Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fred Rice: Hampton Nightmare

Today's Portsmouth Herald ran a story about the purchase of land carrying the abandoned rail road track between Hampton and Portsmouth.

Mad Dog has previously blogged about the potential for this track to be converted, in a Rails to Trails fashion, into a bicycle path open to hikers, bicyclists, joggers, roller bladers, children and their parents, all free of the dangers of automobiles.  This is a dream which has been turned into reality all around the country.

Interviewed for this story was Fred Rice, a Republican Representative from Hampton, to the New Hampshire House of Delegates, who was quoted as saying this pathway ought to be converted into another roadway for cars.  His rationale was: 1. If this were turned into a road, commercial development would inevitably occur along its path.  2. Building a 2  lane road to Portsmouth would  reduce traffic along route one, reduce idling engine time and thus improve air quality. 

Mad Dog kids you not: Mr. Rice actually allowed himself to be quoted saying these things.

As if adding a 2 lane road would reduce the volume of traffic on Route 1, which is actually not all that dense to begin with but certainly, at the times traffic is heavier, would be unlikely to be much relieved by a road with only an entrance at Hampton and an exit at Portsmouth. As if reducing idling time on Route1 would have any measurable effect on air pollution in the Seacoast. As if air pollution on the New Hampshire Seacoast is a problem at all. 

Of course, politicians and city planner stopped claiming that building more roads reduces traffic congestion sometime in the mid 1980's after experience and studies demonstrated that building more roads simply adds more roads which then become filled and congested.  

As for building a road to encourage more commerce, this will certainly come as encouraging news to all those merchants along Route One, who are struggling to keep their doors open even as we speak.  If you build it, they will come. Except along Route One between Hampton and Portsmouth. Oh, well, if you build another, maybe the word will get out.

To argue that adding a roadway on which to burn more fossil fuel, as opposed to a bicycle path,  which encourages people to abandon vehicles which burn fossil fuel,  is something most people would have trouble saying with a straight face, even most Republicans, but then again, most people are not Fred Rice.

Mad Dog seems to remember, correct the record if Mad Dog is wrong, an exchange at a meeting some years ago when Mr. Rice argued for reducing taxes on cigarettes.  His argument ran something like this: Reduce the cigarette tax and you will reduce the cost of a pack of cigarettes and consumers will buy more cigarettes and although you make less per pack, you sell more packs, so overall, you increase revenues. 

Mad Dog rose unsteadily to his feet at this meeting, unsure of whether or not he had heard Mr. Rice correctly, or was being set up for some bizarre combination punch, and Mad Dog said, "Excuse me, but I thought the idea of a cigarette tax was only secondarily to produce revenue, but primarily to raise the price of cigarettes to encourage people to smoke less, not more. Cigarette smoking is, after all, I thought, something we wish to discourage."

"Well, " Mr. Rice replied. "Cigarettes are legal."

Which left Mad Dog rather speechless. So, as long as it's legal, we, as a state government should encourage increases in the volume of cigarette consumption. In fact, Mr. Rice had another argument: We would lure Massachusetts citizens across the state line to buy their cigarettes in New Hampshire.

"So, you want to export our cancer to Massachusetts?" Mad Dog asked.

This was lost on Mr. Rice. 

This scene was so surreal, Mad Dog has, ever since, questioned whether or not it actually happened.  But reading Mr. Rice's comments today in the Herald, Mad Dog is inclined to believe it actually did occur.

Mr. Rice, a duly elected Representative from Hampton, New Hampshire, is quoted as saying the best way to reduce air pollution along the seacoast is to build another road for gas fueled vehicles to use.

Really, you cannot make this stuff up.

Mad Dog thinks this is a Sasha Baron Cohen stunt. There is no Fred Rice. This is Sasha Cohen disguised as a New Hampshire House of Representatives Republican.

But then again, in the same House, a Representative testified that birth control pills cause prostate cancer and that abortions cause breast cancer.

She did not aver abortions cause breast cancer because some woman in the parking lot told her, but because multiple pregnancies are associated with a lower rate of breast cancer and, ipso facto, that means if you avoid multiple pregnancies, you will acquire breast cancer.  

She and Mr. Rice must be drinking from the same bottle.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Spring Comes to New Hampshire

It is 55 degrees Fahrenheit along the Seacoast today, between Hampton and Portsmouth. Dogs are chasing balls in to the surf.  Snow on the south side of the street has melted away from the lawns, and snow on the north side is getting thinner. It feels very warm to people who have got through another New Hampshire winter. People are out in T shirts and shorts.  Sprouts are pushing up through garden peat moss and dogs are nose to the ground, as the heat from the soil brings up  smells to the surface.

We may yet get another snowfall, but even the old New Hampshire natives say we have turned the corner.  We all feel as though we have made it past exam week and those of us walking around upright have passed some pretty tough courses. We feel we have earned this Spring.

It's not that people in the South do not welcome Spring, but they do not have the same sense of accomplishment we feel up here, just for making it through another winter.  Those of us of a certain age know we may not have many more winters or spring times to enjoy.  Each new turn of season somehow seems more precious now.  

Dry roots stirring in spring rain, as Eliot said.

We look at the children and teen agers kicking up their heels, new colts testing their muscles and sinews,  and we are envious.  Testosterone is rising with the sap. Renewal and new life is coming to a white and gray country, and green up here is twice as bright and savored twice as much for the contrast.

There are lovely places all over the country this time of year. True, it's not all joy--manatees are dying in Fort Meyers with a red tide.  But Washington, DC has azaleas budding and cherry blossoms coming. North Carolina has grass and magnolias. But up here in the frozen north land we have Spring stretching its arms after a long winter sleep and there's no place Mad Dog would rather be.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Politics of Antibiotics and Drug Resistant Bugs

David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, has written an important article in today's New York Times, which will likely be ignored.

