Saturday, July 9, 2011

Consistency and Small Minds

Michele Bachmann's run for president promises to be both an adventure in inconsistency and a chronicle of small minded America.

In March of this year, she introduced the Light Blub Freedom of Choice Act, saying that "[T]he American people want less government intrusion into their lives, not more[.]" On July 7, she signed “The Marriage Vow – A Declaration of Dependence upon Marriage and Family”, promulgated by The Family Leader, an Iowa group dedicated to "Christian conservative social values." Among many other things, the pledge calls upon candidates seeking the Leader's endorsement to commit to the "humane protection of women and the innocent fruit of conjugal intimacy" from "all forms of pornography and prostitution, * * * abortion and other types of stolen innocence." It further calls for opposition to the recognition of marriage as anything other "faithful monogamy between one man and one woman" and the prohibition of "intrusively intimate commingling of attracteds" in military "restrooms, showers, barracks, tents, etc."

In Rep. Bachmann's view, apparently, Americans don't want government intrusion in their own lives but greatly desire it in the lives of others. Not this American, thank you. I'd as soon ban the sale and distribution of the Bible as I would adult pornography. Fortunately for us all, the First Amendment demands that government keep its hands off of both.

The American people quickly are coming to the realization that gay men and women are not demons but human beings, with the same hopes, dreams, desires and failings as the rest of us, and that they are entitled to the same legal protections and privileges afforded heterosexuals who choose to marry. Some day our legislative bodies and courts will recognize what most of us already know. The pledge taken by Michele Bachmann is simply a reaction to this inevitability, the result of a frantic desire to hold on to an image of America that has never reflected its reality.

You can (and should) read the pledge in its entirety here:

Friday, July 8, 2011

The world has gone mad today . . .

It would be nice to be able to blame Minnesota's current political disfunction on the heat, but we haven't had any to speak of recently, or at least none provided by Mother Nature.

The Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton are currently at odds over how much to spend in the next two years. A panel put together by former Governor Arne Carlson and former Vice President Walter Mondale has proposed a compromise plan to fund government for two years. The plan includes spending $3.6 billion less than called for by current projections and bringing in additional revenue through a 4% income surtax and additional cigarette and alcohol taxes. The panel's recommendations have brought Republicans and Democrats together. Alas, they've combined forces only in rejecting the proposal.

Wake up, folks. The problems we face are faced by all of us, not simply the rich, the poor or the middle class (whatever that may be). This means we all have to be part of the solution, whether by receiving slightly less or contributing slightly more. Unfortunately, my position is radical in today's environment.

We're told that the Legislature and Gov. Dayton are $1.4 billion apart. Sounds like a lot until you break it down. That's about $.40 a day per Minnesotan, over two years, or less than $.90 a day per employed Minnesotan. By saying that, I am not saying just raise taxes and be done with it. I'm simply pointing out the amount at stake per person, if we all share in the burden.

Given Minnesota's historical preference for progressive taxation and for public programs, it's not unreasonable to expect that the majority of the solution will be borne by those of us with resources. But it also is not unreasonable to also ask that those with fewer resources participate.

Part of the problem here in Minnesota (and nationally) is that we think there are immediate, consequence-free fixes for problems that have developed over decades. There aren't. We've built programs, roads, and dependencies over time, few of which can be abandoned on a moment's notice without significant harm to some or all of us. We've built state parks that require supervision and maintenance. We've created medical insurance programs upon which thousands now depend and for which there are no immediate alternatives. We've promised funds to local governments and school districts, with the implicit expectation that such funds would continue, to a greater or lesser degree.

We've done this on the basis of certain assumptions regarding revenue. With the near collapse of our economy in recent years, those revenues have declined. We don't have the money to do what we intended to do. Our choices are to get more and/or spend less. Getting more means taxes or fees. Spending less means not doing something, doing things differently, or doing things more slowly. It really is that simple.

What is not simple is deciding which of these things can and should be done. Declaring anything off-limits, particularly before providing or examining the details, is not only childish but plain stupid. As Barry Goldwater might have said, "Compromise in the name of the public good is no vice." It's time for the Legislature and the Governor to get to it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Not Ready for Prime-Time

The other day, Michele Bachmann gave us another fine example of why she isn't qualified to become the president of the United States of America, when she referred to John Wayne as having shared her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. The press was quick to point out that Duke was not born in Waterloo, but 150 miles away, in Winterset, Iowa.

