Saturday, May 26, 2007

Lay Off Pelosi

OK, the Democratic leadership in Congress has handed the President what he wanted, a war funding bill with no deadlines for bringing the troops home. And everybody on both sides of the argument is lambasting them for wimping out.

First of all, give them credit for trying. They sent him a funding bill with withdrawal deadlines (the first one since this mess began) and he vetoed it. They tried for over a week to negotiate something better; our Fearless Leader laid his ears back, planted his front feet, and brayed at them. I agree with them that they couldn't allow combat troops to run out of money; and nobody knows better than Pelosi and Reid that they don't have the votes to override the president's veto unless they get a large number of Republican defectors. Right now, the Repubs are standing firm.

Second, the Democrats aren't done with this. Note that Pelosi did not vote for the final bill she took to the floor. Note also that this bill funds the war only through September; a mere 4 months. The issue will be back; and next time, there'll be 4 more months of disasters to make the Republicans nervous about continuing their support for this fiasco. The closer we get to the 2008 elections, the queasier the Republicans up for re-election will become. Some of them are already queasy. Get enough of them nervous enough and a veto override begins to look possible; I'm sure that's what Pelosi and Reid are aiming toward.

Frankly, if the troops in Iraq can bring this mess to a stable, successful conclusion by the end of September, Bush almost deserves to claim his "victory." But if they can, I'll pick out one of my hats and eat it.

Liars' Loans

After reading this AP article on some of the victims of the subprime loan industry's poor judgment, I've about concluded that, of all the different volunteer opportunities I'm considering doing in retirement, the single most socially useful thing I can do is teach basic financial literacy through Operation Hope. The people who were suckered into these loans did things I've known were stupid since I was about fourteen - like, signing blank loan applications and returning them to the mortgage broker. Some of the people interviewed for the article didn't see the applications again until after they had signed up for loans - at which time they discovered they were credited on the loan applications with income they didn't have, jobs they didn't have, and assets they didn't have. These people have now lost what little they did have, and ruined what credit they had, to boot.

[Ed. note:] Checking back on this post 10 years later, I find that the link to an AP article in the first paragraph is no longer valid.  This 2007 article in the Washington Post covers the same incident:  Neighborhood Swayed by 'Liar's Loans'

The other characteristic of the group covered in the article that left a very nasty taste in my mouth was the fact that the loan brokers who screwed over this particular group of people, mostly low-income women in Boston, operated out of the basement of the Victory Chapel Church. I don't recall the article noting that they made any particular point about being associated with the church; but I'm quite sure that the people in the neighborhood assumed that, if the church rented the basement to them, they must be OK.

Speaking of basic financial literacy, let me remind us all about the word "assume" - it's the word that "makes an ass out of u and me".

The Victory Chapel Church isn't the first religious institution that has been used as the operating base for a scam artist, by any means. In the early eighties, a firm called Lendvest operated out of Napa, California (my home town), and eventually became the center of a massive scandal surrounding bankruptcies and unsecured loans, as well as drug trafficking and at least one suspected murder. All this data is from a very brief Google search, I haven't researched it in detail, and I wasn't living in Napa at the time. However, some of the neighbors I grew up with in Napa lost a large portion of their life savings in the Lendvest mess, and my recollection is that they bought into it because their contact at Lendvest was a member of their church and a "good man." Of course, they also bought into it because it was promising ridiculously high rates of return.

