Monday, April 28, 2008

Peggy Noonan Might Be My New BFF

I stumbled across MSNBC's Brian Williams' scathing assessment of the mind-numbing banality that has lately been The New York Times (I haven't been able to read the thing in three years), and read with interest his take on the Times lack of direction and purpose. More than a bit ironic, since MSNBC has given us some of the finest examples of journalistic blanc mange lately. But Williams wasn't just being grumpy. He had a fine things to say about Peggy Noonan's weekend op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. I resist the WSJ usually -- it's bad enough to read the White House's spin when it's coming from the White House, let alone when it's put into print whole cloth with those stupid, grainy little line drawings.

However, after reading it, I happen to agree with Brian Williams -- it's a great piece. Noonan is a good writer with a good eye on what is going on around her. I heartily recommend it.

So, thanks to Brian Williams, for leading the way to this oasis of spiffy journalism in the midst of the current desert that is the modern American mainstream media.


Friday, April 25, 2008

Big, Bad Scary Things

Now, I truly, truly believe the world will end within the next decade.

And here's proof:

Uhhh... yeah.... If anybody needs me, I'll be over here in the corner, getting right with Jesus.


A (Heavily Armed) Stroll Down Memory Lane with John McCain

Before we start believing anythingbutANYTHING that John McCain has to say about the progress of the war in Iraq, I think it behooves us to remember things he's said in the past. One, because they happened a little bit ago, and two, because he probably can't remember himself.

A year ago, if you recall, McCain wanted to tell America that things were so spiffy in much of Iraq that, well, golly, armor and weaponry was just darn near superfluous. As it turns out, even the military wouldn't back McCain on that wacky claim, so he backtracked and said, basically, "I never said what you have me on camera saying."

Ah, the old, "Who ya gonna believe? Me, or your lyin' eyes" defense. Same song we've heard for the past seven and a half years. I think I'll just put my money in savings and wait to see who wins this election. It might be necessary to go live in another country come December.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

This Just In -- Apparently, China is Trying to Kill Us.

The poisoned toothpaste was hilarious. The tainted pet food was still, let's face it, pretty funny. And the lead-coated baby toys, though annoying, still managed to amuse us. But now that this item* -- which thanks to the insanity of the current presidential election, has slipped by nearly unnoticed -- has come forward, informing us that China has now managed to poison the commonly used blood thinner, heparin, likely resulting in the deaths of 81 Americans... Well, a joke's a joke, but this time, China's just gone too far.

How much longer are we going to go on accepting these products, knowing full well that China really doesn't care whether our pets, our children or our great Uncle Moe with the cellulitis drops dead. Hell, China doesn't give a crap about its own people; why on Earth should it care about ours? Can we please just admit that this whole "free trade with Communist China" thing was a boondoggle, cut our losses, and go back to doing business with Taiwan? Please?

Back in the 60s and 70s, the Taiwanese didn't try to kill us. They didn't poison Fido or Mittens, or try and damage little Jimmy's autonomic nervous system with copious amounts of lead. They didn't off old people with blood clots and premature babies in neo-natal intensive care units across America by tainting blood thinners. I mean, they're kind of pissed at us right now, so who knows what they might be driven to? But China has shown its true colors. It goes and beats up a nice old guy like the Dalai Lama. It poisons our stuff. It designs these cussed ugly little mascots for the Beijing Olympics.

Clearly, China hates us. Let's just face that, embrace it, and move on.

Lord Ahmighty.


*from the Christian Science Monitor

Monday, April 21, 2008

On Golden Tenterhooks

Maybe it's the weather here in SoCal (hot, then cold, then warmish, then cold, then hot). Maybe it's my allergies which are in full-bore overdrive these days. Maybe it's the upcoming primaries which are giving me (here ya go, Julie) shpilkes like you wouldn't believe. Maybe it's the fact that this is the second to the last Monday I'll be working here at the studio. I don't know.

I'm on edge. I've got butterflies. Pins and needles. Tenterhooks, if you will.

