Thursday, June 30, 2011


I spent about fifteen minutes of unproductive time this morning watching part of a segment on C-Span’s “Washington Journal.” The guest was a legislative analyst for Congressional Quarterly. The subject of the discussion was farm subsidies and the recent Congressional vote to eliminate $3 billion in ethanol subsidies. I know next to nothing about ethanol. I don’t use it and I don’t pay much attention to the politics surrounding the issue. About the only time it seems to matter to me is when the price of commodities like corn skyrocket. When that happens I mount a spirited defense. I eat less corn. I think it’s the only defense guys like me, who aren’t experts, can muster.
About ten minutes into the segment, the legislative analyst (expert) said the issue of subsidies was playing itself out along party lines. The Republicans, armed with whips and chains, support the status quo. They oppose “enhancing revenue streams,” support taxpayer dollars for fat cats, and endorse starvation of the masses. The Democrats, defenders of the people, are standing at the gates, armed with truth and justice.
It’s all quite confusing. That’s why I’m glad there are legislative analysts who get paid to sort it all out for me.
The morning was about half over and I got curious about the legislative analyst and her analysis. What was it that qualified her as an expert? I decided to check her credentials. They were quite impressive. She’d earned a master’s degree and a doctorate to boot. After a bit of closer examination, I concluded her education had absolutely nothing to do with farm subsidies. Her undergraduate degree is in English and her advanced degrees are in medieval English literature. But, she’d been invited to speak about farm subsidies, which meant the invitation itself must have been the qualifier. Who knows? If Chaucer, Milton, or Shakespeare were alive today they too might be gracing the airwaves with expert opinions on farming, interplanetary space travel, or technology.
There’s something curious about subject matter experts¸ even when they have no expertise in the subject they’re discussing. Their points of view almost always go uncontested. So, for example, when our expert said that Republicans are against increasing revenues, neither the moderator nor those calling in challenged her assumption.
Was her assumption correct? I have more than a few nagging doubts.
Why is it that so many experts and politicians (please forgive my being redundant) have made the leap in logic that concludes that the only way to increase government revenues is to increase taxes? Do they think we’re dumb enough to believe that replacing the word “taxes” with terms like “revenue enhancements” or “user fees” will mask what they’re doing? I guess so, because politicians and experts at all levels seem to be afflicted with the irritating habit of using clever catch phrases when honesty should do.
Last week the city of Emporia seemed mystified that the most recent increase in water rates hasn’t increased revenues. In fact, revenues have decreased…..significantly. How could that be? You don’t suppose a lot of folks got wise and decided to conserve, do you? It seems sensible to me, but I’m not an expert.
Some years ago the people of California went through the same thing. In response to a drought, local municipalities levied penalties against citizens who used more water than the bureaucrats determined was a fair level of usage. People got wise. The reservoirs filled to overflowing. Revenues shrank. In response to the revenue shortfall, municipalities instituted a non-water use penalty, assessing surcharges against customers who used less than the desired level of water. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Californians passed Proposition 13, which restricted government’s ability to tax the people.
Prior to our most recent election, welcome rocks became the talk of the town. Proponents of the expenditure were taken aback when a lot of Emporians objected. They couldn’t understand the outcry and reasoned that it wasn’t that big an expense and that the rocks would bring tourists by the boatload to our fair city. The money was allocated, then spent. Our new crop of commissioners was then greeted with a piece of unexpected news. Revenues from the visitor’s tax (or fee or whatever they call it) fell far below expectations. I think it might be fair to ask why our city’s experts didn’t see that coming, but they'd just get into a huff and call me an unpatriotic contrarian. If I were to try to remind them were tapped out they’d just call me an insensitive brute. Experts tend to do those sorts of things. 
If you’re like me you’re probably wondering what’s next. I’m no expert, but I’d be willing to bet it has something to do with manipulating language and picking our pockets.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Nancy politely took me to task for a recent essay about commencement speeches. I understand. If it had been the only thing I’d ever written folks might understandably think I wear hair shirts and eat barbed wire soup.

The truth is, I’m partial to button down shirts made from 100% cotton. I love slapstick comedy and an occasional glass of wine for the stomach. I like being around young people. In fact, I like being around young people more than I like being around people my own age.

I guess what got me all riled up a couple of weeks ago was the incessant commencement talk about seizing the world. I think America’s youth would be better served to hear something like, “Get your feet on the ground” or “If you really want to do something revolutionary try doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly.”

I’m tired of revolutions and I’m sick to death of the recent history’s revolutionaries.