The central concept which underlies what he is saying is when it comes to lethal bacteria, you do not want to wound the tiger, you need to kill it. So, if you want to treat a human being,  or any mammal, with an antibiotic to kill a particular bacteria, you had better use a lethal dose of antibiotic or you will surely see the emergence of resistant bacteria.  
(There is often some confusion, caused by the language we use here. When we treat a patient with an antibiotic, the drug is aimed not at the patient's tissues but at the bacteria living in the patient's tissues or  in his blood. We cannot ask the bacteria to open up their mouths and swallow the pill, so we give it to the human being, who swallows the pill, which enters his blood stream and the antibiotic circulates in the blood, hopefully to bathe the bacteria in the antibiotic and kill them. It is the bacteria not the patient, not the human being, who become resistant to the antibiotic. The human being is simply the host for those bacteria.)

Those bugs who were not killed by a low dose and which have genes which allow them  to survive a low dose attack, can  then pass on genes which provide resistance to even higher doses of antibiotics to their progeny. The antibiotics have "selected" the strongest bugs: It's a variation of the "anything which does not kill you will make you stronger" meme,  but on a microbiological  level. 

Resistance to antibiotics occurs when these drugs are used too often,  or  in inadequate doses. We try to encourage doctors to treat human patients with antibiotics only when they are reasonably sure they are treating a bacterial infection, and then to engage in overwhelming force, a sort of shock and awe attack. But 80% of all antibiotics sold in this country are not used for people--they go to cows and other livestock, in small doses, for two reasons:  1. Most cows are no longer allowed to wander grassy fields but are penned up in feed lots, standing in manure. They get infected and the antibiotics allow them to survive life in this literal cesspool.                   2. Somehow, livestock fed antibiotics seem to grow faster. 

Exactly how many cows get antibiotics is not known,  because antibiotic sales data is a closely guarded secret and all attempts at making it public by law have been thwarted by agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry.  When Diane Feinstein and Kirsten Gillabrand tried to introduce legislation to report data the FDA already collects,  their efforts were rebuffed by a powerful agribusiness/pharmaceutical lobby.  

Henry Waxman (D-California) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) have introduced a bill to require food producers to disclose how often they feed antibiotics to animals and this, too, is being fought by pharmaceutical companies and agribusiness.

Predictably, maybe not this year, maybe not next, but some year in the not too distant future, this will all come back to bite us. We'll have antibiotic resistant super bugs which will make Methicillin Resistant Staph, E. coli and resistant gonorrhea look like warm up acts. And this will happen because a few people were determined to protect their profits, public health be damned. 

Here we have the intersection of government, business and science and the first two are ignoring what the third has to say,  at the peril of everyone.

This has happened before, with global warming, with healthcare insurance, but in terms of what  will actually become most cataclysmic, the drug resistant bacteria will surely get humankind before the effects of global warming or the lack of health insurance do.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Chris Muns Hits the Ground Running

Just when you think government cannot do anything right, that democracy is a pipe dream, you hear about something which will change your life and the lives of your neighbors which some humble public servant has patiently orchestrated when he could have been spending time at the bar throwing back Smutty Nose drafts.

There is an abandoned rail road track which connects Depot Square in Hampton to Portsmouth. Grass grows up through the tracks and it's only passable during winter snows, when it is a decent cross country skiing trail and snowmobiles use it. Otherwise, it is unused, something of an eye sore and forgotten.

But Chris Muns has not forgotten. He's done yeoman's work talking to dozens of people in and out of government trying to convert this old railroad bed to an asphalt road you could ride your bike in from Hampton to Portsmouth without ever having a motorized vehicle cross your path or run you down from behind.  You could commute to work, safely and quickly,  by bicycle. 

He's had help from a committee of dedicated citizens, and he's hung in there.

The change this will bring to Hampton, if it happens, will be felt by anyone with children, anyone who rides a bike for exercise or pleasure. Where Rails to Trails projects have been invested in, like the Crescent Trail which weaves through and beyond Washington, DC, the trail becomes the town square.  You see all your neighbors and their kids out there every weekend. During morning commuting hours,  a few dozen hardy souls fly along to their jobs "downtown." On weekends,  roller blade
rs, bikers all commune happily. Nearby businesses find customers have wandered off the bike path to have lunch, buy drinks, discover restaurants. 

In Hampton, the breakfast and lunch diner at Depot Square will see more lunch trade. The hardware store, across the street will have to stock up on bicycle parts.  The pizza stores, all the way down to the new Flatbread Pizza will find more people, even during Spring and Fall.  The Old Salt may have to hire more waiters for the lunch crowd.  Gus's bicycle shop in North Hampton will see more customers.  Parents will drop off their eight year olds at Depot Square and know they are biking along a path where no cars can hit them. They can pick their kids up in Portsmouth, after a most excellent adventure as kids without hovering parents. They will have a safe haven, a long path to explore, to be kids out of a Normal Rockwell world. 

If the Hampton to Portsmouth link happens it will transform every town it runs past: North Hampton, Rye, Portsmouth will all benefit. Folks will wonder why nobody ever thought to do this before. That's what happened in Washington, D.C., where the common refrain has been, "How did we live without this? What did we do before? How did our kids grow up without this?"

In New Hampshire, they paint a yellow line on the road and call it a bicycle path. Bicyclists take their lives in their hands (and occasionally lose) biking along Route 1A, to breathe salt air. But a Rails to Trails is a safe, protected ribbon. From Hampton, you could ride your bike as a straight shot, have lunch at Popovers and fly back in under two hours. 

