Friday, September 28, 2007

Go, You Saudi Girls, Go

The Saudis are apparently toying with the idea of letting women drive. I'm very prepared to be culturally sensitive to their ... what shall we call it? Hang-up about women? Especially women who have the wherewithal to start a car and drive it straight out of the country and away from constant male surveillance?

I don't want to be a Western imperialist, after all. Yet, I applaud this trend toward liberality. The photo to the right is from a popular Saudi television series about a young woman who was forced, by the death of her father, to don a disguise and go to work as a cab driver. Of course she doesn't look in the least like a man. Maybe it's the salon-styled eyebrows and dewy skin. But I say, go girl. Go, and go, and go.

(If you don't know much about Saudi culture, go to Carmen bin Laden's autobiography Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia. I got more about the real lives of Saudi women from this book than from any other source.)

Biofuels. Let's Get Serious.

From Grist, the environmental blog. This is worth reading.

Biofuel: Is it a greenhouse gas, gas, gas?

By all accounts, biofuels deliver startlingly modest reductions in greenhouse gases. In a relatively generous assessment of the environmental benefits of ethanol and biodiesel released last year, University of Minnesota researchers credited corn-based ethanol with 12 percent less net greenhouse-gas emissions than gasoline, while finding that soy-based biodiesel emits 41 percent less.

But here's the catch: It takes so much corn to produce a gallon of ethanol, and so much soy to produce a gallon of biodiesel, that the net GHG advantages are likely to be almost nil.

And that's just what we already knew. Now comes a new study that says that simply growing the crops that become biofuel is dangerous - more dangerous than using gasoline in the first place.

(The study) claims that biofuel production emits far more nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas some 296 times more potent than carbon dioxide, than has normally been assumed. The source is artificial fertilizer, a potent source of nitrogen. When farmers apply it to soil, a certain amount of it -- between 3 percent and 5 percent, according to the study -- enters the atmosphere as nitrous oxide.

But despite all this, corn farms are going gangbusters, getting top dollar from the market, which seems to think biofuel is going to the great and profitable environmental savior, and from the government, through automatic annual subsidies to farmers. To feel sort of sick about the whole thing, read this article from today's Washington Post.

So where are we in our lackluster quest to save our planet as painlessly as possible? Nowhere, it appears. Maybe we're like alcoholics who have to hit bottom before we realize that, hey, there's really no easy way out of the mess we've made. We're going to have suffer, a little or maybe a lot. We're going to have to give up some stuff. Is there anything idea in the world that Americans resist more vigorously? Without real, evangelizing leadership, we're doomed.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Spam Lines: 'Your Insatiable Chick Will Be Full of Pleasure'

Oh, it's a time of high and low news. Hillary is a shoo-in (let the rabid haters of this woman commence their attacks!) and Jan and Marcia (oh no!) were lesbian lovers. Maybe. Whatever.

But I'm thinking about something else. It's spam, and the voluminous amounts I receive, mostly having to do with the male desire to, ah, please. I've gotten so much of it recently that I'm saving my best subject lines. My starter-list is below, though I intend to add to it on a daily basis. Send yours, too. In the end, we can submit them, papier mache'd,on a giant inflated penis, to Congress. For their legislative consideration, I'm thinking.

Subject: are you the next man in the world to get super sized in the pants?

Subject: attract more ladies with a huge trouser snake

Subject: life is too short to be small

Subject: Your problems with cock size will become history

Subject: Your insatiable chick will be full of pleasure

Subject: I went from being "mr little" too "mr big boy" within 6 months = )

Subject: Does your penis size ruin your life? Our product will stop that!

Subject: Increase your sperm and pleasure.

Subject: New size for Men especially for new feelings of women at once

Subject: my girl loves the new me.

Subject: Our penis growth pills will give you the results you need to make your intimate ...

Subject: Tired of being ashamed of your penis size? Leave it for losers!

Subject: Get personal pussy available on your command any time of the night or day.

Subject: 72% of all women need a larger and thicker penis to reach sexual orgasm

Subject: Take Megadik and enjoy the reflection of your penis in the mirror!

Subject: We provide for you a real advantage to turn her on!

Subject: Penis enlargement was never so easy before! Now there is MegaDik!

Subject: Thank you, a girl to be yours in here found!

Subject: My banger is HUGE now thanks to these guys..

Subject: The guys get jealous now when they see me in the bathroom

Subject: Customers alert, new pharma site is realised!

Subject: Men all over the world are going to love this product...

Subject: No more being shy of your manhood

Subject: Making your woman happy is very important for repeated sexual encounters

And finally this, from the probably-not-pseudonymous 'Maureen Dickerson':

Subject: i got no probs taking the girls home now

Monday, September 24, 2007

MoveOn, Stop Being Obnoxious

Memo to

Re: your recent email, "Republicans vs. our kids": stop being so divisive. You're becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution.

And this from somebody who's essentially on your side.

Iraq, the Documentary

So last night at 8 pm I was curled up on my cozy couch watching the Ken Burns' documentary on World War II. Whether you think Burns is a great filmmaker or not, it was hard not to be impressed by at least one aspect of the show: the relentless scenes of carnage that began in the first seconds and no doubt continued long after I'd slunk away. The personal stories Burns wanted to tell were already being ground under the weight of the nonstop death, burning buildings, blown-away faces, drowned corpses, emacitated prisoners of war, and howling children. It's a punishing thing to watch such audacious images of rat-a-tat-tat horror. But how much worse to have lived it?

