Thursday, July 29, 2010


One of my morning rituals is gathering our mail. For a couple of weeks now, as we lurch toward the dog days of August, I’ve noticed something. Our mailbox is fuller than it has been for some time. And, the load our mail carrier is toting is getting heavier and heavier as the days pass. What’s the reason for the increased workload? It’s obvious. Our political primary is less than a month away, with national elections coming in November.

There are some consistent themes in the literature. Taxes are too high. So are deficits and debt. Second amendment rights need to be protected. Our borders need to be sealed. Conservatism, as defined by the candidates, is in. The glossies say it all. “I’m pro family, pro life, pro education, pro gun, pro business, pro farmer, pro jobs, pro social security, pro apple pie, and pro America.” “I’m against illegal immigration, high taxes, big government, terrorism, bailouts, unscrupulous mortgage lenders, fat cats, and political chicanery of any kind.”

What they fail to tell us in the glossies is that this elected excellence never comes to us pro bono. We, the people, may have altruism in mind, but there are lobbyists skulking around, honey dripping from their canines and carpetbags full of perks in their hands. Nothing I hear from the current crop of political saints leads me to believe that things will magically change in one election cycle.

I’ve had a few friends tell me I’m too cynical about government and the political process. About the only defense I can mount is that I tend to think I’m not cynical enough. The older I get the more I appreciate H.L. Mencken’s words - “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety.

It also appears that I’m not the only cynic around. A July 22nd Gallup poll revealed that millions of Americans rate our Congress about on par with drug dealers or forgers.

Now, it’s not that I’m ungrateful. Politicians have rewarded my cynicism many times. I remember Watergate….Abscam….Duke Cunningham….and Jack Abramoff. I remember a politician who kept a bundle of lobbyist’s money in his freezer for safe keeping….Marion Barry snorting cocaine….Rod Blagojevich trying to sell a senate seat….Charlie Rangel being charged with multiple ethics violations as part of an on-going swamp draining project. And, it wasn’t too long ago that Eliot Spitzer, New York’s chief crime fighter, was caught cavorting with high dollar escorts.

Sometimes I think there must be something in the water that politicians and their appointees drink. For example, in 2007 Christina Romer, the Obama administration’s chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisors published an academic study about the macroeconomic effects of tax changes. The study laid out the debilitating effect of taxes on both consumption and employment: “A tax increase is followed by a large and highly significant rise in the unemployment rate.” “In response to a tax increase of one percent of GDP, the maximum fall in personal consumption expenditures is 2.6 percent.” Interestingly, as a political appointee she’s now touting the benefits of the stimulus package and mountains of debt and their “positive impact” on employment. It won’t be long before she’s touting the virtues of what Kansas politicians call revenue enhancements to create even more jobs.

Dana Priest of the Washington Post recently published a series on the size and scope of the security apparatus that has sprung up in the wake of 9-11. Her findings were eye popping. “1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States, employing an estimated 854,000 people.” There are so many people and programs involved that not even the Secretary of Defense knows what’s going on in the belly of the beast. How, pray tell, can this insanity be unwound? The minute someone mentions redundancy, too much information, and billions of dollars in waste, the programs’ supporters will howl, “Do you want another 9-11?” The only “sensible” response will be to create thousands of additional organizations.

The I.R.S. recently reported that the homebuyer’s credit that was supposed to stimulate home sales didn’t stimulate much beyond fraud. Millions of dollars in credits made their way to convicted felons, including many serving life terms. Millions more made their way into the hands of folks claiming the credit multiple times for the same home. The I.R.S, in a fit of transparency, admitted to problems in auditing the program and promised to try to do better in the future.

Thankfully, this cycle will be over in a few months. In the end, though, not much will change, other than the distinct possibility that Emporia’s mail carriers will be candidates for the chiropractor’s table.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


It’s said that gossip and rumors are more entertaining than the truth. I’m not sure, but I think they’re almost always as interesting, especially trying to figure out where truth ends and fiction begins.

Every family has wonderful stories, shared during holiday get-togethers, funerals, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, birthdays, or baptisms. Sometimes they revolve around skeletons in a musty old closet. Most often they revolve around some ancestor. We all seem to be able to claim a famous person on our family tree – George Washington, Joan of Arc, Winston Churchill, the Wright brothers, or the King of Siam. A horse thief or two occasionally slips into the conversations. Interestingly, though, I’ve never met anyone willing to lay claim to Rasputin, Al Capone, Attila the Hun, Lizzie Borden, or Bernie Madoff. Some families even have members who claim they were King Tut, Queen Nefertiti, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Lily Langtree in a past life.

It’s been said there are only six degrees of separation between anyone alive today and anyone who has ever lived. When it comes down to it we’re all linked, for better or worse. If we were to look long enough and hard enough we’d find the rumors and quirky stories we carry around go all the way back to Adam and Eve.

My wife, Nancy, has become the Catron family archivist. Years ago, when we lived in New Jersey, she told me that one of her distant relatives was once a Supreme Court justice. I was skeptical, but politely kept my doubts to myself. I became a true believer upon visiting the Supreme Court and seeing his portrait on display in the basement gallery.

Of course, not everyone in her family tree was famous. One, in particular, had become infamous. A couple of months ago she was rummaging in a file folder looking for information about her great-grandfather, John Knierim. Over the years I’d occasionally heard stories about him. From the little I heard I was able to glean four bits of information. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was a Methodist preacher. He smoked a pipe. And, rumor had it; he frequented saloons, finding his way in through the back doors, thus preserving his ecclesiastical reputation. The rumor was rooted in a tidy piece of gossip that he had somewhere in the course of time “fallen off the wagon.” The sordid details shocked and entertained his fellow Methodists. As soon as the local skeptics and agnostics got wind of it, the story confirmed their suspicions that he was, like most religious folk, a hypocrite. Once their suspicions were confirmed, they spread the tale like a prairie fire. Their motives were, of course, entirely noble.

Nancy’s rummaging proved fruitful. She found an affidavit, dated July 30, 1897, which has shed some light on the rumor. The text of the affidavit, filed by John’s son, George Knierim, follows:

“On the 16th day of June, 1893, I went with my father John Knierim to Clinton, Henry County, Mo., where we bought a Deering Selfbinder Harvester. On our way home, with the Harvester and a can of oil on the wagon, near the town of Deepwater, Mo., about 4 ½ miles from our house, we met with the following described sad accident. Some dry hay in the bottom of our wagon caught fire, doubtless from father’s smoking. Before we could extinguish the fire it reached the oil can, causing quite a flame, which scared the horses so that they made quite a side jump, which caused father, who being stiffened considerable from rheumatism, to fall from the wagon, whereby his left hip was injured so that it has made him a cripple for his lifetime, being able to get around only with crutches or cane. I was the only person with father when this sad accident took place. I can also further state that said fall and injury was not the result of vicious habits.”

Well, there you have it. John Knierim really did “fall off the wagon.” The circumstances of the fall were, however, a bit different than those that persisted in the rumor mill. It appears the affidavit may have been filed in order to get a veteran’s pension for his service in the 31st Ohio regiment. It was either that or his way of proving to his critics that his fall was not the result of “vicious habits.”

His fellow Methodists must have been quite relieved; his critics sadly disappointed.

The affidavit was filed 113 years ago, but it could easily have been written today. We’ve gotten much more sophisticated over time, but, the human habits of gossip and rumor mongering still abound. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.