause - that the sacrifices being made will prevent far greater sacrifices down the road? Remember that in the past he has indicated that he believed that he became president by divine will and that his actions on the world scene are precipitated by divine guidance.

That is how he must be functioning today and from day to day because I cannot accept the alternative that someone who is non delusional - someone in full command of his faculties, would continue to say the things he says and expect us to believe them.

He and his supporters remind us that we haven’t been attacked since we invaded Iraq - and that’s because - "we’re fighting them over there so that we won’t have to fight them here." Except that for six years before 9/11, there had been no terrorist attack on the US mainland. Not since the home grown terrorist attack in Oklahoma City by American Timothy McVeigh who was executed for his crime. Before that, in 1993 - there was a car bomb attack on the World Trade Center, for which a half dozen Islamic militants were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. So the claim that we are somehow safer and less likely to be attacked at home because we are in Iraq simply doesn’t hold water. It’s more reasonable to assume that the reason we haven’t had multiple attacks at home - before or since the Iraq invasion - is that the terrorists groups have infinite patience and plan their assaults carefully over a long period of time. They can be stopped - with vigilance and with good intelligence - but believing they can be stopped by invading a country like Iraq is nonsense - and in some corner of Bush’s mind I think he knows it. He knows that it would have made more sense to invade Saudi Arabia from which 17 of the 19 terrorists departed for the US with legally obtained visas. But he has convinced himself otherwise and that’s why he’s a nitwit.

On Thursday he said "The danger in this particular theater in the war on terror is that if we were to fail, they'd come and get us." If we "fail" in Iraq, "they" will come and get us. Or as he and some of his supporters have said - if we leave before the mission has been completed "they will follow us home." I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Will "they" stowaway on ships and planes bringing our troops home? Or will they move to Saudi Arabia where they can get visas and come here as a student body? The concept is so ridiculous that it is almost too difficult to discuss in a rational manner. That terrorists won’t try to come here as long as we have massive amounts of troops in Iraq. Well we had troops in large numbers stationed in bases all over the world and that didn’t seem to deter the 9/11 attackers from coming here.

For more proof that he’s a nitwit we only have to look at him taking on the role of a Dad telling us kids what could happen to us if we don’t do as he says. They’ll "come and get us." And to make sure we understand that, he addressed fathers at the press conference about the danger to their kids.

To NBC’s David Gregory he said
"It's better to fight them there than here. And this concept about, well, maybe let's just kind of just leave them alone and maybe they'll be all right is naive. These people attacked us before we were in Iraq. They viciously attacked us before we were in Iraq, and they've been attacking ever since. They are a threat to your children, David, and whoever is in that Oval Office better understand it and take measures necessary to protect the American people.
But it has nothing to do with Iraq. It never had anything to do with Iraq. The questions were about Iraq but the answers were about al Qaeda. Whatever he might have said at a press conference last August when he admitted that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 - he continues to tie the two together - and if he believes it, as I think he well might - then - as the theme of this commentary suggests - he’s a nitwit..

Even in his admission at that August press conference he couldn’t separate the two. Here’s a partial transcript.
Bush: Now, look, I -- part of the reason we went into Iraq: was -- the main reason we went into Iraq: at the time was we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out he didn't, but he had the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction. But I also talked about the human suffering in Iraq, and I also talked the need to advance a freedom agenda. And so my question -- my answer to your question is, is that imagine a world in which Saddam Hussein was there, stirring up even more trouble in a part of a world that had so much resentment and so much hatred that people came and killed 3,000 of our citizens.

You know, I've heard this theory about, you know, everything was just fine until we arrived and, you know, kind of -- the "stir up the hornet's nest" theory. It just doesn't hold water as far as I'm concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East. They were --

QUESTION: What did Iraq have to do with that?

BUSH: What did Iraq have to do with what?

QUESTION: The attack on the World Trade Center.

BUSH: Nothing, except for it's part of -- and nobody's ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a -- Iraq -- the lesson of September the 11th is take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. Nobody's ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq."
That was August of last year - but on Thursday - according to the President, it was still the people who attacked us on 9/11/2001 that we are fighting in Iraq. In his own words - "As to al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda is going to fight us wherever we are. That's their strategy." No discussion of the tragedy of Iraq can take place without al Qaeda being brought into the conversation because this is part of the man’s rationale - that we are "fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here." And if we leave "they’ll follow us home." And that’s why we have to stay in Iraq. Until we achieve "victory."

And if the man really believes that - then I say he is a nitwit.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

One way to be assured that you’re being conned by big business is when big business launches an advertising campaign to assure you that you’re not being conned. The huge media campaign by Commonwealth Edison that I wrote about May 16 is a prime example. I don’t know what took so long - but here comes big oil - or big gasoline - or both - with its campaign. A full page ad in today’s paper from "THE PEOPLE OF AMERICA’S OIL AND NATURAL GAS INDUSTRY" tells us that the combined industries have invested more than a trillion bucks in "exploration, development, production and distribution of oil and gas." And it shows us where "your gasoline dollars go" with a picture of a dollar bill divided into three segments - 56% going to crude oil costs - 26% to refining, distribution and service stations and 18% for taxes. It also says that in 2006 "the industry" earned 9.5 cents on each dollar of sales. And it suggested that a visit to a - web site that’s part of the ad campaign would enlighten us about the true nobility of those engaged on "Delivering America’s Energy Security." Take a look. That’s what the web site says.

And isn’t it neat that "Oil and Natural Gas" are linked together as "the industry" earning a measly 9.5 cents on the dollar paying for this ad? How much do you think they’re earning on each buck we’re spending at the pump? Maybe we can’t calculate that amount too easily - not with the prices jumping daily and often several time during the day - but we do know that the profits of the industry continue to go through the roof. Here’s Exxon Mobil for for 2006. How does $36.13 billion stack up against that measly 9.5 cents on each dollar of sales?

We’ve heard all kinds of reasons why gas prices continue to climb but this morning a new one was thrown in the hopper. This I heard on a CNN radio newscast. Because demand is high and domestic refineries are having a hard time keeping up with demand, the industry is turning to overseas refineries to help fill the gap. And because these overseas refineries are less efficient than ours, the cost is higher.

Well there’s something we can understand. The oil companies costs have gone up - and that will be confirmed and become clear when the oil companies post their profits - for this quarter and the next quarter - and for the year. It’ll be crystal clear. Their profits won’t be as high as last year when they didn’t have to turn to those less efficient, more expensive overseas refineries. In fact, they’re likely to be flat because those extra dollars that they’re getting from us are just covering their extra costs - not increasing their profits. No siree sir.

