Guns into plowshares. Or Christmas stockings.

Portland’s mayor Sam Adams wants a gun “buy back” event in December. Those are the events to which you can bring a gun, turn in it without any questions asked, and get a few bucks. Not a bad concept, and it works well in many cities to get weapons out of homes.

But leave it to Adams; the guy could make free ice cream sound stupid.

The Oregonian’s website quotes Adams as follows. Italics are mine.

“The mayor said on Friday he’d announce the exact date and location today. The December date, Adams said, should draw plenty of gun owners who may be looking for extra shopping money for the holidays.

Yup, the greenest city in America has a new economic stimulus plan. Maybe we should cut out the middleman and just let people use the guns as legal tender. Pistols as point-of-service payment.

The ad campaign practically writes itself: “For everything else, there’s Smith and Wesson.”

Portland: Low-tech and high priced.

If you want an excellent blueprint for wasting resources, look at this report from Portland’s city auditor. You don’t need to read very far to get the idea.

The city that prides itself on its green approach to life is hugely wasteful when it comes to that paper stuff called “money.”

392 Business System Software Implementation Audit FULL(2)

If a private business operated this way, its creditors would be holding a fire sale right now.

West Virginia down to two friends.

From the Los Angles Times obituary of Senator Robert C. Byrd by Johanna Neuman:

“On election night 2000, when Byrd, then 83, was reelected with his largest margin ever — a 78% majority, carrying all 55 counties and all but seven of the state’s 1,970 precincts — he remarked: ‘West Virginia has always had four friends: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, and Robert C. Byrd.’ (He later dropped Sears from the list, complaining about inadequate service on a heater.)”

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

Arizona: Toughen up that immigrant law.

I was away last week, traveling the highways of the Southwest and the byways of the Northeast. Now I’ve come home to ponder the brilliance of the new immigrant law in Arizona.

It’s ingenious, really. It requires local cops to grab anyone who looks suspicious and demand proof of citizenship. Simple, but brilliant. The last time a state took this kind of well-thought out initiative was back in the day when public restrooms in the South were marked WHITE and COLORED.

All this whining about violating the Constitution is silly. That Constitution applies to REAL citizens, not people who sneak across the border determined to live debauched lives of mowing lawns, cleaning toilets, picking fruit or babysitting white kids. Surely any citizens detained by mistake will understand that it is all for their own safety and well-being.

And the claim that local police are not equipped to administer such a law is simply not true. Who better to pick out sneaky illegals than the armed guy or gal who already protects the streets terrorized by these roving, Spanish-speaking law breakers?

Instead of hissing our disapproval, we should be grateful that Arizona’s lawmakers are willing to live with the occasional delay when they call 911 after a rape, burglary or armed robbery. (We’ll be right with you ma’am, we just need to finish the paperwork on this Garcia fellow.)

The only reasonable criticism of this new law is that it doesn’t go far enough. Why not require all non-citizens to attach a badge of sorts on their clothes? Something easy to spot, like a star, maybe. In a bright color like yellow or pink. It’s not high-tech or expensive. Anyone, even someone who doesn’t speak English, can understand this requirement.

And here’s the beauty part: We already know it works.

A snapshot of us.

Sometimes an hour with the newspaper is all I need to see the immense contradictions and ironies of this country. These New York Times pieces are a case in point.

A story by Katie Zernike ponders polling of resentful Tea Party supporters.  I am ashamed of these fellow citizens; their racism, their short-sighted, self-serving demands for a return to the so-called  “real America” — code for a class system that keeps them snug and well-fed while shutting others out:

“In the poll, Tea Party supporters …were almost unanimous in their dislike of President Obama. Overwhelmingly, they said he does not share the values most Americans live by and does not understand the needs and problems of people like them. They are significantly more likely than Republicans or the general public to say that too much attention has been made of the problems facing black people, and that the policies of the Obama administration favor blacks over whites and the poor over the rich or the middle class.”

