Beware of those peddling politics for dummies

The chattering classes say Republicans are in trouble because of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed changes to Medicare.  They say that because, across the land, there has not been a rousing call for its adoption by acclamation, and therefore we can ascertain that the proposers are on the outs with the American people.  In fact some people do object, and for a number of reasons, but I don’t know how much trouble the whole GOP is in over this issue, since I try not to make the sweeping generalization my first conclusion or give myself credit for being able to see the future or into the minds of others.

But I think that what’s happening right now on this subject is a good thing.  We need to talk about details if we’re going to find a way out of our federal budget mess.  No one has wanted to talk specifics because, well, talking about paying more and spending less is not fun.  But beyond that, few in power dare to address specifics for fear that the short attention span American voter and the heat-before-light American news media will fixate only on the fact that someone proposed something and rain down ridicule and ignominy upon them until the end of days (no, not until October 21, for much longer than that).  Any open discussion or real give and take on a serious issue becomes more and more unlikely as it becomes more and more clear that the discussion will be intentionally twisted into a negative campaign ad.

We have to talk specifics on this, but that doesn’t mean that we have to do everything that is proposed, or that every unadopted proposal is a failure.  Ryan’s plan may never become law, but it already served the purpose of getting us talking about details.  Now we need to keep talking, not recoil from the negative reaction to the first serious plan and never say anything ever again.

The budget crunches in this country are real and can’t be solved just with accounting tricks; it’s going to mean painful cuts in programs that people need as well as ones they want.  For example: here in Texas our state law requires a balanced budget and there’s only so much money available this time around—tens of billions of dollars less than the current budget.  Absent a multi-billion dollar windfall of biblical proportions, the only way out means someone’s ox gets gored…or likely in this case, everyone’s oxen.  As Patricia Kilday Hart made the point in a recent column, the discussion is about what gets defined as an “essential” government program.  In order not to reach into the state’s savings account this time, there are budget plans that make some changes:

It cuts state Child Protective Services “intake” offices so severely that officials predict 85,000 calls about abused children will not be answered.

It shortchanges school districts for the 80,000 new students expected to show up at the front doors of public schools next year.

It cuts Medicaid reimbursement rates to nursing homes so drastically that the industry predicts 75 percent of the nursing homes in Texas will shut their doors, leaving 60,000 elderly Texans without care and 47,000 employees without jobs.

The polls have been showing for a while that people want the budget fixed, they just don’t want the fix to hurt them.  Well, “they” are going to have to get over that or “we” will get nowhere…except closer to the edge as the wind picks up a little bit.

Dear Drayton McLane,

McLane and CraneI heard your announcement today that you have a deal to sell the Houston Astros and I just wanted to drop you a note to say thanks for getting the hell out of the way.

Like most Astros’ fans back in 1992, I was pleased that you bought the team from John McMullen because that got rid of the guy who ran off Nolan Ryan.  With his team meandering in the bottom half of the division, McMullen didn’t want to pay a 41-year-old power pitcher despite the fact that he was still effective and was (and still is) a local icon; bad enough, but Ryan ended up having another five years (three winning seasons) and two more no-hitters and thus became wed to another team which he now, in fact, owns, and whose cap he wears in Cooperstown.  Not that I’m bitter.

It’s not that I felt you would be a big improvement, mind you; since I wasn’t involved in the grocery business or Wal-Mart I didn’t have any idea who you were.  But you weren’t McMullen, and that was good enough.  My mistake.  What I didn’t know then was that you weren’t capable of trusting the people you hired to run your business—even though it was a business you readily admitted you knew absolutely nothing about—and that you’d turn into a pain in the neck meddler who eventually chased off the best baseball leaders this franchise has ever known.

Some say that you were too cheap to spend the money it took to win; that’s not true.  You spent plenty of money, but a lot of the time you spent it on questionable free agent pickups (Greg Swindell?  Carlos Lee?  Miguel Tejada?) rather than the things that keep a team and an organization strong and competitive: high draft choices, pitching and defense.  Some think your legacy is the team’s winning record, and it’s true the Astros have had success on the field during your tenure: the majority of playoff appearances, and the only World Series appearance in franchise history.  Congratulations on that, it was a great ride…and seems so long ago now.  But we still have a few things we’ll be able to remember you by:

Like Minute Maid Park!  Beautiful ball park, I agree…good thing, too, since you used my money to build it—ironic, too, since you’re the one who’s the billionaire and the owner of a company that employs dozens 1402_Minute_Maid_Park_and_Rooftopof millionaires, and I’m not.  But you blackmailed all of Astros Nation and even the parts of the city that never gave a damn about baseball when you threatened to move the team—the ball club and the economic engine—if we didn’t front you the money for a new ball park to boost your revenue streams, or some such business euphemism.  Insisting that taxpayers finance a private business construction project was surely a surprising position to see from you, being such an outspoken supporter of capitalism and all.