If and when this ever happens, whenever some Free Stater tells you government is not the solution, it's the problem, you can invite him down for a ride to Portsmouth along the trail a Democratic legislator got built.  He can try telling that to all the kids and their parents he sees along the way.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Ayn Rand Meets Medical Practice

Alexandre Yersin

Consider Dr. X, an acquaintance, I cannot say a friend, of mine. He is a very bright man, and hard working. A graduate of Princeton, he chose his specialty with calculation and he studied diligently for his board examinations and he did his fellowship in gastroenterology and he focused with great determination on learning the colonoscopy and endoscopy procedures. For several decades he aggressively sought patients on whom he could do his endoscopic procedures, which were, for years, paid inappropriately generously by both Medicare and insurance companies. 

But in recent years, Medicare has finally awakened to the fact that colonoscopies can be learned by almost anyone, with or without a medical degree, and can be safely performed in less than 40 minutes. The $2500 fee is going the way of the dodo and seeing the changes approaching, Dr. X decided it was time to bail out of direct patient care and he has shifted his practice in a new direction: He now makes $850 and hour testifying as an expert witness at malpractice trials.  

And he testifies not just about cases of alleged malpractice in the world of gastroenterology--the law does not require you be a specialist in the specialty relevant to the case before the jury. You can be a gastroenterologist and testify about a case of heart surgery, and base your testimony on "experience from years of practice."

So, for years Dr. X exploited a flaw in the medical system which allowed for very high payments for a mundane procedure; and now he is exploiting the medical/legal system and its irrationality and unsophistication,  as judges, who are lawyers, try to fathom the claims and counterclaims, accusations and defenses, concerning cases about which the judges and juries are hopelessly incompetent to judge. 

In the process, he has prospered, put his own children through Princeton, driven luxury cars, lived in large houses, vacationed in lovely lands. 

He has violated no laws, and he is a man for whom waiters reserve the best tables, about whom clergymen speak well for his contributions to the congregation.

And yet this man has raped the system, both medical and legal.

Ayn Rand would consider  him a hero. 

He testifies at trials of doctors who have done nothing more wrong than agreeing to care of patients in dire straights, who were likely to meet an unfortunate end, the classic "bad outcome" patients,  doctors who got sued for their efforts.  Dr. X is willing to show up in court for the plantiff,  to testify that these doctors were insufficiently attentive or simply made the wrong choices for their patients.  

Dr. X would say he has nothing personal against these doctors he testifies against; it's just business.

He has no trouble sleeping at night, because, he would tell you, it's not his fault if a hard working doctor who tried his best for a patient loses the malpractice case. It's just the way the system works.  Dr. X is simply taking advantage of the money which is being laid out there for the taking.

He has found his niche.

Then consider Alexandre Yersin, who was offered a plum position by none other than Louis Pasteur, at the Pasteur Institute, but Yersin chose instead to live in Indochina, now Vietnam, to treat the locals and to experiment with importing and cultivating rubber trees, providing a local industry for generations to come. And when black plague broke out in nearby Hong Kong, Yersin set off to find its microbiological cause, and he put himself at risk doing this, and he was successful and he raised anti serum to the plague and he became the first physician to successfully treat plague and to save patients from plague, all in the late 19th century, early 20th, before the age of antibiotics.

As we look to being hard headed about the "business of medicine," and as we hand over the design of our medical systems to men with MBA degrees, to accountants and managers, might we not consider the imperatives which govern the practice  of medicine and what makes medicine different from business, from selling insurance or automobiles or cell phones?

Ayn Rand would extol the virtues of the dispassionate Dr. X, and she might dismiss the value of Dr. Yersin as a man who never started a really lucrative business, who never exploited the commercial potential of cultivating rubber trees in Vietnam.

One might ask: which man would you like your son to grow up to be?

The Phantom never asks questions like that. The answer seems too obvious.
But, then again, in Ayn Rand terms, the Phantom is a loser.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Look South, New Hampshire

Mad Dog's brother, the patriarch of the North Carolina branch of the family, emailed Mad Dog after Mark Sanford finished first in the Republican primary for the first South Carolina Congressional district.

"Who knew?"  he said, "House of Cards was a documentary?"
Well, Mad Dog knew.
What brother Dog was referring to was the story line of that wonderful Netflix series in which Francis Underwood, a Congressman from South Carolina goes back to his district to sort out a mess involving the death of a teen age girl who had driven her car off the road while texting about a local water tower, which was meant to be shaped like a peach, a tower beloved by the peach farmers in the district, but to the teenagers of the district it looked remarkably like a scrotum sitting atop a phallus, thus the text and the loss of concentration on the part of the girl. 

Francis Underwood had supported the construction of the tower, a source of some derision, so now he has to take responsibility for the girl's death.

Say what?

Now, a flinty citizen of New Hampshire might ask, how a Congressman could be considered liable for the death of a teen age girl who was dumb enough to drive off a road because she was texting, but the Congressman explains there is no point in blaming the victim. The parents and their friends want somebody to be angry at, and Congressman Underwood has been identified as the best target. There is a local politician who wants Underwood's seat, who is only too happy to stoke the flames.

Underwood goes to the church funeral service, and in one of the most brilliant scenes ever written for TV or film, he delivers a dazzling eulogy, which he begins with the words, "I hate God." The startled faces all around the church look as if they have been slapped.  He goes on to ask, "Haven't we all thought that when God takes from us someone as precious as Mary Elizabeth? We just get so angry and we cannot understand any plan, even if it is God's plan which would do this." Of course, he is talking about the resentment toward not just God, but toward himself. 

Underwood then goes to the parent's home and offers to resign from Congress, if they want him to. He looks to the camera in a sly aside and says,  "There is nothing more powerful down here than humility."

