Thursday, August 31, 2006

Hatfield Wilderness, Oregon

So I finally get to describing our hike through the Hatfield (formerly the Columbia) Wilderness just south of the Columbia Gorge in the Mount Hood National Forest. The area was part of the Columbia Gorge Recreation Area before 1984, when it was given wilderness status as the Columbia Wilderness by act of congress.
The wilderness area is best known for it's cascading streams, the Herman, Eagle and Tanner creeks, trails which lead you to waterfalls and take you by giant trees. Seeing as how it's only a half an hour from Portland, you get a fair amount of people too.
But there's another side to this area, a side that people often miss. Perhaps that's because the trails leading up to these areas, on the peaks and ridgetops along the creeks, are as steep as official forest-service-numbered trails get. They're labeled as "most difficult" on the Mt. Hood forest service website.

We parked at the Eagle Creek trail head (actually closer to the fish hatchery), paid our fee for the day parking, threw our water and day packs on and headed down to the freeway. Yes, that's right, I-84. The first part of this adventure takes you between the fish hatchery and the highway, on a paved trail that once served as the old highway through the gorge. For a few hundred yards you walk next to cars speeding by at 70 mph, separated by a concrete barrier. But after a while you veer off toward the steep sides of the gorge until you come to a stream crossing.
Ruckle creek is covered by the canopy, deep and dark. It isn't more than a trickle over the rocks as it comes steeply down, but the beauty is fleeting as we realized what the trail had in store. To say that trail 405, the Ruckle Creek trail, is steep is to say that Kareem Abdul Jabar is a little on the tall side. It rises 3500 feet in just under 4 miles. The trail is well kept, there aren't any trees to straddle or vegetation to plow through, but the makers of this trail didn't get to the part of the trail-maker's guide where it describes how to switch back (although there were a couple, one of which is pictured below). We took frequent breaks.
We were also quickly rewarded with views of the gorge, Cascade Locks, the Bridge of the Gods and Bonneville Dam far below. We were indeed desiring a challenge that day, but we got to a point where we were wondering if the trail would ever level out.
Eventually it did, and it became several hundred acres of flatness called the Benson Plateau. It rises to 4000 feet on it's opposite side, but you won't get fancy views off the top, as it's well forested. It seems peaceful, and would seem that if you stood still for a while you would be certain to see deer or other grazing animals pass by. There were lots of places to lay a tent down in this area.
After a while we hooked up with the PCT and hiked down to the junction that would take us down to the Eagle Creek trail. There was an interesting camp on the ridge there called Camp Smokey, where someone had taken some logs and stacked them in between a few trees as a wind break.
If there were anything worse than the slope of trail 405, it would have to be 434. It starts out simple enough from the top, but after a half mile or so, it starts to dive down at a rate rivaling an Olympic Nordic ski jump. As if that weren't bad enough, we entered a burnt out area from a fire a few years ago. Many of the charred trees still stood, but only just. The canopy was gone, and in it's place we got massive ground vegetation in the form of Salmon berry bushes. After a bit of bush-whacking we lost the trail entirely, and only found it again after going straight down the mountainside a few hundred feet. We got lucky.
The trail continued (now in the forest thank goodness) it's meteoric descent until we could hear the creek dropping over falls below. However, we weren't out of the woods yet, so to speak. Some parts of the bottom of the trail, where the slopes get bare and almost cliff-like as they fall into the creek bed, are treacherous.
However, after that toe-thrashing adventure was over, the Eagle Creek trail is a welcome break. It is very moderately graded, if just a little rocky. We went upstream for a bit to Tunnel Falls, which has a tunnel cut under the falls themselves, as there was nowhere else to put the trail. Many sections of this trail down to the trailhead are blasted right out of the cliffside. This makes for more dramatic waterfall viewing.
Out for a casual stroll? I would recommend the Eagle Creek trail. Tunnel Falls is about 6 miles up from the trailhead. Punchbowl falls is about 3, and the high bridge, a dramatic bridge over a narrow section of the creek hemmed in by 100 foot cliffs, is about 4 miles in.

Rare switch on trail 405

The Elevator (I'm pointing the camera up here)

The Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River

Looking over to Washington

Benson Plateau

Camp Smokey

Looking back toward the gorge

There's the trail... see it?

Tunnel Falls, you can see the trail on the other side

Tunnel under falls

(not the high bridge, another one)

Punchbowl Falls

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Why the Plame scandal might be bad

Here’s something for thought.  I remember back to a conversation I had with a Democrat friend of mine where he made the concerned comment that the Bush administration appointed too many insiders.  He talked about how he thought the Bush administration didn’t like opposing opinions and wanted ‘Yes’ men instead, and that was bad because they wouldn’t know when they did something wrong (or so the meme goes).

