Thursday, January 31, 2008

This and That

Just a few little items to consider.

1. I just received an e-mail from His Excellency Doug Wilder advertising his upcoming Radio Town Hall broadcasts. Doug sure knows how to pick his radio stations. He’ll be on PRAISE (104.7), KISS (99.3) and POWER (92.1).

2. Hillary Clinton has obviously convinced the media that her eight years living in the White House were radically different from those of her predecessors Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Pat Nixon, Ladybird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman. In a picture chart of the seven candidates technically still in the race, the TD (courtesy of “Wire Reports”) lists Hillary’s government experience as U.S. Senator and first lady.

3. In a show of true regional consciousness Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Warren indicated that the county may seek to be the home of whatever team replaces the Braves in the metro area. Mr. Warren’s attitude makes it clear that the hope of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce that River City and Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties view themselves as a single region is a long way from fruition. Chamber president James Dunn needs to spend a lot more time convincing elected officials in the metro area that,

“We’ve got to pool together to make it on our own.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Happy Rebirthday, W

It is clear from his State of the Union address this week that George W. Bush, our beloved 43rd chief executive, has been reborn—this time as a fiscal conservative. Mr. Bush expressed his new faith in these words,

American families have to balance their budgets; so should their government.

This, faithful reader, is from a president who has added three and a half trillion dollars to the debt of the government of the United States since he took office in 2001, an increase of over 60%. This is also from a president who did not even threaten to veto any of the pork-laden appropriation acts that were sent to his desk by the Republican-controlled Congress in the first six years of his Administration. So, for George W. Bush to suddenly discover the idea of a balanced budget at the beginning of his last year in office is indeed a rebirth.

To what are we to attribute this sudden change in W? Clearly, he’s not running for reelection. And, since most members of his party who are running for election or reelection this year would just as soon that the president became invisible between now and November, I don’t think he’s doing it to help other Republicans. Is he trying to raise his ratings in the polls? Is he trying to create a new image for posterity?

You may say why question the guy’s motives? Just accept that he is repenting his spendthrift ways and assume that his conversion is genuine.

Okay, I’ll do that. I’ll do that even though language in the State of the Union speech makes me wonder whether W is, in fact, repenting. For one thing, Mr. Bush is not accepting any responsibility for his seven years of borrow-and-spend governing. He is thrusting the blame, instead, on the Congress. In his own words (assuming he has anything to do with writing his speeches):

The people's trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks—special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute, without discussion or debate. Last year, I asked you to voluntarily cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. I also asked you to stop slipping earmarks into committee reports that never even come to a vote. Unfortunately, neither goal was met. So this time, if you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I'll send it back to you with my veto.

I see no contrition. I see no admission of guilt over his reckless spending in the past. All I see is someone who puts the blame on the Congress for wasteful spending.

Maven, you said you would be positive.

Okay! Hey, good for you, George. You’re going to crack down on Democratic pork. (As my friend Carlos pointed out, Mr. Bush never objected to earmarks when his party ran the Congress because that was Kosher Republican pork, which is wholly distinguishable from the non Kosher Democratic variety.) I guess your rebirth must have been really recent, because on December 26, 2007, you signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2008, despite your observation that it contained “nearly 9800 earmarks totaling more than $10 billion.” Mr. Bush, if earmarks bother you so much, why didn’t you veto that bill? Were you just giving late Christmas presidents to those nearly 9800 deserving citizens? Unfortunately, Mr. President, you sound an awful lot like some parents I saw on Super Nanny, who constantly threatened to discipline their child but never did.

Really, maven, I give up on you. You’re not going to give the guy the benefit of the doubt.

Hey, reader, take a look at my motto. I never have any doubt. Now, stop interrupting me and let me get on with my president-roasting. The president also added this promise concerning earmarks that are not voted on by the Congress:

And tomorrow, I will issue an executive order that directs federal agencies to ignore any future earmark that is not voted on by Congress. If these items are truly worth funding, Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote.

What, you may ask, is the president talking about? What is an earmark that is “not voted on?”

Now, the maven can apply his expertise. Most earmarks, or line item appropriations, are included in the text of appropriations bills. Sometimes, however, a committee member or even a staffer may put into a committee report a statement of how the committee intends certain funds to be spent. Since committee reports almost never become part of the bill, these statements of spending preferences are not voted on by either chamber of the Congress. Because they are not included in the text of the bill these so-called “earmarks” never become part of the enacted appropriation act. And, as the Comptroller General of the United States has said innumerable times, these statements are not legally binding on the agencies of the Executive Branch of our government.

So, our president is issuing an executive order to tell federal agencies to ignore what they should have been ignoring before. Federal agencies should be using appropriated funds in accordance with the language of appropriations acts, not the desires of staffers.

In his speech, Mr. Bush said that because of the low-fat budgets that he has been feeding the Congress he expects that the federal budget will be in balance by fiscal year 2012. Since, in earlier State of the Union speeches, Mr. Bush was confident that the budget would be balanced by 2009, I get the feeling we are chasing a constantly moving target. I do not want to imply that this governing thing is a simple business. But, it should be obvious to anybody that if you are going into deeper and deeper debt each year you need to do one or both of two things. You’ve got to cut your spending and/or you’ve got to increase your income. That is all it takes. If, Mr. Bush had wanted to send a balanced budget to the Congress for its consideration, he could have done so years ago.

So, 2008 will be the year when our government finally starts acting responsibly with respect to its finances. (Oh, please ignore those last two years of the Clinton Administration when the government actually had budget surpluses.) Mr. Bush will veto any appropriation act that doesn’t cut earmarks in half. (Why in half? Why not just threaten to veto all acts that contain any earmarks?) Mr. Bush will remind agency heads that statements in committee reports are not the law. Mr. Bush will request $140 billion in tax cuts as an economic stimulus package, which will add $140 billion to the national debt. (I’m sorry, forget that one. The economic stimulation package is the old W, not the new fiscally responsible one.)

And so, the woodsman killed the wolf, and Red Riding Hood and Grandma lived happily ever after. Happy Rebirth Day, Mr. President.

A Voice In The Wilderness

The House of Representatives passed the president’s economic stimulus package yesterday by a vote of 385 to 35. The plan is described as a 146 billion dollar package, although according to the Washington Post it will add 161 billion dollars to the economy this year and an additional 34 billion next year.
The president is now urging the Senate to climb on board the bandwagon and enact H.R. 1541 ASAP.

I find it interesting that among Virginia’s eleven House members three, all Republicans, voted against the bill. According to today's story in the TD, one of these three, Virgil Goode of the 5th congressional district, voted against the bill because it would increase the national debt.

In my entry, “Show Me The Money,” last week, I stated,

Wouldn’t it be great, dear reader, if one of the 435 representatives or 33 or 34 senators up for reelection stood up in either the House or Senate chamber and took a stand against increasing our debt by the amount of whatever this stimulus package is going to cost? What if s/he spoke and acted for fiscal responsibility? What if s/he made it clear that the Government should not spend money whenever the President and Congress feel like it, without considering whether, in fact, we actually have the money to spend?

Well, if the TD is correct, Virgil Goode has done what I wished for. He voted against the stimulus package because we can’t afford it. Virgil Goode has risen above party loyalty. He has even taken an unpopular stand that may cost him votes should he run for reelection this year.

I congratulate Representative Goode and award him the maven’s “Responsible Elected Official” award.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Again About the Braves

The marriage between the Atlanta Braves organization and Richmond Virginia is over. Custody of the child of the marriage, the R-Braves, has been awarded to Gwinnett County, Georgia. It is a sad end to a long relationship and everybody in Metro Richmond (except perhaps for our beloved Uncle Doug) is doing their own post mortem to figure out how it is that such a wonderful union has come to an end.

I guess it is good to try to figure out what went wrong with the R-Braves. Uncle Doug has promised us we will not go without baseball for even a year, so we need to make sure that our next sports marriage will live long and prosper (as the old Vulcan greeting goes). So it is okay to analyze everything that has happened in the Atlanta Braves-Richmond relationship over the last few years to make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes all over again.

But, beloved reader, we can’t allow ourselves to get mired down in self-flagellation. Let’s not start thinking that River City and its surroundo-burbs are a great failure. We cannot do what the writer of a letter published in the TD today did.

Our writer went and looked at the official web site for Gwinnett County, Georgia. S/he (the name is Julie) found out that Gwinnett County has recently built a big swimming pool and a new football complex. It has new roads and libraries and a police training center and three new fire stations and a new SPCA and a 911 communications center and police headquarters. Gwinnett County has also hired 200 new public safety officers and is opening a big park.

Well, Julie, based on your research, I bet the citizens of Gwinnett County have one hell of a tax bill. Either that or they’re up to their eyeballs in debt. I just don’t believe Santa brought all this expensive construction down the chimney one cold December night? Julie, do you really want us to go on the kind of construction binge that Gwinnett County has undergone? We in the City of Richmond already pay super high real estate taxes. Should we spend more?

