Monthly Archives: January, 2007

The Late, Great Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins died today. And I feel as though I have lost a dear friend. I have long been an admirer of my fellow Smith College alumnus. (I actually saw her speak there in 1996.) Her ability to speak out against injustice and indecency and incompetence with wry wit and keen insight made her one of a kind. Her voice will be sorely missed. The best tribute I can think to offer her is to heed the advice she offered in her final column:

We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we’re for them and trying to get them out of there. [full text]

Rest in peace, dear Molly. May we all soon find peace.

And now, with apologies to W.H. Auden for modifying his verse a bit:

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message She is Dead,
Put crépe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

She was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song,
I thought her voice would last forever: ‘I was wrong’

The stars are not wanted now, put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Indicting Extraordinary Injustice

How is it that those who espouse the holiest of ends all too often utilize the unholiest of means? On the far end of the spectrum, certain Muslim extremists abroad seem to believe that anything goes—including suicide bombings, beheadings, and other sorts of mayhem—as they wage jihad against their enemies. Somewhere slightly to the left of these zealots on the spectrum, certain neoconservatives here seem to believe that anything goes—including torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, and the like—as the U.S. wages its war on terror against the aforementioned extremists (and anyone who even remotely appears to support or resemble them). Both the Muslim extremists and the American neocons believe that their cause is just and righteous and the actions they take in pursuit of such justifiable. However, regardless of their beliefs, the wrongs they commit or sanction are still morally and legally wrong. They are still harmful. And, as such, they are deserving of public censure and accountability.

Fortunately, some steps in that direction are being taken in Germany, as reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Germany may indict U.S. agents in 2004 abduction

BERLIN — German investigators have recommended that prosecutors issue arrest warrants for 13 U.S. intelligence operatives in connection with the kidnapping, beating and secret detention of a German citizen suspected of having links to terrorist networks.

The operatives are said to have been part of a CIA-sponsored team that transported alleged terrorists to interrogation camps around the world. Investigators say the group forced a handcuffed and blindfolded Khaled Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, onto a Boeing 737 in Macedonia and flew him to Afghanistan in January 2004. Masri was never charged with a crime, and was released after five months.

German law enforcement officials said indictments could be filed as early as this week against the suspects, including four pilots, a medic and members of an operations unit. The most serious charge is expected to be kidnapping, according to an official who asked not to be named. None of the suspects, who include CIA contract employees, have been named publicly.

The Masri case has strained U.S.-German relations and led to a parliamentary investigation of allegations that German intelligence agents were involved in the abduction. Investigators also have examined discrepancies about when high-ranking government officials were informed of Masri’s fate.

The prospect of criminal charges in the Masri ordeal comes as an Italian court is deliberating whether to order the trial of 26 Americans and nine Italians implicated in the February 2003 abduction of a radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar. The Italian government may demand the extradition of the accused Americans, including the former CIA station chief in Milan, where Omar was snatched from a sidewalk.

The CIA has not commented on the Masri case, although White House, Justice Department and agency officials have argued that U.S. laws authorized such covert operations, and that they have been assured that no suspects have been tortured.

Legal experts say it is extremely unlikely the U.S. government would turn over suspects for legal proceedings in either Germany or Italy.

Both cases have outraged lawmakers across the Continent and underscored the legal and human rights questions dividing the U.S. and Europe on countering terrorism. But they also have indicated that some European governments may have been complicit in the CIA program, known as “extraordinary renditions,” to capture and transport suspected militants to secret prisons for interrogations that sometimes included torture. [full text]

Interview with Mike Traficante

Here is the interview, wherein the following topics were discussed: how education funding has changed since the 1980’s and 90’s, how much of education costs are salary and benefits, the new law which caps education spending, what cuts might be enacted, school closings, merging the comprehensive and college tracks on the high school level, seeking grant funding, contacting state legislators and our federal delegation, merging school districts, merging the city’s school departments with the municipal departments, privatizing of education, merit pay for teachers, medicaid reimbursement for special education.

School Budget Issues: Fact and Fiction

There was an interesting letter to the editor of Projo for the West Bay section recently that caught my attention, given my concerns about education financing on the micro and macro levels. It’s a very persuasive letter; the only problem is that it gives the wrong amount for what the Cranston School Department is requesting for the 2007-08 budget, and it provides a statistic which does not jibe with what the Education Finance Statistics Center for the US tells us. Here is the letter:


Cost of education in city is outrageous

Taxpayers of Cranston beware: the new administration is wasting no time coming after your (and my) money.

