Sunday, May 13, 2007

Congressional Sleight of Hand

The U. S. Postal Service (Postal Department until Reagan partially privatized it) almost with clockwork ups the price of an ounce of first class postage, almost always by two cents. The explanations given always sound suspicious, and the current increase, going into effect May 14, 2007, is no exception. It sees a 39-cent stamp increasing to 41 cents. (At least the increase is exactly the same as the previous one; I still have plenty of two-cent stamps and now have a use for them again.) The apologia this time concerns a vaguely-stated necessity of upgrading equipment or procedures to keep up with the competition.

But, all this stuff about the USPS charging more for stamps because it struggles to compete with rival free market services (UPS, Air Express, &c.) is a lot of hokem and bunk. By law, NO carrier BUT the Postal Service can move first class letter mail. The government has given them a monopoly on it. If the rival, private services are more efficient at parcel movement and other services, perhaps the USPS should simply bow out of the market entirely.

Each time they raise postal rates, the services remain the same. In fact, some wags claim that you can always tell when an increase in postage is coming by the way the services decline. Also, from time to time, they change the names of some services, e.g. "library materials rate" to "media mail," but they don't bring us mail on Sundays, in fact threatening perennially to drop Saturday deliveries altogether. They continue to under staff their counter service, causing long waiting lines and great consternation, although it is to be admitted that the clerks at least seem to have had some training in people skills.

And they still refuse to give us the benefit of the doubt when it comes to postage due, again causing consternation when, sometimes, mail is returned to sender for an additional penny or two. The consternation in this event can be extreme, as the postage-due recoil can cause charge-backs by banks, stiff late fees on unpaid bills, and emotional let-downs for things as simple as a missed birthday card. The USPS simply do not give value for the added costs of mailing.

Now, here is the Big Secret about the USPS: the additional stamp money doesn't all go to improvements in equipment, &c. A hefty hunk of it goes to their boss, the U.S. government. It is then spent in such stupid, misguided activities as building bridges across rivers to connect a few hundred persons on both sides of a river; funding studies to determine if the Wisconsin newt actually has the ability to alter its sex at will, and sending young men to die in colossally misguided misadventures in the Mideast. If the USPS were not the best mail service in the world (and, actually, one of the cheapest) the government might privatize first class letter mail, too. But, then, they wouldn't have all that extra revenue to fund their boondoggles.

The new "forever" stamp, which you can buy for a one-time price of 41-cents, and which you can use till Hell freezes over, is a silly idea. It may seem economically sound for some; after all, with these every-two-or-three-year increases of two to three cents, paying 41 cents when others are paying 43, 46, or 49, could bring to your face the kind of smug smile one gets when buying low and selling high in the stock market. "Ha! I told you so!" But, think about it, let's say you're a business person and mail at least 500 first class letters a year. That's going to cost you $205 for each year you figure you will remain in business.

You may die in a year or two. Or you may retire. Congress might throw in the towel and let UPS or some other carrier deliver first class letter mail, in which your cache of USPS forever stamps will be worthless. Assuming the 41-cent rate will be good for at least two years, perhaps you can wait until 2009 before buying the priceless franking. (Again, to borrow from stock market analogies, you might have, within the Postal Service, a tipster, aiding you in some insider trading.)

Then, again, you might do a bit more correspondence by fax or email. Come to think of it, these may put the USPS out of business. How will you get value for all your leftover forever stamps when the seller winds up in bankruptcy?

No, I think I will buy a roll of 41-centers at a time. Somehow I don't trust this forever stamp ploy.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

"Jesus Don't Like Killin' No Matter What the Reason Is...."

I just watched on DVD the docudrama, The Road to Guantanamo by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, which won mostly positive critical praise when released here theatrically. Essentially, it's the story of four young British-Pakistanis who head for the Mideast to attend a wedding only to be caught up in the Afghan War and wind up on troop transport planes bound for Cuba. It's a tale of almost unbelievable cruelty perpetrated by the very people who once claimed to cherish the noble and egalitarian ideals of democracy, but now, in the name of "security," practice the same evils attributed to the Nazi S.S. and other infamous despots throughout history.

I was reminded of a saying we had during the Vietnam Era, actually the title of a book by Edmund Snow Carpenter, a friend of Marshall McLuhan and teacher of anthropology at the University of Toronto and other academic venues. The title was: We Became What We Beheld. I am very much afraid that somewhere along the road to our becoming the world's greatest superpower, the U.S. became what it beheld, and as Guantanamo illustrated so perfectly well, what we beheld was tyrrany in the name of a better night's sleep. I know it is by now a cliche and that saying it invites accusations of traitorous betrayal, but I will repeat it anyway: We are the New Nazis.