But wait ... we are living it, aren't we? Rather than alternately wallowing and glorying in scenes of shocking 60-year-old violence, we might create more happiness in the world by considering the scenes of current violence being perpetrated, and counterperpetrated, this very day, in Iraq. What a wet blanket I am. You know, maybe I'll just skip the rest of the Iraq thing and wait for the documentary. Ken Burns will do a fabulous job with it. I just know it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

It's Too Late for Sorries

So Sandra Day O'Connor regrets that she helped put George Bush in office. (Are we to believe that, if he had turned out more to her liking - had been a better representative of her "beloved Republican Party" - she wouldn't have regretted it? So much for judicial impartiality.) Never has a single person's political bias been so inappropriately applied, and to worse effect, than in her deciding vote in Bush v. Gore.

In "The Nines," Jeffrey Toobin says that while O'Connor would never say so publicly, she's suffering over it now - she's dreadfully sorry about her role in handing over power to the wrong man. It turned out Bush is "arrogant, lawless, incompetent and extreme," she says. Drat! If only she'd known ahead of time, it would presumably all have been different.

Well, I'm here to say that it's too late for an apology. Given everything that's happened since 2000, it's much too late. O'Connor will have to live with the mess she's made, and far more importantly, so will we.

For those who haven't read it, here's a paragraph from the NY Times review:

The story of Justice O’Connor, who helped tip the Bush v. Gore case in favor of President Bush and whose 2005 decision to retire (to spend more time with her ailing husband) would give the president a crucial seat to fill, is in many ways Shakespearean. Mr. Toobin writes that “the hiring of John Ashcroft, the politicized response to the affirmative action case, the lawless approach to the war on terror, and the accelerating disaster of the war in Iraq all appalled O’Connor.” He says she regarded the Terry Schiavo case as “the latest outrage from the extremists who she believed had hijacked her beloved Republican Party” and adds that she was deeply distressed over the administration’s efforts to undermine judicial independence.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fasting in a Country that's Protest-Proof

From USA Today:

No Child Left Behind is "wreaking havoc in our inner-city schools," alleges education author Jonathan Kozol, 71, who today begins the 75th day of a partial hunger strike to protest the law.

Congress passed the education reform law with bipartisan support in 2001, and lawmakers this month are preparing to reauthorize it. The law seeks to get all students reading and doing math at grade level by 2014, mandating annual math and reading tests for about half of all children and sanctioning schools that don't keep improving.

Kozol on Monday said the law effectively has dumbed down school for poor, urban kids, creating "a parallel curriculum that would be rejected out-of-hand" in the suburbs.

Apparantly Kozol believes that poor kids are being subjected to a rote, mechanical style of teaching that crushes creativity and any sense that learning can be fun.

It's sort of sweet to know that anybody is still willing to engage in '60s-style protest theatrics, but this particular case is more than strange. One, it's over No Child Left Behind, not a hill you'd think anyone would care to die on. (Is NCLB good or bad? Don't ask me, and my son just spent six years enduring it.) Two, Jonathan Kozol, that passionate champion of poor children, is undertaking a partial fast because doctors have warned him a full-blown one might damage his heart? Well, what's the point of a fast if not to positively beckon death to your door? Isn't your own imminent demise a necessary part of the equation?

Kozol has lost 29 pounds, and he can ill afford even that. I wish he hadn't lost a single one - not for this cause. But still, if you're going to go down in a blaze of glory, you might as well really go down.

But more to the point: Jonathan, you're in the wrong country for this type of thing. Personal gestures of protest don't get Americans anywhere with their politicians; indeed, in many cases, it only strengthens their resolve. Case in point: our current president and his war. His aversion to Vietnam War-style demonstrations is so strong that a flotilla of burning monks would only stiffen his spine. Which is too bad, since the usual mechanisms of democracy don't seem to be getting us anywhere.

But perhaps that's another story.

Right now, here's my message: Eat, Jonathan, eat. No one cares.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mary Gordon and Jodi Picoult, on Mothers and Daughters

Once in a while I take a stab at reading an author I don't know, or know mostly by reputation. These exercises, as you might suppose, lead to one of three places: amazing discovery, so-so indifference, or are you kidding? I ventured into this territory twice recently, going from the sublime, as they say, to the ridiculous.

Try as I might, I can't seem to feel much for Mary Gordon beyond the acknowledgement that, yep, she's definitely talented. I can see that she is, but her whole tone suggests that she prizes that talent a lot more than any reader ever could. I looked and looked for her last book, "Circling My Mother," and finally had to order it from Amazon. I admire the project - telling the story of her mother from different angles, through friendships, family, work, religion, even her body (she was disabled from childhood polio). But throughout, Gordon's language is so solemnly pretentious and at times so vengeful that it's hard to view this as book for us. Mostly, I think, it's a book for her, where she gets to settle scores and announce verdicts. History belongs, as we know, to the one who records it for posterity. And Gordon revels in her role.

