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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Americans Want: Responsibility and Accountability

This past Sunday the Los Angeles Times had an excellent editorial by Frank Luntz. Luntz is a pollster and political consultant who specializes in language in politics. From December 2008 through April 2009 he interviewed 6,400 Americans, ran focus groups and listened to Americans. His most basic conclusion is that Americans are angry, he uses Howard Beale as the personification of our nation. You remember Beale, the news anchor who slowly loses it, finally screaming in his rumpled trench coat "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!"

It became a rallying cry for some and a punch line for others. Iconic enough that today it still resonates over thirty years later. I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.

This could be the clarion call for the summer 2009 as Americans took to townhalls and Tea Parties expressing their dismay and anger over a government, or governments, that were not listening to them. Luntz finds that much of the anger was less about particular issues than it was about two factors. He states, "Digging still deeper, my research suggests that we can dial back American anger if we begin to fix complaints: the lack of accountability and the lack of respect in our dealings with each other."

To the second point, it is very hard to have respectful dealings with someone who is accusing you, assigning an agenda to you, or saying your are manipulated by others--basically saying you are not personally responsible for your own thoughts, words and actions.

To the first point, accountability in our system of governance is very much lacking. Sure we have elections every two years for Members of the House and six years for Senators, locally public officials are on four or six year election cycles. But even elections are not processes of accountability. Citizens rant and rave and shake their fingers, and elected representatives just don't listen and don't need to because the majority of their citizens will march into the voting booth and re-elect an incumbent almost every time. In California our system is so gerrymandered that our Assembly and Senate have crafted budget after budget for a decade that has doubled the size of government and led to our state's finances crashing this year taking with it billions of dollars from local school districts. In 2010 do you think there will be any accountability at the ballot box? Everyone not termed out will be re-elected, most by a landslide. And guess what will happen next year to our budget? And the year after?

Thankfully not every state is gerrymandered along party lines with safe seats. Some, not a lot but some, members of the House and Senate will face some stiff opposition in 2010. These are the politicians who are more likely to be listening to their constituents and voters. For the rest the only listening they are doing is to the cash register singing out who is making what donations to their campaign war chests. Want proof? Go to and look up any member of Congress and see who their donors are. Look up the chairs of committees and see who is pouring money into the coffers of those in charge. Look up President Obama and see the donations from Wall Street then look at his appointments to cabinet and czar positions. Everyone has conflicts of interest and there is no accountability.

In Luntz' editorial he had some very positive nuggets. First, 88% of us "believe in the adage 'live free or die.'" We believe in our freedom and cherish it for ourselves and our children. Even more encouraging for me is that his research has shown that when given a list of "social and cultural challenges facing America, the highest priority is 'restoring personal responsibility." This flies in the face of government in California where Sacramento is busy every year legislatin away personal responsibility.

Americans are tired of being told victims are every where when many of the victims are in circumstances of their own doing. Americans are tired of being told they must have a "social repsonsibility" that over rides our own personal repsonsibility. Americans want that fat kid to eat better and exercise more instead of having to pay a higher tax for a Diet Pepsi and not be able to buy food they enjoy to eat--in moderation and in balance.

There has been much handwringing and finger pointing and labelling about the townhall meetings and Tea Parties this summer. I see and hear pundits and leaders accusing the crowds of being bussed in by interest groups. I see and hear "experts" saying the crowds represent just a small portion of America "whipped into a frenzy" by extremists. I see and hear ordinary Americans asking their politicians to read a bill before they vote on it, to answer specific questions regarding spending and future deficits. I see and hear working men and women wondering why they are being dismissed and ignored.

I am only forty-seven. The protest marches for Civil Rights and against Vietnam were over before I finished fifth or sixth grade. During my conscious observation of America, our culture, our politics, our nation as a people, I have never seen such rancor and discontent expressed by such a wide swath of Americans to their government. And I think it is great. I think it is great the Americans are waking up to their personal responsibility as citizens to express their feelings, their desires and their thoughts to their elected representatives. I think it is great that Americans are letting their elected representatives know that elections are where accountability is had and they are willing to decide based upon whether their representatives listen to them, the voters, or the lobbyists waiting to hold a fundraiser for them back in Washington.

Yes America is angry. Good. Maybe out of this anger we will begin to hold ourselves and our neighbors more accoutable for personal decisions and actions. Maybe out of this anger we will begin to hold our public officials more accountable, and sooner, for their actions and behavior. Maybe out of this anger we will see a paradigm shift from voting for who ever has the most glossy postcards in our mailbox and has the most integrity on their record. Maybe out of this anger we will begin to vote for the name on the left side of the ballot and not the letter inside the parenthesis to the right of the name.

We are given the power and ability to make choices. With that power and ability comes the responsibility of the consequences for the choices we make. As a society and culture we must stop the cycle where the government minimizes consequences for bad decisions and allows Americans to abdicate their responsibility and avoid accountability. We need to start this cycle by ensuring our elected and public officials know that they are our leaders, as such they must show us that they are personally responsible and accountable for their actions, and inactions.

Please read Frank Luntz' editorial. Be responsible. Be accountable.

Link to Frank Luntz' editorial

Link to Open Secrets site showing political donations to Federally elected officials and by donors.

Monday, September 28, 2009

How To Crush Budgets: The Median Income Spiral

Last Wednesday I posted Dear City Council: Fix It, which the Long Beach Post was kind enough to re-print. Predictably a few public employees were quick to comment, some pulling out the old canard that current union employees get what they deserve because 100 years ago unions started working to improve work conditions, etc, etc. Others immediately go to my missive was partisan-Republican-anti-union to try to dismiss the message. Well the message was clear, without pension reform the future of the city is bleak financially as the number of ex-employees we support grows with no contribution from them. As well the political climate appears to be right for such reform, if the members of the Long Beach City Council (or insert any public agency/government here) has the courage to tackle the issue.

Today I want to address the front end of public employee contracts, most specifically the police officers contracts with guaranteed pay increases based on what other cities pay their cops. In a formula that has been adopted not just by Long Beach but by other municipalities, the contract between the City of Long Beach and the Long Beach Police Officers Association, pay increases are based not on the needs of Long Beach, the job of the LBPD or any other factor that would normally go into contract negotiations. The salary aspect of members of the LBPOA is based upon what other cities pay their police officers. The median salary of nine other cities in California is the salary of Long Beach Police. There is an exception in the coming year with the budget troubles of the city and the LBPOA has agreed to forego a 9% increase in pay for a 2% increase in pay--well forego is not the right word, they have agreed to 11% pay increases over the next five years and go off the median salary chart. Good, the median salary formula should be thrown out for all public contracts as it is a never ending spiral that prevents local governments from controlling their salary and employment expenses.

For those who were not paying attention during math class, the median of a group of numbers is the number that is right in the middle: if you have a set of three numbers arranged highest to lowest, the middle number is the median. Example: 3, 8, 12 the median number is 8. If you have nine numbers in a set the median is the 5th number. Example nine other cities pay a position the following salaries: $43,000; $45,000; 45,500; $46,250; $50,125; $51,250; $51,800; $52,050 and $53,000. The median salary is $50,125 which if this were a public contract would be the new salary.

