What's All This Then?

commentary on the passing parade

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Had I been blogging away when the break through "truce" was announced between Israel and Hamas, I would have made my usual prediction which of course has now been confirmed by the swift resumption of rocket firing from Gaza into southern Israel. How long did it last? Three days? That’s probably some kind of record for longevity when it comes to a Hamas commitment. If it wasn’t so painfully tragic, I would have greeted the resumed rocket firing with laughter - as I did the announcement of the "truce."

Perhaps it shows how desperate Israel is to get some relief for the residents of Sderot. Hamas probably is just as desperate to get some breathing space to rearm for the full scale resumption of its never ending war. But however frustrated the Israelis may be, I have to wonder what cockeyed reasoning led them to agree to this kind of nonsense. What does a six month "truce" mean? It means that whatever "agreement" was reached, Hamas is still dedicated to the impossible goal of the destruction of Israel and almost certainly on day one of month seven will fire a barrage of rockets across the border. It means that Israel will be postponing the inevitable - a full scale military operation in Gaza - which will likely be more difficult because Hamas will almost certainly have acquired a larger and more sophisticated arsenal over that six month period.

A "truce" between warring parties only makes sense if the period of the truce allows for the parties to hold discussions to settle their differences - so that the "truce" will be extended to a permanent cessation of hostilities. There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening here. Unless and until leaders of the Palestinian Arabs of Gaza and the West Bank arise who are sane and practical people, who are elected and respected by a majority of the Palestinians and who are willing to negotiate with Israel on the basis of what is possible, a "truce" will accomplish nothing of benefit other than a period of relative quiet for people living close to the Israeli side of the border.

As I have said here many time, there will be no solution to the conflict while madness rules - and temporary "truces" between Israel and madmen will contribute nothing toward reaching an ultimate solution. Anyone who thinks otherwise is as irrational as the leaders and followers of Hamas.

Even though I’m not all caught up with all the things worthy of comment that happened while I was staying completely away from blogging, I have to comment on what took place just yesterday. The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the second amendment to the constitution.
A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.
I have nothing against the private ownership of guns, but I’m all for the ability of state and local governments to legislate gun regulations. For example, I would like to see gun laws similar to laws governing the ownership and use of cars. Registration, license, testing knowledge and efficiency etc. It wouldn’t stop the bad guys from acquiring and using guns to commit crimes , but it might help to keep track of guns that are sold and at least assure that the original buyers conform to whatever laws are enacted.

Fortunately, the majority decision didn’t give carte blanche to anyone who wants to buy a gun for any purpose and it doesn’t necessarily follow that gun regulations in place in various states and cities are no longer valid - though for sure many of them will now be challenged in court.

But my main reaction to the decision was one of admiration for the way the majority looked at Whistler’s Mother (Arrangement in Grey and Black) and concluded that it was definitely an arrangement in red and yellow. English is my native tongue and I have never had any trouble understanding what the second amendment is all about - and neither have the members of all previous Supreme Courts. But this court is something else. Five of its members looked up the wording of the amendment and saw the last fourteen words. That clearly says that people have the right to keep and bear arms. But back when the amendment was written, there were twenty seven words and they more or less meant that no one had better get in the way of the horseman riding through town yelling - "Emergency, emergency. Report to the town square immediately and bring your muskets."

If the founders had meant the amendment to mean what five members of this Supreme Court says it means , they would have written just those last fourteen words But obviously, the amendment was about the need to ensure the security of a free state by having a well regulated militia - something that would be similar to our well regulated armed forces of today - except that when members of the National Guard are called to serve in Iraq, they’re not expected to bring their own weapons with them. So the founders wrote the first thirteen words and then - maybe they were tired, maybe they’d had too much to drink - but for whatever reason, they added the last fourteen without stopping to think that someone in the future might not understand what they meant. They could have said "therefore white male property owners between the ages of 18 and 45 should keep and be ready to bear arms when called upon to do so" In stead, they were sloppy and wrote those other words that blinded Justices Scalia, Roberts, Alito, Kennedy and Thomas to the first thirteen. On the other hand, if they’d written it the way I’ve suggested, I think the gun toting five would have approved - even Thomas.