It’s said that Marx and Engels were idealists. They probably had the best of intentions when they wrote, “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” The communists won and the Kulaks, dissenters, and peasants starved while party bosses and their henchmen feasted. When the communist enterprise collapsed the Soviet Union had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world. Meanwhile, the proletariat could scarcely find a loaf of bread to eat.

Much of the 20th century’s revolutionary rhetoric revolved around shedding religion or developing new religious beliefs to supplant the old ones. In the 1930’s, Robert Ley, a nazi party politician made this startling statement – “It was all due to the faith of one man! Yes, you who called us godless, we found our faith in Adolf Hitler, and through him found God once again. That is the greatness of our day, that is our good fortune!”

The world was still in the throes of counting the corpses when Mao Zedong came on the scene in China. His political philosophy was simple – “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Mao and the Chinese communists killed millions to prove their point.

Revolutionaries are quite fond of painting themselves as men of the people. Nazi propaganda lionized young Adolf Hitler as a starving artist in Vienna. Mao loved being seen dressed in peasant clothing. Before Team Six found him, Usama bin Laden took great delight in presenting himself as a revolutionary whose sole purpose in life was to take down the Great Satan. From 9-11 on the media would be given occasional glimpses of him climbing some mountain, walking stick in one hand and automatic weapon in the other. In 2003 he mocked George Bush – “Bush, do you know where I am? I am among the Muslim masses – enjoying the grace Allah has bestowed upon me, by way of their support.” When all was said and done, bin Laden died in a million dollar compound. It’s reported that he always had to have plenty of Coke and Pepsi. There was also a considerable stash of pornography. I guess a revolutionary needs a few guilty pleasures when he’s hunkered down.

Donald Trump, who is no revolutionary, once famously said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” That’s what most revolutionaries really want. They’re jealous. They want what others have. They take their cues from a buffoon who thinks that life is nothing more than amassing, or stealing, toys.

I know I have to be careful, but I think it’s time for me to inject a bit of personal religious reflection. When I was re-considering my atheist belief system years ago, I studied Jesus and compared him to other revolutionaries. Marx and Engels said that man was economically determined. Jesus said, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Mao said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf.” Jesus preached the greatest sermon ever rendered. He called his listeners’ attention to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. He taught about love, mercy, and forgiveness. To those fixated on material wealth Jesus spoke of camels and the eyes of needles or a widow and her penny.

Jesus was a true revolutionary. He not only rejected society’s goals, but the means men use to achieve them. He lived what he taught. He didn’t appeal to human ambition. He said the role of servant was the one to prize.

Some say this is a post-Christian age and the message he taught and embodied has become too quaint or too revolutionary to consider. I guess that’s why the appeal to ambition seems so easy to embrace.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


A week or so before Nancy and I left for Israel we sat one morning watching the news of a potential government shutdown. My first reaction was delight. “It’s about time,” I chortled. Nancy sat, bemused. She had obviously thought things through. “Do you realize?” she asked me. “Our social security direct deposits won’t hit our checking account if they shut the government down.” I was stunned. “That’s our money they’re messin’ with.” Nancy smiled. “You don’t really think they’re concerned with little ole us do you? When push comes to shove we’ll be thrown overboard with all the other flotsam and jetsam.” I went upstairs in a mild fit of panic, muttering to myself, “I’m gonna’ give Jerry Moran a piece of my mind.”

By the time we got back home we found that the crisis had been averted. Republicans and Democrats had agreed to spending cuts that would save billions and keep the federal government running. Unfortunately, like most things politicians tell us, it was a sham or a half-truth. The government is still running, but the debt wheel keeps on spinning. When we left for Israel in early April our total government debt was under fourteen trillion. Today, as I sit typing, it’s almost fourteen and a half trillion. I’m trying to calculate as I hunt and peck, but I don’t have the math skills to figure it out. It’s safe to say the debt is increasing by millions per consonant or vowel. It could be as much as a billion a sentence.

You’d think our political leaders would get it by now, but it seems that the closer we get to the precipice, the farther they drift from reality.

It’s not that they haven’t had authoritative voices telling them to abandon their insanity. President Obama gathered a non-partisan group named the “fiscal commission.” Two of the commission’s experts, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, were known for their honesty and straight/blunt talk. When the commission completed its work Simpson put our problem in stark terms. Noting that the days of bringing home the bacon should be over¸ he said, “The pig is dead. There is no more bacon.”

