Saturday, April 27. 2013
One thing about the gun debate is the lack of specific case examples, especially for arguments that putting more guns into the hands of "good" people will limit the amount of gun violence perpetrated by "bad" people. The contrary argument, that reducing the number of legal guns -- which, by the way, simplifies the task of enforcing prohibitions against illegal guns -- reduces the overall amount of gun violence, can be argued with gross statistics. That argument, by the way, seems convincing, but we aren't just statistical aggregates. We're individuals, and even if more guns in general endanger us, it seems at least possible that there are some cases where a gun could save one's life or thwart a crime. So why don't "second amendment rights" advocates give us more concrete examples? (Aside, of course, from the fact that it's a lot easier to spout pieties, a form of laziness and sloppiness you hear on all sides of virtually every issue.)
Someone could (and should) do some actual research on shootings: map out what kinds of confrontations happen -- e.g., home invasion where perpetrator is shot by home resident (or vice versa, in which case was resident armed or not?) -- and count them all up. (As I understand it, the government is prohibited from undewriting any such study, thanks to the NRA, which seems to fear any actual research into gun use or abuse.) But not every confrontation has an obvious right and wrong side. For example, consider the case of Dustin Cheever, here in Wichita.
What happened was: Cheever suspected that the son of a neighbor, Robert Gammon, had stolen a motorcycle. Cheever didn't take his suspicions to the police. Instead, he and a friend (Steve Grose) searched for the motorcycle in Gammons' backyard -- they entered Gammons' property without his permission or knowledge. Gammons confronted them, pointing a BB pistol (which plausibly appeared to be a real gun) at them, and threatening them. Cheever, however, was carrying a real gun. Rather than backing away, he decided that he needed to defend himself and/or his friend, so he pulled his gun, shot, and killed Gammons. Cheever is currently being tried for second degree murder, which seems about right.
Had Cheever pulled his gun and Gammons killed him, Gammons would have been in a stronger legal position. He was, after all, at home, whereas Cheever and Grose were trespassing. Gammons misjudged twice that his gun would protect him: first, as is so often the case, the gunfight was determined not by right or wrong, good guy or bad guy, but by who was quicker with more deadly aim (a fact which, by the way, tends to favor the more experienced bad guys); but second, had he not brandished the gun, had he instead just threatened to call the police, Cheever would have had no excuse to defend himself with his gun, and most likely the pair would have just left.
That Gammons' gun was actually a non-lethal BB pistol is pretty much irrelevant here: it looked like a real gun and was given extra credibility by Gammons' threats to kill with it, plus Cheever had no reason to doubt that Gammons could have owned a real gun, since guns are pretty much the norm here in Wichita. Also, Cheever may well have belatedly understood that Kansas's Stand Your Ground law gave Gammons a legal excuse to shoot first -- had Gammons realized that Cheever was in fact armed (something he might reasonably have suspected). It is often argued that the expectation that the other person is armed leads to more moderate behavior -- that seems to be a big part of the argument that all "good guys" should carry guns -- in this case such expectations pretty clearly escalated the conflict.
So this case, at least, doesn't provide much support for the notion that we are better off with more guns: one gun owner, attempting to defend his property from trespass, is dead; another, intent on taking the law into his own hand in searching for his stolen property, faces second degree murder charges. Neither of those outcomes would have happened had either (much less both) parties been unarmed, nor would they have happened had either (again much less both) turned to the police to settle their dispute.
There may be other gun confrontations where it's easier to tell who is "good" or "bad," where it's clearer who's right and wrong, but I suspect this sort of mess is more common. Moreover, it's more reflective of the mentality of people who think guns are an answer for their problems dealing with other people: they overestimate the value and grossly underestimate the risks; and they almost never have the skills and judgment they'd need to make the gun work for them, and often lack the self-awareness to realize when they're getting into trouble. Indeed, the police, who are trained both in the law and the proper use of guns, often screw it up. Why would a random individual expect to do better?
There are simple solutions here, but not practicable ones. The statistics are clear, but no one wants to be a statistic. As long as people think they need guns for self-protection, it's awfully hard to take them away. Moreover, it's hard to say "trust in the police" when the police aren't all that trustworthy, nor can one say "have faith in our system of justice" when that system is far from just. Those are, I'm tempted to argue, bigger and more urgent problems than guns. On the other hand, so many of the reasons that people give for insisting on arming themselves are so patently false you have to argue with them just to attempt to open up a space for public sanity.
No such argument is more ridiculous than the one that you need guns to protect yourself from the government -- although the one that the government needs guns to protect itself from you is every bit as specious, not to mention the one -- which costs us about a trillion dollars a year -- that the government needs armies and navies and air forces to protect us from foreigners. War doesn't protect us from war: war is war. Guns don't protect us from gun violence: aside from a few museum pieces, they create gun violence.
Sunday, March 3. 2013
In case you're wondering what it's like to live in a Republican Paradise, look to Kansas where Republicans -- and none of those wussy RINOs anymore; we're talking the real thing here -- control every facet of government. The Wichita Eagle chose to dedicate its lead article today to celebrate "Kansas legislators' decisions so far in the session." So for all you blue-staters out there, see what you're missing, read and weep:
The article notes that more bills are pending: on further tax cuts (or increases, if you're poor enough); abortion (banning if done to select the sex of the child -- either will do); alcohol (allow more stores to sell); judicial appointments (let Brownback pick 'em); labor (no payroll deductions for unions); immigration (they probably mean Kris Kobach's nonsense, but the Chamber of Commerce is all for undocumented workers); and "more" (under the circumstances, the most ominous word in the English language -- the west Kansas feedlot and packing industries depend on them).
Only good news coming out of Topeka these days is that they make Richard Crowson's life easier. Here's his cartoon today (the subject is evidently part of that "more"):
The big item above is the education amendment, as this generation of Kansas Republicans renege on the commitment of a previous generation to provide all Kansans with a quality education. I suspect this has much less to do with education per sé than with the prerogatives of power. The courts have repeatedly ruled against the legislature's failure to appropriate adequate funds, and the lege can't stand the notion that they have to operate within a framework of law -- they were, after all, elected to make law, and they'll damn well make any kind of law they like, even if (as is increasingly often the case) what they want to do is contrary to the US constitution.
