Friday, December 31, 2004

But Is It Good for the Jews?

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix asked for a piece on going to Ukraine to monitor the elections, which I wrote about 10 days before my most recent visit. I can't find it on their website (or if it was on the website, it appeared only while I was actually in Ukraine). I most certainly didn't write the headline, because I've been told in no uncertain terms that it isn't "The Ukraine," but simply Ukraine. The "the" reminds people of the Soviet days and is a retrograde political statement. You have been warned.

In breaking news, Prime Minister Yanukovych submitted his resignation, but plans to pursue his election protests, which have been rejected by the Central Election Commission but he can appeal to the Supreme Court. There's no word if he is sharing the same lawyers as now-losing GOP Washington state governor candidate Dino Rossi in seeking a "best 2-out-of-3". Finally, here's a good collection of links about the reaction of the Ukrainian Jewish community to the elections.

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, Dec. 24, 2004

This Christmas, instead of Chinese food and a movie, I’m going to Ukraine, along with other former U.S. representatives and European parliamentarians, to serve as international election observers. It’s not the usual Jews-subbing-for-gentiles-on-Christmas activity, but trying to help democracy in one of Eastern Europe’s largest and most important countries seems worth doing.

In a stunning decision earlier this month, the Ukrainian Supreme Court declared the country’s Nov. 21 presidential runoff election invalid due to widespread fraud and faulty administration. The Court ordered a new election between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko on Dec. 26. That date doesn’t affect Ukrainians, who celebrate Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7. But it may bother some international election observers who need to travel over the holiday – making Jewish international observers particularly useful, this time.

I previously visited Ukraine with another delegation of former representatives and parliamentarians 10 days before the initial Oct. 31 election. During that visit, we saw evidence of a grimly unfair election campaign. The ruling party had used its and its allies’ media control lavishly to advance Yanukovych and attack Yushchenko, selectively enforced tax laws against the opposition, and unleashed both alarming and petty intimidation, including suddenly-mandatory Saturday university classes or perfectly-timed street or railway closures to hinder opposition rallies.

I personally experienced some ruling-party heavy-handedness, better suited to the Soviet era. We learned of a government raid on Znayu, an independent voter-education organization, which I had visited earlier in the week. At Znayu’s office, two young men with burr haircuts and black leather coats stood outside and refused to identify themselves. Only when local police arrived did the guards identify themselves as SBU, the Ukraine State Security Forces. The guards refused to recognize our official election observer credentials, but I managed to slip inside.

I was treated politely during my “detention” but could see that the official justification for the raid – that the SBU had “found” evidence of bomb-making equipment at the offices of Pora, a separate student group, and that documents there somehow mentioned Znayu – didn’t jibe with the agents’ actions. Instead, they leisurely downloaded everything from Znayu computers while trying to look vaguely ominous. The SBU agents didn’t take any precautions for explosives, making it obvious that they really wanted to harass independent voices before the election.

The Oct. 31 first-round election, according to independent observers, did not meet international standards, but there was hope for a better second round. But the Nov. 21 runoff was markedly worse, and – to the surprise of the government and outside observers – hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians rejected the results and forced the government to accede to the Supreme Court’s order for a new runoff election.

Since the Court decision, the government and the opposition reached a compromise on new voting procedures that should eliminate most of the government’s opportunities for fraud, and which will reduce presidential power and create a more parliamentary-style system. But Ukrainian people (and the security services, which probably provided Yushchenko with some of the more sophisticated proof of electoral fraud, like telephone intercepts) have demonstrated that they want real democracy.

When I return to Ukraine next week, I expect it will be much colder than in October – but I also hope to observe a much more vibrant and healthy democracy.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Visionary Leadership

My column got printed on Dec. 27 instead of in the weekend "Lack of Perspective" section. I'm back from Ukraine, safe and sound; more on that once the jet lag wears off. The newspaper version is available here.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 27, 2004

There are some cranky newspaper readers (I realize that demographically, that’s redundant) who say that I’m just always complaining but never have anything positive to say. Well, having studied the transcript of our president’s most recent news conference, I’ve decided it’s time for me to show similar positive, visionary leadership. Here goes.