Julie then went and looked at the Richmond City website and in his/her words “found nothing.” We have “[n]o accomplishment list whatsoever.” Julie then goes on to list the problems we have in River City. She concludes that it is no wonder that the Braves left.

Come on, Julie, Richmond really isn’t that bad. After all, both you and I live here. And I bet there are many thousands of other good people like us. Beside the people, there are hundreds of great things about living in Richmond. Even with all their spanking new toys (including the soon-to-be-former R-Braves), would you really prefer to live in Gwinnett County, Georgia? Would you want a mailing address of Lawrenceville?

Aside from the need not to blame this marital breakup entirely on us, we have to examine whether this was really that good a relationship to start with. My first birthday in Richmond, my maveness presented me with two season tickets to the Braves. Although I started out excited, I soon found out that there were hundreds of better presents she could have given me (at much lower prices). Most of those tickets went unused. The reason? I found Braves games terribly boring. Oh, they gave me things like dirtiest car contests and a catching a bean bag in your pants contest and they allowed me to pick the song they would play at the beginning of the next inning. What they never gave me was good baseball. (And, I’m not talking about winning. I found the debut season of the New York Mets tremendously entertaining even though they lost 120 games.)

The trouble was, no matter how many times they called the team “your Richmond Braves,” this was never our team. This team was owned by and operated for the exclusive benefit of the Atlanta Braves. The R-Braves’ only purpose was to develop players to help the Atlanta team to win its division, the pennant and perhaps the World Series, preferably at as little cost to the home team as possible (the only reason to want to draw big crowds). If the Atlanta team happened to have adequate strength at all its positions, the R-Braves had a good chance to win a lot of games. On the other hand, if Atlanta suffered a great deal of injuries, the big team would grab up Richmond’s better players and the R-Braves would lose. It made no difference to the Atlanta organization, because having a winning team in Richmond was never its objective.

To me, the Diamond was never a problem. I found it a great place to watch baseball. It wasn’t the package that was lacking, it was the product inside. Anybody who tells you that the R-Braves didn’t draw big crowds because the Diamond is an inadequate baseball venue is not a true baseball fan.

Although this divorce is feeling real painful now, maybe it is the best thing in the long run. Maybe, now that we’re gonna be single again, we can attract a team to Richmond that really cares about the baseball fans here. Perhaps, we can even have a team that is locally owned. Wherever our new team plays, at the Diamond or at a new venue (if we the sports fans of Richmond decide to build it), let us hope that its management is concerned first and foremost with bringing quality baseball to Richmond.


And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire—a still, small voice.
I Kings 19:11-12

The Times-Dispatch editorial column this morning (January 28) contained this “In Brief:”

The lower crime rates cited in Mayor Doug Wilder’s State of the City address justify considerable gratitude. The credit is widely shared. Many of the region’s most loyal citizens would direct at least a portion of it to Metro Richmond at Prayer.

Now, I’m not sure who these “most loyal citizens” are. I don’t even know whether their loyalty (to Richmond City, to Greater Richmond, to the Commonwealth, to the US of A, to the Braves?) is really significant. But, I would like to talk about how Metro Richmond at Prayer may have helped lower the crime rate here abouts.

For those of you with a short attention span, Metro Richmond at Prayer, an endeavor by Christian faith communities to “pray weekly for the community of Metro Richmond,” began just about two years ago. In its mission statement Metro Richmond at Prayer indicates:

We believe that God desires the healing of this metropolitan area. We also believe that God desires us to pray together and to pray specifically for transformation in our own time.

Metro Richmond at Prayer publishes for its participating churches a weekly prayer to be included in their prayer services.

Aside from its exclusionary nature (faith communities that are not Christian need not apply), I support the objectives of Metro Richmond at Prayer. I believe in the power of prayer. Prayer can be a life changing force when it motivates people to improve themselves and the world in which we live. As stated in a prayer book from an other-than-Christian faith community “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer has been answered.” However, as I stated in an unpublished letter to the TD editor in February 2006, “prayer without action is not enough.” In that letter, I questioned whether any amount of prayer alone would cause God to “fix” Richmond’s problems. I said,

[I]t was not God but people, through their actions and omissions, who brought Richmond to its present state. And, it will not be God but people, acting as agents of God, who will save our city.

We cannot look at prayer as a wishing well. We cannot view God as a jinni in a bottle who will “grant us three wishes.” Prayer does not change God; it changes us. As the prophet Elijah learned in the biblical passage I quoted above, God does not usually act in this world through dramatic events and miracles. Rather, God acts through a “still small voice” that causes us to change our attitude and our behavior.

If, as the TD suggests, Metro Richmond at Prayer has had a major role in reducing the crime rate, it is not because it has somehow gotten God to intervene and stop crime. It is rather because it has motivated people to change their behavior, to act as a community dedicated to improving the quality of life here in Richmond.

For members of Metro Richmond at Prayer, and for others for whom prayer is an important part of life, I offer this prayer, by Rabbi Jack Reimer, as your prayer for next week:

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war; for we know that You have made the world so that all of us must find our own path to peace within ourselves and with our neighbors.
We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end starvation; for You have already given us the resources with which to feed the entire world, if we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to root out prejudice; for You have already given us eyes with which to see the good in all people, if we would only use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair; for You have already given us the power to clear away slums and to give hope, if only we would use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease; for You have already given us great minds with which to search out cures and healings, if we would only use them constructively.
Therefore, we pray to You instead, O God, for strength, determination, and willpower–to do as well as to pray, to become as well as to wish.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

To Kill or Not to Kill (Part the Second)

Having just published my longest post since I started this insanity in 2006, you would expect that I have said all I have to say about capital punishment. Well, you would expect wrong because I just thought of something else.

The legal arguments over the death penalty these days are turning on, of all things, whether the method we use to inflict death is painful. Come on folks, let’s be serious. I realize that a defense attorney has to use every argument he can think of to keep his client alive. But, you can’t execute my client because it might hurt!?

Friends, we (society) have decided that a certain person’s behavior is so reprehensible to our collective sense of right and wrong that we have sentenced that person to be killed. Having decided that, do we now come along and say, but we will only kill him/her if it doesn’t hurt (or at least doesn’t hurt too much)?

This is crazy. We are inflicting the most severe punishment we can conceive of and we have to worry whether it hurts? Damn it, we are terminating an individual’s existence because of a terrible crime. Why shouldn’t it hurt?

Have we come to the point where we are starting to feel a little twinge of conscience over the whole idea of capital punishment? Are we satisfying our sense of guilt by glossing it over with sugar? We’re gonna kill you, you SOB, but we’re not gonna hurt you. Hey, you are going to cease to exist, at least in this world, but at least your last seconds of consciousness won’t be spent in agony.

This is a whole lot of male bovine excrement! I think that if we’re going to continue to inflict the death penalty on people we have to stop worrying about whether it hurts. Let’s make it hurt. Let us appreciate the barbarism of what we are doing. Let’s reinstitute public executions so that we can all see what it is that we are doing. Let’s forget this lethal injection crap! We shouldn’t let a person sleep through his/her own execution. Let’s go back to the electric chair or the firing squad or hanging. Or why don’t we do what the Brits used to do—we can hang someone for a few minutes until they’re nearly dead and then cut them down and draw and quarter them so they really appreciate how mad we are at them. Let’s reintroduce decapitation by axe so we can get to see the blood flow.

We have to stop thinking of ways to make execution seem civilized. Because, dear reader, it ain’t. Let’s start killing with gusto and painfully so we can satisfy our blood lust. But is it cruel and unusual? Who cares! Let’s just get it done.

To Kill or Not to Kill?

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has left me stunned by its lead editorial on January 22, “Death Be Not?” Is this our beloved great metropolitan daily that is opening the door a bit on the possibility of ending the death penalty in Virginia? For those of you who read this outside the Old Dominion you need to realize that the death penalty is almost synonymous with Virginia. Since the Supremes allowed the death penalty to roll forward in 1976, the Commonwealth has executed more people than any state other than Texas (and Texas has an unfair advantage because it has more murders than we do). In Virginia we love our death penalty, so for the TD to suggest that just maybe it ain’t the right thing to do sort of shook me out of my chair.

It wasn’t just the TD’s admission that there is a legitimate question about the wisdom of the death penalty that was so shocking. It was also the language they used. The TD stated,

“[Capital punishment] achieves no legitimate goals that cannot be achieved by a life sentence with no possibility of parole. (Spare us the nonsense about how execution protects fellow inmates and guards from psychopaths. A place like the supermax Pelican Bay prison is the place for them.)”

It then stated,

“The only affirmative case that can be made on behalf of killing someone instead of locking him away forever is the sentiment that certain heinous fiends deserve to die. Indeed they do; indeed, they deserve much worse than that, and their death is certainly no great loss to the world. But the judicial system does not exist to mete out divine retribution.”