It's not hard to see where they got this attitude: from owning and running businesses, where they feel entitled to dictate every moment, and throw a fit at the slightest inconvenience -- laws, workers, even customers (although they still try to put on a better face there). Michael Kinsley has a critique of American politics as a collection of "big babies," but the biggest babies of all are those who feel entitled to make (and break) the rules. The Republicans are still inconvenienced by shreds of democracy in the political sphere, but in their businesses they've made major steps toward dictatorship. If they can force drug tests on their workers, why not require the same of the wards of the state? The object, after all, isn't drug control but humiliation. The old saw about "absolute power corrupting absolutely" is evident once again.
On the Eagle's editorial page, consider this Opinion Line item:
Beechcraft's failed bid was for small prop planes for the Afghan Air Force, a pretty large contract ($450 million, if memory serves). They lost the bid more than a year ago, pulled some strings to get it rebid, and lost it again. The tankers are an old subject in these pages. Boeing eventually prevailed in convincing the Air Force to waste $35 billion for a fleet of obsolete airliners -- at least, unlike the state-of-the-art 787, they're likely to fly -- dressed up as portable filling stations. Then, having won the bid, they shut down their Wichita plant, which had been promised the work -- a "no brainer" considering that Wichita had done the work on the "obsolete" tanker fleet, primarily based at McConnell AFB, also here in Wichita. Having used all their political assets in Kansas (which unlike the workers are still on the payroll), Boeing then decided to move the work elsewhere -- to whichever state will pay them the most (preferably one with fewer or no union workers).
This whole scam has been unfolding for more than a decade, and one thing you could count on is an editorial (and often a guest column) in the Eagle every month or so extolling the virtues of Boeing as the best company to build those desperately needed tankers. Back in January, I wrote two letters to the Eagle -- a longer "rough draft" and a proper letter paired down to their size requirements. They ran neither, nor anything remotely like it. The occasion was a series of articles on the Air Force's process for deciding where to base the new tankers. The longer letter follows:
McConnell AFB, which is to say the dreaded federal government, which is to say "your tax dollars," injects about $500 million into the Wichita economy each year. It was built not because the Air Force had an urgent need to station its aircraft as far as possible away from the nation's borders, but because it was just across the street from a very large Boeing plant -- one, by the way, built by the US government during WWII and used to build the majority of B-17 and B-29 bombers used during the war, and B-47 and B-52 bombers built during the heyday of the Strategic Air Command. It was also where Boeing turned its 707 airlines into KC-135 tankers. Those new planes stopped production around 1960, but Boeing continued to provide mods to update the B-52s and KC-135s still used by the Air Force. Again, without Boeing it's hard to see any reason for McConnell. The AFB's survival will depend on nothing more than political favor and inertia, neither of which are likely to save it from future rounds of defense spending cuts.
Personally, it wouldn't bother me if McConnell closed. No doubt it would hurt the local economy, but the facilities would be recycled and new business would emerge. Plus you'd get rid of those dreadful planes flying over east Wichita every few minutes. (I didn't even consider buying a house in the area because of the noise factor, not to mention memory of what happens when one of those loaded tankers drops from the sky and razes a neighborhood.) But we need the new tankers even less than the AFB, and the cost there is pure waste and corruption. Their role is to help move and project massive US firepower anywhere in the world, and the more difficult that task becomes, the better for the world (and for that matter for us).
This is a good time to talk about cutting back from the insane defense spending levels of recent years. Sequestration is probably the dumbest way to implement cuts, except to a military budget which produces much harm and virtually no tangible good. The only way you would ever notice even far greater cuts than the ones in effect would be if you yourself were on the dole. And while the loss of spending destimulates the economy, the multipliers for military expense are exceptionally low -- especially where spent abroad, or simply blown up.
On the other hand, if/when the tanker is cut from the defense budget, it will probably be in recognition of its obsolescence. The military is moving more and more to drones, which are vastly more fuel-efficient than fighters or bombers. So like everything with the military, there's not much point because what passes for thought in those circles is so far removed from real life -- except, of course, when it kills.
Sunday, October 28. 2012
The good news in this election is that loathsome Democrat Vern Miller isn't running for sheriff or anything else this time. I voted against him in my first election (1972), and voted against him four years ago. In fact, I've never found him running against a Republican so vile as to drive me into his column. On the other hand, the Republicans running for my state senate and representative seats have taken a drastic turn for the worse this year. They have a lot of money and they are serious threats to win, although at least they will have to overcome estimable Democratic candidates. Other than that, and a ballot question about fluoridating the city's water supply (something I'm ambivalent about), Kansas is a political wasteland this year. The statewide offices have been reserved for the off-years when turnout is down (and more to the Republicans' taste). The Senate cycle is fallow this year. And our Koch-owned congressman appears to be a lock -- at least I haven't seen any evidence of the Democrat allegedly running against him. And, oh, the state's presidential electors have already been conceded: I haven't even seen any statewide polls on Romney vs. Obama -- just some speculation that the margin will rival Reagan's 1980 trouncing of Carter. I expect it will be much closer, but I'm basing that on nothing whatsoever -- other than that Gore surprised me in 2000 by getting 37% of the vote (to 58% for Bush) on so little campaigning that I entertained the fantasy of Nader (3.4%) outpolling him. Turns out that even though Kansas Democrats are remarkably quiet they do exist -- and thanks to the right-wing Republican purge are likely to increase in number, if not in spirit.
In 2004 I wrote a relatively impassioned editorials for Kerry (or more pointedly against Bush) and in 2008 I must have done the same for Obama (certainly against the warmonger McCain). Against Romney, Obama is as clear a choice, even though there isn't much reason to cheerful or enthusiastic about the prospect. Obama has proven himself to be a cautious conservative with only the barest commitment to the general welfare of the majority of the people who voted for him in 2008. He is unimaginative and unresourceful, unwilling to put forth progressive proposals, uneager to stand up to the increasingly destructive program of the far right, or even to point out how much damage thirty years of conservative ascent has already done. And even within his own limited confines, more often than not he has proved inept: obvious examples include the 2010 electoral debacle, and the fact that his own reëlection is in peril despite running against running against a candidate as clueless as Romney and a party as malevolent as the Republicans, despite his evident tactic of sacrificing his party for his own personal gain -- one of many traits he's adopted from Clinton, who proved every bit as ineffective (or uninterested) at halting the nation's unpopular drift to the right.