I came to work this morning feeling that way, too. Coming to work is getting harder and harder. Going home, easier and easier. Packing, clearing, tossing, dispersing. Shampoo, rinse, repeat. I checked my personal e-mail within moments of arriving at my desk -- which I'd like to say is a newly adopted trend, but, alas, that would be a lie. My friend Sue sent a mass e-mail, apologizing for sending a mass e-mail, but for some reason, she really knew we all needed this link. It was called "Bubblewrap." I clicked. It opened. Chalk it up to my current disorientation. Chalk it up to perversity. But whatever the reason, I quickly have become obsessed. Something bugs me, I pop open the window and go to work. It really does help relieve the tension. It was gifted to me, I'm gifting it to you.

The other thing I wanted to share was this really beautifully written essay by Nora Ephron (redundant, I know, because how else does she write) about exactly who will be deciding this primary, in spite of all outward appearances. I share her frustrations on all levels that we live in a world that seems stuck in an antediluvian time warp.

I have to get to work today. Much to do, and only two weeks left.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hot News Flash for John McCain

I've been alive for nearly fifty years now, and I've known a lot of people who've fought a lot of wars -- The Second World War, The Korean War, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, and, now, Iraq. I can tell you with 100% certainty that nobody-but-ANYBODY who ever fought in any of those wars, or who sent loved ones to fight in any of those wars, or who lost loved ones in those wars, or who sat and watched those wars come into their homes every night, via Walter Cronkite, will be talking about whether we should have invaded Iraq or not as "an academic argument."

War can only be academic to people who've gone to an Academy to study it. And most of the times, even those guys don't consider the topic academic. My ex is a Lt. Col. in the United States Air Force, who was Air Force ROTC, has a master's degree from War College (no shit, civilians, that's what it's called), reads books on military histories and soldiers' autobiographies just for fun (sometimes in Russian, which was a little troubling, but also kind of cool), and has dedicated his life to serving his country in uniform, and I can promise you that even he doesn't consider any war, including this one, "academic."

Maybe, much like other candidates in the recent past, you used a poor choice of words. I don't know. But I think you should rethink your statement and clarify it as soon as possible, lest the media take it and run wild with it. Because even people who still support this war, who've sent their children, spouses and parents to fight this war, don't think this war is academic or intellectual. War is personal, Senator. It's personal today, it will be personal tomorrow, it will be personal fifty years from now.

I would think that you, of all people, would understand that.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Boy, Is This Gonna Make Me The Unpopular Girl In the House, or What?

After much thought on the matter, I have come to believe that this whole Texas FLDS raid, where 416 children were yanked from their families and are now awaiting placement in foster homes -- with state officials talking about actually putting them up for adoption -- one of the scariest things I've seen in a long, long time. For a state that's big on maintaining personal liberties and eschewing big government, Texas may have shown more redneck chutzpah than we've seen since Antietam.

Do I think the leadership of YFZ is corrupt and evil? You betcha, by golly. Do I think that somebody needs to prosecute those men for any crimes that can be proven? And how! But going into the compound, pulling away all the children from an incredibly closeted, isolated community, dragging them into foster homes, away from their mothers (plural, though those mothers may be), then ripping them away from each other and putting them in separate homes, most of them non-LDS, is just about the cruelest, most ill-thought-out plan to come along since... well... Antietam, come to that.

The first of my positions on this situation is that I don't believe that polygamy should be criminalized. Do I think it's a good idea? No. I'm not all that convinced that marriage is a genius notion to begin with. But if consenting adults want, for either spiritual or personal reasons, to enter into plural marriage, why on earth should they not be allowed to do so. If Republicans were really serious about smaller government, they'd stop this nonsense and put the world right. That way, people who were in consenting, adult plural marriages would be able to live in the light, making it that much harder for the Warren Jeffs of the world to hide behind them.

