Monday, September 29, 2003

The Power of Myth

OK, folks, a lot going on this week.

First, those of you who helped educate Rep. Hayworth will be pleased to know that not only have about 85% of respondents at last check instructed him that the threat from Saddam Hussein was hyped from the beginning, but that your efforts received press notice in the "Political Insider" column of Sunday's Arizona Republic (scroll down to the third item.)

You also should know Rep. Hayworth's website's privacy policy states that "we do not collect individual information, unless you choose to provide such information." So what the heck, vote again here.

Rep. Hayworth thinks anyone who disagrees with him obviously hates America, which probably will be more grist for this week's column. Geez--getting lectured on decorum from J.D. What's next, Newt Gingrich yelling at me about the importance of marriage, or Fife Symington preaching how important it is for me to pay your debts?

Now for this week's column. This column came out of a program I did at ASU Hillel about Jews in politics, which was reported both in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix (I got to tell my favorite ADL anecdote) and in the East Valley Tribune. One of my fellow panelists gave the refugee resettlement anecdote, which is completely bogus; in addition to the government programs listed in the column, there were and are lots of federal tax dollars flowing into refugee resettlement, and the programs in Phoenix that worked with Russian refusniks were supported by groups like Jewish Family and Children's Services, which in turn get about 2/3rds of their budget from government grants and programs. In fact, JFCS had to get out of the refugee resettlement business because it was simply too expensive for their resources. The public funds weren't sufficient, and private donations certainly didn't even begin to cover the costs.

The same legislator also claimed that she gets upset when she sees charities at the legislature supposedly hiring expensive private lobbyists when they could use--what, exactly? Public defenders? She instead wanted the charities to take the money for lobbying and hire a fundraiser to raise the money needed. Sheesh--first of all, the number of dollars just don't work when private charity is only a quarter of the needed funding anyway. She also made this claim in a year when the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, which is about the most efficient fund-raising organization in the universe, has had to cut allocations significantly to recipient agencies because the donations are way down. I guess being Jewish doesn't mean you aren't also drinking that right-wing Kool-Aid, too.

Finally, of course you should take away from the column scorn over that sort of thinking at the legislature, but you also should take away a resolve to help organizations like Catholic Social Services and Jewish Family and Children's Services raise that quarter of their budgets that depend on contributions. Send your check to JFCS at 4220 N. 20th Street, Phoenix, AZ 85015; to CSS at 1610 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ 85015. Put on the memo line that you're contributing to the "Sen. Leff Education Fund."

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 28, 2003

Conservatives always claim that we can’t solve problems by throwing money at them, with two exceptions; it’s O.K. to throw money at Iraq and Pinal County. Everybody else? Fix those problems without money.

As fixing problems for free strikes less ideologically-blinkered folks as impractical -- after all, you get what you pay for -- it’s incumbent on conservatives to invent myths of problems solved without government money. (That leaves more billions for Iraq and for building roads, paid for by Maricopa County taxpayers, in Pinal County.)

These myths are devoutly believed, despite not having much truth to them. That’s the power of myth. A Republican state legislator is proud of helping resettle refugees in America, claiming it’s such a good example of how private charity can solve problems without government involvement. There’s just one problem. The legislator’s good works -- worthy as they were -- weren’t done with private charity alone.

Of course, private donors gave lots of money and volunteers provided uncounted hours of assistance, and these good works wouldn’t have happened without their contributions. But charity and volunteers didn’t do it all -- not by a long shot. These refugees all qualified for AHCCCS, so they got health care from government money. They probably got government-assisted job training, food stamps, language instruction, and housing assistance -- just for starters.

This government help is below the surface; volunteers wouldn’t see bags of tax money arriving, but instead see the dedicated assistance of skilled professionals and worthwhile programs at local charities like Catholic Social Services or Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Those aren’t government agencies, but the majority of their funding comes, directly or indirectly, from government grants. For Catholic Social Services, the percentage is 73 percent; for JFCS, it's 72 percent. Ideologues may pretend that there’s no welfare program here, but that isn’t reality.