O.K, I’m just kidding. I’m not accusing esteemed members of our highest court of being racists. But I ask you, dear reader, to read the entire 27 words of the second amendment. Read them a few times and try if you will to interpret them the way the aforementioned justices interpreted them. The ask yourself - what constitutes an "activist" judge or judges?"

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I agree wholeheartedly with the Supreme Court decision allowing Gitmo detainees to challenge their detention in U.S. courts - but I’m disappointed, maybe even scared at the five four division of the court, with the minority - the confirmed conservative quartet -supporting the concept that because we are engaged in a so called "war on terror" the president has dictatorial powers when it comes to those that he designates as "terrorists" or suspected terrorists. I’m scared because what has happened to the people being held in Guantanamo could happen to anyone living in the U.S. who is not a U.S. citizen - including people you and I might know and be friends with. Up until now, anyone designated as a "terrorist" could be picked up off the street in any country, taken to that military detention center and have no right to question what was happening or to hire a lawyer to help you escape from - if you are indeed not a terrorist - an unbelievable nightmare.

Some on the extreme right have suggested that those being held at Guantanamo already have more rights than German POW’s had during World War 11 - a patently ridiculous claim. German troops captured on the field of war weren’t considered criminals and their detention was limited to the time the war continued. When it was over, POW’s were exchanged. The Germans went back to Germany and our POW’s came home. Now let’s look at the current situation and you decide if the Supreme Court was right or wrong.

In conducting the so called "war on terror" - the president has taken unto himself the power to abduct anyone from anywhere who may be or is suspected of being a terrorist intent on attacking the United States or its citizens, whisk them away to Guantanamo and hold them there for an indefinite period of time - without charging them with any crime and without allowing them to seek legal representation.

Even though they were imprisoned in the basis of them being "enemy combatants" - the "other side" in this "war on terror" - until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 2006, we insisted that the Geneva Convention did not apply to them , but the court’s ruling that indeed it did didn’t seem to alter the basic problem until its most recent decision that they’re also entitled to challenge their detention in our civilian courts - and even with that decision, we’ll have to wait and see if Mr. Bush will, as he has promised - abide by it.

The problem that the majority of the Supreme Court justices recognized - and right wing supporters of the Bush Gitmo policy do not - is that as long as we assert that we are "at war" - but with no country with who that war can be concluded and combatants returned to civilian life at the war’s end - we have a situation where anyone can be declared an enemy combatant and confined to a prison camp indefinitely without them having an opportunity to challenge the charge of being a "terrorist" of an "enemy combatant" - and that is the antithesis of what we are about as a nation. We are not living in a dictatorship where the dictator can create whatever "law" he wishes to to justify the abduction and imprisonment of anyone he designates as being an "enemy."

Some argue that we can’t abide by the established rules of war because the "war on terror" is unlike any war we have even known - and I agree with that assertion. But I don’t agree that we are "at war" - an assertion that has allowed us to grab anyone who we don’t like the look of, label them "terrorist" and throw them into a cage - where some have now been for more than six years. Others argue that constitutional protection can’t extend to "enemy combatants" being held outside of the United States - but the Supreme Court majority view disputed that claim - Guantanamo being under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States.

I don’t know who is being held at Gitmo as suspected terrorists. Hundreds have already been released - obviously not terrorists. Others being held there may indeed be crazy men, sworn to devote their lives to the destruction of the United States. Those are enemies of the civilized world and should be dealt with appropriately. But we need to deal with them in a manner that makes sense - that conforms to the values that we place on the rule of law - and that would garner the support of the rest of the civilized world.