The TD editors pointed out that they have long supported capital punishment. But they ended their editorial with the question,

“If it is not necessary to execute, then is it necessary not to execute?”

Dear Reader, is this the proverbial hell frozen over? What is going on? Were they just setting us up for the drop of the other shoe—that we need to hire more executioners? Was this their April Fools Day editorial published early by mistake? Four days have gone by and I see no indication that the TD editors were anything other than serious.

Since the TD has given us permission, I am going to examine my own conscious. This maven will have lived sixty four years effective Superbowl Sunday. I have spent much time considering capital punishment. Over the years my position has changed from anti capital punishment to pro capital punishment and back again. Certainly, two years ago when I learned of the arrests after the murders of the Harvey Family here in Richmond I would have gladly volunteered to be an executioner. Just give me a few minutes with those two guys with an aluminum bat. I’d teach them not to kill children. But, that was the animal instinct part of me, not the human.

When I think of the dispute over the death penalty, I think of a guy named Caryl Chessman. Most of you are much too young to remember but Caryl Chessman was a life-long criminal who was tried and convicted of robbing and raping several women in California in 1948 and sentenced to death. Chessman’s appeals lasted about 12 years, and in that time he changed considerably. He wrote three nonfiction books about his experiences on Death Row. He became very popular among death penalty opponents because he seemed like too nice a guy to kill. Finally, all his appeals and requests for clemency expired and Caryl Chessman was executed. I remember the description by one of the witnesses of how the death chamber filled with the cloudy cyanide gas, of how Chessman took a deep breath to speed the procedure, how his body went into severe spasms, and how his lifeless body finally was sitting still. The experts said that Caryl Chessman suffered no pain.

I also think of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed by the United States in 1953 after being convicted of espionage. As a child in Brooklyn, I lived a block from the I.J. Morris funeral home where the Rosenberg funeral was held. There was lots of excitement in the neighborhood that day. I have always wondered why it was necessary for the United States to execute both the Rosenbergs leaving their children as orphans. But, the Rosenbergs were the victims of a national hysteria over the dangers of the Soviet Union and global communism. They may have also been the victims of a decision in the Justice Department to make sure that they were tried by Irving Kaufman, who, like the Rosenbergs, was Jewish. It has been suggested that Judge Kaufman imposed the death penalty, in part, to demonstrate that Jews were patriots.

And, of course, there was Gary Gilmore. Gilmore was what was considered a crazy. When he was sentenced to death, he wanted to get some real attention so, under state law, he chose the firing squad as his means of dying. I remember the descriptions of Gilmore’s execution; how one of the members of the firing squad had a rifle loaded with blanks; how all the executioners aimed their weapons at the place marked as his heart; how Gilmore’s body was struck by the bullets.

When I took Criminal Law in law school I learned of the many theories for treating criminals—punishment (hence the word penitentiary), rehabilitation (hence correctional institutions) and deterrence. When discussing the death penalty we added vengeance to the list. The theory was that the sovereign, by use of the death penalty, was satisfying the needs of the relatives of the victims for vengeance, thus preventing blood feuds in society.

The question comes down to whether society acting through the sovereign (the Government of the Commonwealth here in Virginia) should be in the business of killing people for having committed particularly heinous crimes. What is the function of the government in the criminal justice system? Is it to punish, to try to rehabilitate offenders, to protect society from crime? If it is the first, then obviously the death penalty serves the purpose of punishment. Presumably, death is the ultimate penalty we can inflict on a person. If our objective is corrections, obviously the death penalty serves no purpose. If our objective is to protect individuals in our society from being victims of crime, it is of course clear that the death penalty serves as the perfect deterrent—obviously, the executed convict will never commit a crime again. But, can this objective, of protecting society by deterring people from committing crime, be achieved by some other means than capital punishment?

There is ample evidence that the threat of life in prison without parole serves as great a deterrent to people considering committing capital crimes than does the death penalty. Actually, it is likely that in many instances neither the death penalty nor life imprisonment serves as an effective deterrent. The mere fact that society continues to experience so many heinous murders attests to this. The fact is that many murders are acts of passion and that the perpetrator is not really concerned by the consequences. Further, many criminals do not expect to be caught so that they are deterred by neither the threat of death nor of life-long imprisonment. In short, as stated by the TD editorial, the death penalty “serves no purpose that cannot be achieved by a life sentence with no possibility of parole.”

If people can be equally deterred by the threat of life-long imprisonment, whey then do we insist on killing them? Was the United States in 1953 any better off because the Rosenbergs were executed rather than imprisoned for life? Were the citizens of California any safer when Caryl Chessman was killed? Thinking more recently, were we the citizens of the United States any safer when the United States executed Timothy McVeigh for his terrorist attack on the Oklahoma City federal building? Did his death provide any amount of deterrence to the 9/11 terrorists who launched their attacks three months to the day after McVeigh died?

Aside from the fact that capital punishment is no more effective a deterrent than life imprisonment, I think that there is a real danger that we may convict and execute someone who is not guilty. Although it may be the best way of determining guilt or innocence that we have yet conceived of, a jury trial is not infallible. I have served on two criminal juries in my life. In one case, we the jury convicted the defendant of rape. We decided that we believed the victim’s version of what happened to that of the defendant. Although, sitting in that jury room supported by the votes of the other eleven jurors I was sure that the defendant was guilty, there have been times since that trial when I wonder whether we were right? Could we have convicted an innocent man?

I am reading a book about events that transpired in Russian occupied Galicia (southeastern Poland) during World War I (Mavens need to read some pretty obscure stuff). There is the story of a Polish civilian who is seized and hanged by the Russian army on the suspicion that he was spying for the Germans. It turned out that the man was innocent. A Russian officer is quoted as saying, “Naturally, such is a case is sad. But what can you do? It is better to string up ten innocent men than let a guilty one go free.” That sentiment is certainly not one we can allow in the United States. We must take the opposite position, that it is better that ten guilty men (even a hundred guilty men) go free than that we execute one innocent man.

There have been many cases of defendants being convicted and then being proven innocent by later-discovered evidence. As far as I know these have all been cases in which the convicted person was sentenced to a jail sentence. But, can we believe that juries reach the wrong verdict only in non-capital cases? It is bad enough that someone should lose years of their life in prison for a crime they did not commit. It would be down right horrible if we executed the wrong person.

But, maven, wouldn’t you be in favor of the death penalty if a member of your own family was a murder victim?

Trusted reader, you are not going to trick me into a Michael Dukakis response. Believe me, if I felt so strong about the Harvey murderers, I would feel much stronger if my own family was attacked. I would want to inflict every type of pain and torture on the perpetrator(s). In fact, for a person who did injury to a member of my family I would much prefer that the legal system stepped aside and let me “get justice” my own way. For such a person, death by illegal injection would be far too easy a death.

However, we cannot allow the desire of the families of victims to dictate whether or not we have capital punishment. It is not the function of the Commonwealth to exact vengeance. We can achieve justice for the victim and closure for the family without turning ourselves, the citizens of Virginia, into collective killers.

But, maven, you ask. Is not our country based on the Judeo Christian tradition? Doesn’t the Bible not only condone but require the death penalty for certain crimes? Doesn’t the death penalty just fulfill God’s will?

If I were a wily old bass, I would not be lured by this bait. Talking religion in public is a dangerous undertaking. I don’t want to offend anybody by my religious interpretations. But perhaps certain biblical passages do need to be looked at to address this perceived biblical requirement of the death penalty. So, let’s start almost in the beginning.

In Genesis, Chapter 9, God is setting out the rules for humanity after the flood. God is quoted as saying:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
By man shall his blood be shed;
For in His image
Did God make man.”

Genesis 9:6

On its face, this verse seems to support the death penalty for murder. One who sheds blood shall have his own blood shed because he has killed a being made in the image of God. But, is this paragraph a commandment, i.e., does it require the death penalty for murder, or is it merely a prediction by God—if you spill another’s blood your blood, in turn, will be shed. I raise this question because the verse before this one implies that God, rather than man, will do the punishing for murder (“of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!)

Aside from this early reference to the death penalty for murder, the Torah (the first five books of Hebrew Scripture that Christians may refer to as The Law) prescribes the death penalty for many violations, both criminal and religious. From reading through all of these, one can make the argument that capital punishment is the way of the Bible. And yet, the same Torah that seems to establish death as the penalty for many offenses makes it very hard to inflict that penalty. For example, Deuteronomy 19:15 provides,

“A single witness may not validate against a person any guilt or any offense that may be committed; a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more.”

This requirement means that conviction in a capital case may never be based on circumstantial evidence. Conviction can only be based on the testimony of two witnesses who actually saw the murder and describe it in identical detail. Based on this rule of Torah, most of the people executed in this country since 1976 or who await execution in our various states could not have been convicted.