Oops. Just a minute. Excuse me. My broker is calling to give me the latest price on Brooklyn Bridge preferred. I keep telling him I’m not buying - but his wife is one of those oil "analysts" and he insists that she insists that BB preferred is a steal..

How stupid do the oil companies think we are? Obviously pretty stupid because they just keep pushing that price for a gallon of gas up and up with no end in sight and no way to stop them. And the news media - populated by people who should be looking into this con game - just keep reporting the new daily highs - almost gleefully. After all, it’s "breaking" news. Breaking our banks that is.

Now legislation has been introduced in the house that would impose severe penalties - fines and jail terms for "gas gouging." It probably isn’t going anywhere. Even if it passes the Senate, it’s likely to be vetoed and we know the votes aren’t there to override a veto. And even if the President didn’t veto it and let it become a law , it could only be applied if he - or any President - declared an emergency. Besides which - how to you determine when "gouging" has been reached? At $3.50 for regular? At $3.75? At $4?? It would be interesting though to be able bring oil company executives in front of a congressional committee and ask how these prices are arrived at - the rationale behind the daily increases. It would be instructive to pick a series of dates - say any half dozen days in May, 2007 - and ask the industry people to explain in detail what happened on each of those days that caused the prices to rise.

Of course the oil industry equates any kind of legislation that could rein in their excesses as a form of price control. The American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies for the oil industry, put out a statement saying "The legislation is a cousin of the disastrous 1970s price and allocation controls, which created product shortages and put consumers in gasoline lines."

Did you ever stop to wonder how that could be? If there was some governmental way to cap ridiculous price increases? Why would it cause shortages? The oil would still be pumped from the ground. Refineries would still refine. Why would there be a shortage if gas was $3 a gallon instead of $4 as it was in 2006? Or better yet if it was $2.22 as it was in 2005? The only "shortage" would be in the profit margin - meaning any shortage would be artificial - created by the oil companies.

And while we’re at it, when are we ever going to get rid of that ridiculous ".9" extension of a gasoline price per gallon? When you’re through filling up, there are no fractions of cents on the total bill. It’s as disingenuous as merchandise costing a dollar amount plus 99 cents - a way to make you think that you’re paying a dollar less than you’re actually paying. But it’s not going to make you feel any better when regular hits $3.99.9 It’ll still be FOUR bucks a gallon.

If nothing is done about these prices - and I’m reasonably sure that nothing will be done, we’ll soon find ourselves on a par with England where gas ranges from six to seven dollars a gallon. The only difference will be that we’ll be stuck with the kinds of cars that are available for us to buy - whereas the English have long since adapted to their high cost of gas and millions drive cars that get more mileage to the liter (the way gas is sold in the UK) than we get to the gallon!! But unlike us, they know why their gas costs so much. It’s because - as of a year ago - 63.9% of the cost of their gas went for tax and duty!!

So maybe we should be grateful. So far, no one has suggested those kinds of governmental ad ons at the federal, state or local level - and it isn’t likely to happen. Big oil isn’t going to let pesky little politicians interfere with their profits - which, as you can see from the 36.1% portion of retail gas costs attributable to "product" in the UK example - the crude oil itself (discovery, extraction etc), refining, additives, transportation, marketing, etc - is a big slice - the lion’s share - of that remaining 63.9%.

Of course, the US oil companies would dispute these kinds of figures.They sure don't jibe with "where your gasoline dollars go" in the US industry ad. And everyone knows that our math differs from UK math. Heck, they even drive their silly little cars on the wrong side of the road and measure weights in stones and pounds instead of just pounds. So who are you going to believe - the oil companies or your own lying eyes?

And the gouge goes on.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The news from Lebanon is disturbing - but not surprising - except for who was battling with the Lebanese army. This time not Hezbollah but Fatah al Islam - described as a "militant group." It isn’t hard to lose track of some of the "militant groups" operating all over the Middle East. No, let me re-phrase that. It’s almost impossible to be aware of all such "groups" and what motivates them and what goals they may have - if any. I swear, trying to make sense of what goes on in the Middle East - from Iran to Iraq to Lebanon to Israel to Gaza and the West Bank is enough to drive one to distraction. The entire area is like one great big asylum - but then of course I have frequently characterized this planet as an asylum of sorts.

What leapt out at me from the pages of my newspaper and from the images on my television screen - was that the battle in Lebanon was raging in and around a refugee camp - a Palestinian refugee camp. The members of Fatah al Islam may not have all been Palestinians. Some news reports say that there are "militants" from Bangladesh and Yemen and other Arab countries involved in the fighting - but the camp itself - Nahr al-Bared - is a Palestinian "refugee" camp. It’s one of a dozen or so "refugee" camps in Lebanon and one of maybe sixty odd camps scattered throughout the region - including Gaza and the West Bank!!

According to most dictionaries, a refugee is a person who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution. And usually to another country. According to UNRWA - the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, Palestine refugees are "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." UNRWA was established by United Nations General Assembly in December 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programs for Palestine refugees - and has been going strong ever since.

It’s something that most of us don’t think about too often. That these camps continue to exist - populated by descendants of original "refugees’ - but likely living alongside thousands of others who have drifted into these camps over the years claiming refugee status.

Almost sixty years since the partition plan was adopted by the UN Almost sixty years since five Arab armies attempted to destroy Israel before it could establish itself as a state. Almost sixty years since more than 850,000 Jews were driven from Arab countries - countries where they had lived for more than three thousand years - long before the birth of Islam. Yet there are no Jewish "refugee camps" in Israel or in any other country where the Jews expelled from Arab countries found refuge. But so called "Palestinian refugee camps" today house a minimum of 1,300,000 people out of some four million who the UN classifies as "refugees."

I don’t know what it says to you, but to me it says talk of peace between Israel and the Arab world - and particularly those who call themselves Palestinians - can go on for decades into the future - but will never achieve anything as long as these symbols of a permanent state of war continue to exist.

You can blame the Arab countries that have kept these camps going rather than absorb their populations into their societies and into normal, stable neighborhoods. And you can assign equal blame to the United Nations for helping to create what has become a permanent welfare society. But most of all, you can blame the inhabitants of these camps - particularly the camps in Gaza and the West Bank for continuing to regard themselves as refugees waiting to be "repatriated" once they have achieved the impossible dream of destroying Israel.

There are many barriers in the way of achieving a permanent peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors and the Arab populations of Gaza and the West bank. The very existence of "Palestinian refugee camps" and the state of mind that they represent - not just of their inhabitants but of their host countries and of the Palestinian Arab leadership - is only one of them. But it tells you something about how the Palestinians view their struggle to achieve peace. It’s that they spell the word JIHAD.