School Committee Chairman Mike Traficante and School Department head M. Richard Scherza are orchestrating an elaborate whining campaign about how little money they have and how the educational system is suffering as a result.

Let’s look at the numbers: Mr. Scherza is requesting a budget of approximately $135 million for 2007-2008. This represents $12,000 per student, an astounding sum. This is very close to the tuition at the better private schools in the state, and exceeds that at Hendricken, La Salle, Saint Raphael and others by a significant margin. It is also close to being the highest per-pupil expenditure in the country.

Why is it that Cranston schools have so little money? Let’s look at other numbers. Nationally, the average percentage of school budgets that is allocated to salaries and benefits is approximately 80 percent. In Cranston, our school budget is allocated 90-plus percent to salaries and benefits. So, on top of paying per-student fees higher than most of the rest of the country, we also allocate a much greater percentage to salary and benefits. Is there a rational explanation for this?

Also in Cranston, we are one of (I believe) two communities to use our own bus drivers. The portion of the school budget allocated for buses is more than $5 million. When I first saw this number, I wondered if it might actually be cheaper to buy all the students a new Lexus. It’s close. An independent study of the School Department a few years back singled this out as a way to save money. Has this even been investigated? It’s more likely that Osama Bin Laden will embrace Christianity.

Messrs. Scherza and Traficante would have us believe that they’ve cut expenses to the bone. But, they’ve failed to embrace cost savings that are clearly there. Let’s also remember that Mr. Traficante was part of the School Committee that secretly approved new contracts for the schools last spring without a single word of input from the community, and without any idea of what the new contract would cost the taxpayer. This was the quintessential Rhode Island insider deal.

I say that let the crocodile tears flow in Cranston at the School Department and at the School Committee. But, we must refuse to give them one more dollar until they open up the budgeting process, and give us some real efficiencies and cost savings in the operations, and not just cut more books and activities for the kids.

Rick Jackson


First of all, the amount requested is not $135 million; it is $131,219,505. That’s a big difference.

Second, the letter claims that Cranston allocates “90-plus percent” of its budget to salary and benefits while other places in the US only allocate 80% of their budget to salary and benefits. I don’t know where Mr. Jackson got his statistics, but here are the statistics on this from the Education Finance Statistics Center:

So that means that nationally, the average spent on salary and benefits combined by school departments is 90.3%.

As for Cranston, we actually spend less than that, according to a graph from the current budget presentation. According to the slide presentation provided at the Cranston School Department website, Cranston spends 63.6% on salaries and 24.9% on fringe benefits, for a total of 88.5% on salary and benefits. That’s 1.8% below the national average.

So, as the saying goes, don’t believe everything you read.

Source for Cranston graph:

Reverse Psychosis

One key indication that an individual is in the throes of psychosis is that they hear voices or see things that others do not. By and large, those who experience psychosis are much more of a threat to themselves than to others. Despite his many disturbing tendencies, George W. Bush does not appear to be psychotic. Indeed, quite the opposite seems true. I would conjecture that the President is afflicted with what I call reverse psychosis. As he has proven time and again in his policies on Iraq, he does not hear voices or see things that others do. He may make a show of pretending to hear what knowledgeable others are saying (e.g., the troops on the ground, the Iraq Study Group, bipartisan members of Congress, the international community, et al.), but his actions strongly suggest that he is oblivious to their voices. Similarly, he remains oblivious to what most people here and abroad can plainly see, i.e., that Iraq is a devastated country descending into a civil war that no number of U.S. troops can hope to resolve. The President neither hears the voices nor sees the reality before him. As a result, he represents much more of a danger to others than to himself. His reverse psychosis prevents him from reversing his failed policies, which, to date, have cost 3,081 American soldiers their lives.

One of the recent fatalities was an Army captain named Brian Freeman, whose concerns about the war were clearly heard by a pair of U.S. Senators but not by the President. The Washington Post has the story:

Soldier’s Death Strengthens Senators’ Antiwar Resolve

Just before Christmas, an Army captain named Brian Freeman cornered Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) at a Baghdad helicopter landing zone. The war was going badly, he told them. Troops were stretched so thin they were doing tasks they never dreamed of, let alone trained for.

