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Sunday, December 19, 2010

DADT, Gay-Bashing and the "Icky-ness" Factor

Posted By on Sun, Dec 19, 2010 at 8:12 PM

For the past week or so, “Zeo” of the NW Republican blog has had his jock strap in a knot over the prospect of Congress repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” rule.

To hear Zeo tell it, if DADT is repealed and gays are allowed to serve openly in the US military it will mean the end not only of our armed forces but of America, its economic system and civilization in general.

“If DADT is repealed then the cornerstone of the U.S. military's support in the nation, the quiet loyalty of tens of millions in the ‘silent majority,’ will likely slowly fade away, like the air being let out of a tire,” he wrote.

And here’s the best part:

“There is an ‘icky-ness’ about homosexuality that affects everything it touches. The close-quarters service in the military makes the prospect of open homosexuals serving with, sleeping with, showering with those to whom they are sexually attracted – in an unnatural way – even more ‘icky.’ The whole disgusting nature of it will likely turn off many Americans.

“Many Americans who now are quiet supporters of the military, including its funding, will simply no longer carry with on that support. Many middle-class American families who once saw the military as a legitimate option for giving their children a strong start in life, will now no longer see it as a possible benefit to them.”

In one of his follow-up comments on his on post, “Zeo” went on to predict that repeal of DADT “will further erode American moral values and thus weaken capitalism. On the other hand, it will energize the sodomites and the radical left.”

Well, the Senate approved the repeal of DADT on Saturday and President Obama has promised to sign it this week, so “Zeo” will soon get to test the validity of his end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it theory.

Meanwhile, however, we ought to thank him for revealing, in an unusually candid fashion, the true motivation of the gay-bashers.

They’re not really against the repeal of DADT because they’re worried it will destroy the military. And they’re not really against gay marriage because they’re worried it will “destroy the institution of marriage.” Those are just rationalizations.

Their real reason is that they think gayness is “icky.” It disgusts them, they don’t like it, they don’t even want to think about it. And because of that they don’t want gay Americans to have the same rights as their non-gay fellow citizens.

It’s just that simple – and just that stupid.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

A Wake-Up Call for Wyden, and the U.S.

Senator Ron Wyden has announced he has prostate cancer.

Posted By on Fri, Dec 17, 2010 at 5:40 PM

The news that Sen. Ron Wyden has prostate cancer reminds us of the need for all men over 50 to be screened annually for this potentially deadly disease – and for the United States to improve its health care system.

Wyden, 61, announced yesterday that the cancer was detected when he got his annual physical exam in late November. “After reviewing all the options with multiple physicians, I decided to take a proactive approach and have surgery,” which will be performed Monday at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Wyden said in a press release. “Thanks to routine screening, this was diagnosed very early and I expect a full and speedy recovery.”

Fortunately, prostate cancer has a high cure rate when detected early, as Wyden’s apparently was. Unfortunately it often produces no symptoms until it’s advanced, which is why routine screening can be a lifesaver.

“If anything is taken away from my experience, I hope it is the importance of getting routine physicals,” the last paragraph of Wyden’s press release says. “One in six men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetimes.  Early detection is critical to catching this disease when treatment is most effective.”

As a member of Congress, Wyden has first-rate health coverage subsidized by the taxpayers and has no trouble paying for an annual physical. But millions of Americans forego routine health exams because they have no health insurance and can’t afford several hundred dollars out of their own pockets. This can mean failure to detect not only prostate cancer but also other diseases that can be cured or successfully managed if caught early, such as breast cancer, colorectal cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Maybe some will think it’s in poor taste to use Wyden’s cancer diagnosis as an excuse to plug health care reform, but I don’t think Wyden will mind. Best wishes for a complete and rapid recovery, senator.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Census Numbers Tell a Tale of Two Cities

Posted By on Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 10:39 PM

The New York Times has posted a series of interactive maps based on US Census data, and they seem to confirm the view that Bend really is two cities.

There’s always been an argument over what the real line of demarcation between East Bend and West Bend is. The Parkway? Third Street? The railroad tracks? The Deschutes River? The census people seem to have used the river as the dividing line.

On that basis, the maps (based on the Census Bureau’s latest release of its American Community Survey, not the 2010 census) show dramatic differences between East Bend and West Bend in income and education.