A further complication with imposing the death penalty for murder under the Torah was that the killing had to be premeditated. “If he did not do it by design, but it came about by an act of God, I will assign you a place to which he can flee.” Exodus 21:13. Therefore, it became necessary in order to convict someone of murder to establish by two witnesses that the killing was intentional. For those who killed without premeditation, the Torah provided for cities of refuge where the killer could go and be free from vengeance by the victim’s family. Numbers 35:9-15. Verses 16 through 21 of Numbers describe what constitutes premeditated murder, punishable by death. The Torah then goes on to say,

“But if he pushed him without malice aforethought or hurled any object at him unintentionally, or inadvertently dropped upon him any deadly object of stone and death resulted—though he was not an enemy of his and did not seek his harm—in such cases the assembly shall decide between the slayer and the blood-avenger. The assembly shall protect the manslayer from the blood-avenger, and the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge to which he fled, and there he shall remain . . .”

Numbers 35:22-25.

In short, it was so difficult to impose the death penalty under the procedures of Torah law, that the early rabbis commented that a Sanhedrin that imposed the death penalty once in seven years was considered “bloody.”

Wait, wait, wait maven. What about all that eye for an eye stuff? Doesn’t that require the death penalty for murder?

I assume you are referring to the measure of tort damages stated in Exodus 21:22-25. Let’s read the whole paragraph.

“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But, if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

The Torah rule here is pretty clear. If a pregnant woman is caused to miscarry but she suffers no harm, damages shall be measured by the loss to the husband of the value of the unborn child. However, if the wife is harmed than the measure of damages shall be commensurate with the extent of her injury. This rule does not literally require that the defendant receive the same injury that he caused the wife. Rather, he must compensate the husband for the damage to his wife according to the severity of the damage. So, this eye for any eye thing has nothing to do with capital punishment.

Well, maven, maybe you’re right about the Jewish Bible, but what about the New Testament, the Christian Bible? Doesn’t it require the death penalty for certain crimes?

I am sorry, loyal reader, but you are not going to lure me further out onto thin ice. When it comes to interpreting Christian Scripture you are going to have to find a different maven.

Well, looking back over this tome, I guess that for this week at least I am against capital punishment. I think it brings society down to the level of the killers. I think it has no greater deterrent effect than does the threat of imprisonment for life. I believe that it is not the role of the Commonwealth to exact revenge on behalf of the victims of crime. I see no religious reason that requires us to impose the death penalty for murder or any other crime. I think there is a great danger that we might execute a person who is not guilty.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Union Has Been Saved!

Our responsible national leaders have decided to levy an additional tax on our grandchildren by giving all of us a tax rebate of about $600. I am sure they will have all these sound bites explaining how they have saved civilization as we know it. And, I bet that no politician will have the testicular fortitude to vote against this tax gift because we can’t afford it. Hey, we already owe over nine trillion dollars. Adding an extra one hundred fifty billion to that number is hardly noticeable.

On Guns—An Ode in Prose

In an epic battle of good (gun owners, gun manufacturers, gun merchants, gun swappers, gun lovers, gun users) against evil (gun haters, gun victims, families of Virginia Tech victims, namby-pambies, enemies of freedom, those who can’t understand what “shall not be infringed” means, friends of al Qaeda), the gunnies have carried the day. Yesterday a Senate panel joined a House of Delegates panel in killing for this legislative session a bill that would have required private gun sellers at gun shows to run criminal background checks on their customers. I don’t know about you, but this maven is already feeling much safer now that this dastardly attempt to crush our freedoms has been repulsed.

Dear reader, there is something you must know. As a teenager, I was a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. To the NRA I owe my ability to handle firearms safely. I know that I should never point my weapon at any creature, either animal or human, unless I intend to kill it. I also know that I should always assume that my weapon is loaded when I start playing with it. I also know that I should keep all my firearms in a safe place where young ‘uns can’t get to them. Thank you, NRA, you have taught me well.

Back in the day, of course, the NRA was an organization for sportsman. It provided information, training and a wonderful magazine for people who enjoyed shooting at targets both animate and inanimate. Some time after I let my membership expire, however, the NRA mutated into an organization dominated by gun manufacturers, dealers and others for whom guns were a business. And that is when the whole question of guns started moving toward a zero sum, I win-you lose conflict.

Early on the new NRA started with its slogans. The first was a beaut. “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” This tautological statement was, with the exception of law-enforcement and military personal, obviously true. But, what did it really mean? Did it mean that if guns were outlawed law abiding gun owners would surrender their weapons and that only criminals would still have guns. Or, did it mean that even heretofore law abiding gun owners would refuse to surrender their weapons and would therefore become outlaws? The statement contained the germs of disobedience to law.

The second slogan was, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Not quite a tautology, but clearly a very powerful half-truth. The true part was that no gun has ever been seen loading itself, aiming and then blowing away someone’s head. Clearly people kill people, but a whole lot of them use firearms to do so. Thousands of people are murdered with guns every year. Yet, this NRA slogan would have us believe that even if their were no guns the number of murders would stay the same. And, of course, they are right—not a week goes by, in which we don’t read about drive-by stabbings and battles in the streets, in which members of one gang wipe out members of another by throwing arsenic on them.

The most dangerous of NRA slogans, made particularly popular by the late Charleston (Moses) Heston, is “I'll give up my gun—when they pry it from my cold, dead, hands.” Now the NRA incitement to lawlessness had become quite open. The message was quite clear—if you want to take my gun away, you will have to kill me first. Or the flip side, I will use my weapon against anyone who tries to disarm me. I am a firm believer in the First Amendment, but I have strong objection to an organization that teaches insurrection to its members.

The trouble is that for a very vocal segment of gun proponents any suggestion that the Commonwealth (or any other government) take action that could possibly provide an ounce of extra security for society but at the cost of even a minor inconvenience to a few individuals is greeted as an attack on their right to bear arms, which they insist is absolute. For these people there can be no compromise; for them there is no minor gun regulation. These people portray even an innocuous gun restriction as a call to Armageddon.

My suggestion last week that the Second Amendment might have a different than absolute meaning drew some nasty comments. There was even the suggestion that the right to possess and bear firearms was one that transcended the Second Amendment. This natural rights type of argument is that the right to own guns does not come from any government or from the Constitution. It is a right that is natural to all humans. The right to bear firearms even preexists the invention of gun powder.

Now, I don’t think that the proposed restriction that was killed in the General Assembly is a particularly big thing. Certainly, had it been in effect last year it would not have prevented the Virginia Tech disaster. The mass murderer at Tech bought his firearms and ammunition from licensed gun dealers, not at a gun show. On the other side, had it been enacted by the General Assembly this year it would have caused only the slightest inconvenience to a few people.

You know, reader, guns sure stir up a lot of sentiment in the good ol’ US of A. I’m not sure I understand it, exactly. When the state decides to regulate the use of automobiles does it lead to screaming crowds in front of the Capitol? The Commonwealth of Virginia makes me take a written test. It makes me take a road test to prove that I can handle my car safely. It forces me to wear eyeglasses when I drive. It posts restrictions that prevent me from driving too fast and make me stop at intersections. It forces me to inspect my vehicle periodically at my own cost. It charges me to register my vehicle before I can use it. It even threatens me that “Speed Limits are Enforced by Aircraft.” Yet, when it is suggested that a seller of a weapon first make sure that the person to whom he is selling is not a criminal, all hell breaks loose.

The gunnies have drawn a line in the sand when it comes to any limitation on gun ownership or use. The line is drawn so close to “absolutely no controls” that they must resist with all their righteous indignation any measure designed to make the public safer. Inevitably, this position will make these people more and more unpopular in our country. Eventually, their refusal to accept even the slightest restrictions on their “rights” may lead a large number of citizens without guns to question whether we can still afford a Second Amendment in our violent times. That would be a shame because there are millions of responsible gun owners out there that would suffer.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Whose Gonna Pay For It, Chuck?

It was with some dismay that I read this morning that New York Senator Charles Schumer is proposing that the economic stimulus package being considered in the hallowed halls of our Congress include a rebate for those who paid payroll taxes but not income taxes last year. Apparently, Mr. Schumer did not read my post yesterday about the folly of making tax rebates that will add to our national debt.

As you must know from what I have written in the past I am a Democrat. (Before you start throwing stones, please realize that my political preference is not entirely my fault. How can I be anything but a Democrat when the bottle with which my mother fed me had a photograph of Franklin Roosevelt on it?) It is always easier for me to attack politicians of the other persuasion, so it is not with a sense of glee that I pick on the senior senator from the Empire State. It requires me to admit that not all the irresponsible politicians in America are Republicans.

As I pointed out yesterday, to get the money to make any tax rebates the Government is going to have to borrow. (I have been in the “Cash Room” in the Treasury building in Washington and let me assure you that it is quite empty.) And, since for every dollar our government borrows now some poor sucker in 2050 or 2060 is gonna have to pay an extra dollar in taxes to pay off the debt, what we call a “tax rebate” for us is really a tax increase for our children or grandchildren. Not only is transferring our tax burden to a future generation irresponsible, it’s down right immoral. As Thomas Jefferson said to James Madison in 1789,

"Then I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence."

