Friday, October 10, 2008

Another term limits rant

San Antonio has the most godawful, stupidest term limits restrictions of any major city in the nation. The four-years-and-you’re-out rule keeps San Antonio’s city government permanently handicapped with inexperienced leaders focused on short-term goals.
There is not another entity of any kind in the nation that would tolerate such a ridiculous restriction.
Who would invest their money in a company that pitched out all of its top executives every four years and started fresh with green-behind-the-ears newbies?
What if the San Antonio Spurs tossed out all their veteran players every four years and started over with a team of rookies? How many NBA titles do you think they would win?
The people who are trying to keep this term-limit stranglehold on our city government are either grossly ignorant as to the impact their stubborness is having on the city or they just flat-out hate muncipal government and want to see it constantly fail.
We have got to loosen this noose around our city government’s neck if we want our city to continue to be healthy and vibrant going into the future.
If you live in San Antonio and you care about our city, please go out and vote Nov. 4 for the very reasonable compromise extending term limits to eight years.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Filibuster-proof Senate

The Democrats appear to have an outside shot at a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate next session by winning enough races to bring their total to 60.
Right now the Senate is split 49-49 with two Independents who caucus with the Democrats — the Socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and the Neo-Con Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
It is unclear whether Lieberman will continue to caucus with the Democrats next year in light of his support for John McCain this election season, going so far as to speak at the Republican National Convention last month. A lot of Democrats want to kick Lieberman out of the caucus and strip him of his chairmanship.
Since the Republicans are not likely to win this election, the next best thing that could happen for Lieberman is if the Democrats come within one vote of that magic 60-vote number. Then they would have to continue holding their noses and allowing him to chair a committee so that he would stay in the caucus.

Here is how the Senate races are shaping up so far:
There are no Democrats in danger of losing their seats. Even Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, once considered to be the weakest link, is running well ahead of her Republican opponent.
Republicans, on the other hand, are in a world of hurt. Two formerly Republican seats are already considered to be locked up by Democrats - Mark Warner in Virginia and Tom Udall in New Mexico.
Two more are considered highly likely to flip to the Democrats — Mark Udall in Colorado and Jean Shaheen in New Hampshire.
Then there are four more races that are very close but have recently been trending in favor of the Democrats:
Kay Hagan in North Carolina threatening to topple Elizabeth Dole;
Mark Begich in Alaska facing the scandal-plagued Ted Stevens;
Jeff Merkley of Oregon has moderate Republican Gordon Smith on the run;
and Al Franken of Minnesota has taken a slim lead over Norm Coleman.

If the Democrats win all these contests it would be considered a fantastic triumph for the party. But it would still leave them one short of the 60-vote supermajority even counting the two independents.

So now we turn to four long-shot races that look like they could flip if there is a tidal wave of support for Democrats on election day. Those include Ronnie Musgrove in Mississippi; Bruce Lunsford in Kentucky; Jim Martin in Georgia and Rick Noriega in Texas.
If the Democrats pick up one of those, they have 60wL (with Lieberman). If they win two of the four they have 60 and they can ditch Lieberman.

Realistically, I am not getting my hopes up that high. But the fact that this scenario is even possible now is quite remarkable.

Virginia is turning blue

The latest polls show Obama up by double digits in Virginia!
To understand the significance of this you have to be versed in some of the number-crunching statistics of electoral politics.
So far in this campaign Republicans have failed to make any headway in the so-called Kerry states, or those states won by John Kerry in 2004. In addition, Obama seems to have a lock on Iowa and New Mexico which both went narrowly for Bush in 04.
Assuming that does not change, Obama can win by picking up any one of the following states - Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Missouri or Indiana. He is currently leading in all of those states with the exception of Indiana where McCain still has a narrow lead but was never before considered to be a swing state in the first place.
To repeat, anyone of those states can push Obama over the top. If all or even most of them go for Obama, we are talking landslide of historic proportions not seen by a Democrat since LBJ.
And did I mention that I am not even counting New Hampshire, Colorado or Nevada in the Obama column, even though he is leading in those states as well? My current dream number for an Obama landslide is 364. He only needs 270 to win.
When people look at an electoral map of the U.S., it always looks more red than blue. But that is misleading because the map emphasizes land mass which does not matter rather than people. For example, the New England block which Democrats have a lock on - Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut - has as many electoral votes as Texas. If you throw in some of the other reliably Democratic states just below that region - Delaware, Maryland, D.C., New Jersey - you have a block of electoral votes the same size as California. And when you add in the big population states like California, New York and Illinois which are currently gimmees for Democrats and throw in the reliably Democratic Midwest states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, then it comes down to who can win Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.
Fun stuff!

