Saturday, July 18, 2009


What would my Uncle Buster say about turning over health care to the federal government? He was no Joe the Plumber. In fact, in 1918 he was a 17 year old high school drop out who had run away from home and found work as a “pearl diver” in Providence, Rhode Island. That job title means dishwasher. The next year when returning WWI vets used their preference to take away his job, he applied to be an orderly in Butler Hospital for the insane. They needed nurses desperately, so they trained him and he was a nurse for the next 60 years.

In an unpublished memoir he expresses great admiration for the humane way Butler treated its inmates. That included giving capable inmates in-town paroles and others on-the-grounds parole, and providing others with work in the gardens and dining halls.

When my Uncle Buster died in his 80s he left a few thousand dollars to his beloved hometown of Plainfield, New Hampshire, but specified that the town could not use a dime of it for 100 years. He understood that government seldom puts aside money today to pay for tomorrow’s bills. So I think of him when I consider the present proposals for reforming American health care.

What would he think if he heard how much money we would have to put on deposit in an interest bearing account today, if we wanted to pay for Medicare benefits due over the next 75 years?

The answer, say the trustees of the Medicare system: $38 trillion.

That amounts to $103,000 for each man, woman, and child in America today. (Multiply that by the number of people in your family to see how much you would have to pay.)

That is our obligation today without adding any of the new Medicare benefits or any new costs of federal health insurance.

Consider now that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says that the present proposals before Congress to “reform” health care would increase the costs of health care to the taxpayer by hundreds of billions.

For instance, to subsidize insurance for the uninsured would cost $33 billion in 2013. That is almost $1,000 per American citizen, including babies. When today’s newborn are 10 years old, their cost (along with the cost to each parent and sibling) would be $4,300.

None of this counts on providing for the mental health care costs of the people who have proposed saddling their fellow citizens with such costs. My Uncle Buster, for all his modern views on the mentally ill, would never have proposed letting the inmates run the asylum.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Will President Obama Ban Inconvenient Dissent?

I agree with the reader who said my blogs often focus on the negative. I love upbeat stories and my eyes tear up at underdogs triumphing by perseverance and talent. So I am not happy about writing a second blog in several days that reflects badly on President Obama. I often like what he says. I loved it when Obama came into office as the man who wanted to hear all sides of an issue, who had an open mind, who welcomed informed debate. But I come from a solid lower class blue collar family where we were always suspicious of people talking a good line.

And as for being negative too often, let’s remember that the President himself has spent his first five months in office blaming Bush and Republicans for most of his problems. In particular, he was leading the chorus of those who accused the Bush administration of silencing debate, punishing dissenters, and distorting science. I spend a good part of my life as a science writer, so let’s see how President Obama’s actions match his words.

While we admit that politics is not science (despite the thousands of “political science” departments in our colleges) let us propose a hypothesis and test it against our observed facts. Our hypothesis is that the Obama administration distorts scientific opinion and suppresses dissenters. Now the facts.

When a government agency like Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) presents research to support a new government policy, the law requires it to make public the records leading up to its findings. Courts have ruled "the evidence relied upon and the evidence discarded."

President Obama and several in his administration criticized the Bush administration for ignoring inconvenient opinions and distorting the scientific record.

President Obama sent out a memo in his first days demanding from his agencies a new transparency in decision making and reporting of science and economics.

Obama’s new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, who is not a scientist but an engineer and career bureaucrat, promised, "As administrator, I will ensure EPA's efforts to address the environmental crises of today are rooted in three fundamental values: science-based policies and program, adherence to the rule of law, and overwhelming transparency."

Jackson’s staff immediately began putting together findings that would support a policy that justified government regulation of carbon (as in CO2) as a pollutant contributing to global warming.

Alan Carlin, a 35 year veteran of EPA with degrees in physics and economics presented a 98 page analysis of the issues he had written with a colleague. It noted that temperatures had been on a downward trend for some ten years and that models the EPA relied on had serious problems. (A fact well documented by global warming believers Orrin Pilkey and Linda Pilkey Jarvis in their book Useless Mathematics.) Most of the scientific reports cited were peer reviewed.

Carlin’s division in EPA is the National Center for Environmental Economics whose duty is "informing important policy decisions with sound economics and other sciences." (See Carlin’s other publications at )

What was the result of when Mr. Carlin and his colleague tried to inform the Obama policy decision? A few more facts.