Since I’m commenting on Middle East events and on the situation in Lebanon, I think it’s appropriate to say a few words about some of the wild accusations that were being aired about last year’s Israel/Hezbollah conflict by American pundits - and of the sober conclusions of the Winograd Commission.

Juan Cole, the distinguished professor of history at the University of Michigan and an expert on the region who is frequently called upon for comment by news and talk shows, insisted that a plan to launch a war against Hezbollah had been in the works for over a year.

Wayne Madsen, a Washington based investigative journalist and columnist, insisted that it was a plan cooked up between Israel officials and members of the Bush administration. He even listed the dates on which the plot was hatched!!

But then came Israel’s own post war inquiry into "what the hell happened" by way of the Winograd report. You may not have the time or the desire to read it all - but here’s just a couple of juicy tidbits.
The decision to respond with an immediate, intensive military strike was not based on a detailed, comprehensive and authorized military plan, based on careful study of the complex characteristics of the Lebanon arena. A meticulous examination of these characteristics would have revealed the following: the ability to achieve military gains having significant political-international weight was limited; an Israeli military strike would inevitably lead to missiles fired at the Israeli civilian north; there was not other effective military response to such missile attacks than an extensive and prolonged ground operation to capture the areas from which the missiles were fired - which would have a high "cost" and which did not enjoy broad support. These difficulties were not explicitly raised with the political leaders before the decision to strike was taken .


The Prime Minister made up his mind hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him and without asking for one. Also, his decision was made without close study of the complex features of the Lebanon front and of the military, political and diplomatic options available to Israel. He made his decision without systematic consultation with others, especially outside the IDF, despite not having experience in external-political and military affairs. In addition, he did not adequately consider political and professional reservations presented to him before the fateful decisions of July 12th.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound either like a "plan" that had been "in the works" for over a year before the attack was launched - or something that had been worked out between two governments over a two day period in June last year. But that’s the way it is with pundits who are "insiders" and know all about conspiracies and secret plans and can’t wait to tell us about them. It’s all great fun until it that annoying bugaboo called "facts" comes along.

Friday, May 18, 2007

I didn’t watch the second Republican debate the other night. At this stage of the game with an overabundance of presidential wannabes, I see no value in watching and listening to so many white caucasian males with oversized egos - boring us to tears with worn out "talking points that we’ve been hearing for months - and in some cases for years! " For crying out loud - the very first question that I glanced at in the transcript of the event had one that irritates like a fork scratching on a plate. If we "fail" in Iraq - "they’ll follow us home!!" That was John McCain. I could spend a thousand words or a single paragraph dissecting that nonsensical statement - but it wouldn't have a snowball’s chance in hell of changing the minds of the kind of people who nodded in agreement as they watched on television or in the audience at the University of South Carolina - and for the rest of us no dissection is necessary. It’s a current Republican catch phrase, taking its place alongside "war on terror," "when they stand up, we’ll stand down," "cut and run," and of course "nine eleven!!"

But these comments are not about what was said during the debate but what appeared on the screen before the debate began. Since I didn’t watch, I had to rely on the comments of those who did for what it was that filled their television screens - and I heard someone on a radio talk show say that as each candidate was introduced, his name was flashed on the screen and underneath the name was his religion!! That was hard to believe because that would surely have been greeted by the nation’s news media as a big - and chilling news story - and I had seen no such report in the newspapers or on radio or television newscasts. Still, I thought it was worth checking and I embarked on an on-line search. Again, I couldn’t find any references in main stream sites - those of news organizations for example - but I did find references in one or two blogs. Indeed it happened. The name of each candidate was flashed on the screen when he was introduced - and beneath the name, along with other information, was his religion - and while there was mild curiosity about it expressed in the couple of blogs that I found - there was no expression of resentment - or fear!!

Well let me be the representative of the blogosphere to express that reaction to what people saw on their television screens on May 15. I resent it and it scares the goddamned pants off of me.

I realize that it would be difficult to be elected dog catcher in the smallest hamlet in the United States without professing religious belief. And the more important the elective office - the more a potential office holder needs to emphasize his belief in a deity and how religion plays an important role in his life. And the higher the office sought - the greater the implication needs to be that religion will play a part in forming important governmental decisions. It can’t be stated openly of course - but it most certainly can be and is implied. Except maybe for George Bush. He has no hesitation in professing that he consults a "higher power" when considering his decision making options.

Polls of the number of Americans who believe in God vary. There are some that put the overall number of believers as low as 72% and others at 95% and perhaps even higher. But there’s no question that it’s an overwhelming number - and that those who are daring enough to profess non-belief are looked upon with jaundiced eyes by that majority. Politicians are painfully aware of this and so are more than willing to fall over themselves professing that their faith is - if not greater than their opponents - certainly no less. And they say that whether they’re the strictest followers of the Catholic faith, orthodox Jews or secret atheists who think that believers are a bunch of yahoos whose faiths are vehicles ripe for cynical manipulation for political gain.

But despite the way that religion is used and manipulated by those seeking political office, we do have a tradition of keeping it separated from the business of government and the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment of the Constitution as requiring a "wall of separation between church and state." And despite the fact that powerful religious groups in this country are conducting an ongoing war against this principle - trying in fact to nudge us in the direction of theocracy - or at the very least theocratic democracy - up to now, the importance of religion in presidential races , while being openly acknowledged - has been practiced with some measure of restraint and with deference to that concept of separation. So far, we have not been introduced to a presidential candidate at a political convention or at a political rally as "The next President of the United States and a Born Again Christian for the past twelve years - John J. Candidate!!!"

But we may have taken the first step toward that unhealthy scenario last Tuesday evening when ten white males vying for the presidential nomination of their party were introduced as "Mitt Romney - Mormon…. John McCain - Episcopalian…. Ron Paul - Protestant ….Rudy Giuliani - Catholic… and so on. What might be next? Captions below the talking heads on Sunday mornings? Condoleezza Rice - Evangelical Presbyterian… Joe Lieberman - Orthodox Jew?

There is no way that the "official" religious affiliation of a presidential candidate can remain unknown and there is probably no way that a candidate can hope to be elected if at some point he does not address the issue of faith - and profess strongly that he has it. But if we have arrived at a point where politicians and aspiring politicians routinely have their religion attached to their names, the way we have become accustomed to seeing professions and businessmen having degrees and titles appended to theirs - John Jones, MD, Mary Smith DDS, William Brown PhD and Robert Butler, CEO - we will have punched a hole in that "wall of separation" that Thomas Jefferson insisted must be maintained between church and state.