I can be the same kind of leader as George W. Bush. You already may know that I think his proposal to “end Social Security as we know it” is complicated, expensive, and unneeded nonsense.

But he’s a leader, right? And he’s got a mandate, right? And he got a mandate for his plans, whatever they may turn out to be, to trade Social Security for the opportunity for you to negotiate complex insurance and annuity policies, right?

Well, I can show that kind of leadership, too. Of course, “you’re not going to get me to negotiate with myself.” I’m not going to get bogged down in details and take positions, so “don’t bother to ask me.” After all, “Congress writes legislation,” and “I will negotiate at the appropriate time with the law writers, and so thank you for trying.”

So just as the president can say he’s going to do all sorts of unspecified-but-wonderful things to make Social Security cost less and pay more, I too wish to unveil my bold leadership plans to the upcoming Congress, letting those folks write legislation that gives the American people my vision of what they want.

On Social Security, I agree with the president; we shouldn’t raise taxes or cut benefits for current retirees, those near retirement, and those who may be thinking about being near retirement. Like Bush, I, too, boldly support getting something for nothing and leaving it to Congress to invent the required financial perpetual-motion machine.

But why stop with Social Security? My bold visions also include ending obesity in America. I believe everybody should be able to eat all the chocolate they want without gaining any weight. My program is strictly voluntary, so people who don’t like chocolate can choose to eat cookies or pie instead.

Those are my ambitious goals, and I look forward to negotiating with those who write legislation to make sure that every American, especially those now retired or nearing retirement, can eat more and not gain weight.

I also believe that I have a mandate to deal with Arizona’s increasingly onerous parking problem. Didn’t driving around the mall parking lots this holiday season make you sick from the wasted fuel, time, and effort spent looking for a space? I believe that every American deserves to park right next to the mall entrance, in a space that’s safe, close, and free.

If we do nothing, then current projections say that by 2042 it’ll be impossible for you to park any closer than yards away.

Those are my principles, and I see no reason to start taking specific positions or get bogged down in details just yet. I intend to spend my political capital on this bold vision of each and every American getting a parking space right next to the mall entrance. It’s up to Congress to translate this vision into legislation, and I look forward to working with them in making it happen.

Finally, I also believe that high school sports are the veritable foundation of American life, but too often, the enjoyment that students and their families derive from competition is limited because in any contest, one team must lose. That may build character, but we really know that it’s winning that matters, and it’s so much more enjoyable, too. I have a vision of an America where every team wins every time. I don’t want to negotiate against myself; it’s up to lawmakers to draft legislation to translate this bold agenda into reality so that we preserve sports for future generations against the emotional downer of losing.

I look forward to passage of the “Everybody’s a Winner Act,” because it makes just as much sense as what President Bush is saying about Social Security.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Ending Social Security As We Know It

My column was held from the weekend because the editor wanted to devote the "Lack of Perspective" section on Sunday to a brawl about the role of religion in public life--and I wasn't invited. So I got rolled over to today. I love the term, "Symington-style scam." I hope you like "end Social Security as we know it," too. Maybe that phrase will help.

I leave tomorrow for Ukraine to observe the re-run of the presidential runoff election. I think I'll be in the provinces away from Kyiv, so I may not have Internet access during most of the trip. My next column will probably be about those elections. For those of you in Phoenix (or if the paper posts the piece on its website), I have a piece coming out in Friday's Jewish News of Greater Phoenix which I won't be able to post until I return. I explain that instead of dim sum and a movie, this Christmas I'm helping democracy in Ukraine. It's not the usual Jew-substitutes-for-Gentile-on-Christmas story, but it'll have to do.