I say "unpopular" because there's no reason to think that the vast majority of the American people actually approve of what the right has done, let alone intends to do. You can check this many ways, starting with the polling, although that's often muddied by the right's ubiquitous propaganda machine (often helped out by the mainstream media). Or you can look at the ways the right tries to obscure and confuse issues, by their savvy catch phrases, their constant repetition, etc. Or you can look at the right's more and more blatant efforts at disenfranchising and intimidating voters. Or you can take notice of such recent gaffes as Lindsey Graham's concession that the Republicans are losing "the demographic race" or Romney's blatant dismissal of the "47%" of the public who pay no income taxes, people he wrote off as "takers," people "unwilling to take responsibility for their lives": given all the other people Romney is writing off, it should be clear that the only way he can win an election is to keep most of that 47% from voting.
So that's one thing this election is about: whether this nation will remain a democracy. And oddly enough, because the Republican Party has operated in lock step over the last four years in its single-minded agenda to annul the 2008 election, to prevent the sort of change that that election mandated, to sabotage government and prevent it from being used to ameliorate the suffering and to improve the welfare of the vast majority of the people, and above all to make Obama look weak and ineffective, the only way to save democracy is to purge Congress of virtually all Republicans. (A simple thought experiment: how many views would an all-Democratic Congress have on most issues? All of them. All-Republican? One, maybe plus Ron Paul.)
Since Democrats are all over the map, voting a straight ticket might not seem like much of a solution, but Republican groupthink and discipline have created a unique problem: one that is severe enough it should be massively rejected. Otherwise, their obsession with seizing and holding power at all costs will prove ever more corrupting. We saw much of this during the Bush-Cheney years, when the anti-deficit arguments used to hem in Clinton and Obama were suspended, when government oversight was parceled out to lobbyists, when functions were privatized to create patronage. More recently, no matter how much the Republicans decried bank bailouts, they flocked to fight regulation needed to keep future disasters from happening, in a blatant attempt to coddle the big bankers. But more disturbing than hypocrisy and opportunism is how they've converted their power base into a form of extortion: give them the presidency and they'll mismanage government, plunge the nation into endless wars, wreck the economy, but deny them and they'll shut down the government, hold up your social security checks, and drag their feet on everything from unemployment comp to food stamps. They've even argued that the current slow recovery is Obama's fault for "creating uncertainty," causing "job creators" to hold back their magic and let the economy flounder -- when in fact Republican-demanded austerity measures have destroyed public sector jobs as fast as the private sector can generate them.
Moreover, the Republican mindset has turned even more greedy and nasty in the years since Obama was elected. The key abortion issue now seems to be the rights of rapists to force their victims to bear their children. Public education is being gutted, torn between textbook idiocies and prohibitive costs, and likely to suffer worse now that pious Republicans like Rick Santorum have decided that learning inclines students toward liberalism. Such notions, and the Republicans are full of them, are more extreme than we've ever witnessed in major party politics, and they're backed with more money and more pervasive media than ever. From the beginning, Americans have adopted the notion of countervailing powers as a means of checking tyranny: first in the government's separation of powers, and later in the development of a universal democracy that has repeatedly shifted, and moderated, between progressive and conservative tides. Arguably, the Reagan ascent in 1980 was a reasonable reaction to the successes of progressive movements in the 1960s and 1970s. (I wouldn't argue that, but I can see how corporate interests may have gotten spooked.) Early on, conservative measures seemed to do little damage, but over time they have accumulated into serious problems; meanwhile, the right has no sense of enough: they keep insisting on more, to the point of complete domination. (For example, in Kansas now, business owners are exempt from paying state income tax, joining Romney's freeloading 47%.)
The Republican juggernaut stalled in 2008 when it became obvious to nearly everyone that the Bush bubble had burst and took much of the world's economy with it. Then a remarkable thing happened: a handful of talk radio blowhards and behind-the-scenes schemers like Grover Norquist took over the GOP and gave it a fresh life in its own fantasy world. Much of what followed was stark raving nuts, and even now all Romney and Ryan represent are the sanest faces their sponsoring billionaires can put on such an unhinged movement. Even so, Romney's background is from the most predatory and destructive form of finance capitalism, and Ryan's solo claim to fame is his ability to fake a budget that promises to turn the nation into a third world oligarchy. And behind the front men, the advisers -- the people who would make up and run their administration -- are the same con men Bush used (Glenn Hubbard is the most obvious tip of the iceberg here).
These are people, a whole party of them, that must be stopped. For better or worse, all we have to stop them with are Democrats, so that's how I intend to vote, and so should you. Woe to us if we fail, but even if we succeed we'll still have much work to do. We can, at least, take solace in seeing the last four years of propaganda and obstruction fail to defeat Obama. And we can look forward to having somewhat more reasonable people to talk to, to argue with, and possibly on occasion to convince.
By the way, I see now that the Democratic candidate for sheriff, while not Vern Miller, is a guy whose sole comment on why he ran for office is that God told him to. Doesn't sound like much of a candidate to me, and I don't have anything in particular against the Republican, but I'll vote for him anyway. This is a year when anyone should be embarrassed to run as a Republican -- especially in Kansas.
Moreover, I recall how back in the early days of the conservative counterrevolution Reagan used to talk about the "11th Commandment": never speak ill of a fellow Republican. That allowed the Republicans to make gains in unlikely places, including electing mayors of New York and Los Angeles, as well as senators like the recently purged Richard Lugar. Of course, I won't stop speaking out when Democrats like Obama do bad things, but I may hold off until the season's over (now that it practically is).
Wednesday, May 30. 2012
An excerpt from the Wichita Eagle blogs, published in today's paper:
Even before Rupert Murdoch bought up the Wall Street Journal, the editorial page there could be depended on to relish any policy that might help make the rich richer, regardless of its impact on everyone else. In the 1980s they championed Arthur Laffer's supply side doodles. In a pointed reminder of how reigning public thought has refused to learn anything from the repeated economic debacles of conservative rule, Brownback used state funds to hire Laffer to propagandize his tax cut scheme.