Speaking of basic financial literacy again, they forgot the basic TANSTAAFL principle: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

To put it another way, the world is not full of people standing around waiting to give you money out of the goodness of their hearts. If it looks too good to be true, you have to assume it is too good to be true. The people pushing the loans discussed in the AP article were falsifying loan documents in order to make big transaction fees on high interest subprime mortgages; the fact that the borrowers were going to lose their shirts in about 18 months when the loan rates adjusted was irrelevant to them. Frankly, I hope they all go to jail.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

R.I.P. Jerry Falwell

I'm not sure I have much to add to the numerous comments on the life and contributions of the late Rev. Falwell. But it always bothered me that someone whose primary public comments always centered on hate, vengeance, and punishment, had the chutzpah to call himself a Christian. I no longer consider myself a Christian, for reasons I won't go into here; but I grew up in the faith, and I remember principles like, "Love your neighbor as yourself", "Do unto others as ye would that they should do unto you," "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" - I could go on, but you get the idea. Jerry Falwell seemed to me to belong to an entirely different religion. I certainly wouldn't bet money that he had ever read the New Testament.

If you look back over American history, though, you'll see that from time to time the country, or parts of it, goes through these fits of religious fervor. The first one, of course, was the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which the Puritan fathers ran as a theocracy, after leaving both England and the Netherlands because they were insufficiently moral and pure. I firmly believe that the memory of the Puritan rule in Massachusetts has a great deal to do with the separation of church and state in the Constitution.

These episodes weren't all bad: we owe the end of slavery to one of them. We also owe Prohibition to one of them, a very mixed blessing; and I'm convinced we also owe the current "War on Drugs" and "Right to Life" movements to the same turn of mind, which says, "you can't do that because we believe it's wrong, and because we believe it's wrong we're also going to make it illegal." Adherents of this position don't usually state the "we believe", either - they just say, "this is wrong."

The late Rev. Falwell fits right into this tradition. I wonder what he found when he finally go to the great Other Side. Speak no ill of the dead; which really means I have to stop right here.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Comments on Democracy

I don't go in much for stand-up comedy. The likely incidence of profanity, vulgarity (I get so tired of the "F word"), and humor based on the humiliation of others, is too high for my taste. So I've never see a Josh Kornbluth show; and probably I never will. But Jon Carroll quoted him on Wednesday, from a new show called "Citizen Josh", and his comment on democracy is one of the best descriptions I've ever heard or read. Here it is:
"In a democracy, you have to be both the ruler and the ruled. You have to fight the man, and you have to be the man."
That is just about where it's at.


I just realized that I have an anniversary of sorts coming up. On Memorial Day weekend in 2000, I turned to walk across the room to the table for dinner, and something went "pop" in my left knee. That was the last day until sometime in 2006 that I could walk without any possibility of pain. We had planned a 3 week tour of New England in the fall of 2000, and I did it on crutches, with my left knee in a brace. A hideously uncomfortable brace, let me add; even custom leg braces do not fit well on fat thighs.

Three surgeries, two painful rehabs, and five years of weight training and water aerobics later, I have two working (artificial) knees, I can walk better than I have in years (even before the "pop", my knees were compromised - the first X-rays showed advanced osteoarthritis in both knee joints; the "pop", although painful, was actually incidental, a torn meniscus). And, by the way, I'm in better shape than I think I've ever been in my life.

Does this count as lemonade? I think it does. Strangely, the state of California still considers me permanently disabled; I got my 2007-2009 handicapped placard in the mail this week. I don't need it; I wouldn't dream of using it now; but there it is. I'll have to ask my doctor about it.

I think what I'm trying to say here is, we never know what's going to happen, or when; and all we can do is cope with it as best we can. Am I proud of how I've coped with this? You bet!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

In the Bowels of Christ

A well-known remark of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentary New Model Army in England's 17th century Civil War, comes from a letter he wrote to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650:
I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.
I remembered this as I read a recent article in the Economist about the current travails of Paul Wolfowitz. ("Wolfowitz agonistes," May 3, 2007 edition) I'm not linking it since the Economist, online or print, is a fairly expensive subscription, but it's worth looking for the copy in the library.

This article quotes Mr. Wolfowitz to the effect that he is
the victim of a “smear campaign” designed “to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that I am an ineffective leader.”
He claims that he didn't want to be involved in the details of his girlfriend's compensation, but the directors made him do it; the charges against him are "unfair and untrue"; and on and on to the effect that he is right and everyone else is not only wrong but is wrongly conspiring against him.