Gun nuts for McCain!

Here is some shocking news. The National Gun Nuts Association (NGNA) has endorsed John McCain for president.
I never would have seen THAT coming!
Legitimate gun owners, of course, have nothing to fear from Democrats or a Barack Obama administration. It is just the complete whack jobs like Wayne LaPierre, president of the NGNA, who advocate for unrestricted, total deregulation of the gun industry (we saw how well that worked out for the financial industry) who have something to worry about. If your dream is to one day walk into my kid’s elementary school carrying a military assault rifle, or board a commercial airliner with a plastic gun and a round of armor piercing cop-killer bullets in your belt, then you are probably going to be out of luck under an Obama administration because he will support COMMON SENSE gun laws that won’t restrict in any way the activities of legitimate hunters or the ability of people to protect themselves in their homes.
It is a real shame. There used to be a respected gun owners group called the National Rifle Association or NRA, but it no longer exists today having been overrun by crazy people like Wayne LaPierre. I think they may even still use that name, but don’t be fooled. It is not the same organization that it was.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

What’s Left? Part III

This column was published on Aug. 3, 1995

Promotions unnecessarily lure players to state ‘lootery’

I soured on the lottery about four years ago. That was back before Texas took the plunge. I was living in Connecticut at the time, a different world for a South Texas native, working for a chain of newspapers along the coast.
One day as I was standing in line at a small grocery market, I noticed an elderly woman ahead of me with a meager offering of groceries. I assumed from her pauper-like appearance that she was of less than substantial means. As the cashier rang her up, she glanced into her purse and suddenly looked up startled. Stopping the cashier, she picked up a package of meat and asked to take it back so she could buy her daily allotment of lottery tickets.
I couldn’t believe it! This woman was taking food off of her table so she could purchase some worthless lottery tickets. I was beside myself with outrage and disgust, so I decided to look into the matter more thoroughly.
As it turns out, Connecticut was making a killing on lottery tickets that year, raking in an estimated $525 million. That’s a lot of money to squeeze out of a little bitty state like Connecticut. Texas lottery officials are boasting about bringing in $927 million in lottery revenues last year and that from a state with a population four and a half times the size of Connecticut.
Mind you, this was going on in the midst of a really bad recession in the Northeast. Despite having approximately 40 percent of this mountain cash flowing directly into the state treasury, Connecticut was still struggling to make ends meet and was faced with the biggest budget deficit in its history. Obviously the lottery, which had been around for 18 years there, was not the cure all for the state’s fiscal woes.
Could it be, I wondered, that the lottery was more of a drain on the state’s economy than a benefit? People were struggling with massive layoffs, unemployment, low wages and high cost of living; and yet they were spending more on lottery tickets than ever before.
Where does all of this money come from anyway? Well, it’s not appearing out of thin air. In many cases, like the example above, it’s coming straight off the tables of people who can’t afford it. It is also the discretionary income of thousands of working class and middle income people who might have found better and more productive things to do with it. The lottery does not create wealth, it just soaks up whatever is already out there and redistributes about half to a very small group of people.
The money spent on lottery tickets might otherwise have gone towards a night out at the movies, a meal at a nice restaurant, some new clothes, a family vacation, savings for a child’s education and so on. In other words, it is money that could have been reinvested in the community to support local businesses or put into savings which helps banks make loans to new businesses and to people buying new homes.
Instead it is money that is being frittered away on one of the oldest con games known to man. Any professional gambler could tell you that the lottery has the worst odds of any form of gambling ever devised. Your odds of being killed in an automobile accident tomorrow are much better than your chances of winning the big Lotto jackpot. Think about it.
But it is not my place to tell people how to spend their money. And I know that some people would even argue that playing the lottery is worth losing their money on because of the enjoyment they get from those few moments of anticipation as they scratch their numbers or listen to the winning numbers on the nightly news. It reminds me of the time when I was a youth buying packages of baseball cards at the concession stand during Little League games. You could never tell if that next pack of cards might be the one containing the Johnny Bench or Pete Rose cards that I so highly valued.
So my gripe is not with the people that play the lottery. My frustration is with the state government which has decided to tap into people’s weaknesses for this type of entertainment to make some easy money for the state coffers. Silly me, I was naive enough to think that the government was supposed to protect people from being taken advantage of like this. Instead, the government is spending millions of dollars a year ($34 million this past year) on advertising and promotion to entice people to gamble their hard-earned money away.
Oh sure, it raises money for the government, some of which can be used for good things like education. (The ‘profits’ are added to the general fund and not applied to any particular budget item). But if the lottery is to serve as a new form of taxation, we should judge it accordingly and recognize that it is extremely regressive and inefficient. It is regressive because the people who play most frequently tend to be poor and less educated. It is inefficient because less than 40 percent of every dollar collected makes it into the state treasury, unlike most other taxes where it costs less than 2 percent to collect and administer and 98 percent ends up in the treasury.
So here in a nutshell is what I would like to see done. Let the government continue to run a lottery for those people who choose to play, but eliminate all advertising and promotion so as not to entice people into playing who otherwise would not. If that means that ticket sales decline, then all the better. Taxes that are needed should be collected in a fair and efficient manner, otherwise leave people alone to pursue more productive interests with their income.