Similarly, The Tribune and many conservatives are enamored with the work of Richard Wexler, a relentless campaigner against the supposed excesses of the child welfare system. However, Wexler and most child welfare workers don’t disagree about most cases; both sides believe that parents who keep kids in cages shouldn’t be raising kids, but if at all possible, kids should stay with their parents.

The disagreement is mainly theoretical, over the exact placement of the line between taking and leaving kids, and what to do about cases falling right on that line. But the vast majority of cases facing Child Protective Services aren’t so subtle; both sides would treat them the same. But focusing on the fine, theoretical point allows conservatives to ignore their desperate underfunding of CPS and its effect on the vast majority of cases.

How many baseball games have you seen a play where, according to the rule, the tie went to the runner? Not many. In almost all cases, the runner beats the throw, or the throw beats the runner. If you waited for a play that was truly a tie before buying a ticket, you’d never see a game.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kids -- in abusive homes, where even Wexler considers removal justified -- wait for caseworkers, therapy, and permanent placements. But conservatives wallow in the myth of the “tie goes to the runner” and ignore reality and their responsibilities.

If government programs aren’t the answer, and private charity can solve problems without taxpayer money, never mind Iraq and Pinal -- why are conservatives so insistent that taxpayers fund their favorite charities, school vouchers and so-called “faith-based” organizations?

I guess the right-wing version of the “Golden Rule” is “Do unto ourselves while ignoring all others.” After all, morality's nice, but more tax cuts for the richest is what's really important.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Let's Spam Hayworth!

Bored? Why not screw up a JD Hayworth "internet poll"? First read the following posting, so you'll understand the humor of Rep. Hayworth's House homepage having a "question of the week" and this week the question is, "Do you believe Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States and our interests?"

You can vote, Yes, sure thing, eventually (note the weasel word) he would have threatened us; No, it was hyped from the beginning; or No Opinion. So click here, vote, and together let's see how long it takes for Hayworth to remove the question from his website.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Whatever Gave You That Idea?

This one basically wrote itself. The same day that Rep. J. D. Hayworth decided to prove that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11, President Bush decided he'd pushed that one about as far as he could, and where did people get that idea anyway? That's the problem when the spin changes and you don't get the advance word. But hey, it's not like Bush decided to fire some people in the White House travel office or anything, so we'll just let it pass.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 21, 2003

Writing a column in advance can be hazardous to your political health -- especially if the party line changes while you’re still using the old index card.

Think how noted foreign affairs expert Rep. J. D. Hayworth must feel, getting caught dispensing the old line the very day the Bush administration switches gears.

Here’s J.D., in the National Review Online, Sept. 18:

“The Bush haters are also befuddled that most Americans believe Saddam Hussein had a role in the September 11 attacks. In fact, there is a definite 9/11-Saddam link, although probably not a direct one. . . .

In police terms, Saddam would be an accessory to the 9/11 attacks. . . .

[T]he American people are right to believe that Saddam ran a terrorist state that threatened American interests.”

And here’s the Bush administration, wondering where J. D. could ever have thought there’s a connection between Saddam and 9/11:

“No,” Bush told reporters during a brief question-and-answer session at the White House, where he sought to set the record straight. “We’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with Sept. 11.”

. . . . On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld waded into the issue during a Pentagon briefing. Asked if he believed the poll that found most Americans convinced that Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, Rumsfeld said he had “not seen any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that.”

“We know that he was giving $25,000 a family for anyone who would go out and kill innocent men, women and children. And we know of various other activities,” Rumsfeld said. “But on that specific one, no.”

. . . . Earlier, fielding similar questions during his afternoon briefing, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the administration had never claimed a connection between Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks.

-- “Bush says no evidence that Hussein was involved with 9-11,” Dallas Morning News, Sept. 18, 2003.

And Oceana has always been at war with Eurasia.

If President Bush, and those who support our troops by writing brave editorials, are surprised by the public’s failure to embrace this past week’s interim request for another $87 billion to tide things over in Iraq and Afghanistan for another couple of months, then perhaps the administration might want to consider how they “packaged” the build-up to war in the first place.