(I sure hope somebody pays attention to my postings soon because I am running out of Jefferson quotes on the public debt.)

I, like Senator Schumer, am a believer in social justice. I feel strongly that those already wealthy should not get richer on the backs of the poor. It’s hard to argue with Mr. Schumer’s conclusion that it is grossly unfair to make rebates to middle class taxpayers but not to the working poor. However, Chuck Schumer is sort of mixing apples and oranges.

The economic stimulus package proposed by the Administration would be a rebate of income taxes paid (I assume in 2007). Although the cash to make those rebates would have to be borrowed, from an accounting prospective the payments would come from the General Fund of the Treasury. If Mr. Schumer wants to also make rebates of payroll taxes paid last year he is not talking about making payments from the General Fund of the Treasury but from the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and the Disability Insurance Trust Fund (commonly referred to together as the Social Security Trust Fund). We all know that the Social Security Trust Fund does not have a rosy future. With the increase in retirees and the decrease in working slobs paying payroll taxes the trust fund will go belly up during the life times of those already born. Mr. Schumer’s proposal, although it will probably cost only a few billion dollars, will bring the date of Social Security insolvency a little bit closer.

What Chuck Schumer and other politicians in Washington have to learn is that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Every dollar we spend today that is not covered by current revenue is going to have to be paid in the future by our children or grandchildren. Let’s make this personal to Senator Schumer. Each yearly deficit that you create with your votes now will require your daughters Jessica and Allison (and their own children yet unborn) to pay increased taxes in the future. I ask you, Chuck, is this social justice?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

What’s In A Name?

I must bestow a Chutzpa Award on our very own Congressperson, Eric Cantor. Mr. Cantor has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would cut corporate tax rates from 35% to 25%. Mr. Cantor has the chutzpa to call this gift to corporate America “The Middle Class Job Protection Act.”

Show Me The Money

"We believe--or we act as if we believed--that although an individual father cannot alienate the labor of his son, the aggregate body of fathers may alienate the labor of all their sons, of their posterity, in the aggregate, and oblige them to pay for all the enterprises, just or unjust, profitable or ruinous, into which our vices, our passions or our personal interests may lead us. But I trust that this proposition needs only to be looked at by an American to be seen in its true point of view, and that we shall all consider ourselves unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally bound to pay them ourselves; and consequently within what may be deemed the period of a generation, or the life of the majority."
Thomas Jefferson 1813

It’s an election year, folks. That means that all members of the House of Representatives and a third of the members of the United States Senate face the ordeal of getting themselves reelected. Well, maybe it’s not such an ordeal. The perplexing fact in this country is that, although the Congress as a body receives grades of F minus minus from the populace, at least 90% of incumbents are odds-on favorites to be reelected. But, one can never be sure, so when it appears that the economy is on the way down, all members of Congress forget about party differences and jump on the bandwagon to do something. For the time being, dear reader, forget about Republicans and Democrats on the hill of our Capitol. Everybody has joined the “Let’s do anything to get reelected” party.

Apparently, what they’re going to do is pass an economic stimulus package of ultra-temporary tax cuts. So, in all likelihood, in just a few weeks, you and I are going to get a check in the mail from our beloved friends at the Internal Revenue Service. With the check will probably come a form letter that reads, “This gift comes to you courtesy of (fill in name of Congressperson). In the interest of our national survival, you are urged to spend it as quickly as possible.”

Hey, friend, I’m not about to look a gift horse in the mouth (or any of its other orifices). So, if that check does come I’m going to at least deposit it in the bank before anyone has a chance to figure out that the United States Treasury that wrote it is insolvent.

For those of you who are not regular readers, it may come as a shock to find out that our very own United States of America is nine trillion dollars in debt. So, when the Congress and the President, each with a performance rating below where the scale starts, proposes to send out over one hundred billion dollars in tax refunds to you and me and the Joneses down the block, I have to ask “where is the money coming from?” Since our national checkbook has a balance of negative nine trillion, in order to send out these checks our Treasury will have to borrow more money. And, you may ask, who would loan such big bucks to the US of A? I would answer that it will be the some groups to which we already owe the nine trillion. And in that group are a whole bunch of governments and other entities that are not necessarily fans of America. Hey, for all I know, Osama bin Laden may own a few hundred million in T-notes.

Let’s forget the national security implications of having hocked our government to people who don’t like us. Let’s just look at the economics. Nine trillion dollars in debt results in over two hundred billion dollars in interest payments each year. That, my friends, is a whopping big chunk of pocket change. If we didn’t have to pay it out in interest we could just divide it among us and I assure you we wouldn’t need an economic stimulus package. Because of the rather immoral fiscal irresponsibility of our four most recent Administrations, when we need money for an emergency (assuming for the second that economic stimulus is an emergency) we need to go out and borrow it. I don’t know about you friends, but if the maven and maveness managed our personal finances the way the government has managed its finances we’d have gone out of business long ago.

Wouldn’t it be great, dear reader, if one of the 435 representatives or 33 or 34 senators up for reelection stood up in either the House or Senate chamber and took a stand against increasing our debt by the amount of whatever this stimulus package is going to cost? What if s/he spoke and acted for fiscal responsibility? What if s/he made it clear that the Government should not spend money whenever the President and Congress feel like it, without considering whether, in fact, we actually have the money to spend? Wouldn’t it also be great if that member of either the House or Senate was rewarded with reelection just for voting against an economic stimulus package that we cannot afford. Do we three hundred million Americans not deserve a Congress and President who before enacting legislation that requires the country to spend first ask “Show me the money?”

Second Amendment: Clear As Mud

Saturday’s TD published the letter “Second Amendment Isn’t Hard to Understand.” ( As I’ve mentioned before, the TD publishes a whole lot of letters interpreting the Second Amendment as guaranteeing your right and mine to own and bear AK-47s, Uzis and other killing machines. And they all opine that the amendment is crystal clear on its face. Our writer today is no different. After quoting the amendment (although not without adding her own words) our writer asks “Why are the words ‘shall not be infringed’ so difficult to understand in 2008?” So our writer not only adds to the language of the amendment but also interprets only a part of it. I could reply to the writer “Why are the words ‘A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State’ so easy to ignore in 2008.”

What our writer is unwilling to recognize is that the Second Amendment is not as clear as she says. Interpreting it without knowing the context in which it was proposed and ratified may just produce the wrong conclusion. She needs to realize that our founding generation was deathly afraid of standing armies. As British citizens, they surely knew that it was only about a century since Oliver Cromwell had used Britain’s “New Model Army” with its red uniforms to overthrow the king and have himself installed as Lord Protector. They also knew that the kings in Europe, including their beloved George III, maintained power by keeping large standing armies to protect them. Even during our Revolution there were many Americans who feared George Washington’s Continental Army as a force that could impose a new tyranny after ousting the British. Militias of the people, however, could provide for the national and state defense without the dangers of a standing army.

The first statement of what later became the Second Amendment was contained as Article XIII of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. It read,

That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and be governed by, the civil power.

The phrase “That the people have a right to keep and bear arms” was added to this language in 1788 by the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention in its proposed bill of rights. The New York convention broke up the right into three paragraphs:

That the People have a right to keep and bear Arms; that a well regulated Militia, including the body of the People capable of bearing Arms, is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free State;
That the Militia should not be subject to Martial Law except in time of War, Rebellion or Insurrection.
That standing Armies in time of Peace are dangerous to Liberty, and ought not to be kept up, except in Cases of necessity; and that at all times, the Military should be under strict Subordination to the civil Power.

When James Madison submitted his version of the Bill of Rights to the Congress in 1789 the provision was close to its final language,

The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.

The final version, adopted by the Congress and then sent to the states for ratification, reversed the order of the first two clauses and dropped the conscientious objector provision.

To me it is clear that the right to keep and bear arms must be read in conjunction with the founding generation’s determination to rely on militias, rather than a standing army, for national defense. Certainly the right to bear arms is a right of the people, not the state or federal governments. On the other hand, the right was clearly intended to guarantee the existence of militias, not for any other purpose. Further, the fact that we now are perfectly comfortable maintaining a standing army, navy, air force and marine corps and that our state militias have been themselves formalized into National Guards and Reserve components, could lead one to the conclusion that the right to bear arms for the purpose of maintaining a strong national defense is no longer relevant in 2008.

Friday, January 18, 2008

[Not Quite] Enough Said

Although the Braves are leaving, I assume I am stuck with the Richmond Times-Dispatch (at least for so long as the publishers can make a buck here). So I’ve been trying real hard to coexist with the TD. Some times it’s not that easy. I think the paper’s editorial policy is a bit Neanderthal, but it’s their nickel. Sometimes I’m a bit astounded by what the TD chooses to give front page attention to, while relegating to the back pages stories I consider to be of monumental importance. And then there are the times when I just sit at my kitchen table baffled.

