Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Shaky Economics and the Poor

Supply Side Bulge

I know some of you hated economics in college, so please forgive the graph. But read on. Trust me, it's relevant. And even if your palms get clammy at the sight of the Laffer Curve above you'll find the post below easy to follow.

Wanted to return to the issue of the morality of the federal budget and how it affects poor people. You can check out "Moral Budgets" (November 05) for the first part of the discussion.

What Shook Out

Congress will ratify the new federal budget as soon as tomorrow.

It's not as bad as it could have been, mostly due to the opposition of justice activists and a few key players in both political parties. Dr. John Perkins, the seemingly ageless founder of Harambee Christian Family Center and the Christian Community Development Association, was among those arrested a few weeks ago in D.C. protesting the proposed budget.

Things have sure changed these days at Harambee.

But the new budget will still be pretty harsh.

The quick summary: dramatic cuts in a whole variety of bedrock programs for the poor and extended tax breaks and benefits for the "investment" class (i.e, the well off :^). Not to mention lots of big ticket pork barrel projects and big scratch for the wars we're now fighting against tribal enemies who might someday threaten us with the nuclear weapons that we originally developed

The Congressional Budget Office just released a study that showed the specific effects of the new budget on health care for the poor: "...millions of low-income people would have to pay more for health care under the bill worked out by Congress, and some of them would forego care or drop out of Medicaid because of the higher co-payments and premiums."

Real world translation: A whole lot of the poorest people are likely to go without medical care because of the new budget. And that's just one of the many negative effects for the poor.

The Magic of Supply Side Economics

Why would moral and thoughtful people who genuinely want to help the poor pass a budget like that? I believe some of the folks who voted for it fit that description.

The simplest answer? They genuinely believe that cutting even effective programs for the poor and giving tax cuts to wealthy people help the poor by creating economic growth and more jobs for everybody. They also think cutting aid to the poor gives them incentive to get out and work, thus benefiting poor people morally and adding to the economic growth that helps everybody. Finally, they believe that by cutting taxes on the investment class overall tax revenues will increase as economic growth expands. In effect, the tax cuts for the rich will "pay for themselves."

The ideology driving the congressional majority and our executive branch is a version of supply-side economics. Many supply siders unfortunately appear to be true believers. One of the economics editors of The Economist recently described the Bush White House as "an administration that truly believes that tax cuts for the wealthy and benefits cuts for the poor will solve almost any problem."

I guess I'd like to ask at least one key question in evaluating supply-side federal budgets like the one Congress will ratify tomorrow.

Is there clear and obvious evidence that giving further tax breaks to the wealthy and cutting benefits to the poor enhances overall economic performance and creates more jobs and overall wages for the poor?

Clearly, no moral person would support a budget that cuts beneficial programs for poor people unless they were very sure those cuts would bring substantial benefits that would outweigh the suffering caused by the cuts.

What About the Evidence?

That same edition of The Economist contained a fascinating article which carefully looked at the economic data from the past 5 years in the US.

They concluded that there is little if any evidence that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy generated substantially greater economic activity or more jobs or wages for the poor.

Further, they challenged the idea that supply side tax cuts for the wealthy will "pay for themselves" through increased economic activity. That's important because supply siders make that pitch in selling tax cuts for the rich and benefits cuts for the poor.

The fact is the hard evidence simply won't support such a claim.

Remember, The Economist isn't MoveOn.org. It's arguably the world's leading market oriented publication.

The historical record of the US economy during the last 50 years and basic comparisons with other world economies also cast some doubt on supply side claims.

It's true that punitively high tax rates on the investment class and unrealistically generous welfare programs for the poor and other groups in a society can slow economic growth and therefore can inadvertentely hurt a lot of people.

But, of course, that's not the situation we're dealing with in the US right now. As I've mentioned before, our tax rates on the well off are among the lowest in the developed world and our social benefits for the poor are among the least generous.

When you look back on the track record of the US economy, it's fairly obvious that the economy flourished at times when income and investment taxes on the wealthy were signficantly higher and useful social programs for the poor were more generous than they are now.

Very strong economies in the 60's and 90's boomed in the midst of non-supply side tax codes and budgets. Whatever you might think of Bill Clinton's personal morality, more wealth was generated during his years in office and more people rose out of poverty than at any time in recent memory.

The economic situation of the poor in America has declined by pretty much every measure during the Bush years just as they did during the supply side Reagan years.

So I'd argue the evidence is tenuous at best that cutting benefits for the poor and taxes for the wealthy actually helps the poor.

Getting Out Ahead of the Curve

Why is all that important? Well, for those of us who are less ideologically oriented and who are interested in the plight of the poor, I think we've got to evaluate who we're supporting and how we're voting. And I believe that's true no matter what our political orientation might be.

And for those of you who are passionate supporters of supply side thinking--particularly if you're trying to advocate for the poor--maybe a little less passion and a little more honesty would be in order.

Advocating for approaches that cause real suffering for poor families without clearly creating benefits that outweigh that suffering might turn out to be pretty counterproductive.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Jacob Have I Loved But Esau Have I Hated

Jan and I got a chance to see "Capote." A pretty remarkable flick.

It's a movie about writing a book. Hard to think of a topic less likely to sell tickets. Definitely not aimed at the adolescent crowd of all ages that keeps the multi-plex flexing.

Anyway, “Capote” tells the story of American author Truman Capote’s effort to write his novel In Cold Blood in the mid 60’s. All of us during my teen and college years read the book to qualify for thinking person status. It was that groundbreaking and important.

Truman Capote

Here’s the stripped down plot.

Brilliant, liberal and gay Truman Capote hears about some brutal murders in Kansas in the late 50’s. He travels there to write an article for The New Yorker about the killings but soon realizes he’s onto the novel of a lifetime. His research assistant is childhood friend and fellow novelist Harper Lee, who published “To Kill a Mockingbird” during the many years Capote struggled to write In Cold Blood.