Unfortunately, Simpson’s eloquence has been met by government intransigence. Government has now exceeded the legal debt limit. Timothy Geithner is raiding piggy banks and mattresses to keep things afloat. We’ve now got four wars going on – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen. We’re rattling sabers at hackers and cyber-terrorists, threatening military retaliation against any violators. And, our government continues to diddle. Yesterday, Senator Olympia Snowe (Maine) made note of the fact that it takes a good four months to get hearings on important issues scheduled, let alone debated.

We are in deep trouble.

Knowing our government as I do I cringe at the thought of what creative solution they may be hatching. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about them calling Emporia’s payday loan shops to keep the bombs dropping and the gears mashing.

I spent a few early minutes this morning listening to Bob Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues.” The melody was haunting, the lyrics even more so. There was talk of the “the buyin’ power of the proletariat gone down,” money “getting’ shallow and weak,” and the new reality of low wages. There were the laments and complaints of the workingman – “Well, they burned my barn, they stole my horse and I can’t save a dime.” “I’m down on my luck and I’m black and blue.” The current economic reality a lot of Americans face was laid bare – “I can live on rice and beans.”

I’d broadcast the music and lyrics to Pennsylvania Avenue if I thought it would do any good. But, they’re in no mood to listen to one of their own. What makes me think they’d listen to a poet?

Here at home things aren’t much better. The Arts Council is screaming about the $26 thousand they lost. The price of green beans and asparagus is going up. The rocks are paid for, but now the CVB has its hat in its hand because visitor’s taxes fell far below expectations. Meanwhile, the price of bread and milk are on the rise. Yesterday, the Extension office floated its bi-annual trial balloon about becoming an independent taxing authority. They must think that slapping a coat of paint on the pig will make it look like Vermeer’s “Astronomer” to a gullible public. I also looked at my water bill yesterday. I’m using less, but paying more.

A year ago I wrote that we were heading for implosion. A lot of smart folks around town took me to task when I did. I guess there wasn’t enough happy talk to suit them. A year ago we were just flirting with disaster. Today, we’re smooching it. I wonder what the smart folks are thinking now.

Monday, June 13, 2011


We took our dogs, Ranger and Jack, to “Poochapalooza” on the 21st. Ranger, the Sheltie, was voted the second prettiest dog. Jack refused to be outdone. When the votes were tallied and verified Jack was certified as the ugliest dog in Emporia.

At first blush the title seems inappropriate, especially in these times of political correctness. But, Jack wanted me to reassure the good people of Emporia that he’s not in the least offended by the title. In fact, he wears it like a badge of honor. His ego isn’t bruised, nor has he developed the overblown sense of importance that contest winners often develop. Jack will continue to be just plain old Jack, begging for treats and keeping my leather chair warm for me. And, most important of all he wanted me to convey his thanks for the assorted treats he brought home. I haven’t tasted them, but he has, and they appear to be quite tasty.

As we left the fairgrounds we had quite a few people stop and congratulate Jack. They’d bend down to pat his head and say, “So this is the famous Jack” or “Atta’ boy, Jack.” In response, he’d wag his tail and snort a bit.

It’s been quite a journey. A short while ago Jack was on death’s doorstep. But, thanks to the loving care of Floyd Dorsey and his staff he made an amazing recovery. And, when an attempt was mounted to run him out of town, the good doc fired off a letter to the editor in his defense. With that and some vigorous support from the Gazette’s “notorious” bloggers he regained his dignity and his rightful place as just one of the boys here in town. Not bad for a guy who was inches away from the old bone yard.

For me, mornings have become a labor of love. Fixing breakfast for my buddy Jack takes a good fifteen or twenty minutes. There are pills to be cut and sprinkled and a couple of scoops of some kind of concoction to be mixed in with his food. Jack watches patiently while I go through the routine, knowing that at the end of the process he’ll be getting his second favorite thing in life – food. When everything is ready he follows me out to the back porch to wolf it down. He seems to delight in dining al fresco, which is about the only thing that gives a hint of refinement in his bones.

I say food is his second favorite because I’ve learned that Jack loves affection even more than he loves food. Food only comes a couple of times a day, but Jack thrives on endless love, affection, and kind words.

If Jack were a person he’d be a loveable blue collar curmudgeon. The exterior would be rough, but the interior would be pure gold. I think of him as a four-legged symbol for Emporia’s “everyman.” He’d work a forty hour week at minimum wage. On weekends you’d often find him occupying his favorite seat at the poker table, a cigar or a bone clenched in his teeth and his right paw wrapped around a stack of chips. He’d be the master of the bluff and the “All in.” For those trying to read his intentions, Jack would clench harder and growl, “You wanna’ see the hole card? Put your money in, Pal.”