Well, consider this.  What is the net effect of the Wilson/Plame scandal that’s been ripping around for the last 4 years going to have on this and future administrations, and is it going to improve or discourage a President’s desire to flush out bureaucrats with people that are in line with his or her thinking.

Note that while the scandal started with Wilson’s attempt to discredit the administration by using the press in such a way that it would appear that Bush lied about certain facts, when in fact Wilson’s fact finding mission actually supported Bush’s comments, it quickly got out of control in other areas.  There was never much substance in the original issue, so the issue became the outing of Valerie Plame, his wife.

Now, the facts get lost here, because the only thing you might remember from all the press screaming was that Plame was a CIA covert agent and someone in the Bush administration leaked that she was a covert agent to the press, compromising her position and breaking a serious federal law.  This was propped up to be a crime by the administration and therefore liberals and Democrats held on to it for dear life, possibly in retaliation for the Clinton scandals that Republicans drove home like a jackhammer years earlier.  

Now it appears that the original leaker is a man in the State Dept who is known for his vehement opposition to Bush’s was policies: Richard Armitage. 

      After you have noted that the Niger uranium connection was in fact based on intelligence that has turned out to be sound, you may also note that this heated moral tone ("thuggish," "gang") is now quite absent from the story. It turns out that the person who put Valerie Plame's identity into circulation was a staunch foe of regime change in Iraq.

Never mind that Plame was probably not covered under the covert protection laws anymore anyway, as her covert status had ended 5 years earlier.  She was currently just a desk jockey at the time.  So if all this is NOT a determined campaign by the administration to get back at Wilson and other rivals, what was really going on here?

      What does emerge from Hubris is further confirmation of what we knew all along: the extraordinary venom of the interdepartmental rivalry that has characterized this administration. In particular, the bureaucracy at the State Department and the CIA appear to have used the indiscretion of Armitage to revenge themselves on the "neoconservatives" who had been advocating the removal of Saddam Hussein. Armitage identified himself to Colin Powell as Novak's source before the Fitzgerald inquiry had even been set on foot. The whole thing could—and should—have ended right there.

In fact, holdover CIA director George Tenet (who Bush didn’t replace when taking office in 2000) was happy to redirect attention away from CIA incompetence to an administration scandal. 

I guess my point here is that future Presidents are going to see this as a big red warning sign instructing them to fully clean house in all areas of the Executive branch.  State Department, CIA, everywhere.  Bush is looking pretty bad right now for NOT replacing the head of the CIA earlier, or cleaning house at the State Department. 

Is that going to create more ‘Yes’ men or less do you think?

If you want a more thorough analysis of the Armitage revelation, check JustOneMinute’s, as Tom Maguire has been following this story since the beginning.

It's not Israel, Kofi

Just to showcase that the UN really still doesn’t get what’s going on in the middle east, brother Kofi took a little trip to Israel and Palestine and made comments to the effect that

      "I have been urging for the immediate lifting of the blockade on Lebanon. It is important - not only because of the effect it is having on the country, but it is also important to strengthen the democratic government of Lebanon," said Annan.

Sure lifting the blockade would be good for the peoples of Palestine and Lebanon, but what would the end result be for Israel when Hamas and Hezbollah have unfettered access to Israel again.

What would you do if you were Israel?  Unfortunately, Annan is treating this in the same old “Israel is the problem” manner, and therefore is helping no one.

Israelis have a saying.  "If the Palestinians and Hezbollah put down their arms, there would be peace.  If Israel put down it's arms there would be no Israelis left."

Sudan update

A government-sponsored protest in Khartoum this week demonstrated against pressure from the international community to place a UN force in the Darfur area.

      Several hundred Sudanese rallied in the center of Khartoum, chanting anti-U.N. and anti-U.S. slogans, saying they would fight to protect Sudan from international intervention. Hundreds more drove through the capital in buses, waving banners and singing nationalist songs.

Interesting, in that it’s not just a government that’s oppressing and killing a minority in the country of Sudan, it’s an ethnic group whose leaders control the country.  The Black Muslim and Christian ethnic groups in the West and South, respectively, don’t have representation in the government of Sudan, and not only are disenfranchised, but often oppressed. 

What, you thought they would welcome us in?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Somalian infestation

I trust that people who need to know about this sort of thing are aware of what’s going on in Somalia.

      Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the al-Qaeda linked leader of the Islamic Courts is consolidating power in Somalia by taking control of vital lines of communications, organizing the army of the Islamic Courts, and instituting shariah law throughout the areas it controls.

I’m not sure of the elected state of the Transitional Federal Government, and it’s legitimacy, but I can guarantee that the emergence of an Islamist power is not “of the people.” 

We’ve seen this before, with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and other places.  The question is, when does a movement like this constitute foreign invasion?  How many of the leaders/fighters come from abroad?  The money is definitely coming from the Arabic peninsula.  If the nations of the world considered this an invasion, what would they do?


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Wine: Blackwood Canyon

If you’re passing through the Tri Cities area of Washington, and if you’re a fan of wine, there’s a little secret that demands to be let out.  The Yakima River valley, from Richland up to Yakima, is littered with dozens of wineries that you can visit and taste their wares.  Hogue comes to mind, as does Hedges. 

But there’s only one that you really should visit.
Blackwood Canyon Vintners was started on the premise that someone in this world should be making wine the way Europeans did 100 years ago.  Wine that’s full bodied and lasts for years.  Indeed, their wine is designed to last for more than 10 years on the shelf, and a bottle of their 1989 Two Ladies reserve is waiting for my 10th anniversary on our shelf at home.  We bought a 1988 Chardonnay that clung to the glass like brandy and was more intense than any Pinot Noir I’ve had recently.

Last Saturday, my family and I took exit 96 off Interstate 82, and after a quick right and left, proceeded to head down hwy 224 back toward Red Mountain. A left on Sunset road takes you past the Kiona, Sandhill and Hedges wineries, where then you’ll see a small sign on the left side of the road declaring that you’ve reached Blackwood Canyon. 

Well, not quite.  After turning onto the dirt road between rows of grapevines, I noted that there was no building in sight and wondered if I had the right driveway.  After a bit of driving the road dipped down the hill toward the Yakima River and then a turn to the right revealed two older buildings and a couple of pickup trucks.  Still not sure if I was in the right place, but there was a sign on the further building that indicated that we were, in fact, in front of the barrel cellar. 

The tasting room entry looks cozy enough from the outside, but upon entering we were presented with probably the most Spartan tasting room I’ve ever been in.  This is the one caveat I have to visiting the place, the condition of the tasting area.  I don’t know what the condition of barrel rooms at all wineries, but this one was not exactly dusted off for company.  And there were fruit flies everywhere.

There were a couple of people there already tasting, and only one guy pouring the wine.  He was obviously the owner and not an employee.  He looked like he had just come in from the vineyard, where he apparently walks around barefoot and has for some time.  He appears like a younger David Crosby, round belly and shaggy mustache, and has obviously been “appreciating” his own work for the better part of the day.  My advice is to go early in the day for your tasting.

The guy obviously knows, and loves, wine and wine making, but it was hard to get the guy to stop talking and pour the samples that we paid for (yes, there is a tasting fee.  I caught some wine guy in Seattle complaining about this, but it must be a Washington thing, as Oregon wineries routinely charge).

After spending over 2 hours tasting Chardonnay, Cabernet and Semillon like I’ve never had them before, I was convinced that I would never approach wine the same way again.  The Cabernet was smooth and silky, the Chardonnay was full and brandy-like.  The Cabernet, incidentally, came out of a decanter that had been sitting for a few days, and the taste hadn’t gone bad, like it would in any other wine produced here in the Northwest (at least that I’ve bought).  He didn’t so much declare that proudly as berate the rest of the industry for making fast, cheap wine for the masses for the purpose of making money and not for the love of wine.  The angst was thick.

If there’s not too many people (we were the only ones there at the time) he’ll also bring out a few foods to try with the wine.  We had black beans (with hot peppers), tasty roast beef, parmesan cheese, and oysters in the shell that my wife swore was some of the best she’s ever had.  This guy can obviously cook.

I’d suggest buying something to enjoy at home some night over dinner.  However don’t feel too pressured, as most of the bottles he sells are above the $30 range and extend into the thousands (for one bottle of 1988 Merlot).  If you are into investments, though, this is one of the few wineries where you can buy futures in a case or two.  For instance, a half a case of 2004 Cabernet Bouchet is $178.50.  In ten years it’ll be worth a few times that.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Episcopal shuffle

The state of the Episcopal church is still in question.  For those of you just getting into this game, last year the Episcopal church elected an openly gay man as a Bishop in New England, which set the church on edge.  There was already tension inside the church because of doctrinal issues, but the gay bishop thing sent people over the edge.  Parishes lost members.  Some churches reorganized under other parishes where the temperature was more conservative.  But then things got quiet for a while.

