Saturday, May 28, 2011

Cool-aid for Republicans

By Don Klein

Remember when the Rev. Jim Jones convinced his religious followers at Jonestown in the South American country of Guyana more than 30 years ago to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Cool-aid. In the end 909 people died senselessly. It was an inexplicable tragedy.

Today we have a close replica of that bizarre act of insanity and it is occurred right before our eyes first in the House of Representatives, and now in the United States Senate, by a large number of suicidal legislators.

Members of the Republican Party, 235 in the House, recently voted to end Medicare as we know it today and replace it with an unacceptable plan to subsidize a privatized health system in an effort to reduce future budget deficits.

In contrast, shortly afterward they voted to continue multi-billion dollar subsidies to extremely profitable oil companies. There was no concern about budget-cutting here.

They did not realize at the time that they were sipping their own brand of poison flavored-aid. They certainly know it now. In a special election they lost a seat to a Democrat in upstate New York, in a district which had been traditionally held by a Republican for over four decades.

As if this was not bad enough, 40 Republican senators voted the day after the New York debacle to enact the same anti-Medicare legislation. Fortunately, the Democrats hold a majority in that body and the measure failed with only five members of the GOP defecting to the other side.

The curious element in this GOP maneuver was that everyone knew the legislation had no chance of enactment from the start because it could never pass the Democratic Senate. In essence it was a gesture, not lawmaking.

And what is even more curious is that the measure, which was included in the Republican version of their budget proposal, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was certain to enrage the 35 million or so seniors who depend on Medicare and want no changes.

Supporters of the bill kept telling everyone it did not effect those over 55 years of age, and in doing so they added even more opponents to the measure – the millions of 40 to 55 years olds who didn’t want to be shortchanged when their turn came to be seniors.

Here they were with a bill that made at least half the country angry with them and which they knew would never become law, yet in brazen arrogance, Speaker John Boehner went ahead with the proposal. It was suicidal from the getgo.

When many of these congressmen and women went home during the recent recess they got an earful from their constituents. That was the first indication the measure had hit a nerve. Then, all of a sudden, the special New York race for 26th House District took a turn for the worse.

This “safe” GOP seat suddenly showed the Democratic candidate within striking distance of the Republican candidate. Then it worsened as the two seemed to tie in the polls and then the Dem pulled ahead.

The campaign focused on the effort of the Republicans led by Boehner and Ryan, to attempt to balance some part of the budget on the backs of grandmas and her contemporaries while reducing taxes for the wealthy.

The Republican candidate started taking a defensive position saying that although she supported the idea of the Ryan Medicare approach it was not necessarily going to become law. What an argument? I would have supported this bill because I knew it would fail.

On election day the Democrat was swept into office by a four point margin with voters – Republican, Democratic and Independents – all rallying behind the save Medicare banner. Did the Republicans learn a lesson?

The day after the results of the election were announced the Senate Democrats forced a vote on the measure and 40 Republican senators stepped up to take their sip of the Ryan Cool-aid. Five other Republicans had the good sense to oppose the measure. Six of those senators who voted to kill Medicare are up for re-election next year.

So if you combine all the Republican votes in both houses of Congress, 275 of them voted in favor of cutting Medicare and only nine voted to save the law. It is almost the same ratio at Jonestown in 1978 where over 900 died and only some 30 survived.

It seems when you are arrogant with power – as members of an insane religious gathering or a modern day Republican -- you cannot tell the difference between the elixir of life and suicidal poison.

The Democrats now have an easy issue to exploit in the coming presidential election year. All they have to do is show the constituents in every district where an incumbent house Republican and senator is running, except those nine who jumped ship on Medicare, proof of their commitment not to serve the people’s interests.

We can hope for the best but the modern Democrats don’t seem to have the stomach for a real fight. They failed to show any smack in the 2010 election and took a beating. Will they fail again next year? The current Democrats have the distinct ability to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.

I have a simple solution. The Democrats ought to let Bill Clinton and Howard Dean loose on the nationwide campaign trail if they hope to win back the House and improve their margin in the Senate. The rest can work their home districts.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sex entitlements for the privileged

By Don Klein

The turbulent combination of power and sex has ruined more political careers than oafish behavior or incompetence can ever hope to, but men of rank and authority never seem to be able to avoid an illicit fling when it presents itself.