I think it bears mentioning that in England - a country that has an official religion with the Queen as its head, the religion of candidates for the House of Commons plays virtually no role - but the British democracy remains as vibrant as ours - if not more so. Yet having a vibrant democracy is not necessarily a bulwark against the creeping intrusion of religion in government if we continue to ignore that intrusion or not even recognize that it’s taking place.

As I indicated above, there are powerful people and powerful groups in this country who would be happy to see us become a "Christian Nation" in every way - and that includes government Even if they weren’t overjoyed at all of the denominations revealed, I would imagine they were pretty damned pleased at the way those Republican candidates for their party’s presidential nomination were introduced last Tuesday.. It tells them that their efforts are bearing fruit. And if they are pleased, I am worried - and you should be too.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

I haven’t forgotten the anniversary of Cody’s death. Our beautiful canine companion. I was well aware of it. I thought about it on and off all day. It was yesterday. She left us on May 16, 2005. It was just that I was conflicted about continuing to note it on line - and wondering if I would have posted obituaries and memorials for Waldo and Poolie and Cassie had we been connected to the Internet when those beautiful puppies graced our home. I’ll think about posting remembrances of Cody in the future. Meanwhile, here’s the picture of her that I keep on my desk top - and if you haven’t been here before and don’t know about Cody - here’s her obituary from two years ago.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

It isn’t often that I comment on local issues two days in row, but if I don’t do it now I may get embroiled in other issues and not get back to this one - so, with apologies to my overseas readers - a few words about our local supplier of electricity - Commonwealth Edison. Edison had a rate freeze in effect for ten years. It got lifted a short while ago. Rates went up after a convoluted method of pricing that probably set rates higher than they should have been - and a lot of people were unhappy - including members of the state legislature who tried to reintroduce the freeze for a one year period but were frustrated by Illinois State Senate leader Emil Jones who stopped the effort in its tracks with what is being called a "parliamentary maneuver." But the issue has now been revived and may yet be called for a vote - and if you’re a local resident and didn’t know that from any news reports - you surely knew about it from the reaction of Commonwealth Edison - an Exelon Company - as they like to say at the end of their ads - their regular ads that is.

I emphasize the word "regular" because suddenly - over the past couple of weeks or more - I’m not sure exactly when it began - we’ve been bombarded with an irregular advertising campaign that rivals anything a presidential candidate might do in the closing days of a neck and neck race for the White House. Radio and television ads night and day. Full page ads in local newspapers. All to urge us to tell our legislators to stop their debate and get behind real "relief" for electricity consumers!!

Since the rates were unfrozen, Edison’s parent company has reported a 73% jump in profits - and suddenly they’ve decided to give some of those profits back by providing "relief" from the burden of the increased rates. When they were pushing for approval of the new rates, Frank Clark, Edison’s CEO, was all over the place with "caring" ads in which he promised that anyone having trouble with the new rates could "phase them in" over a period of time. Actually, that would have imposed a bigger burden on anyone taking Clark up on his offer because interest would have been added to delayed payments. But now, with the possibility of the rate increase being rolled back, Edison is upping the ante. They’re going to give back millions to their consumers.

Here’s what bugs me about this whole unholy mess. In the first place, Exelon was pulling in huge profits with the old rates in place. This wasn’t a company going down the tubes unless they were granted a rate increase. They didn’t need a rate increase the way cab drivers need one to compensate for what they have to pay for gas nowadays. And this was and is a company with a monopoly. Consumers can’t pick and choose among power supply companies. It’s not like deciding between shopping at Jewel or Dominick’s or Treasure Island. If we want electricity, we pay the only company that’s supplying this basic commodity and the profit that it makes from us goes to its stockholders and to fund the obscenely huge salaries of its executives. And now, as they launch their ad campaign - costing who knows how many millions - to back their battle to stave off a rollback to the frozen rates - they are insulting the heck out of their locked in consumers.

They are offering "help" to those in "need" of help with the new rates - and they’re inviting anyone in that category to apply for that help. To show up with cap in hand and eyes lowered, to submit to and hope to pass a "means test." O.K. It’s not quite like that, but it’s a convoluted agglomeration of "relief" offerings for which those wishing "relief" will need to apply. You’re going to have to tell Commonwealth Edison how much you make and how many in your family and how old you are and who knows what other dignity shredding information you would have to supply to get - what? In some cases a one time credit of $240. In others a one time credit of $30. What kind of "relief" is that going to provide if we have a summer with week after week of eighty and ninety degree temperatures and high humidity? And maybe worse the following summer - and the summer after that!! Assuming those who would qualify for these credits even have central or room air conditioning.

Com-Ed describes this as a $64 million relief package. If they’re successful in blocking a rate roll back - which is what this package is all about - $64 million will be a drop in the bucket - a mere grain to be brushed off of the sand pile of profits that will pour into Com-Ed’s and Exelon’s coffers. I repeat, this extraordinary campaign has nothing to do with Com-Ed’s concern for its customers ability to pay the increased cost of electricity. It has everything to do with making sure those increased rates aren’t messed with by pesky politicians. If that wasn’t so, either they would have settled for a smaller increase - or introduced the "relief" package at the time of their rate increase request - or at the very least at the time it was granted.

I began these comments by saying it was unusual for me to write about local issues for two days in a row - and indeed it is. But last year, when talk of the forthcoming increases was at a fever pitch, I felt strongly enough about Commonwealth Edison’s shenanigans and disingenuousness to write about them three times in a space of three weeks - on September 6 , 2006 - September 19, 2006 and September 27, 2006.

I was disgusted with this company then and I’m even more disgusted with them today.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

There hasn’t been anything in the papers lately about former Illinois Governor George Ryan. Found guilty of corruption charges last April and sentenced to 6 ½ years in jail he and his co-defendant Lawrence Warner - also found guilty but with a lesser sentence - are free while their convictions are being appealed. They come to mind because of another, current case - that of Juan Luna, convicted of the murder of seven people in a Brown’s Chicken restaurant 14 years ago. The case just ended the other day and today the jury decided that Luna was eligible for the death penalty.

Why does it bring to mind the pending appeal of Ryan and Warner ? Like their trial, the Brown’s Chicken murder case also involves two defendants. It is alleged that Juan Luna and one James Degorski walked into that restaurant in Palatine, Illinois together on January 8, 1993 - and together slaughtered seven people. Luna may now be on his way to the death chamber - and Degorski - what about him? Well, we don’t know, because unlike the case of the former governor and Lawrence Warner - the alleged Brown’s Chicken murderers, who, on that one January day in 1993, acted together in the commission of their horrible crime, were not prosecuted in a single trial. Luna was tried alone. Degorski is still awaiting trial - somewhere down the road. For whatever reason, these two alleged murderers - I have to say "alleged" because only Luna has been tried and convicted - are getting better treatment than former governor Ryan and his co-defendant.