The problem with the YFZ isn't that husbands have more than one wife apiece. It's that grown men had gotten into the habit of having sex with children. And that's pretty much wrong, whether you're an atheist, a Mormon or a Catholic priest. If the state of Texas had truly wanted to right a wrong, they should have found a way -- using DNA tests on babies and mothers -- to determine how many 50-year-old men had screwed 14-year-old girls and gotten them pregnant. Perhaps they plan on doing that, as soon as the 13- and 14-year-old girls who are currently expecting give birth. But this is not why the children were taken. They were taken because the state attorney general had no case against the individual men, and used what may or may not have been an authentic call for help from an as-yet-unidentified girl who called herself Sarah to a women's shelter. So far, after collecting the 416 children, "Sarah" has not been found.

Mind you, I was one of the few people who felt that Elian Gonzales should have been returned to Cuba -- not because Cuba is better than the United States, but because stripping children away from parents who have not been convicted or even charged with a crime, but simply because we do not like the way those parents live is a violation of everything this country was founded upon. Perhaps Texas could have made a case if they'd only taken the girls at or near puberty, but taking the small children as well is tantamount to prosecuting a crime that hasn't been committed yet. Last time I looked, we hadn't quite slipped into a "MINORITY REPORT" world yet.

This tactic of rounding these kids up, yanking them away from their families and putting them with complete strangers who are undoubtedly untrained and uninitiated in dealing with the pecular problems these children face is more than just idiotic -- it's mean. It's cruel and it's mean and no amount of sweet-faced CPS media spokeswomen is going to change that. Much like Iraq, they went in without a strategy -- search warrants a-blazin' and no plan of attack. Maybe that's a Texas guy thing -- invade first, ask questions later.

And there will be questions. From high court judges, from elected representatives, but mostly, no doubt, and most disturbingly, from the children themselves, years from now, when they want to know why they were punished and imprisoned for the crimes of others.


Update: For CNN's Sunny Hostin's take on the issue -- which is WAY different than mine -- click here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Surprise! Small-town Pennsylvanians Say, "Yeah, We're Kinda Bitter."

As the Clinton and McCain campaigns have cranked out sound byte after sound byte over Barack Obama's "small-town Pennsylvanians are bitter" remarks made at the San Francisco fundraiser last week, journalists have been descending on small town in Pennsylvania and Ohio for their responses to the remarks. If Obama's poorly chosen words have done nothing else, they have created an opportunity for a segment of the population that has been all but overlooked since the Reagan era to actually have a voice in American politics for the first time.

And you know what they're saying?

They're saying they are kind of bitter, and thanks for caring enough to ask. Finally.

This report from the Patriot News, serving small towns outside of Philadelphia, quotes several residents in Steelton, Pennsylvania, as saying that, while Obama's choice of words was a little clumsy, they got what he meant, it wasn't far from their truth.

"It didn't offend me one bit," said Don Stepp of Lawnton. "I felt like I could relate to it."

"He told the truth," said Joyette Williams of Oberlin while relaxing at the Jazz on Front bar. "I wasn't offended."

"As a whole, I don't think we're bitter, but there definitely are people who are," said Chris Derr, 25.

A couple of the Steelton residents interviewed thought that Obama's mistake wasn't what he said, but that he limited it to small-town residents in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Steelton firefighter Tom Drebon was quoted in the Patriot News article as saying, "I don't think Pennsylvania is bitter. I think the United States in general is frustrated."

The fact is that between the corporate deregulating Reaganomics of the 80s, Clinton's deal with with Devil we like to call NAFTA, and Bush's tax cuts to the top 1% of the nation's wealthiest, it is places in the Ironbelt and in towns reliant on factory work that have suffered most and received the least care by politicians already in power. Two Pennsylvania mayors, Tom Leighton of Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton mayor Chris Doherty, both of whom had long ago endorsed Clinton, both leapt into journalists' laps to say they are offended by Obama's remarks. Though neither Wilkes-Barre nor Scranton are, technically, "small towns," their economies were largely reliant on industry and ironwork until the early 80s, when that work pretty much dried up for good. What the death of steelworking didn't ruin, NAFTA did.