It’s a complicated issue and the Supreme Court ruling hasn’t solved it, but I believe it at least has put us on the right track.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Even though my post-op R&R is getting busier - I start physical therapy next week - there’s too much going on for me to stay away from blogging - so, for a few days at least. I’m going to try to catch up with what’s been going on.

Now that Tim Russert has been buried, I feel that it’s no longer inappropriate to comment on the reaction to his sudden and unexpected demise. In plain words - not to beat around the bush - it was overdone - way over the top. It was the sort of response you’d expect at the death of a president - or someone of similar stature. I appreciate the fact that Russert was well liked by his NBC colleagues - and by many of his contemporaries from other networks - and I understand that having MSNBC at their disposal, the NBC powers that be could give him a send off that would not be possible for a colleague at another network who died suddenly. But canceling hours of programming for endless discussion of the life and times of Tim Russert - not just on the day he died but for days beyond was bordering on silly. Even yesterday, flipping around channels - there was the memorial service for Tim Russert.

I have to admit that I was no particular fan of Russert. I watched Meet The Press on occasion - but not on a regular basis. It depended on the guest line up. I must admit that Tim’s Sunday morning approach was unique - a semi-confrontational game of "gotcha!!" Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t - but that was his primary stock in trade. When he wasn’t using the gimmick, he wasn’t that great an interviewer. I once criticized Russert on these pages when I thought he’d fallen down on the job of being an incisive interviewer - able to ask the right questions without the benefit of having something the interviewee said in the past up on the screen.

Many of the people contributing to the memorial for Russet described him as someone to whom members of the viewing audience related in some personal way. Maybe it was because they knew him personally, but in all the years that I watched him perform - on Sundays and at other times - I never felt drawn to him on a personal level. People do imagine those kinds of relationships with media figures that they don’t know and will never meet - but it’s more often found with the more intimate medium of radio and usually with some local morning man.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful of Russert. He will be hard to replace and it wasn’t inappropriate for his death to be the lead item on the news on the day he died. But the rest of it struck me as inappropriate reporting.

I feel the same way about the television reporting of another tragedy- the destructive floods that have struck so many areas of the Midwest. It’s a continuing story and we need to keep seeing those pictures of towns completely submerged and of people who have lost everything. It’s a national disaster calling for national aid - which may be hastened by the constant showing of the destruction And it’s entirely appropriate to have reporters on the scene to better convey the flavor of what they’re describing. What is not appropriate in my view - what is even silly - is to have these reporters standing in water - sometimes up to their ankles, sometimes up to their knees - and I have even seen some in water above their knees. I suppose they think it adds drama to their reporting - but how much more drama do you need than rooftops poking out from an expanse of water? Television has long been guilty of reporting in this manner - a crime story being reported from outside police headquarters - a winter weather story being reported by a reporter freezing in the snow - as though viewers wouldn’t understand the nature of a blizzard without seeing someone braving it on their behalf. I have no argument with the ancient adage about a picture being worth a thousand words Here’s a perfect example of that truism which I think is worth sharing with the world as I return to the blogosphere.

Could you make something like this any more meaningful by having a reporter stand in front of it to describe what you’re looking at?

Now for something completely different. The other day I wrote about the price of gasoline being a direct result of speculation in the oil futures market - an opinion which is now being shared by elected officials and people in the oil business. Part of the problem can be attributed to unregulated electronic trading - the so called Enron "loophole" - but there is plenty that can be done in areas that are regulated - and so far, nothing is being done except for the disingenuous suggestion that all our troubles can be solved by allowing off shore drilling in areas other than ones in which leases are already held by oil companies. It’s not only disingenuous - it’s cruel - leading people to believe in a fairy tale scenario - "it’s our oil , we can charge what we like and the price of gasoline will go down." Apart from the fact that any drilling started today would take years to yield any oil - that’s just not the way that oil is priced. No matter where the oil is being extracted from the ground or beneath the sea bed, the pricing will still be determined in the futures market. Without some intervention by authorities, the futures price isn’t going to fall back to where it was years ago. - just as the costs of other things aren’t going to fall back to where they once were. I paid in the low thirties for my house many years ago. An identical house on my block just sold for $448,000. My top-of-the-line 1973 Pontiac which I held onto for sixteen years, cost me $4,800. That might be a down payment on a similar model today. The point is that we have to get used to the idea that gas is going to cost a lot more than we’d like to be paying for the foreseeable future. But it doesn’t have to be as high as it is at the moment.