Now consider Mark Sanford, who was ousted from office for having an affair while he was governor, disappearing off to tryst with his Argentine paramour and lying about it, saying he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Running for office he struck a posture of humility which was taken from the script and he, of course, won over the voters of South Carolina.  He had the stroke of genius to ask his betrayed wife, now former wife, to manage his campaign.  But he asked only after he assured himself she would not run for that open seat--she was considered a contender, but their two sons are still in high school and she did not think leaving them for a Washington job a good idea. Here's how the story ran in New York Magazine:

 Mark went to meet with Jenny at her house this past December to discuss the congressional race. As he later explained it to reporters, he wanted to be magnanimous. “I sat down with her on the porch,” he told one, “and said, ‘If you have any thoughts about running for this, then I’m out, because I can’t think of anything more disastrous than for a husband and wife to run against each other.” He explained that it was only after he’d ascertained that Jenny wasn’t going to run that he decided to proceed with his campaign.

Sound familiar?  My office is yours to deny.
And the voters of South Carolina, voting under their brand new restrictive voting laws, requiring photo ID's, went for it big time.

Now why can't New Hampshire be more like South Carolina?

Here in New Hampshire Jackie Cilley ran in the Democratic primary for governor and refused to sign a pledge saying she would never sign into law any income tax for the state of New Hampshire, if elected governor. Her opponent, Maggie Hassan signed the pledge,  Cilley said if you sign a pledge like that you deny yourself a bargaining chip with the legislature but at every event there was sure to be at least one old gomer who raised a hand after her presentation, no matter how long or short, and he would croak, "So, I hear you're for an income tax."  Cilley lost to Hassan. It wasn't even close.

Representative democracy.  Down South, it's all about humility and Evangelical fervor. Up here, it's taxes.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Jill LePore: The American Way of Torture

Jill Lepore

Mad Dog celebrated St. Patrick's Day by hiking up Mount Major with his sons and a good friend, Tugboat, a yellow lab who is the most open minded member of a rather opinionated family.

The Yellow Trail to the summit was socked in with hard packed snow, but there was little ice and most of the trail is sheltered from the wind by pine forests. The hike is a family event, executed whenever the sons are home in New Hampshire and the conditions on the mountain allow for the assault. This was the first time we reached to summit  when Lake Winnipesaukee could be seen from the summit as a series of white fingers, frozen.

Many topics are explored along the flat approach to the Yellow Trail, but by the time the more vertical ascent begins, there is usually one upon which the group fastens. This time it was the question of whether or not the executive branch of the United States government, particularly the President, should have the right to send drones out on execution missions, a practice Rand Paul sought to grab some headlines by condemning  in a theatrical filibuster. 

The younger son, no fan of the grandstanding Paul, nevertheless agreed this is a very undesirable and completely unjustifiable corruption of fundamental principles of the rule of law and American freedom. Older son agreed:  the idea of the President acting as prosecutor, judge, jury and hangman seemed to violate the idea of due process. But, he averred,  as long as the President was acting against people who were not American citizens, who were not in fact even in America and likely unlikely to make themselves available for trial, it may be permissible. The key for the older son was whether or not American citizens were targets, because our Constitution protects only citizens of our country and its benefits should not extend beyond its borders.

Mad Dog found himself defending "Terror Tuesdays," the sessions during which Mr. Obama decides on which targets will be droned bombed/ assassinated without  trial or notice. 

This stance appalled the younger son, and was thought inconsistent by both sons, with Mad Dog's virulent attacks on Dick Cheney, who Mad Dog had attacked when Cheney advocated for Guantanamo and torture of prisoners.

"So you do not mind killing people who have been singled out as terrorists, without trial, but you cannot abide imprisoning them or torturing them."

At this point Mad Dog had to reach back into history and forward into the present.  He pointed out that Abraham Lincoln had suspended Habeus Corpus during the Civil War, and Lincoln justified this with the logic that you cannot have a nation ruled by law if you do not have a nation, if you allow infiltrators, spies and terrorists to destroy the nation before it has a chance to hold a trial with due process.

Extending this precarious risk justification: What if you knew, or had good reason to believe, you had tracked a terrorist with a nuclear bomb in his back pack, headed to New York City?  What if events were moving so quickly you had no way of intervening to arrest him, but you could zero in on him just before he got on the airplane or boat to the United States and you could blow him to smithereens? 

Is there no circumstance you can justify summary action to save the good citizens of the United States? During war, officers can shoot soldiers who refuse an order or who endanger their comrades by willful disobedience. Why can we not act in a summary fashion in these new circumstances in our struggle with foes who live and plan and organize abroad and then slip past our defenses into our homeland?

This was all dismissed as reducto ad absurdum by the younger son, who called it a "24"  dodge, alluding to the TV show in which the American hero shoots the terrorist, without due process, who will blow up New York City.

The more we thought about the problem, it became apparent the justification for the Terrorist Tuesday meeting boils down to: 1/ Time  2/ Distance 3/Practicality.  The objections boil down to 1/ Protection of rights guaranteed American citizens under the Constitution 2/ Ethical reservations about an American government forsaking the process in which the idea of law is contained because it is cumbersome, difficult or impractical in an age where criminals can move with speed to outpace the deliberative process we call "due process."

The younger son pointed to the drone killing of that terrorist in Yemen, who had been an American citizen, and then went to Yemen to preach hate against America and who may have been tied to the underwear bomber who tried to blow up a plane over Chicago. In that case, the accused was accused of doing more than preaching hate, but moving from incitement to action, that is, to arming a terrorist or at least becoming part of the process by which that terrorist was armed and sent packing on his mission.