They feel that because they are privileged people they have exceptional sexual entitlements.

In the last few weeks the cynics of the world were entertained by the ethical and professional demise of a United States senator, the marriage split of the former governor of the country’s largest state and most stunning, the arrest in New York of the head of the International Monetary Fund.

The hoi poloi could say good riddance to the bums but that would not be fair to all. The case against IMF chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn has not yet been resolved and he deserves the judicial benefit of the assumption of innocence.

Not so in the cases of Senator John Ensign, of Nevada nor former Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, of California.

Ensign had to resign in order to avoid expulsion from the Senate on sexual harassment charges. This is a man who refused to resign until the very last minute after facing the Ethics Committee for the sordid circumstances following an affair he had with a staff associate who was the wife of a long-standing friend, chief of staff and political sidekick.

That’s not even chutzpah, that’s beyond misconduct, it’s repulsive. What little respect or loyalty was there for his closest friend if he would schtup his wife behind his back. She said she feared losing her job, and her husband’s, if she didn’t give in.

Good riddance, indeed.

Then we have the Schwartzenegger case. The body builder who became the bad actor who married a Kennedy and who eventually ascended to became perhaps the worst governor of that large state, admitted misbehaving. His life has been marked by two words: infidelity and incompetence.

As governor he exploited with bravado and ignorance the idea that governing was easy. The voters bought the message thinking that a muscle-bound Kennedy-in-law could muscle away California’s fiscal problems. He did just the opposite.

When he took office the state’s debt was $22 billion and its deficit was $14 billion. When he left office just months ago those negative figures had increased to $34.7 billion and $26.6 billion respectively. He was a colossal flop and the people will have to pay for his blundering in the years to come.

One must wonder about the absurdity of the voters electing him after being forewarned about the great Arnold’s sexual propensities. They knew he considered any woman near him fair game for groping or worse. Now we learn that he sired a son by one of his household employees before he ran for governor and kept it secret all these years. His marriage now is in shambles and his renewed film career in question.

Another good riddance.

We can go back further on this sex-power connection to many others, the most notable recently being John Edwards’ fathering a child out of wedlock during his campaign for president in 2008 while his wife was suffering from cancer and New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, the scourge of Wall Street immorality, being caught in a Washington hotel room with a hooker.

Shameful hypocrites both.

All of those mentioned were personal acts of indiscretion and downright bad taste, but not criminal in any way. It falls in the category of what the French like to feel is their national credo -- a person’s private life is his concern and no one else’s. Political transparency is the only sustainable contrary argument

Now we come to what is probably the biggest fish of all. The man who was expected to become the next president of France – head of IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He has been charged with seven counts of sexual assault.

Even the French are not calling this a private matter. They know the difference between privacy and felony. French society is split in two with the women seeming to want to hear the facts coming out of DSK’s trial and the men demanding that he receive special treatment and not be handled by police like any other criminal defendant.

The alleged attack of a housekeeper in a posh New York hotel is completely out of character for DSK, an acknowledged womanizer but a non-violent man. His previous sexual transgressions have been winked at by the French public since none of his female targets summoned the courage to file complaints.

The New York case is different. The housekeeper was quick to report the attack, police were called and DSK was eventually taken off a Paris-bound flight by detectives who traced him there. The second blow was when the judge refused to allow bail, considering him a wealthy man and the likelihood of him fleeing the country.

Perhaps the Roman Polanski incident played a role in this decision. Polanski was convicted of having illegal sex with a minor – a 13 year old girl -- and fled the country while on bail. He relocated to Paris and the French refused to extradite him to California as a fugitive. The N.Y..court would not want a repetition of that.

No matter, Strauss-Kahn’s political future is in the toilet. He will be replaced as managing director of IMF and he will never be president of France. Ensign’s political career is in ruins, Schwartenegger’s future is cloudy as is Edwards’ and only Spitzer seems on the rebound.