Then there's Jodi Picoult. Somebody recommended her books to me, and seeing them displayed, one after another, in a place of honor in my local used bookstore (whose owner I trust utterly with my reading life), I decided to give one a try. Yes - I kind of knew they were all of the topical, Woman's Day variety, but one of them had a particularly evocative cover (two kids wrapped in a red blanket in a swirling snowstorm), so I picked it up.

This book - "The Tenth Circle" - is one of the silliest, most unlikely books I've ever read. Teenage girl gets dumped by boyfriend, determinedly chases boyfriend, claims later to have been raped by boyfriend, then - doing what all girls do in such trying situations - hops a truck bound for Alaska, there to find we never learn what. In the meantime, boyfriend dies mysteriously, and Dad, a comic book illustrator who draws avenging superheroes, is implicated. Maybe I'm not making this sound as bad as it truly is. This plot, one would think, might after all be made to work, in capable hands. But these hands are not those hands. Yuk.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ayn Rand, Gen. Petraeus and Other Random Thoughts

Mike Barnicle, who used to write for the Boston Globe, would occasionally devote a column to a list of quick observations. If I remember correctly, the columns were always titled "Not That It Matters, But ..."

For your consideration, my own "Not That It Matters, But...":

  1. Ayn Rand, whose "Atlas Shrugged" was published 50 years ago this week, was a pain in the butt. She may have given literary voice to her charmless philosophy of greed, and may have been influential in capitalist circles (as though the profit motive has ever really needed philosophical buttressing) but the ideas she expressed are now commonplace. Furthermore, carried out a few decimal places, they quickly become reprehensible. Yes, Ayn, let's kill all the handicapped people, since they sap society's strength and keep all us productive people from giving ourselves singlemindedly to the pursuit of pleasure and profit. Sometimes, it matters whether an object of veneration was actually a decent person or not. She wasn't. (Check out the 1957 NY Times review of "Atlas," which was brutal.)

  2. This morning, walking on the treadmill at the gym, I flipped back and forth between three Sunday morning news shows: Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and Fox's whatever-they-call-it. Each, predictably, featured panels of politicians talking about Iraq. John Kerry made some reasonable points; John McCain sounded cornered and defensive; Bill Kristol and Juan Williams got testy with one another; and all the Fox moderator wanted to do was make the liberals on his panel admit that was wrong (read: unpatriotic) to call Gen. Petraeus "General Betray Us." And everybody sounded like they'd enjoy talking about something else for a change, because they know as well as anybody that in a time of war, the President will get what he wants, and all their speechifying about it is boring, inconclusive and ineffectual.

  3. Bush shouldn't get what he wants, but like the pope, he seems to view himself as infallible, and apparently that's what counts right now. And that's despite what the rest of the country may think or believe or even ardently desire. So, this, we must acknowledge, is democracy.

  4. It's apple-picking time in New Hampshire, and the orchards are crowded with people giving their little kids the chance to see where fruit really comes from. My part of New Hampshire is so heavily covered with apple trees that the new upscale houses cropping up on every hillside are really just sitting on lawns cut into old orchards. Quaint theme-parks, really, and requiring something only the rich could afford: lawn service companies that specialize in tending trees, picking up fallen apples, and mowing around dozens of precisely spaced, gnarled trunks.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Really Strange Story of Joyce Hatto

Now here's a fascinating and sadly human tale: the story of Joyce Hatto (right), a middling concert pianist who, with her music publisher husband, fabricated a brilliant career for herself by literally passing off other musicians' recordings as her own. What's weird is 1) the couple wanted to do it at all, 2) that they thought they could get away with it, and 3) that they did get away with it for several years, fooling the world's classical music aficionados into believing Joyce Hatto was a genius whose talents, up til then, had simply and strangely gone unrecognized. The story's wonderfully told in this month's New Yorker, but it appears in other places as well.

Probably the strangest bit of the story involves Hatto's husband, a lonely London suburbanite who, even after her death from cancer, still maintains that the recordings are hers (well, essentially; he acknowledges a little digital tweaking on his part during the publishing process). And this even though he himself brazenly stole copies of other musician's performances, cobbled together CDs, sent them out to friends and correspondents under his wife's name, and happily watched the internet buzz grow. And it is stranger still that despite the audacity of his lies, he remains a sympathetic figure. That's the human part. He and his wife wanted success so badly that together they were willing to risk humiliation and scandal to get it, even though they had to know it would all catch up with them.

I suppose there's a chance that the hoax wasn't born of some pathetic longing to be something they weren't; perhaps it was just a lark that got out of hand, a little joke that grew and grew until they couldn't find a way out of it. Since he still can't tell the truth - can't or won't - we'll never know.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tony, George and Me, Kissing the Old Days Goodbye

President Bush on what he'll do after his term is over: "I'll give some speeches to replenish the ol' coffers."

Press Secretary Tony Snow, whose salary of $170,000 is apparently forcing an early departure: “I’m not going to be able to go the distance, but that’s primarily for financial reasons. I’ve told people when my money runs out, then I’ve got to go.”

I'd like to take this opportunity to announce that, like President Bush and Tony Snow, I too will be leaving my job to ... well, cash in. Frankly, it's been hard making ends meet all these years, but I've never complained because this job has been an honor and a privilege, as both my dog and my son know. They've meant a lot to me, but when it's time, it's time.