I realized that Mr. Wolfowitz is a man who is cannot think it possible he may be mistaken. In fact, this is a characteristic of the entire neoconservative inner circle. Think about them: Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Feith. The architects of the war in Iraq, believing their own convictions in the face of every fact, every implication to the contrary; manufacturing evidence to support their beliefs when the real evidence failed them. It never occurs to them that they may be wrong, and this is why they are dangerous.

I have deliberately left President Bush out of this list. I don't believe he is a member of the neoconservative inner circle; he is virtually the only member of his original administration who did not sign the Statement of Principles of the Project for the New American Century. Read the list of signers. His brother Jeb signed it; but he didn't. He holds his position because the neoconservatives judged, rightly, that he was malleable enough to take direction as long as he was allowed to appear to lead.

Most of us, who know we're capable of making mistakes, will stop to reconsider the situation occasionally and see if what we're doing still makes sense; not the man who knows he is never wrong. If you are never wrong, you can fall into the dangerous trap of assuming the the ends (because you are Right) justify the means: and so we come to Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib; warrantless wiretapping in America, and sectarian murder in the neighborhoods of Baghdad - because the neoconservatives are never wrong.

It's probably unreasonable to require that no one be elected to high office unless he has publicly admitted at least one major error of judgment; but it might be safer for the country. Harry Truman had gone through bankruptcy; and although he took a lot of flack while he was in office, in retrospect, his judgment looks pretty sound.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

I seem to have developed a sleep disorder. To be exact, I've been tested for sleep apnea - for those of you who haven't met this personally, you quit breathing for various (brief) durations during sleep, and then start again with a gasp. You don't usually wake up, although you may wake your bedmate up, as this is often associated with snoring. It does interrupt your sleep; you don't always realize it.

The day-to-day effect of this is that you're tired, all the time; you never feel as though you've had enough sleep. A secondary side effect, for me, is that I get uncontrollable urges to fall asleep whenever I'm mildly (or more) bored. Falling asleep in meetings is merely embarrassing. Falling asleep at the wheel while commuting to work is potentially fatal. I spent several months literally fighting to stay awake at the wheel, fortunately never coming to grief. But it's a very unpleasant feeling.

Then I had to attend a meeting in San Francisco (driving was completely out of the question; do you know how much
parking costs there??), and discovered by accident that my exercise program has brought me back to the point that I can walk to the BART station in under 20 minutes. (Not much under...) This is the breakeven point that says, hey, you can ride the train to work, and you get another 40 minutes a day to read the paper. Also, with the new in-ear earphones I got, I can listen to my iPod on BART. The downside is an extra half hour of commute every day (15 minutes at each end).

But I was still tired all the time, so I sent my doctor an email (thank you, Kaiser, for secure email) asking, why am I so tired all the time, when all the blood tests come back normal? And my doctor said, have you been having trouble sleeping? Has your partner noticed anything? So, I asked my husband, and he said, "Oh, yeah, you have sleep apnea; I've had to shake you a couple of times." (He claims he told me this, but if he did, I don't remember...)

I reported this to the doc, and the next thing I know I have an appointment to be tested. Being tested entails wearing a small computer unit on your arm all night (as the nurse said, we don't care if you sleep all night or not but we insist you wear the box for at least 8 hours), hooked up to an oximeter on one finger and a blood pressure cuff on another. This wasn't especially easy to get used to, and the day after I was even more tired, but I caught up the next night.

I haven't heard the test results; this isn't like blood tests where you get an email sometimes the same day. But depending on the results, I may have to learn to sleep with a mask on - attached to a CPAP machine. (Google it; there are lots of sites.) The best of these masks looks like a dust mask; the worst looks like a full-face gas mask; and it's attached by a hose to a machine on the night stand. And they're all kept on with a sort of harness of straps. They don't look at all comfortable to sleep in; but I'm told the result is worth it. I'm hoping this will all just go away.