All because of the belief held by powerful men that they had special license that allows them to sexually exploit others.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Aging is not just for wine

By Don Klein

Who ever would have thought that we older members of society, like fine wine or aged cheese, would be of more commercial value than our juniors. It took the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s to do it.

It turns out that those grey-haired seniors you see on cruise ships, in downtown restaurants and driving flashy new cars are more solvent than the great majority of working stiffs in America. If you don’t believe it then why are those television marketers so high on the over 55 set.

During the soon to be announced “annual preview of the fall television season, network executives are planning to introduce shows created to have broad appeal, including to older viewers, and the ad dollars they represent,” The New York Times reported last week.

I used to feel sorry for seniors unlike myself who did not plan for their retirement well enough to enjoy the final years of their lifespan in comfort and freedom. Living in a resort town like Ocean City, Maryland, I never observed many financially troubled seniors. Maybe we were the lucky ones, I thought, but now just about any senior is better off than non-seniors.

Just look at the facts. Seniors, after decades of reasonable solid income and steady employment, have usually paid off their mortgage, own their automobile outright, are receiving Social Security checks monthly and are covered for health breakdowns by Medicare and continuing health coverage from former employers’ health insurance plans.

In addition, a good proportion of the older set have income from pensions, stock and other investments and annuities plus a fair accumulation of savings accounts. We all benefited from the good years of the American economy that followed World War II  and lasted until the disastrous final year of the Bush Administration.

Besides we no longer have to support a growing family and all their growing expenses. We no longer have to underwrite the cost of college nor pay for expensive weddings that at one time was the bane of our existence.

In other words, our overhead costs have leveled off. If any seniors who retired ten or fifteen or twenty years ago are still around there is little change in their standard of living. I am not talking about the wealthy two percent of Americans. Until last year pensions and Social Security kept pace with inflation. Most investments, until the crash in 2008, held up and paid dividends.

Today, if they did not panic and sell off holdings during the drop, their stocks have mostly recovered with a few exceptions. Although rising costs in food and transportation have caused discomfort to many, virtually no seniors today are without food or shelter like in the days of our grandparents.

Besides the good fortune to have lived in America during the extended boom of the last half of the Twentieth Century, today’s seniors can credit two massive government programs for their years of relative comfort and ease.

Everyone knows they are Social Security and Medicare.

The acid test of financial status in the country is advertising. Clients research markets and advertise to potential customers based on demographics. The over 55 group was all but ignored in the past because of the assumption that those with money to spend were more youthful.

Stephanie Pappas, a senior planner for the advertising giant BBDO NY, said there was now good reason for ad clients to seek the mature audience. “In some ways, they are the ideal consumer. They have money, they consume loads of media, and they remain optimistic,” she told The Times.

The bimonthly magazine for American Association of Retired People has been pushing to attract new advertisers, according to Patricia Lippe Davis, the vice president for marketing for AARP media. Recently, products previously thought of as youthful — brands like Jeep and Shape-ups by Skechers — have advertised in AARP The Magazine.

“The grandkids say I’m ‘really cool now’ but what they don’t know is I always was,” reads the text of the Jeep ad.

The picture of a retired individual sitting in his rocking chair on his front porch, smoking a pipe and sipping a cool drink is long gone. Today the retired crowd finds things to do. They play poker or bridge, they bowl, they go to the beach, they ride bikes, the women play Mah Jongg, they attend shows and concerts and dine out at fine restaurants several times a week.

Many have memberships at local gyms and find part time or seasonal work to keep themselves busy, but not too busy. They take up hobbies like carpentry and sculpting while others volunteer at hospitals, schools and libraries. They are an active, mobile group and live longer than previous generations.

And of course they attend every function open to them at their grandkids’ schools. These are the benefits of being solvent. It not just makes the oldster a happy, comparatively healthy, active person well beyond the years ever in the past. It also enriches the communities in which they live.

It would not be possible if not for Social Security and Medicare. We should all remember that. Any tampering with either of these programs by politicians in Washington will ultimately affect the quality of life not just for the retired but for the community as a whole.