A simple enough mistake, to confuse an American idol with his infamous namesake, John Wayne Gacy, born in Waterloo on March 17, 1942. While the Duke killed thousands on the silver screen, Mr. Gacy killed a mere 30 or so, whose bodies he buried beneath his home or in his yard, or dumped in a river. Of course, the people Mr. Gacy killed really died. Mr. Gacy did have a sordid connection with Waterloo, recounted in great detail by Wikipedia.

It's not the fact that Rep. Bachmann (or her staff, perhaps) confused the two in an effort to reinforce her Iowa roots. Rather, it's the fact that this is as substantive as Michele Bachmann gets when she's not promoting herself as a "constitutional conservative", trying to explain why the government funds her family's operations have received have not benefitted her, or launching personal attacks on President Obama.

Ms. Bachmann, explaining her John Wayne gaffe, said that she is introducing herself to America and wanted voters to know that she has a "strong scholarly academic background." Really, she said that. She provided no detail, so I've gone looking for it and for her qualifications for the office of president of the United States. Here's what I found.

Born in 1956, she lived in Iowa until her parents moved to Anoka, Minnesota, taking her with them. They divorced a bit later and her mother remarried. Bachmann graduated high school in 1974, then attended Winona State College through 1978. She enrolled at the O.W. Coburn School of Law in 1979, as a member of its first class, and graduated 7 years later, as a member of its final graduating class. (Of the three law schools operating in Minnesota at the time, two expected their often part-time students to graduate within 4 years; one expected students to graduate in 3 years.)

Two years after graduating from law school, Bachmann earned an LL.M. degree from the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA. While I have no information on the William and Mary LL.M. program of the time, today's LL.M. program is "designed for foreign educated attorneys who want a comprehensive overview of the American legal system." Today's LL.M. program at William and Mary is a one year program, as are and were typical LL.M. degree programs around the country. Why it took two years for Bachmann to complete the program, I don't know.

For the next 5 years, Bachmann worked as an attorney for the IRS, during which time she says she "worked on hundreds of civil and criminal cases as a federal tax litigation attorney." We're not told what level of responsibility she had in these cases or what level of supervision she received. We're also told that she worked as an attorney in private practice at some point, although I've found nothing indicating when or where. According to the Minnesota Supreme Court attorney database, her license was voluntarily suspended at some point.

In 1993, at the age of 37, Bachmann quit the practice of law to, in her words, become a full-time mother to her then 4 children.

Her husband, Marcus Bachmann, claims to have received his Ph.D. 23 years ago, about the time Michelle began work with the IRS. (Some have questioned Mr. Bachmann's report of having earned a Ph.D. at Union Graduate School in Ohio. Presumably, this refers to the Union Institute and University, then known as the Union Institute. Although the organization does currently offer a Psy.D. in clinical psychology, it does not currently offer a Ph.D. in psychology. The Union is not a traditional educational institution and has had it's share of criticism regarding its programs, including a 2002 Reauthorization Report from an accrediting body stating that expectations for doctoral candidates "were not as rigorous as is common for doctoral work[.]" )

It was in 1993 that Michele Bachmann became involved in the creation and operation of K-12 North Heights Charter School in Stillwater, MN. She later ceased her involvement when she and others were accused of attempting to fund religious instruction with public money.

It was about the same time that Michele and Marcus Bachmann became licensed foster care providers. Michele Bachmann is fond of saying that she and her husband raised 23 foster children. The facts are, however, that she and her husband were licensed for a period of 7.5 years and were permitted to foster no more than 3 children at a time. Over 90 months, that equates to fewer than 4 months per foster child if each were to have been fostered individually or less than one year assuming three foster children at a time. The New York Times reports, many of the children referred to the Bachmann's were short-term foster care arrangements, for which the Bachmanns received as much as $47 per day. Given the fact that Marcus Bachmann presumably was busy trying to build his practice and Michele Bachmann had no source of income, I trust I can be excused for suspecting that foster care was an important source of income to the Bachmanns.

By 1999, Michelle Bachmann was ready for politics. She ran for and lost a seat on the school board. The next year, she ran a covert campaign against long-time Republican State Senator Gary Laidig. He never saw her coming and he lost the Republican nomination. She went on to win election to the State Senate in November, 2000, and re-election in 2002. By 2004, she'd made it to Assistant Minority Leader in charge of Policy for the Republican Senate Caucus. By the summer of 2005, she was out of that position. She saw herself as a martyr on the cross of her constituents' concerns. I've found no record of significant legislation authored by State Senator Bachmann.