To start this war, Bush wrote to Congress that invading Iraq was necessary to “protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” and that the war was an essential part of “necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” (Text of Letter from the President to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Mar. 18, 2003).

Now, not only wasn’t that the real reason for the war; it supposedly was never the reason for the war. President Bush can write letters to Congress saying one thing while really meaning another, because that’s what was needed to convince Americans that we should have our troops conquer Iraq.

As Prince Farquaad says in Shrek, “Some of you may die. But it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

Let me credit Tom Tomorrow, who found the Hayworth column online and made the same connection, and to for retrieving the “I’ve got an idea -- let’s put on a war!” White House letter.

Welcome to the “responsibility era,” kids.

Monday, September 15, 2003

What's Wrong at CPS: It's Not Fundamental, It's the Funding

I got a cryptic headline and placement down the left rail on the op-ed page, so a couple of my lines got cut, but as this is my blog, I've put them back in. If you want to read the column as it read in the paper yesterday, you can get it here.

Anyway, this week's column started out considerably differently; I was about to argue over the legal standards and mission, but after talking and emailing with people familiar with the child protective system, it's not a conceptual problem, but a practical one--too few people with too few resources given too big caseloads to track too many reports. It's not the paradigm that's the problem, but the budget.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 14, 2003

Imagine you’re a Child Protective Services caseworker.

Child abuse reports go to a statewide hotline. Calls get screened based on a series of “cue questions” to determine where the report fits on a 4-point scale. A “4” means potential neglect or abuse; “3” is low risk of abuse, “2” is moderate, and “1” is high, the most serious.

In Maricopa County, CPS caseworkers get, on average, 16 new reports monthly, plus must monitor another 12-15 kids in foster care, plus all the accompanying paperwork. The caseload is 25 percent higher than national standards recommend.

You have just 21 days to investigate each new report. Is the hotline caller telling the truth, or are the parents? Is a kid underweight, or are the parents clueless about nutrition? Are the parents merely strange, or neglectful or abusive?

A teacher or neighbor may have suspicions, but you’re on the spot. Are these adequate parents on a bad day, or truly terrible parents on their best behavior? You never want to remove kids from their parents, but also never want to let kids face neglect or abuse. Due to privacy laws, there’s no recognition if you guess right, but it’s front page news if you’re wrong, whether about what happened -- or what’s going to happen.

Forget the clear-cut cases; even legislators could determine those. What about close calls, where something isn’t right, but you can’t tell how wrong? And how long does it take to forgive yourself if you’re mistaken?

Meanwhile, your workload keeps increasing. The well-regarded Family Builders program used to pay providers, like Devereux Arizona (on whose board I serve), to visit 4’s or sometimes 3’s, to investigate and offer assistance to families under stress. But spending cuts gutted Family Builders -- while the Legislature still demands CPS investigate all cases, including these former referrals, without more caseworkers or support staff.

You have one of the most difficult jobs around, which doesn’t pay particularly well ($25,000 annually for new hires, and only $29,000 for over 2 years experience), and our Legislature keeps making the job worse by letting workloads increase without providing more resources. No wonder turnover is so high -- at least 24 percent annually, not including transfers to less-demanding jobs elsewhere in state government. (Many new hires face burnout in 6 to 12 months, and want something less stressful -- like handling explosives or performing brain surgery.)

Morale probably isn’t helped by the irrelevance of much of today’s debate over CPS. Too many people act as if changing a statute’s words will change the world, when the real problem is that current funding levels won’t get the job done if we have to hire human beings -- like you -- at CPS.

Perhaps someday androids will be CPS caseworkers. If you could program robots properly, they won’t have stress and could work for free. But if we expect CPS to function properly with ordinary humans trying to do a draining and demanding job, we need more people, more support staff, and better pay. CPS doesn’t need a new paradigm as much as more people and resources to have any hope of investigating the increasing numbers of abuse reports and properly supervising children already in foster care.

Maybe you can’t solve problems by throwing money at them, but you also can’t expect people with college and graduate degrees to investigate 16 (or more) abuse reports each month for under $30,000 a year. Pretending that every CPS caseworker somehow will be both superhuman and willing to work for less than the market wage is a cruel joke, both on them and on the children they try to help.