A word of warning. Be happy about your personal status but don’t mention to others the reasons we seniors today are better off than most other age groups, because if you do, you might get stuck with the dinner check.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Empire strikes back

by Don Klein

The Empire strikes back. That’s the way I see the assassination of Osama bin Laden. What do I mean by Empire? And did I say assassination? Let me explain.

There is really only one empire that matters in today’s world and that is the United States. We have our tentacles in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas and Antarctica. The only continent beyond our direct influence is Australia, and even there, we have reliable allies.

Yet with all that power and influence, the US is still vulnerable to vicious assault. Loathsome unknowns, mostly Muslims, can cause great trauma and long-standing harm as the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 proved.

Historically America has been lucky. During times of great strife we have had the best to lead the country. We had Washington, Adams and Jefferson during Revolutionary Days, Abe Lincoln during the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt during the period of America’s entry into global power and Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II.

Unfortunately in 2001 our luck ran out. We had incompetents in charge. The Bush-Cheney administration had the dismantling of the America we all knew and loved on their agenda when we were struck by members of the team of terrorists organized and trained by Bin Laden to carry out his awful scheme against us.

Our response was lots of fearless talk and brainless decisions. We gave up early on getting Bin Laden because Bush wanted to fight Iraq to avenge the failed assassination of his father and because Cheney had visions of controlling the vast reserves of Iraqi oil. In other words we used the excuse of the terror attacks in the US to line the pockets of the oil industry so close to Bush and Cheney’s cold hearts.

For the remainder of the Bush-Cheney term of more than seven years we fought an unnecessary war and never got close to striking at the heart of the problem – Osama bin Laden. He escaped a near trap in Bora Bora in December 2001 because Rumsfeld would not release the number of troops needed to encircle him. The Bush gang-that-couldn’t-shot-straight never got close to him again and the country earned the soubriquet “Paper Tiger.”

Then came Barack Obama with a new perspective, It took time to get the ship of state back on course after eight disastrous years, and by his second year in the White House things began to happen. In less than ten months the team under his leadership was able to track down Bin Laden, compose a plan to take him, and find a befitting force to get the job done.

In the end Obama sent in a relatively tight unit of bruising commandoes to do the job that Bush could not do with an army of hundreds of thousands at the peak of the war. The Navy Seals knew their task and never wavered. Nevertheless it was a risky venture.

They went into Pakistan on low-flying helicopters under the cloak of darkness, repelled themselves down into his compound, cut down all opposition and with precision took out the villain of 9/11 with two rapid shots. The wicked beast of al Qaeda was dead. The Empire struck back with exactitude....finally.

Why did I say earlier Bin laden was assassinated? To begin with the Americans we not going to trust a mass murderer like Bin Laden. He could have had weapons hidden in his Muslim robes, or a detonator for a bobby trap, and he was moving towards weapons lying nearby.

It was noted only if he was naked and standing with his hands up would they take his captive. Another observer made the powerful claim that you do not send Navy Seals to make arrests. At any rate taking Bin Laden captive would have given the US too many unnecessary snags.

There would be endless threats against the country while he lingered in jail awaiting trial. The trial itself would cost millions.

Finally, and most convincingly, he was a confessed killer who admitted his guilt to all while gloating over the chaos of the fallen Twin Towers so what kind of defense could he muster? By killing him on the spot we not only eliminated from the world a depraved piece of human trash, but saved the US the demeaning cost of treating him as a human while in custody.

So the Empire struck back and assassinated the leader of deranged plotters against peace. No more “paper tiger” appellatives. It took a courageous American leader who accepted risks his predecessor never considered to end a decade of failures during which the US expended too many lives – both American and Muslim -- and a heavy dose of its wealth.

There are a number of lessons learned during the decade:

1. The US military is extended much to widely and should be withdrawn from all overseas posts in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. We are not effective as an empire and we cannot afford the costs anymore.

2. If military action in necessary somewhere distant, instead of sending armies we should use small well trained and well equipped units to do the work and get out.

3. Focus vigilance at home with intelligent, workable plans.

4. Don’t allow anyone to think of this country as a paper tiger again. Attacking the US is not the way to amplify your life span.

5. And finally, only elect dauntless and intelligent leaders to the White House so when the next crisis arises, and it will, we have the right person at the nation’s helm.