And there’s the new level of tasteful presentation: oh, all the advertisements in said Minute Maid Park!!  You know, back when the doors opened in 2000 I thought that my ass was the only flat surface in there that didn’t have an ad slapped on it, but over the years you worked your ass off and proved me wrong.  The Chick-fil-A Eat More Fowl poles is a monumental achievement, and dovetails nicely with wonderful and all-too-serious promotional events like Dog Day in the Park—I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard howling about that one!

Finally, you’re leaving us with the excitement of watching a young baseball team come into its own.  Sure, they have the worst record in the National League right now, but we play in the same league as the Pirates so I expect to jump up and nestle into fifth place any day now.  The best part of that is, this is a gift that could just keep on giving for years to come!

So, fair winds and following seas, Drayton, as you shove off…no hard feelings, but I’m pleased you’re leaving.  As was the case in 1992, I don’t know much about the new guy; although he knows baseball in a way you never did, we’ll have to wait and see what he does when it comes to running the business.  But if his first decision is to pull the plug on your buddy Milo, I’ll be lining up for World Series tickets!

News on the march

Tidying up the files and hoping no one has noticed the “funny” little comments at the top of the page while I find out where they’re coming from:

I am still annoyed at the decision announced last month by the Obama Administration not to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged September 11 attack plotters in civilian court…actually, “shameful” is the word that first came to mind.  It caved in to bullying and fear-mongering from those who don’t really trust the justice system and want a guarantee of a conviction, which they believe they get from a military tribunal instead of a dozen New Yorkers off the street (I refer you to a prior discussion to the issue last year).   On the other hand, Osama bin Laden didn’t get a public trial, either…

Good news and bad from our Texas Legislature.  The state senator who took heat for her plan to railroad accused sex offenders by changing the rules of evidence in their trials had the temerity to defend her position in the paper by claiming her plan actually protects the rights of the accused!  On the other hand, the bogus statistical machination that the state education agency has been using to falsely pump up the annual student assessment test results is on its way out.

In another development on the fungible facts front, the Arizona senator who intentionally misspoke on the Senate floor about the use of funds by Planned Parenthood, and who had his press secretary try to explain it all away by assuring reporters that those words were “not intended to be a factual statement,” has had the Congressional Record edited so that he’s not lying misspeaking anymore.  Because members of Congress have granted themselves the “privilege” to do things like that.

Some days you think you have a pretty good handle on things and the world is spinning in greased grooves…and then you’ve got to figure out how to reconcile that world with one in which an Iranian government power struggle in the 21st century has led to arrests on charges of sorcery, and where the Chinese have outlawed time travel in works of fiction.  If they’re against mythical stories, why do they keep calling their country a republic?

The war is not over

Surprise.  My first and strongest reaction was surprise when I saw on TV last night that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan: after all this time—almost ten years since the September 11 attacks—I was surprised that the leader of Al Qaeda had been caught and disposed of.  Pleased at the news, yes, but a little startled: oh yeah, that’s still going on.

It’s not that I wasn’t confident that the American military and intelligence machine could do it, but like many (if not most) Americans I don’t give much regular or serious thought to the pursuit of terrorists, and that’s a shame because there are still thousands of American soldiers, sailors and Marines deployed on the other side of the world doing exactly that every single day and night.  Finding Bin Laden and defeating Al Qaeda was the reason we went to war in Afghanistan in the first place, remember?  But apart from changes in airport security, most Americans aren’t still impacted in their daily lives.  Plenty of people are—those troops, military families, survivors of victims of terrorism—but most of us are not.

Although we could be any time now: the experts on these terrorists expect the killing of Bin Laden to spark new attacks on the U.S. or on American targets around the world out of vengeance, and our government has raised the alert level at military bases and issued travel advisories for Americans around the world.  That makes sense: crazy religious zealots aren’t likely to just shrug off the death of their inspirational leader at the hands of the Great Satan and go on about their misdirected lives.  We shall see what happens.

Meanwhile, I’m not feeling the euphoria and glee I’m seeing in the video of the crowds in Lower Manhattan and outside the White House and elsewhere.  Punishing Bin Laden—with extreme prejudice—can’t help but be a good thing, but it’s not a happy ending, or even an ending at all, like VE Day or the surrender at Appomattox.  President Obama was right when he said “Today we are reminded that as a nation there’s nothing we can’t do when we put our shoulders to the wheel, when we remember the sense of unity that defines us as Americans.”  But so was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Even as we mark this milestone, we should not forget that the battle to stop Al Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of Bin Laden.”

Or maybe ever.  And as people with short attention spans, who usually demonstrate a severe lack of patience for all but the quick and simple answer to every question, we’d do ourselves a favor by being realistic about what this news means for our future.  We won a battle, but the war goes on.