Monday, January 27, 2014

What's in a Name? To Some, a Lot.

When "Fast and Furious" star Paul Walker died in a horrific car crash, initial reports said it was believed that the car he was in had been drag racing. His friends and family vehemently protested this initial conclusion. Now, the Coroner's Report has found no evidence of drag racing, but the evidence presented is that the car was traveling in excess of 100 mph on a city street having a speed limit of 45.

Either way, it is extremely reckless driving. Here is my question: what difference does it make if he was drag racing or simply driving horribly recklessly on a city street? Really, what difference does it make?

My second example is from a horrible train wreck recently, in which the engineer failed to slow down for a dangerous curve. Analysis showed that the train was going more than double the 35 mph speed limit.

Obviously, the engineer had fallen asleep. When it came time to give his account of events, the engineer's union representative was adamant that the guy hadn't fallen asleep. What he had done instead was "nodded off". Uh, Mr. Union Representative, how is "nodding off" different than "falling asleep"?

My third example is from the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission building in Benghazi. Many Republicans castigated Obama for not clearly calling it "terrorism", although he did indirectly refer to it as such. What do these idiots think "terrorism" is? I suggest they all buy dictionaries so they could see that it was terrorism, pure and simple, whether the cause was a film or other reasons. Recent in-depth studies reveal the film did play a role, but regardless of that, attacking innocent people for political reasons is the very essence of terrorism.

This whole terrorism thing just drives me batty. Every time there is some sort of disaster, the first thing the government and media want to do is find out if terrorism was involved. When it turns that it wasn't involved, it's as if we're all supposed to breathe a huge sigh of relief, even though the damage is the same either way. After all, if the aforementioned train accident had been caused by terrorism, the dead would be just as dead, and the injured just as injured.

Shakespeare wrote "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.""  Apparently many today think he was wrong.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"The Death of the West", by Pat Buchanan

Pat Buchanan's "Death of the West" identifies four "clear and present dangers" to the future health of the western world. These are: 1) a dying population; 2) mass immigration; 3) rise of an anti-Western culture; and 4) the  breakup of nations and rise of world government.

Looking at how these apply to the United States, where I have lived my whole life, I agree with Buchanan's conclusion but not his reasoning used to reach that conclusion. It is clear that the U.S. is in serious decline, and the evidence for this shows up almost everywhere one looks these days. There is an epidemic of obesity in this country. No country can remain strong when its population is so unhealthy. Our health care system continues to sink in comparison to other countries. We spend twice as much on health care, with results that by any measure put us only about 30th compared to other developed countries.

Our national government is completely dysfunctional, unable any longer to govern. We spend more on the military than the next 12 or 13 countries combined! We are addicted to military intervention in other sovereign countries, even though we would never tolerate another country doing the same to us. We seem unable to live within our means, both on a personal level and on a governmental level. The federal deficit still runs to unheard-of amounts, meaning our national debt is skyrocketing yearly.

On a personal level, our savings rate has become negative for the first time in history. We seem unable to grasp the concept of deferred gratification; rather, we insist on having it all immediately. We evaluate ideas and programs and policies not on the basis of long-term benefit, but on the basis of what the immediate effect is of said plans.

We incarcerate far more of our citizens than any other country in the world, contributing to the financial crisis we face. Our citizens are 20 times more likely than those in other developed countries to face gun violence, due to the epidemic of guns and gun-related violence in this country. We seem unable to do anything about this epidemic, even though 90% of us believe that better background checks are needed for someone buying a firearm.

We have become a nation of whiners, rather than a nation of doers. It used to be that when we suffered a setback, we would resolve to work harder and pull ourselves out of the difficulties we face. Now, we look for someone to blame, even to sue. (A Little League coach just sued one of his players for throwing his helmet in celebration of scoring a game-winning run.)

These are the kinds of reasons explaining America's decline, not the xenophobic and homophobic reasons advanced by Buchanan. Buchanan says that the dying population is the "most dangerous" of his four cited dangers. And yet, he is opposed to allowing the immigration levels which would ameliorate the problem of the low birthrate. He is, however, strongly opposed to abortion and homosexuality, and part of the reason for his opposition is that these two issues contribute to the dying population problem.

Buchanan abhors what he calls the "de-Christianizing" of America. He is unable to see the wisdom of the separation of church and state, and it is obvious he thinks the government should actively promote Christianity. This is an insidious notion in and of itself. However, the true problem with Buchanan's position here is that it is not Christianity in general which he espouses; rather, it is a very narrow brand of fundamentalist and socially conservative Christianity, a brand which condemns birth control, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, feminism, artistic freedom, and the lack of prayer and Christian symbols in schools.

The tragedy of this misguided book is that people who read it might be so turned off that they will then overlook Buchanan's very excellent books on foreign policy. "Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War", and "Where the Right Went Wrong" are exceptionally perceptive books, full of meticulous research and well-reasoned criticisms of U.S. war policy. Readers should skip "The Death of the West" and instead should immerse themselves in these other two books.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Has A-Rod Gone Mad?

The arbitrator's decision was announced recently and Alex Rodriguez will have to serve 162 games of his original 211-game suspension. This means he is out of action for all of next year.

A-Rod plans to go into federal court today to challenge this decision. This is completely futile, and will serve nothing more than to enrich his attorneys and to prove what an ass he is. The collective bargaining agreement between the players association and MLB provides for binding arbitration. There is no appeal from the arbitrator's decision. This, after all, is the provision that got the players free agentcy back in the mid-'70's, when an arbitrator ruled that baeball's infamous reserve clause, binding a player to his team for life, was illegal.