Then I turned to the obit page and saw that another highly visible figure in the civil rights movement has died: Benjamin L. Hooks. age 85. Hooks, who headed the NAACP for many years, was a minister, businessman and the first African American to be named a judge in Tennessee’s criminal courts. He was also the first to be appointed to the Federal Communications Commission. Hooks struggled to keep issues of civil rights in the forefront when Americans began to take the gains of the 1960s for granted. He wasn’t the most compelling public voice in the movement, but to look at his life and work is to understand the crucial changes wrought by Americans who would no longer tolerate Jim Crow.

And, finally, a profile of Eddie Feibusch, the undisputed king of zippers, reminds me that this is also a land of opportunity, imagination and very good stories.

The piece by Ralph Blumenthal describes the indefatigable 86-year-old:

“He sold a zipper for Margaret Truman’s wedding gown when Miss Truman, the president’s daughter, married Clifton Daniel in 1956, he is proud to say. He sold zippers to Nike for Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. And a prison in North Carolina called for a zipper for Bernard L. Madoff. Why? He doesn’t know.

New York City’s garment industry once had lots of zipper shops, some bigger than his, Mr. Feibusch says. But little by little they relocated, to China, India, Costa Rica. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks. ‘They couldn’t get their goods in,’ he said. “That was the end of the business.’

But not for Mr. Feibusch, a prewar refugee from Vienna who overcame not just the Nazis but also Velcro…”

High-risk sleepwalking

When I read “Raiding the Refrigerator, but Still Asleep” by Randi Hutter Epstein in The New York Times, I immediately had two questions:

1. Whoa! Do people actually binge eat in their sleep?

2. Do people do this in poor countries, or just in places where there’s a lot of extra food sitting around?

Epstein’s good reporting and respectful treatment of this makes one take it seriously:

“Consequences of nighttime eating can include injuries like black eyes from walking into a wall or hand cuts from a prep knife, or dental problems from gnawing on frozen food. On a deeper level, many sleep eaters feel depressed, frustrated and ashamed. Upwards of 10 percent of adults suffer from some sort of parasomnia, or sleep disorder, like sleepwalking or night terrors. Some have driven cars or performed inappropriate sexual acts — all while in a sleep-induced fog.”

There’s another thing I wonder about: Why don’t such nocturnal wanderings include chores? Does anyone fold laundry while sleepwalking? Clean out the spice cabinet? Give the dog his ear drops? Vote on health-care legislation?

Wait, nix that last question. I know the answer. 212 members of the US House of Representatives sleepwalked through a vote on March 21. Fortunately 219 of their colleagues were wide awake.

Holsters and health care.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has answered a question that’s been nagging at me: What’s really behind the strong opposition to the health care plan?

I know that some people worry that changes in insurance regulations will erode the coverage they already have. I’m convinced that out-and-out racism plays a role and that some opponents are more interested in seeing President Obama fail than taking care of their neighbors.

But these things don’t explain the fiery anger, the bold willingness to stand up in front of the entire world and say NO to better care for more Americans, including millions of children, hardworking adults and folks with chronic conditions that can be labeled “preexisting.”

Barbour’s now much-quoted remark about guns turned the light bulb on over my head:

“I do not believe the United States government has a right, it has the authority or power to force us to purchase health insurance any more than, in the name of homeland security, they can force every American to have to buy a gun,” the governor said.”

Setting aside for the moment that this statement is historically inaccurate (look up the Second Militia Act of 1792 in which folks were indeed required to go forth and get guns), Barbour’s sound byte speaks volumes. On some level these opponents simply do not believe that decent health care is something every person needs, therefore they see no reason to create laws that ensure its delivery. They see health care as an option, a luxury; something that people elect to have, like the premium cable package.

Here’s what I’d like to see: A running ticker like the ones in Times Square that report stock prices. Only this one would chart each visit to a doctor or medical facility by an elected official who votes on health care measures, state or federal.

