Thursday, October 30, 2008

A zygote's life

I met a zygote while waiting in line at the grocery store the other day. The water on the floor suggested it was a fresh escapee from some nearby fertility lab. I tried to engage it in conversation but all it did was jiggle awkwardly in its little petri dish. What a rude, weird zygote.

Don't laugh. It's not funny. Zygotes are people too, you know. At least, according to Kristi Burton, the 21-year-old mastermind of a Colorado ballot measure that would define "personhood" as beginning at the moment of conception.

Burton is, as you may have guessed, very pro-life and very Christian. She is entitled to her opinion and to pursuing this pro-zygote legal endeavor. But passage of such a law - which would begin to lay the groundwork for overturning Roe v. Wade - would create some rather problematic yet quite amusing quandaries.

For example, if zygotes are lawfully considered people, then would the many thousands of frozen eggs in fertility clinics have to be added to the U.S. census? (NPR asked this question as well)

Since zygotes are unable to work as productive members of society, would the government have to offer social security, unemployment compensation and food stamps so they can keep up the required diet of nourishing stem cells?

If a woman in Colorado, unaware she is pregnant, smokes or consumes alcohol or decides to surf down the stairs on a boogie board and the zygote is harmed, will that woman be charged with child abuse? (This question is posed in the linked article above)

Must a loving couple unable to create their own zygotes file adoption applications and meet with the guardians of unwanted zygotes before claiming a zygote as their own?

Do pregnant women dining out now have to add one extra zygote to every dinner reservation?

Will the U.S. Government have to re-write current education law to ensure that no zygote is left behind?

I promise, I'm done. But do you see what I'm trying to illustrate here? I don't mind anti-abortionists expressing their opinions, but enough is enough. Debating abortion has become futile and pointless, because no matter what we do, abortion will unfortunately be a necessary evil sometimes. I think we all agree that abortion is terrible, but some medical situations unfortunately necessitate this procedure to save the life of another. For that reason, abortion cannot, and never will be, eradicated completely.

Giving zygotes all the rights associated with personhood is ridiculous, particularly when hundreds of thousands of other innocent human beings who successfully survived gestation live a hair's tip away from death each day, due to poverty, lack of access to suitable healthcare, persecution and war. And all in our own country, I might add. Don't get me started on other areas of the world.

Those with a fighting chance at contributing to society, along with those who clearly would but can't because of a disability, deserve the rights to personhood first. Once they're all taken care of, then we can talk about appeasing entitlements for cells in petri dishes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

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I'm amazed at how much Republicans seem to care about women these days.

Perhaps they always did. Call me crazy, but staunch support from conservative Republicans for the reversal of Roe v. Wade seemed to suggest otherwise to me. Not to mention religious views shared by many conservative Republicans that clearly put the woman's role in the home in second place at best, if you know what I mean.

The McCain campaign blasted Barack Obama for saying the following:

"John McCain says he's about change too, and so I guess his whole angle is, 'Watch out George Bush -- except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics -- we're really going to shake things up in Washington.' That's not change. That's just calling something the same thing something different. You know you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig. You know you can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it's still going to stink after eight years. We've had enough of the same old thing."

The McCain camp demanded an apology from Obama for using the 'lipstick on a pig' remark, saying this reference directly mocked Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. How sexist and tasteless, they said, to call such a venerable woman as Palin a pig wearing lipstick! What a disgrace!

If you took Obama's words in this context, then notice the McCain campaign seems OK with McCain being compared to an old fish wrapped in a piece of paper with "change" written on it.

The McCain campaign was smart to pick up on Obama's 'lipstick on a pig' reference and twist it into an accusation of sexual harrassment their revved up, suddenly pro-female base will eat up and spit out as more votes come November. They've always been good at turning stupid drivol into real controversy to galvanize small-minded people. Just look at the "swiftboating" of John Kerry in 2004.

Never mind the fact McCain once frequently used the same term when describing Hillary Clinton's healthcare plan. It's not the same, they said. I'm assuming the only thing different about that situation was the guy who said it was white.

Anyway, while the playground tattle was smart, I hope the American people are smarter. I hope they realize this tactic truly was "a pathetic attempt to play the gender card," as the Obama campaign said in its response.

If otherwise smart Republicans take this reference and try to convince Americans that Obama's calling Palin a pig with lipstick, then it proves to me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, two things: They're willing to play on social ignorance to deflect attention from real issues (such as the lack of a proper vetting process on Palin), and that conservative Republican views of women indeed haven't changed.

If women were truly equals to conservative Republicans within McCain's campaign, the lipstick on a pig comment wouldn't have been an issue. The vetting process on Palin would have began months ago. And anyone with a down syndrome baby would have received a standing ovation.

All this controversy reveals is that Republicans are willing to shove Palin into a spotlight and whore her out as an agent for change, not because of her accomplishments or qualifications, but because she's a woman.

