Archive for January, 2010

28
Jan
10

CN Column 1/29/09: What a news week: BOE reaches resolution, Conan fired, court favors corporate spending

It’s been such a crazy couple of weeks in the news, I hardly know where to start.

Hell must have frozen over, because a GOP candidate won a Senate seat in Massachusetts, as you already know. Republicans were quick to cast Scott Brown’s decisive victory in a special election to fill late Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy’s seat as a decisive vote against Democrats’ sweeping health care reform bill. Syndicated columnist and regular cable news guest George Will went so far as to say the election was essentially a “referendum on health care.”

If nothing else, the election was an ironic twist of fate, as Kennedy had championed the cause of reform throughout his nearly five-decade-long stint in the Senate.

The left is now dug in for what will surely become a protracted battle over the issue (not to mention any number of Democrats’ recent big-government policies).

Maybe their loss of the supermajority will force them to actually work with Republicans rather than shutter them out (remember, on the campaign trail, how much President Obama said he intended to work “across the aisle”?). Maybe now he’ll be held to the very standard he disingenuously trumpeted, and a sensible, bipartisan solution to America’s broken health care system can be discussed reasonably.

On the local level, the Naugatuck Board of Education’s budget situation at long last boiled over and reached a resolution: a half-million dollars in union concessions $1 million in borough money. We can stop talking about that situation, at least for a little while. And by that I mean until budgeting for the 2010-2011 fiscal year begins.

And NBC bid late-night host Conan O’Brien a less-than-fond farewell, booting him to the tune of $33 million in severance pay ($12 million more to his staff of about 200). O’Brien had been a late-night staple for years and a hit with the Generation-Y demographic (me included). I just hope someone offers him work and that his new program runs at, say, 8 p.m. rather than in the 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. slots he’s recently held. I’m just not in college anymore.

Anyway.

There was one other tidbit this week that may have slid off your radar, and as far as I’m concerned, it will be a storyline that unfolds dramatically in the weeks leading up to this year’s mid-term elections. It may even define the course of American democracy in years to come.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that the government may not ban or limit corporate spending to influence elections. Before that ruling, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (colloquially known as McCain-Feingold) disallowed the transmission of “electioneering communications”—i.e. political advertising—paid for by corporations or labor unions 30 days prior to a presidential primary and 60 days prior to a general election. The new decision, which split the court, 5-4, along the party line, upended not only McCain-Feingold but older, more entrenched Supreme Court precedents which upheld the constitutionality of a similar ban (See: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652 [1990]; McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, 540 U.S. 93 [2003]).

What’s worse, McCain-Feingold was arguably nothing more than a legislative plug in the loopholes that had emerged over the years in the Tillman Act of 1907, which prohibited corporate spending on national political campaigns, and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which extended that ban to cover labor unions.

So after last week’s reckless ruling, powerful special interest groups can not only command vast influence by lobbying, but also they are now free to dip into their deep coffers to post advertising campaigns in favor of candidates who represent their interests, and to do so into the critical final weeks before an election.

Organized labor and big business, though long considered political loggerheads, shared a common success in Thursday’s ruling. It was a decisive victory for special interest groups—and a pointed disenfranchisement of the everyday working American.

And the scariest part is the behind-the-scenes implications. Corporate lobbyists now have a billy club with which to subdue legislators keen on workers’ rights, environmentalism, or any important issue among a host of things some corporations consider thorns in their collective side.

And why the Supreme Court so radically ruled unconstitutional regulations it judged constitutional as recently as six years ago is less than clear.

The majority opinion points to freedom of political speech concerns. How, the justices asked, can we limit the political speech of an association of citizens (in this case, a corporation) without violating the First Amendment?

Here’s one rationale: The “speech” of many corporations will not be a reflection of the good-faith political will of their constituency, but rather an orchestrated effort to sway the populace into supporting candidates who represent their interests. And it gives them the threat power to silence dissenting voices.

Insofar as the First Amendment was written and enacted to protect the personal freedoms of individuals, not businesses or labor unions, the court’s decision to overturn over 100 years of legislative and legal precedent is nothing less than a disgrace.

The court has essentially empowered special interests to sway the course of American policy—even more than they already do—into the foreseeable future. And let’s not forget foreign powers’ (China, anyone?) influence in some large multinational corporations

I don’t claim to have the knowledge, nor even the wherewithal, to evaluate all the complex nuances of constitutional law. I do, however, claim to have common sense, and the high court’s ruling in this case completely and overwhelmingly defies it.