In this article from Newsday, results were more mixed. Some people felt patronized, like Mike McGeever. McGeever, a Clinton backer from Pottsville, called Obama's comment "uninformed, rather than elitist.... To throw a blanket indictment out there against the people in this area, it is definitely patronizing." But even he didn't bandy about the word "elitist," the way John McCain and Hillary Clinton have. Said Susan Kamerdze, of Coatsville, "It's like we're not smart enough to understand what the politicians are saying. It's an insult to our intelligence."

But even in the Newsday article, there were many who concurred with the sentiments of Obama's statements, if not their precise syntax. Bob Bildheiser, a truck salesman from Pottsville, is still on the fence as to he's supporting, but is leaning toward Obama. He understands what the Illinois senator was trying to get across. "The people are bitter about the economy, about jobs, about the gas prices. It's terrible."

Mostly, though, it turns out that Pennsylvanians are really just fairly practical people, who don't give a rat's ass what Obama said or how McCain and Clinton are playing it up. In fact, they seem a bit bored by the entire issue. In the Newsday article, coffeehouse owner Mary Ann Price, who remains undecided as to who to vote for in Tuesday's primaries, says that Obama's remarks will have no impact. Newsday writes, "She said she is more concerned about U.S. standing in the international community. 'The whole world hates us, and with good reason,' she said."

In the Patriot News article, Paul Kruder from Oberlin, says he doesn't care what Obama said at a fundraiser in San Francisco. "I'm more wondering about what he's going to do when he's in office," he said.

Perhaps proving that small-town Pennsylvanians are a bit more politically savvy than most of the big-town politicians give them credit for, Coatsville native Armon Richardson, an Obama supporter, summed up the dust-up this way. "We're getting in the silly season. It's being overanalyzed."

The part of all of this that grates on me is that, even in their indignation, bloggers and journalists behave condescendingly toward the small-town Pennsylvanians they claim to be defending.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Few Things on a Few Things

Just a few observations on a bunch o' stuff....

Iraq War

Today, for the first time in seven months, General David Petraeus testified before two Senate committees (Senate Armed Forces and Foreign Relations) in Washington, D.C., on the progress in the Iraq War. Petraeus counseled "patience" and warned against the premature withdrawal of U.S. troops, lest it damage the security gains he says have been made since the surge of troops last summer. Petraeus would like to suspend any further troop withdrawals for a 45-day "period of consolodation and evaluation." After that time, Petraeus says that there will be enough information to "determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions." (At which point, I'm pretty sure he'd come back to the SAF committee and counsel patience and ask for another 45 days. And another. And another. And another.) When asked about the explosive violence in Basra and Baghdad, Petraeus blamed the Iranians for their support of insurgents. Interesting. How come no one ever talks about Saudi Arabia's underground support system for insurgents? Or Pakistan's? Could it be because we're not trying to go to war with those countries? I wonder. Petraeus did admit under some intense questioning that we have made little forward progress in Iraq since the surge, only managing at best to keep the entire situation static. Judging from the violence, more than one senator offered, that stasis appears to be coming to an end, doesn't it. Not surprisingly, Petraeus declined to say.

Under questioning from the senators, neither Petraeus nor his sidekick du jour, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, would venture a guess as to what would happen if we stayed in Iraq. Would things get better? When would things get better? If they were getting better, how the bejeebers would we even know? And what about Erica's baby? (Sorry, that last one was a hold over from an old episode of All My Children.) Neither Petraeus nor Crocker could or would say. In their own words, they coudn't "predict the future." Except they proceeded to do exactly that by telling us what would happen if we pulled out of Iraq. I will spare you their answers. Go to MSNBC or CNN, where transcripts of both hearings can be had, if you're desperate for the convoluted drek. I'll just sum up their responses by playing my favorite FedEx commercial:

Teen Beating Videos

No, the plural is not a typo. It's apparently a trend. In the wake of the highly publicized Florida video that came to light a couple days ago, which showed the savage beating 16*-year-old Victoria Lindsay suffered at the hands of six female schoolmates, ages 14 to 17, I "googled" "teen beating video" so I could get the details for this post. I hit a motherlode. Apparently, these little bastards are beating the crap out of each other left, right and center, on camera, then posting it to YouTube and MySpace. The beating of Miss Lindsay didn't even pop up first. Another beating in New York State actually was at the top of the list involving several high school girls luring another girl to an isolated location, then beating her.