Enter this summer, where the national General Assembly elected the first woman to head a national Christian denomination.  Along with that was a vigorous debate about divestment of funds to companies doing business with Israel.  But the debate should be illustrative of how off the deep end certain leaders in that church are.

      In a debate about whether the Presbyterian Church should divest from companies doing business with Israel, former Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase noted that the Israelis had their passion and the Palestinians had their passion. The solution, he said, is to affirm and embrace both. The fact that Hamas controls the Palestinian government and that Hamas' passion is to kill Jews and wipe Israel off the map never entered the conversation. Passions are the touchstone, not reason and analysis. His suggestion, thankfully, was rejected.

The article talks at length about this and the struggle ensuing from the election of Katharine Schori as Presiding Bishop, however I found the following statement to be a profound and succinct summary of the problems in the church in America.

      Having abandoned a Christian epistemology and, thus, Christian truths, the mainline/old-line denominations will continue their inexorable drift to the sideline. The current breakdown in the Episcopal church is the natural result of this crisis in authority and truth. The results will be a liberal vestige with lovely buildings and lots of endowment money, but few people.

More recently, we learn that many parishes are now leaving the Episcopal church and choosing oversight from foreign bishops in the Anglican church, who tend to be more conservative.

      These parishes identify themselves as Anglican to distinguish themselves from Episcopalian, which is ironic, since the name Episcopalian came into use in the aftermath of the American Revolution in order to highlight the separation from the Anglican Church, required so that clergy could avoid having to accept the supremacy of the British monarch. Now they are becoming foreign controlled again, and willingly so.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is expected to try and work out a compromise, but Steve Janke thinks that the liberal side of the church won’t buy into it.

          Williams has proposed a two-tier system of membership in the world communion, giving churches with nontraditional views on gay clergy and other issues a lesser role.

      Gee, sounds a lot like "civil unions" for gays as a different name from "marriage". Actually, with civil unions, there was no functional difference between that and marriage -- it was just that traditionalists wanted to maintain the word "marriage" for heterosexual couples for various reasons usually focused on the issue of childbearing.

But no one wants to be labeled into a lesser position, especially someone with American liberal views, so it’s doomed to failure. 

Frankly, I’ve expressed my view that I’m unsurprised by all this, and will continue to be  un-shocked at any cataclysmic event that befalls the Episcopal church.  In my opinion, this is what happens when churches of people try to organize around something other than basic Biblical foundations.  Think about all the non-Biblical doctrine and tradition that hamstrings the Catholic church (now I’m not saying that the Catholic church is not Christian, or that members are not good and saved Christians.  I’m saying it’s harder to maintain correct doctrine and faith in a system that promotes bad doctrine).

In the end I still predict that the Episcopal church will split in totality, the conservatives forming a new Anglican denomination and the liberals forming something like the Unitarian church (which accepts all sorts of stuff as legitimate).

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Columbia Wilderness

Oregon’s own, yes that’s right, Mark Hatfield Wilderness.  Ok, originally this was referred to as the Columbia Wilderness, but later was renamed after our esteemed Senator for 3 decades, Mark O. Hatfield.  Being that he was a Republican, this has a tendency to get under the skin of environmentally conscious liberals, and so if you travel there and decide to hike in a bit on the Eagle Creek trail, you will see that the signs have changed to say “Hatfield Wilderness.”  You will also see that the word “Hatfield” has been scratched out to almost unreadable dimensions. 

Never the less, it’s where I wanted to hike last week.  My wife and I have been planning a vigorous hiking trip with her brother for some time, and I though this would be a good one.  However, it was more brutal than I could have thought.  I’ll try and update this later with more description of our journey, as well as some pictures.  In the mean time, try this link to my Kodak pictures.  Who knows, it might work.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Integrity Magazine Sales

In one of those rare moments, the Portland Tribune, our city’s bi-weekly newspaper, has done and excellent piece on troubled youth caught up in the clutches of the door-to-door magazine sales industry.  Usually I expect just some local news from them.  Oh, this is happening and that is happening, and it’s all local or has local implications.

This week, while the story is mostly about an industry that passes through Portland every now and again, it has national implications and it’s something that everyone should be hearing about.  I don’t know what kind of treatment this is getting elsewhere, but the quality of the journalism and the depth and scope of the piece compare to stuff that Willamette Week does (when they write Pulitzer quality articles). 