If we can get the speculation out of the oil futures market, we might see a reduction in gas prices below four dollars - maybe even under three. But we can drill from here to Timbuktu and it won’t bring us back to ten times what I was paying to fill up my ’73 Pontiac in 1973. What we need is to take the action that can be taken - not the disingenuous pronouncements of presidential candidates willing to say anything or adopt any position that they think can win them some votes.

More catching up anon.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I had planned to stay away from blogging for a couple of months following my laminectomy surgery on May 7, but the continuing idiocy of the passing parade keeps tugging at my inner ear, urging me to resume commenting on anything and everything as I’ve done here for the past five years - and much as I try to resist, its’ winning the battle. Here I am, 40 days post-op, still in serious pain - Friday the 13th fell on a Friday this month - and much as I want to spend my time and thoughts on R and R, I'm back in front of a seductive blank screen, crying out to be filled with words of wisdom.

A week or so ago, my surgeon gave me the O.K. to do some local driving as long as I’m not taking any narcotics. Well, I am taking narcotics on a fairly regular basis, so I handle it by doing whatever small driving I need to do - such as taking my wife to work in the morning - and then take whatever pain killer I think I need - and thereafter don’t drive for a few hours or until the effects of the narcotic have worn off. I’m grateful for the O.K. to be independently mobile again, but of course it has its downside. I’ve been isolated from the outside world for a few weeks - but driving stripped away the veil of isolation and reintroduced me to the cruel cruel world outside by way of having to confront what I knew I would have to confront - more than FOUR bucks a gallon at the pump. For regular yet!! Which of course is an abomination on which I have to comment.

I have no particular expertise on the crude oil industry or on its first born - the gasoline industry, ( petrol to British influenced nations.) But there are a couple of things of which I’m slightly more than reasonably sure. One is that Saudi King Abdullah didn’t wake up this morning, get on the phone to a couple of his OPEC buddies and come up with today’s price for crude oil. More likely he overslept and had breakfast in bed - which is the prerogative of a king. The other is that this morning, in the United States and in the United Kingdom and in Russia and in China and in a whole host of other countries where people drive cars, anyone who wanted to buy gasoline did so. They may have muttered under their breath at the price they had to pay - but as long as they had the money to spend, the gasoline was there for them to buy.

We keep hearing how much the price of oil is determined by supply and demand - but supplies have been sufficient to meet world wide demand, so it’s difficult to see how that aspect of the crude oil industry can be blamed for the run up in crude oil futures. Evan the Saudis say that the price is way too high and are calling for a summit of oil producing and consumer countries to discuss the problem - a summit that will produce zero results. The problem, as more and more people are beginning to acknowledge, is described by the word I just used - futures - and resides at the New York Mercantile Exchange where those futures prices are determined, day by day, hour by hour, often minute by minute.

The run up in the price of crude oil futures - which in turn affects the price we pay for gas at the pump - is the result of trading in those futures. Traders who will never take delivery of a thimble full of crude oil - whose only interest is in making a profit, either by buying or selling futures contracts - are setting the price of the commodity, enriching the oil producing nations - and, if they guess right, themselves - and in the process, determining what we pay for gas at the pump and a great deal of what we buy at the super market. And there is no end in sight. Why should there be? No one is stopping the trading - and unless there is a sudden massive wave of selling, the trend will continue to be in the up direction. Can anything be done about what amounts to a runaway steam engine? It’s a good question and one that somebody needs to answer.

