Monday, March 28, 2011

March Madness

March Madness
Every year I declare I'm not going to let the bug get me and despite my pledge I turn into a madman, yelling at the screen, missing meals, and rescheduling my life. I am not reacting to the madness that is exemplified by the conservative rally in Iowa. Some of the highlights reported by Jon Ward of The Huff Post, from Saturday's conservative rally for presidential hopefuls, in Iowa included: Herman Cain “We’ve got some altering and abolishing to do,” Cain said, referencing the Declaration of Independence. “The Founders got it right. It is within the power of the United States of America to alter stuff that we don’t like. We don’t like this radical socialism that’s being shoved down our throats.”
Talking to reporters afterwards, Cain also said he thinks the imposition of Islamic Sharia law is a legitimate threat in America and that he would not appoint any Muslims to any positions in his Cabinet if he were elected.

Michelle Bachmann: "She touted her introduction of a law to revoke the government's regulation of light bulbs, boasting: “I introduced the light bulb freedom of choice act!” The crowd roared at that one. Bachmann did not mention that the light bulb law was signed into law by former President Bush. Bachmann spent little time on the issue of moral values, but showed a deft touch in her handling of the issue. After railing for most of her remarks against big government meddling in people’s lives and hurting economic growth, Bachmann said that “it is families that are the solution and the ultimate building block for America." “Because no stimulus, no entitlement reform, no health care initiative, no education revamp can match the power of an intact two-parent family in driving economic growth, health and well being in the United States,” she said.
Bachmann noted that her parents divorced and said she understands “the difficulties that single parent families have. This is not to denigrate them in any way. ” She did not get into many specifics detailing how she would counter Obama’s policies, sticking to general principles. Bachmann was at her most populist near the end of her speech.
“The preservation of our nation is too important to entrust it to mere politicians,” she said. “The founders recognized that it could only be entrusted to the brain trust, and that’s the people of this nation.”
But Bachmann’s position on the role of religion in politics was somewhat contradictory. She sent positive and negative signals about whether religion is required for the nation to be moral. The Founders, she said, “understood it was our values that were the underpinning of this nation. John Adams wrote, it is only for a moral and religious nation, this constitution that we write, it is wholly unsuited for any other. ” But then Bachmann said that Adams’ quote was “not saying what kind of religion a person has to have, or if they have to be religious at all. What it is saying is that we cannot build a nation unless it is built upon a rock solid foundation. And America has that. It is the character and the values of our people. ” That statement would appear to be at odds with the belief expressed by many, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, that faith in God of some sort is needed for a nation to retain its “character and values.”
Bachmann left after her speech without answering questions from reporters.
Newt Gingrich: Newt Gingrich hosted a screening Friday night here in Des Moines of a movie he and his wife Callista made with conservative filmmaker David Bossie called "Rediscovering God in America." I watched the couple make brief remarks to introduce it, and then grabbed his book of the same name and read the introduction. The point of the book, and of the movie, is that America has been since its founding a religious nation with a national identity that recognizes faith in God as a cornerstone of its culture and its government. Some would say this means the U.S. is a "Christian nation." Gingrich's book stops short of that, and instead makes the case that America has been and should be a pluralistic nation that allows freedom of religion for most faiths (more on why not all faiths below). “For the Founders, it was abundantly clear. Religious liberty and freedom of religious expression would be indispensable supports for our democratic traditions of government and our pluralistic society. And so they have, for over two hundred years. It is important to recognize that the benefits of these supports accrue to people of not just one particular faith, but those of all faiths,” Gingrich writes.
Of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, Gingrich says “the phrase transcends any one faith or denomination and is inclusive. ”But there are some limits to religious freedom, he argues. A free country requires that its people be virtuous, and virtue is produced by what Gingrich calls “true religion.” “True religion” is defined in his book as “any religion that cultivates the virtues necessary to the protection of liberty.” “Implicit within this vision of the Founding Fathers is a pluralistic sensibility,” he writes. I asked Gingrich after his speech today whether Islam fit the definition of “true religion” as he defines it in his book. His answer was very short, and a bit inconclusive. “I think it’s a monotheism,” he said. “So it does?” I asked. He responded: “The point is the Founding Fathers believed that having a belief in God – this is a very wide range if you read what they say – is where they believe our rights come from.”
Another reporter asked whether some in the GOP were going too far in criticizing Islam and its connection to international terrorism. “I think that you can be anti-radical Islamist without being anti-Islam,” Gingrich said.