The back story is that most folks in 50’s Leave it to Beaver America--the more obvious and willfully naïve grandfather of Leave it to Bush America—don't want to recognize that evil has a foothold in America or that the American story is disturbingly human and complicated.

The facts at the heart of the book:

Two drifters--Perry Smith and Dick Hickock--break into the home of an upstanding and religious Kansas family intent on robbing them. They tie up the family and look for anything of value. They come up with about $50.

Though they initially have no intentions of killing the family they end up brutally murdering all of them for no obvious reason.

Capote tries to tell that story and make sense of it.

Perry Smith and Dick Hickock

In the process he ends up befriending one of the killers and puts his fame and influence behind a legal effort to get them a fair trial.

Capote had two motives.

Cynically, he wants to keep them alive long enough to get Smith to tell him the raw details of the killings so he can finish what most people now consider to be the world’s first “non-fiction novel.” Capote wants to be “great” and he knows he’ll go down in history if he can finish the book. He turns out to be right.

He also genuinely comes to care for Perry as he gets to know him and his life story. He recognizes that the two of them are very much alike and that "there but for the grace of God go I."

Both Capote and the killer come out of “red state” broken homes. Both are artistic and creative. Both want to make an impact. Perry has already written a pathetic speech he can give when he does the praiseworthy and valuable thing he believes he's destined to do. Capote loves applause and milks his time in front of a crowd--whether large or small--for all it's worth.

At one point Capote says to Harper Lee, “ Perry and I came out of the same house. He went out the back door and I went out the front.”

Perry eventually tells Capote the details and the truth. Capote then cuts off communication with Perry, publishes his novel, and becomes world famous. Perry gives his speech on the gallows and then he and Hickock are hanged. As a result, Capote falls into a deep depression and never writes another book.

It’s Shakespearian. I'm one of those people who believe real life is normally more interesting than fiction, though I guess sometimes the best fiction does ok as well :^)

Lots of themes in the movie. Sophisticated and supposedly secular urban America (something we're now told to call “blue” America) in contrast with supposedly fundamentalist and traditional "red" America. The moral and personal compromises people make in order to create a career, and in this case, high art. Self absorbed and self-serving journalism--now even more prevalent on the right than the left. The dangerous illusion that evil doesn't exist. The currently unsolvable puzzle of evil--what the New Testament calls "the mystery of iniquity."

But mostly, the mystery of why people turn out the way they do.

Some of the deepest biblical voices believed that the fate of individual people and even nations didn't really rest in their own hands.

"As it is written, 'Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.' What then are we to say? Is God unjust?...For God said to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So it doesn't depend on human desire or effort, but on God who shows mercy." Romans 9:13-16

I don't do many movie reviews, but since the Academy Awards are around the corner and since this particular flick moved me more than any I've seen in a while, I thought I'd give you a heads up. Definitely worth a look.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Ditch Day

I blew off work today and went snowshoeing. Conditions were really good. Took a 15 mile round trip plow from the mountain town of Eldora to just below the Continental Divide at King Lake. I was by myself all day in the wilderness except for a x-country skier who shussed past me near the trailhead

Some pics:

The trailhead for King Lake begins at the end of the road in Eldora.

Mountain hippies took over Eldora in the 60’s and they still reign. Lots of 60 year old mountain mommas with long grey hair and weathered faces walking their dogs. Falling down and fading log cabins.

On the way back from King Lake I stopped for a minute to rest.

Complete silence.

No birds, no wind, no animals, no people, no sound.

Scary. Wonderful.

King Lake is just a short slog from both "Betty Lake" and "Bob Lake."

Yes, those are the actual names on the US Geological Survey Map. I'm guessing some white couple from Nebraska named them way back when. Even today you can still submit requests to the USGS to name previously unnamed geological features. Some stuff remains tag-less. Given the growing ethnic diversity in Colorado I expect to climb a "Tameeka" Peak or cross a "Mohammed" Creek before long....

Monday, January 23, 2006

Letting Go of Roe V Wade

Scary Sam

I promised a few posts ago to take on certain left leaning bloggers.

I’m no particular fan of the left, though I have such reservations about the current religiously-fortified political and cultural right that I’m sure I appear a leftist to some.

My real sympathies go to an historical Anabaptist Christian approach.

After reading a lot of “Emerging Church” literature I realize I’ve been an "emerging Christian" for 30 years. Post-modern Christians like to take the best from every Christian tradition and try to create a new and more relevant practice out of the best chunks of the past. As naïve as that approach may turn out to be, I’m pretty sympathetic. But even the most sympathetic of us have to emphasize some of the old fragments over others.

Those of us who identify with Anabaptist thinking and feeling are “Christian Anarchists” who believe that political parties and movements almost always claim way too much for themselves.

People influenced by the Anabaptist tradition are concerned for humility and practical service to others and are deeply suspicious of overconfident ideologies and concentrations of power.

In the first three centuries Christian Anarchy was simply “The Way,” but after the ‘conversion’ of the Roman Emperor Constantine the leaders of the Christian church for the most part became cheerleaders and enablers for the latest worldly powers and ideologies.

I’ve found myself—on this blog and on some others--pushing positions identified with the left because about 80% of American evangelicals identify themselves with right wing political and economic ideology. A friend said to me during a phone call a few days ago, “Seems like you need a Republican National Committee membership and a subscription to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times to qualify for church membership these days.” From my point of view she’s honest and has her eyes open

The actual Christian church—not the invisible and authentic thing so beloved by serious theologians--always finds a way to enthusiastically support whoever is currently in power and whatever the current “cutting edge” cultural thinking happens to be.

War lords, kings, dictators, democrats, socialism, communism, capitalism, slave owners, synthetic diapers and supply side economics—no matter. The actual church has embraced them all and passionately supported them with biblical arguments as long as they represented the powerful or the cutting edge.

