Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Election Reform

There's a part of me that likes the idea of election reform.

But, Harry Londsdale has a rather strange opinion piece in today's Oregonian.

Strange because his major examples of what need to be fixed are two losing campaigns--Mannix's and the Grande Ronde Tribes against Kulongoski. Lonsdale throws in Saxton's and Jack Roberts' much lower sums for the winners--though he doesn't mention Ted Wheeler's Multnomah County chair race where Wheeler and his family loaned/gave his campaign about $100,000.

Because Lonsdale's main examples are from losing campaigns he is forced from the usual election reform argument that money corrupts to the argument that people lose interest and don't vote when big money is involved.

On Election Day of our recent primary, The (Bend) Bulletin offered two parallel stories on its front page. One was about all of the big money affecting the different races in the state. The other was about the unusually low voter turnout.

Was it just a coincidental juxtaposition of these two stories? Or does all of the big money actually suppress voter turnout? What's your guess?

My guess is he's wrong. Let's look at the 2004 presidential election. You had big money from George Soros--maybe $27 million. And people stayed home in droves didn't they? Oops, guess not.

One problem with election reform, no matter how good it looks on the surface, is there is always a way around it. Look at the 527's in the 2004 election that basically gutted Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. In spite of whatever damage the 527's did to campaign reform, they did allow not only George Soros but lots of little guys to band together and say things publicly and effectively that they wanted to say.

But, the worst thing with election reform is that there is no way to regulate the natural and publicly funded resources that incumbents have to get their story out. Private citizens don't have the same access for their criticism. When's the last time you saw a front page headline with any John Doe's criticism of, say, Mayor Potter? Having trouble thinking of one?

Justice Scalia had it right:

This is a sad day for the freedom of speech. Who could have imagined that the same Court which, within the past four years, has sternly disapproved of restrictions upon such inconsequential forms of expression as virtual child pornography, Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 535 U.S. 234 (2002), tobacco advertising, Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly, 533 U.S. 525 (2001), dissemination of illegally intercepted communications, Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), and sexually explicit cable programming, United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 U.S. 803 (2000), would smile with favor upon a law that cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: the right to criticize the government. For that is what the most offensive provisions of this legislation are all about. We are governed by Congress, and this legislation prohibits the criticism of Members of Congress by those entities most capable of giving such criticism loud voice: national political parties and corporations, both of the commercial and the not-for-profit sort. It forbids pre-election criticism of incumbents by corporations, even not-for-profit corporations, by use of their general funds; and forbids national-party use of “soft” money to fund “issue ads” that incumbents find so offensive.

To be sure, the legislation is evenhanded: It similarly prohibits criticism of the candidates who oppose Members of Congress in their reelection bids. But as everyone knows, this is an area in which evenhandedness is not fairness. If all electioneering were evenhandedly prohibited, incumbents would have an enormous advantage. Likewise, if incumbents and challengers are limited to the same quantity of electioneering, incumbents are favored. In other words, any restriction upon a type of campaign speech that is equally available to challengers and incumbents tends to favor incumbents.
[emphasis mine]

I'd rather have Loren Parks, Ted Wheeler, Ron Wendt, the Grande Ronde Tribes (isn't it anti-pc to attack them?), and (gulp) yes, even George Soros, in the mix than limit the ability of citizens to effectively criticize their government.

Name recognition, free media publicity, "soft campaigning" as part of being in office are all a part of incumbent influence on elections that Petitions 8 and 37 don't address.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Portland's Peace Memorial Park

Portland has a new park which has some unintended symbolism.

The Peace Memorial Park, according to Anne Saker’s story in today’s Oregonian, is to remember not only “soldiers’ deaths but also of the millions of civilian lives lost in all conflicts.”

The unintended symbolism came with the development of the park. The second page subtitle for the story reads: “Volunteers got weeds out, then put flowers in”.

Isn’t that the story of some wars?

In World War II, the Allies got the Nazis out of Europe and then the U.S. aided establishment of free governments and sustained them with billions in aid via the Marshall Plan and NATO.