What good is torture when it only produces lies and forced confessions not worth the breath that uttered them? There is a beautiful, telling documentary snippet in the Winterbottom-Whitecross movie -- a blend of TV news footage, reconstructed events, and interviews with the three young Islamic Brits who survived. It comes when the groundwork for the interrogation and imprisonment of hostages flown from Afghanistan to Gitmo is being laid and the then-Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is heard to remark that the captor-interrogators (first the Marines, then the FBI and CIA) would be "following the Geneva Conventions...for the most part...."

I am afraid Rummy now belongs to that select group of Americans who cannot safely travel outside the United States due to the ever-growing membership ranks of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. (No wonder the U.S. has denounced the World Court and refused to participate in its doings.) Like Nixon's architect of war, Henry Kissenger, Rumsfeld risks being snatched on the streets of one member nation or another and taken, Milosevich-like, before the Tribunal.

If I had any doubt that what happened at Guantanamo violated the Geneva accords if not to the letter, then certainly in spirit, The Road to Guantanamo removed any veil of doubt that remained. Worse, the later Iraqi misadventure, an unprovoked escalation of hostilities against both guilty and innocent Iraqis at Abu Graib saw wholesale flouting of the accords. We have indeed become what we beheld.

Winterbottom and Whitecross's movie ends with the surviving Islamic Brits being flown home, eventually joining their friends in Pakistan for the long-planned wedding. But all three men tell the camera they've been permanently changed. Actually, it is amazing they remained sane, much less capable of going on with their lives. I am afraid it just won't do for our leaders and our national security people to perpetuate a wicked twist on the old saying that it is better to set one guilty man free to protect all who remain innocent. The modus operandi at Guantanamo turned this notion on its head, insisting as it did on imprisonment and psychological torture of many innocents in often vain hopes of sussing out one or two members of bin Ladin's al Qaida.

There was a bit of talk in the film about the differences between Islamic and American "values." That became the buzzword for the Neo-Cons who put George Bush and Dick Cheney in the White House, the latter at least, it's now known, already with plans to invade Iraq. One is left to wonder, "Whose values?" The same glib value talk held sway at the recent MSNBC Republican "debate." The values they mean -- those of Romney, Tancredo, Huckabee, and Brownback -- are clearly Christer values, which are really bigot values, church-state union values, undemocratic values, hypocrite values. If this is not the case, why did John McCain denounce the two leading Christer fundamentalists months ago only to suck up to them more recently as the time came for his hat to go into the ring?

As I watched the DVD, I was reminded of another saying from the Vietnam Era. One of our finest folk singers, John Prine, a master of irony and the "protest" song, wrote and recorded a little ditty titled "Flag Decal," on the singer's brilliant debut album. The song is too long (not to mention copyright-covered) to repeat at length here, but fair usage might allow me to quote the refrain:

Now Jesus don't like killin'
No matter what the reason is
And your flag decal won't get you
Into heaven any more.

You know, I kinda doubt Jesus would like torture, either. But you certainly see a lot of those yellow ribbon decals on vehicles these days. Do those drivers think their Iraq Era decals will get them past Saint Pete? It amuses me to see that some people, perhaps feeling guilty about the non-WMD, non-al Qaida link, non Saddam nuclear-capability revelations of late, have been trying to scratch their decals off...only to discover that the shitheads who marketed them forgot to make them car paint- friendly. Even if you manage to remove the decal, your paint job is ruined.

To those drivers who've left the the decals in place thinking they'll get them through the Pearly Gates...well, they've got another think coming.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Stewed Newt, Very Tasty With Mustard

Poor Newtie (that's his mom's name for him, not mine). As the first GOP "debates" (the news channel's name for them, not mine) were winding down on MSNBC, Newtie was telling Sean Hannity on rival Fox News he thought it absurd to hold what amounted to a "joint press conference" (NOT a debate) some 20 months before the next president moves into the oval office. Newtie appeared to be turning a bit green. All of the attention was on announced candidates and there was Newtie, still with no hat in the ring, grumbling like a small child running home to blubber, "Nobody wants to play with ME!" Of course not, stupid. You're not running yet.

All the same, these introductory chit chats really do seem not only premature but calculatedly civil. Like the Dems before them, the announced GOP candidates avoided jibes at each other; unlike the Dems, none of them dared criticize the current occupant of the White House, AWOL from some village missing an idiot. To paraphrase an old Marlon Brando movie, the assembled hacks at the GOP "debate" "coulda been contenders," but they were too busy pretending that all is right with the world, that nothing in American is broken, so there's no use in talking about having anything fixed.