One of the many things that disturbed me (and, believe me, it was tough to settle on just one to blog about) was when one of the news commentators remarked at the end of the news pieces, "Where are the parents?" I felt like yelling at the screen, "Same place you are, dumb bitch. WORKING!" I'm getting really tired of this common refrain. "Where are the parents?" Words spoken by people who either have no teenagers (yet!) or who have no idea what their teenagers are getting up to. Are our teenage children really to relinquish all responsibility for their actions? Are they to take no ownership of their rash, impulsive, violent acting out?

The parents were most likely working. Putting food on the table, a roof over the heads, and clothes on their nasty, violent, cruel, vicious ungrateful little backs. I'm sure that the parents had no freakin' clue what their kids were doing, and here's a hot news flash for that bleach-blonde know-it-all piece of prompter trash. Most parents don't. And here's another hot flash. Most parents are loving, caring people, who want the best for their children, want them to be productive members of society and are doing the best they can.

Teenagers are, by biological predisposition, a secretive, illogical, clinically disturbed lot. The residual hold-over of the infant ego, and the burgeoning, but not fully formed adult id, coupled with a frightening quantity of sex hormones make for one deadly dangerous cocktail. In spite of creating a MySpace page and the dutiful monitoring of visited websites, and the many efforts to keep tabs on my own kid (who as far as I know, never beat anyone to a bloody pulp) during the day when I was (guess what!) working, she still managed to ditch class, cut school, start a smoking habit, and get a serious boyfriend behind my back, all at a time when I thought she was way too young*. Where was I? Working. Struggling to pay the rent and the bills. Trying to go to school so I could make more to better pay the rent and the bills. Did we talk? Sure. She claims there really wasn't a lot about her adolescence she didn't tell me. I have said to her, "I'm sure there were secrets you kept from me." "Actually, Mom," she has said, "there weren't, really. I told you almost everything." So, if we're to take her at her word... look where it got us. It is well worth noting that in the case of the New York teen victim who was beaten, even she never told her parents what happened. It only came to light after the video surfaced.

The truth is, my kid is a good kid. She works hard, she loves the world, and most of the world loves her back. She's decent and caring, she has a penchant for social justice and she's a registered Democrat (insert my grateful weeping here). She's trying to put a life together that will carry toward her future. That's more than you can say about a lot of kids her age. And for it all, I will take neither the credit, nor the blame. From the youngest age, her father and I tried to teach her right from wrong. The lessons seem to have taken. In any case, by age 14 or 15, she would have known, as I'm sure every one of these girls who now face felony assault charges knew, that luring a classmate to an out-of-the-way destination, then beating her into unconsciousness, waiting for her to wake up, then beating her again, was, in fact, wrong. They came up with a rationalization, I'm sure. But it was wrong. Most of their parents would think and teach it was wrong. We're not blaming the parents here. We're blaming the eight kids (two boys were also arrested for acting as look-outs). Hopefully, they'll get two smackdowns -- one from the criminal justice system, and one from their parents.

*Update: I originally posted Lindsay's age as 13, based on the initial reports of the case. She is, in fact, 16. As of Thursday, April 10th, the Lakeland DA's office planned to charge her attackers, all between the ages of 14 to 18, as adults with several felonies that, should they be convicted, might earn them life sentences (though this seems unlikely).

Jamie Lee Curtis & Chutes 'n' Ladders.