Lawyers for Ryan and Warner are appealing their convictions largely on the basis of irregular jury issues - two jurors were replaced during the trial including one that would likely not have voted to convict. That may or may not be a valid reason for an appeals court to consider overturning the verdicts and order a new trial - but I think what was granted to Luna and Degorski and denied Ryan and Warner should be - in the words of George Tenant - a slam dunk reason to throw out their guilty verdicts and grant them new, separate trials.

Let’s face it, when two people are accused of conspiracy and corruption and are marched into court together - yoked like a pair of oxen - there is an atmosphere - if not an assumption of guilt. Defendants in criminal cases are at a disadvantage from the get go in any case. No matter how high powered the defense team or how deep the defense pockets - it is hard to match the resources of the government. And there is always that sneaking assumption that no one gets put on trial, especially high powered politicians and lobbyists, without there being some indication of guilt.

There were efforts to have Ryan and Warner tried separately - including one where Ryan’s attorneys claimed that the conduct of Warner’s defense team was damaging their client. They may have been prosecuted as a duo but they were not being defended that way. Each had his own defense team and each defense team concentrated on proving their client innocent. I can imagine how confusing this might have been to a jury, with each defense team adopting different tactics in their attempts to disprove the same allegations. It’s possible that tried separately, either Ryan or Warner might have been found not guilty. Who knows - when they get around to trying James Degorski -he might beat the rap. And before you sneer derisively at such a suggestion - I’ll remind you of the Simpson verdict - the not guilty verdict in the criminal case - not the "liable" verdict in the civil case. Who would have believed that would be the outcome when the trial began?

There are obviously situations where it is totally appropriate to group defendants together in a criminal trial. The Nuremberg trials for example - and in recent times, the trial of Saddam Hussein and members of his ruling gang of thugs. But unless you have a case where evidence cannot be presented properly without having all who are accused of conspiring together to break the law stand trial together - basic fairness would dictate that each of the accused should have the right to be tried alone - and not have his or her fate hinge on anything that goes on in the courtroom other than the evidence that is presented against him and the effort of his defense team to refute that evidence.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer may have had fiscal conservation in mind when she decided that it would be appropriate to try Ryan and Warner together - the economy of a single trial over separate trials with separate juries and perhaps a different judge - but in making her decision, she probably sealed their fate before any evidence was presented. These two were accused of conspiring together to do all these illegal things - and here were both of them - in custody and ready to be judged together.

I don’t have any legal training or knowledge - so I don’t know if Judge Pallmeyer’s refusal to allow two defendants to have their separate days in court would be grounds to overturn a verdict. But as a logical being, I can absolutely see that as grounds - and even without any legal training or knowledge, I could mount an argument in support of such an appeal. Hell - something as simple as a jury taking an obvious personal dislike to one defendant could affect how they might decide the guilt or innocence of both.

There may have been legally correct and perfectly logical reasons why Ryan and Warner had to be tried together and why Luna and Degorski had to be tried separately, but from where I sit, it would seem that if you want your best chance to defend yourself in court in this state - you’re better off being an accused murderer than an accused corrupt politician.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

I’ve done it before and I may do it again before there’s a new White House occupant. I’m coming to the defense of Mr. Bush. Some critics of the President are making too much of his gaffe in greeting Queen Elizabeth and I think they’re way out of line. It’s customary to make fun of a sitting president - especially if you’re a comedian - and starting to say that the Queen was here for our bicentennial in 1776 instead of 1976 provided plenty of fodder for pundits of all stripes. Add his winking at the Queen and then saying that she gave him a look that only a mother could give a child - and there’s material enough for a week - maybe longer. And I think it’s just fine if it’s done with good humor.

But a lot of the commentary - on radio and television and on the Internet - doesn’t seem that way at all. There are people who don’t like Bush and make no bones about it - and it comes through in their reporting and commentary about the incident. As though it was all idiocy and crassness and no humor. Yes, we all remember the "Yo Blair" greeting at the G8 meeting last July. But Mr. Bush didn’t go to school in a black jacket and striped pants or play cricket or hobnob with royal personages from around the world as he was growing up. He is what he is - more comfortable with a "Yo Blair" greeting than with "Welcome Your Majesty." No one ever told him that you don’t wink at a queen.

The slip of the tongue was a natural "gaffe." He was reading from a script and speaking about a celebration of our nation’s birth. He corrected himself. He only got as far as saying "seventeen" before he corrected it to 1976. The wink

was obviously a surprise to the Queen and it was reflected in her look

But when he ad-libbed the comment about her look being one that a mother would give a child - she joined in the laughter. It was a funny ad-lib.

Sometimes the president’s sense of humor can be horribly misplaced. We all remember the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner in 2004 where he put on a slide show of him searching the oval office for weapons of mass destruction with his voice over comments - "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." "Nope. No weapons over there." "Maybe under here." That wasn’t funny and family members of service personnel who had lost their lives in Iraq made their displeasure known. But the incident with the Queen and the way he handled it was funny - and those who reported and spoke of it with a glare and a sneer are out of line.

But this isn’t going to be an all "let’s not be beastly to the president" commentary. The incident does present a springboard for saying something about the people we elect to the highest office in the land. A couple of nights ago, Wolf Blitzer had Bill Maher as a guest and Blitzer asked him what he thought about the President as a dancer - referring to the Malaria awareness day in the Rose Garden on April 25, when Bush joined in a dance with the Kankouran West African dance company. It was funny, but looked kind of silly. Maher’s response was that it seems to be almost traditional for our presidents to make fools of themselves in this way from time to time. More so than other world leaders. He then went on to say that the election of George Bush and the last six years have been a grand experiment - that our leader has been someone who maybe we’d like to have a beer with - a guy just like us!! And then he said something with which I totally agree. That maybe that’s not the kind if person we need to lead the country. That we’d be better off with an elitist. With someone we look at as being better than us.

I’m not sure that I’d go along with the elitist idea - but absolutely I want a president who is better than me. .In knowledge. In experience. In wisdom. In reasoning power. In imagination. Someone I could look up to. Someone whose skills I knew I didn’t have and whose shoes I couldn’t fill. Unfortunately, we live in an age where many of us find ourselves looking up to people precisely because we believe we could fill their shoes. Because we think we could do what they do and do it just as well. Because they’re "just like us." Take for example what passes as today’s music business - and specifically today’s vocal performers. Of course there are good singers out there - able to hit notes with timber and clarity that most of us could never hope to match. But so many of today’s hit vocalists - soloists and groups - are money making stars because we think of them as being just like us. We identify with them because we could do what they do. I’m not including myself in that all encompassing "we." I just use the term for convenience.