What we hear from the government is that we can do nothing. We can hold worthless hearings in the House and Senate during which we can haul oil company CEO’s up to the hill to chastise them and to listen to their insistence that it’s not their fault and their profits are not obscene and that they are pouring all kinds of money back into research and development. And we can propose a federal tax holiday, which gimmick will shave a few cents a gallon from the four plus dollar price for a limited time - and then only if the oil companis don't raise their prices by those same few cents. And our president can do something totally inane by asking that the Saudis increase oil production - which isn’t necessary and would only provide more speculation on the futures markets.

But of course there are things that can be done to lower the price of crude oil futures and subsequently of gasoline. The CFTC - the Commodity Futures Trading Commission - and the Federal Reserve and the NYMEX itself all have powers. The obvious thing that can be done is substantially increase the margin needed to trade crude oil futures - or even do away with margins completely for a while. Make it a cash product. At the moment, it takes only a small percentage of the futures price to control a single crude oil contract - one thousand barrels of oil. Under ten grand. Tripling or quadrupling that requirement would certainly drive many speculators out of the market - and anyone who doesn’t believe that speculation is what has driven the market to its current highs is living in a dream world.

There are even more drastic things that could be done. When the Hunt brothers tried to corner the silver market in the 1970’s , the regulators stepped in and stopped the purchase of silver futures by everyone except legitimate users of industrial silver and those with short positions who were buying back silver they had previously sold. By 1980, silver - which today is trading in the mid teens - had dropped from the stratospheric price of more than $50 an ounce down to less than $10 and in the 1990’s it was down to around $3.50 an ounce. The Hunt brothers went broke and the silver - and stock markets that were affected by the debacle - quickly righted themselves.

I’m not saying that the CFTC or the Fed should take the same kind of drastic action that they took with the silver market. I’m just pointing out that they have powers that for now they have declined to use. But the price of oil, if it continues to go up, will have an increasing negative affect on the world’s economy and if the regulators continue to stand by and let "market forces" rule, then they, in my opinion - will be guilty of criminal negligence.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Location, location, location.

No, I’m not going into the real estate business nor starting a real estate advice blog within a blog, nor am I ready to resume blogging following my surgical adventure on May 7, about which I will comment in due course. But I couldn’t let the performance of Father Michael Pfleger at Trinity United Church the other day go by without recording a brief comment for my passing parade archives. As the world knows, it caused another uproar and more trouble for Obama - and now, in an effort to stop the bleeding, he’s resigned his membership in that church.

It may have been the right thing for Obama to do, but I could see only two things wrong with Pfleger’s hilarious comedy skit. He was the wrong guy to give the performance. It was written for a comedian, not a priest. And it was performed in the wrong place. The church was the wrong location. It was Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show material - where it wouldn’t have caused even a ripple of dismay - just peals of laughter. It was as funny as anything those shows have done in their many spoofs of Hillary - and the church audience responded instinctively - as I would have - as anyone with a sense of humor would have responded - with applause and laughter.

Can anyone remember The Daily Show or SNL comedy skits about Clinton or Obama or any other politician resulting in cries of condemnation? "Disgusting! Unfair! Over the top! Beyond the pale!" Of course not. What they do to presidential candidates is fair game - and most candidates can’t wait to appear on these shows - even shows in which they are being unmercifully spoofed!!

But now we have tsk tsking all over the place - from Obama, from left and right pundits, from the local Catholic Cardinal - and of course from Hillary. And in letters to the editor. The Chicago Tribune was full of letters of condemnation today. "It was a terrible thing! It was divisive! It was racially insensitive! It was all things bad!" But had it been performed word for word on either of the aforementioned comedy shows, it would have become an instant classic, to be played over and over in future years on "best of" shows.

They say that in comedy, timing is everything. To which we can now add location. For which poor selection for his performance, Father Pfleger should be rightfully condemned. But not for the material which was and remains damned funny stuff. And if we can’t see that, then we Americans are really in trouble