As you can see as soon as one city gives raises to the median level plus $1 then the median level shifts up for everyone. If Santa Ana gives a 5% raise the median level increases, if Oakland then gives a 5% raise to its workers and it jumps above the median level then we see another increase. Mathmatically this should smooth out over time, but as we have seen in Long Beach and other cities that use this formula, the raises do not smooth out. Depending on contract negotiations in other cities we can see raises of 5% to 15% in a given year. For the police contracts those swings have been between $5 to $15 million depending on what happens in other cities.

The unions of course are all in favor of median-salary-based contracts as they know there is guaranteed escalation. Statewide it is encouraged for all locals to enter median based contracts, and many city governments have these budget busters on their books. Fortunately in Long Beach the City and the LBPOA negotiated out of the median salary increase for the coming five years, had they not our city would have lost police officers to bring the police budget into the available city budget.

The median contract mentality is not just for the hourly and union employees, it also exists for management. We hear, "well Vernon/Maywood/Chula Vista/etc is paying their _______ (fill in management role) so much so we have to pay the same to keep our people." To which I say, "No. We don't." Let them go to work in Vernon/Maywood/Chula Vista. At some point the city needs to quit competing with other cities that are paying hirer salaries to lure top management from bigger cities and let the employees make their choices: get paid more to work for another city or stay in Long Beach where you have seniority, work in a vibrant city and have family and friends. This is the same choice that is made by private sector managers and companies all the time. Even in this economic climate some companies are looking to hire top talent and are willing to pay for it. Individuals need to weigh their current scenarios against hirer pay in an unknown scenario.

One way to prevent, or reduce, employees jumping to other cities for higher pay would be to put some restrictions on their pensions. As I mentioned last week the first adjustment should be greater contributions from the employees, those in unions and those in upper management who are not. Second, the employer (read: taxpayer) contributions to the pensions should be vested over time as they are in the private sector, and not vested across PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) but vested by contributor. If someone leaves the City of Long Beach after five years they only get 20% of the employer contribution to carry with them, if someone comes in from another city they are not fully vested right away but must begin the vesting schedule from year one like any new higher. The ability to transfer pension rates and vestings across employers through PERS is highly detrimental to the budgets of cities and municipalities. It encourages job jumping and hinders the ability of those governments to retain workers they have trained and vested their resources in unless they pay higher and higher salaries.

It is time for the City of Long Beach to scrap the compensation models of the past that have led the city to the current budget crisis. Instead of relying on upper management who have Masters and higher education degrees in Public Administration and Public Finance, the city needs to rely on some private sector ideas and formulas to create compensation models for public employees that more accurately mirror those that most tax payers fall under. Compensation needs to be performance based, need based and fiscally based upon a long term budget plan. Pensions and benefits need to be shared between the employer and the employee, and further employees should be paying the full weight of their dependents' coverage.

To use a phrase that was repeated in Sacramento repeated in the last year, this City Council can either "kick the can down the road" or it can take a stand now and tell city management to begin restructuring contracts and compensation formulas. As new hires come into the city the new formulas need to be put into place. Without any restructuring our budget deficits will continue to grow as the deficits grow in Washington and Sacramento and they reach down to take more and more from the counties and cities.

I ask again, does our City Council have the courage and wherewithall to tackle this critical issue?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Just Some Questions

Below are questions I have asked myself throughout the past week. Instead of writing what my answers to them would be I am interested in any answers you may have, or additional questions you have asked yourself.

For the week starting Monday September 21, 2009 here are some questions I have had:

Are you superstitious?

Crab or lobster?

In his inauguration speech President Obama said the government would be transparent, do you think he has fulfilled this commitment?

Do you think public employees should make contributions to their pensions and benefits?

Democrats voted down an amendment put forth by Republicans to post the Senate version of a health reform bill on the internet, how would you have voted on such an amendment?

Who is your biggest fan?

Mac or PC?

What is your definition of bi-partisan?

From Leslie: Is entitlement polar? Do those on the bottom of the socio-economic scale and the top have attitudes of entitlement like Oprah expecting Hermes to stay open past closing just for her?

The President of the United States with supporting and collaborating evidence from European allies calls out rogue dictator of a Middle Eastern country for pursuing nuclear weapons, sound familiar?

Are you happy?

Did you see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the United Nations? Thoughts?

Cookies or Pie?

So those are the questions, what are your answers? Click on the comments button below and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dear City Council: Fix It

Like many cities across the country, and particularly in the State of California, the City of Long Beach management and elected officials have recently worked through the budget for the coming year to cover a multi-million dollar gap between revenue and expenses. Putting a lot of faith in future negotiations with the various labor groups that represent most city workers, approximately $20 million was cut from projected expenses to balance the budget. Now if they can just figure out how to reduce another $20 million for the 2010-2011 budget and yet another $20 million for the 2012-2013 budget.

One assumes that we can continue these budget deficit projections ad infinitum given that one of the major expenditures has not been addressed: pension and benefit reform for City employees. With each budget and each contract negotiation this issue has been passed over and left for some other City Council. It appears the time is right for this City Council to address this issue, if only those sitting in the seats have the political courage to stand strong and address the issue.

Restructuring public employee pensions and benefits requires stamina, patience and commitment to an outcome. Politically the public employee unions are highly sought allies when candidates are running races because of their ability to pour resources, not just cash but bodies to man phone banks and knock on doors, into those whom they support. In Long Beach a tremendous number of city employees live in the City and are voters adding a bonus for candidates not just of financial support but of actual votes. It is rather incestuous the relationship between our local elected officials and those who work for them once elected, and without entering that relationship getting elected in Long Beach is extremely difficult.

Then there is the next level of politics: State office. In Long Beach to get elected to the California Assembly or Senate two things must happen: 1) you must receive support from the unions, public and private so you can 2) win the Democratic primary. If you achieve (1) you will achieve (2) and you will then win the general election. Happens every time as our city is appropriately gerrymandered and loyal to the Democratic Party to ignore any part of the general election with the exception of the (D) after a candidate's name.

To quickly recap: successful candidacies in Long Beach politics are heavily dependent on endorsements and support from unions.

Union leaders are not running out of their offices to meet officials for the purpose of restructuring the pensions and benefits of their members--after all they are elected as well. In fact getting them to sit down for the specific purpose of such a restructuring negotiation is extremely difficult. But that is exactly what needs to occur in Long Beach (or fill in the blank with your California city, county or just say California).

Politically Long Beach appears to have an excellent window of opportunity for significant restructuring of pensions and benefits to occur in all the city contracts. Looking at the upcoming elections, who is being termed out and prospects for future office, the timing is now for members of City Council to address this issue without a majority of the council having to fear political retribution from the unions hampering their political careers. Let's take a look at the Mayor and nine City Council Districts:

Mayor Bob Foster has already begun his fund raising for a re-election campaign, while anything can happen and he, like all mayors and politicians, has his detractors, any candidate will have an extremely hard time unseating him. During an interview session I was part of for the Long Beach Post last year, Mayor Foster indicated he wanted to tier the pension system for new employees and have them contribute more to their pensions and benefits. He is on board to take on the unions over this issue--so he said and I will take him on his word.