I’m trying to encourage alternative thinking among those who seem to have confused current American conservatism with biblical faith. Out of my frustration with some people who should know better I’ve gone overboard a time or two.

But I’m always game to question goofiness of any stripe. Including, sometimes, my own :^)

Sam Alito and the Supreme Court

Some of the leftist blogs I’ve been reading lead you to believe that Sam Alito’s likely confirmation to the Supreme Court will usher in a “dark age” when we all get screwed and lose most of our cherished civil rights.

I don’t think so. Might be time to calm down.

I agree that Alito appears to be a constitutional "fundamentalist" along with Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

These guys tend to want to interpret the Constitution like religious fundamentalists interpret the Bible. Go back to the original intent of the original authors at the original time they wrote it. Stick with that take and all else being equal you’ll probably do ok.

Personally I think that’s an unrealistic way to interpret documents. Even mainstream American evangelicals recognize that “original intent” can only play a key but limited role in interpreting and applying biblical texts.

And in the case of Christian fundamentalists, at least those folks believe the texts they’re interpreting came directly from God with little human or cultural mediation. It makes their misguided if well meaning approach to interpreting the Bible understandable.

I’m not among those who think the US Constitution came directly from God to the mostly Enlightenment informed and deistic founders of the United States.

So I’m not a fan of constitutional fundamentalism on the Supreme Court. Particularly when it’s usually little more than an unconvincing ideological covering for simple conservative politics and culture.

In any case, in spite of my misgivings about Alito, confirming him isn’t going to end the world as we know it. My leftist friends should take a deep breath.

He’ll probably take the court a little more to the right. Ho hum.

The court has sometimes leaned to the left then leaned to the right.

Mostly the court stays around the middle which is what it will probably do with Alito on board. He and Scalia and Roberts clearly respect precedent. Only Thomas has so far shown himself unable or unwilling to get beyond judicial fundamentalism.

The Left Versus Roe Versus Wade

If “Scalito” scares a lot of leftist bloggers, the reversal of Roe V Wade makes em crazy.

I honestly don’t get the panic.

To begin with, a true reversal on Roe V Wade is pretty unlikely. The Supremes--other than maybe Thomas--respect precedent in varying degrees. And they know the decisive majority of Americans favor abortion rights even after 30 years of the "culture wars." So it’s hard to imagine the Court over-ruling that decision. They may make small and incremental changes to Roe V Wade but probably nothing more.

But even if a new Supreme Court decided to overthrow Roe V Wade, I’m not sure that would be such a bad thing for the left or for abortion rights activists.

Here’s why:

1. I think Roe V Wade was a pretty shaky legal decision in the first place. Liberals might want to make their stand on more solid ground.

2. Roe V Wade energized conservatives more than almost anything I can think of. Traditional conservatism in America has always been about the belief that godless elites are using centralized federal power to force the average and the good to bow the knee.

It goes back at least as far as Southern succession from the Union. The concept of states rights came out of a very American insistence on individual rights and a suspicion of large concentrations of power. The current conservative movement has focused on the Supreme Court as the battleground between traditional religious and local freedom versus what they consider to be arrogant and secular federal power. And because a lot of them are very religious, the whole debate takes on an apocalyptic tenor. That tenor and tone are great for turning out voters but maybe not so great for thoughtful and life giving solutions.

3. Overturning Roe V Wade would slow and dissipate the current conservative political movement. Some of the religious conservatives would no longer have a strong reason to support the secular libertarians and the secular business community in their tenuous alliance of convenience. A number of people I know who voted conservative in the last two elections simply would not have done so if not for the Supreme Court/abortion issue.

4. If the debate about abortion was returned to the states, the conservatives would have to be more responsible in their approach to that issue. At this point they can make irresponsible arguments about abortion because they don’t have to face their fellow citizens in a real local election. Ironically, Roe V Wade has given conservatives shelter and allowed them the traditional advantage of the “romantic outsider.”

5. If the issue of abortion rights returned to the states, most of the citizens of the country would have pretty much the same abortion rights as they do right now. In some places they would probably have even more extensive rights and in other places more restricted rights. Various states would probably enjoy and suffer the consequences of their collective decisions. I would guess the states with more restrictive abortion laws might find themselves at an economic disadvantage. The free market conservatives and the religious conservatives in those places might even find themselves in conflict.

6. The best result of overturning Roe V Wade might be the chance that evangelical Christians would stop fixating on abortion and turn their attention to other equally important issues.

We might even return to a time when evangelicals felt free to think in diverse ways about culture and politics. I'd welcome that change with open arms. Younger evangelicals probably don't remember that kind of intellectual and social freedom. Some of us do. It wasn't that long ago.

Any or all of the outcomes I've mentioned would likely advance the interests of the moderates and the left. It might even advance the interests of the authentic church.

Is anybody talking about this kind of scenario on leftist blogs? So far, from what I've seen, it's a lot of "the end is near" stuff. Maybe the liberals are more religious and apocalyptic then they think. Sometimes you become what you hate in spite of yourself.

I'm pretty sure "the end" isn't near. But even if it is, I guess the most relevant question might be, "the end of what?"

Sunday, January 22, 2006

In Deeper

Game Day Totems

A follow up post to "Let's Get Mental"

I took this game day shot just down the block. Lots of this kind of thing around town.

The Broncos lost 34-17 to the Steelers today in the AFC title game.

Andrew and I played basketball together at a local rec center during the game and then caught the last quarter with a bunch of guys in the rec center tv room. Better a doer than a watcher be, I guess.

Some of the guys in the room were upset and disappointed with the game. Some were philosophical. Two of 'em were glad to see the Broncos lose because they grew up in Denver and think the whole pro football thing here is silly.

I listened to some local radio stations after the game to see how fans felt about the loss.

I love living here and I've tried to jump in with both feet, but sometimes I still feel like a sociologist sympathetically examining an unexpectedly different culture.