In run-up to the Rock 'n Roll Arizona Marathon news, my time at the Desert Classic 30K last weekend was about 2 minutes behind last year's; I finished in 3:00:11, having lost time on the turns or something. Hopefully I've now learned enough about running a marathon that it won't take me about as long to run (well, more walk than run) from the 30K mark (18.6 miles) to the end at 26.2 miles. I also hope that borscht (and the Ukrainian winter) is good for my blisters.

Social Security
'Reform' plan a Symington-style scam

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 22, 2004

President Bush wanting to “end Social Security as we know it” should seem familiar to Arizonans. The mumbo-jumbo required to get people to trade a defined-benefit plan for pie-in-the-sky defined-contribution promises resembles the real estate shenanigans of former Gov. Fife Symington.

Yes, people who missed having their retirement sunk into the Mercado now can let GOP politicians use their pensions for fun and games -- without knowing how to operate heavy construction machinery.

First, the Social Security “crisis” is based on a very long-term estimate. An administration that has budgeted exactly zero dollars for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- because, they claim, it’s just too hard to predict what will happen during the next 12 months -- can predict exactly future trends in population and economic growth, immigration, and productivity 40 years out.

Congressional Republicans stopped their budget office from issuing 10-year budget projections, formerly standard, claiming that anything longer than 5 years is just too uncertain. (Actually, the real reason was that 10-year projections show exactly how awful the still-phasing-in Bush tax cuts and Medicare drug benefit spending makes the deficit.)

But these same “don’t make me estimate more than 5 years out” types are rock-solid certain that they know what’s going to happen to Social Security in 2042.

And that 2042 date? Keep in mind that in 1994, the Social Security trustees issued a report saying that, under the worst of their three long-term projections, current revenues and redemption of trust fund bonds would not fully meet promised benefits in 35 years. Ten years later, under the same worst-case scenario, benefits don’t exceed revenues and bond redemptions until 2042.

In other words, 10 years later, “doomsday” is now 3 years farther out. That’s their crisis.

And that “doomsday” -- what would happen is that after redemption of the bonds we’d purchased with our excess FICA taxes not needed to pay current benefits, Social Security revenues still will cover 81 percent of promised benefits.

Compare that to the Bush administration’s current budget practices; right now General Fund revenues cover only 68 percent of non-Social Security spending. But, says the President, we can grow and borrow and pretend our way out of today's General Fund crisis, and the real problem is a smaller gap three or four decades from now!

Of course, the greatest risk to the Social Security trust fund is repayment, with interest, of today’s government borrowing to fund current spending. Remember how Bush inherited a surplus, then turned it into a deficit? Well, you’re supposed to forget and pretend it’s all Social Security’s fault.

There’s more! It’s the Medicare trust fund that’s facing the real crisis, one accelerating with increases in healthcare costs and changing demographics. The same trustees say the Medicare trust fund will be exhausted in 2019, and that date keeps moving closer.

But there’s no real money for Wall Street in Medicare, and solutions are much tougher; better to fake a crisis in a program that’s actually in pretty good shape, that needs only minor tinkering, because as Willie Sutton said about robbing banks, that’s where the money is.

But back to Symington. The Bush administration plans to “fix” what might happen to Social Security in 2042 by how? By borrowing -- but we won’t call it borrowing, it’s an investment! -- trillions. We’ll borrow now, people will invest it, and we have lots of really cool projections showing that in 40 years we’ll have repaid the loans and have oodles of extra money besides.

That’s exactly how Fife justified using different financial statements depending on whether he was borrowing or trying to avoid repaying. If it was repayment time, he used real numbers; he had no cash and no equity. If he wanted to borrow money, he talked about how much money his real estate was going to be worth in the future, you should live so long.