1st District Robert Garcia has a very bright and long political future ahead of him. His campaign to win the special election for his seat was almost flawless and he won handily. He is up for re-election in 2010 and it is difficult to see how any candidate will defeat him. Garcia's challenge is going to be what route does he want his political career to take? Stay in Long Beach and run for Mayor when Foster is term limited out? Go after a statewide office? Take on Laura Richardson for Congress? My outlook is he takes the City Council to Mayor race, using his next term on council to continue to build his support and influence through the city. Where does this put him on restructuring pensions and benefits? Garcia has as much influence or power in his short term in office as anyone on the Council, he can very well afford to spend some political capital and pursue aggressive reform. His district has some of the greatest needs for programs and assistance from the city for his constituents, freeing up funds from future budgets that would be going to such programs is in his and their best interest. I put Garcia in the "yes" column for reform.

2nd District Suja Lowenthal is at a bit of a crossroads and whatever her future political plans may be I have not heard. Will she run against her ex-mother in-law for Assembly? Will she run for her ex-father in-law's seat if he is elected Lieutenant Governor? Or will she serve out her term limits and return to private life working at Cal State Long Beach. It is doubtful she can take on and beat Bonnie Lowenthal who has years of relationships with the organizations and groups needed to win. Also in doubt is her ability to capture Alan Lowenthal's supporters, who would be needed to win any primary for State Senate. Her divorce from Judge Dan Lowenthal has created a rift between her and the tight Lowenthal clan, which frees Suja Lowenthal to aggressively pursue contract reforms with public employees. Will she? Like Garcia, her district is in as much or more need of the funding that would be freed up with such reform, I am uncertain however if she would be willing to enter the fray. I put Lowenthal on the fence.

3rd District Gary DeLong publicly stood up to the Long Beach Police Officers Association during last week's City Council meeting casting the lone vote against a contract revision with the LBPD officers. His reason was that pension and benefit reforms were not addressed, because of this he did not support the contract since in his opinion the negotiations did not go far enough. Facing re-election in 2010 and then being termed out, and it being doubtful he will seek another office, DeLong is on record to fight for aggressive reform of employees' benefits and pensions.

4th District Patrick O'Donnell is a member of a union, his brother who passed away several years ago was a member of the LBPOA, his orientation is pro-worker. This would lead one to conclude he would be against any restructuring of the contracts and putting more of the pension and benefit costs on the employees. Politically however O'Donnell has not much to lose by working on such reform. He is termed out after this cycle, unless he runs a write in campaign he will not be needing political support from the unions. While there were rumors before he may run for statewide office, looking at the seats available and when they become available the timing may not be right for O'Donnell. While he can see the benefits of reform, his DNA may be such that any support might be luke-warm and pursuit of aggressive reform may be out of the question. I put O'Donnell on the fence waiting to see what comes to council before strongly committing, if he ever strongly commits, to any reform plans.

5th District Gerrie Schipske is a liberal up for re-election in a pretty conservative district. She has strong ties to labor, see her employment by the teacher's union as one example, and has fought Mayor Foster on many issues. Schipske has had very good political instincts in picking her battles and issues that play well at home on the Eastside for her constituents and is not afraid to be confrontational downtown. Like O'Donnell her DNA puts her at odds of asking the workers to give up anything in a contract, much less dip into their own pockets to pay for pensions and benefits. However, she is up for re-election in a district where such reform would be popular. Put her on the fence as she sees which way the winds are blowing. Her future political career versus short term re-election.

6th District Dee Andrews has twice defeated a strong labor candidate to win elections to City Council. As with Garcia in the 1st and Lowenthal in the 2nd, Andrews' 6th District has significant needs of any city programs to assist its residents. With no re-election in 2012 Andrews is in a great position to take a lead on pension reforms and show his residents and the rest of the city that the priorities for the council should be citizens first and employees second. Will Andrews pick up the staff and lead on this? He can but we will see. I will rate Andrews as favorable to reform.

7th District Tonya Reyes Uranga is termed out in 2010, which would put her in a position to support strong reform efforts as he political future is blocked by incumbents and term limit math. However Uranga's husband is running for her seat against some very good competition in the 2010 election. Politically Uranga's move is to fight any pension or benefit reform to curry the good graces of the unions for her husband. This move goes entirely with her political career and ideology so count on stiff resistance from lame duck Uranga for any reforms.

8th District Rae Gabelich was re-elected in 2008 with no opposition on the ballot. She is out of office on term limits in 2012 and unless she mounts a write-in campaign her political career ends there, with the possible exception of education boards. When she was elected in 2004 she beat incumbent Rob Webb with the support of the police and fire unions, but has the payback ended? Gabelich is not a standout on the council, with the exception of any airport issue she is rarely heard from and is not one to make any radical proposals. Her position on the issue is hard to gauge and while she has no negatives to push for aggressive reforms other than perhaps her personal ideology, it is difficult to see her taking a strong position on the issue. Put her on the fence depending on what any reform package looks like.

9th District Val Lerch is out of office on term limits in 2010 and running a campaign for write in votes. His competition is Dan Pressburg and Brad Shore. Shore has been very active in his campaign and has picked up some important endorsements. Does Lerch need the city unions in order to be successful in his write in bid? Does it matter? If the unions come out early and endorse Shore then we can expect Lerch to be more aggressive in pursuit of pension reforms. Lerch may aggressively pursue this path without regard to such endorsements as he does have a strong grasp of the long term impact of the current pension and benefit packages on our city and future budgets. Should his opponent(s) publicly oppose any reform Lerch can paint them as in the pocket of the unions and working not for the benefit of the constituents but of the unions. I put Lerch down for pressing for reforms.

So that is my read on the current council and mayor. The votes and political power are there to stare down the unions and use the advantage of another deficit budget that could force layoffs next year, and the year after, and the year negotiate considerable reforms in the city contributions to employee pension and benefit packages. A majority of votes are available where the individuals will experience very little long term fall out to impact their future political careers making this the perfect time for any significant restructuring of the contracts with the city unions. While it will not be easy and there will be plenty of nasty things said about members of council and staff, in the long run doing what is right rarely is easy. And the right thing to do for the future of our city is to re-negotiate the contracts the city pays all of its workers to reduce city contributions and increase employee contributions to pensions and benefits.

The timing is right but do our politicians have the strength and courage to do what is best for our future?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Speakers' Corner, Long Beach?

At times you feel you are in a Monty Python skit as the speaker with the Olive Oil Party sign made at home argues with the member of the small crowd about butter and its place in cooking. Or the small man in the bowler who just wants an argument, is simple contradiction an argument? No it is not. Yes it is. Is not. Is too.....

One of the highlights of my semester at the University of London in 1982 were the Sundays when some of the mates and I would jump on the tube and head down to Hyde's Park to listen to and engage the various speakers who set up on their little boxes, ladders or for one frequenter a set of U.S. History books (he was no fan of President Reagan). The only rules it seems are no profanity and no physical contact, other than that the British have quite a go on all manner of subjects. From religion to communism to olive oil to you pick the topic, ordinary and extra-ordinary men and women set up in what is known as Speakers' Corner and begin to speak, debate, cajole, heckle and engage passer's by. Many a barrister got his start by arguing on a Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park. Many an argument has gone down in flames because a more informed or loquacious heckler has brought a speaker to tears or exasperation as they jam their sign in a rubbish bin and skitter off to the Underground.

Speakers' Corner is a beautiful example of not only Free Speech, but also public dialogue and the ability of citizens, ordinary citizens, to discuss important issues. Sure there is some shouting from time to time depending on the subject and the presentation by the speaker--or emotions of a heckler in the crowd. Note that in London almost anyone who engages the speaker is referred to as a "heckler", many are very polite, astute and engage in a very healthy debate with the speakers; there are those however who are also louts and just shouting to shout.