The tax cut is projected to almost immediately throw the state into deficit, which the "starve the beast" devotees will insist on meeting with spending cuts. Given how severely education and public works have already been cut, it's not clear where more cuts are going to come from. (Jails? Police? Only real way to cut that would be to legalize marijuana, which doesn't seem to be on the agenda although it's not totally off the radar.) But one thing that should be obvious is that growth isn't in the cards. One good thing about state spending is the money gets spent (and multiplied) in-state. But tax cuts for the rich don't result in more local spending. The main beneficiaries are guys like Phil Ruffin, who puts most of his money into Las Vegas.
Of course, that's a level of detail that the Wall Street Journal could care less about. They're happy as long as the rich get richer, and if in the process government in Kansas becomes dysfunctional, no skin off their teeth.
Sunday, April 15. 2012
I spent most of Saturday, April 14, watching television. The only shows on was the weather, which I could supplement with the radar feed from Weather Underground. The Storm Prediction Center had forecast "a high risk of severe weather" -- the last time that was forecast was April 7, 2006, in advance of an outbreak of over 100 tornadoes -- and the dead center of the risk area was very close to (maybe a bit south of) Wichita, KS. The day's weather map showed a cold front straight north-south along the Colorado-Kansas and New Mexico-Texas borders, and a stationary front hanging from the north end of the cold front northeast across Nebraska toward Chicago. As the cold front swept across Kansas southerly winds swept moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico, collecting into storm cells tracking from 30-70 mph north-northeast, turning more east as they crossed I-70 in north Kansas. These cells generally started across the border in Oklahoma, or possibly in Texas, and they started in the west.
Weather is serious business here in Kansas, with the television station competing fiercely for viewership with the latest, fanciest radar system feeds, live storm tracker reports, viewer-supplied photos, etc. (It's a big farm state, and not unusual for city people to have come off farms -- both of my parents did.) So it was possible to watch nothing but weather from noon, when the first tornado touched down in Hodgeman county (southwest KS, north of Dodge City) until well after midnight. At a typical moment late-afternoon, there were four widely separated storm cells, each moving northeast, each with a well-defined hook on the south edge near the rear of the storm indicating a large tornado. The new radars can measure wind shear, and they can distinguish hail from rain and debris sucked up by a tornado from hail -- remarkable images, I can say, as someone who's watched tornados come and go ever since the one that obliterated Udall, KS back in 1955.
Wikipedia lists 122 reported tornadoes during this outbreak, but currently only lists 13 as confirmed. Some of the reports are redundant, referring to the same tornado as it progressed -- presumably, as they evaluate the damage and sort out the paths the spottings will be sorted out. Some of the early tornados passed through territory I knew well. The Hodgeman county tornado was very close to the farm where my great-great-grandfather homesteaded c. 1870, and moved north of Spearville, where my father was born, and Kinsley, where an aunt lived for many years -- I must have visited that are a hundred times. Later a tornado kicked up between Geneseo and Little River, in Rice county, which is where my grandfather had a farm in the 1950s. That tornado then moved northwest toward Marquette, where he had moved in 1960, and where an aunt lived, then skittered northeast toward Salina.
Another tornado formed between Mullinville and Greensburg, south of Kinsley, then moved very fast northeast, crossing US-50 near St. John, and turning east to take another pass at Marquette. A later tornado took a similar path, slightly to the north, near Kanapolis and Brookville, then just missed Salina to the north. I later looked at a map of accumulated precipitation that consisted of four or five long streaks following these storm paths, separated by troughs that got virtually no rain.
Later storms moved a bit closer, into McPherson county, but all of those storms were well clear of Wichita, which was overcast all day and intermittently windy. First storm that worried me popped up north of Enid, OK, and crossed into Kansas near Bluff City -- reported as a "half-mile wide wedge tornado." This same cell cut across Harper and northwest Sumner counties into Sedgwick, aiming toward Haysville in Wichita's south suburbs. I haven't heard of any damage in Haysville, but a couple miles east an EF-3 tornado did massive destruction in Oaklawn, then hit the massive Spirit (formerly Boeing) plant, crossed McConnell AFB, did some damage at US-54 and Greenwich, and proceeded northeast past Andover and El Dorado for another 80 miles or so before eventually blowing out over the Flint Hills east of Cassoday.
We live just northwest of downtown Wichita, about six miles from the storm path. We spent about an hour in the basement, with only the radio on, so we were a bit sensory-deprived. We got some very heavy rain, possibly a bit of hail and wind, but mostly rain -- much more than the new drain I dug in the backyard could handle. Elsewhere there was quite a bit of local flooding. Electric power was a bit iffy here, but held up. Doesn't seem to have been much damage outside of the tornado path, but there over 100 poles were knocked down, blacking out 20,000 people and closing roads.
After that cleared, another line of storms developed to the west and started moving east: I suspect this was finally the cold front moving through. Around 2am the Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Sedgwick county, but the storm weakened and passed through Wichita by 3am with some lightning and more rain. That would seem to have been enough drama for one day and night, but the worst for us happened about 3:30am when I heard a loud hissing sound, and went into the bathroom to find the supply hose broken loose from the toilet and spraying water all over the place. I turned the valve shut and mopped up the water, including big drops collecting on the ceiling.
Got up around noon to a bright and sunny day where everything seemed normal again. Drove to the hardware store to get the part to fix the toilet, and saw no damage in the area -- river was a bit up, and saw some baby ducks on it. I haven't tried to drive anywhere near the damage, but looked through the slide shows at Kansas.com. I've also seen photos of isolated damage out west and north, but most of the territory those storms crossed is empty -- farms and ranchland -- so there isn't much to hit. (The population of Hodgeman county is 1,916; one of the lowest in Kansas.) What differentiated the Wichita tornado was that it had something to hit, but even so it was only a glancing blow.
According to the TV news tonight, there were 93 tornados in this bout. The TV people were all very happy that no one had been killed in Kansas last night, but when I woke up this morning 5 people had been killed in Woodward, OK. After the storm cleared Wichita I had figured that the later storms would be weaker, so I was distressed to see that there were still new tornado warnings in Oklahoma. The Woodward one (in northwest Oklahoma, just east of the panhandle) hit around midnight, so that would have been one of the ones I saw.