In Iraq, Coalition forces had to get Saddam and the Baathists out, who had killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians over the course of a couple of decades, in order to aid establishment of a free government there.

Unfortunately without the use of military force to stop those who do wholesale killing, more civilians have died in the last century under totalitarian, dictatorial and genocidal actions than died due to declared conflicts--even including fire bombing and the atom bomb.

Just to begin with there are the 5 to 7 million victims of the holocaust. They were targeted victims--not civilian casualties of prosecuting the war.

Or how about the 4-5 million civilians who were killed under Pol Pot's regime? Too bad no one cared enough to intervene and help them. But a park is a nice remembrance--unless they don't count because they were not killed in a declared conflict.

That's 9 to 12 million victims right there, and we haven't touched on the two biggest civilian killers: The Soviet Union and China.

The new park is more international in scope--it does not memorialize American civilian deaths. There was no mention of 9/11 for non-declared conflict U.S. civilian casualties or of the Civil War’s civilian casualties (which is the closest event in time to find any significant number of American civilian declared conflict casualties).

Though remembering civilian casualties is an important part of the memorial park's raison d'etre, the only casualty specifically cited in the article was a U.S. soldier killed in the Iraq war.

About 250 people celebrated the creation of Peace Memorial Park -- a 2-acre site near the Rose Quarter and the Steel Bridge -- by Veterans for Peace and real estate developer Brad Perkins. For them, the unveiling counterbalanced the martial nature of most Memorial Day ceremonies.

Anita Pritchard, who with her husband, Mark, visited the park with their children, said she had laid flowers Sunday at the grave of her nephew, William Ramirez, 19, a soldier killed in Iraq two years ago.

The peace park gave her solace, she said.

"Portland is ahead of the curve here," she said. "There are polls showing that many people are very much against the war. This shows that Portland is actually doing something."

A further unintended symbolism of the new park is that there is going to have to be ongoing weeding and care of the flowers if the park is to remain inviting. We won’t be able to redeploy the caretakers or stop spending money on supplies to keep the weeds out, flowers nurtured, and grass cut.

It’s a little like NATO–except the flowers won’t participate in their own upkeep. It may be a little like Iraq too after the democracy has grown to be mostly self-sustaining.

Anything worthwhile requires both continual effort and commitment–-especially trying to stop civilian casualties whether from terrorists, dictators or conflicts.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Common Sense 1 - Congressional Leaders 0

From a Washington Post-LA Times story:

A confrontation between congressional leaders and the Bush administration escalated Wednesday, as House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded that the Justice Department immediately return documents that were seized when federal agents raided the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La.

Noting that "no person is above the law, neither the one being investigated nor those conducting the investigation," Hastert, R-Ill., and Pelosi, D-Calif., said the Justice Department must stop reviewing the documents and ensure that their contents are not divulged. Once the papers are returned, "Congressman Jefferson can and should fully cooperate with the Justice Department's efforts, consistent with his constitutional rights," the statement said.
[emphasis mine]

I'm sure organized crime, drug lords and anyone committing a crime will like Hastert and Pelosi's reading of the Constitution. Police are to return all items seized via a search warrant so that those under investigation can "fully cooperate". I'm sure they will--just like illegals in the "catch and release" proceedings always return for their court date and cooperate fully.

The AP story highlights another stalwart congressional leader's take on this:

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr.*, R-Wis., said he would hold hearings next week on the "profoundly disturbing" questions that he said the Justice Department's actions have raised.
[emphasis mine]

*If I remember right, last December Congressman Sensenbrenner also thought it better to not have the Patriot Act extended at all than to have it extended for six months. He finally agreed to a one month extension.

Actually, the really disturbing question regards the prospect that these representatives will get re-elected.

However, at least one member of Congress has some sense:

"For congressional leaders to make these self-serving arguments in the midst of serious scandals in Congress only further erodes the faith and confidence of the American people," Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said in a letter to Senate leaders.
[emphasis mine]

George at Alamo Nation puts it a bit more trenchantly:

Speaker Hastert, John Boehner Nancy Pelosi, William Jefferson, et. al. - You Are Not Above The Law. Per our Constitution you are "privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same." That's it. There's freaking nothing in there saying the Feds can't carry out a search warrant on Capitol Hill.