What’s Left, Part II

This column was published on July 27, 1995.

No sympathy for schools fighting admission of women

The administrators at The Citadel probably should have seen it coming.
The application for admission from Shannon Faulkner to the all-male military academy in South Carolina met all the criteria — all but one, that is.
Somehow it slipped by the admissions officials that Faulkner’s application made no reference to gender. It was only after sending out notification of acceptance that school officials realized that in this case, the person with the gender-neutral name “Shannon” was in fact a Ms.
Now the state-funded school is embroiled in a costly legal battle to keep its all-male “tradition” from being defiled by the admission of a female cadet.
Enough of this nonsense! I haven’t a shred of sympathy for The Citadel or its sister outfit, The Virginia Military Institute, which finds itself in a similar predicament. The wailing and gnashing of teeth at The Citadel and VMI are amplified only because they are the oddities. Every other military school and academy went through the pains of gender integration long ago, including my alma mater, Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets.
The administrators at The Citadel and VMI (urged on no doubt by their respective alumni associations) made a poor decision years ago when they chose to ignore the dictates and direction of the U.S. Military which was then struggling to integrate women more thoroughly into its ranks at the same time that it was adjusting to the all-volunteer concept of personnel recruitment.
It makes no sense today to have a segregated military school when its purpose is to train people to be leaders in the non-segregated U.S. Military. In fact, it would seem that the cadets at these two institutions are being done a great disservice. How will graduates from these schools react to their female peers and superiors in the military when they have been indoctrinated in the belief that they cannot work with female cadets?
Texas A&M began allowing women into the Corps of Cadets in the early 1970s, although it would be years later before they would gain anything close to equal status with the male cadets. I was there to see a good portion of it in the mid-1980s.
During my freshman year in 1983, there were two all-female outfits that stayed in separate dormitories, which they shared with non-cadet female students. They had their own separate women’s drill team and could not be in the Texas Aggie Band.
But during the next three years things began to change. In 1985, a handful of female freshmen cadets joined the Aggie Band. At least one that I know of stuck it out to her senior year and she was followed by more. A female cadet from my class was the first to be admitted to the Ross Volunteers, the official honor guard for the governor of Texas. Then the women’s drill team was disbanded and even the ultra-macho Fish Drill Team was integrated.
Another female cadet from my class was the first to be elevated to the rank of Corps staff, directing operations for the entire Corps. I still remember the fretting and worrying about whether she could stay in the same dorm with the other members of Corps staff. The old Corps-style dorms had communal bathrooms and showers, two per floor, so that meant one would have to be closed off for the exclusive use of just one person.
The thing that made the biggest impression on me at the time was how efficient the military was at instituting these “big” changes once it set its mind to it. During my sophomore year the word came down from the higher ups that the term “waggie” would no longer be tolerated as a reference to the female cadets. That was final, no questions asked. To disobey at that point would mean big trouble, not because your immediate superiors were die-hard feminists, but because obeying orders regardless of what they were was tantamount to maintaining discipline.
By the time I left in 1987, the Trigon (the Aggie version of the Pentagon) was making plans to break up the two female outfits and combine them with other male outfits. Troubles did eventually develop as I surmised from reading news reports after graduating. There was at least one sexual harassment lawsuit filed, perhaps more. But the Corps survived and even thrived during this time.
The arrogance and short-sightedness of the leaders at The Citadel and VMI means that their transition will be all the more painful. The first female cadet at these institutions, be it Shannon Faulkner or someone else, will not be willing to wait 10-plus years to take full advantage of all that the school has to offer.