Freeman, 31, took a short holiday leave to see his 14-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son, returned to his base in Karbala, Iraq, and less than two weeks ago died in a hail of bullets and grenades. Insurgents, dressed in U.S. military uniforms, speaking English and driving black American SUVs, got through a checkpoint and attacked, kidnapped four soldiers and later shot them. Freeman died in the assault, the fifth casualty of the brazen attack.

The death of the West Point graduate — a star athlete from Temecula, Calif., who ran bobsleds and skeletons with Winter Olympians — has radicalized Dodd, energized Kerry and girded the ever-more confrontational stance of Democrats in the Senate. Freeman’s death has reverberated on the Senate floor, in committee deliberations and on television talk shows.

“This was the kind of person you don’t forget,” Dodd said yesterday. “You mention the number dead, 3,000, the 22,000 wounded, and you almost see the eyes glaze over. But you talk about an individual like this, who was doing his job, a hell of a job, but was also willing to talk about what was wrong, it’s a way to really bring it to life, to connect.”

“When I returned from war, almost 40 years ago now, I stood up and spoke from my heart and my gut about what I thought was wrong,” Kerry said on the Senate floor last week as he recounted his meeting with Freeman. “I asked the question in 1971: How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? . . . I never thought that I would be reliving the need to ask that question again.” [full text]

Failed Health, Failed Promises

How much evidence is needed before this nation and its elected representatives come around to the fact that a for-profit system to provide and manage health care is corrupt, inefficient, and inequitable? Why do we continue to embrace a system that completely excludes tens of millions of Americans and leaves countless others with inadequate or suspect coverage, a system that bankrupts a great many common folk while richly lining the pockets of insurance executives? What will it take for health care to be treated as a basic human right rather than a luxury item at Bloomingdale’s? Perhaps the following story from USA Today will add some fuel to the fires of some much-needed change:

People left holding bag when policies revoked

Denise Wheeler, an artist in Laguna Beach, Calif., thought she and her family had health insurance.

So did Tony Seals, a self-employed businessman in nearby Riverside. Across the country in Connecticut, Maria Locker and Linda Gaskill each bought short-term insurance policies to protect themselves against catastrophic costs.

But each was left with tens of thousands in unpaid medical bills when their insurers — all major companies — retroactively canceled their policies after they faced expensive health problems. “It’s the most devastating thing that’s ever happened to us,” says Seals, 43.

Their stories illustrate a little-recognized fact about insurance purchased by individuals: Even after being approved, policyholders can see their coverage amended to exclude certain medical conditions or revoked entirely, sometimes long after the policies are issued.

“Insurers love to market the promise, ‘We’ll take care of you. Just sign here,’ ” says Karen Pollitz of the Institute for Health Care Research and Policy at Georgetown University. “Then there is all this opportunity for the insurer not to keep the promise, and you don’t find out until it’s too late.” [full text]

Upcoming Interview with Mike Traficante

Times are tough for schools. The funding of our schools, and the reducing of quality in education, is something that nearly every school district in the nation is facing. While there is a perennial tension between schools wanting more and local budgets being loathe to give to them, things have gotten significantly tighter in Rhode Island and in other areas of the country. One reason why things are tighter in Rhode Island is that the state legislature passed a bill this past summer mandating that no school district could increase its budget by more than 5.25 percent.

Mike Traficante, our current School Committee Chair, has a long history of involvement with schools and school funding. He started his career as a teacher, coach, and assistant high school principal, and eventually moved on to become Mayor of Cranston, a position which he held for an astonishing 14 years.

On Wednesday morning, I’ll be sitting down with Chairman Traficante to discuss the circumstances of our local education funding crisis. I’m planning to digitally record the interview and use a cool website called Evoca to upload the interview to the internet for public listening.

Schools Push Back Against Bullying

When I was 14 or 15 years old, I was bullied by a classmate. I do not recall his name or many of the details surrounding his hurtful behavior, but I very much remember one particular incident and the feelings engendered by such. We were in a class taught by a younger female teacher, seated toward the rear (no doubt due to the whims of alphabetical fate). For reasons I either cannot recollect or simply do not know, this classmate who sat adjacent to me and was to become my tormenter had taken a disliking to me. On this occasion, he had grabbed my hand and was bending my fingers in such a way as to cause me a good deal of discomfort. He had one eye on the teacher—who was oblivious to what was going on—and one eye on me. He whispered a warning not to speak up or rat him out. Eventually, he let go of my hand, and life went on its less than merry way. I never told the teacher or an administrator or my parents what had taken place. I felt ashamed. And hurt. And bewildered. After a time—perhaps the end of the term when class schedules shifted—the bully and I parted ways, and I do not believe we ever crossed paths in any significant way again. But, in some small fashion, he stayed with me and is still with me now. The sting persists.