These years of grueling public service have been a blessing, though nobody could say there weren't moments of challenge. That time when Flopsy threw up in the kitchen and I slipped in it and landed on my back, dropping the Mexican bake casserole I was taking out of the oven and giving myself second-degree burns - we can't exactly call that a good time, can we?

And the afternoons picking up the kids at soccer practice, only to have my son and his friend Buddy hold flatulence contests in the back seat? A certain yuck factor, I'll grant you.

But those days are gone, and we can all look back now and smile. For me, it's time to kick back and let the moolah roll in. What exactly will I do, you ask?

Lecture circuit. Memoir. You know how it goes. I've frankly got some memories others might find interesting, and some advice I might not mind sharing. For a fee, of course. I can't just give all this stuff away for free.

It's a Fat World, er, Country, But Don't Blame Us

This week, Gina Kolata of The Times continues her mission to assure us that if we're overweight, it's Not Our Fault.

It's not! Truly!

Don't even start with that nonsense about diet and exercise. Moderate exercise makes very little difference, she says, because our brains want us to be a particular weight and will make sure that we stay at or about it. And crappy calorie-packed food isn't the problem because American never ate all that well, when you think about it. So while diet and exercise matter somewhat, it's really a lot more complicated than that.

For instance:

According to several animal studies, conditions during pregnancy, including the mother’s diet, may determine how fat the offspring are as adults. Human studies have shown that women who eat little in pregnancy, surprisingly, more often have children who grow into fat adults. More than a dozen studies have found that children are more likely to be fat if their mothers smoke during pregnancy.

The research is just beginning, true, but already it has upended some hoary myths about dieting. The body establishes its optimal weight early on, perhaps even before birth, and defends it vigorously through adulthood. As a result, weight control is difficult for most of us. And obesity, the terrible new epidemic of the developed world, is almost impossible to cure.

OK, stop. I've had enough of this. While acknowledging that, hey, she's the science writer and I'm not, I'd like to ask a simple clarifying question.

Even given that everything she says is true, and I have no reason to believe that it's not, why is it that people in other cultures are thinner, and that Americans in earlier decades were thinner? Surely we modern-day Americans aren't so unlucky as to be walking around with post-modern, fitness-sabotaging brains, while everybody else gets the regular old brains that somehow allow them to stay within normal weight ranges? Same goes for pregnancy and any other biological factors that supposedly tip the scales, so to speak, against us. These factors aren't new, and aren't specific to our very fat American society. Something changed somewhere, and it seems pretty obvious what it is.

What I wonder is why Kolata, who's written a whole book on why we should accept our fatness instead of trying to fight it, is so interested in letting us all off the hook.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Forgetting 9/11, or Never Knowing at All

Another turn of the calendar, and it's 9/11 again. Despite the fact that we keep on talking, none of us, I think, really has anything left to say about it. The fearful residue of that day remains, of course, and it's a cliche to say that no one who lived through that time will ever forget it.

Though already a new crop of children is appearing who have forgotten it, or else never knew at all. While at some point such children had to emerge, I somehow didn't expect to meet one for years and years. That's how deeply this event has soaked into our culture.

Yet, just yesterday, I did meet one. Sammi, a 10-year-old who I see once a week as part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, merely furrowed her brow when I mentioned the impending anniversary. I asked if she hadn't heard of this date.

"Uh-uh," she said.

"Not in school, or on the news? Maybe your mother's said something about it," I asked. I could jog her memory by giving her a few clues, I thought. She just forgot for a minute, the way she might forget what a numerator is, or the capital of Montana. She'll get it then feel silly.

But she just shook her head.

Well. I explained, casually, so as not to frighten her, that on that day, six years ago, some people flew planes into two big towers in New York. On purpose.

She looked curious, but nothing more. "Why would anybody do that?" she said.

"Because they were very angry at the United States," I answered.

She shrugged again, and mentioned that she couldn't wait to get home, so she could run across the street and visit a neighbor girl.

But I pressed ahead. Surely a 10-year-old couldn't be quite so historically blank. It was disturbing that she should be. I asked if she heard about the war in Iraq.

At this she nodded vigorously. She knew all about it - a relative of her mother's boyfriend had been there for a very long time, she said, sounding indignant on his behalf.

I told her that we went to war because of the planes on 9/11, though Iraq really didn't have anything to do with that day. But she had lost interest before I even finished my sentence. She began fiddling with the knobs on the radio, looking for a station she liked.

I started to say more, but then stopped. How could this be? How could she not know? And was it a sign of regeneration that she didn't?

More unanswerable questions born of 9/11.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Pedophiles and Polygamists on Parade, All Under the Banner of Heaven

The 'lost boys' - no, not those lost boys, from Sudan, but our homegrown lost boys, thrown out of fundamentalist Mormon families in their mid-teens for committing sins that none of the rest of us consider sins - finally are getting some attention. Now there's a place where some of them can go to get a roof over their heads and some much-needed help finding a place in the world.