The Wichita tornado was last spotted near Cassoday shortly before midnight -- since that cell had developed in Oklahoma it had covered over 200 miles in about six hours, nearly all the time with a large tornado on the ground. That was the last Kansas tornado, although today there was one more in Oklahoma, several in Nebraska, one in South Dakota, another in Minnesota.
Gov. Brownback was quick to declare Sedgwick County a disaster area, and to come to Wichita to survey the damage at Spirit, and promise state aid to get the factory back into working order. I don't know whether he spent much time in Oaklawn, which before it was hit was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the metro area. Ironic, you might think, for a guy who spends so much of his time trying to undermine and dismantle government, but there's really no one else to turn to when disaster strikes. I've been saying all along that disaster response is the fundamental test of how well government serves -- something Clinton proved when he promoted FEMA to cabinet level, and something Bush found out when he tried to gut the department.
But also important is the Weather Service. Without them we would have been in Udall yesterday. (Or Mississippi, which invariably leads the nation in the most people killed per tornado.)
 The Udall tornado in 1955 was the deadliest ever to hit Kansas, killing 77, more than 10% of Udall's population, injuring another 270 (close to 50%), damaging every building within city limits, destroying most. Udall is 24 miles southeast of Wichita, just off a road we used to take to go visit relatives in Oklahoma. The Weather Bureau failed to forecast the storm, and there were no warnings. Afterwards, there was a major push to create a storm warning system.
Thursday, April 5. 2012
From the lead article in the Wichita Eagle today, titled "Five Days with No Courts":
It's impossible to overstate what an embarrassment the Kansas state legislature has been since the 2010 elections. While neglecting to keep the state government in decent running order, they've passed laws to restrict voting rights and to make abortions even more costly and more inaccessible. They've killed off state funding for the arts, thereby sacrificing federal funding, but the state has wound up spending close to $500,000 in court trying to defend the constitutionality of their new anti-abortion laws. They still haven't managed to pass a law with new congressional districts: one idiot plan that some keep pushing is to attach heavily-Democrat Wyandotte county (Kansas City, KS) to the sparsely populated far West district that gave a rookie Republican extremist a 72% vote in 2010.
The post-2010 legislature isn't much different than the ones that preceded it -- both were overwhelmingly Republican. The difference is that after 16 years of moderate Republican and/or Democratic governors (Graves, Sibelius, Parkinson), which limited the damage the increasingly right-wing legislators could do, the new guy in the mansion is Sam Brownback. You may recall that Brownback ran for president in 2008 -- miserably, I might add. Now, his ambitions are undiminished, and he's trying to rack up a record as a man of action with his social engineering programs.
But the legislature hasn't bowed down to Brownback. They've actively connived to make his proposals even worse then he intended. For example, Brownback's income tax plan proposed to exempt the Kochs and Ruffins from paying state income taxes, while ending the Earned Income Credit for the poor and gutting deductions for the middle class. The lege -- I might as well start using Molly Ivins's Texas nomenclature since it's equally applicable here -- kept the worst ideas but turned it into a budget-busting monstrosity. It's still up in the air, but the relatively small matter of shutting down the court system is but a taste of what the lege is promising.
It's hard not to think that the end if the Republicans go unchecked in Kansas is a wasteland. Sometimes they do it on purpose. Sometimes they just screw up.
Saturday, March 17. 2012
The Wichita Eagle front-page headline is "Soldier suspected in killings gets to Kansas," the piece attributed to Kansas City Star staff and wire reports. (I can't find the piece online, but it is apparently based on this piece.) It doesn't acclaim Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as a hero, but isn't everyone who signed up for the post-9/11 Global War on Terror a hero? They're automatically acclaimed when they die, as at least 6,398 have done, or when they're wounded (as Bales was, losing part of his foot), or when they receive medals (Bales is oft described as "much decorated"). So why not when they go berserk? The Army may prefer precise and unemotional control over its violence against Afghan villagers, but Bales' methodical killing of sixteen (mostly) children wasn't far out of the long line of atrocities other US "heroes" have committed. It just underscores how unfit the US military is for the difficult task of nation building, and therefore how hopeless what Obama can only describe as "the Mission" -- an abstract noun that has thus far proven impossible to define -- really is.
Some background on Bales is available here and here, and here. He is 38, was born in the Midwest, is married, has two children (3 and 4). He served three tours in Iraq, and was recently deployed to Afghanistan. He was trained as a sniper, which is to say someone who calmly and methodically picks out targets at distance, and kills them. The Pentagon describes his career as "unremarkable." A neighbor is quoted: "A good guy go tput in the wrong place at the wrong time." Happens all the time.
Problem is, if you're Afghan, this looks like stone cold murder. And if you're Afghan, you probably have a clear idea of what justice should look like -- and it's probably not that it would only be fair to ship the killer half-way around the world to a cozy cell in Kansas to let his shrinks and lawyers come up with arguments and excuses to try show that Bales is the victim here.
There is a case to be made that Bales was indeed a victim: of a president who decided to double down on the same military that had turned eight years of arrogance into abject failure, but Obama was stuck, like Rumsfeld complained earlier, with the army he inherited, and with a political culture that insists that America's heroes will prevail eventually (unless sabotaged by cowardly politicians). No one thought of the welfare of the troops before launching this war, but ever since politicians have been hiding behind their confused feelings, ignoring the fact that they were never fit for the purpose, that their deeply trained lethality ensures a string of atrocities. Anyone who seriously believes the popular counterinsurgency theories should start by building a new army; the real one doesn't work, even if some officers have learned to talk the talk.
Talking the talk, after all, has always been the easy part. What's hard is understanding you can't occupy a country you have no business in, no understanding of, and no awareness of your own alien nature. The US entered Afghanistan seeking revenge for 9/11, and never quite satisfied that itch. Overstaying its welcome, the US set up a puppet regime, then proceeded to delegitimize it by continued dominance -- Bush was too busy starting new wars to bother cleaning up after this one. Then came Obama, proving that America's best efforts were just as futile as America's worst efforts. Now he thinks he can tiptoe away without admitting fault or error, when the entire campaign has been nothing but wrong.
