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:

Cranston

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

Cranston

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: http://cpsed.net/super/budget07-08/budget_files/slide0059.htm

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.