Consider this: rental credits = coverage

The kneecapping may be over between enemies fighting over health care reform, but lesser shin-kicking will continue.

We’ve got some miles to go before these changes to our health care system and insurance industry are really “historic” as is being said. For now, it’s a live battle.

There’s plenty of good news, however. Reform that gets more kids covered or keeps folks with preexisting conditions in the fold is long overdue. Somewhere, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy can be proud.

One big worry, it seems to me, is the continued reliance on the workplace as the host for insurance.

Obviously it makes sense for most people to get coverage through employers, but alternative models would put new safety nets in place. We’ll have the infrastructure to do this. The new reform package includes a plan for health-coverage exchanges/marketplaces where consumers not covered by employers can “shop” for their insurance. Why not expand this plan?

One way to do that: Create small renter tax credits and allow taxpayers to cash ‘em in for coverage plans in those new marketplaces.

My neighbors down the street are a case in point. Yes, they will be helped by the new reforms–with a chronically ill adult, a young-adult employed part-time and a child, they have several vulnerabilities addressed by the plan just passed. But they aren’t out of the woods yet. The head of the household is retired, so traditional employer-based coverage is not in place. He is not old enough for Medicare yet.

Because the family rents a house, they don’t get the tax break that we get for paying interest on a mortgage. Now that the American dream of homeownership at any cost has proven to be something of a nightmare, perhaps it’s the ideal time to revisit a structure that rewards only “owners” versus reliable renters–and to do so in a way that allows people like my neighbors to have a real stake in their health care coverage.

A man for all, some, and no seasons

General Alexander Haig was a man of immense contradictions.

The former Secretary of State, who kept the home fires burning while Nixon went down, was an intelligent speaker who fractured the English language; a soldier who eschewed chain-of-command behavior. He was a statesman who alarmed presidents with his Papal devotion and naked ambition to assume the highest secular role in America.

The New York Times obit by Tim Weiner does a masterful job of fitting a biography in a small space. Read it here.

Time for groundshaking change

Why is it that earthquakes always hit so hard in the poorest areas?

The erudite New York Times columnist David Brooks reminds us that poverty means shakily constructed buildings, inadequate water, sewer and medical services even before the disaster strikes. He offers grisly evidence of how that plays out: The 1989 quake in the Bay Area and the recent one in Haiti were the same magnitude: 7.0. But while 63 people died in California, upwards of 50,000 are dead in Haiti.

The United States sends trillions in aid to poorer counties like Haiti, and it clearly hasn’t helped enough. Brooks raises our dismal record at bringing about economic growth around the globe. He cites the various reasons: We’re basically clumsy at this sort of thing; micro-aid, while important, is only one piece of the puzzle; and — most interesting to me — our concerns about cultural correctness.

Brooks, comparing Haiti’s poverty to the Dominican Republic’s progress, puts it this way:

“Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.”

Haiti, he writes, has resisted progress for a number of reasons: the influence of voodoo religion that emphasizes life’s capriciousness; mistrust of authority; widespread neglect and abuse of children. (Who presumably do not grow up equipped to improve things.)

“We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures,” Brooks writes. “But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

The point here is not to hold back dollars to Haiti, but to use this nightmarish earthquake to take a hard look at how US aid can be used to help other countries grow out of poverty. We don’t have a great track record in this, but we do now have the right person in the White House to push the issue — someone who can speak plainly on the traditions and cultural behaviors that block progress.  The rest of the world will listen to President Obama when he talks about culture, poverty and duty.

Blazing new insurance trails

When my bathrobe belt got caught in the silverware drawer this morning, nearly giving me whiplash, it started me thinking.

Why isn’t the health-insurance industry bombarding us with new products? It’s clear that whatever way the wind ultimately blows, the days of “pre-existing condition” translating as “license to print money” are coming to a close.  Sure seems like an ideal time to drum up some business.