Timely that the story describing this neglected group of boys appeared just today in the NY Times. I happen, following my recent perusal of The Book of Mormon, to be reading another book about Mormons, this one a little more convincing and illuminating. It's Under the Banner of Heaven, a truly appalling account of that religion's splinter fanatics and the people they destroy on their happy way to realizing God. Like all religious lunatics, the creepy characters described in Under the Banner of Heaven are earnest, wily, dead set on discovering the actual Truth, and determined to reform their old, inadequate religion (in this case, the Mormon version of Christianity, which is already weird enough) by bringing it back to the Fundamentals. As they see them, of course, and see them selectively and self-servingly.

It turns out the lost boys, hundreds of them, are pushed out of fundamentalist outposts in the deserts of Utah and Arizona - where polygamist communities set up shop after their founders split off from the mainstream Church of Latter-Day Saints - for a very commonsensical reason. Sure, the boys are sinful; some of them even sneak out to movies, or read forbidden magazines, or look at girls and have sexual thoughts. But the sin isn't what really gets them bounced. Since each of these communities is run by a single "prophet" whose word is absolute law, they get bounced because he says they do. They became, by virtue of age and puberty, competition for him. He wants the pretty young teen girls, but the boys presumably want them too, and there simply aren't enough to go around. It's that simple.

Most boys have only a junior-high education when they're pushed out, and of course they don't know a soul on the "outside." Often their own parents weep while packing their bags. But everybody's going to straight to hell, no maybe about it, if the prophet's command isn't followed, so there's nothing to be done. The boys go out into a wider world they know nothing about, with the curse of damnation over their heads.

The child abuse and perverted psycho-sexual dynamics are beyond anybody's ability to describe, but Jon Krakauer tries. His writing isn't particularly elegant, but he's more fair than he probably should be, given that some of the sickos he follows actually end up slitting the throats of their relatives on the direct order of God.

Religion, apparently, will always unleash violence in that small percentage of the population who takes it completely seriously, especially when there are historical strains of violence in that religion that can be turned on and off like a tap, by those who know how. (And in the case of this religion, a scriptural justification for polygamy, introduced by none other than the religion's founding father, who had an astonishing libido and God's convenient instruction that it be satisfied with "plural" marriages.)

Does this cynical, self-justifying use of religion sound familiar? All too, unfortunately.

Shame, shame on the states of Utah and Arizona for not tracking these woman- and child-hating narcissists down and arresting them with anything approaching vigor, and for failing to protect the dozens of children that each of these men father. The group home the states just funded for these bereft, broken boys is a good start, but still a paltry response.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Poor Little Rich Boys and the Big Bad Meltdown

I love Robert Reich; he's so great. This is from his blog, where he's talking about what economists call 'moral hazard' - the likelihood that you'll take more risks if you know somebody will jump in and save your butt later. But as he points out, while bailing out the little guy is often the cause of much harrumphing in Washington, bailing out the big guy is pretty much standard operating procedure.

(The shamelessness of the corporate elite has reached satirical heights when even financial writers themselves are making fun of Wall Street stock brokers and hedge fund managers. When you're done with Reich, read this piece, from Bloomberg News.)

Here's Reich:

When it comes to risky behavior in the market, America has a double standard. We’re told that economic risk-taking is the key to entrepreneurial success, but when big entrepreneurs take big risks that fail it’s amazing how often they get bailed out. Indeed, the history of modern American business is littered with federal bailouts, loan guarantees, and no-questions-asked reorganizations. Some are well known, such as the Chrylser bailout of 1979, the savings and loan bailout of 1989, and the airline bailout of 2001. Most occur in the relative dark, such as the 1998 bailout of giant hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management (courtesy of former Fed chair Alan Greenspan), the not infrequent bailouts of under-funded corporate pension plans by the government’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, price supports for big agribusinesses facing market downturns, or the current bailout of Wall Street being engineered by Ben Bernanke’s Fed. Behind every one of these bailouts are CEOs or financial executives who were rescued from their bad bets.

CEOs get away with stupid mistakes all the time. Some, like Robert Nardelli, the former CEO of Home Depot, drive their company’s stock so low that their boards eventually oust them. But they leave with eye-popping going-away presents nonetheless. (Nardelli got several hundred million dollars on his departure.) If you’re an average American who gets canned from his job, even through no fault of your own, you probably won’t even get unemployment insurance (only 40 percent of job-losers qualify these days).

Conservatives tell us that unemployment insurance reduces their incentive to find a new job quickly. In other words, moral hazard. Some CEOs use bankruptcy as a means of getting out from under pesky labor contracts they might have "known they could not afford" when they agreed to them (Northwest Airlines most recently, for example). Others use it as a cushion against bad bets. Donald ("you’re fired!") Trump’s casino empire has gone into bankruptcy twice -- most recently, last November, when it listed $1.3 billion of liabilities and $1.5 million of assets -- with no apparent diminution of the Donald’s passion for risky, if not foolish, endeavor. After all, his personal fortune is protected behind a wall of limited liability, and he collects a nice salary from his casinos regardless. But if you’re an ordinary person who has fallen on hard times, just try declaring bankruptcy to wipe the slate clean.

A new law governing personal bankruptcy makes that route harder than ever. Its sponsors argued -- you guessed it -- moral hazard. Bush’s "ownership society" has proven a cruel farce for poor people who tried to become home owners, and his minuscule response to their plight just another example of how conservatives use moral hazard to push their social-Darwinist morality. The little guys get tough love. The big guys get forgiveness.