 Plans by our government for that terrorist killing had been emailed about for months prior to the decision to kill him and his targeting and execution. So it could hardly be argued, there was a time factor--kill him now or lose your chance, possibly forever.  In cases like this, where there is time to think, you can argue for a trial, in absentia if necessary, with an appointed defense counsel, and with  notification of the verdict,. If that verdict is guilty, then the government can attempt notification of the accused of  the sentence. Now the terrorists knows he has been targeted, but he likely knew that before the trial.

There were sham show trials in absentia in Stalinist Russia but that does not mean our trials would be a sham.  It may be argued the defendant is not benefited by this exercise.  But we do not do funerals for the benefit of the dead; we do them for the living. We can do trials for the benefit of the citizens who value the argument prior to the execution. 

In her wonderful New Yorker article, "The Dark Ages," (March 18) Jill Lepore traces the idea of trials, of justice as they evolved from trials by fire to trials by jury with the institution of Habeus Corpus, (in which the simple principle requiring the man who imprisons another human being to offer some justification for this,) to the travesty at Guantanamo. 

Professor Lepore points to Mr. Cheney, whose posture has been consistent: He smirks at suggestions government is acting in a pernicious way. He attacks his critics as people who are hopelessly effete, who never had to make hard decisions in a hard world, who have no concept of the magnitude and risk of the forces which seek to harm this country, who are too weak to pull the trigger as the terrorist runs toward a vulnerable city, arm cocked, ready to hurl a dirty bomb.  If we are at war, then we have to have the courage to take swift and effective action to protect ourselves.

The problem is the word, "War."  What we have now is "asymmetric war" or something we really do not have a word for. We have no definable nation, no territory with flags and a capital to capture and a government and an army to defeat. Our enemy is largely invisible, diffuse, often unconnected to other enemies operating independently. It is more like the "war on crime" with drug organizations operating independently, for their own purposes.  We can use due process against drug organizations because the purpose of the drug organization is not to destroy our government or population, but what about the case of an enemy who is trying to destroy you?

Even in a democracy, we outlaw organizations whose expressed purpose is to destroy our government--except in the case of the Tea Party, but they say they are trying to save our nation by destroying our federal government. 

Every despot, from tinpot South American dictators to Joe McCarthy( the senator from Wisconsin) has claimed it is necessary to suspend our nice system of due process because the enemy is hidden, cunning, capable of subverting the due process and using due process to protect himself, as he sinks the dagger into our heart.

But how do we know the enemy is as dangerous as our leaders say he is? How do we know when we are in such danger we have to pull the trigger and ask questions later?

You cannot do ethical, much less legal analysis until you establish the facts, i.e., the circumstances. The critical piece of evidence, the fact that the Yemen/American "terrorist" who was droned in the desert, had been in our sites for weeks to months. If we could wait that long to get him, then he could not have posed an immediate threat. He was not racing toward New York City with a bomb in his backpack. He may have been planning that, but he was not launching an attack in proximity to the date he was killed. That fact, if true as construed, would suggest he could have been tried in absentia, invited to defend himself in a court of law and then, once warned, droned to death, and we could feel satisfied about that process.

The other "fact" about that case is the government accidentally droned the innocent son. This would imply the accuracy of the government's information can be poor enough to raise the question, the information about the target terrorist was accurate?  If we cannot even distinguish the son from the target, his father, how good is any of our information?

What Jill Lepore is saying, of course, is Mr. Obama's Terror Tuesdays have returned us to those days before Habeus Corpus, when the king did not have to justify imprisonment or death penalties.

All this makes Mad Dog even more anxious about Mr. Obama's upcoming trip to the Middle East, where he has no business going, less business than Kennedy had in Dallas. They have grudges out there in Palestine. Why fly into that hornet's nest?

Mr. Obama has not been a perfect President. But he is intelligent enough to be corrected and educable and he can be dissuaded from Terror Tuesdays. 

But not if he's dead.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Origins of Gridlock: Louis Menand and the Past is Prologue

Writing in the March 4 New Yorker, Louis Menand writes a history of the American democracy, in reviewing a book by Ira Katznelson about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in which Menand places our current stagnation in Congress in historical context.

One of the benefits of  looking at history is the soothing effect it can have, when we look at our current state of turmoil and stagnation in Congress--we can see how it happened and we can understand the inevitability of the tide which washed us up on this particular shore.

Among the many astonishing factoids Menand casually drops upon the head of the reader are:
1/ Apart from the Congresses of 1947-1949 and 1953-1955, the Republicans did not have a majority in either Chamber of Congress until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
2/ When Eisenhower took office in 1953, nearly $53 of the national government's $76 billion budget was spent on defense.

The South, which has always been the least well educated, most rural and most desperate part of America, strongly supported the defense spending and the reorganization and re purposing of the federal government into an eternal war machine, because so many of those military bases and so much of the  war munitions were placed in the South.

Southerners, desperate and sinking beneath the waves of the Great Depression, were all for big government spending to rescue them. They were economic liberals, while at the same time embracing their Southern apartheid.  Claude Pepper, U.S. Senator from Florida, said, "The colored race will not vote, because in doing so..they endanger the supremacy of a race to which God has committed the destiny of a continent, perhaps the world."  But he was a liberal in voting for all the big New Deal programs which had the effect of starting to redistribute the wealth from the industrialized North to the underdeveloped South. He was beaten by George Smathers, in 1950, who called him "Red Pepper,"  for his embrace of big federal government. (In those days "Red" referred to communist red, not red states.)

Smathers, it must be remembered was a favorite whoring buddy of John Kennedy of Massachusetts. The two cut a wide swath in Washington, DC, back in the day when Senators got drunk together, partied and cavorted together around Washington. They were not hoping airplanes back to their districts on Thursday and returning Monday. They had personal relationships which oiled the wheels of government, as they oiled their own personal wheels.