There’s nothing risky about blatant doom-based insurance marketing. When cancer insurance came out years ago, there was a collective gasp from those consumers who thought it opportunistic and macabre. But people got over their pique and bought the policies.

So, how about some coverage that meets untapped needs of aging boomers? Dedicated policies for deafness resulting from all those rock concerts? Stair-tumbles linked to depth-distorting reading glasses? I’m positive that many of us would jump at coverage meant to protect us from the costs of the inevitable carpal tunnel, blurred vision and squishy discs resulting from hunching over computers all day.

And, for sure, cosmetic-procedure protection would fly: Botox, lipo and eye lifts gone bad; sloppy tattoo removal, and please, please, please, some relief for those over-pursed victims of that lip-plumping, sheep-collagen injection nonsense.

Come on people, show some initiative. Those big ol’ insurance buildings and CEO salaries don’t pay for themselves you know.

Not quite a Christmas miracle, but close

The health care measure passed by the Democrats: It isn’t perfect, but it’s a whole lot closer to perfect than anything we’ve had so far.

If you’re a woman or a man, with kids or without, if you have a chronic health condition or someone who never darkens a doctor’s door…it’s all good. Go out and light a candle to the late Ted Kennedy today. And maybe one for the lobbyists from AARP too.

If you’re fuming about the possibility that your excellent existing coverage might cost a bit more next year…well, just go have some eggnog and get over your selfish self.

Bite this: A little satire among friends…

At last, a meaningful debate about feeding the hungry:

Should food stamp purchases be restricted to healthy stuff? Or, more accurately, should the rules keep stamp users from buying bad stuff, like junk food?

The New York Times has a series of bloggers weighing in on the question, here.

I personally feel it is high time that we clamp down on the growing problem of government-funded purchases of hot dogs.

Of COURSE, we, the taxpayers who make food stamps possible, should get to decide what poor people eat! (And, admit it, that would be sort of fun, right? No more standing next to some food-stamp slacker at Winco while she buys Cheese Doodles. Now she’s gotta buy… lentils. Yeah, the 10-pound sack!)

Poor people, as everyone knows, need guidance…and a lot of it. If they could handle big decisions on their own — like buying white bread instead of whole-grain — they wouldn’t be in whatever mess got them on the bread line in the first place, would they?

Aside from the nutritional case to be made for getting more people into a high-fiber zipcode, closer regulation of food stamps would put an end to the growing problem of poor people spending so much time sitting around dining tables, yukking it up over a fun meal. A serious, focused mindset is key to finding gainful employment and pulling oneself up out of poverty. Every hour lingering over high-fat, high-sodium chicken pot pies is an hour lost.

I could flog this point, but, oops!, there goes the oven timer! Got to go!

Onward science soldiers!

If you thought the so-called War on Drugs was pretty much lost, take heart. Here’s some news about a guy who might just get us pointed in the right direction.

One of the more arresting quotes has to do with alcohol abuse and defining a problem drinker:

“The measuring stick is known as ’3-14′ — so if someone is having 3 or more drinks a day, or 14 per week, that should raise a red flag, and physicians should be much better equipped to intervene and offer treatment options if there is a problem. Ideally, Dr. McLellan said, that treatment would be available in the medical system itself, not segregated in rehabilitation and detox programs, with their high failure rates.”

Looking inside a sick system

Andrew Schneider, one of the best investigative reporters going, wrote this piece for Sphere, which is AOL’s new and promising news site. I don’t pretend to be objective — Schneider and I go way back — but I’m confident that I’m right about the quality of this piece.

It’s no news flash that people with health insurance get different care than those without it — but just how and when that happens is not always clear. Until we really grasp this process and where it collapses, we won’t be able to fix it.

This article sheds a lot of light on the issue. Another version runs on Cold Truth, Andy’s personal blog.

“A (huge) jug of wine, a (giant) loaf of bread, and thou…”

Some big dogs can learn new tricks, to wit: Costco has agreed to accept food stamps at most of its locations.