There is a lot to react to in that set of speeches. I left it to the pols to take up the slack. Robert Reich is one of the few insiders who is speaking out. He decries Maine's new Governor Lepage, and more evidence of the republican big lie. His last two posts suggest we need a fighter in the White House.

While that madness was playing out, I was concentrating on the truly astounding, the playoffs of the NCAA men's tourney.
Arguably, the best of the game is fought on courts in the middle. The same kids who astonish us every year with their talent are born, raised, and schooled in those reaches of our landscape that are the breeding ground for the radical right speak that dominated the Iowa gathering. As you watch the final four take note of the fans, the bands, and the cutaways to their home schools. They are not ignorant. They don't drool. And it is yet to be seen whether they can be scared into responding to the hysteria of the persons who would lead them.
The disconnect is mind boggling. Those stands are filled with thoughtful, concerned, people who are hurting. Why do "progressives" cede them to the right? The fact is there was no response to the hysterics of the Tea Baggers from professionals on the left. As for the so-called liberal media, it does a great job of not pressing any of these potential candidates on any of their outrageous claims or staked out positions. Radical is the name now given by the right to any press that reports or asks any question regarding their remarks or behavior.

What of the responsibility of the so called progressives to push back? There are signs of an awakening in Wisconsin. I don't trust it. It is too rifle shot an issue and one has to wonder if the rage will extend to support of grievances from the broader cultural agenda now under attack.
The middle comes up quick as you move off the coasts. During a recent election in which a gay rights bill was on a ballot, if you noted lawn signs in Portland, the city on the edge, you would have thought that passage of gay rights was a slam dunk. On a drive not two miles out of the town limits the yard signs changed and in fact the referendum went down. I don't think the so-called left really want to spend any quality time inn the middle. In the game of politics as social identity there is not much fun imagined by the cadres that would be required to actually sit down and speak to our neighbors in the middle. We don't gain their respect marching through their Precincts wearing bias on tee shirts or parachuting in to pass out leaflets and then hurrying out.

We have a President who holds political action hostage by claiming his is the voice of progress and we should accept his politics as our own, as the old saw suggests, "what's our option". I for one believe we have to create an option. I am not going to accept as a given the policies of war, and empire, and America for the rich. I don't believe there has ever been a better time to create a true progressive movement. It will require time in the middle.

We've spent most of our lives in the middle. When we moved to the Shenandoah Valley the first question the first person we met was, "Is Max going out for band or the orchestra"? The second question was what the J meant on Max's school application. When Charlie came to pull some wire we spent as much time bullshitting about our respective lives as we did getting the work done. We had kids in common, tough times, changing landscapes, and ironically the influx of people from the city, of which I was one, was a big topic. What locals wanted me to understand was that the familiarity and solidarity of their community was what they feared they were going to lose. They knew where everyone lived, and when someone might be snowed in, or in need of checking up on, they responded. They feared they would lose that intimacy. They wanted me to commit to them. I volunteered to coach midget basketball. Carrie taught pottery.
They did not fear my politics, my religious orientation, my big city ways. It was a constant source of amusement. There is a reason that most of the comics come from the middle. They would rather tell a joke than the truth, and they are good at it.
When my car needed repair, it was done. When the dogs needed shots it was done. When we had a serious medical need, it was satisfied. The details of such a life are for others to write. What I want to share is how much we had in common. The predicate was we weren't there to change them, nor they us. We grew together. I became a leader in the dem party. We got candidates elected. We were on the ground.

I find the theory of spatial harmony, the idea that when people sit next to each other they tend to harmonize their thinking, most exciting. Here is an excerpt from a book wherein corporations are picking up the data and incorporating it in their design of office space.