Back then, there were no formal programs addressing bullying. Indeed, there was not much recognition on the part of schools that bullying was a major problem. But times have changed, and many schools have come around to the reality that children are regularly tormented, both physically and psychologically, in their midst. And efforts are being made to remedy the situation, as reported in the New York Times:

Pushing Back at Bullying

GREENWICH, Conn.—This past November, the Greenwich High School principal, Alan J. Capasso, greeted an early morning assembly of more than 800 freshmen about to begin a mandatory anti-bias, anti-bullying program called “Names Can Really Hurt Us.� He told them, “This is the most important day of your school year.�

In Greenwich, where diverse doesn’t begin to describe the pan-cultural buzz animating the school’s hangar-size cafeteria, “Names,� as the program is known, is cool — as in “Hey, you doing ‘Names’ this year? It rocks.� After five years, “Names� day is assured a place on the school calendar, along with homecoming, SAT prep and the prom.

Farther north at New Milford High School, Jonathan Henion, a senior, stood before a “Names� assembly of sophomores to share a story he insisted was no big deal, except that it suggested how one small action could make a difference:

“I was standing in the rotunda with friends of mine, about 30 kids. I noticed this small girl walking by. She had on a big backpack filled with heavy books, and she fell. I just stood there watching and thought to myself, ‘What a loser.’ She just lay there trying to get up. The girl’s face kept getting redder and redder listening to the relentless taunting by my friends. Something clicked. I walked over and lifted her up, picked up her books and brushed the dirt off her arms.�

Jonathan’s little moment was greeted with huge applause; he looked surprised. New Milford’s principal, Greg P. Shugrue, sharing pizza with Jonathan and other student panelists afterward, told them: “This is the best school atmosphere I’ve ever worked in. And it’s because of the commitment to this program.�

“Names,� which requires two months of preparation and training by students and staff members, is not a program that any participant or observer can easily forget. There is straight talk. There are tears, hugs, high-fives, laughs, applause and some astonishing apologies.

“I went to observe it at Weston High School in 2000,� said Carol Sutton, a social studies teacher and the catalyst for bringing “Names� to Greenwich. “What I saw was astounding. I was impressed by the student panelists and the kids who got up in the open-mike segment. I was amazed. I came back and said, ‘Let’s get it done.’ �

Over the last 11 years, some 65,600 Connecticut high school students have participated in “Names,� which is sponsored and supervised by the Connecticut Office of the Anti-Defamation League. Guided by teachers, trained student volunteers and league facilitators, students talk with the unflinching candor of children about topics most adults would prefer to avoid: gossip, rumor, physical harassment, racism, homophobia, depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation, drinking, drugs, suicide — the full range of bullying behavior and its consequences. [full text]

How Low Can You Glow?

Here’s a word to the wise for those who travel, attend events like the Super Bowl, or even visit federal buildings, as reported by Reuters (via the Boston Globe):

“Hot” patients setting off radiation alarms

When 75,000 football fans pack into Dolphin Stadium in Miami for the Super Bowl on February 4, at least a few may want to carry notes from their doctors explaining why they’re radioactive enough to set off “dirty bomb” alarms.

With the rising use of radioisotopes in medicine and the growing use of radiation detectors in a security-conscious nation, patients are triggering alarms in places where they may not even realize they’re being scanned, doctors and security officials say.

Nearly 60,000 people a day in the United States undergo treatment or tests that leave tiny amounts of radioactive material in their bodies, according to the Society of Nuclear Medicine. It is not enough to hurt them or anyone else, but it is enough to trigger radiation alarms for up to three months.

Since the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has distributed more than 12,000 hand-held radiation detectors, mainly to Customs and Border Protection agents at airports, seaports and border crossings. Sensors are also used at government buildings and at large public events like the Super Bowl that are considered potential terrorist targets.