People spoke about the loss as if it really meant something to them personally. I liked a lot of what they said because it so obviously came from the heart. Very few people got into blaming players on the Broncos who didn't play well. I was pretty surprised by that.

The "wrap-up" show guy on the main Broncos radio station listened for a couple of hours to every kind of call and he did a nice job helping people get some perspective. Every ten minutes or so he would play Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy."

After watching that last quarter with those guys in the rec center and listening to the post-game reactions I think I'll watch the whole game the next time the Broncos get into the playoffs. Maybe it's time to jump in even deeper.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Let's Get Mental

Psychosis is a generic psychiatric term for mental states in which the components of rational thought and perception are severely impaired. Persons experiencing a psychosis may hold delusional beliefs…. This is often accompanied by lack of insight into the unusual or bizarre nature of such behavior…. A psychotic episode is often described as involving a "loss of contact with reality".

Bronco Mania rules Denver. Our local pro football team plays the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday at Mile High Stadium in the AFC championship game. If the Broncos win they go to the Super Bowl.

Pro football fans here get mental on a regular basis. Denver sports fans, in general, are some of the most committed in the country.

It really gets weird around town during the week leading up to the games.

Adults of both genders dress up in Broncos jerseys and colors. And I mean, a lot of people. The Broncos wear blue and orange, so the metro area gets pretty ugly during the playoffs. Even some owners of dogs and cats give their pets "the look."

Colorado Governor Bill Owens and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper have officially asked every person in Colorado to wear orange this coming Friday to show "solidarity with the Broncos."

And remember, the Broncos are only playing for the AFC title. If they win and actually go to the Super Bowl I'm pretty worried what the governor and mayor may do. Maybe pass a law that requires everyone in Colorado to wear a Broncos helmet and an orange jock strap all week leading up to the game?

Fake beards are big around town too. Jake Plummer, the Broncos quarterback, wears an unkempt Grizzly Adams beard. So now some folks--including women and children--are wearing bogus chin rugs.

Back in LA, lots of fans would put little purple and yellow Lakers flags on their cars during one of the teams’ many NBA Finals appearances. Decking your car out with a little flag in Denver only qualifies you as a lukewarm weenie.

To get with the indigenous people along the Front Range you’ve gotta get a Broncos banner up on your garage door and front door and you've gotta stick a little Broncos yard sign in your lawn.

One guy in a town just south of Denver permanently turned the façade of his home into a mini replica of Mile High Stadium. It's an in-state tourist attraction.

It gets weirder still.

A surgeon who lives just north of Denver offered a free vasectomy in exchange for two tickets to the game this weekend against the Steelers.

Now there’s a great deal. You give up your semi-priceless tickets and get neutered at the same time. What self-respecting guy wouldn’t jump on that opportunity?

Another guy, who will only identify himself as “Scott” (son of Dr. Evil?), wants to trade a brand new diamond ring worth thousands for two tickets. He bought the ring as a gift to his wife for the upcoming Valentines Day. That's why he’s making the pitch under an alias.

“I’m just hoping she wouldn’t know I got her the ring. Then if I get the tickets, she would be none the wiser. She’d probably divorce me if she found out.”

If he gets the tickets he plans to go to the game with a friend and not his wife. I’m not sure about the future prospects of that particular marriage.

The weirdness goes beyond the Broncos and reaches even into important local institutions.

These past two years the University of Colorado went through a recruiting scandal with the football program. The corruption in the athletic department brought down the President of the University and the Athletic Director, but not the football coach who was fundamentally responsible for that corruption.

Coach Barnett—who made far more money than the President of CU and the Athletic Director combined—got his pink slip only after CU’s football team lost its last three games of the year by a combined score of 130-23.

Corruption? No biggy. Losing large? Biggy.

Of course, I’m not really in a position to point fingers. By the time I was 8 I was the proud owner of the phone book size “Baseball Encyclopedia” and I tried to memorize the endless baseball stats from cover to cover. At 12 I could tell you the starting lineup of the 1954 Cleveland Indians and who won the National League batting title in 1911.

I’ve played all kinds of sports throughout my life and still do, and even now I can break down the standings and stats on most any pro or college sport. I guess in some cases the boy never leaves the man.

But as much as I love sports and understand the joy people get from playing and watching 'em, I wonder about what's up.

When it gets this out of true—as it has all over the country--it does make you question what’s going on. When people will spend $100,000 for a used baseball it may be time to re-evaluate. A mass national psychosis? Simple garden variety idolatry? Principalites and powers at play?

Come to think of it I should probably sell my mint condition 1968 LA Lakers Fabulous Forum team pennant and maybe even my Stanford Indians 1971 Role Bowl banner. It would be good for the soul.

I’m willing to start the auction at $5000 for the Rose Bowl memorabilia and $10,000 for the Lakers pennant. Let the bidding begin….:^)

Monday, January 16, 2006

Frankfurt Airport

The last post on the North Africa Trip....

The Airport as Destination

Travel writers do some of the best writing on the market today, but I’ve always been surprised at how little attention they give to airports.

If you do long distance international trips you spend a lot of time on the ground between flights. Ten hour layovers aren't out of the question, so I'm interested in the ecology of airports out of basic self-preservation.

I ended up stuck in Frankfurt Airport for almost 8 hours on the way back home from Morocco.

Seeing the suffering of poor urban slum dwellers is one thing, but experiencing the inconvenience of first world travel is quite another :^)

Privileged Ranting About Airports

International airports tend to bite.

Here’s my shot at a long distance travelers’ hierarchy of wants:

• Food
• Sleep
• Getting clean
• Exercise

Food’s a no-brainer of course.

When you’re trying to catch up on lost sleep or trying to adjust and readjust your body clock to your destination, getting some sleep at the right time can be pretty useful.

Few activities get you stickier than long distance travel.