There was a decidedly Christer tone to the proceedings. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said that the reason politics and religion should mix is that "religion influences all of us. We all have values...." It is a perennial complaint of agnostics and atheists from Huxley to Harris (with Madalyn Murray O'Hair thrown in) that this observation carries an inherent argument that if one is not religious, one has no values. Although a fairly obvious fallacy, it's nevertheless one most TV audiences are not likely to grasp.

But that was the least of the logical fallacies. Indeed, one of the worst was delivered by the hands-down (if unofficial) winner of the debate, Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney. Discussing his flip-flopping on abortion, Romney said that he was pro-choice until he got enmeshed in the controversy over stem cell research in his home state, Massachusetts. Stem cell research, he said, "was caused by Roe v. Wade"! I kid you not. He actually said it!

Of all the preposterous foreign policy positions of the night, one "took the cake": Rep. Tom Tancredo's insistence that sending troops into Iran was inevitable because Ahmadinejad believes in the return of the "Last Imam," who will bring about the Islamic equivalent of the Second Coming. (The 12th Imam of the Shiites, Ali ibn Muhammad Simmari, is sometimes referred to as the"Hidden Imam," and many believe he did not die but will return, Jesus-like, in the Shiite version of the Apocalypse.)

This religious-based "fear" of Iran is central to the beliefs of such ultra-fundamentalist groups as the Remnant Church, which you can google if you want to have nightmares. Many ultra-evangelical organizations are in a hurry to bring about World War III because, just as Jihadists see suicidal martyrdom as a swift trip to Paradise, so do the fundies view Armageddon as a promise of their just desserts. It's sickening to think that an Apocalyptic War to the death might be waged over differing eschatological beliefs. (Me, I kinda like living in the here and now, and I wish the Tancredos of this world would simply disappear , and take their goddamned fucking Rapture with them!)

In view of Tancredo's credo, it shouldn't be a bit surprising that when a reader of sent in a question to Sen. John McCain asking if he believed in evolution, he hesitated noticeably before admitting that he did. But when the same inquiry was put to all the other candidates on the dais, three said no, that they did not believe in evolution. Naturally, one of them was Tancredo, but it surprised me that Fmr. Gov. Huckabee of Arkansas agreed; he's appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, hardly a seeming haven for creationists. (It did not surprise me at all that Brownback held up his hand. See my earlier blog about this lunatic.)

Until he back-tracked from social liberalism to quasi-conservatism in an obvious effort to curry the GOP right wing base, I had some hope that Rudy Giuliani (fmr. mayor, N.Y.C.) might be someone I could support, at least in the primaries. But his performance during the debates was pathetic. Not only did he join the phoney homage-payment to Ronald Reagan (I kept expecting someone to quip, "I knew Ronald Reagan, Governor, and you're no Ronald Reagan"), he delivered the most preposterous remark of the night when we finally negotiated release of hostages taken from our embassy in Tehran, their Iranian captors took one look into Reagan's eyes and released their hostages two minutes later.

Yeah, sure, but only after Lt.-Col. Oliver North's little White House basement operation put lies to Ronnie's promises to Americans that there would be "no arms for hostages." Is this the kind of president Giuliani will be? Will he conveniently forget important events and/or statements when the chips are down, as Scooter Libby learned from Reagan?

Worse, Giuliani came off as both slippery and ingnorant. He could not adequantely explain the historic differences between the Sunnis and the Shiites. After five years of Iraqi War, degenerated now into a sectarian battle of attrition, that Giuliani is so poorly versed in Islanic history shows a weakness in foreign policy issues that, increasingly, determine the course for America's future. We can't have another man who needs on-the-job training. Even Hillary would have the edge in that department.

The only candidate who emerged as someone I could cross party lines and votes for in the primary is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian Republican whose views hark back in some ways to Goldwater. He is a fiscal conservative, which is good. But when it comes to government's involvement in quotidian, purely personal matters (e.g. abortion), he is a hand's-off individualist. It's a throw-away vote, of course, but worth it all the same.

The participants, for the record:

Fmr. Gov. James Gilmore (R.-Va.); Fmr. Mayor Rudy Giuliana (R.-N.Y.C.); Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee (R.-Ark.); Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Cal.); Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.); Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Tex.); Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (R.-Mass.); Rep. Tom Tancredo (R.-Col.), and Fmr. Gov. Tommy Thompson (R.-Wis.).