Speakers' Corner is entirely open, anyone with a cause or an idea can simply start talking. If you are good enough, or your subject is intriguing enough a few people will stop to listen, then if you are able to hold them more of a small crowd will form. The very good speakers will have a crowd of fifteen or more, engaging them, answering their questions and heckles, having them laughing or shouting in agreement or disagreement with either himself or one of his hecklers. There is no formal format, no sign up list, no schedule. If you have something you wish to tell the people, or discuss with them, simply start talking.

Much has been made of the lack of "civility" in our public debates. Name calling, finger pointing, shouting, huge crowds chanting, make the news and make many upset--who is upset usually depends on whether they agree or disagree with those shouting, name calling, finger pointing.... Our pubic discourse on issues, important or not, has become more widespread than it was when I was in college in the early 1980's. Now we have endless news channels, a whole dial seemingly for the sole purpose of talk radio with Joe, a first time caller from Lompoc, and of course the world wide web where any Dennis with a keyboard can set up his own area to express opinions.

We have significant dialogue on issues, some of the dialogue makes many uncomfortable however because of what is expressed and how it is expressed. Accusations and name calling abounds on talk shows and blogs and in crowds. But almost all of it is anonymous. It is Joe from Lompoc or literally Anonymous, making the call or posting the comments on a website. Visit some of the major sites that daily deal with many different issues from different writers, Salon, Powerline, Little Green Footballs, Politico, and you will see hundreds of comments daily from those using pseudonyms making some of the most offense comments. Legal? Sure most of the time as long as they are not threatening someones life or inciting someone to violence. Adding to the debate? Not usually.

What if were were to have more debate? What if in Long Beach, or Reno, or Tulsa, or Boston, or where ever you are reading this blog, we had our own Speakers' Corner? What if instead of waiting for a local group to have an "evening of discussion" and hand picking the speakers on a topic we had a regular time and place where any of the issues affecting us could be debated and discussed, and argued? Would it raise the level of discourse and debate? Does having to come face to face, without a mob, to discuss an issue between two ordinary citizens, neither with a position of power over the other, bring the level and tone to more civil levels? Sure there will be emotion and some heated debate, but also there will be social intercourse between neighbors, members of the same community, foes who may become friends despite their disagreements.

Speakers' Corner has been going for over 150 years, it is part of the fabric and culture of London. Sure it has its fair share of kooks and firebrands, it is heavily populated, in my humble opinion, by fringe elements, and its fair share of regulars who are like the Energizer Bunny and are easy to ignore. But from week to week it has someone new, someone just there to talk and discuss an issue that day or for several weeks depending on the life of the issue. And regular, ordinary people discuss an issue. Because it is also a tourist attraction there are those who are there to be seen and to be part of the show, but inside and in some corners are those more serious and able to engage others. Sometimes the discussions amongst the crowd become better than what the speaker was saying, I've seen good speakers wander into the crowd and mediate such conversations. In the end the purpose of the place is public discourse, free speech and a civil environment in which to have it.

What do you say? Open public speaking, no rules except no profanity, no inciting to violence and no physical altercations. One hopes a universal rule of respect would prevail, but depending on the topic and the presentation one can hope but that does not mean it will always come to pass.

Is there a place in a modern American city with a myriad of ideas and opinions and a similar myriad of people from different backgrounds, ethnicity's, and religions to have open public discussions without formal direction or structure?


Just Some Questions

Below are questions I have asked myself throughout the past week. Instead of writing what my answers to them would be I am interested in any answers you may have, or additional questions you have asked yourself.

For the week starting Monday September 14, 2009 here are some questions I have had:

If a politician delivers what you want does their character and integrity matter to you?

Are you middle class?

Did you have purpose today? Will you tomorrow?

Is there an elected official in the Long Beach area who communicates more with the public than Long Beach 1st District City Councilman Robert Garcia?

Popsicle or fudgesicle?

Will the Justice Department investigate ACORN?

Do you play any games on-line?

How much does price matter versus service?

Should marijuana be legalized in the United States?

X-Box, Playstation or Wii?

What is your 5 year plan?

Do you have a DNR?

Do you have a recurring dream?

Taffy or toffee?

More overexposure in the media: Obama or John and Kate (with or without the 8)?

What is your home page?

Will you celebrate Arthur’s Day on Thursday 9/24/09?

Should the voting age be lower? Higher? Stay the same?

Do you know how to use a slide rule? Have you ever seen a slide rule?

What is your favorite ride at Disneyland?

Can you just sit?

Do you laugh or giggle when you are nervous?

Do you like roller coasters?

Cookies or Pie?

So those are the questions, what are your answers? Click on the comments button below and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Back To School

Last Thursday our girls, woke up, put on their blue skorts and white shirts and headed back to school. A day filled with excitement, nerves, anticipation and some relief to get started on another year of academic achievement, personal growth and homework.

This year our elementary school campus mirrors many in the Long Beach Unified School District, and other districts across the state, because we have fewer adults on the campus. Adults that used to provide library services, nursing, physical education, instrumental or vocal music lessons, computer instruction, counseling, janitorial services, and teachers aides to name a few. Budget cuts from the district have resulted in staffing cuts on school campuses and principals have juggled what small portions of their budgets they can control to keep cuts out of the classroom and core academic instruction and push the budget cuts into the "ancillary" services.

Long Beach Unified School District, and other districts up and down the state, are cutting their budgets because of the almost criminal budgeting processes that have been overseen by the California Legislature controlled by the Democrats and signed by Governors Gray Davis, another Democrat, and Arnold Schwarzenegger who ran as a Republican. Each of the budgets the past ten years has required anywhere from three to five Republicans to cross party lines to vote for the budget so there is fault on both parties for the obscene give aways the past decade to public employees in the form of salaries and benefits. Those give aways have resulted in take aways from our students. While prison guards have seen their salaries balloon our school has lost its nursing service so for five hundred or more students there is a nurse on campus 1 day a week.

While the Legislature has doubled the spending from the State it has taken billions away from our school districts while increasing the number of mandated programs and services that school districts must offer--whether needed in the district or not. So while the number of staffers who work for the Legislators and their committees who make well over $100,000 a year, plus benefits, has exploded, many campuses across the Long Beach Unified School District have no Physical Education.

Our campus is not alone, our childrens' campus reflects campuses throughout Long Beach Unified School District and up and down the state. District Administrators and principals are making difficult decisions as to who and what must go so our kids can learn the core subjects. In the meantime parents are scrambling to back fill funding for what they consider essential services and prioritizing their fundraising targets.

Last year our PTA was told that Patrick Henry Elementary would not have Ms. Roberts for the 2008-2009 school year. Ms. Roberts runs the computer lab and teaches our children how to use the computers, research on-line, how to do PowerPoint presentations. We asked how much to keep her and were told we would need to raise approximately $60,000 to keep her on campus 5 days a week. We began to fund raise because as parents we consider computer training and instruction in this day and age to be close to a core service. Thankfully we have so far raised funds to keep her four days a week, for this year, but what about next? It led us to establish the Henry Technology Endowment, realizing that funding for computer equipment and instruction would not be coming back to our district and campus in the near future. Why?