I’m sure that you’ve had your doorbell rung by young teens or early 20 somethings trying to sell  you a magazine subscription.  The prices are certainly not competitive, but I think they are hoping that you appreciate the kids desperate situation or at least their desire to work for a living.   Or something, as I’ve never really been tempted to order from them.  However I also have never considered the circumstances that led them to pick this vocation.

Apparently it’s not all on the up and up.  The Trib describes it as “an underworld that turns homeless, naive and scared young adults from across the country into what often amounts to 21st-century indentured servants.”

      To work for Integrity Program, they suggest, was to naively answer a newspaper “help wanted” advertisement promising free travel and easy money and suddenly enter a world of violent and abusive sales crew managers who transport vanloads of young “sales agents” from town to town and state to state.

      A world of being put up in cheap hotels, where young agents are sometimes physically and sexually assaulted and often emotionally abused, and are forced to work 12 and 14 hours a day, six days a week, for $20 dollars a day or less.

      And, in essence, the young people, usually age 18 to 25 but occasionally younger, have no choice – or believe they have no choice – but to stay on the job. Because crew managers won’t give them the money – either the money they’ve earned or money they were promised when they hired on – to get a bus ticket back home.

These kids are mostly from troubled backgrounds, and off the street.  They are convinced by their managers and handlers that life on the “outside” is no better than what they have, so there’s no reason to leave.  More often than not, the kids actually buy into that, because of what they left behind. 

There is also a lot of physical and mental abuse by the managers.  Many have died in car accidents where the driver is later found out to have had no license.  It usually occurs when transporting from one city to another.

There’s a guy who lost his daughter too all this madness, and he keeps a website that tracks the misdeeds of the company.

      Ellenbecker’s research has found more than 275 felony charges against door-to-door traveling sales crew members over the last few decades. He suspects the actual number of felonies is much higher. Included in that number are dozens of sexual assaults against women who answer their doors to the sales agents, and at least a half-dozen murders.

It is thought that, of course, the company never does background checks on it’s recruits.
I hat to say this, but read the article.  It gets much worse, and not very many kids are making it out of this vicious circle. 

There’s a part two to the series as well, talking more in depth about the owners and managers who run the crews from place to place.  There are lawsuits in several states.  Wisconsin has banned the company after a horrific accident that killed several crew members.  Most of the managers have a checkered past with arrests dealing with fraud and the like.

So the next time you get one of those unfortunate kids at your door, ask them if they work for Integrity Sales or Integrity Program.  Keep your eyes out, because they might need more than just your money.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Bad Philosophy

The Armed Liberal looks at something he calls “Bad Philosophy” and how it relates to terrorism and other isms.  It’s very interesting.

When thinking about other people’s thinking on terrorists and the events of 9/11, he notes:

      These are all positions that come from a kind of spiritual hole, and seek to fill it with strong - even violent - action, as the purest expression of a self that is somehow battened down by the world.

      I've believed for a while that the violent strains in Islamism come more from an infection with this Western disease than from intrinsic issues within Islam - although those issues may provide a fertile ground for the infection.

      I don't think - and have never thought - that it is limited to Islam, though. I think there is a strong strain of it in the West as well. And recent events have brought that to mind.

Think about that.  The crazy attitude that exists in the mind of a suicide bomber exists in many people all over the world. 

      So there's a process visible here that's worth looking at with some interest, and she's a handy example. In my view, it starts here:

          The USA is a sick, diseased, cancer, blight on the earth. This is a fact. You guys are in denial about it and hate the fact that I've got the chutzpah to hang here and tell it like it is.

      OK, I'll disagree about the U.S. - but the interesting thing to me is this. If this how you feel about where you live - if your life is dependent on this blight, and you're inextricably a part of it - what's the logical reaction?

      I've got to believe that it's rage, and a rage that really, really wants to pierce the banality of things with violent, orgasmic action. And it's a rage of the privileged, because it is the more bitter rage of the child against the parent; rage against that which made you, which comforted you, and which you know you owe a debt to, but somehow can't seem to agree to pay.

Note that many top level terrorists come from less than humble backgrounds.  And then take note that this attitude occurs here in the United States with regularity, except you see it in the middle class kid that walks into a high school and opens fire, or perhaps in the suicide of a person who prefers the unknown of death to what they’ve been dealing with emotionally in this life.

So I don’t think we should be truly surprised at the attitude of the garden variety suicide terrorist, or non-suicide terrorist.  Islamists have just institutionalized a psychological attitude that exists everywhere.