When he wasn’t at the poker table, he’d be seen at the watering holes swapping tales of the old days at Fallujah, Khe Sanh, the high price of rocks, cost over-runs, exorbitant taxes, low paying jobs, and patriotic duty with the riff-raff. If he could, he’d be puffing on a cigar, but since decent folks have put the kibosh on that he’d have to find some way to content himself with not being able to enjoy one of a working man’s guilty pleasures. He’d grumble a bit and slap his pals on the back, snort “I love you guys,” and that would be it.

One thing’s certain. You’d never see Jack in the trendy places around town or glad handing politicians. Not only would he feel out of place weaving his way around the high and mighty, he’d find it down right depressing. If he ever got caught playing in that kind of traffic he’d sound more like John the Baptist than a social butterfly. He’d let folks know where he stood. When asked about what he thought he’d probably say, “You snakes…you vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

I don’t think that Jack is very worried about the call for tar and feathers that will almost certainly follow this essay. When you’ve won the brass ring at “Poochapalooza” you’ve reached the top. There’s nothing your detractors can say that will hurt you.

Friday, June 03, 2011


I’m about halfway through Andrew Bacevich’s book “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.” It’s quite interesting.

Early on, in his introduction, he makes a startling confession – “Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable.”

It’s the time of year for the commencement addresses and I doubt there will be any advice given to the graduating classes about dialing back the ambition. Most will be about seizing the future or creating a new and glorious world. I listen to the speakers or read the transcripts and wonder if they believe what they’re saying or if their lips are just moving around aimlessly for ten or fifteen minutes, hoping to hit some pliable target with advice they don’t really believe, or heed, themselves.

I graduated from high school in 1960. I don’t remember much about the commencement exercise. I don’t remember anything the commencement speaker said. It might have been profound or it might have been quite clever. Whatever it was, I missed it. About a year after that I joined the Air Force. About four years later I shipped out to Vietnam and got a real education in the gears of the Robert McNamara/Lyndon Johnson sausage machine. By 1969 I’d had enough. I spent a few years trying to figure out what I wanted to do. In 1972 I immersed myself in college. That was back in the days when the air was bristling with revolution. The campuses were overflowing with talk of turning our colleges and universities into institutions of learning and life. I observed it all from a safe distance and in time I think I figured out that there was more to being a revolutionary than throwing bricks through windows or Molotov cocktails at the police.

I suppose a lot has changed since my days in high school. Citizen Gore invented the internet and we’re all wired now. We’ve got Facebook and Twitter. We can say everything that’s on our minds in 120 characters or less. The Johnny Mathis ballads and the rock ‘n roll rhythms of Danny and the Juniors are long gone. These days we’ve got Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. The rice paddies of Southeast Asia have been replaced by the mountains of Afghanistan. The steeple on the corner has given way to the mega-church and the religious media empire. The political gravitas of the sixties is out and the political campaign as comedy is in. Did any of the budding futurists of the sixties ever consider the notion that someone like Donald Trump could be a serious candidate for the Presidency or that California would have a “governator” at the helm? (As an aside, with “the Donald” gone, who’s now poised to garner the pompous ass vote in 2012?).

Has it really been fifty years? It’s hard for me to tell. So many things look just the same now as they did back then. There are times I feel that we’re all characters in a Vonnegut short story or a Jean Paul Sartre treatise. A lot of folks are scurrying around like rats bumping their heads against the walls of a man-made maze, trying to find the exit that may not be there. Some of us have been on chapter six for some time, trying to figure out what the point is. Maybe there’s no point at all. How did Vonnegut put it?

“Oh, a sleeping drunkard up in Central Park
And a lion hunter in the jungle dark
Or a Chinese dentist and a British queen,
They all fit together in the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice, so many different people in the same device.”

Bacehvich, the author I cited in my first paragraph came to what I believe was a profound insight – “Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility.”

I don’t think Bacehvich will be getting any invitations to be a commencement speaker this year, next year, or any year. His advice may be sound, but it goes against the grain of just about everything we Americans believe. As the President recently put it, “We can do anything!” We can stop the oceans from rising and we can rain fire down from the heavens. And, if you don’t believe us we’ll convince you. Just ask Muammar Gadaffi.

Twenty or thirty years from now the graduates of the class of 2011 will be in charge. By that time their ambition will be in full bloom. I suspect that will mean the next generation of cult heroes will be worshipped or the latest iteration of a smart bomb will be screaming its way toward some unsuspecting tyrant’s air conditioning duct.

As the older, and wiser, generation was fond of telling mine – The more things change, the more they stay the same.”