And when you’ve been jammed in a seat for 12 hours next to a 230 pound fat guy with the seatback in front of you lowered into your knees, moving around and getting some exercise when you get off the plane can be pretty helpful.

How do most airports score in providing for those desires?

• The food sucks but at least it's expensive.

• Very few airports make a place for economy passengers to rest or sleep. Heathrow in London, which is probably the best international hub, provides relatively quiet sleeping lounges with comfortable chairs that will lay back and let you snooze. I can’t think of another major airport with something similar.

• Getting clean? Forget about it. Again, Heathrow provides a shower area where you can get a towel and a shower for a small price, but I know of no other major airport that offers that kind of service.

• If you want to get loose or exercise, you can either do your stretching or yoga on the carpet in front of your gate or walk in circles from terminal to terminal. McCarran Airport in Las Vegas has a 24 Hour Fitness right in the airport that travelers and airport employees use. Haven't seen that before or since.

Given the emphasis on customer satisfaction and the rise in international travel over the past 10 years, you might those kind of innovative services would be the standard around the world, but not so.

Cruel and Usual Punishment

I could have used a snooze for 4 or 5 hours in Frankfurt to begin resetting my body clock back to Mountain Standard Time in the US, so I asked around to see if they had a sleeping area. Happily, I found an official who told me I was in luck and pointed me in the right direction.

The “rest area” turned out to be a series of lounges set up right next to the main walkway between two terminals.

The designers made the walkway out of hard plastic material studded with circular bumps to increase traction. It created a thunderous sound when anybody dragged their luggage on wheels across it. Multiply that sound by crowds and you’ve got some idea of the acoustics of naptime. It was a little like trying to grab z's next to the Santa Monica Freeway during rush hour.

But that wasn’t all. The German engineers responsible for my suffering that day had even more in store.

Along the length of the rest area they installed bright overhead lights and high powered AC ducts in the ceiling, so you got a double whammy of bright light and frigid air blowing directly onto your body.

The lounges themselves may have been the most unkind touch of all.

They looked pretty cool from an aesthetic point of view. Sort of an edgy “Batman” thing with lots of pseudo black leather and sharp angles and an exposed aluminum frame.

They were about as comfortable as that sounds. Rumsfeld probably uses a similar design at Guantanamo.

Laying there exhausted due to sleep deprivation, I tried to block out the noise and light and cold along with the metallic sharp ends jabbing me in the wrong places.

After about an hour I was giggling semi-consciously at my situation.

After about two hours I was ready to confess to pretty much anything.

"Water boarding" or attack dogs couldn't have done more to break a person's spirit than the Frankfurt International Airport Rest Area. I guess being privileged is pretty hard sometimes.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Pat Robertson and the Wrath of Odin

My own little tribute to the guys at "The Onion"....

(AP) Salisbury, England

Speaking from his state-of-the-art television studios near Stonehenge, British Southern Conservative Pagan broadcaster Pat Robertson announced yesterday to millions of his English listeners that American Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent health scare and extended history of heart trouble was the result of “the wrath of Odin, High God of the Vikings.”

Robertson continued his broadcast by quoting the ancient Norse scriptures: “Odin hates those who desecrate his land.” He concluded by saying, “Those who make themselves mere playthings in the hands of Loki, The Evil Trickster, will receive their just reward.”

The “environmentally correct” Southern Conservative Pagans have gained significant influence well beyond their numbers over the past 10 years in the UK. The rule of the current British Conservative Party depends on an unlikely alliance of Southern Conservative Pagans, Big Business, and Secular Libertarians.

SCP believers combine worship of the traditional Norse pantheon with an indigenous adoration of trees. They differentiate themselves from the 'relaxed' mainline Reformed Pagans who include the worship of shrubbery and certain potted plants.

Robertson began his career as a lawyer but converted to Southern Conservative Paganism in his twenties and decided that television was the wave of the future. He founded the “Clone Broadcasting Network” (CBN) on a shoestring budget but saw it grow into a religious media giant in Britain. In a recent interview he thanked the “millions of clones who watch us and send in a pound at a time. It sure adds up.”

Spokesmen for Cheney as well as politicians, business leaders, and citizens in his home state of Wyoming responded sharply to Robertson’s comments.

“Mr. Robertson has always been a friend of the great state of Wyoming. I’m surprised and disappointed by his comments. He slandered Dick Cheney, one of our greatest native sons,” said Governor Brick Manly. Just hours after Manly’s comments, the Wyoming legislature voted to bar Wyoming businesses from working with Robertson and CBN.

Southern Conservatives believe the pagan scriptures point to Brokeneck Mountain in Wyoming as the birth place of The High Lord Odin and the forest spirits who created all the trees in the world.

They also believe those same scriptures identify Wyoming as the place where all history will end in a climactic battle between pagan environmentalists and cattle ranchers.

In their view of the end times, the SCP contends that Odin will smite pretty widely. “If you haven’t treated trees with respect you’re probably toast,” a current elder in the SCP movement commented off the record. “After you’re slain your body will be recycled and used to fertilize an organic vegetable garden. Your essence will probably end up in a shopping cart at Whole Foods.”

As a result of their end times beliefs the SCP movement threw their considerable financial and political influence behind the decidedly non-environmentally friendly Dick Cheney and other powers-that-be in Wyoming in order to get a foothold in the Promised Land. Until Robertson’s comments, the strategy appeared to be working effectively.

The first step in the SCP long-term plan is the construction of “Cloneland,” a tourist center and religious theme park in Wyoming aimed at SCP pilgrims and tourists to the Holy Land. Work has already begun

SCP insiders have revealed, however, that Cheney’s appalling environmental record finally drove Robertson over the top.

Early today Robertson, under pressure from the money behind Cloneland, apologized to Lynn Cheney. “I still believe your husband is under the avenging Hammer of Thor. But I now realize my comments may have appeared insensitive to potential investors. I'm truly sorry for my untimely remarks.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Casablanca 2

Taxi Driver

I appreciated the taxi guy who picked me up at the airport in Casa. He knew his way around town and got me where I wanted to go quickly and at a fair price.