But think about it. How many of today’s vocal "stars" could have made it in an era when the criteria for recognition as a star quality performer were voice timber and clarity. Where you could understand the words of a song. Where your heart would skip a beat at a high C held longer than you could hum. When shouting and screeching and growling didn’t qualify as singing. When a performer could walk out on a stage and thrill an audience with just his or her singing voice. Without gyrating all over the stage. Without back up singers. Without electronic amplification. Without a light display. Where "rap" would have been thought of as an oddity to be performed at odd occasions in odd circumstances and not as part of the "music business."

In this age of "American Idol" - and more people watching that show than are likely to vote in the primaries that will determine who the candidates for the presidency will be in November next year - I’m not sure that an "elitist" - someone with whom we cannot easily identify - who we don’t think of as being "just like us" - could win the White House over a candidate that we’d feel comfortable having a beer with. Maybe that’s the way the majority of us want it - but I don’t think it’s a way to pick the best possible person for the job.

Meanwhile, criticize the heck out of President Bush for everything you think he’s doing wrong - and that’s a long long list - but give him a break when he makes an honest and insignificant gaffe and is sharp enough on his feet to be able to turn it into something we can laugh at - with him - not at him.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I have to admit that I watched very little of the Democratic and Republican "debates" on MSNBC. Probably more of the Democrats than the Republicans but only because there were excerpts from their gabfest on a news program that I was watching. I use quotes when referring to the two telecasts because both were more like quiz shows than debates - and not very democratic (small d) quiz shows either Not when one contestant gets asked what kind of bread he likes and the next how many movies he’s seen in the past 60 days.

O.K. No questions like that were asked but not every candidate was asked the same question in either "debate." These were not debates. You can’t have a debate with as many as ten people participating and with extreme time limits imposed on answers to the quizmaster’s questions - and with rebuttal allowed or not allowed depending on how the quizmaster feels about it. The most you can say about the two presentations is that you got a look at what the presidential wannabes looked and sounded like. Did they look or sound "presidential" - as if that was a legitimate criterion to throw in the mix when trying to pick a candidate to support?

A couple of general observations. No matter what you might think of their qualifications, the Democratic group looked more representative of America - with one black, one Hispanic and one female in the group of eight. And of course they had a class clown in the presence of former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel. I guess Alaska is the designated provider of Senate clowns - the current title holder being Ted Stevens.

I’m not sure if any of the ten Republicans who participated in their quiz show would be thought of as their resident clown - but I think they had more rank outsiders than the Democrats. With the exception of Gravel and the Utopia seeking Dennis Kucinich, you could see any of the Democratic wannabes as a legitimate candidate with at least an even chance of winning the White House. I don’t think you could say the same for the Republican candidates. Tom Tancredo? Ron Paul? Of course they have their backers - but there are performers that you and I have never heard of that pack in huge crowds every time they perform. The field is pretty much Giuliani, McCain and Romney - with Fred Thompson waiting for an invitation to a coronation. It’s interesting that someone who isn’t an announced candidate but IS an actor is being thought of as a potential presidential candidate. And that was before they all gathered in the Reagan Library.

From what I saw and read of the Democratic debate, I didn’t think it made any waves. It certainly wasn’t a surprise that all of the candidates were for an unraveling of our involvement in Iraq. There were no big goofs and nobody scored anything close to a knockout blow. You couldn’t say the same for the Republicans where as big a goof as anyone could make was right there in the opening Q&A with Rudy Giuliani.
Question: Mayor Giuliani, how do we get back to Ronald Reagan's morning in America?

Giulian: We get back to it with optimism. The same situation that I faced in New York City; when I became mayor of New York City, 65, 70 percent thought New York City was going on the wrong track. And what I did was, I set policies and programs of growth, of moving people toward prosperity, security, safety. And what we can borrow from Ronald Reagan, since we are in his library, is that great sense of optimism that he had. He led by building on the strengths of America, not running America down. And we're a country that people love to come to, they want to come to this country with a shining city on the hill. So we should solve our immigration issue, including illegal immigration, from our strengths, not our weaknesses. We're a country that has the greatest health care system in the world. It's flawed, it needs to be fixed, but we should fix it from our strengths. We shouldn't turn it into socialized medicine.Those are the things that Ronald Reagan taught us: You lead from optimism. You will lead from hope, and we should never retreat in the face of terrorism. Terrible mistake. (Emphasis added).
According to news reports, Reagan’s name was mentioned anywhere from 16 to 21 times in 90 minutes. I suppose I could have gone to the transcript of the Republican quiz show and counted the references, but I’ll accept the numbers that have been reported - including the mention that Giuliani should have avoided like the plague.

He said that Reagan taught him to be optimistic and have hope and never retreat in the face of terrorism. Ronnie would never do anything like that would he? If he was the President today, there’d be no talk of retreating from Iraq. We’d pursue our goals there with hope and optimism until the mission had been accomplished. That probably sounds a bit like a mixed metaphor - but you know what’s coming. Anyone who reads this blog is sufficiently familiar with history to know that you don’t cite Ronald Reagan as the champion of the "stay the course" policy in conducting military operations in the Middle East. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. Not when, during Reagan’s term, 240 of our service personnel were slaughtered by a terrorist attack in Beirut, Lebanon - and not when Reagan’s response was to WITHDRAW the rest of our troops.

That was an obvious slip up by Giuliani, though not too much has been made of it so far. Nor of the disbelief in evolution expressed by Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, and Tom Tancredo. But it’s early in the "debate" season. There’ll be more idiocies expressed by all of the wannabes as the primaries get closer - from Republicans and Democrats. It might be fun to keep track of them and then stack them up side by side at the end of the primary season to see who goofed the most and who was the most adroit at avoiding goofs. Come to think of it, it might be a more interesting way to pick candidates than leaving it up to voters in a few key primary states.

And before you dismiss that idea as ridiculous - just look at the way we go about selecting our presidential candidates and eventually our presidents!! And if you don’t wonder how the hell we survive the process or how the nation survives the outcome - then you haven’t been paying attention and shame on you.