To be in a position to harmonize requires proximity. Everyone believed Virginia was going to go red in the last presidential election, and they cited race as the key issue. Obama won Va. The fact is that the next gen has taken race off the table. They have eaten at the same table with others and while not integrated are past the simplistic race based politics of their parents.
Now as the political season heats up again, we have an opportunity to harmonize with the people in the middle on an array of issues. If the only voices they hear, and the only people who will sit with them for any reasonable period of time come screaming from the right, then the future is a foregone conclusion. There is an alternative. Those who have roots in the middle have to go home again, sit around those family tables and discuss their collective futures. Young persons looking for opportunity would do themselves a great service by seeking out prospects to thrive where there is a vacancy they can fill. Seniors might consider affordable options for retirement where places are begging them to migrate. And, political organizers who mean it, who want change enough to live for it, might consider relocating. They would get a chance to see some great basketball.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fat Tuesday

In the run up to Mardi Gras the urge for cajun cooking gets extreme. I was craving red beans and rice. You don't make small quantities of red beans at home. Good beans require you add at least one smoked ham hock to the pot. That means you gonna cook up a mess. This is a good example of deferring to an institution to do the cooking unless you intend to feed a mob or eat red beans for a week. ran a column on the places to get the best red beans and rice in New Orleans. Popeyes made the top 5. It wasn't the first time someone had recommended them. So Monday, red bean day, we drove the 25 miles to the only Popeyes in the state of Maine. What was I thinking? What are the so-called experts thinking? For those who don't know, one is handed a covered foam cup in which two tablespoons of rice are placed over a red paste of something. I'll stop there.

By the time any chain opens the third store, I don't care what the product, it is not going to warrant the drive. Subway proudly announces it has more units than MickyD. That doesn't say a thing about the quality of the sandwich. And none can compare with the hands on, one off, of say this piece of work at the Num Pang Sandwich Shop.
To say that bigger is not better is to state the obvious. Why then the insatiable urge to grow? In business terms the enterprise trades off quality for profit. In the public sphere the world is far more complex. You will concur, after you read this, that it is obvious to say that the entrepreneurial spirit invades the bureaucracy. Unless you experience it however, you can't appreciate the scale of the behavior. Government agency heads read their budget projections with sweating palms. They fear a cut-back, celebrate an increase, and these numbers have little to do with the delivery of the service they are charged to perform. Bigger is just better. They sit at the cabinet table in ranked order of whose agency is bigger, how large the budget, how huge the staff. They often fund projects with an eye to "continuation of effort", the opportunity to continue the project, not with successful completion. It is how we got where we are.

The behavior of bureaucrats at the local level is no less insidious. Given that the school allocation is always the largest item in any municipal budget it is no wonder that here is where the heat is rising as we contemplate cutbacks. Teachers are front and center of this discussion; fire them, cut their pensions, curtail their ability to bargain. Very little attention is paid to a real budget buster, the building program. School buildings are mortgaged and thus amortized over the life of the instrument. A thirty year building bond appears on the budget in increments. It doesn't feel, or look so bad. Fact is, it is an enormous contributor to your total tax bill. And that bill is brought to you by the same gangsters that brought you the end of the world as you know it.

When we were in Virginia we lived through this way up close and personal. The arguments for shutting down the neighborhood school that had worked well for the previous 70 some years came down to consolidation is a good thing, it will improve the delivery of services because the new bigger school can deliver more, fill in the blanks. There was no empirical evidence to support those claims. It was accepted, not without a fight. The protesters lost. Ground was acquired from a friend of the board at a price that set a record for a land sale at that time. Architects and builders went at it and a shiny new school rose in a farm field and the old time school was abandoned.
Closer to home the same process has just repeated itself. This is what we lost:

After the memorial for the old school, the weeping grads that came back to praise it, and testify as to how they will miss it, blithely accepted the new reality.
This is what we got. Plus a bill for 14+ million dollars.