When John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory of economics in 1936, he argued the federal government could stimulate the economy, if it chose, by burying bottles of money in abandoned coal mines and encouraging private entrepreneurs to figure out ways to dig them up.  This idea pointed the way to federal government spending on defense and other projects. Just spread around federal dollars and the capitalistic system will distribute them and the economy will become productive.

In 1933 there were 572,000 federal employees and government spending was $4.6 billion dollars; by 1945 there were 3,800,000 federal employees and the federal budget was $92 billion. The South had traded its poverty for feeding at the federal teat, but it remained determined not to allow the federal government to forbid racism. Labor unions, which were embraced by the New Deal, were an agent of mixing of the races and the South recoiled from that. 

During the Second World War, the Nazis, looking across the ocean and seeing a racist society it could admire, in the South, tried to encourage the American South to embrace their ideas of fascism, which the fascists saw were completely aligned with the ubermensch mentality of the South. But the South remained solidly anti-fascist, if not philosophically, politically. 

When David Kenyon Webster, a white GI,  describes casting his first vote in Germany, in the midst of the Allied advance in 1944, walking two miles to vote as a soldier deployed in a combat zone, the Southern Democrats had voted against his right to do that. They opposed soldier voting categorically, even though it meant denying white soldiers the right to vote, because they knew there were 200,000 Black soldiers in arms and if all those soldiers were allowed to vote while in the Army (something they could not do if they were back home in the South) they might gain political power, and Smathers's nightmare might be realized.  Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, voting against soldier voting explained enabling Black soldiers to vote along with White soldiers violated the principles Southern soldiers were at war to defend. "Those boys are fighting to maintain white supremacy."

The undoing of the Democratic Party was a slow train wreck. When Adali Stevenson ran for President in 1952 he put an ardent segregationist, John Sparkman of Alabama on his ticket, and again in 1956 he put a Southerner on the ticket. He won very few states outside the South. Can you imagine a map of the U.S. Presidential election showing the entire South in blue and most of the North, the Mid Atlantic and West Coast in Red?

To this day, the legacy of that paradox--reactionary, racist Southerners who were "liberal" in economic terms (i.e., they wanted the federal dollars flowing from wide open spigots, bringing military installations and weapons systems plants to Sweet Home Alabama) but at the same time they hate the federal government in Washington, DC telling them what to do. They fear black helicopters and central power which could look from afar and say, "You cannot have separate black and white water fountains, swimming pools, restaurants and hotels."

And Democrats, thinking it was political necessity, were in bed with all that.

Ironically, it was Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner who wrecked the Democratic Party by pushing through the Voting Rights Act. The entire Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party turned on a dime and became Republicans, joined the party of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, the man who had sent Sherman and Grant to ravage the South. History meant nothing to them when their racist way of life was threatened.

So here we are, all these years later, stuck with a reactionary South which lives on a federal government of eternal war, which sends enough representatives to Congress to tie the federal government up in knots, except where military spending is concerned.

What to do?  Well, for starters, kill all that sweet government crude flowing to the military.  Hit those super patriot free loading Southerners where it hurts. Close every military base, kill every defense plant in the South. 

To use Sherman's phrase:  Make Georgia howl.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ted Cruz: Texas Comes Through for the USA

Following in the now well established tradition of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, the newest U.S. Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, has stepped up to upbraid two decorated veterans as being unfit for government service because they are insufficiently patriotic or brave or supportive of the national defense: He said this of both John Kerry, who served on a swift boat in Vietnam, one of the more exposed and harrowing assignments of that war, and Chuck Hagel, also a veteran who actually saw bullets and other hostile projectiles fired at him during combat.

Like all other members of his Republican Tea Party cohort, Mr. Cruz has never had a bullet fired at him in anger, and he has never worn the uniform of his country. He is one of those tough guys who never actually did the tough things in life.  Calling Professor Sigmund...Are we seeing something here you may have named?  Actually, the Phantom is even more impressed by the Republicans who pretended to serve by hiding out in the National Guard or the Reserves, when those two places were the preserve of the rich and well connected, during Vietnam, so they could get photos of themselves in uniform, while actually hiding behind the skirts of their mothers and well connected fathers, far from the bombs and bullets flying in Vietnam--guys like Jeff Sessions and Lindsey Graham, the twin draft dodgers who are now the U.S. Senators from South Carolina.  Ah, the old Confederacy.  What happened to that region, which once supported itself on slaves and tobacco, but at least it produced some pretty amazing soldiers? 

But back to Ted Cruz: He did go to Princeton, where he won awards as the best debater on campus. 
And then he went to Harvard Law, where, he claims, there were more Communists on faculty than Republicans.
But he never fired a gun for his country. 

When asked to name names, like his soul mate and ancestor in Republican calumny, Joesph McCarty, Mr. Cruz could not name a single Harvard faculty Communist. The names escaped him.  But Mr. Cruz knew those pinko Commies were there. 

Every few weeks, The Phantom reorders his list of states which ought to be expelled from  the United States. The Phantom believes states should have to re-apply for statehood every 10 years, and if  a particular state is deemed by a vote of the majority of free men and women and 2/3 of the others, to be just really nasty, we can then expel that state. If, after a sufficient period of reflection and/or internal purging and political enemas, the state feels it is all better now, it can reapply.

For some weeks the top spot was in contention between South Carolina and Arizona, but Texas, always a player, has now re-emerged for the top spot.

On the other hand, some have argued, these states provide us with such entertaining characters, it might be a shame to simply vomit them up.

Really, South Carolina has an ex governor who ran off with his Argentine mistress while claiming to be hiking the Appalachian trial and he is now running again, on that old South Carolina platform, "I am more humble than my opponent."