Monday, September 08, 2003

Refined Nonsense

We've had two really interesting stories in Arizona this past week--the proposal to put an oil refinery in the middle of the desert south of Phoenix, and Rep. J.D. Hayworth's bariatric surgery. Ol' J.D. holds a press conference, discusses exactly how the surgeons rearranged his innards, and how many of the ol' avoirdupois the big guy is now walking around without--you know, the whole nine-yards-and-show-the-surgical-scars deal. Some reporter then has the temerity to ask if the Congressman's federal health insurance paid for the surgery, and J.D. goes all, "Well, there has to be a zone of privacy for public figures blah blah blah." Oh, I see; actual surgery, now that's public. Health care finance and money--ye gods, that's personal.

Anyway, back to the refinery. Not only is this the same location in Mobile, AZ that was supposed to be the site of the late and unlamented ENSCO incinerator (isn't some level of government still paying off bonds related to that failed project?), but given that there really isn't very much out there, it's pretty remarkable that the refinery proponents managed to come up with a site next to an elementary school. Not an easy thing to do, but they did it.

And I couldn't figure out an entire column about the downsized Hayworth, but still managed to sneak in a reference into a column about the refinery. Not an easy thing to do, either.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 7, 2003

Hey, that whole Iraq business has worked so well, perhaps we should listen to the same folks who now want to build an oil refinery here in Arizona. We’ll topple a statue, cut a ribbon, and I’m sure it’ll all go just fine.

Am I missing something here? How does putting a refinery in the desert south of Phoenix help us avoid depending on pipelines, when there’s no oil in Arizona and any refinery would have to ship oil here -- by pipeline? Does it really matter whether the pipe carries crude oil, aviation fuel, or gasoline if there’s only so much existing (and increasingly aging) pipeline capacity?

Never mind the environmental arguments, which are pretty compelling. Refineries use lots of water, of which there isn’t much in Mobile, and expel tons of air pollutants, the same hydrocarbon emissions that we need to reduce, not expand, if we don’t want tourists to call winter in the Valley of the Sun the “brown cloud season.”

Focus instead on the economic facts. Maybe there’s a reason no private business has built an entirely new refinery in this country for 30 years, even in places with easy access to crude oil, water, skilled labor, and refined product shipment pipelines -- none of which Arizona has. (Don’t forget about better access to capital, too.)

And the refinery would be the easy part. The real fun would come in building the new pipeline to carry crude oil to the new refinery -- from where, exactly? Our “seaport,” San Luis? From Mexico somehow? That’s the real, pardon the expression, pipe dream, that somehow we’d be able to run a new pipeline hundreds of miles through national parks, Indian reservations, and the Barry Goldwater bombing range (“And Red Leader, try not to hit the oil pipeline this time, OK?”)

There’s a reason the private sector isn’t jumping at the chance to start turning dirt on this project. It’s because it’s a colossally stupid idea. If some bozo with billions wants to try, go ahead, but let him do it on his own money and let’s keep our tax dollars out of it. No government subsidies, OK? It’s a refinery, not a Scottsdale Wal-Mart -- or Rep. J.D. Hayworth’s stomach-stapling surgery.

The usual response by proponents to these kinds of overwhelming technical problems is to say, “Well, they said we couldn’t put a man on the moon.” (Never mind that there really aren’t that many people still alive who possibly could have said it was impossible to put a man on the moon.) But no astronauts are lining up to invest their own money into this scheme. What if the refinery works exactly as well as the moon landings -- for a grand total of three years, and then that’s it?

Sure, it would be nice to have a spanking new, pollution-sensitive, absolutely fabulous oil refinery in the state. Heck, it would be nice to build a working cold-fusion reactor, too. But don’t bet on either happening.

The truly bizarre part is that the people pushing the refinery are largely the same crew who also are pushing electricity deregulation, which is based on creating huge regional markets for power, generated far away and then transmitted long distances to actual consumers. The idea that our electricity increasingly comes from longer distances through aging and inefficient transmission systems is perfectly acceptable. But suddenly this exact same model makes no sense for gasoline, which unlike electricity can be stored for days or weeks until needed.