I've always liked Jamie Lee Curtis -- always connected with her in interviews and onscreen. We're from the same place and time. She was born here in L.A., twenty days after me. She and I cut our hair boy-short within months of each other (1984) and for exactly the same reason (bad perm). I saw her with her newly adopted daughter, Annie, at the LA Zoo when I was about 23 months pregnant. (Oh, alright, it only felt like 23 months. It was probably closer to 7. Does make you wonder, though, how elephants handle it.) Annie's adoption had been all over the papers, and I wanted to congratulate Curtis, but thought better of it. As happy as I'm sure she was at Annie's adoption, I wasn't sure how her personal struggle with infertility might make my present state of extreme pregnancy awkward or painful for her. Infertility sucks, and as my fertility-challenged acquaintances have often reminded me, the cure for those hard feelings is not necessarily to be miraculously found in motherhood. So I decided to just let her have her day at the Zoo with her new baby girl.

Anyway, she was talking to Oprah about how, approaching fifty, she's truly beginning to come completely into herself, without the debris and baggage we all carry in our twenties. She's a smart woman, full of smart ideas that so closely jibe with mine. Life is hard, she told Oprah. It's meant to be, otherwise, how do you know if you've made any progress? She told the story of a nameless game company she was associated with briefly which produced a popular children's game. The game, though she mentioned neither the company nor the game by name, was clearly Chutes 'n' Ladders. She was telling the marketing executives how much she'd loved that game as a kid because you could be winning the whole game, then one false roll, and you'd hit the big chute that took you from the tippy-top to the very bottom, and you'd lose. Even as a child, she said, she equated that game with life. (I guess when your father is a bit of rakish alcoholic, life probably is a lot like Chutes 'n' Ladders.) The marketing exec told her that so many modern mothers complained that their children threw tantrums when they lost the game, the game company was pressured into altering it, without the big chute.

And maybe this ties the second bit in with this one. Maybe society -- schools, teachers, game companies, Presidents, neighborhoods, and, yes, even parents -- expect so little of our children, that we don't teach them the hard lessons anymore. If learning to be a good winner is important, isn't learning to be a good loser equally so? How are we to teach our children to survive failure and loss if we fail to let them do so in small-world applications?

I don't think there's a rash of teen beating videos because some numb-nuts game company executive decided to bow to a few clueless mothers. But maybe the fact that we as an entire society have decided that our kids don't need to know how to trevail adversity or conquest, that they must never know disappointment or lack, that they must always have what they want when they want it -- especially if "all their friends" have it, too -- that's making these things more likely.

Our parents, the children of the Depression, had no problem saying "no." They had no problem dealing with our misery at losing Chutes 'n' Ladders, when victory seemed so firmly in our grasp. We who were raised after the Depression have had it pretty good. Kids raised in the properous Clinton Era have had it great, and are only just now starting to realize what we who've lived longer know the truth. Prosperity is like the Pacific tide -- it ebbs and it flows. We can help it along, certainly -- a little globalization here, some ill-advised warfare there -- next thing you know, it's just an awful, awful mess. But even without the war and the changing economic landscape, our kids need to know how to lose -- at Chutes 'n' Ladders and at everything else. They need to try and fail. They need to risk looking foolish.

If we -- not just parents, but whole societies -- can work to teach the children in our village that life is not a fountain of providence or entitlement, but something we have to work at and be careful with, maybe they'll gain enough perspective that they won't feel the need to beat smaller, more helpless versions of themselves to smithereens.

Just a thought or two.


*You're never old enough to take up smoking. Ever. Period.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Wal-Mart Backs Down

Legally, Wal-Mart had every right to go after the $277,000 or so left in the trust fund that Jim and Debbie Shanks' attorney had set up to help with Debra's ongoing medical care following a devastating traffic accident in 1999. After all, the health plan that Wal-Mart chose for Debbie and other employees -- the ones that were actually permitted to qualify for benefits, that is -- specifically allowed for the company to sue an employee for recoupment of health care costs in the event that the employee was the beneficiary of a favorable settlement.