Carlin’s boss, Al McGartland ( ), not a scientist but an economist, censored him. He sent Carlin an e mail forbidding "any direct communication" with people outside his division. When Carlin tried to distribute his analysis, McGartland wrote, "The administrator [Obama appointee Lisa Jackson] and the administration have decided to move forward on endangerment, and your comments do not help the legal or policy case for this decision. . . . I can only see one impact of your comments given where we are in the process, and that would be a very negative impact on our office."

McGartland then told Carlin to stop thinking about and talking about global warming. "With the endangerment finding nearly final, you need to move on to other issues and subjects. I don't want you to spend any additional EPA time on climate change. No papers, no research etc, at least until we see what EPA is going to do with Climate."

EPA clearly considers its work the basis of a new government policy. Contrary to the President’s orders and the law Obama’s chosen administrator and her staff are determined not to present "the evidence relied upon and the evidence discarded."

What should we now believe about the President’s promise that "the days of science taking a backseat to ideology are over"? Informed debate welcome. The ball’s in your court, Mr. President.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Maybe, as a friend recently e mailed me, the public dissent of mullah’s in the holy city of Qom is “the most meaningful news thus far out of Iran.” All news from Iran should be measured against this central fact: we do not know who won the election and with how many votes.

A friend in Iran who voted for the supposed loser and who very much wants reform, told me Amadinezhad won because of strong support from nationalists and by virtue of his populist appeal among poor and rural voters.

His opinion was supported by foreigners inside Iran and by polls taken by at least one credible group that used phoned into Iran using non-profit groups and pollsters speaking Farsi. The pollsters talked to over 1000 Iranians in all 30 provinces and showed Amadinezhad leading Mousavi 2 to 1, approximately the same as the reported vote count. Note, phone polls are hardly likely to be biased for the poor.

It reminds me of how many people in all parts of Russia have told me over the years how Stalin’s death brought millions of people onto the street shedding genuine tears. National leaders who seem certifiably nuts from outside a country can enjoy long period of majority popularity among their own people—Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Juan Peron. Large protests that dominate foreign media are not valid polls.

The Iranian vote may have included fraud and manipulation in both the campaign and the actual vote and its count. That does not mean Amadinejhad doesn’t have a majority. At least one commentator has suggested that the non-Muslim media are suffering from “cell phone myopia.” They believe that if cell phones are dominated by a certain opinion, then that appears to be the opinion of the nation as a whole.
The existence of any opposition in places like Iran is a positive. Even more interesting that religious leaders in Iran’s holy city speak publicly against the Khamenei approved president. More important, what are they in favor of? Truly democratic elections? A different theocracy? Respect for the sovereignty of other countries, including their embassies and diplomats?

Western governments and Arab governments in the Middle East that fear Iran can only hope that what are almost certainly minority protest voices can become a large enough force to topple Khamenei and his man, Amadinejhad.

The European Union whose diplomats were arrested in violation of international law, has done nothing but tell Iran’s ambassadors that the situation is “unacceptable.” That’s diplomatese for we’re still thinking, don’t call us, we’ll call you. Maybe.

There is one country where “unacceptable” usually leads to a remedy, and both Europe and the US seem to be leaving the solution of what they really fear in Iran—the bomb—up to Israel. Vice President Biden said "Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else." That’s diplomatese message to Iran—if you get near having a bomb, we’ll sic Israel on you.

President Obama’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullens, said, “I think it’s very important, as we deal with Iran, that we don’t take any options, including military options, off the table.” (Was he quoting George Bush?)

We might sum up both US and European three pronged policy on Iran as hope, change, or duck-- talk more and hope, leave it up to the protestors to change Iran’s direction, or let Israel bail us out and duck.

Friday, July 3, 2009


The problem with winning a highly publicized election is that as soon as the vote count is final, you often have to pretend that the candidate was not really you. President Obama practiced even during the campaign with phrases like, “That’s not the man I knew.” His guinea pigs were other people, of course, usually friends and colleagues. Like so many candidates before him he is now disowning himself, or rather the man he once was.

This syndrome is not unique to Barack Obama, but many thought he was immune. Since he did convert from candidate to president, it’s worth comparing the two.