That’s what Bush wants to do with your Social Security: Borrow it like Fife did, then “transform” the program into “Symington Security.” If you swallow this sodden political pastry, you’ll deserve the resulting retirement heartburn.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Abstaining from Science

Here’s this week’s column on never letting the facts get in the way of ideology. The really scary thing is the Gallup Poll results on evolution cited below, where almost half of Americans believe that humans didn’t evolve, don’t share the vast majority of their genes with other primate species, and that humans and dinosaurs shared the earth. Hey--they saw it on The Flintstones, right?

The editor paired my piece with a column by a guy named Morton Throckmorton. I didn't know there were people in real life and not old movies actually named Throckmorton. Finally, in other news, I'm on the list as an international observer for the rerun of the runoff of the presidential election in Ukraine on Dec. 26. I promise to be careful; I won't order the poisoned soup and I'll think twice about the sushi, too.

The Abstinence Debate
Programs are based on junk science

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 13, 2004

Who could have known that when Republicans spend tax money on “abstinence-only” education, they really meant education that abstains only from knowledge of science?

Forget for the moment the continuing and disappointing studies of such programs. Both outside researchers and state agency sponsors simply haven’t found statistically-significant positive results. These programs do seem to increase students’ “favorable attitudes toward abstinence” but don’t seem to have any material positive long-term effects on behavior.

But actually working as promised is certainly no requirement for increased federal spending by the Bush administration and GOP Congress. Lacking solid evidence of these programs’ effectiveness hasn’t prevented Republicans from doubling funding over the past 5 years.

Of course, abstinence-only education is only a drop in the bucket compared to the really big GOP “faith-based” program, missile defense. We’re spending billions on unproved technology, which the administration refuses to test in advance, because why bother testing when you have faith? Either way, lots of money will go to favored defense contractors. Naturally, we’ve got billions to spend on the chimera of missile defense, but when it comes to giving U.S. troops the armored vehicles they need to protect themselves in Iraq, well, “you go to war with the Army you have.”

But enough about Star Wars; let’s talk about sex. A recent study for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) discovered that the vast majority of federally-funded abstinence-only programs contain incredibly bad science. The programs present false or misleading information as scientific fact, including misrepresentations about contraceptives, abortion, and AIDS prevention.

The programs cite a discredited 1993 “meta-analysis” of condom effectiveness which claimed that condoms reduce HIV transmission by 69 percent, a conclusion which the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control called “flawed” and based on “serious error.” (For those of you with really long memories, a similar meta-analysis -- a study based on combining results of prior studies of child sexual abuse -- was condemned by Congress in 1998. It doesn’t take a meta-analyst to figure out that to politicians, the value of a meta-analysis totally depends on whether it supports your ideology.)

These abstinence-only programs also cite 30-year-old studies on abortion risks, which reflect methods no longer widely used and do not accurately report today’s far lower statistics. The programs portray religious beliefs, like fundamental theological questions such as “when life begins,” as scientific facts. The programs also preach gender stereotypes as science, teaching that women need “financial support” while men need “admiration,” or telling girls that “occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.” Sheesh.

In short, it’s garbage science, but garbage science that’s politically useful to Republicans and which they continue to fund and refuse to correct. GOP Senate leader Bill Frist, himself a physician, was asked about one program that suggests that HIV can be spread through tears and sweat. Frist knows the science, but couldn’t bring himself to disagree, conceding only after being pressed that transmitting HIV through tears and sweat would be “very hard.”

But if Republicans, with one eye on the recent Gallop Poll that found only 35 percent of Americans believe evolution is well-supported by evidence, and 45 percent believe that human beings were divinely created “essentially as they are today (that is, without evolving) about 10,000 years ago,” don’t want to criticize the scientific ignorance of their political base, they shouldn’t be surprised when others find scientific ignorance useful as well.

If even a physician like Sen. Frist won’t admit the real risks of HIV transmission through tears and sweat, no Republican should complain if Nevadans view the risks of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in similarly overblown terms. If the federal government funds such faulty science for ideological reasons, nobody should be surprised if lay people (and jurors) see big dollars in negligible threats from cell phones, vaccines, mold, or whatever.