This was, perhaps, one of the only ways that Wal-Mart has proven itself to be of public service to the community at large. The truth is that many, many group health plans have the same provision, and most people who are covered don't even know this. There's a really good reason for it, too. Let's take the case of Fleeb van Dorkelman, an insured employee with the DooDadd Corporation. Fleeb has a "slip-and-fall" in front of the QuikStop one night, and injures his back and neck, requiring several weeks of chiropractic and physical therapy to recover. Meanwhile, Fleeb retains a lawyer to sue the QuikStop because of the fall. After months of legal wrangling -- so long that by this time, Fleeb has nearly completely recovered from his injuries -- a jury finds QuikStop negligent and orders them to compensate Fleeb for his lost wages and medical expenses. Meanwhile, DooDadd's insurer has paid all of Fleeb's medical expenses. So, does Fleeb just get to take that money and run off to Bermuda? Hell-to-the-no! That money that was earmarked for medical expenses must be paid back. And the company has the right to go to court and demand that Fleeb fork it over. It's only right after all, since others in that medical plan might need that money, now that Fleeb doesn't. It's only fair, right?

However, there is no stipulation in any of the aforementioned insurance plans that requires Wal-Mart or any other company to recoup said expenses, particularly if doing so further puts an employee in financial hardship. Such was the case with the Shanks. The money finally awarded to Debbie was to provide for her on-going care -- not the care she'd received so she didn't die in the hospital. Had she had the common sense to that, I'm sure she could have saved Wal-Mart's legal department a lot of trouble.

Debbie was so badly injured in the accident that she lost nearly all her short-term memory and is now relegated to a wheelchair. She requires full-time care for the rest of her life, and now lives in a nursing home. Things were so bad a couple of years ago that her devoted husband actually divorced her so that she could receive more aid from the state. After years of wrangling with the trucking company that owned the 18-wheeler and employed the driver that struck Debbie's minivan, the courts finally awarded the Shanks $750,000. After legal fees, the Shanks were allowed $415,000, which was put into the trust for Debbie's care. Wal-Mart, perpetuating its reputation as the company with a heart of gold, promptly sued the Shanks for $475,000 -- the entire cost of her care -- though it exceeded the amount of the award the Shanks had actually received. This further required that the Shanks hire lawyers and go to court, further eating into the trust created to provide Debbie with ongoing medical care.

Yesterday, in what I can only describe as a personally stunning turn of events, after weeks of bad publicity and angry, hostile e-mail, letters and phone calls, Wal-Mart sent a letter to Jim Shanks, letting him know that, though the high court sided with the company (but reducing their award to only the $277,000 left in the trust fund), and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case (because what does medical care and insurance have to with the Constitution anyway), the company would no longer be seeking reimbursement, and the Shanks could keep the pawltry amount left in the trust fund to care for Debbie.

Why did Wal-Mart reverse its decision? Who knows. Maybe it was the constant, pernicious news coverage in which, no matter what angle you looked at this story, it just stunk up the joint. Everybody thought it stank, except the folks in the legal department and the boardroom at Wal-Mart (all of whom make nearly as much in a year as the amount currently in Debbie Shanks' trust fund). Didn't we understand, the Wal-Mart folks kept saying to us, they needed that money to give to other Wal-Mart employees who might get sick or injured? Didn't we understand that if the fifteen billion dollars in profits that Wal-Mart took in last year were used to help cover those other hapless sick and hurt employees, that there wouldn't be enough to go around? Didn't we get it? Couldn't we see?

We didn't. We couldn't. We're useless that way. No, no. What we saw was Wal-Mart, trying to take the last dime from a crippled woman who couldn't walk, could barely speak and whose youngest son had just been killed in Iraq. Myopic, unenlightened us -- we only saw the big, multi-billion mega-corporation raiding the care funds of a struggling, grieving family, while claiming poverty as a justification for doing it. That's us for you. We're so like that.