Congress - if you take bribes, then you can rot in jail. If you leak classified information to the press, then you can rot in jail. Your lack of term limits do not make you American Royalty. It would be wise to remember that. Meanwhile, Speaker Hastert has now become the poster child for the Term Limits Movement. It also exposes Newt Gingrich as part of the new 'Royal Caste.' Or at least that's how he perceives himself and Congress. Lord, I am glad Gingrich has no shot at all of getting the GOP nod for President in '08.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Ramirez Again!

(click on image to see larger version)

See sidebar link to more of his political cartoons. He continues to hit the bullseye.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

How Much Does The Oregonian Owe?

From a 1960's Oregonian ad

The Oregonian has an editorial in today's paper entitled "A life up in smoke". The main point of the editorial is that Philip Morris owes a lot more than $168,514 for the death of Michelle Schwarz.

I couldn't find the editorial on their website, so I can't link to it. But, I'll quote it the old fashioned way by typing out the relevant parts--more than I would usually because I can't link to the full editorial. Here are the opening three paragraphs:

Michelle Schwartz of Salem might have 20 or 30 years ahead, if not for the cigarettes that killed her. The one-time nursing student and mother of two might be planning a Memorial Day barbecue right now, or tucking away special cards from Mother's Day, if cancer hadn't stopped her short at age 53.

Her life is worth more than $168,514.

Her killer shouldn't walk away on a technicality.

The technicality referred to is that the judge didn't give a full explanation to jurors about what they could and could not consider in awarding punitive damages. The Oregon Appeals court ruling was explained in an earlier Oregonian article on the case:

A divided Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday issued a split decision in a landmark tobacco lawsuit, upholding a jury award of $168,514 in compensatory damages against cigarette maker Philip Morris but reversing $100 million in punitive damages.

The ruling affirmed a Multnomah County jury's 2002 decision that Philip Morris fraudulently marketed low-tar cigarettes as a healthier alternative to ordinary smokes.

But a majority of the court also decided to send the question of punitive damages back for a new trial because the lower court failed to tell the jurors not to punish Philip Morris for conduct that hurt people in other states.

The Oregonian believes that Philip Morris should be heavily punished for its false advertising claims.

The closing sentences of The Oregonian's editorial:

Whatever the outcome, $168,514 isn't enough. Not for Michelle Schwarz, and not for any state where one industry's lies have caused so much pain.

Okay. But if Philip Morris owes, shouldn't purveyors of that advertising like The Oregonian who gained their own tidy profit from buying habits of those like Schwarz owe too? Schwarz would probably never have known about the false or unverified claims except for advertising carried by media like The Oregonian.

I don't know what the answer to just damages is. Two of my grandparents were heavy smokers and both died relatively young of causes that cigarette smoking is linked to. This is not a theoretical issue to me.

Still, I find The Oregonian's strong rhetoric strange coming from a publication that profits daily from advertising lots of products and activities that do not promote a safe and 100% healthy lifestyle--not to mention good reviews of movies, books, games, etc., that make those lifestyles look "cool".

Life is risky. We make choices. Some are good--some are not so good. While Schwarz and my grandparents knew that smoking was not good for them, they chose to continue. Certainly the nicotine addiction pulled them along. But, still they chose. Others quit. They didn't.

Are the tobacco companies without guilt? No. But, is the Oregon Lottery (and the people of Oregon who authorized it) without guilt for the lives ruined by gambling? No. There are bad consequences to a lot of money making ventures.

Life is more complicated than the finger pointing approach The Oregonian takes in this editorial. If Philip Morris is the "killer" here, media like The Oregonian has certainly been an accessory to the killing.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Press Fails on PERS and Iraq

Why is it that reporters don't think to ask questions that regular people see as central?

In the last three days I have seen two stories, one national on Iraq casualties and one local on the PERS problem, that indicated that the writer understood some of the underlying issues but didn't care to look into them.