Friday, May 04, 2007

I’ve speculated on this before. On just when the slow death of the United Kingdom began. Historians and other experts differ on time frames and circumstances. Some say it can be traced to the collapse of the British Empire - where the sun began to set on parts of the world that were no longer ruled by Great Britain. Others say it was when the pound was allowed to float and the subsequent devaluations that took place. And quite a few blame it all on the abdication of Edward VIII - turning his back on the stiff upper lip of noblesse oblige to run off with a twice married commoner - and an American at that!!

In the past, I’ve thought that nothing marked the end of all that we cherished about the mother country more than the day when I ordered tea in a country tea shop only to be told that "we don’t do tea!!" Coffee and a variety of other liquids - but no tea. But then came the announcement that some London Bobbies would be allowed to wear turbans instead of their traditional helmets That shocked me so much, I put my thoughts about the matter on my home page. There’s the link - on the left side of the screen. That was it I thought. No tea in a tea shop and Bobbies wearing turbans. It’s the end of the England I once knew. The sun has indeed set upon the British empire. The United Kingdom has given up the ghost and applications for membership in the third world are being prepared behind locked doors and drawn blinds in Whitehall.

But Shakespeare’s once "precious stone set in a silver sea" had not yet completed its abdication from its former glory. It’s taking place incrementally - certainly over months and perhaps over years - because every time we are convinced that it can get no worse - it does.

This week, those of us who remember what England once was and what it meant to be English - and there are precious few of us left - were dealt a double whammy. Once again, the increasingly clueless powers that be have been manipulated by those who profess only the noblest of intentions - but whose secret mission is clearly to destroy the motherland from within. I’m not referring to Britain’s home grown terrorists. They can be dealt with - witness more and more of them being arrested, tried, convicted and sent to jail. No, I’m speaking of something far more insidious - those who know how to inflict pain where it really hurts - at the icons and traditions that are recognized the world over as the foundations upon which the British Isles rest.

First, it’s the Bobbies again. In retrospect, the turban affair wasn’t so bad. It was only a small number of London’s Metropolitan Police that were allowed and opted to wear a turban instead of the traditional helmet. But we should have known it was just the opening foray - and now the second part of the one-two punch has been delivered. The other shoe has dropped. Every member of the Metropolitan Police will be affected. Scotland Yard has put the future appearance of the traditional Bobby helmet in the hands of the London College of FASHION!!! A re-designed helmet is being sought that - and I quote a Scotland Yard spokesman - "is fit for 21st century policing!!"

You wonder what could possibly be next. I suppose it depends on the selection of the ultimate "design." Maybe Scotland Yard will decide that it’s more "21st century policing" for Bobbies in their new chapeaus to wear matching shoes - heels optional.

But I said it was a double whammy - and indeed it is - a second whammy strangely connected to London’s Metropolitan Police. A South African by the name of Charles van Onselen has written a book called The Fox and the Flies in which he claims to have discovered the identity of Jack the Ripper!! This latter day Sherlock Holmes wannabe has reasoned that a Polish born Jew who led a life of varied criminal endeavors in Europe, London, New York and South Africa in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, was the notorious Whitechapel murderer.

Normally, this kind of nonsensical assertion would receive the sort of attention it deserves - which is none. After all, if you peruse a list of suspected "Rippers" - you’ll find several others identified as "Polish Jews." I don’t know the origin of this fascination with the idea of Polish Jews wandering the streets of London’s East End seeking ladies of the night to satisfy their murderous lust . Maybe it’s just coincidence that a number of "Ripperologists" came to the same conclusion about the ethnicity of the Ripper. But Mr. Van Onselen’s claim is the one that coincides with the news of fashion designers re-shaping the look of those defenders of London’s public whose traditions date back to the days of the Ripper and beyond - and it is surely beyond coincidence that you can read about both events in the paper on the same day.

Everyone knows that The Ripper was an Englishman - probably an upper class Englishman - possibly even of royal blood!! And everyone knows that the case has been doggedly pursued since 1888 by straight backed, square jawed, steely eyed Bobbies - with cone shaped helmets perched firmly on their heads - and that if there is to be a solution - they and they alone will provide it. Unless, that is, their resolve has been so weakened by the assaults on their ancient traditions that they become mere shells of their former selves, barely capable of directing visiting American tourists to the nearest - ugh - McDonald’s where almost certainly they "don’t do tea."

I tell you folks - these are hard times for Anglophiles - specially one who was born in the mother country. The only saving grace is that the need to express my grief at the continuing demise of what was once "This other Eden, demi-paradise" - (still Shakespeare) - keeps me from even thinking about the silliness that was advertised as Democratic and Republican "debates." But I guess I’ll have some thoughts on them in the next few days if I want to be true to the theme of this blog.

Unless they announce the design of the new Bobby helmet. If there are any feathers involved, I’ll be back at this post after I’m discharged from therapy.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Here we go again. The annual gasoline charade. Prices going through the roof. "Explanations" by the dozen. And of course, later on , maybe while we’re more concerned about clearing snow than taking pleasure trips, reports of obscene profits by the gasoline companies.

Crude oil, from which we refine our gasoline, is a finite product. If we continue to use it, it will be used up. One day, it will all be gone. By that time, unless the human race loses its collective mind along the way, other kinds of fuels will have been devised and will be running our cars and providing other needed power. As we approach that changeover point, there will doubtless be shortages of gasoline produced from crude oil - maybe rationing - and of course higher prices.. But that’s down the road apiece. Estimates vary, but it’s many decades away. Meanwhile, we put up with the nonsense that we are being fed by all the great gasoline experts - and we buy it because there is no alternative. So far this year, there hasn’t even been the usual bleating by politicians demanding to know why the public is being gouged. Maybe the politicians have too many other things on their minds. Like the Iraq debacle.

What we’re being told today is that our gasoline reserves are low and demand is high and that’s basically why the price per gallon is going up in leaps and bounds. There have been occasions in the past when gasoline has actually been in short supply - when we’ve pulled into our local gas station only to be told to come back later or the next day, because supplies have run out. But not today. Low reserves or not - high demand or not - the gasoline is there as long as we want to pump it. There is no shortage. And so, after taking into account the fluctuations in crude oil futures - the price that we pay at the pump is determined by only one thing. The amount that the gasoline companies decide to charge. When you break it all down to its basic components, that is why prices are going through the roof and will continue to go through the roof. That’s why Exxon-Mobil was able to post the largest ever annual profit for a US company in January of 2006. That’s why both Exxon and Shell both made obscene profits last year. And you can be sure that their profits will be obscene this year - likely setting new all time records for obscene profits.

What would have happened if gasoline prices had stayed at a more reasonable level through 2005 and 2006? Consumers would likely have used the same amount of gasoline - and Exxon-Mobil and Shell and other companies would still have made handsome profits - just less obscene.