President Obama spoke out against the ruling, calling it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

Here’s to hoping our commander-in-chief can finally prove he, and his party’s majority in Congress, are not completely impotent.

20
Jan
10

CN Column 01/22/10: Haiti Will Test Obama’s Mettle

Every few years or so, a deadly natural disaster strikes some area of the world considered remote by most Americans. Often Oceanic, East Asian or other equatorial nations suffer tragedies related to earthquakes, tsunamis, floods or cyclones.

Last Tuesday, as you most likely know, Haiti, a Creole- and French-speaking Caribbean nation adjacent to the Dominican Republic, suffered a 7.0-scale earthquake near the capital city of Port-au-Prince. The most commonly cited estimate of the death toll is 100,000, ranking the quake among the deadliest in history, anywhere. That figure represents approximately 1 percent of the country’s total population. The Haitian government has said the body count may reach 200,000.

Most of us remember well the 2004 Indonesian tsunami which killed an estimated 230,000 people. That tsunami was the result of the second-largest earthquake ever recorded by a seismograph; it registered between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale, expending a sum of seismic energy equivalent to the detonation of approximately 100 gigatons (100 billion tons) of TNT, a chemical substance used as a scientific standard that has roughly 60 percent of the blast power of conventional dynamite.

Tuesday’s quake near Port-au-Prince, by that measure, had the force of a 32 million-ton explosion of TNT. To put it in perspective, the Nagasaki atomic bomb had the blast force of about 32,000 tons of TNT.

Those are just the facts.

So for the sake of clarity, one might put it simply by saying Haiti’s disaster had the same effect as up to 1,000 hypothetical Fat Man bombs detonating eight miles underground (a shallow depth relative to other major earthquakes) a mere 10 miles from the capital city.

The carnage that followed the quake is well-documented in news reports. The city was all but razed; bodies remain sprawled in rubble-strewn streets, and buildings from shantytown shacks to President Rene Preval’s National Palace to schools, hospitals and prisons collapsed, according to Associated Press reports.

And as arguably one of the poorest nations in this hemisphere, Haiti is unequipped to cope with the metaphorical aftershocks of the disaster (the actual aftershocks, it is worth noting, reached a magnitude of 5.9).

According to the CIA World Factbook, the country recorded a GDP of slightly more than $7 billion in 2009; that equates to a per capita GDP of $790, or about $2 per person, per day. Foreign aid, much of it from the U.S., accounts for approximately 30-40 percent of the national government’s budget.

Perhaps most staggering is the CIA estimate that about 80 percent of Haitians live in poverty.

According to the Corruption Perceptions Index (a study published since 1995 by Transparency International, which measures political corruption based on public perception), Haitians’ distrust of their government is superseded by the constituencies of only seven countries, among them Afghanistan, Somalia, Myanmar and Sudan.

Suffice it to say that this swath of pre-existing conditions served to make the small island nation one of the worst candidates for absorbing any calamity, never mind a deadly natural disaster of near-unequivocal potency.

This may be the defining international crisis of President Barack Obama’s first term, and the extent to which he steps up to offer humanitarian relief, not just in the short term but also by staging a longsighted, orchestrated promise to help a neighbor rebuild, will determine his true colors, in terms of his commitment to the international community.

Already his administration has demonstrated far greater poise than the Bush camp did in 2004, when the aforementioned tsunami struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and other Oceanic nations (not to mention when a Category 3 hurricane ravaged a major U.S. city to the tune of some 1,800 lives).

But the important thing for everyone, including the president and his advisers, to remember is that the U.S. relief effort shouldn’t be staged as a public relations campaign, even though it inevitably will. Obama wants to frame himself as Bush’s opposite; and though I could hardly blame him, he should watch himself and his intentions.

Sparking, rhetorical oration might win political office, but it does not lie within the scope of humanitarian aid, and Obama would do well to remember that. Now is not the time for speechmaking.

Now is the time for action, and to be sure, the U.S., at least for now, is taking it—along with the rest of the developed world. In fact, telegraph.co.uk reported Thursday that the volume of incoming flights full of supplies and aid workers was so great as of Thursday that Haiti had to ask countries to stop authorizing the flights.

But the truest litmus test measuring any country’s commitment to aid will be what it’s doing to help after a week, a month, a year, a decade. Haiti is already becoming a public health and safety disaster, as disease spreads and gangs of looters vie for basic necessities in the streets. And according to one estimate, one third of Haiti’s entire population is wounded and homeless in the wake of Tuesday’s disaster.