Why will we not see money coming back to our districts and campuses to fund and re-start services and programs that have been cut? Because the politicians in Sacramento have no incentive to cut the payments extracted through contracts to SEIU employees or other groups that have contributed to their campaigns and their party. We will not see any change because voters will continue to vote for the same individuals to fill the same seats and when they are term limited out of office you will vote for the person who represents the same party as the last one.

Long Beach Unified School District will find out later today if it will once again win the prestigious Broad Prize for Excellence in Public Schools. Since its inception in 2002 Long Beach Unified has been a finalist for the prize five times, winning it in 2003, including this year. As the Broad committee has observed, Long Beach Unified is an outstanding distrcit. Supervisor Chris Steinhauser, the Board of Education, the principals, the teachers, the support staff, the parents and the students overwhelming make positive contributions to the education of our children. Despite losing tens of millions of dollars in funding from the state budgets the past decade.

Our state collects more and more taxes, our state spends more and more money, our state sends less and less back to the taxpayers' school districts to educate their children. And yet the political intelligence of the California voters is such that they will re-elect again and again the people responsible for this broken budget process that has rewarded the public employees unions at the expense of our childrens' futures. Some would say the politicians actions are almost criminal rewarding political donors at the expense of citizens; I would say the proposed criminal act is with the voters for rewarding them with their votes.

Who are these people? Well for those who represent the Long Beach Unified School District here are the members of the California Assembly and Senate who voted to cut your school nurse, your PE instructor, your librarian, your language arts, your music, your computer lab, your counselor, your science camp:


Bonnie Lowenthal (D) 54th Assembly District (click here for campaign donors)

Warren Furutani (D) 55th Assembly District (click here for campaign donors)


Rod Wright (D) 25th Senate District (click here for campaign donors)

Alan Lowenthal (D) 27th Senate District (click here for campaign donors)

Jenny Oropeze (D) 28th Senate District (click here for campaign donors)

Remember these names in 14 months when you go to vote...if you go to vote.
Who are they representing, the list of voters or the list of campaign donors? Who is taking money from your child's school and funneling it to those on their donor lists?

Don't live in Long Beach but want to find out who is responsible for taking funding from your district? Here are links for State Senators and for Assembly Members.

Being a responsible parent also means being a responsible voter, doing homework, studying for the election and doing your best on the final test: casting your votes.

UPDATE: It was announced today that Aldine Independent School District in Texas won the $1 million Broad Prize for 2009. Long Beach Unified School District as a finalist was awarded $250,000 for scholarships. Congratulations to everyone in the District for this accomplishment despite having no support or prospects for future support from Sacramento.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Think Blue First

"Those people are bad, they water every day." So says my ten year old daughter on our daily early morning walk with the dog. We are walking past one of the many sidewalks soaked with water in our neighborhood. A sidewalk that borders a perfectly tended and lush green lawn, gardens with beautiful plants and flowers. A soaked sidewalk bordering a picture perfect yard that is soaking up thousands of gallons of water a year.

My daughter has labelled them "bad" because she is aware of our watering restrictions in Long Beach, residents and businesses are only allowed to water their landscapes Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays before 8:00 in the morning or after 5:00 in the evening. But these restrictions appear to be good for only those who do not care that their lawn has the brown, parched, scruffy look that results if you live in Southern California and only water three times a week for a few minutes. These restrictions are apparently only for those families who do not have the pride of ownership that is shown with a healthy landscape that requires sprinklers to be run for ten minutes per station per day. These restrictions are like the no speaking on cell phones while driving--a great idea until I need to make a call.

My daughter's comment allowed me to initiate a conversation about ego. Having taken many years to grasp the concept of my own ego--and still grasping by the way--looking at trying to explain ego to her was a fun challenge. Note to self: leave the id and super-ego out of the conversation with the 10 year old at 6:45 in the morning. After trying to describe that our egos are how we feel about ourselves and how we want others to view or think about us, that our egos can lead us to try to present ourselves in our best way and if we allow it to our egos can make us selfish and more concerned with how we look, what we feel and what others think about us than what effect we may be having on others.

"So my ego is like when I put my hair in ponytails because I think they make me look pretty?"

So she is getting it, in a fourth grade type of way. Yes, I reply it is like that and instead of ponytails our neighbors and many, many people use their front lawns sort of like you use ponytails--to make their homes look pretty. Our lawns are green and moist and overwatered because our egos as a society are tied to our lawns and how our homes look. Want to brighten your neighbor's day? Greet him with, "Wow Fred, your yard looks fantastic!" Want to take some shine off the brightness? Follow it with, "how do you keep it so nice and green under watering restrictions?"

Full disclosure: until Spring of 2008 our lawn was one of those scruffy, scratchy, brown with patches of green (usually dandelions) yards where the gardeners would come and cut the dead stuff that got pushed up. It looked this way because we were following the Long Beach Water Department's watering policy. Then we were asked to participate in a project with the water department, they wanted to rip our our grass and re-landscape our yard with California native and drought resistant plants. We readily agreed and after some challenges for both parties the result is our front yard has no grass, is watered very little using the latest technology in hydration systems and looks great. From what they learned in doing our project Long Beach Water then held lotteries and transformed nine more homes throughout the city. The purpose is to use these yards as models for neighbors to see what a low water, drought tolerant yard can look like. It is not cactus and tumbleweeds with a bunch of dirt, but beautiful plants and flowers, ground cover alive with bees, and butterflies and hummingbirds.

Because of our project our family became a bit more water-wise. Our children's awareness was raised considerably and they have bought into one of our water saving habits.

A lot of media, resources and political capital is being spent on "think green." Green this, green that. If you want to sell any product put "green" on it somehow, or worse the new buzz word: sustainable. Plant a sustainable vegetable garden! Um, not really "sustainable" because you need to use water, a lot usually, to make it grow. Build a "sustainable" building! Um, again not really possible unless everything including the materials to build and the resources for heating, cooling, electrical, water are all self contained and produced on site. But never mind the details, just call it that and people will show up and applaud. Drive "green" cars, which as I am learning are not that much "greener" than most of our newer regular cars. Green, green, green.

Most of the green movement is around two things: cars and electricity use. The first one has improved dramatically over the years as emissions per vehicle have been cut down tremendously with advancing technologies. The second one, electrical use, is being addressed by mandating hazardous light bulbs for our homes and asking people to turn off light switches. Electrical generation as a polluting industry can be very quickly and easily addressed if our state and federal governments were not so beholden to the special interests of extreme-enviromentalism. Simply allow the building of new refineries for cleaner production of our fossil fuels, allow the building on new power generation plants for the cleaner production of our electricity. The latter includes allowing the building of nuclear plants and solar and thermal generation plants and also the construction of power lines to bring the electricity wear needed.

While many people are trying to out-green each other, from Hollywood to Washington, while flying in private jets, attending huge celebrations that consume tons of energy and otherwise behaving in somewhat hypocritical ways--they often go home to big homes on big estates with beautiful green lawns.

It is my opinion that here in Southern California we need more people to think green less and think blue more. We need more individuals and families thinking more about how and where they can save water a gallon or two at a time. The water companies are speaking about the two, three, four year drought we are in, but actually in our region we are in perpetual drought conditions because we live in a desert that has water brought in to satisfy our needs. While man has figured out how to convert oil, coal, atoms, sun, wind and water power to electricity, man has not figure out how to make water on any sort of scale that would satisfy the needs of a large population.