A week or so ago, the TD used at least half of its editorial to give us all a history of the Church of England. Not that I minded. I learned that if your name was Thomas and you were appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by a king named Henry you would probably not lead a long life. I even went to the website of the Archbishop to learn about the appointment process (I had been surprised by the TD’s statement that the Prime Minister of England appoints the Archbishop. Actually, it’s not that simple. If you’re interested in the detailed appointment process, you might want to look at But, what was the point of this editorial? The TD thought the fact that former Prime Minister Tony Blair might have been a closet Catholic at the time he forwarded the name of Rowan Williams to be archbishop merited the observation “History works in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.” To which I replied at my breakfast table “?”

Today, under the title “Enough Said,” the TD editorial quoted from a post-Appomattox letter from “retired” Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Commonwealth Governor John Letcher. I’ll quote the letter here so you don’t have to switch channels.

"The duty of [the South's] citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit doubt. All should unite in honest effort to obliterate the effects of the war and to restore the blessing of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country, promote harmony and good feeling, qualify themselves to vote, and elect to the state and general legislatures wise and patriotic men who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself."

So, says I to myself, why exactly is this old letter being printed? What is it that the TD is trying to say to us under the title “Enough Said?” Is the TD suggesting that there are still citizens of Virginia that have not yet accepted the military decision of 1865? I certainly hope not. Are they saying that we are not promoting “harmony and good feeling?” Or, is it that we are not electing to the Congress and the General Assembly “wise and patriotic men?”

These are just a couple of examples of TD editorials that leave me wondering whether it is me or the editors that have lost the power of reason. If the TD is using its bully pulpit to tell us something, wouldn’t it be better to just let us know the lesson it is trying to teach? Is there some point to what the editorial is saying? Guys, could you help me out here?

But wait, you say. Maven, aren’t you sometimes guilty of the same baffling prose? Reader, you cut me to the quick. I spend hours writing and rewriting to make sure my preaching makes sense. I am proud of the reasonableness of my writing. And, even if there are times when my writing also baffles, I have license to do so. I am a CPM (certified public maven). And that, loyal reader, has made all the difference.

Restaurant Smoking—A No Brainer

The General Assembly is fighting out the public smoking battle again this year. At issue is legislation that would ban smoking in all public places including restaurants and bars. Unfortunately, the battle is set up as an “I win—you lose” contest so people on both sides will fight this one out to the bitter end. In my opinion, the end does not need to be bitter.

One side says that second hand smoke makes them feel sick and that therefore smoking should be banned in restaurants or bars that they may wish to frequent. They say that dividing establishments into smoking and non-smoking sections does not provide them with the protection from smoke that they need. This side is clearly right.

Another side says that they have the right to smoke when and where they choose. They argue that non-smokers are already protected by non-smoking sections. This side is also clearly right.

A third side (I love three sided coins), the restaurant/tavern owners, argue that in a free country the government has no business telling them whether to allow or prohibit smoking in their own establishment. In my opinion this side is also clearly right.

We have a situation in which one or more of the sides, which is obviously right, will end up losing. If smoking is banned, the smokers and the owners will feel that they have lost. If smoking is not banned, the non-smokers will have lost because they will continue to be assaulted by second hand smoke in public places. So how do we turn this into a win—win situation?

I propose a law that requires restaurant or bar owners to choose whether their establishment is to be a smoking or non-smoking place. If it is smoking, there will be no “non-smoking” sections; smokers will be able to sit (or stand) wherever they choose. If it is non-smoking, there will be no “smoking” sections; smoking will be prohibited throughout. Whatever choice the owner makes must be made clear by signs both inside and outside the establishment.

If this proposal becomes law, everybody wins. Non-smokers will be free of second hand smoke because they will only go to non-smoking businesses. Smokers can puff and inhale to their heart’s delight because they will only go to smoking businesses. Proprietors will be free to choose whether their business will be smoking or non-smoking. And, I trust that in the end the market will determine which facilities end up smoking or non-smoking. Restaurant or bar owners will decide whether to allow smoking based on what is best for their business.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Braves Are Not The Only Ones Leaving

With the whole metropolitan area abuzz over the “surprise” departure of our beloved Richmond Braves you would think that a great disaster is taking place. Having survived Walter O’Malley killing the soul of Brooklyn by moving the Dodgers to California and Bob Short moving the Washington Senators to Texas, I can assure you that there are worse things than losing a baseball team.

As I write this, the City of Richmond continues to lose its middle class. The city is losing these people mainly because of the widely held perception that their children cannot receive a quality education in our public schools. I would guess that since I moved to River City hundreds of families have departed for the counties. The demographic profile of the city becomes further polarized between the old and the young and between the rich and the poor. What is missing are the middle class families with children of school age. They have all moved to Chesterfield, Hanover, Henrico counties and points even farther out from the city.

The city’s constant hemorrhaging of its middle class is an exodus of potentially disastrous proportions. The departure of the Braves, on the other hand, is just an inconvenience and the loss of a few jobs. Yet all the media, print and broadcast, all the city’s leadership, governmental and private sector, wring their hands in consternation over the departure of a baseball team, while they refuse to even acknowledge the much more serious loss of a key part of our city’s population.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Braves Choose the Highway

Every time I went to a Brave’s game at the Diamond I would chuckle when the announcer introduced “your Richmond Braves.” It was always very clear to me that the team was not ours but Atlanta’s. Now, the Atlanta Braves organization has made it very clear that the Braves were only on loan.

What I find rather amusing is the shock shown by those who pass for leadership in our fair metropolitan area. Considering how they have treated the Braves over the last three years, should they have been surprised? Let us not forget that one of the first targets of L. Douglas Wilder’s “I am the boss” approach to government was the Braves. When the Braves’ organization let it be known that they needed a new stadium, Mr. Wilder made it clear that any new stadium could be built only on his terms. He tugged the Braves from Shockoe Bottom to Fulton then back to North Boulevard. Throughout, Mr. Wilder’s attitude was “my way or the highway.” Well, after putting up with our mayor's antics for three years the Braves have chosen—it’s the highway.

Although we are losing the Braves, we Richmond baseball fans need not worry. As pointed out by our beloved mayor, “One thing’s certain. Richmond will have baseball.” I assume the mayor was referring to the Washington Nationals games on Comcast.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Dewey Defeats Truman!

In its lead editorial today, our great metropolitan daily (The Richmond Times-Dispatch for you out-of-towners), tried to explain Senator Clinton’s unexpected defeat of Senator Obama in the New Hampshire Democratic primary last week. As you know, before the vote the political polls indicated that Senator Obama would build on his Iowa caucuses victory by thrashing Senator Clinton in New Hampshire. All the political pundits were stunned by Senator Clinton’s seventy five hundred vote victory over Obama. How to explain it?

The TD tried to explain the upset by what it calls “The Wilder Effect.” It harkened back to the 1989 election for governor here in the Commonwealth. Before the election, the polls showed Democrat L. Douglas Wilder (African American) with a significant lead over Republican Marshall Coleman (Caucasian). On the day of the election, however, Mr. Wilder beat Mr. Coleman by a scant few thousand votes. “The Wilder Effect,” according to the TD, is the tendency of white voters to tell pollsters that they will vote for a black candidate although they do not really intend to do so. Presumably, these voters lie to the polls to avoid being perceived as racists. Only in the privacy of the voting booth will they reveal their true preferences.

Good try, TD, but I have a different explanation. The polls were just wrong. Way back when I was a wee lad, cutting my political teeth on a Democratic Party primary election in Brooklyn, USA, I learned the truth about polls, and it has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.

In 1965, the New York Democratic Party was choosing between two candidates for mayor—Sanitation Commissioner Paul Screvane and City Comptroller Abe Beam. I campaigned for Screvane going door-to-door in my neighborhood urging people to vote for him. On the night before the election, we sat around the Monroe Democratic Club celebrating our victory the following day. Why this premature party? The final polls on that Monday indicated that Screvane was going to beat Beam rather badly.

But, I forgot to tell you one key fact about the candidates. Paul Screvane was of Italian origin; Abe Beam was a Jew—the first Jew to run for mayor of New York. On Election Day, a funny thing happened. The Beam people hired a large number of busses and transported huge numbers of residents of Jewish senior residences to the polls to vote for Abe. Some came to the polls in wheel chairs; others actually on stretcher beds. Most of these older people hadn’t voted in years. Certainly the pollsters had not included them in their samples. So, on primary day, the Democratic electorate proved the pollsters wrong by choosing Abe Beam, rather than Paul Screvane as their candidate. I call this “The Abe Beam Effect,” or as Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

There is another “effect” that may explain the big New Hampshire upset. I will call this one “The We’re Gonna Teach Those Outsiders a Lesson Effect.” It was explained by a New Hampshire voter the day after the election. He said that people in New Hampshire are very independent and resent all the media and pollsters telling them how they are going to vote. He thought that a significant number of New Hampshire Democrats changed their vote from Obama to Clinton at the polls just to prove the political professionals wrong.