Well, congratulations to the Shanks for getting their reprieve. And good on Wal-Mart of (finally!) making the right decision. Now we just have to find a way to win the Lotto so we can enhance Debbie Shanks' care fund into something that might actually provide care.


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Snake Oil Salesmen

This quintet of seemingly stately gentlemen to your right are the reason you're paying $4 per gallon at the pump every week. The five top executives of the biggest oil companies met before House Representatives in Washington, DC today to explain just how in the hell they could justify continuing their Bush-awarded tax breaks when their companies were making record-breaking profits and American drivers were paying record-high gas prices at the pumps.
J.S. Simon, senior vice president of Exxon-Mobil said that we needed to look at astronomical oil company profits in terms of the cyclical Big Picture. "We depend on high earnings during the up cycle to sustain ... investment over the long-term, including the down cycles." We didn't see the actual testimony, but we're pretty damned sure he actually managed to say this with a straight face.

Peter Robertson, VP of Chevron, let us know that its really all our fault for having unrealistic expectations. "We face a new reality, volatility, high prices, greater competition for resources", and adding that he understands that "Americans see the pain" of $100-a-barrel oil.

Well, some Americans do, Pete. But not you, apparently. Let's see what Forbes has to say about Mr. Robertson and just how hard the competition for resources has hit him. It appears that, between his nearly million dollar a year salary, plus his other perqs (presumably including stock options) from Chevron, Mr. Robertson is grossing over $14 million dollars a year in his current position. I'm pretty sure the prospect of $4 to $4.50 per gallon is not much of a concern to him.

Mr. Hofmeister of Shell Oil, much like his cornerman George W. Bush, is a lame duck, due to retire on June 1, 2008, with what I'm pretty sure will be a pretty golden parachute. Nonetheless, he "understands" that Americans are feeling the pinch. Gee, that's all I wanted, John. I just wanted to be understood.

Oh. Wait. No, I don't.

As lovely as it was to read the transcripts of this little Q&A session, it brings no solace. Back in 2005, when oil prices were hanging out at $60 a barrel (kind of makes one nostalgic, doesn't it), Congress called the Big Five (Shell, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, BP and Conoco-Phillips in to testify as to why they were making record-breaking profits three years ago. They got pretty the same answers. It would seem that in three years, the competition has increased by no less than 30%. (I'm almost feeling sorry for these guys.)

I guess back in 2005, the oil companies were bracing for that inevitable downturn in the market -- that rainy day they're expecting any time now. It got me to thinking. Just when was the last revenue loss for oil companies anyway? Back in 1999, oil prices took a sudden, brief dip below $10 a barrel, but seemed to have bounced back fairly quickly, since, by 2000, the then-Republican candidate for President, George W. Bush, gave a speech critical of his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, for allowing oil prices to climb to $30. In that speech, Bush was also critical of record-breaking profit margins being enjoyed by oil companies at the time. By the time Bush was sworn in as President in January 2001, oil prices had risen to around $45 per barrel, where they stayed fairly stable through 2003, until the invasion of Iraq threw the oil supply into a veritable tizzy. Oil company profits were being spoken of in terms of "windfall" even then. And we can say for certain that that rumored "slowing trend" that has oil executives all hot and bothered certainly didn't commence by 2005. In June of that year, five months before the Big Five testified in the early hearing before the House, MSNBC reported that the Big Five were "awash in record levels of cash."

Part of this is our own fault. And by "us," I mean "you" (and "you" know who "you" are, too, you rat bastards), because I was protesting this dumb-ass war before it began. Thanks to our brilliantly strategized, well-thought-out plan to invade Iraq, we've been short about 2 billion barrels of oil a year for past five years. You can thank George Bush for that. Also, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry and John McCain, among others, as well.

But Bush has pretty much been reduced to the post of court eunuch now, and it's time we started undoing the problems he created. I think a windfall profits tax might be a mistake, but I do think we need to rescind tax breaks that have been given this past decade. We need to take these five charlatains down a few pegs. It's time to start screaming bloody murder. It's time to buy a hybrid. It's time, folks. It's time.