The Long Beach Water Department has 5 areas listed where families and households can save water. On its site it provides links to saving water (top 5: toilet, washing clothes, leaks, landscaping and plants) and landscaping guidance for plants, layouts and planting drought tolerant plants.

Here are some additional tips you can use:

One our family has bought into: Every third unless it's a turd. A bit crude and Leslie will cringe at me writing that but you need a catchy phrase to get kids attention. I might add as well, and unless we have company. You can save a lot of water by letting it mellow if it is yellow.

When running bath water waiting for it to heat up get a bucket and fill it to water potted plants indoors and out.

When doing dishes fill a sink with water instead of rinsing every plate individually.

Wash your car (a big ego item in Southern California) once a month or less instead of every week.

Shower with a friend, or spouse. Yes definitely a spouse instead of the friend. But if you do not have a spouse get a shower buddy!

Imagine the progress that could be made on water conservation if more awareness was brought to the issue? What if the celebrities and the politicians and the local leaders were more vocal on being water use conscious. What if we said to our neighbor with the brown grass and dying plants, "Hey Stan, your lawn looks great, thanks for conserving water for all of us!"


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Just Some Questions

Below are questions I have asked myself throughout the past week. Instead of writing what my answers to them would be I am interested in any answers you may have, or additional questions you have asked yourself.

For the week starting Monday September 7, 2009 here are some questions I have had:

Did your household schedule get tossed about this week with the start of school?

Is this not a great website?

Should whoever has been in charge of the vetting process at the White House get canned?

What is marriage?

Why is it when someone has a catch in their throat we clear our own?

How many other Van Jones’ have Oval Office access?

Pro football or college?

What is the line between free speech and treason?

Lucky or good?

Why does our dog Harrison lick the wine and liquor bottles in our bar?

Is it racist to have a different opinion on an issue with someone of a different race?

Lemon or Lime?

If it is known that there is enough fraud and waste in MediCare and MediCaid to pay for a $1 trillion health care overhaul, why not fix that first to show the savings actually exist and that they can clean it up?

Kid # 1 Question: Are you adopted?

Best book you read off your summer reading list?

Where were you on the morning of 9/11? Did you see any of of the attacks and the collapse of the Towers or did you hear about it afterward?

Was summer long enough, not long enough or just right?

At what point do those affected by the budget cuts because of furloughs, layoffs and salary cuts tell their organizations to quit supporting the same candidates for office?

Who is your favorite NFL team? College?

Kid #2 Question: Do you drink a lot of soda?

Why is it the further we get from 9/11 the more people seem to be finding angles to justify the attacks, or at least try to get others to judge them less harshly?

Have you ever smoked or used tobacco products? If you quit how long ago and how?

What is the relevance of labor unions today outside of political influence?

Would you rather someone be polite or honest?

Cookies or Pie?

So those are the questions, what are your answers? Click on the comments button below and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

President Obama's Education Speech Reaction

During the two terms of President George W. Bush I, and many others, were appalled at the behavior of many Democrats in Congress, most notably Nancy Pelosi, and liberals across the country. No matter what the man did it was bad, evil and needed to be opposed. Ask them and in eight years as President every speech, every action, every legislation was bad, bad and bad. They were the party of opposition. No matter what the issue or solution they opposed Bush and the Republicans.

This myopic behavior was given its own name: Bush Derangement Syndrome. Now many Republicans and conservatives are acting in a similar way and in doing so are alienating groups that will be needed to turn over any seats in the mid-term elections and build momentum for the 2012 elections; they suffer from Obama Derangement Syndrome. Case in point: yesterday's speech to America's school children.

I have two young children who start classes today in elementary school. When I first heard of President Obama's intention to speak to school kids and that schools would be encouraged to show his speech and then use lesson materials provided by the Department of Education, I was concerned. I was concerned because my level of trust for Obama and his Administration is very low, in fact my trust has been replaced by wariness.

Against a backdrop of a President who campaigns for rushed legislation, such as the stimulus package and HR3200, that will have no impact for years after the legislation is passed, I was untrusting of what his message to my children would be. Against a backdrop of a President who requested emails from those who disagreed with the health care reform legislation in Congress be forwarded to a special email address in the White House, I was untrusting of what his message to my children would be. Against a backdrop of a President who has expanded the power of the Executive Office with "Czars" for every segment of America who are not put through any vetting or confirmation process, I was untrusting of what his message to my children would be. Against a backdrop of a President who has overseen the government take over of auto companies, banks and Government Sponsored Enterprises, I was untrusting of what his message to my children would be.

It concerned me that he would use the opportunity to try to wedge an issue between me and my impressionable children. It was a trust issue.

I did not vote for Barack Obama for President and I am not in favor of most of what he has done so far in office. Despite his inexperience, his political voting history, his personal associations and the lack of scrutiny from the national press he was elected by an electorate reacting to eight years of Democrats and the national press beating up on George Bush every chance they got; an electorate that fawned over his speeches but did not understand what was (not) said.

With all of that said, and while I was untrusting of what Obama's message to my children would be, I was very wary on the subject but wanted to see what he would be saying before entirely judging and dismissing the speech as more propaganda. With members of the conservative media and conservative politicians speaking against the speech before it was even published, I listened and became concerned as well. When it was let out that the speech would ask my children "what can you do to help the President?" I was becoming very incensed.

Then I read the speech and the lesson plans (links below) before the speech was given.

My reaction: Obama got this one right. His speech was right on the mark for what I would want a President to tell my children and the rest of America's school kids. Was every line and every word what I would want said? No, but speeches, even from those we support, rarely do that.

He told students to mind their parents and mind their teachers. He told them to study and work hard. He told them that there are no excuses for not doing well in school and gave examples of children who have great adversity in their lives and have succeeded. He told them that the chances of them having a glamorous career in sports or entertainment was unlikely and that they needed to study and do well in schools so they can contribute to our country when they become adults.

"Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future."

Isn't that what conservative Americans believe? That your destiny, good or bad, is what you determine? Is this not a message you want your children to understand and have as a basis for their future as they go through school?

But despite the positive message, despite encouraging our children to study hard, to go to class, to respect and listen to their parents and teachers, to have a goal of educational success, despite this those with Obama Derangement Syndrome could not help themselves.

Of the criticism perhaps the one that sums it up the best for me was this from Sean Hannity. On his radio show yesterday with a caller criticizing Obama and his speech, this was after it was delivered, Hannity said, "What did he say? Nothing good parents do not say to their kids every day!"

Exactly. The President of the United States told America's school children what good parents say to their children every day: study hard, listen to your teacher, go to class. Thank you Mr. President for reinforcing in my kids, all kids, what they hear, or should hear, every day. Thank you for basically telling the kids, "hey, you've heard this from your parents--and if you haven't you should--and your parents are right." We all know that after time our messages to our kids become "blah, blah, blah, do your homework, blah, blah, turn off the t.v., blah, blah,..." But yesterday the President of the United States sounded like us! He said what we say and hopefully this time the kids got the message.