So what is the real reason that Hillary beat Barack in New Hampshire? Frankly dear reader, I don’t give a damn. The fact is that the polls were wrong and Clinton won. “The Guy with the Most Votes is the Winner Effect” triumphs again.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

This maven has had enough of Doug Wilder’s war on the children of this city. According to the TD this morning, ( His Excellency is freezing 1.4 million dollars of school maintenance money because . . . well, because he feels like it. Mr. Wilder also threatens to reduce Richmond Public Schools' maintenance budget by 1.5 million for the next school year. I say enough is enough.

We, the citizens of Richmond, have watched this man war on RPS and on the School Board for his entire term as mayor. It is clear that Mr. Wilder is interested only in expanding his power. He cares nothing for Richmond’s children. If their schools need repairs, Doug replies “screw ‘em.” If the tiles are crumbling, if the basements are wet, if the ventilation is bad so the kids can’t get fresh air, if our school buildings are not accessible to disabled children, the answer is the same, “screw ‘em.” Yet, we the parents and grandparents of Richmond sit back and do nothing.

And let’s face it. The mayor is not the only public official in Richmond who says “screw ‘em” to our children. Our beloved City Council has re-imposed its funding freeze on RPS for at least another year. Fellow citizens, face the realities, a funding freeze is really a funding cut because costs are constantly going up. So, although other city spending goes up (all those increased assessments produced a big influx of revenue) our children continue to suffer. One of our councilpersons even has the audacity to call it “tough love.” Are our children acting so badly that we have to “tough love” them with budget cuts?

His Mayorship has convinced the City Council that RPS is over funded. He uses meaningless “cost-per-student” figures to “demonstrate” that RPS and the School Board must be wasting millions of dollars. However, cost-per-student comparisons are like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. We in Richmond have to spend more per student on education than do our surrounding counties because we have a much higher concentration of children living in poverty than do any of the counties and therefore have to provide more services to our children.

We need to look at another comparison to see if we in Richmond are adequately funding our schools. Last year, using figures I gathered from the Internet, I put together a comparison of school spending as a percentage of a jurisdiction’s total operating budget. I found the following:

City of Richmond 26.1%
Chesterfield County 38%
Henrico County 54%
City of Norfolk 40.3%
City of Virginia Beach 48%

Clearly, Richmond is spending a far smaller percentage of its operating budget on schools than are these other jurisdictions. Not only do we spend less, we are heading in the wrong direction. The percentage of Richmond’s operating budget spent for schools is going down.

Fiscal year 2007 26.1%
Fiscal year 2008 25.03%
Fiscal year 2009 24.71%

Our mayor and our City Council are intent on starving our public schools. Who suffers? The children. And we, the parents and grandparents of Richmond say nothing.

I, for one, am tired of saying nothing. I am publicly announcing the year of our school children in 2008. I am determined to make the elections in November, both for mayor and City Council, turn on the issue of adequate funding for our schools. I am making it clear that I will not vote for or support for reelection either the mayor or any member of the City Council who refuses to provide a first class education for the people of our city. Here is my challenge:

Doug Wilder: I will not support you for reelection unless you stop your war against our children. You must support adequate funding for our public schools.

Kathy Graziano: I will not support you for reelection unless you provide adequate funding for our schools.

I invite all in our city who care about its future to join me in making this the year when we stop our public officials from depriving our school children:

Richmond Council of PTAs: Join me in demanding adequate funding for our schools;
Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce: Join me in demanding adequate funding for our schools;
Richmond Education Association: Join me in demanding adequate funding for our schools;
Communities in Schools: Join me in demanding adequate funding for our schools;
Micah Initiative: Join me in demanding adequate funding for our schools;
Hope in the Cities: Join me in demanding adequate funding for our schools;
Friends of Fourth District Schools: Join me in demanding adequate funding for our schools.

Fellow citizens and taxpayers of the City of Richmond, we have to make our voices heard. Parents and grandparents we have to let our elected representatives know that we will no longer tolerate their continuous reduction in school funding. Go to the City Council’s website (, find out who your councilperson is and write or e-mail to them your demand that they stop under funding our public schools.

Our leaders have been ignoring the needs of the children in this city for decades. Maybe their thinking is that because most of our school children are poor and black they don’t have to care about them. I have no doubt that if our public school children were predominantly white and middle class our school system would be world class.

Treasured reader, Richmond will never be a great city until we have great schools. It is that simple. Any of our elected officials who do not support our building a great school system do not deserve to be reelected. It’s really up to you. I think these politicians will continue to under fund our schools until you go to the voting machine and demand that they stop.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Watch Your Language, W

President W’s speech in Ramallah, as reported in today’s TD, again shows why it is crucial that our next president not be someone who is a foreign policy virgin and does not like to read. Mr. Bush, who didn’t even know the Middle East existed until September 11, 2001, and whose only interaction with it since has been the invasion of Iraq, has now decided to rescue his legacy by brokering a resolution to the century-long war between Jews and Arabs in the territory west of the Jordan River valley. And, Mr. Bush has made it clear that he expects the whole nasty mess to be over before he leaves office on January 20 of next year.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bush’s continued lack of foreign policy ability shows in his choice of words. As quoted in the TD, Mr. Bush said:

“There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. . .These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent.”

Mr. Bush’s statement is chock-full of poorly chosen words. If Mr. Bush were not a neophyte, he would know that to the Arab world “an end to the occupation that began in 1967” means a return to the armistice boundaries that were in place from 1948 until May of 1967. Such boundaries, as demonstrated during the 19 years year before 1967 did not constitute “defensible borders” for Israel. Moreover, merely by using the word “occupation,” Mr. Bush is impliedly accepting the Arab world historical view that the 1967 war was an unprovoked war of conquest by the Israelis.

It is not at all clear how Mr. Bush would provide for his “viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent” Palestinian state. If Mr. Bush had looked at a map of the land west of the Jordan he would have realized that Gaza and the West Bank, the two areas that presumably will make up the Palestinian state, are separated by a significant portion of the State of Israel. When he calls for a “contiguous” Palestinian state, does Mr. Bush really mean that the two separate areas of the state must somehow be physically united?

Mr. Bush’s language, in fact his entire diplomatic initiative, reveals that after seven years as our CINC he still doesn’t understand. Mr. Bush seems to have fallen for the propaganda line that if only the “Palestinian Issue” can be resolved by the creation of a Palestinian state there will be eternal peace in the Middle East. If Israel and Palestine can only beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, then
1- Osama bin Laden will make a “mission accomplished” speech, will call off his war against western civilization, and al Qaeda will disband;
2- Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will abandon his country’s uranium enrichment activities, will invite the Pope for a reconciliation meeting and will celebrate Passover with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert in Jerusalem;
3- All the factions in Iraq will disarm and will hold a “we’re so glad you’re here” party for American troops; and
4- Hezbollah, Hamas, and all the other Islamic terrorists will throw down their weapons; truly the wolf will lie with the lamb.

If only W had done a little reading, he would have known that there could have been a Palestinian state way back in 1948. The United Nations partition resolution called for the creation of both a Jewish and an Arab state in British mandated Palestine. Rather than establishing that state, the Arab leadership decided instead to try to destroy the infant Jewish state—Israel—with disastrous results for the Arabs living in Palestine.

For the next 19 years there could have been a Palestinian state. Instead, Egypt annexed Gaza, Jordan annexed the West Bank, and the Arab world continued its war of extermination against Israel. Even after the 1967 war, when Israeli troops were deployed from the Suez Canal to the Golan Heights, Israel offered to return land in exchange for peace. The response of the Arab world was “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it . . .”

So, I’m not sure why Mr. Bush thinks that by being “a pain if I need to be a pain” he will bring about peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the brief 12 months (plus) that he has left as president. As the TD pointed out yesterday in its editorial Permanent War,

“Presidents, secretaries of state, and designated negotiators have tried to make Arab-Israeli peace their legacy. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to encourage progress. Hopeful signs arise only to crash. The fundamentals have not changed—and may not change for additional centuries of scarlet violence.”

The TD concludes that Mr. Bush’s peace diplomacy will fail as have all previous presidential attempts to end the Arab-Israeli war.

I am not willing to be as pessimistic as is the TD. I hope that before I depart this world I will see at least a perpetual state of non-war between Israel and its neighbors. But I’m afraid it will take more than W and his twelve month deadline to bring it about. In fact, I’m afraid that his choice of words at Ramallah may have made it tougher to bring about that solution now.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Oh Bill, Tell Me It Isn’t So!