Bales' massacre is deeply embarrassing for Obama because there's no way to scrub away the stain. Either it was policy or not, the latter proof that we cannot manage our policy: we can't control our own troops, nor the Afghans we've trained, even less the Taliban. Even the right is abandoning this war: the carnage doesn't bother them, but they'd rather hate Muslims from a distance than try to divide and conquer them far away. And I suspect more and more we'll see the military itself turn on the mission: as good as it's been for budgets and careers, incidents like this show that the troops are wearing out, that the strain is cracking them up. Maybe they even like the idea of leaving Obama holding the bag. His statements this past week have been the most tone-deaf of his tenure.
Some more relevant links:
Tuesday, February 28. 2012
I voted today. The forecasted thunderstorms were late arriving, and I figured I could use a short walk. I strolled over to the local polling place, successfully navigated Kurt Kobach's photo ID gauntlet, and apparently cast a vote on the single question on the ballot. The question was whether to rebate 75% of the local hotel taxes over the next fifteen years to a new downtown "boutique" hotel. Publicists claim this helps develop downtown, adding 124 service jobs ongoing plus close to a thousand construction jobs short-term. The primary opposition force was the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity -- they saw it as a corporate giveaway, which of course it was. The more ideologically thoughtful saw it as unbalancing the free market: as an exclusive break for one business, it gives that business an unfair advantage against every other hotel in town. That, too, is true, as will become apparent when all those other hotels petition the city council for the same break.
I voted no, against the rebate. I'm sick and tired of all such special tax deals. They've become so common -- especially in Red State America, where Republicans see business favors as essential patronage, and Democrats are equally unscrupulous in their efforts to paint themselves as pro-business -- that nobody makes a business investment these days without auctioning it off to state and local governments. The best way to stop this would be strong national laws to put a stop to the practice -- minimally by taxing local tax preferences, possibly by prohibiting them outright (at the very least they go against the notion of equal treatment under the law). But short of that, the least we can do is to vote them down when we get the chance (or shout them down when we don't).
Update: The rain showed up a bit after 8PM, pretty heavy in fact, with a couple tornado warnings north of Wichita, in McPherson and Marion counties. The hotel tax rebate was voted down, with 61% (16,198) no, 38% (10,107) yes. The group that backed the yes vote spent $300,000; the no group spent $30,000. (Report here.)
Second Update: Kris Kobach announced he was pleased with Wichita test of voter ID law. Turnout was about 13.5% of registered voters, a level that Republicans can win with. By the way, that line of thunderstorms dropped a tornado on Harveyville, KS last night. Gov. Brownback declared Harveyville a disaster area, but since Brownback's been governor you could say that about the whole state.
Thursday, February 9. 2012
Another excerpt from the Wichita Eagle Blog today, titled Pompeo takes on Kochs' critics:
There's been a groundswell of "pity the billionaire" articles about the Kochs recently, which like all of their groundswells suggests central planning. And who better than Pompeo to praise them, especially since he was their guy in the 2008 Republican primary. Coincidentally, I have another quote from Thomas Frank's book, Pity the Billionaire (pp. 76-77):
I actually have a lot of respect for entrepeneurs who founded companies that build things, although I can also think of plenty of examples of such who went on to use their wealth and power for ill purposes -- Henry Ford's notorious antisemitism is a classic example -- and they tend to be the rule rather than the exception, probably because there's something fundamentally rotten about living off a profit margin. But whereas Ford built his company from scratch, the Kochs inherited theirs, and while I do have respect for Charles Koch as a smart and principled businessman -- David is another story altogether -- he grew his company mostly through shrewd acquisitions and stern management, not to mention tax breaks and political payola. (The Bush Administration, for instance, settled hundreds of EPA charges against Koch for pennies on the dollar, with no concession of wrongdoing. In some ways, a "get out of jail card" is even better than a bailout.) To say that Koch created 50,000 jobs is nonsense.
Still, the Kochs aren't being attacked for their business work -- although they are in a notoriously dirty business, and they have an utterly scandalous environmental track record, and the oil industry has long been the poster boy for government corruption (although finance and pharmaceuticals have more than caught up). The problem with the Kochs is that they pump so much money into subverting our democracy. The more we have become aware of their activities, the more conscious we become of where that money comes from and what kind of world they want to create.
Sunday, January 22. 2012
No Weekend Roundup this week: I've been preoccupied with crunching Pazz & Jop numbers, and more on that in a day or two. Meanwhile, I'm not sure there's been much to focus on. The week, after all, was dominated by the White Folks Primary in South Carolina, and I'm sick and tired of listening to those malcontents griping about how we need to go back to "the principles this country was founded on" -- how can the heirs of John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney, John Calhoun, and Strom Thurmond say such a thing without choking? Romney's collapse was especially amusing, although exit polls show he did manage to win his class (indeed, all those with income over $200,000), and as far as the Republican Party is concerned, that's all that really matters. Still, from all the TV coverage you'd think South Carolina was even whiter than North Dakota, and prosperous too -- whereas in fact it's so poor companies like Boeing move there to escape the high wages they have to pay in Kansas.
Speaking of Kansas, I have open a bunch of open tabs concerning Gov. Sam Brownback's state income tax plan:
The last piece sums up the Brownback-Laffer scheme thus (my emphasis added):
There are more articles with more details, including numerous case examples of how the proposed changes would hit the bottom lines of various taxpayers (plus Crowson's view, here on the right). But in looking for typical examples, the articles avoid the white elephant in the room: the tax-free carve out for business income. Although a lot of people who would catch a break there are small business owners who don't make much money, virtually everyone in the state who does make a lot of money -- starting with billionaires like Charles Koch and Phil Ruffin -- gets a free pass.
Of course, the argument is that we need those businesses to create jobs and keep the economy running. Still, how much thought went into this? Laffer, who was paid $75,000 for consulting, is possibly the biggest fraud in American history, having largely invented supply-side economics while sketching on a napkin. Brownback holds prayer vigils in Topeka to seek divine guidance for his policies -- or maybe he just hallucinates them then prays they work?
The idea of using tax breaks for incentives is venerable and easily overdone, but the key idea is that you're trying to encourage people to do something they wouldn't do without the incentive. We have tax breaks to get people to donate to charities, or to finance more expensive homes than they need -- two items that come to mind because Brownback is planning on ending them (and, by the way, the non-profits and realtors are none too happy about that). But do we really need special incentives to get businessmen to try to make even more money?