Candidate Obama originally voted against the troop surge, then said it had not reduced violence, and promised he would begin immediate withdrawal and finish in 11 months. President Obama decided the surge had worked, agreed to the Bush policy of gradual withdrawal with as many as 50,000 troops remaining for an unspecified time, abandoned his 11 month timetable, and recently congratulated the Iraqis on taking over security in their own cities.


Candidate Obama said he would build coalitions to work with us in places like Afghanistan. President Obama’s request for more troops from our NATO allies was turned down. He decided on a unilateral buildup. He and Sec. of State Clinton have declared the genocide in Sudan intolerable. They have failed to get either meaningful UN action or significant help from friends. The unacceptable genocide is tacitly accepted, or they are about to rewrite the definition of unacceptable. By the usual definition the situation has become less acceptable.

Candidate Obama said Pres. Bush had alienated other countries by telling them what they must do. President Obama, addressing the Muslim world from Cairo said 32 times what “must” be done and often what Palestinians, Arabs and Israelis “must” do. This might be just talk, however, since he is not promising to do anything if those countries do not do what he says they must do. His hero Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Obama has tweaked that to “speak loudly and carry a palm frond.”


Candidate Obama promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Act. He opposed a trade deal with Colombia. He has backed off on NAFTA and edged forward with Colombia, although in typical Obama style. After meeting with Colombia’s President Uribe, he said “I'm confident that ultimately we can strike a deal” but said he didn’t “have a strict time table.” In fact, that he has no time table and no clear guidelines for what “additional work” either country had to do. Perhaps in this case president and candidate are not far apart—still ambiguous, or should that be ‘nuanced’?

Candidate Obama campaigned against political pressure on scientists and political meddling in scientific reports. The position remains the same since in April, President Obama said that "the days of science taking aback seat to ideology are over." In action, President Obama may be acting like the man he criticized. On March 17 a career scientist at EPA requested that his report showing faulty data used in forecasting global warming be sent to the division that directs the climate change program. His superiors told him, “The administrator and the administration have decided to move forward on endangerment [declaring data supported Congressional action on the President’s agenda], and your comments do not help the legal or policy case for this decision. . . . I can only see one impact of your comments given where we are in the process, and that would be a very negative impact on our office." The scientist’s report said about research used to support the administration’s policy that it was "at best three years out of date in a rapidly changing field" and ignores the latest scientific findings. EPA forbid him to speak publicly about his findings.

Should we be optimistic about separating science from politics when President Obama’s report on global climate change cites several times Stephen Schneider who told Discover magazine, “we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have...each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest." To present the science Obama hired a California public relations firm that specializes in green causes.


When he was a candidate the solution was easy: put them on trial or return them to their home countries and in either case close Guantanamo. Now his own Congressional Democrats have refused to fund the shutdown of Guantanamo because Pres. Obama had no acceptable plan for dealing with the inmates. Today President Obama says that what to do with terrorists held at Guantanamo (and perhaps others yet to be captured) is "one of the biggest challenges" of his administration. Which means his present position is . . . ? Well, it’s not the candidate’s position.


Candidate Obama seized on numerous egregious scandals involving Republicans and promised a transparent, open and ethical administration with no lobbyists. President Obama tried to nominate to high positions several people who withdrew after disclosures of tax cheating. He did manage to get one tax cheat approved to serve as Secretary of Treasury and supervise the IRS.

Candidate Obama co-sponsored a bill requiring the president to give Congress 30 days notice and an explanation of cause before firing inspectors general. President Obama, confronted with an investigator detailing the corruption of a campaign supporter in misappropriating Americorps funds (Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson), reacted by having his special counsel to the president for "ethics and government reform fire the investigator and give an hour to either resign or be terminated. The reason? If Johnson had not been cleared, the federal government would not be able to give his city bailout dollars.

Candidate Obama always held himself out as the candidate of change, and change he has. In fact, compared to other presidents, his inaugural speech mentioned hope and change far less than most, far behind Taft, Eisenhower, Johnson and Clinton. Now many voters are saying, “That’s not the man I knew.”

Conservatives said the same thing about George Bush as he expanded government, put tariffs on steel, enlisted Ted Kennedy to help him expand the federal government’s role in education, and created the gigantic corporate

welfare program that President Obama has gladly expanded.

In this era of candidate packaging and public relations I recall with nostalgia the motto of North Carolina where I lived for 39 years: Esse Quam Videri, To Be Rather Than Seem.