Bachmann was elected to Congress four and one-half years ago, in November, 2006. Since then , she has attacked a good many things and people, but done little legislatively. She is a co-author of legislation which would repeal laws banning the sale of incandescent light bulbs in the future and was listed as a co-author on the Credit and Debit Card Receipt Clarification Act, signed into law in 2008. More recently, she introduced legislation which would repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Financial Reform and Consumer Protection Act, signed into law last July by President Obama.

At the beginning of the current session, as Republicans took control of the House, she asked for and received appointment to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, despite never having served on any committee addressing foreign policy issues.

Viewed in their best light, Michele Bachmann's credentials for the presidency come down to 9 years of the study of law, 5 years in the practice of law, 7 years as a mother-foster mother, a brief stint as a charter school organizer, undistinguished service as a state legislator, and 4.5 years as a member of Congress, with no signifcant legislative accomplishments and a history of opposition to multiple causes, unmatched by any affirmative leadership on her part.

Her former chief of staff, Ron Carey, spoke out against her candidacy yesterday. Although his words were delivered in service to his current master, Tim Pawlenty, they bear repeating here: Michele Bachmann is "a faithful conservative with great oratory skills, but without any leadership experience or real results from her years in office. She is not prepared to assume the White House in 2013."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Death (or two) in White Bear Lake

2009 is a year I will want to forget, but will not.

It is the year in which my younger brother succumbed to lung cancer, after a too brief and too devastating few months.

It is the year in which my mother was taken by a slowly leaking aortic aneurysm, laying just beyond easy reach and salvation. By the time it was diagnosed, she could not have survived the surgery. And so, we passed the time with her as she passed away.

Many in my family take some comfort in their religious beliefs. My brother did in his; my mother in hers, in her way. While she rejected the trappings of the church in which she was raised and in which she baptised her 11 children, she died believing that she would be reunited with her husband and the two sons who had gone before her.

If only I, too, believed. But I do not now and will never again accept the tales I was told as a child. My brain gets in the way; my heart remains closed. A pity? Some would say so. I do not. It is merely the way things are for me, as much as they are for the sisters who know they will someday see our mother and brother again. As Billy Pilgrim might say, "So it goes."

I am sad. Some days more than others. It pains me to work toward the closure of my mother's estate. Each day, another page in that process is turned, the end comes a bit closer. My contacts with my brothers and sisters grow fewer, briefer. We turn from the words of comfort we offered only two months ago to conversations about real estate and taxes, the sale of personal property. We struggle to divide the spoils of our survival in ways that leave us a piece of our mother and brother without depriving others of what they require or desire. We are not always successful.

I will survive. I will recover. My wife and my son will walk me out of this time as they have done before. For that, I am now and will always be grateful.

Monday, April 27, 2009

If they did this in my name,

it better have been worth it.

My dad died of emphysema, a death that is often compared to drowning. As the disease slowly destroys the lung tissue, breathing becomes progressively more difficult. The damage to the tissue prevents the lungs from expelling one breath and taking in another. Less and less oxygen is available. Eventually, even those on oxygen become incapable of getting the oxygen their bodies demand. Instinct kicks in: breathe more deeply, breathe more often. But they can't. As they lay there gasping for breath, they know they are dying in that instant, only that instant lasts for hours, days and weeks.

Panic sets in. You can see it in their eyes. Their voices are stilled by disease. Their arms and legs flail as they try to swim to the surface of water that doesn't exist.

The standard treatment for this is liquid morphine, placed under the tongue of the victim. It does not improve breathing; it does not increase oxygen levels. It simply renders the victim unconcious in his final days.

And now I read in great detail how my government, in my name, intentionally subjected other people to this same experience, through waterboarding. In one case, every four hours of every day for a period of 31 days.

I know the arguments, the claims made in support of the approach. I do not accept the argument that this is not torture, for I have seen its equivalent. I have seen the eyes of my father as the most fundamental part of his brain told him he was drowning, despite all evidence to the contrary.

I understand that those subjected to this torture are said to have been guilty, to have possessed knowledge vital to the conduct of a war. That does not lessen my horror. Nor can I, a man who has been thought guilty of many things I have never done, believe that every person subjected to this torture was guilty of any crime or that any crime he may have committed warranted this punishment.