Gagging the Gag Rule

I love this country, truly I do, but when it goes off the rails, it goes way off. Not only do we Americans love religious theater, but we love to play it out on other people's stages, often at the cost of thousands of lives. Some of us will track down evil wherever it lives, apparently, so extreme is our commitment to morality. Sometimes in the course of our moral crusading we actually create larger evils than we stamp out, and that's a discomfiting result, but we don't let it stop us. We can't, because after all, we're standing on principle.

And because this is the American way, it's a happy surprise to note that the global gag rule, the most shameful, shortsighted, and sexually imperialistic bit of foreign policy mischief to ever come out of Washington, is finally under attack by Congress. (I have to note that the good guys in this case aren't guys at all; they're women, in the forms of Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe. Not a surprise.)

In the Senate yesterday:

The U.S. Senate yesterday voted to repeal the "global gag rule," reinstated by President George W. Bush in 2000 on his second day in office, which bans aid to international family planning organizations that provide or counsel on abortion.

By a vote of 53-43, senators struck down the rule, also called the "Mexico City Policy," which was first announced by former President Ronald Reagan in 1984 at a U.N. conference on population in Mexico City. It limited U.S. financial assistance to foreign family planning groups that do not promote or disseminate information about abortion. Former President Bill Clinton rescinded the policy in 1993, but Bush reinstated it.

Yesterday's vote rejected a motion to kill an amendment by Senator Barbara Boxer, attached to a $27 billion State Department foreign aid bill, to repeal the global gag rule. Boxer said the rule would be unconstitutional if applied to family planning organizations in the United States. "How can we export a policy that denies free speech and still say we support democracy?" she asked.

The bill includes a provision restoring $50 million in funding to the U.N. Population Fund over a two-year period. Last July, the Bush administration withheld $34 million in funding for UNFPA, which had already been approved by Congress. The White House alleged that UNFPA indirectly supports forced abortion in China, a charge that was denied by UNFPA repeatedly as well as by numerous experts.

It faces a possible presidential veto, however. The White House Office of Management and Budget said before the vote that the administration would "strongly oppose" any amendment that would allow the government to fund abortion advocacy. "The president would veto the bill if it were presented to him with such a provision," the OMB said in a statement.

The Reproductive Rights Alliance of South Africa, where Bush visited yesterday and today, said the global gag rule has led to 1.5 million unwanted births, 15,000 maternal deaths, 92,000 infant deaths and 2.2 million unsafe abortions.

And in the House:

The House passed the foreign aid appropriations bill (HR 2764) in June with provisions exempting contraceptives from the global gag rule and repealing the abstinence-only funding restrictions for HIV prevention programs. According to Population Action International, this marks the first time since the Global Gag Rule has been in effect, from 1984-1993 and again since 2001, that both the House and the Senate have passed legislation to repeal or modify its restrictions.

I've followed the scandalous gag rule since it was signed into law under Reagan, but writing about it now, I'm wondering why, obvious reasons aside, it still incites so much passion in me. Why I'm still so angry about it. And I think it's this: it's one of the most pernicious side effects of our showy religious culture, and one more reason that "faith-based" policies with all their paternalistic moral undertones are so ultimately destructive, both to actual lives and to the body politic. The mullahs in Washington simply have no right to make life-and-death decisions for poor women and poor children they'll never meet and to whom they will never be accountable. They have no right to ignore the facts, meaning the quanitifiable effects of policies on real lives, in favor of a smug religious ideology not shared by those their decisions affect. They have no right, that is, in a country such as this one, which supposedly cherishes reason. Do they?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

20,000 Prayers, No Answer Required

Excerpt from an email sent by Sojourners, the progressive evangelical group:

As people of faith, we believe in the power of prayer to soften the hardest of hearts and open the way to peace and reconciliation. So, as General Petraeus testifies, we're planning to match his surge with one of our own – 20,000 prayers for Congress to bring an end to this war.

I'm a big fan of Sojourners and its SojoMail e-bulletins and related blog. I like knowing what liberal religious people are thinking and talking about; I especially like knowing that there are liberal religious people out there pushing back against the pernicious idea, promulgated by our current president, that religion is the property of conservatives. The Sojourners crew is smart and earnest and on the right side of every issue I can think of.

But this email bothers me, because it seems to me that when any grassroots group begins asking people to pray for change in national policy, the group's all but admitted its utter inability to do anything but pray. And when a religious group sets up a fusillade of prayer directed at recalcitrant politicians, it only suggests how irrelevant it is to the political process.

I know the folks at Sojourners would take umbrage; they'd say prayer is an essential expression of spiritual integrity and power, and that it's capable of almost anything. But is it? Personally, there's no doubt that prayer can be transformative. But not politically. Surely flipping through the pages of any history book should be enough to convince anyone of that fundamental truth. Is there even the slightest evidence that prayer has ever been effective in changing the course of historical, or even natural, events, if by changing we mean improving? No. Yet religious people persist in claiming that prayers make a difference. If (and I'm assuming there must surely be condition or two) they're sincere enough, or plentiful enough, or something enough.

It's easy to be disdainful of certain religious practices, but that's not what I'm doing here. Taking cheap shots at Christians doesn't interest me, and especially not Sojourners, which is providing much-needed public pushback to the wizened, mean-spirited brand of Christianity that has found so much public expression in the last decade.