The median household income of the “richest” census tract on the Eastside – an area roughly bounded by Reed Market Road, Third Street and 15th Street – is only a bit more than $52,000. The census tract that comprises northwest Bend, on the other hand, has a median income of almost $75,000, and the one covering southwest Bend has a median income of over $65,000. (The estimated median household income for the whole city in 2009 was about $53,000.)

Since income tends to correlate with education, it’s not surprising that levels of educational attainment also are generally higher in West Bend.

In northwest Bend, 55% of residents have at least a bachelor’s degree and 23% have a master’s degree or higher; in southwest Bend, the numbers are 61% and 21%. In the most highly educated census tract east of the Deschutes – an area that might be described as East Central Bend, including the downtown and adjacent residential neighborhoods – only 36% have at least a bachelor’s degree and 10% have a master’s or higher.

That area, incidentally, presents an interesting exception to the more-education-equals-more-money rule: Its median household income is only about $35,000, the lowest of any census tract in the city. My hunch is that a relatively high concentration of young single people working in the service sector accounts for that.

Ethnically and racially, though, there’s almost no difference between East Bend and West Bend – both are almost as white as a fresh dump of powder on the Cascades. Even the most “diverse” census tract, in the northeast area, is 83% white.

FOOTNOTE: Bend merchant and blogger Duncan McGeary makes another interesting point: Google's map of foreclosures in Bend shows "an amazingly even distribution of red dots -- east, west, north or south. ... I'm guessing the financial stress is pretty widespread in Bend, and distributed alike between rich and poor and the middle class."

If anything, I suspect those rich folks in West Bend might be feeling more stress because they paid a lot more for their houses.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

DeFazio Leads Charge Against Tax Giveaway

Posted By on Thu, Dec 9, 2010 at 9:10 PM

House Democrats have smacked down President Obama’s tax cut compromise with the Republicans, with Oregon’s Rep. Peter DeFazio leading the rebellion.

The House Democratic caucus this morning approved a motion by DeFazio to reject the provisions of a tax deal agreed upon by Obama and the Republicans. Among other things, the bill would extend George W. Bush’s tax break for billionaires and drastically ease the estate tax burden.

“House Democrats are particularly angry over provisions related to the estate tax, which would set a generous $5 million exemption for wealthy estates and a maximum rate of 35% for two years,” the New York Times reported.

In an interview with ABC News, DeFazio said opposition to the deal was “nearly unanimous” in the Democratic caucus and blasted the argument that continuing the Bush tax cuts would boost the economy.

“Look – we did $1.3 trillion of tax cuts between the Bush tax cuts and the stimulus bill,” he said. “Did that put America back to work? Will more tax cuts and trickle down by showering money on the wealthy, will that put America back to work? That hasn't worked.”

After the caucus vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a press conference that she wouldn’t allow the tax bill in its present form to come to the floor of the House. She didn’t indicate what modifications would have to be made for her to change her mind.

“The broad opposition to the tax cut plan among most House Democrats is no surprise, but the potential unwillingness of Ms. Pelosi to bring it to the floor could pose a serious problem,” according to the Times story. “With strong Republican support, the tax plan could easily pass the House with two-thirds or more of Democrats opposing it, but it needs to reach the floor first.”

Oregon’s three other Democratic congressmen – Earl Blumenauer, David Wu and Kurt Schrader – also have come out strongly against Obama’s tax deal.

Obama claims he had no choice but to appease the Republicans to keep unemployment benefits from running out and prevent tax cuts for the middle class from expiring along with those for the rich. But what would have been wrong with this idea: Let the Bush tax cuts expire, then come back in January with a middle-class-only tax cut bill – and DARE the Republicans to block that?

And after watching the Republicans kick Obama around like a soccer ball for two years, how could anybody doubt they were setting him up to get rolled again? “Look,” they’d say, “we have this terrible deficit” – which they just helped make worse – “so we’ve got to cut ‘socialist’ programs like unemployment benefits and food stamps.”

I’m not sure how this will all play out – the Democratic congressional leadership may fold again as it’s done so many times before – but at least temporarily I’m proud of them, and of Oregon’s Democrats in the House.

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mr. Merkley Goes to Washington, Kicks Ass

Posted By on Thu, Dec 2, 2010 at 8:28 PM

I have to admit I wasn’t a huge fan of Jeff Merkley when he was running for election. In fact I voted for his opponent in the primary, Portland political activist Steve Novick.

Since going to Washington, though, Merkley has become just about my favorite senator. He’s been a strong champion of health care reform, environmental protection and reining in Wall Street, among other things. And despite his mild-mannered demeanor, he hasn’t been at all shy about jabbing sacred senatorial cows with a cattle prod.