Commuter blues

OK, my day (and many days previous) was made tedious and complicated by the construction on Portland's many streets and highways.  Basically, I've never seen so many projects going on in the central city at once as I have right now.  It seems like every turn I take is affected by some construction or another.

There are no less than two projects on NE Sandy Blvd, holding up traffic, and as it affected me this morning: the bus.  Not to stop there, all the busses that travel across the Burnside bridge are re-routed to another bridge, as the Burnside is out of commission for a while.  The bus I was on had to travel to the Morrison bridge, and then backtrack to Burnside where it would have been had it crossed its regularly scheduled bridge.  Needless to say, I was detained on the bus for much longer than I had planned.

West Burnside is closed in the one place that's truly inconvenient, going up the west hills.  Actually, the closing is intermittent, but in the mean time there's only one lane being shared by east and westbound traffic.  Considering there are only, like, four corridors over the west hills into downtown, I'm sure this stops things up a bit.

Not to mention that Front street (ok, ok.  Naito Parkway) has been bottled up for the last few months, and is only going southbound.

You'd think that the city would coordinate and plan this a bit better.  Perhaps not schedule too many projects that affect any particular area of the city all at once.  The list of projects currently going on in the city is truly astounding.  What kind of Federal grants did they have to pork out to get all this funding?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

UN involvement

A while back, many months ago, I linked to an argument for the U.S. to dump the United Nations and form a separate League of Democracies.  At the time I thought that the UN would still have a function in the world, and so it would.  However, it seems that the arguments for creating some sort of world body representing Democracies gets stronger and stronger over time.  As a forum for all the worlds nations to hash treaties out and talk things over, the UN does a fairly good job.  However, as a peace keeping body, the UN leaves a lot to be desired.

      The U.N. failure on this score is no accident. It is a direct result of what the U.N. is, and how it works - a collective, saddled with procedures that tend to favor despots over democrats. In the matter of coming up with a global definition of terrorism, the job falls to the General Assembly’s legal committee - the so-called Sixth Committee- which includes all 192 member states, and operates in practice by consensus. In that setting, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) - whose 57 members include such terror-linked states as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran - has for years insisted that any definition of terrorism exempt the OIC’s pet terrorists. These the OIC would prefer to define - notes Comras - as "engaged in so-called ‘struggles against colonial domination and foreign occupation.’"

Sitting back watching while genocide happens right under their nose.  Allowing nations with severe human rights issues on the UN committee for human rights.  Corruption that allowed Saddam to maintain his lavish lifestyle and snub weapons inspectors.  Resolutions coming out of the Security Council are looking pretty limp right now.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Competing with Sleaze Loans

Here’s something you don’t hear about every day.  Recently in Oregon the legislature felt pretty good about itself for passing a law that would restrict Payday Loan shops from charging excessive interest, like say 500%, for short term loans.  Now, those businesses pray on the poor and uneducated like no one, and on the surface this seems reasonable, not allowing the gauging of people who probably can’t really afford to take out a loan in the first place.  The default rate is astounding.

However, right after that bill passed, my state legislator sends me this:

      One of the survey questions in my February newsletter asked you if you thought Credit Unions should expand and advertise their payday loan services. Your response was a resounding (90%) “YES”. I am happy to report that you will soon be hearing announcements on radio and television that will promote short-term loans that are offered by credit unions at interest rates far below those offered by the payday loan industry.

      Here is why it matters: A $1000 payday loan at 500% interest costs a citizen $412 in interest in a month ($5,000 in a year) and can bring financial disaster to a family. A $1000 short-term credit union loan at 15% would cost about $12.50 in a month ($150 in a year).

      At least 23 of Oregon’s 85 credit unions offer short- term loans. Credit unions also work to educate consumers about managing their money and building credit and wealth.

So we also get educated about Credit Unions competing with the sleazy Payday loan people, on the Government’s dime?
Why do we have to have both regulation AND public advertisement of competition?  This loan vehicle obviously didn’t just spring up, it’s been there.  But Credit Unions didn’t feel the need to advertise it, and meanwhile poor people are getting screwed.  But how much do you blame the people getting taken by crooks, when there are viable options out there, and they just lack the gumption or the resources to get them.  There had to be another answer other than regulation (which should be a last resort only when competition wasn’t working).  But competition is alive and well, and the solution to excessive interest short term loans has been there all along WITHOUT government intervention.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Mel's Diner

Far be it for me to leap into a Hollywood scandal, as normally they are too unimportant and banal to even comment on.  However I wanted to say this one thing about the Mel Gibson DUI incident.