But yet, I'm confused about the implications of this "prayer surge." If, after 20,000 prayers, Congress doesn't bring an end to the Iraq war, what shall we conclude? That God supports the war? That God wasn't listening to the prayers? Or rather, that he was listening, but decided that letting the war run its course would for some reason be better than ending it?

In a way it doesn't matter, because prayer of this type is a win-win for God. He gets credit no matter what he does, something or nothing, because he's all-knowing and always makes the best decision for us. Nor can he be held accountable for any bad outcome, because, after all, we created our own mess and are to blame for any suffering that results from it. All the credit, none of the blame, no real responsibility. This is God as Christians understand him?

Which is exactly why I thought many Christians had more or less given up intercessory prayer. It makes us all look a little bit foolish. God, too, when you think about it.

Is Capitalism Killing American Democracy? And Can National Service Save It?

Robert Reich, in his new book, wonders whether "supercapitalism" - the ever-growing wealth and influence of big monied interests - is undermining democracy in the U.S. Thirty years ago, he says, most Americans, when asked, said democracy was working pretty well. Now they say the opposite. According to Reich, average Americans feel that they have almost no ability to influence their government; they perceive instead that corporate interests and their Capitol Hill lobbyists really pull all the strings.

But we are ourselves to blame. We've been content to passively support policies of all sorts that keep prices low, as though low prices were a policy end in themselves, always and ultimately good. Are we consumers, he asks, or are we citizens? Which is the more important to us? Because we need to make a choice.

His question is an appealing one. The problem, which even he acknowedges, is that people might like the abstract idea of "citizenship" but don't really know how to pursue it. (Shopping, on the other hand, is fairy concrete.)

Richard Stengel from Time CNN writes about much the same problem, noting that "today the two central acts of democratic citizenship are voting and paying taxes. That's basically it." To his mind, one solution would be a national service program. "It is the simple but compelling idea that devoting a year or more to national service, whether military or civilian, should become a countrywide rite of passage, the common expectation and widespread experience of virtually every young American."

Such service would not be "mandatory or compulsory," he writes, but nevertheless should be "universal." How he would accomplish that trick is anybody's guess, since things that aren't mandatory can rarely be made universal.

Actually, this topic has been on my mind a bit. Last year at Thanksgiving, my son brought two friends home from school, one Korean and the other German. As they helped themselves to turkey and cranberry dressing, we talked a little about their lives back home. It came out that, when their schooling in the States ends and they go home, both will serve mandatory stints of national service. Both expect to be assigned to military units, though apparently other options exist for the physically disabled.

Why don't we have such a requirement, in this land of so much flag-waving, yellow-ribbon-tying, bumper-sticker-flaunting patriotism? My guess is that a national service requirement would strike American parents as unpleasantly socialistic. It would also strike them as economically disadvantaging, since their young strivers would have to slow down for a year to work not for their own betterment, but for the nation's. But it's an interesting idea nonetheless, both for the real benefits it would create for the participants and for the questions it would force us all to ask: Do we really have a national community? And if so, do we owe it anything?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Those Jews Are So Smart

Now here's an interesting piece. It's by Charles Murray of Bell Curve fame, who posits that 1) Jews are on average more intelligent than other groups, 2) that their superior intelligence is due to hereditary factors and not cultural or environmental ones, and 3) that there are long and involved reasons going back to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem for why this should be so.

I for one am perfectly happy to believe that Jews are pretty darn intelligent. They are, as Murray points out, very much overrepresented among the business, academic and cultural elite of our society, and no doubt for excellent reason. And I believe that Murray has made an honest attempt at figuring out why they're so smart (though reasons seem to be cultural in themselves, having to do with the ancient turn away from ritualistic religious expression and toward scholasticism, when Jews who weren't literate enough to read and interpret the Torah just kind of stopped being Jews, to save themselves the humiliation).

But this is beside the point. Murray was pilloried after The Bell Curve for the racism people thought was inherent in his argument that blacks as a group are less intelligent than whites (and that Asians are more intelligent than either).

Accusations flew from all sides, most especially about the appropriateness of relying on IQ scores as a credible measure of intelligence, when we all know very well that throughout American history different classes and races have had very different educational and cultural experiences.

This is what I'm thinking: It's fine and good to signal out a particular group, such as Jews or Asians, for being unusual in some way or other. How did they get to be so unusual, we might want to know. An interesting question. Maybe even a useful one.

But when the issue is intelligence, which Murray claims is practically immutable, the question inevitably becomes: who is this group more intelligent than? And how does this inferior group feel upon hearing the news of their inferiority? Is it likely to be helpful somehow, or just hurtful? Could there be something socially constructive about making such an observation, and then backing it up with reams of statistics that lend it the patina of unchallengeable Science?

All news, of course, doesn't have to be good news, and not everyone should be protected from the truth, if the truth can be ascertained. But science, like medicine, should do no harm. And invidious comparisons between racial groups can't do otherwise, can it? Not in our society, where blacks and Hispanics still constitute an underclass and whites are up in arms about the brown people flowing in over the borders. I would think Murray would be smart enough, if you'll excuse the word, to know that.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Trying to Figure Out the Mormon Story

I happen to live down the road from a Mormon chapel, which may be why, perusing the used books at a neighbor's yard sale over the weekend, I came across a copy of The Book of Mormon. I'm a big fan of book sales of any kind, the more eclectic and shabby the better, but I've never encountered this particular book anywhere. My curiosity was piqued. Aside from seeing a few episodes of Big Love, I don't know much about Mormonism. So, for 25 cents, I snapped it up.