At the Olympics, is there a gold medal in dumb? We’ve got a contender, folks.

Monday, September 01, 2003

In Space, No One Can Hear Your Ideology

I had a short deadline on this week's column due to the Labor Day holiday; had to get my opinions in early so the staff could get out of town for the holiday weekend. I was running behind and couldn't figure out what to write about when in Thursday morning's Tribune, the editorial page opined in favor of a renewed space shuttle program. Inspiration!

Here's an interesting note for grammarians: The editorial originally ran in the paper with the headline, "To boldly return." I made the "boldly split infinitives" crack in my column, and now the archived version on the Tribune website has a different headline, "Reviving NASA." Proofreaders rule!

Did you hear that Clint Eastwood decided to take a theology course on the New Testament, because a man's gotta understand his Lamentations?

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 31, 2003

Consider a government program which, despite important successes, has suffered even-more-dramatic failures. Worse, the failures weren’t random, but rather grew from fundamental organizational flaws. Despite a through investigation after one such failure and promises to reform, the agency backslid and another huge tragedy resulted.

Two separate investigations, several years apart, found ineffective leadership and flawed communication -- institutional failings that not only cost money, but lives. Many thoughtful people find these costs unacceptable, because despite the claims of the program’s supporters about the needs involved and supposed future benefits, the program hasn’t provided practical, measurable payback to taxpayers.

When the federal budget deficit is the largest (in nominal terms, which used to be the only way people discussed it) in history, and when The Tribune repeatedly has said that the problem is simply too much spending , you’d guess that I’d be arguing to spend more money on the program and The Tribune would be demanding immediate cuts.

But we’re talking NASA (and not CPS), so the usual roles get reversed.

What is it about space that makes libertarians and conservatives go all weak-kneed about aging, 30-year-old technology and big government? I understand the romance of space; I race through dinner to watch "Enterprise" with my youngest kid, own "Next Generation" toys, DVDs, and books, and took my first date to see "2001: A Space Odyssey" (for which I’m still apologizing.) But just as Tom Clancy novels don’t justify building new submarines, why do dreams of space travel exempt a program of limited utility from the usual scrutiny of those who decry government spending?

The shuttle program and space station aren’t much good for scientific knowledge, except for experiments directly related, and only relevant, to the shuttle and space station themselves. Other experiments could be performed by machines or remote control -- and often are, with the astronauts simply babysitters. The civilian technology spin-offs have been limited, and the current shuttle fleet uses technology less sophisticated and current than many readily-available consumer items.

Rather than reexamining the program, too many Republicans who can’t abide by money being spent on earth have absolutely no problem spending tax dollars in space -- and want to spend more. Such romantics!

These folks usually demand that every government program justify its worth, and always do more with less. Unfortunately, the Columbia investigation found that NASA, in response to White House and congressional pressure, tried to do more with less and to meet unrealistic deadlines and goal -- with tragic results. The “do more with less” exhortation was a recipe for disaster. So will these people stop demanding it from other programs? Of course not.

Apparently because everything turns upside-down in space, the Republican/conservative/libertarian response is an expanded commitment -- more money for NASA, a new shuttle fleet, and the same commitment that put men on the moon by 1969 (and that hasn’t had them back there since 1972).

Usually it’s liberals demanding more money for failed government programs on the grounds that inadequate funding meant that we really hadn’t tried them yet. Aren’t conservatives supposed to abhor that kind of dreamy-eyed wishful thinking? But lately it’s conservatives who let dreams blind them to reality.

Whether it’s Iraqis greeting American troops with rose petals, or Middle Eastern democracy spontaneously sprouting, or the budget deficit miraculously turning around, or that Bush’s tax cuts will create 5.5 million new jobs this year, conservatives now let their dreams decouple them from reality.

The space program may let editorialists boldly split infinitives, but it’s a government program -- and should be judged by the same standards as every other government program. By that standard, the shuttle flunks.