• A prominent principal’s office with large windows overlooking the front entrance, which will be the only public entrance. It will have a closed vestibule with a key-card system for staff members and a two-way communication window to screen visitors.
• Classrooms clustered around four open, carpeted areas with skylights, where teachers can work with students one-on-one or in small groups. Classrooms are in two, two-story wings, with lower grades at ground level.
• Several single-user bathrooms in each classroom wing, meant to increase privacy, decrease the distance from classrooms and reduce the potential for students to misbehave in “gang” bathrooms.
• Various energy-saving and environmentally friendly features, including a roof drainage system planted with greenery, solar-powered hot water and a dual-fired heating system that will allow the school to burn oil or gas, whichever is cheaper.
• A teachers’ lounge and workroom – something Clifford lacks – and a health clinic with a bathroom that’s larger than the nurse’s room at Clifford.

The following is excerpted from an article In The Portland Press Herald:

A tour of the school reveals more features.Each hallway is lined with an occasional grooved tile that reflects the theme of the wing. For instance, the ocean wing has tiles with embedded fish scale patterns.Jenifer Richard, an interior designer from WBRC Architects, said children enjoy running their hands along walls, which is why each wing has special hand tiles.Richard said the other wings' themes are agriculture, forest and mountains.The floors also reflect wing themes. The Ocean Wing floor tiles resemble rippling water. Forest wing floors look like bark with spots of leaves on them.
Another article re the school budget process in rural Maine, contained the following:

If the transition goes smoothly, it will bode well for future building projects, school officials said. They're working on plans to replace or renovate several of Portland's 10 elementary schools, depending on availability of state funding.
They're also preparing to tackle the controversial subject of redistricting within the next few years, which could force residents to reconsider their definition of neighborhood schools.
"We need to communicate with parents and students to make sure this transition goes well," said Jaimey Caron, chairman of the School Committee's facilities subcommittee.
The article provoked the "humble farmer" to write the following letter to the editor:

Robert Karl Skoglund 02/28/2011 06:24 AM
Fifty or so years ago the people in St. George, Maine voted to go into a school administrative district with Thomaston. This is like sending a weekly check to a man who lives with your wife and raises your children.
You might well ask how intelligent Maine people could be suckered into such a con game.
The basic premise is something for nothing. It is absolutely impossible to fleece people unless they are convinced that they can get something for nothing.
Here’s how the school con works.
You, the taxpayer in Maine, give the State and Federal Government your tax dollars. Then, if you do exactly what the government tells you to do, they will give back to your school some of your money.
You smile and feel pretty good that you got all that free money from the government.
Here’s how the school con started.
Building contractors convince top officials in the education business that it’s cheaper to educate children in large central schools. For years Maine people have raised chickens in large, centrally located henhouses. The more chickens you can jam into your henhouse, the more money you can make. The grain bin is right by the door. It’s efficient. So folks very quickly bought the argument that it would be cheaper to educate kids in consolidated schools.
It was a good argument, but there was one hitch. No chicken farmer in his right mind would vote to spend the amount of money it was going to take to build those expensive gyms and playing fields. Because most anyone would ask, “What’s gymnasiums and football fields got to do with education?”
But the wonderful part about the whole deal was that the towns wouldn’t have to pay. The state was going to pick up the tab. So even the most frugal chicken farmer jumped right in. He was suckered, you see, with the promise of something for nothing.
His town sent his tax dollars to Augusta to pay for all the schools in Maine. But there wasn’t enough money to build and run schools in all the towns. Who would believe it?

Maine people who were very frugal, Maine people who would never in their right minds vote to replace their present excellent local school, voted to go into school administrative districts. They might attend church in a building that was built in 1850, but thought that their children couldn’t be properly educated unless it they were housed in a shiny new building. And they wanted to get their share of that money out of that big money barrel in Augusta before their sticky fingered neighbors in the next county got it.
It was cleverly done, wasn’t it? But like any con game, it had to work because most taxpayers can be convinced that you can get something for nothing. Forty years ago we had communities in Maine. When you lose your school, you lose your community. And when you farm out your child’s education by getting into a school administrative district that will “save you money” don’t be surprised to discover that you might be paying for that education twice.

The humble Farmer