At the annual Christmas tree-lighting party in New York City’s Rockefeller Center in November, police pulled six people aside in the crowd and asked them why they had tripped sensors.

“All six had recently had medical treatments with radioisotopes in their bodies,” Richard Falkenrath, the city’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, told a Republican governors’ meeting in Miami recently. “That happens all the time.”

Radioisotopes are commonly used to diagnose and treat certain cancers and thyroid disorders, to analyze heart function, or to scan bones and lungs.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission first recommended in 2003 that doctors warn patients they may set off alarms after being injected or implanted with radioisotopes. That came after police stopped a bus that set off a radiation detector in a New York City tunnel. They found one of the passengers had recently undergone thyroid treatment with radioiodine.

In August, the British Medical Journal described the case of a very embarrassed 46-year-old Briton who set off the sensors at Orlando airport in Florida six weeks after having radioiodine treatment for a thyroid condition.

He was detained, strip-searched and sniffed by police dogs before eventually being released, the journal said in its “Lesson of the Week” section. [full text]

Lieberman Disapproves of Disapproval

Joe Lieberman may fancy himself as some sort of majestic hawk soaring boldly above the vast territory he defends, but, in truth, he seems much more akin to a squawking vulture elevating himself simply to detect carrion. Last week, during the confirmation hearings for General David Petraeus, the junior senator from Connecticut sought to suck the general into the political debate over the war in Iraq. Specifically, Lieberman asked whether a “resolution of disapproval for this new strategy in Iraq would give the enemy some encouragement, some feeling that…the American people were divided.â€? Such a question is beyond insulting, in that it infers that those who register their disapproval are, in effect, aiding and abetting the enemy and that any public dissent—rather than demonstrating the strength and majesty of American democracy—highlights a divisiveness that is somehow unacceptable. In case Boltin’ Joe has yet to notice, the American people have been divided for quite some time about the war in Iraq. It is only more recently that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle—an aisle that Lieberman currently straddles like a playground pony—have begun to take exception to this foolhardy endeavor and the policies that perpetuate it. Nonetheless, Joe is stubbornly sticking to his cap guns and smearing those who won’t play nice. One can only imagine what he must think of the latest Newsweek poll (below). Perhaps he believes that the significant majority who registered their disapproval, not to mention the pollsters who dared to gauge public opinion, were giving the enemy “some encouragement.” More likely, they were just giving Lieberman and his fellow carrion-feeders the bird.

A Sorry State

President George W. Bush concluded his annual State of the Union address this week with the words “the State of our Union is strong … our cause in the world is right … and tonight that cause goes on.� Maybe so, but the state of the Bush administration is at its worst yet, according to the latest NEWSWEEK poll. The president’s approval ratings are at their lowest point in the poll’s history—30 percent—and more than half the country (58 percent) say they wish the Bush presidency were simply over, a sentiment that is almost unanimous among Democrats (86 percent), and is shared by a clear majority (59 percent) of independents and even one in five (21 percent) Republicans. Half (49 percent) of all registered voters would rather see a Democrat elected president in 2008, compared to just 28 percent who’d prefer the GOP to remain in the White House.

Public fatigue over the war in the Iraq is not reflected solely in the president’s numbers, however. Congress is criticized by nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans for not being assertive enough in challenging the Bush administration’s conduct of the war. Even a third (31 percent) of rank-and-file Republicans say the previous Congress, controlled by their party, didn’t do enough to challenge the administration on the war….

With Bush widely viewed as an ineffectual “lame duckâ€? (by 71 percent of all Americans), over half (53 percent) of the poll’s respondents now say they believe history will see him as a below-average president, up three points from last May. The first time this question was asked, in October 2003, as many people thought Bush would go down in history as an above average president as thought we would be regarded as below average (29 to 26 percent). Only 22 percent of those polled think Bush’s decisions about Iraq and other major policy are influenced mainly by the facts; 67 percent say the president’s decisions are influenced more by his personal beliefs. This perhaps explains why only about half (49 percent) of adult Americans even bothered to watch or listen to any of the State of the Union speech as it happened. Of those, less than half (42 percent) think his energy, health care and other domestic policy proposals are likely to be seriously considered by the new Democratic-controlled Congress. Overall, 61 percent are unsatisfied with the way things are going in America; just 30 percent are satisfied. [full text]


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