He did such a good job I ended up asking him to drive me around when I needed a lift during the rest of my stay.

Taxi drivers in the developing world love steady work from Americans or Europeans since western travelers usually go longer distances than the locals. The tips are a lot better too.

Getting in touch with him was no problem. More and more of the working poor in the third world own or share cell phones.

Cell phones are a mixed blessing in the states. I don’t own one because at this stage in my life I’m not sure I want to be more available than I am. People with cell phones regularly pitch their convos at “outside voice” volume when they’re actually inside, and studies show that people who drive while talking on cell phones are the most dangerous people on the road—you’re better off driving among drunks than among serial conversationalists.

Among the truly poor, though, cell phones may be the best thing since domesticated agriculture.

In the past only people in the "developed" world could count on efficient communication. Cell phones have opened up easy and relatively affordable communication for even the poorest of the world's poor. I can’t think of many technologies that have done more to improve the economic well being of “the least.”

Anyway, this guy was good. He drove pretty carefully and knew Casablanca inside and out.

Westerners tend to trust implicitly that taxi drivers will know how to get them from A to B. That’s not always the case in the "developing" world.

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride?

If you’re traveling in a third world metro area filled with lots of poor people from the rural boonies, you can sometimes get taxi drivers who know as little about the city as you do and who often know even less about surviving a drive alive.

The whole thing can be Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Traffic lights and lanes are merely vague suggestions. Video game speed and Star Wars-like weaving in and out of oncoming metal objects are the unique disciplines of the third world taxi warrior. Working seat belts? Surely you jest.

All that macho bravado sometimes contributes very little to getting you where you want to go. I’ve circled cities with taxi guys who didn’t know one end of town from the other. On a couple of occasions I’ve ended up paying them to drop me off so I could just make a go of it on foot with my compass and map.

My guy pimped his ride too.

He had a makeshift hood ornament on the front of his beater that I couldn’t quite make out. It looked sort of like an elongated blob of hardened mercury that tapered toward a point. I’m sure he meant it to suggest speed or aerodynamics or male virility but it actually suggested a bad welding job by cousin Aziz.

The rest of the outside of the cab was dull and drab. Taxis—and especially buses--in other parts of the world often get shiny with heavy chrome and lots of bright paint and religious sayings. Islamic taxis tend to have less curb appeal.

But inside the cab the situation was pretty different.

He draped cheap and bright red velvet with gold tassles over most of the threadbare and thrashed interior. Up front he had a bunch of colored Islamic worry beads hanging from the rear view mirror and lots of blue Islamic script calligraphied onto any available surface. Finally, he finished it off with some woven geometric trinkets glued in patterns onto the ceiling. I know it sounds like a crazy mishmash but it really looked pretty good. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t let me take a picture of it.

I’m surprised nobody has done a book or a museum show on transportation art in the developing world. A lot of it is really excellent “naïve art” and a little of it borders on fine art. Some of you more egalitarian souls probably bristle at that distinction, but you know what I mean. If you’re an art investor consider yourself tipped.

Chicken Bus Guatemala

I was sad to say goodbye to him when I left town. I guess knowledgeable, careful, and creative people are a blessing anywhere, but never more so than from the vantage point of the backseat of a third world taxi.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Spreading the Gospel of DDT

I’ll get back to the rest of my trip to North Africa next time.

I normally avoid this kind of post on this blog, but sometimes things get so silly you have to say something.

I read a number of what most people would consider to be right wing blogs as well as blogs far to the left. I read 'em because I like to know what a variety of folks are thinking, and though they normally don't shed much interesting light you do sometimes come across something really fresh and significant.

But sometimes these kinds of blogs just get so loopy and ideological that they require a response. I'll go after the goofy left bloggers in a post soon, but for now I wanted to highlight our right thinking friends.

A Right Thinking Fable

One of the latest examples of right wing blogging is a mini-crusade to spread the use of DDT around the world.

DDT was a toxic pesticide used to control insects and malaria in the US decades ago. While highly effective against malaria, it also did tremendous damage to wildlife populations. In particular, it decimated bird groups. So it’s use was severely restricted in the US and eventually in most places around the world.

Turns out, according to some of our right wing blogging friends, that the restriction of DDT was really a “liberal conspiracy.” Yes, we might have known.

The right thinker moral fable goes something like this....

Weak minded and irrational white people decided that birds were more important than people.

These sorts of white people are very different from "rational" and right thinking people of all colors who believe that people are more important than birds.

Those arrogant limousine liberals have forgotten how they got to the top. Their ancestors slashed and burned and poisoned their way to economic self-sufficiency, and now that they’ve reached the top they want to pull up the ladder by sanctimoniously imposing irrational restrictions on things like highly toxic pesticides which could help poor people around the world.

As the right wing moral fable continues, millions of people in the developing world suffer from malaria and that disease takes a terrible toll. It kills millions and severely retards economic growth that could lift huge numbers of people out of poverty.

That last part of the fable—and only that part—is accurate.

The right thinking fable concludes by calling for a re-evaluation of DDT. They want to put a stop to liberal arrogance and cover Africa with a logical and right thinking blanket of DDT.

One guy on a blog I read regularly concluded a couple of days ago that the reason poor people in Africa aren’t getting help in the fight against malaria is that “liberals hate chemicals.”

I know it sounds like I’m making that up, but incredibly I’m not. That person may be sitting next to you in church next Sunday.

To their great credit, the right thinkers are trying to raise a life and death human and moral issue.

Of course, lots of other people are raising it too, but it doesn’t take away from the timeliness of their important take. Curable and preventable diseases like malaria are killing many millions and contributing to the severe poverty that afflicts people in much of the developing world, particularly in Africa.