This column generated my first piece of “fan mail” reprinted below:

30 July 95
Mike W. Thomas (Michele?)
I read you’re editorial “No sympathy for schools fighting admission of women” 29 July 1995 i.e. The Citadel and VMI (wonderful old military schools).
It seems a lot of the Liberals, Woman’s Libers, pro queer, integrators and the like flock to the Kerrville Times.
I believe anyone, whether corporate or private club etc., should have a choice of who they want - black, women, men, queer, or what have you and no one should have to accept who they do not want!
Also, the TV is on you’re side all of commercials seem to show groups of whites and blacks buddying up to each other. Not me I befriend who I want and don’t believe in any kind of integration of blacks, women or the other creeps!
I imagine you’re patron saint is St. Francis of A-Sissy.

I hope you guys have the guts to publish this.

(Name withheld)

What’s Left, Part I

During the summer of 1995 I was working as a reporter and editorial writer for the Kerrville Daily Times and I had the rare privilege of writing a weekly opinion column for the paper. I had written a couple of columns previously, including the one on the JFK assassination, but now I had a regular column with my picture on it and even a name. I called it “What’s Left?”
Alas, it was short-lived. A couple of months after I began writing the column, I got a job at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and moved away. So there were only 11 “What’s Left?” columns published over a three-month period.
For my own edification, I am going to publish those old columns on my blog as I have time to transcribe them. Here is one of the first, published on July 20, 1995.

Choices few for those who decline alcohol

Despite the gray patches that have begun showing up in my hair, most people still tell me I look young for my age. That goes double for my wife, what at 27 still looks like she should be in high school.
When we go out to a nice restaurant, it’s not unusual for the waiter or waitress to assume that we are just kids out on a date. Their suspicions of our youthfulness always seem to be confirmed when we decline to order an alcoholic beverage. The general assumption is that if we were old enough to drink we would, so therefore we must be too young.
This is irritating for several reasons, not least of which is that from that point on we generally receive poor service. After all, we are just a couple of kids probably using our parent’s credit card and aren’t likely to leave a good tip.
But the most annoying aspect is the idea that we could somehow have demonstrated our age and maturity by drinking. Is it any wonder that we have a serious problem today with underage drinking — not to mention drinking in general — when drinking is constantly used as the yardstick that measures the difference between youth and adulthood?
In today’s alcohol-soaked culture, the very term “drink” has come to mean the consumption of liquor. In college, students learn quickly that they have to drink to fit in with the in crowd. Every party I ever went to in college revolved around alcohol and I spent much of the time holding a half-empty glass of lukewarm beer so that people would not continually harass me about “not having a good time.”
All through my college years there seemed to be an invisible barrier separating my friends who would drink and my friends who did not. There were few social activities we could find to do together after our freshman year. It seemed quite apparent in those days, too, that the drinking crowd was more popular with the opposite sex. Their continuous parties always attracted lots of young women while those of us who did not drink saw ourselves as the geeky, nerdish-types who could never find dates.
Today, the pressures on our youth to drink in order to fit in, have fun and show their maturity are no less daunting. Raising the drinking age to 21 appears to have made the activity seem all the more alluring to youth seeking to be treated as adults.
I’m not persuaded that any change in the laws, whether it be tightening or loosening restrictions, will make a big difference as long as our societal mindset is such that alcohol is the requisite for any get together involving two or more people. And I would not even begrudge anyone a drink who chooses to do so. My biggest gripe is with the way our society and our culture so often treat the non-drinkers like social misfits.
For a perfect example, go to most any fancy restaurant and see what they have to offer in the way of beverages. For the drinker it is typically a paradise — dozens of beers from around the world, a completely separate menu for all the wines and champagnes and every imaginable mixed drink available at the well-stocked bar.
But for the non-drinker? Well let’s see... There’s tea, one kind only — take it or leave it; a handful of sodas, including diet drinks; and coffee (see reference to tea above). Sometimes you can get milk if you beg and plead with the waiter and don’t mind waiting 30 minutes before they will serve it to you.
There is one clear message that comes out of that and it is quite simple — drinking is cool and non-drinkers are losers. It’s the same message that is pounded every day into the public’s conscience by the constant barrage of beer commercials on television and radio and the hard liquor ads on the billboards and magazines.
I understand that restaurants make a lot of their profit margin off of liquor sales, but wouldn’t it be nice if just once there was a restaurant that catered at least as much to the non-drinkers?
Imagine for a minute if the tables were turned. You walk into a restaurant and they hand you a separate menu for the non-alcoholic beverages. It contains a mile-long list of teas — herbal, fruit, Oriental, English, Irish, etc. — served hot or cold; fruit drinks and juices made from a dozen native and tropical combinations; coffees and espressos and cappuccinos with dozens of flavors to choose from; and along with the usual array of sodas there are numerous off-brands and natural sodas typically found only in health food stores.
When it comes time to order, ask for a beer and watch as they bring you your one and only choice of generic, no-name beer.
Such an arrangement would certainly take a lot of the glamour and mystique out of drinking alcohol.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Ineffective advertising