MLB did not appeal from this decision, recognizing that it would be futile in light of the CBA provision mentioned above. Yet, A-Rod seems to think the rules do not apply to him. His attitude is reminiscent of Lance Armstrong, who adamantly denied doping, and vilified and even sued those who dared to contradict him. When he finally came clean, and an interviewer asked him "did you sue" so-and-so, he lamely replied, "I probably did; we sued so many people."

It is interesting that A-Rod has never denied using PED's under oath. This is only because he walked out of his arbitration hearing the day before he was scheduled to testify. His supposed reason for walking out was disgust that commissioner Bud Selig was not going to testify. This is ludicrous on the face of it. Bud Selig has never testified at an arbitration hearing. His testimony is not needed and would prove nothing. The issue is whether the punishment issued by MLB has a basis in fact. It is completely reasonable that MLB would present the witnesses who have first-hand knowlege of the relevant facts. Selig's testimony would have been superfluous.

The Yankees win here, because they save the $27M salary they would have been on the hook to A-Rod for next year. This gives them a good shot at getting below the luxury tax threshold for next year, saving the extra expense for the luxury tax they have been paying year after year.

The bad news is that the Yankees are on the hook for the following three years, at $27M per year. Why clubs give out long-term contracts like this is inexplicable to me. All the stats show that long-term contracts given to players in their 30's rarely pay off. 90% or more of the time they turn into disasters for the clubs who are foolish enough to agree to these contracts.

One might reasonably ask whether the Yankees couldn't simply terminate the contact, given A-Rod's violation of the drug policy. This would be in line with basic contract law, which says that if one party violates a material term of the contract, then the other party can void that contract. The reason this is not an option is that the CBA specifically bars teams from retaliating in this way for a violation of the drug policy. So, the same CBA which A-Rod challenges by his federal court action, also protects him from the last three years of his contract being cancelled. Poetic justice here would call for an order from the judge releasing the Yankees from their obligations under the rest of the contract. A-Rod is now so universally despised that nobody would shed any tears were this to be the result of his idiotic lawsuit.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Thoughts on the "Bridgegate" Scandal

Chris Christie gave an almost two-hour news conference the other day in which he was adamant that he hadn't known of the politically-motivated closing of three lanes on the world's busiest bridge, the George Washington Bridge, after Fort Lee's mayor refused to endorse him for governor in last year's campaign. Taking Christie at his word, let us examine this situation more closely.

First, Christie says he asked his senior staff to tell him if there was anything else he needed to know about the lanes closing. At his press conference, he fired his staff member Bridgett Kelly because she "lied to me". His response seems quite egocentric; that is, he was upset not because thousands of his New Jersey constituents were inconvenienced by the closings,  not because emergency vehicles were delayed and one person actually died before help could arrive, but because he felt personally betrayed by his staff. As the mayor of Fort Lee said, don't apologize to me, apologize to the people who were harmed by the closings, to all the school children who couldn't get to school for hours on the first day of school.
Second, Christie is a former prosecutor who made his name by successfully prosecuting public officials for public corruption. Believe me, these are not easy cases to prosecute. You don't do it by being a shrinking violet. Christie's lack of follow-up with his staff indicates a willful desire to not know the truth. Had he wanted to know the truth, he would have asked obvious follow-up questions, such as, when was the decision to do this alleged "traffic study" decided upon? What advance notice was given to the people in the area that this was going to be done? What was the purpose of the traffic study? Who approved it? Experts say that months of advance notice would be normal in this situation, where the busiest bridge in the world was being affected. The lack of any notice at all is a sure sign that something was amiss here. Christie should have caught on to this.

Third, every expert who has commented has said that the person at the top always determines the tone of the office. Joe Scarborough says that when he was in Congress, he could walk into a colleague's office and tell within minutes which office he was in, just by the tone and appearance of the office. The person at the top always sets the tone for the office. Christie set a tone, and  his underlings proceeded accordingly.

Fourth, the people who know Bridgett Kelly say her actions were completely out of character for her. She has been known as a person of integrity, very issue-oriented, and the last person who would take it upon herself to do such a vile, viindictive thing.

Christie's apology, while seeming to be heartfelt and superficially sincere, ignores all of these factors, and did not speak to any of them. Right-wing Republicans can now breathe easier, since Christie has eliminated himself as a contender for the 2016 nomination.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Chris Cuomo vs. Dennis Rodman

I used to admire Chris Cuomo, and enjoyed watching him on CNN's "New Day from 6 to 8 each weekday morning. But this morning he really made an ass of himself by continually belittling and berating Dennis Rodman for his visit to North Korea.

I don't know what is in Cuomo's head to be so antagonistic. I suppose he thinks he is being a tough journalist, but it came off that he was simply being an ass. Does he not realize that some contact between the two countries is better than no contact? Is he unable to appreciate the three years of his life which Rodman has devoted to visiting other countries and making friends in those countries?

I remember when Van Cliburn went to Moscow in 1957. Nobody damned him for this; rather, he was praised for creating a thaw in the Cold War and was given a ticker tape parade in New York upon his return, the only time a classical musician has received this honor. I remember also when the U.S. ping-pong team visited China in 1971, leading to a thaw in US-China relations. Nobody damned the ping-pong team for this; rather, they were hailed as good will ambassadors.

It is one thing to ask tough questions, which a journalist should do. But Cuomo went way beyond that. He thoroughly castigated Dennis Rodman, despite the sincere attempts by one of Rodman's teammates to explain that the purpose of the trip was basketball, not diplomacy. For this Cuomo should be ashamed of himself.