And Arizona has Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County who drives around in a tank painted with flames and who marches people he's arrested (not convicted mind you) in pink underpants down the street and he is a champion of the Constitution.
(All these Tea Party-ers are.)

As a side bar--have you ever known a graduate of Princeton you really liked? I mean, what is that place like, to have produced as its favorite debater the Ivy League version of Rush Limbaugh? 

And while we are thinking about the health of democracy in the land of the free and the home of brave, how many American citizens have been stripped searched in American jails this week?

TSA, Knives, Not My Job, The Bureaucratic Mind

Yesterday, on the radio, Mad Dog heard the testimony of the head of the TSA, who said the mission of his agency is to prevent catastrophic events on board airplanes, to wit, the storming of a pilots' cabin and the slashing of throats of pilots and commandeering of the airplane. None of this is likely  to occur with passengers armed with the pocket knives confiscated by the TSA, he insisted, and, he added,  looking through X ray machines for those knives, removing them from carry on luggage, arguing with the dim wit passengers who tucked these knives into their carry on luggage is a lot of work for the TSA. Why should his budget have to bear the burden of all that extra work? It's not his job to keep drunks on the airplane from disrupting the domestic tranquility.

(Of course, nobody asked him why these knives should be thought to be any less dangerous than the box cutters used by the 9/11 hijackers, but that is another story.)

The head of the flight attendants' union told lurid stories of inebriated passengers,  and she asked the Congressional committee to consider the havoc one of these drunks could wreak upon a flight crew, passengers, if he were wielding a pocket knife.

The head of the TSA replied, calmly, patiently, that it is not his job or the job of the TSA to ensure orderly flights; his job is to ensure no catastrophes. A little mayhem in the cabin is not his concern.

There you have it. Order in the cabin is not in my budget. We have our own problems and our budget is for those problems. If we focus on finding knives, we might miss that 16 oz bottle of water which could be nitroglycerin. 

(Of course, as any radiologist will tell you, when you look at an X Ray, you do it in a very systematic way, and you see everything, and that's part of the training. You may be looking for a lung cancer , but if you see a pneumonia, you do not say, "Well, I wasn't budgeted to look for the pneumonia.")

The fact that some collateral benefit accrued from what the TSA screeners do with their machines at the gateway, forget that. We don't want that burden on our budget.

When the Shah of Iran got admitted to The New York Hospital, the Shah paid for television monitors and guards at every entrance to the hospital. Photo ID's were, for the first time, issued to every intern, resident, nurse, escort service person, all the scrub techs, attending physicians, everyone who walked in and out of the doors to the hospital, which had previously been as wide open to the public as a church.

There was plenty of grousing about all the inconvenience by bleary eyed interns who had left their ID badges back on the ward, and now could not get in the next morning to do rounds. 

But, after the Shah died, and all that security was no longer being paid for by the Shah, the hospital decided to keep paying for those guards and monitors. Why? Because they noticed an unanticipated, collateral benefit, namely that the theft of equipment from the hospital went to close to zero, and the loss of all that hospital equipment more than paid for the added security.  The security was there to prevent bad guys from walking into the hospital, but the real benefit turned out to prevent bad guys from waltzing out of the hospital with all sorts of goodies.

But in the world of bureaucracy, each manager has his own budget and does not care a whit for the overall welfare; he just sees his own expenditures. This is a structural flaw in the way Americans do management, all the MBA's and schools of management and business notwithstanding.

After World War II and after Vietnam, journalists and military men occasionally interviewed our former adversaries to learn what they could about what we had done which was effective in thwarting our adversaries, and where we had been ineffective.

The German minister, Albert Spear, noted the Germans greatly feared the Allied officers who decided on the bombing targets--Robert MacNamara was one of these--would bomb the dam upstream from the major ball bearing factory. Without that factory the German war machine would have ground to a halt within weeks. If that dam were destroyed the factory would have been washed away in a sea of mud. But the dam was never targeted. The American target men were too narrowly focused on getting airplanes, tanks and bridges. They could not think more broadly.

The paratroopers who attacked behind the German lines were provided with bags in which to put their guns and other critical equipment, and this bag, with it's leg rope was thrust upon them the evening of the jump, after months of preparation, a critical change was made without testing, and many paratroopers arrived in Normandy without their weapons because the bags were ripped off their legs by the blast of the props when they jumped.

The Vietnamese simply observed that American soldiers were too slow, weighed down with too much equipment, and no match for the Viet Cong, who wore only black pajamas and carried a single AK-47 or a rocket, fired, and melted back into the jungle.
But the Americans carried all sorts of stuff, each provided by a different department or financial interest, and it made them stiff men. Nobody took the broad view: All this stuff makes our soldiers sitting, or more accurately, waddling, ducks.

This is the American genius. Put the common man at the top of an organization, which is to say, Congress, the Executive and even the judiciary, and you get a dumbed down management. 

Now, for the first time in years, we have a bright man in the White House, but it's not clear a single man can undo all the mischief created by the mediocrities, the tunnel vision men and women, below him.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Denying North Korea and Iran Nuclear Weapons

Mad Dog understands and accepts there are some nasty, threatening, unstable people and governments in the world, and that among them are likely Iran and North Korea.

But what confuses Mad Dog mightily is the moral outrage coming from successive Presidents of the United States, who have said  Iran is committing a crime against humanity if it develops a nuclear bomb, or that North Korea is a rogue state and a moral reprobate, if it develops a bomb and a rocket delivery system for that rocket.