Latest example: Merkley has sent around to his colleagues a memo advocating a number of reforms to Senate rules and procedures. The most intriguing of these would make senators who want to stage a filibuster REALLY stage a filibuster, instead of faking it.

Many people get their idea of what a Senate filibuster is like from watching James Stewart in the 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But that’s a Hollywood fantasy. The way things really work in the Senate, all the minority has to do is announce that it intends to filibuster to block a vote on legislation.

Merkley wants that to change. As he explained the idea to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, he wants the senator or senators who are filibustering to actually stay on the Senate floor and keep speaking – and “if at any moment no one’s willing to speak, that ends it, and we go to the vote” on the bill.

“It’s very important for the public to know why somebody is objecting” to a piece of legislation, Merkley said. “If they say ‘A majority vote isn’t good enough and therefore I’m objecting’ … they should put themselves on record so the public can respond to that.”

True. And it also would be incredible fun to watch Mitch McConnell, John McCain and other GOP geezers trying to keep a filibuster going for hours, or even days. They’d need to stockpile a generous supply of Flomax.

FOOTNOTE: Kevin Drum on Mother Jones has a good explanation and analysis of Merkley's reform idea:

"Merkley's proposal revolves around a single principle: the Senate should always allow debate. So the filibuster should be banned entirely on motions to proceed and on amendments because both are things the promote debate and engagement. Filibusters would still be allowed on a bill's final vote, but it would take more than one senator to launch a filibuster (Merkley suggests a minimum of ten) and senators would have to actually hold the floor and talk. No longer would a single person be able to obstruct all business just by dropping a note to his party leader. ... It's a pretty good plan, and a pretty sensible one. It doesn't eliminate the filibuster, it just eliminates filibuster abuse."

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Terrorist Threat Gets Too Close for Comfort

Posted By on Sun, Nov 28, 2010 at 8:43 PM

The threat of terrorism came home to Oregon Friday as the FBI foiled an alleged plot to detonate a huge bomb next to Portland’s Pioneer Square during the annual holiday tree-lighting festivities.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old sometime engineering student at Oregon State University, allegedly intended to blow up a van packed with explosives while the square was thronged with some 25,000 spectators.

“Do you remember when 9/11 happened, when those people were jumping from skyscrapers? I thought that was awesome,” Mohamud said to undercover FBI agents, according to an affidavit released by the FBI. “I want to see that, that's what I want for these people. … I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured.”

The FBI had been tracking Mohamed, a naturalized US citizen who’s a native of Somalia, since at least August 2009, according to the affidavit. Undercover operatives contacted him last June, and Mohamud allegedly began talking with them about how he wanted to blow up a bomb in Pioneer Square.

The agents encouraged Mohamud in his plans, even (according to an Oregonian story) going so far as to build a practice bomb and help him detonate it in a remote area in Lincoln County.

Then, this month, the FBI constructed a dummy bomb inside a van that Mohamud was supposed to park near the square and detonate remotely with a cell phone. When Mohamud allegedly tried to set off the “bomb,” FBI agents and police swooped in and arrested him.

Some civil libertarians, of course, are complaining that Mohamud was entrapped by the FBI. For instance, former Portland Mercury News Editor Matt Davis (as reported by Carla Axtman on Blue Oregon) opined on his Facebook page that “this poor young man was entrapped by over-zealous, seemingly equally mentally ill FBI agents. They assembled the ‘bomb,’ for Chrissakes.”

I don’t think I’ll lose sleep worrying about whether the FBI was unfair to this “poor young man,” who, if he was “entrapped,” seemed only too eager to walk into the trap. I’m just glad the “terrorists” he was working with were FBI operatives instead of the real thing.

I also was reminded of a statement Al Gore made after 9/11 that preventing terrorist attacks was mostly a police problem, not a military problem. Gore was ridiculed at the time, but events have vindicated him. The “shoe bomber,” the “underwear bomber,” the package bomb plot in October, and now the alleged would-be Pioneer Square bomber – all were thwarted by good police work, not by sending tens of thousands of troops into the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Spinning the Census Numbers to the Right

Posted By on Fri, Nov 26, 2010 at 6:51 PM

The right-wing Oregon Catalyst site quotes a study by the right-wing Americans for Tax Reform organization supposedly proving – surprise, surprise! – that right-wing economic policies promote growth and prosperity.