In reading the speech it seemed to me that the audience for him was not necessarily my kids, raised in a safe home, in a safe neighborhood, attending a quality school with two parents at home for dinner every night. It seemed to me his audience were those kids from broken homes, homes with one parent, maybe, home for dinner any night. Kids who are not in our best schools, and in fact in some of our worst, kids who do not hear from parents every day to do their homework, go to class, listen to their teachers. It was my impression his audience yesterday were those kids most at risk of dropping out, being discipline problems and not being contributing members of society as they matured into adults. The kids that really need the support and the encouragement of their President to tell them, stay in school, do your homework, listen to your teacher, find a path for your future...write your own destiny. And that is good. It is good that the kids who need to hear these messages the most have heard them from the President.

There are a lot of issues I am in disagreement with the President on. But that does not mean that on every issue, on every speech, on every action he is wrong. So far on education issues he and his Administration appear to be on track as far as I am concerned--and when he gets it right he needs to get credit for it. His "Race to the Top" initiative to reward teachers and districts that are successful in teaching our kids to read and write could have been written by a conservative, and he needs credit for bucking the teachers' unions and pushing forward with the program.

Republicans who oppose anything just because it comes from the White House are in danger of being the boy who cried "Wolf!" Clearly everything cannot be wrong, everything cannot be bad, everything cannot lead to the downfall of American civilization. We heard that for eight years from the Democrats led by Pelosi, do we need to hear it for at least four years from Republicans? It dilutes the message when something really is wrong, like the health care proposal, and people tune out when you want them to hear your ideas, your solutions.

While I hope it does not become an annual event, unless the message stays the same (I am still wary of his using the opportunity to push his agenda and ideology on impressionable students), I am glad President Obama spoke to our school children yesterday with the message he delivered.

He got this one right, give him credit.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Are We A Too Nation?

Leslie and I spent a prolonged Labor Day Weekend at a Westin resort in Scottsdale. During our stay I observed the many different "types" of Americans who were also visiting and vacationing at the resort and other locations we visited. I thought, "are we a 'too' nation?"

Does the too trim guy looking at me a bit sideways think I'm too fat? Does the too fat guy think the perhaps overdressed man is too vain? Does the too vain think the mom with the stroller and two kids following behind in Spiderman swim trunks too slovenly? Are we too caught up in appearance and judgement based on appearance?

Nothing allows body and garment judgements like a pool! Too old for that tattoo. Too young for that tattoo. Too gross for that body piercing. Too tight with that bathing suit. Too...too...too hard not to keep looking at that swimsuit. Too quickly we look, we judge, we decide, we objectify.

Too many Americans appear to be too concerned about issues or situations they are not able to control. While too many Americans are too unconcerned about issues or situations they are able to control. Too much time is spent taking too much responsibility away from too many people who have made too many bad decisions. Too often the first place too many Americans look for either blame or assistance is a government. To many Americans many of our nation's problems can be solved if more of our fellow residents were responsible and accountable too.

Do we have too much government or too little? Too many of our political arguments are based on this simple question. To many it seems people and individuals need to do more and government less; too bad they say, we can't provide everything to everyone too many people don't do enough and don't face any consequence. To many it seems the government should be doing more for people and individuals they deem less fortunate; too bad they say, you have too much and we need to take some of that to distribute to those with too little.

To many there are too few consequences for too many bad decisions made by too many people. To many there are too many consequences for too many people who are in the condition they are in because they feel too much history has pre-determined the plight of too many. Too few seem to try to find a balance between too much compassion and too much consequence.

We have too much excess with too much food served on too big of a plate while we complain our waist is too big. We have too many televisions channels showing too many shows that have too many commercials. We have too much fast food at too low of prices so we say it is not too economical or convenient to buy bread, lettuce, tomato, turkey, and cheese so we make too few of our lunches. We have too many cars going to too many of the same places but have spent too much money on other transportation that is too inefficient and wastes too much of too many taxes.

We have too many decisions made that are influenced by too many groups giving too much money and not enough decisions being made by too many who are influenced by the too many voters who determined the outcomes of the elections. Too much of our political debate is focused on the too few who are on the too far extremes on an issue and too little attention is paid to those who are more able to see both sides.

To many too many of our corporations make too much money paying employees too much salary while paying too little in taxes; to many too many jobs are supported by too many corporations and companies that cannot afford to pay too much more in taxes or have too many more regulations are we will have too many more unemployed.

Too many see solutions as up or down, left or right, black or white, an all one way and none of the other. Too many of our leaders see too many solutions only in their too political environment and too few see too many solutions that take neither too much nor too little from the possible options but just the right amount.

Too fat, too thin, too many, too much, too few, too poor, too rich, too strong, too weak, too left, too right, too, too, too.

From our outset our nation has been one of excess and hyperbole. Beckoning adventurous souls to forge a new nation on a new land. Pushing across a great land over plains too big and mountains too high. Ripe with land, minerals and slowly as the decades past people with a spirit and attitude of striving not always for success but for something better for their families and children. Our history is one of success that too many like to mock or degrade or say, "but..." to diminish. Be it individual success or national, too many critics like to put too many modifiers on our achievements. These same critics tend to apply too little responsibility and accountability to those not achieving success and wish to apply too few consequences for their decisions and habits that prevent their success.

Too much blame, too much finger pointing and too much acrimony. Too little acceptance, too little responsibility and too little praise.

Too much attention is paid to too many people who like to say "too, too, too," and not enough attention is paid to almost all the people who ignore these "toos" and just do. Every day they do their jobs, they do their parenting, they do their volunteer work, they do their duties as moms, dads, sons, daughters, employers, employees, neighbors, volunteers, members and citizens.

Are we a "too" nation? Are we too lucky? Too successful? Too powerful? Or we a nation built generation upon generation of many Americans who just do and ignore all the toos? Let's start listening to those who "do" and less from those who start sentences with "too..."


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Just Some Questions

Below are questions I have asked myself throughout the past week. Instead of writing what my answers to them would be I am interested in any answers you may have, or additional questions you have asked yourself.

For the week starting Monday August 31, 2009 here are some questions I have had:

Why are there still so many businesses that do not have any presence on the web?

The state cannot afford to keep felons in jail so they release over 25,000 of them with no jobs in a state with about 15% unemployment?

Math/Science or English/History?

From Dave, the Poolman: If you could save someone's life by forcibly breaking an innocent person's arm against their will, would you? If you would not, would you stand in judgment of someone who would?

Lamb chops or pork chops?

Is Diane Watson really the best that district has to offer?

What song has been going through your head lately that you cannot get rid of?

Wednesday marked the debut of the first ATM machine, do you know what year?

Canada has a population of about 10% of the United States and the United Kingdom’s is about 20%, both their health care systems are failing patients, and people think increasing the number of patients in this type of system by 5 to 10 times will be better?

Shaken or stirred?

Isn’t amazing how poorly our leaders communicate with their constituents? How come so few seem to be able to answer questions and deal with some adversity and adversaries at their meetings?

What percentage of the employees at Chase, or AIG, or Citigroup earn over $90,000 in base salary? Do you think it is more or less than the 18% of the workforce for the City of Long Beach who earn $90,000 or more?

Have you ever checked out the CIA World Factbook?

Overheard at Deseo Restaurant in Scottsdale: Does all your ceviche have so much fish?

New YorkTimes editorial if Bush first asked for e-mails from those who disagree with him and then piped promotional video into classrooms asking children to ask what they can do to help him?

Should voters have to show ID in order to vote?

Do you reuse paperclips?

Do you support public ballots?

Is health insurance a right?

Baked or mashed potato?

How reliant are you on spell-check?

Who is your favorite college football team? Pro?