This maven is feeling very sad. I just received an e-mail from New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson telling me that he is indeed dropping out of the presidential race. This is after the voters in our thirtieth and fortieth largest states have expressed their opinions. This is when less than 5% of the delegates to the Democratic convention have been chosen. I know that Richardson finished fourth in both those states, but we have only heard from a few hundred thousand voters. How can the governor quit when only so few people have spoken?

What makes me sad is that Bill Richardson is (was) hands down the most qualified person in either party running for the presidency. He had legislative experience, having served several terms in the United States Congress. He was a diplomat, culminating in him serving as this country’s ambassador to the United Nations. (When President W needed someone to negotiate with the North Koreans to get back the remains of our Korean War dead, he sent Bill Richardson). He was United States Secretary of Energy, which not only required him to manage a big bureaucracy, but also had him dealing with both energy and nuclear weapons issues. Most recently he has served with distinction as the governor of a growing southwestern state. The credentials of Senator Clinton pale in comparison with those of Bill Richardson; senators Obama and Edwards don’t even appear on the same page.

So, if Bill Richardson is so qualified how come he attracted so little support? I’ll give you a few reasons—
1- The media didn’t take his candidacy seriously. Therefore they didn’t give him much coverage, which made it harder for him to attract support and money.
2- The media didn’t think he could win. Therefore they applied all their resources to covering the “first tier” of candidates—Clinton, Edwards and Obama. Most of the voters probably didn’t realize they had a choice other than the “first tier.”
3- Bill Richardson is not a sexy candidate. He is shortish and roundish and speaks just like you and me. He doesn’t wear thousand dollar suits or five hundred dollar hairstyles. On the debate stage he was hardly noticeable. Frankly, he looked a little messy just like you and me. He sort of reminded me of Harry Truman, who never could have been elected to any office in our television-Internet age.
4- Bill Richardson is not a great orator. Nobody could confuse him with Barack Obama. In our times, when style is so much more important than substance, Bill Richardson looked sort of like a burned out star on the stage with Super Novas.
5- (That’s enough. Only David Letterman can always think of ten reasons.)

Bill Richardson’s presidential demise points out all that is wrong with how we choose our candidates. The process is overly long, favoring those who can raise the big bucks. The process puts far too much emphasis on the early vote in the small states. Why should we allow a few hundred thousand voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have so much power? In many instances, it is the media, not the voters, who really choose the candidates. By deciding who to give coverage to and who to ignore, our friends at ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN have a far greater say in who wins than the people who go to the polls or caucuses.

In his e-mail Bill Richardson urged his supporters to pick one of the remaining candidates and to support him or her. For me this will not be easy. Frankly, I do not have a great deal of confidence in the abilities of senators Clinton, Edwards or Obama to be elected in November. I have lived long enough to know that the Democratic Party always finds a way to stare into the jaws of victory and snatch defeat by picking a candidate that cannot win.

So, what am I going to do on February 12, when we in the Old Dominion finally get our say? I think I’m going to go to the front of the voting machine (we no longer have a booth for privacy) and I am going to vote for the person on the ballot most qualified to be president. That will still be Bill Richardson.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

I’m Sorry Mr. Obama—No You Can’t

"I sincerely believe... that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity under the name of funding is but swindling futurity on a large scale."
Thomas Jefferson, 1816

I’m sure you all got goose bumps from Senator Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” not-quite-a-concession speech last night. Some compared it to John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton. But to me, with the cadence and the Baptist preacher resonance, Mr. Obama’s “Yes We Can” sounded a little like Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” In any event, it was a thrilling speech and it left Mr. Obama’s supporters determined to capture and change our government.

I’m afraid, however, that Mr. Obama is raising hopes in his supporters and is making promises he cannot possibly fulfill. And it’s not just Obama. All of the candidates for president are likewise encouraging us to believe that they are going to end poverty, that they will provide universal health care, that they will cut taxes for the middle class, that they will do all kinds of wonderful things to bring “change” to this country. Unfortunately, just chanting “Yes We Can” will not change the reality that we can’t do most of what the candidates are preaching because we just can’t afford it.

Last night I went to the Department of the Treasury’s website and learned that our Federal Government is in debt to the tune of $9,199,557,987,743.58. In plain words, we owe nine trillion, one hundred ninety nine billion, five hundred fifty seven million, nine hundred eighty seven thousand, seven hundred forty three dollars and fifty eight cents. I don’t know about you, but despite my experience and expertise I am unable to contemplate nine trillion dollars. I don’t think that I have ever carried more than two hundred bucks in my wallet at one time. Let’s just say that nine trillion is a bit more than that. In the words of the immortal Everett Dirksen, we are talking about real money.

What is the result of this enormous debt? Each year our government pays over two hundred twenty billion dollars in interest. Do you have any idea of how much health care we could buy for $220,000,000,000? Can you imagine how many times we could fly to the moon? Think of how many of our children we could send to college for free. Let your mind drift and imagine what we could accomplish with those two hundred twenty billion dollars. Yet, that is the amount we will pay this year and every year just to pay interest on our debt. It is money for which we will get nothing.

And just in case you think that debt is going away, keep in mind that we have trillions of dollars of unfunded promises that we are going to have to pay to our citizens in the next twenty years. Everybody expects Medicare to be there for them. Everybody expects that Social Security will be there for them. Where, I ask, is the money going to come from? Are there enough governments, corporations and individuals in the world who will want to continue lending us money in the future to pay the amount of our yearly commitments? Or, will we need massive tax increases to keep our government solvent. Or, is it possible that the United States of America will end up defaulting on its debt?

Have you heard any candidate even hint at our debt crisis? No! You can’t make promises to get yourself elected if you admit that the government can’t afford what your are promising. Republicans don’t want to talk about the debt because a Republican president and a Republican congress have increased our debt by almost three and a half trillion dollars since January 20, 2001. Democrats don’t want to talk about the debt because to admit the crisis would dampen all their plans.

So, we just go on with business as usual and celebrate when our annual deficit gets lower than two hundred billion dollars. Nobody plans for a way to bring our debt under control. Nobody talks about the real sacrifices we will have to endure over the next several years.

Each year that our government operates at a deficit, we are levying a tax of the amount of that deficit on our grandchildren. None of the Bush tax cuts were real cuts; they were just tax deferrals to be paid some day in the future, when you and I are dead.

Is there any way out? Well, it won’t be nearly as easy as it would have been had the Bush Administration continued the debt reduction strategies worked out by the Clinton Administration and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in the late 1990s. There is still time to act, although it will not be painless. We need to increase taxes. We need to restructure all our entitlement programs to reduce the unpayable promises we have made.

So what do you and I do? First we need to get more information. We need to go to the Fiscal Wake-up Tour by the Government Accountability Office ( We then need to start asking the hard questions of all the presidential candidates. While we’re at it we need to start asking the same questions of our federal senators and representatives. We owe it to our grandchildren.

There does not exist an engine so corruptive of the government and so demoralizing of the nation as a public debt. It will bring on us more ruin at home than all the enemies from abroad…
Thomas Jefferson, 1821

Give Me a Break!

(Parental discretion is advised. The maven is going to use the “O” word).

I’m sorry. I just don’t get it. Did I sleep through a whole year? Was tonight the election? Have we elected the next president? The media pundits and commentators and news anchors were so excited about the New Hampshire primary that I was afraid we would be watching mass multiple orgasms right on our TV screens.

What was all the panting and moaning about? Well, it seems that Senator John McCain and Senator Hillary Clinton pulled off the greatest comebacks in political history. I mean, just last week, everybody was writing them off as politically dead and now they have been reborn. We have rarely seen such political miracles. Hillary actually received about 95,000 votes. McCain got about 75,000. You heard me loyal reader. Those are not millions those are thousands.

Yes, the media world is going absolutely insane over a very small number of votes. New Hampshire, that wonderful Granite State, is the home for 1,314,895 people according to 2006 census estimates. In population it is the 40th largest state in this country. And a primary election in our 40th largest state is causing mass media hysteria. Only about 250,000 people voted in the Democratic primary. For the Republicans it was about 200,000 people who voted. Yet, the winning candidates and the media wizards would have you and I believe that political history was made today.

And, all of this comes only five days after equally momentous political history was made further to the west. On last Thursday, an equally small number of voters in Iowa created almost equal excitement by delivering victories for Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee. (I hope you haven’t forgotten those names from last week’s monumental political earthquake). As for Iowa, it is inhabited by 2,982,085 people according to 2006 census data. That makes it the 30th largest state by population.

Two weeks. Two “historic” votes. Each is more significant than the other. The excitement from each is almost unbearable.

Now, we are moving on to Nevada (2006 population 2,495,529-ranked 35) and South Carolina (2006 population 4,321,249-ranked 24). I assume that those two small state primaries will be equally historic. I really don’t know how our poor pundits and commentators and anchors will be able to keep their excitement level so high week after week. They might not have anything left for the primaries on February 5, which may actually be historic.