It’s the rest of the fable that is so silly and needlessly divisive that’s it’s hard to know how to respond to it. You would think that on an issue like widespread disease and poverty, honest folks who are serious about addressing it would want to make every effort to draw in the widest group of people to help deal with it instead of driving ideological wedges and taking advantage of real human need to push their own ideological agendas.

An Alternative Approach

Here’s an example of the kind of positive and non-ideological approach I’m talking about. Bill Gates’ foundation is doing ground breaking, effective, and creative work in eradicating malaria in Africa.

They’re spending huge amounts of money on experimental approaches with strict and monitored feedback loops to insure increasingly effective procedures. The focus is on developing highly cost effective approaches that local people can make use of without extensive training or forcing them out of their cultural and social expectations. The focus is on widespread use of enhanced mosquito netting, simple and effective treatments for folks who already have the disease, and vaccines which may help huge numbers avoid getting the disease in the first place.

A high priority is avoiding the widespread use of highly toxic chemicals and pesticides, a goal that most responsible people--read non-ideological people who actually know what they’re talking about--agree on.

The decisive majority of experts consider the widespread use of DDT to be counterproductive, destructive, and unecessary. In spite of what some of the right thinking bloggers argue, there is no deep "controversy" over the use of DDT. As with any issue in science, there are some who argue with the prevailing view and believe that DDT could be used against malaria without the same kind of toxic effects to the environment, but they're in a small minority.

What This Is Really About

In the end, any debate about the use of DDT has to rest on the science. If a way can be found to use some derivative of DDT without the severe toxic effects it produced in the past, that's great. In that case, in my view, start spraying tomorrow.

But this isn't really a debate about science.

In my mind, the right thinking fable I laid out above is only partly about malaria or poor people in Africa. It’s at least as much about a long term ideological agenda that’s hostile to environmental protection if that gets in the way of free markets and often even if it doesn’t.

It’s the same old repetitive thing we’ve been hearing for 40 years. These folks are pretty much as boring as the doctrinaire environmentalists who have just as cartoonish a view of the world as the committed right thinkers.

DDT has become an issue in the self-referential world of right thinker blogging these days because that was the pesticide that Rachel Carson originally highlighted in her ground-breaking book Silent Spring in the 1960’s. That book helped launch the environmental movement that the right thinkers dislike so much.

So supporting the use of DDT is a right thinker ideological milestone and is--like drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Preserve--an important symbolic benchmark in their increasingly annoying "ideological struggle."

So I guess people can either approach an issue like eradicating disease in Africa from a pragmatic and practical approach or they can approach it from a silly, if sometimes entertaining, ideological approach. The great thing about the latter, though it rarely produces anything but hot air and blog hits from the true believers, is that you can blame those irrational and sub-moral people. Particularly the ones who “hate chemicals.” They’re the worst :^)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Fall of Troy

Mentioned a few posts ago that I had my doubts about SC in the national title game. I was pulling for SC but had Texas by 7 before the game. I've been watching Big 12 ball all year. Better than advertised.

Really a remarkable game.

I'm disappointed that SC lost, but they've had such a magnificent run that it's hard to be too bummed.

Texas was just a little bit better. SC's defense was sort of suspect and has been all year. Very different from the last three years. Young could have set up a lawn chair in the backfield and relaxed on pretty much every play--no serious pressure from SC.

Young is clearly the best player in the country. He gained almost 500 yards by himself against USC. That's ridiculous. I was personally disappointed (though not surprised) when the Heisman Trophy award went to Bush. Lots of Heisman voters obviously didn't watch much football from flyover country.

On the other hand, SC could have won this game.

Turning points:

1. SC up 7-0 and Texas is on its heels. Jarret overthrows Steve Smith who is wide open four yards behind any defender. Easy touchdown if Jarret makes the simple pass and Texas is behind 14-0 after 5 minutes and the game is completely different.

2. SC, deep in Texas territory after Jarret's blown chance, goes with a Matt Leinart qb sneek on fourth and inches. Please forgive me, but that was just a dumb call. You've got Lendale White who hasn't failed on a short yardage situation in three years (yes, he got stopped at the end of the game on 4th and 2, but this was 4th and inches). What were they thinking? The Notre Dame game miracle qb sneak was wonderful, but why tempt fate when you've got the best short yardage closer in the country? They make that first down and all the momentum in in their favor and they have a chance for a field goal or td that puts Texas down by 2 scores early on. Again, the whole complexion of the game changes.

3. Finally, later in the first half, SC is driving and Reggie Bush catches a short pass over the middle and picks up 37 yards and puts SC deep into Texas land again. At the end of a huge gain that would have gotten them a field goal at least, he incredibly tries to lateral to a team-mate with three Texas defenders tackling him. Of course, his "lateral" turns into a fumble and SC loses the ball to Texas, again changing the tone and momentum of the game.

I've watched college football for 35 years. That was the single most inexplicable play I've seen in all that time. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but given the context and importance of the game, I stand by that comment. What was he thinking?

More on turning point #3. Maybe he was just very nervous, which would make sense given the hype about this game. Or he was overconfident and didn't take Texas seriously--sort of a school yard play you'd make if you didn't think you were in a serious contest (actually, the trick play with Jarret and Smith so early in the game made me wonder the same thing about the SC coaches). Or, he was intimidated by Texas and thought they had to try any wild trick to get points (the trick play with Jarret and Smith so early in the game made me wonder the same thing about SC's coaches).

4. Young's knee obviously touches the ground on the pitchout for a Texas touchdown in the second quarter. As it turned out, that was the game clincher. No review on the play. Surprising.

5. SC's defense collapses down the stretch in the fourth quarter. Haven't seen that in a USC game in a number of years.

But again, having said all that, I think Texas is just a better team. SC was clearly the best team the past 2 years, and I actually thought they were the best team in the country by the end of the year 3 years ago (Carson Palmer's senior season). Not this time around, though.