What stinks about this gouging of the public is that it is being done on an equal opportunity gouging basis. It’s as though all the companies are hooked up to the same price setting computer. When it jumps a dime on one corner, it jumps the same dime a block away. Those who manipulate our "understanding" of the energy business are fond of telling us that the "market place" is the way to take care of everything, particularly retail costs - that there’s never a need for government to step in and wield influence, even when those retail prices soar to spectacular heights. That something as draconian as price controls would upset our smoothly running economic system and make things much worse. But I can remember times when gas station "A" wanting to take a little business from gas station "B" - would simply offer a more competitive price. Now it’s almost the opposite. It's still the "market place" - but now Station "B" can’t wait to match the price charged by station "A." The price increase that is.

I am no advocate of price controls, but when I look at what is happening in certain essential industries - such as power - such as pharmaceuticals - industries that are able to charge whatever they want to charge because we cannot do without their product and because there’s nothing to stop them - I would support the idea of government stepping in and exercising some measure of control.

Remember, no matter what you hear about why gasoline prices are going through the roof - the basic reason is because the suppliers of that commodity can charge whatever they like over and above their costs. No matter what "explanations" are offered by "experts" or "analysts" or whoever is peddling the spin of the day - the true understanding of what is going on - of what goes on year after year - is revealed when the balance sheets are revealed. The formula works just as well forward or backward.
High gas prices = Obscene profits for Exxon and the rest - or
Obscene profits for Exxon and the rest = High gas prices.
Quad erat demonstrandum.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

It’s something that I’ve thought about for a long time and puzzled over - the meaning of "conservative" or "liberal" as it applies to the judges of the Supreme Court. Is there such a thing as conservative or liberal understanding of what individual laws mean? If you’re clocked doing seventy in a fifty mile an hour zone and get a ticket - is there more than one way to interpret speeding laws? If you’re charged with possession of an illegal substance and it’s a felony to possess that substance - can that felony be seen differently through conservative and liberal eyes?

Laws are enacted by our legislatures - Federal and State - and while some of them may be written in obscure language, one would think that legal knowledge combined with an understanding of the English language and the way in which legislators function in creating laws would be the tools needed to interpret the meaning of any nuances they may contain and not the political leanings of the interpreter.

Yet justices are appointed to the federal courts and specifically to the Supreme Court - precisely because of their political leanings - in the hope that they will apply those leanings and their personal beliefs and preferences when they decide cases that reach their lofty chambers. That certainly seems to be the case in the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, upholding a federal ban on so called "partial birth abortion." The 5-4 decision pitted five acknowledged conservatives against four liberal or liberal leaning justices - whatever that might mean.

It was not a surprise. With the departure of Sandra Day O’Connor and the elevation of Roberts and Alito, one could expect that when any aspect of the abortion issue reached the court, the so called conservative judges would most likely reflect the general conservative view on abortion when deciding a case. But in a Chicago Tribune op-ed piece - University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R Stone casts the court members in a new light. Not just conservatives and liberals - but Catholics and non-Catholics. The five Catholic/conservative justices upheld the constitutionality of the ban. The four non-Catholics voted as the court had voted before Roberts and Alito were members - that such a ban was unconstitutional!! With a couple of changes on the court - what was unconstitutional yesterday - actually seven years ago - suddenly becomes constitutional

Again, this is no surprise. Anyone with half a brain knew that the religious beliefs of the justices would guide their rulings in these kinds of cases. What is somewhat new and refreshing is to see an op-ed piece by a law professor stating the obvious - that the Supreme Court has handed down a decision that has little to do with law or interpreting law or deciding the constitutionality of a law - but everything to do with personal and religious belief. And that my friends is scary.

It’s been happening for a long time now - the concerted effort to apply religious doctrine to our daily lives - to have religious belief trump secular law. The efforts range from injecting prayer into our schools to having religious edifices in and on public buildings to demonizing homosexuals to intimidating physicians who perform abortions to something as blatant as - according to the Texas Freedom Network - hijacking the National Day of Prayer - which takes place tomorrow.

There are enough forces in this country to balance the attempts by religious organizations to move us in the direction of theocratic governance and away from democracy. The Texas Freedom Network is one such organization. There are many others. But their influence may be of little consequence when laws are challenged by the ultra religious and wend their way through the courts and into the Supreme Court. There, they may be met with the kind of reasoning and phraseology that in many ways mirrors the edicts of theocratic rulers of Islamic nations, where, for example, women are lesser beings whose rights are decided and enforced by men.

The majority opinion in Gonzales vs Carhart, delivered by Justice Kennedy, reads more like the impressions of a horrified lay person who had witnessed major surgery - and seen how flesh gets cut and bones get sawed and blood gets spilled and who is now recounting the experience to a group of fellow laymen - than to an analysis of the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of the case before the court. It’s a long opinion - combined with the dissent by Justice Ginsburg - 73 pages - but here’s just a taste of the "legal" issues considered by the majority.
It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound when she learns, only after the event, what she once did not know: that she allowed a doctor to pierce the skull and vacuum the fast-developing brain of her unborn child, a child assuming the human form.
Couldn’t you just imagine this kind of reasoning from an Ayatollah Khamenei, explaining why certain restrictions on a woman are for her own good? Where does it fit in considering the constitutionality of one of our laws?

I’m someone who believes that abortion should be a procedure of last resort and not used lightly - certainly not as a form of birth control - but I abhor the attempt by anti-abortionists to divide those who differ on the issue into two camps and to call themselves "pro-life" - as though those who abort a fetus for any reason are against "life."

It’s pretty clear that the five conservative, Catholic judges on the Supreme Court are personally in the so called "pro-life" camp. This case wasn’t about allowing or disallowing abortion - only a certain kind of abortion - but when you read the horror at the blood and guts of the so called partial birth abortion that Justice Kennedy weaves into his dissertation - can you doubt the outcome of a challenge to Roe vs Wade if it reaches this court?

As I noted above, there are forces in this country that counter the constant efforts of religious extremists to have our secular laws be subservient to "God’s law." It’s a delicate balancing act and one that requires constant vigilance to maintain some measure of equilibrium. But if the make up of the Supreme Court remains the same - or - heaven forbid - Mr. Bush gets the opportunity to appoint another member before his term is up, Gonzales vs Carhart may be the tip of the iceberg that could have a chilling effect on some of our most cherished freedoms.

Added May 3, 2007 9.30 a.m. Re my mention above of the hijacking of the National Day of Prayer, Eric Zorn lays it out concisely in his column in today's Chicago Tribune.