The ATR compared states that will gain congressional seats through reapportionment as the result of the 2010 census with those that will lose seats and found that the gainers “had significantly lower taxes, less government spending, and were more likely to have ‘Right to Work’ laws in place.”

Eight states will gain congressional seats, with Texas and Florida adding two and Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington adding one each. Eleven will lose seats, including New York and Ohio (two each) and Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania (one each).

“The average top personal income tax rate among gainers is 116% lower than among losers,” ATR says. “The total state and local tax burden is nearly one-third lower, as is per capita government spending. In eight of 10 losers, workers can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment.”

As ATR (and Oregon Catalyst) see it, all this “is further proof that fiscally conservative public policy spurs economic growth, creates jobs, and attracts population growth.”

But there’s an old axiom in logic that says correlation does not equal causation. People have many different reasons besides tax rates for choosing to live in one state rather than another. Conservatives look at these numbers through their own ideological prism and see a validation of their economic dogmas; I just see a continuation of the migration away from the Frost Belt toward the Sun Belt that’s been going on for decades.

And I hope nobody at ATR or Oregon Catalyst is going to hold up Florida (11.9% unemployment) and Nevada (14.2%) as shining examples of economic success. As far as that goes, South Carolina (10.7%) and Georgia (9.9%) aren’t much better.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

For Some, a Very Happy Thanksgiving

Posted By on Wed, Nov 24, 2010 at 9:32 PM

This Thanksgiving, Americans still have much to be thankful for. Well, some of them do, anyway.

Such as Brian Brille, who is the head of Bank of America Asia Pacific. In September he celebrated his 50th birthday with a posh party in Hong Kong. “Mr. Brille, who is well known on the New York social scene, wore a gray Hugh Hefner-esque jacket,” reports the New York Times. "Women dressed like Playmates, with feather boas and satin ears, danced behind a pink silk screen.”

Mr. Brille’s birthday party was just one sign that Wall Street is returning to its old high-flying, free-spending ways, according to the Times.

“Real estate agents say Wall Street executives have already begun lining up rentals in the Hamptons for next summer,” the Times story continues. “Dolly Lenz of Prudential Douglas Elliman said the bidding this year was ‘hotter and heavier’ than previous years. … She said her clients, almost exclusively from Wall Street, were afraid to lose out. Just recently, Ms. Lenz said, she had three people bidding more than $400,000 for a summer rental in Southampton.”

That’s for a rental, you understand. I hope towels and soap are included.

The good times are rolling beyond Wall Street, too. In today’s issue the Times also reports that business profits are smashing all records: “American businesses earned profits at an annual rate of $1.659 trillion in the third quarter, according to a Commerce Department report released Tuesday. That is the highest figure recorded since the government began keeping track over 60 years ago, at least in nominal or non-inflation-adjusted terms.”

Not bad, considering how “anti-business” the Obama administration supposedly is.

Meanwhile, us working slobs are being urged to tighten our belts to help the nation dig its way out of the deficit. Bulletin Editor John Costa, inspired by reading about the hardships endured by the Continental Army, was moved to issue a plea to his fellow Americans last Sunday.

“I have been reading this wonderful book [Ron Chernow’s new biography of George Washington] while commissions and committees in Washington, D.C., are outlining ideas to deal with an equally significant threat to our nation — the potential collapse of our financial being,” Costa wrote. “Those ideas are described in the language of sacrifice. To fight this battle we are being asked, among many things, to work a few more years before retirement, to do without a few public services, to reform a tax code with thousands of pages of loopholes, to pay a little more for the best health care in the world, etc. …

“There will be some pain, and there will certainly be disruption, but it doesn’t quite summon up images of Valley Forge, does it?”

Okay, I wouldn’t mind sacrificing a little for the financial salvation of the nation. I just want to know when Brian Brille and his compeers are going to do some sacrificing too.

Would it kill Wall Street bankers and CEOs with seven- and eight-figure annual incomes to pay just a teensy-weensy bit more in taxes to help bring the deficit down?

I realize it might mean no new Bentley this year, or cutting short the annual Christmas ski vacation in Gstaad, or perhaps renting a slightly more modest summer place in the Hamptons for, say, $300,000 or even $200,000.

It’ll be rough, I know. There will be pain. But to borrow Mr. Costa’s apt phrase, “It doesn’t quite summon up images of Valley Forge, does it?”