Damn those who justified this in my name, who sat in comfort at desks far removed from the conflict and the reality of torture and contrived legal and moral justifications for this abuse. Damn those who have placed me and my country among the wicked.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I want my DNA.*

According to the New York Times, "starting this month, the FBI will join 15 states that collect DNA samples from people awaiting trial and also will collect DNA from immigrants who have been detained — the vanguard of a growing class of genetic registrants. " Remind me not to talk to the Feds.

I don't plan on committing a crime any time soon, state or federal. Still, I don't care for the idea that a sample of my DNA may some day reside in a drawer in some vault in the basement of an obscure federal repository, against the day when I might leave a bit of spittle behind at a meeting of some-yet-to-be-identified group of subversive old men. (AARP, anyone?)

They've already got my birth certificate, my driver's license number, photo, social security number, and income information for most of the past 45 years or so. Probably much more, though I'll be damned if I'll spend the money to make an FOIA request to find out. They'd just add that to the file anyway. ("Why's he asking? What does he have to be afraid of?")

They (the state, the Feds or anyone else with the necessary interest) can buy a ton of additional information on me for a few dollars. They can listen in on my infrequent international calls.(Technically, I understand they already do; it's just a question of whether anyone says anything that piques their curiousity). If they had half a mind to do so, they could pretty readily track down most every thought I've ever broadcast on the internet, worldwide web, or using my secret decoder headband. They've already sought authority to get my library records on request, only to be beaten back by an army of grey-haired, middle-aged women wearing ankle-length skirts.

On second thought, I guess they can have my DNA. They've already got everything else.


* With apologies to Dire Straits.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Tax Man and Me

I finished my income tax returns early this year: 4 days before they were due. Some would say I procrastinate. I say I'm just cheap. I hate to give the Feds a dollar before it's due, even if I'm only going to make a few cents on it by waiting.

This year, I used TaxCut, H & R Block's tax software. It lets you compare yourself to other taxpayers in a very wide income range. Based on those numbers, I'm either an idiot, a cheap S.O.B., or a fool. Maybe all three.

It seems that most in my bracket pay a hell of alot more in deductible mortgage interest and donate a considerably greater amount to charity. Of course, I've lived in my house for a quarter century and a good deal of what we have to share with others goes in directions that aren't deductible. I gotta say, I can't imagine life with a mortgage that results in a $29,000 annual interest deduction. Or giving hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to any church. (Drove by one of those mega-churches last week; they had cops directing traffic miles away. Amazing.)

Yesterday, I paid my second half property taxes. Paying them directly keeps you in touch with exactly how much you're paying, to whom and for what. For the record, my total tax bill for 2009 was $3600, or about 1.5% of the value of my house, according to Ramsey County. One quarter of that goes to the City of Saint Paul, one-third each to the county and school district. The rest to miscellaneous things I'm not sure I've ever heard of. It's an archaic system, but I'm not sure that there's any better way to pay for local government. (I would love, however, to see the property tax exemption for churches and charitable non-profits eliminated. I'm not too crazy about being required to subsidize the operations of any organizations I haven't chosen myself.)

My mortgage payment will end soon, allowing me to put it toward my kid's college costs, if he goes and we pay for it. By the time he's done, I'll be fully retired, bagging groceries at the local market or doing anything but what I now do for a living to keep myself occupied. My little 1926 bungalow will continue to function just fine, although it will bug me no end to pay $300 / month (or more) in property taxes. (How is it that the value has increased by a factor of 5 while the taxes have increased by a factor of 9 since 1984?)

Like most people, I don't enjoy being faced with the amount of money I earn and the portion of it that's paid out to the Feds, State, County, City, etc. It comes to about 30% of our total income, not counting sales and other taxes that are paid a dollar here, a dollar there. But I don't really mind paying it, to tell the truth.

Why? Because I live in a reasonably safe community, in which I can count on certain services being available (even though I might quibble with the quality of some of those services). Because I know that my money helps pay for many necessary things, for many people (even though I know that not all that is needed by all who cannot provide for themselves is available). Because, by and large, the systems we have in place work and accomplish what it is we ask of them (despite the fact that some of us are never going to be satisfied with what is done or how well it is done).

Can it all be done better? No doubt. It's all done by human beings. Can it all be done cheaper? Ditto. Will it? Probably not so we'll ever really notice, for the same reason.