I could see coming up with a package of breaks (and even subsidies) to help people start new businesses -- there would be lots of ways to do this that would be capped by business size and profits so they wouldn't automatically flow up to benefit the richest. The net effect of the Brownback-Laffer plan is to accelerate the flow of wealth to the very same people who already have way more than they know what to do with, while sticking everyone else with the bill.
As the last two articles pointed out, not even the Republicans that dominate the state legislature could stomach all of this, so they came up with their own nefarious plan. It's bad enough, but nothing like what Brownback, Laffer, and God (or maybe Koch) came up with.
Sunday, November 27. 2011
Crowson's editorial cartoon in the Wichita Eagle today, on Boeing's tanker scam bait-and-switch. In their big PR push to dislodge EADS's winning bid and rejigger the $35 billion contract in their favor, the PR flacks at Boeing had upped their usual 1,000 job promise to 7,500 -- counting all sorts of multiplier effects, something Republicans never believe in unless they hear it from a defense contractor. Now that the deal is done Boeing's decided maybe they don't need Wichita after all -- although there's always the suspicion that they may just be angling for yet another bribe, something they've repeatedly done in the past.
Molly McMillin has another article on Boeing in the paper today: Analysts: Loss of Boeing Would Hurt City, Region. Not much new there. One thing the analysts didn't factor in was the extent to which Boeing's presence corrupts local politics, but that was the subject of an anonymous Opinion Line comment:
Probably no Weekend Roundup today, but I do hope to get something else up this evening. One Kansas-themed story likely to lose out in the shuffle is Brownback Complaint About Student Tweet Lands Kansas Teenager in Principal's Office. As someone who's been there for doing something like that -- admittedly, long before Twitter made it easy to do and easy to get caught -- I can only applaud Emma Sullivan. Also, quote another Opinion Line commenter:
By the way, driving around Wichita a couple nights ago, I came upon several small roadside signs proclaiming "Christmas Doesn't Suck!" If Brownback's concerned about language, well, that horse has left the barn.
Tuesday, November 22. 2011
Lead article in the Wichita Eagle today: Molly McMillin: Boeing Studying Future of Wichita Site. Lloyd Stearman founded Stearman Aircraft Corporation in Wichita in 1927. He later sold it to United Aircraft, which spun it off as a division of Boeing in 1934. During WWII the federal government built a huge expansion to Boeing's Wichita plant, where Boeing produced its legendary series of heavy bombers: B-17, B-29, B-47, B-52. From WWII up to 2005, Boeing was the largest employer in Wichita, and for most of that period Wichita was Boeing's largest plant outside of the Seattle area. In 2005, Boeing spun off most of its Wichita operations using the private equity firm Onex: the resulting company is called Spirit Aerosystems, and it continues to manufacture for Boeing. At the same time, Boeing retained its military division in Wichita, which is conveniently adjacent to McConnell Air Force Base. McConnell is the home base for the air force's KC-135 tanker fleet. Boeing has lobbied feverishly to replace the tanker fleet with new planes based on Boeing's now-obsolete 767 airframe, and we've been blanketed with promises of how many jobs the new tankers would bring to Kansas. As the article explains:
However, now that Boeing has prevailed over EADS in the tanker bid war, Boeing is having second thoughts. Much as 19th century railroads were more in the business of accumuliating government real estate subsidies, Boeing's manufacture of aircraft is just bait for their real mission, which is to auction off jobs for bribes. While there is no doubt that one big reason Boeing recently tried to move its 787 airframe production from Seattle to South Carolina was fervor for deunionizing its work force, the clincher was South Carolina coughing up a billion dollars for the favor of having its citizens underpaid by Boeing.
I've despised Boeing's tanker scam ever since its inception -- in its first incarnation it was presented as a lease program, as if the federal government couldn't finance its own purchases. The entire campaign has been as prime an example of crony capitalist corruption in Washington as you can imagine, but should be opposed for the simple reason that the last thing we should spend money on is a capability that would make it easier to get involved in wars around the globe. Needless to say, Kansas politicians signed up to the corruption immediately, and unconditionally. And, typical to form, their arguments highlighted all the promised jobs.
I've been saying all along that the jobs argument was bogus. In particular, nobody factors in the fact that the new tankers will eliminate all the jobs keeping the old tankers flying. Those old jobs are concentrated in Wichita -- some at Boeing, most at McConnell -- and it would be uneconomical to ever try to move those jobs. However, the jobs supporting the new tankers could be moved anywhere. As we've seen with the 787, Boeing feels no obligation to go with the workers who've built their planes in the past. (In fact, Boeing moved their headquarters from Seattle to Chicago so executives wouldn't feel any compunctions about laying off local workers and tanking their local economy.)
So this "study" is just the other shoe dropping. This comes less than a week after Bombardier started to shake down the city, county, and state governments to pay for a plant expansion in Wichita, or face the consequences of the (Canadian) company moving its work elsewhere. This portends yet another shakedown:
Back in Reagan's "greed is good" 1980s we somehow bought into the logic that companies have no reason for being other than to suck up as much profit as possible for their investors. Now we see that the logical end of this concept is that a plant in Kansas which exists exclusively to service the military, not exactly a pinch-penny buyer, will be shut down because workers in Kansas are too unionized and make too much money -- unless, of course, the local taxpayers cough up more cash than any other area that covets the ever-shrinking jobs. But we've been "chipping in" for Boeing for decades now. The only thing one can reasonably conclude is that they're insatiable: that no matter what sweetheart deal you cut them, they'll always come back for more.
The only way to put an end to this practice would be to pass a nationwide law that would tax all the gain out of local government deals, so companies would have no incentive to play off one locale against another. (Plus it would help to make unions the norm rather than the exception.) If Kansas politicians wanted to stop looking like fools they'd take the lead on this. On the other hand, asking Sam Brownback, Pat Roberts, Jerry Moran, Todd Tiahrt, Mike Pompeo, et al. to stop acting like fools feels like a dream.
Thursday, September 1. 2011
Front page story in the Wichita Eagle today is a wrap-up for the record-breaking heatwave this summer. Yesterday was Wichita's 50th day with temperatures of 100F or above, which ties the all-time record set in 1936. Yesterday wasn't even close: it hit 108F, a record for the date and a full 30 degrees above the average high. Of course, it takes one more day to break the tie, so the Eagle took a chance and preemptively proclaimed "Today is 51 days at 100° or above": actually, a pretty safe bet, with the forecast calling for 104F (according to the weather page) or 107F (the figure quoted in the article). Writing this a little after noon the current temp is already 100F. (The article is here, but I don't see the graphics or charts online.)