Mad Dog understands the practical reasons the United States fears Iran with a nuclear bomb and why we fear a North Korea with a bomb. Not only have high officials of the Iranian state said they want to wipe Israel off the face of the earth,  powerful Iranian ayatollah's have called the United States the Great Satan. So, it is clear Iran bears the US of A and Israel ill will. For all those practical reasons, we have an interest in preventing our potential enemies of acquiring the means of injuring us. 

But to say they have NO RIGHT to try to acquire the power contained in nuclear weapons sounds very odd. 

We do not object to France, Britain, India, Pakistan and Israel possessing nuclear weapons. 

We, quite understandably,  fear the spread of this capacity to every little potentate who wish to aggrandize himself by possessing a bomb, and who may just sell one to Al Qaeda, who might ship it directly to New York City. 

We are entirely justified in attempting to cut off trade to Iran and North Korea, in attempting to isolate them, in tactics which include attempts to  strangle their economies,  because they represent a threat and we are attempting to weaken them, punish them and make them squirm.

But we can hardly accuse them of immoral or reprehensible behavior. 

Mad Dog would cheer a successful mission to destroy Iran's nuclear program and another to destroy Korea's.

But Mad Dog cannot understand the posture of, "We are doing this because Iran and North Korea have violated a norm of moral behavior."

Iran and North Korea ask: If you can have the bomb, why can we not have the bomb?
Why do we need your permission? Are we not grown ups? Do we not have free will as you do? You and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons, with which you try to intimidate us. Well, we will have nuclear weapons, so we can stand up to you. That's our right of self defense. Who are you to decide who has a right to nuclear weapons?

If power grows out of the mouths of guns, then we want the bomb. If you want to stop us from becoming powerful, have at us. But don't tell us we are bad people for wanting the same potency you have. 

It may be a small point, but Mad Dog simply doesn't get the moral outrage on the part of the United States. 

Why not just say: We fear you and your intentions, should you arm yourself with nuclear weapons. We will attack you to prevent you from becoming more of a threat. If you do not want to be targeted, stop making yourself so threatening. 

This isn't personal; it's just business. 

End of discussion. Why inject all this phony outrage into the discussion?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

David Kenyon Webster Speaks to Us From The Deep

Private (Proud to Be) Webster

David Kenyon Webster

He Didn't Have to Be There. But he was there.

Men Who Never Served, Never Ducked a Bullet

David Kenyon Webster was a child of privilege, whose family connections could have easily shielded him from combat during World War II, or, at the very least, got him a commission as an officer.  But he decided to serve as a private, and he chose the most challenging service, the newly formed Army parachute infantry, soldiers who fought surrounded by enemy. 
 He wrote the book from which "Band of Brothers" was drawn in larger measure than the producers of that show credited. Stephen Ambrose, whose book by the same name drew attention to the story of Easy company, endorses Webster's book, but when you read it, page by page, you see how many of the details of time, place, action, feeling the script writers used.  Ambrose's book gave them the skeleton on which to structure a narrative, but Webster's book provided the muscle, heart, arteries and central nervous systems to bring the stories to life.
It was not Ambrose's fault, I suspect, Webster did not get more credit, but it is somehow fitting Private Webster did not get invited to the party. That's the way privates were treated in the Army. It was guts and glory Patton; the general got the glory, but the privates spilled the guts.
Reading through Webster's  Parachute Infantry now, the details of the experience of war, in particular the harrowing Operation Market Garden, the failed attack dreamed up by Field Marshall Montgomery, makes you feel intensely grateful for things like clean sheets, heated homes, hot showers and peaceful New Hampshire fields. 

But one passage astonished me. In the midst of the Allied operation, beset by diarrhea, having slept in a foxhole which he thought comfortable because he had found straw for its flooring, having returned from being made to sweep out the officer's quarters in a near by townhouse, Webster mentions he had been allowed to walk two miles to cast his first ballot, a vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt "the only one who ever gave the working man a break."  Webster had been too young to vote when he joined the Army, but had turned 21 while in Europe and was 22 during the 1944 election. 
What he says then, as an aside, should make us look at the 3 stooges pictured above, and at Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, with unmerciful clarity.

Explaining why he walked the 2 miles in a war zone, Webster says,

"Roosevelt...was a politician, as crafty and conniving as any, for politics is a cesspool of lying lawyers, but his work was greater than the man, and the country was better for it. The rich Republicans hated Roosevelt for helping the working man, for encouraging the labor unions to wring a fair day's wage for a fair day's work out of employers who had never heard of such a thing before and for putting into effect fair-employment practices that they considered outrageously Socialistic. Roosevelt helped the unemployed, when Herbert Hoover, the last Republican, an engineer who never quite understood humanity, had said, "Let every man help his brother," when he knew perfectly well that the rich weren't about to help the poor, never had and never would. I had grown up with Republicans and gone to school and college with them and sickened by their selfishness, their cold avarice and lofty contempt for the common people, had early sworn to vote for Democrats, who, for all their rotten political faults, were more concerned with the welfare of the country has a whole."

Mad Dog, too, went to school with the children of the rich, and saw that same cold avarice, still operating thirty years after Webster. Cold contempt and disregard for the suffering of their fellow man, still alive and well among the upper classes, and it sickened Mad Dog just a surely.  Mad Dog can understand the Joe Sixpack Republicans, those desperate men at the bar, who worry about meeting the mortgage on their mobile homes, who are just one check away from having their F150 pick up trucks repossessed. You don't expect mercy from desperate, disadvantaged, resentful men. But from the rich, you might expect some magnanimity. 

Which is why Mad Dog's bumper stick says, "Not a Republican." 

Webster wrote his magnificent book, but not a publisher would touch it.  Once the "Band of Brothers" got hot, the book was published and gained some attention.

But Webster never lived to see it. He never had his moment at the award ceremony. He went out sailing on the ocean  in 1961, looking for sharks, and never came back.