Why do GOP politicians hate science? Because it’s not politically correct.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Arizona Tax Credit Roundup Redux

It's time again (the now-traditional first Sunday in December) for the annual Arizona tax credit column. Those of you living in other places can skip directly to the last two paragraphs; they need blood where you are, too. If you want to see how it looked in the newspaper, the link is here.

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 5, 2004

In Arizona, December doesn’t just mean colder (by our standards) weather, holiday shopping, and the Cardinals getting mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. It’s also your last chance to take advantage of Arizona’s lengthy menu of state income tax credits, loopholes that let you be a hero -- at no net cost. That assumes you’re in the upper strata of taxpayers itemizing deductions and aren’t subject to Alternative Minimum Tax, but if so, take advantage of bad public policy to do some good.

First, there’s a credit against state income taxes for donations to “private school tuition organizations.” Whatever you contribute, up to $625 for married couples filing jointly or $500 for individuals, lowers your state income tax bill.

The Arizona Department of Revenue website lists some PSTOs, but I recommend Schools With Heart, 1131 E. Highland, Phoenix, AZ 85014; designate your check for the Family School, a unique school serving children from diverse backgrounds.

Second, as part of the political deal that created the PSTO credit, taxpayers also got a separate-but-not-equal credit for public school contributions. Couples can give and get back up to $250, or $200 for individuals. You must write the check directly to the school, not to a PTO or foundation, then you’ll pay that much less in taxes in April.

Given tight school financing and the rapid increase in activity fees, parents with kids in school probably already hit the limit. But if you haven’t donated yet this year, consider a gift to the Isaac School District, 3348 W. McDowell Road, Phoenix, AZ 85009.

Isaac receives far less (about $3 per student) in tax credit donations than do wealthier suburban districts like Mesa (about $35) and Scottsdale (about $60). The tax credit system is a perfect example of a government program that takes money from the lower half of taxpayers (who can’t itemize) and gives it to the upper half of taxpayers -- and whose schools don’t face nearly the challenge that Isaac does, with the vast majority of its students (over 90 percent) at or below poverty level (over 90 percent) and in non-English-speaking homes (about two-thirds). You can make this “reverse Robin Hood” law somewhat less perverse by sending a check to Isaac by Dec. 31.

Third, donations to charities assisting the “working poor” qualify for another tax credit if you make an additional contribution above your “baseline” charitable giving. If so, Arizona will repay you up to $200, for both married and single taxpayers.

The ADOR Web site lists qualifying charities, but as a board member I can strongly recommend Devereux Arizona’s “My Little Stocking” fund, which provides holiday treats to children in foster care and residential or group home treatment programs. These kids and their families often can’t afford necessities, much less holiday gifts. Call Kelly Gonzales at (480) 998-2920 ext. 2105, or click here. If you’ve finished your holiday shopping and can do another good deed, call Kelly and volunteer to help wrap the presents on Dec. 23 or 24.

Fourth, help fund Arizona’s system of publicly-financed elections. Individuals can contribute up to $550 and couples filing jointly up to $1,100, or up to 20% of their state tax liability -- whichever is greater. Again, write this check by Dec. 31, then pay exactly that much less in state income taxes in April. Send your check to the Citizens Clean Election Fund at 1616 W. Adams, Suite 110, Phoenix, AZ 85007.

Contributions to charities and governments -- again, assuming you itemize, and ignoring potential AMT effects -- are deductible for federal taxes, so the alchemy of converting state taxes into credit-eligible donations won’t affect your federal tax liability.)

Finally, give something other than money: Blood. The holidays always seem to stretch supplies, so if you’ve always meant to donate but never seem to get around to it -- do it already. Call United Blood Services at (602) 431-9500, or go to, to schedule an appointment.

Don’t let another year go by without taking full advantage of this crazy smorgasbord of credits (plus guilt-free cookies after donating blood). You live here, it’s the law, and you might as well play. Happy holidays!