My sympathies to my SoCal friends. I have a feeling SC will be back in the national championship game before long. Still, they had a chance to do something no other team has done in 130 years of college football. Don't think that chance will come around again anytime soon. Too bad.

--for those of you who don't understand or care about the cultic gibberish I've just written, please forgive my brief sporto moment :^).

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Place des Nations-Unies

Ramadan at Rick's

Pretty much everybody in the US knows Casablanca in the landscape of our imaginations.

The city is cool 40's snap brim fedoras and foggy airports. Clipped and clever dialogue. Homely anti-heroes and conflicted beauties who love them. World weary wisdom and passionate heroic intensity. Bogart and noir. Rick's Cafe Americain. Mysterious and worldly Arabs.

That last part's the thing.

While I was doing my due diligence I heard about the "worldly Arabs" of Casablanca from a lot of experienced folks in Morocco.

The Moroccans were supposed to be a pretty "user friendly" Islamic people, with the Casablancans the most western of all. I was expecting a toned down take on the kind of Islamic religious zeal that has Americans worked up into a pseudo-religious frenzy.

In some ways that view is pretty true.

Casablanca looks more western than most cities in the Islamic world. And judging by the way some of the fashionable young men and women dress it's not your father's Caliphate. At first glance it's more Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rolla than Wahabi worldview.

I got in country at the start of Ramadan. When in Mecca do as the Meccans. I decided to keep the dawn to dusk fast as best I could while there.

Christians once valued fasting as a way to discipline desire and open a pathway to what might be.

Western believers largely dropped that discipline long ago and put their faith and money on an overflowing marketplace. So spending time in a place where lots of people ritually and socially deny themselves something as basic as food was new for me.

Traditional Shoe Sale

When I'm traveling I normally buy my food at local markets. It's a good way to save money and get a better feel for the place. But shopping at a downtown supermarket in Casa during the fast was even more revealing than usual.

The place was packed out with eager folks getting food for the “break-fast” meal at dusk when everybody chows down after starving all day.

Every city in Morocco has a slightly different official breakfast time, often announced with loudspeakers or sirens. In Casa you can start downing the couscous at 6:30 pm sharp.

Anyway, folks went out of their way to look their best even though I knew they were suffering from hunger pangs and even dizziness since it was about 3 pm. Muslim people consider personal cleanliness of the utmost importance, a fact I learned firsthand a few years ago when--after walking around the hot and dirty streets of Cairo for hours--a good natured young man pointed out my need for “a more effective deodorant.”

Everybody looked sharp and clean, with about half the people wearing more traditional clothes and the other half wearing the west. And nobody seemed noticeably out of sorts, something I observed in most of the people I met during the fasting hours throughout Morocco.

Check out lines in the developing world will normally test the patience of even the Dalai Lama. This market was no different. I was in the “express” lane, which meant I had a chance to get through a ten person line in 20 minutes instead of 30 minutes. But even in lines moving at geologic speeds, folks were positive and unruffled.

Well, except for me. By that point my stomach was grumbling and my glucose stores were pretty much burned up. Feeling dizzy and a little on edge, the last place I wanted to be was squashed among the pious and cheerful in a hot, humid market. By the time I got through the line I secretly wanted to wipe the annoyingly pleasant expressions off a few of their faces :^) I realized at that point that I had a few things to learn from my temporary neighbors.

Beyond people’s dignified and pleasant demeanor, though, the most impressive thing about Ramadan in Casablanca was the simple fact that everyone observed the fast. Or at least, everybody I ran across got with the spiritual diet.

No sign of anybody trying to sneak a mini-chocolate donut on the sly. No restaurant or café open between dawn and dusk (well, with one exception). No sidewalk food peddlers. No smells of food cooking. Nada. For a westerner, it's almost inconceivable to spend all day in a big city without the sights and sounds and smells of food and of people eating.

Human nature being what it is, I'm sure lots of folks in the city were doing potato chips and Snickers bars when nobody else was looking. And I'd guess some families in the high end suburbs got their three squares behind their high walls. But none of that is immediately visible to a person spending a week on the streets among Casablancans.

Hollywood visions of Casablanca aside, and in spite of Casa’s French colonial roots, the reality is the vast majority of folks there are deeply committed Muslims. So much for the “worldly Arab” reputation. Maybe Casa is ‘more western’ than some other cities in Morocco and the Islamic world, but it’s a place of serious faith and practice by any western standards.

I sometimes hear these days about the beginnings of a Muslim “Reformation” or even a Muslim “Enlightenment.” Some people believe that Islam will join Christianity and Judaism as a faith thoroughly modified and re-interpreted to make it more compatible with secular modernity, capitalism and democracy.

Well, maybe. But from my experiences in the Islamic world, I wouldn’t hold my breath that will happen anytime soon.

Hassan II Mosque

I don’t want to give you the impression that I faithfully kept my short-term fasting vows, because I didn't.

On my last day in town, after walking for a few miles along the “Corniche,” the developed water front and beach area in the western part of the city, I got so dizzy by late afternoon that I just had to get some food. But nothing was open. What to do?

I walked north--head hazy and stomach growling--for about another mile until I saw what looked to me at the time like a vision of splendor.

It was The Golden Arches. If there was any restaurant in Casa that would probably ignore Ramadan, McDonald’s was the place.

McMaroc is the local tag for a worldwide franchise that has simply kicked Mohammed's booty. Current score: 99 billion served to 1.3 billion believers.


And sure enough, it was open for business. So I knocked down a meal along with some other happy infidels.

Now, I’ve probably eaten at McDonald’s ten times as an adult. Yes, it’s possible for an American to achieve this. I've never liked fast food, even as a kid.

But I’ve never been happier walking through the doors of a restaurant than I was walking into that air-conditioned ka-ching! sanctuary. I’ve never been so grateful to see such disregard for religious values and traditions.

It was a beautiful sight.

I guess hunger can re-arrange the mind wonderfully :^)