The PERS story was by an Oregonian reporter. The gist of the story is contained in the headline: Employers dodge jump in PERS rate.

Because the PERS board has changed its policy of spreading market gains/losses over a four year period to one that applies gains and losses immediately, public employers will pay much less than expected. This is because, though PERS lost four years ago, it has had great returns in the last three years.

That means the retirement system can begin charging employers as if it is making money instead of losing money. Investment returns the past three years average 16 percent, double the long-term average, according to executive director Paul Cleary.

Fine. But, later on in the article, reporter Betsy Hammond writes a paragraph on the key issue:

Oregon public employers pay some of the highest retirement benefit costs in the nation. That is due in large part to a quirk of Oregon's system -- which was phased out by the 2003 Legislature -- known as Money Match. It allowed employees to run up huge accounts -- and forced employers to match them.

The money match system is tied to the great investment management that PERS has had for many, many years. The pressing question that Hammond does not ask is: Why, if PERS is doing so well (an average 16% gain for each year during the last three years), is the system having problems? I mean, don't you wish your mutual funds, investment portfolio, or savings had averaged a 16% gain in 2003, 2004 and 2005? Compounded that's something like a 55% gain on one's original investment in just three years!

So, why is PERS in trouble? I happen to know the answer to this, and it's not due to a quirk or poor PERS management. The key phrase that Betsy Hammond does not expand upon is "allowed employees to run up huge accounts -- and forced employers to match them."

Employees had a deal with public employers that the employer would match what each employee put into their retirement fund. But, the public employer didn't really put that money in. What they did was spend the matching money at the time that the employee was putting in his/her share. So, if only PERS investment management had been the regular bumbling failure that most investment firms have been, everything would have been fine. There would have been no "huge accounts" run up. Or if the public employers had put their share in at the same time as the employee's share went in, they would have gotten a 55% return as well.

But, when you hide your money in a sock or spend it on other things (as public employers did) and your employee has first rate people doing their investing, there is trouble when it comes time to "match" their investment growth.

Unfortunately, the public employers didn't admit their failure and neither have the politicians. And reporters don't even ask the question as to why an organization that does so well in investing is portrayed as having to work to be "fairer to public employers and workers" (well actually, not to workers, but it sounds nice to link the two):

But actuaries and board members said they think rates set using the new methods will be steadier, easier to understand and fairer to public employers and workers over the next two decades.

The major problem with PERS is not quirky policies. It's the same problem social security has. Federal, state and local governments have spent the retirement money they were supposed to be putting into retirement accounts.

Then we have AP reporter Robert Reid write a story about casualties in Iraq: April Deadliest This Year for GIs in Iraq an AP story.

The report emphasizes that 69 U.S. troops were lost in April.

Although that figure is well below some of the bloodiest months of the Iraq conflict, it marks a sharp increase over March, when 31 American service members were killed. January's death toll stood at 62 and February's at 55. In December 2005, 68 Americans died.

Reasons behind the rising U.S. deaths were unclear, and U.S. military officials have cautioned not to interpret cyclical changes as the beginning of a trend. Some U.S. officers have suggested the increase could be due to better weather this month, making it easier for insurgents to launch attacks."
[emphasis mine]

It's strange that Robert Reid doesn't have any curiousity about why April of 2006 is "well below some of the bloodiest months of the Iraq conflict". Isn't the key question not "Why are April deaths higher than January, February and March deaths?" but "Why are 2006 deaths well below that of other years?"

If you are looking for a trend, isn't a reduction in casualties over a three year period more important than a slight increase in casualties in a four month period? Or one might even ask why March had so few casualties (31) compared with January, February and April. But Reid has no interest in those questions.

I happened to know something about the PERS situation so I could spot The Oregonian's error in not raising a key issue. AP's error became apparent in reading the story.

Why is there such a disconnect between what reporters think is important and what the reader would like to know?

I don't know. But, the disconnect in stories like these are what make me turn more and more for my news and analysis to alternative media for national/world stories and to people I know who are insiders for local stories.

The Press keeps shooting itself in the foot.