The task ahead of the international community is a grave and serious one. What remains to be seen is whether the United States, under a first-term president whose popularity is waning, will stick it out in the long run, especially after the news media pull out and Americans turn their attention back to domestic affairs.

06
Jan
10

CN Column 01/08/09: The belated holiday column: Christmas is pretty much a wash

When it comes to the holidays, I’ve always found myself lying somewhere in the middle of the spirit spectrum bookended by the Grinch and Saint Nick himself. Sure, I love getting gifts. Who doesn’t? As I grow older, I’m beginning to truly enjoy giving them, too. And there’s no denying that occasions to spend some time with family and revere our respective spiritual deities are intrinsically valuable.

But for every merry aspect of the holiday season, there is an offset, a Scrooge-worthy, spirit-dampening seasonal curse. Winter illness, snowstorms, traffic, shopping and a million other minutiae of holiday life leave many tired, anxious, and over-stressed when they should be capitalizing on their time off from work by kicking back and getting some much-needed rest.

My Christmas was nothing quite out of the ordinary, aside from a burgeoned gift budget afforded by the blessing of a steady job and an unexpected stipend given for my role as an electric bass player in a weekend-long set of Christmas concerts at my family’s church.

Rather than having to stretch the $75 overall Christmas budget I came to know and love in college, I had a bit more spare dough to mete out to big-box chain stores, in exchange for overpriced goods of questionable origin and manufacture. Joy to the world.

I’m a cynic about a lot of things, and American consumerism is chief among them, probably because I can’t escape it myself.

I did a little bit of holiday shopping online this year to minimize the time I’d need to spend blitzkrieg-buying in the commercial corridors, but of course it wasn’t enough.

I managed to do all my in-person shopping in just a few hours the Saturday before Christmas, a stretch of time that has since haunted my very dreams with profound, nightmarish fear.

Okay, it wasn’t that bad.

I started out at a Barnes and Noble, telling myself I needed to “get warmed up” before hitting the mall (no joke, that was an honest thought). After perusing the large-print section for Grandma, girly fashion magazines for my girlfriend’s stocking, and, in turn, purchasing this month’s issue of “Cosmopolitan” and a magnified-text James Patterson novel—with no small sense of embarrassment—I mounted my faithful, old Accord (well, not very faithful of late) and sallied forth to the most dreaded holiday netherworld of them all (cue dramatic, expectant orchestra hits): the Connecticut Post Mall.

As I mentioned in a previous column, I spent several months working at the theater there when it first opened. I was attending (and commuting to) the University of New Haven at the time, so I rarely went home between class and work. I became a bona fide mallrat. I’m sad to admit that to this day, I know the ins and outs of that entire mall as well as anyone.

So I acted the mall ninja that Saturday, if ever there was such a thing, and endeavored to make the trip as efficient as possible.

From memory, I parked near the entrance adjacent to my destination jewelry store (I’m a holiday parking ninja, too; I was only 30 yards from the door), skillfully weaved my bulky frame through dozens of leisurely mall-walkers (the bane of my existence), sidled up nervously to a display case, and made a hasty, ill-informed, but not altogether bad purchase. She liked it, anyway.

I am slightly neurotic—and not in a cute, funny, or “edgy” way, as Hollywood often portrays the basket cases. My neuroses are limited to mild agoraphobia and occasional bouts of anxiety—so picture me, all 220, neck-bearded, socially-awkward pounds of me, in a shopping mall a week before Christmas. I got out there as if the devil himself were on my heels.

I was just glad to get home, stash the goods slightly out of sight and regain my composure. It may sound ridiculous, but shopping is far more taxing to me than manual labor, filing my tax return, going to the dentist, etc.

But there’s nothing quite like giving a gift, especially when you know it was the right one, is there? My grandmother is already almost done with her James Patterson novel (“He’s a hell of a writer, Bren, I’ll tell ya”), my father spent Christmas morning sporting his new moisture-wicking skull cap (to aid and abet his newfound love of motorcycling, much to my mother’s chagrin), and my girlfriend’s ring (alright, it was just a birthstone) has barely left her finger.

It seems to me every holiday travail is offset by an accompanying joy—in my case, the frustration of Christmas shopping was washed out by the joy of giving—and every real-life Grinch or Scrooge, who likely won’t experience the eventual epiphanic change of heart implied by the title, would do well to remember that.