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Oregon Economy: Some Ups, Some Downs

Posted By on Sat, Nov 20, 2010 at 12:55 AM

The good news (for conservatives) is that Oregon lost public-sector jobs in the third quarter of 2010. The bad news for the Oregon economy is that Oregon lost public-sector jobs in the third quarter.

In his quarterly report to the legislature today, State Economist Tom Potiowsky said a slight increase in private-sector jobs during the third quarter of 2010 was offset by a decrease in public-sector jobs. The net result was that the state’s unemployment rate stayed at 10.5% – which is where it’s been stuck for a year.

The continuing layoffs of temporary census workers and declining employment in local education systems were big factors in the drop in public-sector jobs.

“On a year-over-year basis, jobs decreased in the third quarter by 0.4%, a considerable improvement from the 5.5% year-over-year decline in the third quarter of last year,” Potiowsky’s report said. “Of course, it’s difficult to take comfort in the fact that jobs are still down compared to last year.”

Potiowsky thinks the job picture is likely to get better in 2011 – but not much. “The outlook for job growth … is mildly positive at 0.9% percent in 2011, with modest job gains beginning in the second quarter through the end of the year,” said a news release from his office. The economist predicted that the state’s economy “will not see job growth above 2% until the fourth quarter of 2011.”

Revenue-wise, things are looking up for Oregon, according to Potiowsky’s report.

“Corporate profits, and associated tax collections, have risen rapidly throughout the past year,” the economist said. “The corporate income tax forecast for the biennium as a whole is now $23.6 million above the Close of [Legislative] Session forecast.” Also, “[t]he forecast for total personal income tax receipts during the current biennium went up $97.7 million from the September forecast.”

Potiowsky also cited Intel’s planned multibillion-dollar expansion in Oregon as “a needed boost” to the state’s economy. “Construction jobs are estimated in the thousands and permanent high tech jobs in the hundreds,” he wrote. “Although this impact is not huge for the state as a whole in terms of jobs, the more lasting influence is re-establishing the Portland metro area as a center for high tech research and a statement that Oregon is a strong state to do business.”

The Intel expansion and the rise in corporate profits and tax revenues look like further evidence that the predicted stampede of businesses out of Oregon in the wake of Measures 66 and 67 hasn’t happened. Sorry to keep belaboring the point, but it apparently hasn’t sunk in with some people yet.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Playing the New Game of "Deficit Buster"

Posted By on Thu, Nov 18, 2010 at 9:42 PM

Think you know how to fix the federal budget deficit? The New York Times has posted an interactive tool that lets you take a shot at it.

The Times gives you 40 different options to play around with, including spending cuts in areas such as the federal government payroll, the military, Social Security and Medicare, and revenue increases of various types.

With about 15 minutes of tinkering I was able to wipe out the deficits (both the short-term one of $418 billion by 2015 and the long-term one of $1.345 trillion by 2030) without cutting Medicare or raising the Social Security retirement age, although I did opt for reducing the rate at which Social Security benefits would increase with inflation for upper-income recipients. I also avoided cutting the federal workforce or the pay of federal workers, but agreed to eliminate earmarks and farm subsidies, saving $14 billion on each.

The big long-term savings came from cutting $180 billion from defense spending and saving another $169 billion by sharply reducing troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq. (The option of pulling all the troops out, unfortunately, wasn’t offered.)

On the revenue side, I went for a bundle of tax increases totaling $724 billion. These included returning the estate tax and capital gains and dividends tax to the levels that existed during Bill Clinton’s administration (raising $150 billion), allowing the Bush-era tax cuts for people making over $250,000 a year to expire but keeping the cuts for taxpayers below that level ($115 billion), raising the ceiling on payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare ($100 billion), and levying a carbon tax ($71 billion), a tax on big banks that make risky investments ($193 billion) and a 5.4% surtax on incomes above $1 million a year ($95 billion).

Politically, of course, enacting even a small portion of these tax increases will be impossible, especially with the Republican / Tea Party gang in control of the House. But crunching the numbers was a useful exercise anyway, if only to demonstrate that the deficit can pretty easily be brought under control without making draconian cuts in programs that matter to ordinary Americans or imposing tax increases that would cause pain to anybody who’s not a multimillionaire or billionaire.

The interactive graphic also demonstrates that it’s impossible to make even a small dent in the deficit without cutting defense spending, Social Security and Medicare or raising any taxes – so any politician who tells you he can do it is blowing smoke.

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