The introduction of The Book of Mormon calls it "comparable to the Bible," and explains that its centerpiece is a description of Christ's ministry right here in North America, which he supposedly undertook sometime after his more famous ministry in the Holy Land. His followers, whom I suppose we'd call the ancient Americans, were actually transplants from Jerusalem, ordered by God to board a ship and make the perilous voyage over some 600 years before Jesus' birth. But even before they landed the immigrants began splitting into two groups, one godly and the other evil. Over the innumerable generations that followed, the two sides fought bitterly. The godly were killed but some of the evil ones survived. The descendants of those evil ones are today's American Indians.

Well. I've read 30 pages or so, and plan on giving the story a respectful hearing. It deserves as much, and far be it from me to suggest that the Mormon story is any more or less preposterous than the stories that other religions tell. But this is what I find intriguing: unlike other major religions, this one was born in modern times - the gold plates upon which these surprising facts were inscribed were said to be discovered in the 1820s in New York State, and the finder, Joseph Smith, is hardly the mystery that Jesus is. Indeed, he left quite a paper trail behind him, not all of it entirely flattering to a prophet. Which makes me wonder where today's Mormons, Mitt Romney among them, stands on some of the less savory or even way-out bizarre aspects of Mormon history. (For instance, are we to take seriously Smith's revelation that Jackson County, Missouri, is the once and future Garden of Eden? If so, I'd imagine the county's planners are going to want to factor that into their growth projections. And I hate to even think of the theme park possibilities.)

For now, I'm seeing at least one lesson here: for easy believing, perhaps it's best to stick with religious figures shrouded in the mists of time. They don't leave behind records of law suits, or newspaper stories that document them scrambling out of windows to escape the wrath of angry mobs.

Oh, one more thing. I'll bet Romney doesn't win the Native American vote. I'm just saying.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

One Man's Trash Is Another Man's ... AMC Gremlin

I'm proud to announce that I've won a very special sort of prize. Only a very small percent of the population could be as lucky! What is it????

Well ... hold on to your hats. I've been the owner of three - yes, three - of the ugliest cars in history. The thrill! I mean, I knew they were ugly. Yes, I did! Only, I didn't know others would come to consider their ugliness a sort of a ... status symbol, or something. To be ugly enough to become a cultural icon - well, that's something special.

According to Yahoo Finance, Hagerty Insurance, the largest provider of insurance to classic-car collectors, recently polled its policyholders, asking them to name the 10 ugliest cars of all time. Cars so ugly, they may actually be worth collecting. Here's what they said:

1. The AMC Pacer. "Zero to sixty in four-and-a-half hours. AMC's only conceivable excuse for this stylistic horror would be if their design crew was tripping on massive quantities of acid, and even then it wouldn't be a good excuse." I resent this. The Pacer was my third car, and it was EXCELLENT for stuffing to the gills when I went to college. I loved my Pacer. It was a pretty blue, and I washed it every weekend, and it only broke down occasionally. I ended up selling it to buy a ticket to Australia, to chase an ex-boyfriend. So, hey, it was kind of worth it.

2. Chevolet Chevette. Voter's comment: "It was so underpowered, you had to shift down with the AC on to climb the slightest hill. Everything was too small inside, and the dash looked like a 12-year-old designed it. Owned it a year and laughed when I sold it!"

3. Ford Edsel. Voter's comment: "Gas-guzzling, three-ton behemoth with a toilet seat grill and inexplicably tacky push-button transmission shifting. The standard by which all other automotive brand failures have been judged (and ridiculed) for 50 years."

4. AMC Matador. Voter's comment: "The Matador coupe had those bug-ugly front lights and the strange rear-end design treatment. It's hard to imagine a car that large having so little interior space. A total waste of steel (and glass, and plastic, and rubber...)."

5. Chevrolet Corvair. This is the car that gave Ralph Nadar a cause! Voter's comment: "They were all death traps. If you got rear-ended, they burst into flames. If you got into a sideways slide, the tires blew off the rims and they rolled over."

6. AMC Gremin. Voter's comment: "The most hideously ill-proportioned car of all time." But the Gremlin was okay. Another $200 gift from the parents. This is the car that had to last for years, through the end of college and into my first job in another part of the country. Bright yellow. Yeah, baby.

7. Chevrolet Vega. Voter's comment: "A car that began to rust on the showroom floor brought a whole new meaning to the term 'Planned Obsolescence.'" Now you're talking. This was my very first car, bought for me by my parents for a big $200. It was a shiny red hatchback. It did burn a little oil, I have to admit, and then, eventually, the engine melted. But, up until then, it was all good.

8. Pontiac Aztec. Voter's comment: "The only car that can make a Pacer wagon look good."

9. Ford Pinto. Voter's comment: "Underpowered, cheap plastic, bodies prone to rust...oh, yeah, they blow up, too."

10. Yugo. Voter's comment: "You couldn't get scrap-metal money even if it was running."

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