Jews are apparently fuming over the statements that he made when he was arrested and obviously drunk.

      LOS ANGELES -- Jewish groups are fuming over Mel Gibson's apology for "despicable" remarks he made during his arrest Friday in Malibu for investigation of drunken driving.

      The entertainment Web site is quoting a sheriff's department report that detailed an anti-Semitic tirade. TMZ has posted what it says are four pages from the original arrest report.

      Gibson supposedly said "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world," and asked the officer, James Mee, "Are you a Jew?"

      Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center says, quote, "if that's what he said, even under intoxication, it clearly shows that Mel Gibson has a problem with Jews."

What’s uncomfortable here is that people can’t accept imperfection in a high profile Christian.  If someone was drunk and said similar inflammatory things about Christians, would this type of indignation occur?  Would the Anti Defamation League froth at the mouth?  Here’s the apology they can’t seem to accept:

      Mel Gibson issued a lengthy statement Saturday apologizing for his drunk driving arrest and saying he has battled alcoholism throughout his life.

      Gibson also apologized for what he said were "despicable" statements he made to the deputies who arrested him early Friday morning on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.

      "I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested," he said in a statement issued by his publicist. "I disgraced myself and my family with my behavior and for that I am truly sorry. I have battled with the disease of alcoholism for all of my adult life and profoundly regret my horrific relapse."

Not a bad apology really.  What does it say about the people who won’t accept an apology from someone who’s not exactly throwing sticks and stones.  I’m not defending what he said.  It wasn’t right, and definitely not Christian.  But it sounds like Mel’s got problems, and he needs to be pitied, not investigated and castigated by Hollywood.

      Now, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's civilian oversight office wants to know if Gibson got special treatment by the Sheriff's office, and if so, why. The office also wants to know how TMZ got the deputy's report.

Well, he’s a movie star, and he’s donated time and money to police charities.  Some people do get special treatment.  But the issue here is that the police report was altered to remove some of the offensive language he used.  But the policemen responded to that.

      "There is no cover-up," he said. "Our job is not to [focus] on what he said. It's to establish his blood-alcohol level when he was driving and proceed with the case. Trying someone on rumor and innuendo is no way to run an investigation, at least one with integrity."

      Baca told the Times he hasn't seen the official arrest report and would not comment on what it contained, but commented that "People say stupid things when they are drunk, and they later regret it. You don't convict him on what he said. People aren't convicted for saying stupid things."

Which in many cases actually improves the celebrity status of Hollywood personnel.  But like I mentioned above, people like to point out hypocrisy and fault in Christians whenever they get a chance.

Minimal Economics

Megan McArdle is guest blogging at Instapundit.  She talks more about economics than most, but since there is an interesting debate about the joint minimum wage/estate tax bill that is before congress right now, it’s interesting stuff.   Democrats seem beholden to minimum wage increases, like they are the end-all bandage for the poor in this country, but it’s surprising to me that Republicans are giving in to such a large increase.  Oh, wait, it’s an election year.  Right.  Plus they would get their tax cut on inherited estates which they’ve been pushing for years.

Megan makes sure to let us know that she thinks the minimum wage doesn’t really help the poor.

      . . . but the problem is that, as a poverty fighting weapon, the minimum wage is an exceptionally blunt instrument. Only about half of the people earning the minimum wage are adults; the rest are teenagers and young adults, many of whom come from relatively affluent families. According to this paper from the Clinton-era Department of Health and Human Services, only about 30% of the people receiving minimum wage live in families near or below the poverty line . . . a result that is hardly surprising, since the overwhelming majority of minimum wage workers worked less than twenty hours a week--so much less that the average workweek for all minimum wage workers was less than 10 hours in 1998. This would suggest that most people working at minimum wage are supplementing their studies, or their spouse's income, rather than trying to support themselves with such a job. So in order to get to the relatively small number of people who need the money, we provide a subsidy to the 71% who do not. This is not very efficient social policy.

Not only that, but wage hikes always proceed drops in employment among minimum wage workers, falling disproportionately on those who need them most.

Other negative effects of raising the wage:  1. Employers cut costs in other areas.  This could be a positive, but often results in the employer cutting perks, training, benefits, turning off the air conditioning, buying cheaper supplies.  Also, workers will be asked to produce more, in keeping with their higher wage. 

2. Prices may (and often will) rise as a result, and poor people are more likely to shop or eat at a place that pays minimum wage.