This is very good news. At first the giant warehouse store (headquartered in Issaquah, Washington) said no to the idea, assuming the $50 annual fee was too much of a deterrent to people getting government aid. (Store execs were probably also wary of dealing with the government paperwork involved, and it’s hard to blame them for that.)

It’s true that membership fees and big-discount sizes of stuff are tricky for thinner wallets. When broke, you often spend more to get less. You buy small sizes of things because the sticker price is lower. The fact that the $3 bottle of ketchup is half the size of the bottle that sells for $4 doesn’t matter. You have $3 today, not $4, and you need ketchup today, not the promise of cheaper condiments all month.

But this is not a hard-and-fast rule for poor people any more than it is for folks of means. Costco pilot programs showed a level of nuance in shopper trends that’s been overlooked. It seems that people on food stamps are indeed willing and organized enough (imagine!) to plan ahead, spend more upfront, and save money. People gladly get away from the $3 ketchup behavior if it is really worth their while.

The success of the Costco food-stamp pilots may also be helped by the fact that a $50 membership can be shared with another “household member” and Costco doesn’t check to see if that person with the extra card is really, truly your sister who lives in the attic. This benefit is already widely claimed by people not on food stamps, trust me.

It also helps that the visuals of giant-sized products are so enticing. There is something about the sight of 4 pounds of Rice Krispies and a half-gallon of shampoo that makes one feel somewhat more secure, as do the vats of red licorice and hunks of Tillamook cheddar cheese. If I have clean hair and snacks, all is not lost.

Given the huge amount of taxpayers’ money that has been handed over to banks and automakers to little positive effect, perhaps the feds should subsidize warehouse-shopping memberships and local-transit routes that serve Costco locations. (The stores are usually a long walk from the nearest bus stop, and you still see people climbing aboard with a shrink-wrapped raft-size cargo of toilet paper.)

Costco’s long check-out lines are full of well-dressed people pushing carts of fine wines, gourmet cheeses and premium meats. It’s a good thing to open the doors to people who actually need cheaper food.

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Kennedy book is a keeper


I just finished True Compass, Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, which was hurried to print following his death last month. It’s an engrossing read with good capsule histories of some of the biggest events of our time. It has one of the better concise treatments of the Vietnam war and the LBJ years that I’ve read in recent years.

It isn’t an historian’s work, although Kennedy provides a lot of new detail about his own campaigns and big moments in the Senate: civil rights debates, health care during the Clinton years, Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas hearings, to name a few.

It’s personal, but not tell-all. Most of the people Kennedy remembers with detail and skill are dead, but there is little or nothing in the 500-plus pages that would cause any spinning-in-their-graves. Think about that and ask yourself how often it happens. Answer: Not often. Most “celebrity” bios and autobios exist to set the record straight…from the author’s point of view, of course. The treatment of the Chappaquiddick disaster offers no new facts; it is convincing and sorrowful.

Kennedy wrote with the pride of a long-serving public servant, the gratitude of one looking back at a much-chronicled and very privileged life; and the deep regrets of a man who is taking his own measure with death just around the next corner.

Read on!

Author Anne Lamott, whose book “Bird by Bird,” is one of the most enjoyable guides to writing to come along in the past 100 years or so, penned this open letter to President Obama. It ran last week in the Los Angeles Times. It’s well worth your time:

“I am afraid there has been a misunderstanding since that election in 2008, during which 66,882,230 Americans cast their votes for you. Perhaps one of your trusted advisors has given you bum information. Maybe they told you that we voted for you — walked, marched, prayed, fund-raised and knocked on doors for you — because we hoped you would try to reunite the country. Of the total votes cast that long-ago November day, I’m guessing that about 1,575 people wanted you to try to reconcile the toxic bipartisanship that culminated in those Sarah Palin rallies.

The other 66,880,655 of us wanted universal healthcare.

Click here for the rest.