Does being “pro-business” mean someone is “anti-consumer?”

What caused you to laugh really hard this week?

What book are you reading? Is it any good?

Cookies or Pie?

So those are the questions, what are your answers? Click on the comments button below and let us know what you think.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

(Un)Enhanced Interrogation

It is 2012 and somewhere in the desolate region between Afghanistan and Pakistan members of an elite Marine fighting unit have captured the number 2 in al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri (AAZ). He has been turned over to interrogators at a local military installation that consists of several tents and vehicles with not much else.

al-Zawahiri is sitting in a crude chair in the middle of a tent which billows in the hot wind. He has a hood over his head, shackles on his legs and around his waist to which his hands are bound with cuffs behind his back. In front of him is a table with a pitcher of water, it had ice but it has quickly melted in the Afghan heat. In back of al-Zawahiri is the entrance to the tent, standing guard are two young, but battle hardened, Marines in full combat gear and weaponry. Into the tent walks a man who is wearing civilian clothes, khaki shirt and pants with comfortable boots on his feet. He carries a briefcase. He lays the briefcase on the table and pulls out papers that he neatly arranges on the table, he then pulls out several pencils that are sharpened and two pens. Before he sits down he turns on the video recorder that is on a tri-pod and directed at al-Zawahiri.

Interrogator: Mr. al-Zawahiri my name is Dennis Smith, excuse me. Could one of you please remove Mr. al-Zawahiri's hood from over his head and allow his hands to be cuffed in front of him please?

The Marines stationed at the door look at each other with disbelief and move forward. While one moves into the prisoner's line of sight with his M16 rifle pointed squarely in the middle of his chest. The other Marine yanks the hood off of al-Zawahiri's head causing the prisoner to let out a grunt, then roughly grabs his wrists and unlocks the cuffs moving his hands to the prisoner's lap where they are again locked onto the chain around his waist.

INT: Sorry for the rough treatment there. Are you okay? Can I get you a glass of water or juice?

The interrogator pour a large glass of cool water and places it on the table in front of the prisoner.

INT: As I was saying, my name is Dennis Smith and I am with the United States Government. Since 2010 and the prosecution of my predecessors in this position of field interrogator for the Central Intelligence Agency our government has changed our guidelines for this procedure. As such I must read you the following statement before we begin. First, I know from your background you are fluent in many languages. Can you understand what I have said so far?

AAZ: Yes

INT: Good! Okay let's begin. He picks up a paper from the desk and reads:

As I have stated my name is Dennis Smith, I work for the Executive Branch of the White House assigned to the Justice Department in the section of Interrogation of Personnel Captured in Foreign Lands. If you have any complaints from your treatment or my actions you may contact the base commander and request the proper forms to complete and submit. As we have our talk today I must inform you that the session is being not only recorded by the camera in back of me, but also being viewed live by attorneys in Washington for the U.S. Justice Department and also in a special office established by the American Civil Liberties Union. The purpose of the taping and their viewing is to ensure I follow the policies and procedures established by the Justice Department by Attorney General Eric Holder under the 2010 Guidelines for Judicious Interrogations to Establish a more Kind America.

Do you understand we are being watched and this session video taped? Oh and also when we are finished a copy of the tape will be made available to you and your legal representative when he arrives. Do you understand?

AAZ: Grins as he nods his head Yes, I am understanding.

INT: Big grin That's great! Okay let me continue with the disclosure:

You are in the custody of the United States of America suspected of committing crimes against the people of the United States. While you are in custody it is the policy of the United States to not use coercive techniques or methods that may cause you physical or mental discomfort, pain, anguish, anxiety, confusion or disorientation; commonly referred to as "torture." Interrogator makes exaggerated quote signs in the air with his hands.

It is our objective to establish a welcome environment for you so that we may discuss your history with the al-Qaeda network and any operations that may be currently active or being planned that may bring harm to any citizens of the United States of America.

To help us establish with this objective I have a Prisoner Preference In-Take Form, a checklist, for you to complete to inform us of any special dietary needs you may have, any medications you may be taking under a doctor's prescription, type of music you prefer to listen to when relaxing--I might add as personal aside we have an extensive collection of CDs from musicians from all over the world, quite delightful. Continuing, what your preference is for bedding, soft or firm mattresses, pillows that type of thing. Finally, you are on a Federal installation so all the buildings, or structures such as this tent, are subject to the anti-smoking laws of the United States of America so no one may smoke except in designated areas. If someone violates this law in your presence please notify myself or the base commander immediately and that individual will be harshly disciplined for not only violating the ant-smoking law but subjecting you to his nasty habit and the second hand smoke.

Also on the in-take form is a lengthy area concerning your faith and how you choose to worship. If possible, and if he is willing, we can try to bring your spiritual guide to meet with you and pray with you while in our custody in this region.

One other point. If you find the language I used during our conversations to be offensive please let me know. As I am American I am not fully aware of the cultural sensitivities you may have that I may offend. I will refrain from such derogatory terms as "Jihadist" "Terrorist" or "Islamasist" but if I happen to use another term or word that offends you please let me know.

Finally, I wish to reiterate that our objective hear is to establish a comfortable atmosphere so we can have a genuine dialogue about our differences and so you can let us know of any plans for operations that may bring harm to the United States or its people. It is about establishing trust between you and me, and trust between your people and our people; trust we know was so badly damaged by the tactics and actions of my predecessors as the extracted information from those captured in similar situations to yours. While we recognize the valuable information obtained from such horrible procedures and techniques--can you imagine? They blew smoke in their faces, played heavy metal music and kept them awake for hours on end? But we have covered all that and the President has apologized on behalf of our nation. Anyway while recognizing the valuable information obtained through such methods our nation's leaders wish to create a more welcome environment so that we may establish a new relationship.

So are you ready to begin?

al-Zawahiri looks around with a look of confusion.

AAZ: This is a joke isn't it? You are trying to soften me up so when the tough guys come I am caught unaware!

INT: I assure you Mr. al-Zawahiri this is no joke, we care about you as a person and while we acknowledge that you have participated in the killing of thousands of innocent people around the world we wish to begin a new relationship and allow you to renounce the violence you are planned and participated in. If you speak to us I think you will find a tremendous burden lifted from your soul, you will feel re-born and re-invigorated! Now, can you please tell me of any current plans your organization has to bring harm to the United States or its citizens?


INT: Please?


INT: Pleeease?


INT: Come on Mr. al-Zawahiri, you are not participating as we build trust! Please tell me about any current operations.


INT: Please....

AAZ: No and I want a lawyer

INT: Well if that is the way you want to have it go. Okay we will have a lawyer from our Justice Department meet you in an hour. In the meantime please complete your in-take form so we can be prepared for your stay. And if you need to use the restroom and freshen up so you are more comfortable please let the one of the Marine guards know. I am pleased to have this chance to meet you and look forward to our conversations!

AAZ: Infidel pig.

INT: Well I can see we will have to start with trust building and get rid of that nasty name calling. I will see you in an hour, in the meantime please consider giving us the information I have requested. It sure would help me out personally with my superiors. Have a nice afternoon.

As the interrogator leaves the tent al-Zawahiri leans back in his chair and smiles. "It is true," he thought. "The Americans have abandoned any type of interrogation techniques to force information out of me. If only they had done this before Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been captured more of our operations would have been successful!"