3. As above, the job market will constrict, as workers compete with labor saving equipment that becomes more cost effective than they do (technology tends to reduce in cost over time, as opposed to wages).

Megan instead thinks we should be utilizing the Earned Income Tax Credit, as it actually targets the poor more effectively.

      The cost of the EITC is offset in part, they note, by a reduction in the number of single mothers receiving welfare. Moreover, the EITC now lifts more children out of poverty than any other government program. In 2002, it removed 4.9 million people, including 2.7 million children from poverty. Advocates see it as promoting the values of both family and work. Traditional welfare programs, according to their critics, do the opposite.

As for the Estate Tax issue, the only response from Democrats (who are vehemently opposed to this bill) is that it helps the rich.  Well, for the most part, yes.  But that’s not solely who it benefits, and considering some of the original tenets of our society, one of them was that people shouldn’t get double taxed by the government, and taxing inheritances is a tax on money that was already taxed when it was made.  We should be eliminating this on principle alone.  And this is probably the biggest carrot the Republicans are going to dangle just to get their way on the estate tax issue.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Syrian attitude

Check out this interview with Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the US.  He is being asked about the current conflict in Lebanon and Syria’s role in it.  He says:

      Well, he's got the wrong information. The Lebanese people are being killed right now. Lebanon is being destroyed by Israel for the third time in 20 years. Syria has nothing to do whatsoever with this crisis and yet we are accused of this.

And then he says:

      You know, asking these questions about Syria is unfair. Syria is not doing anything, while Israel is actually killing civilians, women and children, and yet the focus of their attention is being directed towards Syria. It is unfair.

Waaaaa!  Don’t look at us, look at Israel.  They’re the bad guys, not us.  Not Hezbollah.  Not Hamas.  It’s Israel.  They’re occupiers, don’t you know.  They’re tricksey, yes precious.  Nasty Hobbitses.  We’ll show them, won’t we precious.

He complains that this started because Hezbollah took some Israeli hostages in order to facilitate a hostage exchange.   So just stop firing and give us some of the Palestinians you imprisoned and we’ll give back your soldiers and everything will be peachy. 

Except it’s not that simple.  First of all, I don’t think you can call the people that Israel locked up proper “hostages” in the classical sense.  These are folks that Israel found in the process of performing terrorist acts or planning to.  Correct me if I’m wrong but if you’re caught doing stuff like that inside the Israeli border I’m sure that’s against the law and punishable by at least prison.  Some also probably come from Gaza or the West Bank, but the target has always been Israel. So are they prisoners of war that deserve to be exchanged, or are they criminals?

The other thing is that subsequent to taking the hostage, Hezbollah as been launching missiles targeting civilians in quite large cities inside of Israel.  Not what you would be doing if just a simple hostage exchange was your goal.  You’ll forgive us, Mr. Moustapha, if we don’t buy the crap you’re trying to hock at bargain basement prices.

Israel look pretty bad right now, considering that they are producing lots of collateral deaths and damage in Beirut and elsewhere.  Politically this is a nightmare for them, as most Lebanese were sympathetic to them.  I think it’s correct to question what their motive there is, apart from trying to take out Hezbollah outposts in the city.  The political costs seems much higher than the benefit from taking out an outpost or two.  I think they should have contained their stuff to the southern part of the country.  But perhaps they know something we don’t about Hezbollah and their movements.

But Moustapha’s statements strike me as the worst kind of moral equivalence that I hear from many global figures trying to condemn Israel.  Despite all the damage they’re causing in Beirut, they’re still trying to target people and things strategically.  Hezbollah is just trying to target “woman and children” as he so tactlessly put it.  Israel might be reckless here, but after all the crap they’ve had to put up with over the years, can you blame them?  Hezbollah is the true evil here.  The Lebanese know it.  Israel knows it.  America knows it.  Heck, even the Saudis, Egyptians, Iraqis, and most other people are hip to it.  So defending them here makes Syria look a bit culpable, don’t you think?

In truth, Israel’s recklessness is playing into Syria’s and Hezbollah’s hands, as many people are actually fleeing to Syria and Hezbollah for protection while this is going on.  There was a definite public sentiment against Hezbollah and a desire to disarm them at some point.  However that sentiment is shifting, and not in Israel’s favor.

Not sure if there’s going to be any winners here.  Perhaps Hezbollah, but everyone knows they started it this time, so maybe not.  The people I feel the sorriest for are the Lebanese.  They had a wonderful resurgence, kicked the Syrians out, had free elections.  Things were finally going their way, and then this happens.