I saw one of these bumper stickers on a truck the other day and I just had to laugh.

If Republicans want to distribute lots of these stickers then it is just fine with me. On first glance, the red “N” is hard to see and it appears to be just another pro-Obama sticker. That is what I thought when I first saw it and I’m sure most people not versed in the insider politics of the campaign see it the same way.
I also like how they screwed up the grammar in the bottom line, remembering to add an apostrophe for he’s, but leaving it out for it’s.

There have actually been a lot of these anti-Obama stickers floating around that try and mock his campaign using the same imagery in his ads. But most of them amount to basically insider jokes that fly over the heads of the average voter, so to most people they just seem to be promoting Obama rather than tearing him down.

I think it is symptomatic of the fact that most Republicans are unhappy with their candidate and would rather have an anti-Obama sticker on their car instead of a pro-McCain sticker.


Monday, October 06, 2008

What’s the matter with Texas?

The McCain campain is tanking in the polls and Obama is running away with the race now.

McCain’s big bounce from the GOP Convention and the Sarah Palin nomination is now just a little glitch in a dominating performance by Obama since early this summer. States that were once considered tossups like Virginia, North Carolina and New Hampshire are now showing double digit leads for Obama. And McCain is steadily losing ground in Ohio and Florida which means he is toast.

So, what’s up with Texas?

McCain’s actually getting more popular here? That’s just crazy.

By the way, this is pretty funny.

Was his nickname “Crash”?

The L.A. Times is reporting on a neglected part of John McCain’s history, that being his penchant for wrecking his airplanes during his career in aviation.

In today's military, a lapse in judgment that causes a crash can end a pilot's career. Though standards were looser and crashes more frequent in the 1960s, McCain's record stands out.
"Three mishaps are unusual," said Michael L. Barr, a former Air Force pilot with 137 combat missions in Vietnam and an internationally known aviation safety expert who teaches in USC's Aviation Safety and Security Program. "After the third accident, you would say: Is there a trend here in terms of his flying skills and his judgment?"
Jeremiah Pearson, a Navy officer who flew 400 missions over Vietnam without a mishap and later became the head of human spaceflight at NASA, said: "That's a lot. You don't want any. Maybe he was just unlucky."

Unlucky! Yeah, that’s what I was wondering when I wrote about just that thing earlier this year after reading through McCain’s bio on Wikipedia.

Imagine if McCain had not been the son of an admiral (and the grandson of another admiral), those mishaps might have ended his flying career before he was sent to Vietnam where (surprise, surprise) he crashed his jet one last time and got taken prisoner.
The whole John McCain story would have been different in that case. If they had grounded him like they would have done with any other military airman at the time, he would never have been a POW and thus probably would not have gone into politics and thus would not be running for president today.