The 100 degree days were: May 9 (the earliest 100F day ever; 1 total for May); June 3-8, 19, 25-26, 29-30 (11 in June); July 1-3, 5, 9-12, 15-24, 26-31 (24 in July, tying the 1980 record); August 1-3, 5, 7, 16, 18-19, 23-24, 26, 28, 30-31 (14 in August); and today September 1 with tomorrow forecast for 100F. It is expected to cool off after that, with a high of 81F for Sunday, 79F for Monday. That may be the end of it, or may not: September is usually pretty hot here at least midway through. The longest streak was 10 straight days July 15-24, then followed by 8 more July 25-August 13 (so make that 18 of 19 days). By that point the grass was totally burnt out, but 8 sub-100F days from August 8-15 with frequent rain revived things a bit.
Of course, the heat wasn't only here: Oklahoma got hit as bad, and Texas maybe worse. Most days the weather map showed a big red blob, sometimes centered on Wichita but more often centered or shaded to the south. (Today's map shows most of Kansas and all of Oklahoma over 100, but only about half of Texas.) The heat has been accompanied by drought, just like the global warming models project. We've had 16.24 inches of rain, which puts us down 7.85 on the year.
The rest of the big articles in the Eagle today were about guns. Sedgwick County commissioner Richard Ranzau pushed through an order to permit concealed carry in most county-owned buildings (at least the court house is still off the list), saying: "As a result of this resolution, the citizens of Sedgwick County will not be any less safe than what they are today, but they will be freer. That, my friends, is a good thing." The state law has given landlords the option of prohibiting concealed guns on their properties, and quite a few took advantage of that when the law passed. Only about 30,000 permits have been handed out, so the gun-toters are at most a tiny percentage of the population, but they've been relentlessly against those limits. I haven't seen any researh showing that more guns in public has done much harm or any good, but I don't see how carrying a gun signifies freedom without also intimidating and endangering the public. (Article: here.)
Still, for the worst example of gun madness, see: Gunfights to ring through the streets of Cowtown on Saturday:
Read that last sentence again, carefully. The fact is that Kansas sheriffs were pretty aggressive about prohibiting guns from their towns in the 19th century -- a large part of the reason why it's possible to reenact more gunfights in one day than were actually enacted in the better part of a century. So the main effect here is to mythologize and romanticize a falsely remembered past, as well as to elevate gun-fueled slaughter to entertainment status. Good thing there's no one in Kansas insane enough to bring a real gun to the event and join in on the fun. Just the same, I'm going to pass and stay clear. I'm even a bit worried in that I live less than a half-mile from the theme park -- usually, by the way, an interesting place to visit. But then I'm one of those people who whenever he sees "celebratory gunfire" wonders where all those bullets will eventually land.
Wednesday, August 31. 2011
Looking at the Wichita Eagle this morning I was struck by the sheer number of strangely disturbing headlines. It's like we've entered into some kind of Twilight Zone. Some examples:
There's also a Cal Thomas column on Libya but I can't begin to make sense of it. But toward the end he wants to send the NTC a bill for "the help we've given it, directly and through NATO"; then adding, "This is a practice we also should apply to other countries seeking our assistance." Best idea he's had in a long time, but maybe we should do a credit check first. The GDP of Afghanistan is less than $30 billion, and we've blown through 15 times that much helping them ($450 billion), adding $120 billion (4 times their GDP) per year now. It's rather hard to see how they can afford us, but then it's also hard to see how what the US is doing constitutes help.
By the way, hit 100F yesterday. Forecast is for 104F today, 105F tomorrow, so that 1936 record will soon be history. Last time Kansas had a summer this hot we voted overwhelmingly for FDR. We've lost our minds this year too, but I've yet to see anything good coming out of it.
Thursday, August 4. 2011
Got a break in the weather yesterday: after a high of 104F, some initially small thunderstorms formed in southwest Kansas, and by 10PM they amassed into a pretty huge one. It hit Wichita with straightline winds in excess of 70MPH, dumping heavy rain and a smattering of hail on the city. Looked pretty ferocious when it blew through here, with small limbs ripping off and slamming into the house, and sheets of rain sometimes splashing buckets-full of water straight at the window. Still, no big problem here until it started to let up a bit and the electricity failed. This was about the time the storm hit the near east side of town: most of the major photo-worthy damage followed a line along Hillside from Wichita State University, where a 35-foot tree was plucked up and flung against the side of a building, to south of Kellogg where a couple of roofs were peeled off the tops of houses.
Not much to do around here with no electricity. The computers and the stereo are all on UPS units, so we shut them down gracefully, then pulled out some flashlights and tried to read a bit. We got power back after a little more than an hour, and started to put things back together but ten minutes later it failed again. An hour-plus later the power came back again, but only for a couple minutes. That happened again later, then around 3:30AM it came up and held for a while, until falling down again around 5AM. That time it was only down for a few minutes, and after it returned it stabilized (either that or I finally slept through the rest). No real damage here, but I gather that throughout the city there were dozens of power lines blown down, and for that matter dozens of traffic light poles. No idea how many trees, or how many buildings were damaged.
We did at least get some rain: 2.25 inches, enough to reduce the deficit on the year by about one-third. And it was a bit cooler today, at least in the morning. (The Eagle is reporting that the high temperature was 104F, but I didn't notice it over 98F today.) More storms were forecast today, but none came (yet: radar shows a big, nasty-looking string in far west Kansas). Friday forecast is for 99F; following week is all 100F+, with or without scattered storms. For all the bad weather we've had, last night was the hardest.
Update: The Wichita Eagle this morning said the high was 95F yesterday. I believe they get their figures from the weather station at the airport. My WeatherUnderground reports come from a station at 25th and Amidon in northwest Wichita, which is a bit closer to where we live. The latter station has tended to run a bit hotter lately; e.g., it's reading 99.9F now, whereas the weather feed to my computer is reading 93F (but may be delayed; at 2:36PM it's still warming up).