All this controversy reveals is that Republicans seem to want us reverted to a type of pre-Civil Rights thinking that criminalized a black man's audacity to even talk to a white woman.

All this controversy reveals is that Republicans are banking on people never seeing past Palin's gender and giving her the vote solely for the fact that she's a novelty on this large political stage.

And that, my friends, is the real disgrace.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

New landlords: Google before you evict

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I haven't posted in quite some time, but ironically the reason why fits rather nicely into this blog's discussion of the issues middle class people face.

Our landlord is selling the two-family house where we live so he can move out of state to be with family. On July 15, the future owners came to our apartment to tell us a) they wanted to live in our apartment, and b) they wanted us out by August 1 so they can perform renovations before they move in on September 1. Even though we politely explained that our current lease - and the law, for that matter - simply cannot accommodate that request, the conversation ended by establishing that if we weren't out by August 15 at the latest, they would start an eviction process.

In our lease, it clearly specifies that we must be notified in writing of our landlord's intent not to renew our lease no fewer than 45 days before the end of the lease. Since that didn't happen, we CYA-ed by following another provision in our lease, which states we must give our landlord written notice of our intent to vacate no fewer than 45 days before we leave. So, we did so on July 17, exactly 45 days before September 1. Our landlord agreed, and we thought our problems were over.

Then the future owners started forwarding their mail to our address.

The closing is taking place today (July 30). Yesterday, the soon-to-be owners came by unannounced with their realtor for a final walk-through. These people didn't say hello or look me in the face as they trolled about my home, their faces scrunched with anger at the fact that our stuff wasn't in boxes. The man, who has yet to give us his name, asked me what the status was. I politely told him that even though I was legally advised not to speak with them about the apartment until after the closing, I would gladly offer that we'd found an apartment and it will be ready for move-in on September 1.

He then asked me for the name of my lawyer so that his lawyer could contact him to begin the eviction process - and then sue us for their legal costs.

Now, even though we have confirmed 10 times over that an eviction request against us will be thrown out or at best not granted, we still face the possibility of being frivolously dragged into court and forced to pay legal fees for our defense - all because the law won't accommodate some guy's home improvement schedule.

Unfortunately, arrogance and stupidity seems to run rampant among landlords, particularly newbies who don't know how to do a Google search on rental property law and those who are not bound by the strict laws of a metropolitan area where apartments abound. While bum tenants deserve to be prosecuted, what these people are doing to us - good tenants that pay rent on time and follow their lease perfectly - is nothing short of criminal.

I'd be interested to know how the housing crisis has affected the number of tenant/landlord complaints filed. I'm sure many middle class folks rent in part because getting a mortgage is now harder than ever. And I'm sure many have landlord horror stories worse than mine.

In my ongoing quest for justice, I came across some good links to share with folks who might need help like this now or in the future:

A great list of tenants rights groups

Attorneys General in the United States

http://www.rentlaw.com/

http://real-estate-law.freeadvice.com/landlord_tenant/

Or better yet, just do a damn Google search. You never know whose aggravation you might be saving.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Praying for days with no copays

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I've been to the doctor more times this year than I'd like to count. It's like a throwback to the old days, when as a child I racked up a record seven strep throat infections, four bronchitis bouts and two walking pneumonia diagnoses in one year.

This time, they think I've got asthma. Only time and tests and numerous rule-outs will tell. And in the meantime, I can't leave the house without albuterol or Symbicort.

I do consider myself lucky, however, not just because this is a very manageable disease, but mainly because every time I go to the doctor, it doesn't cost me too much. Ten bucks a visit - even for specialists. It's a sweet deal courtesy of my full-time employer.

But as I'm sure we all know, not everyone is so lucky. A few weeks ago, I stood in line behind an old man at my cardiologist's reception desk and patiently waited for him as he tried to wheel and deal the receptionist into reducing his copay of $30. He looked like he was a regular, so I could understand why he'd try to do the impossible. Thirty bucks times an average of one visit per week equals $1,560 per year in doctor copays alone. Yikes.

The cost of healthcare is thankfully at the forefront of issues being covered by our presidential candidates, but I'm not sure I agree with either stance.

Both McCain and Obama want to make it easier for Americans to obtain health insurance, but from who? The same insurance companies that drive up costs for individuals and businesses on an annual basis? Doesn't seem to make sense to me.

Get your commy comments out now, because regardless of what you think I'm going to say it: as far as I'm concerned, converting to a single-payer healthcare system is the only true healthcare reform.

Group a single-payer system with heavy emphasis on prevention instead of treatment, and incentives for lowering blood pressure and cholesterol instead of incentives for denying insurance claims, and that candidate will have my vote.

Yes, health insurance companies have a right to exist in our capitalist society. But as long as my healthcare is in the hands of a company that exists to make a profit before making sick people healthier, we'll keep having the same problems with our health system.

Chances are, that old man at the cardiologist will never live to see a day when he wouldn't have to pay a copay just to see the doctor.

I, on the other hand, hope I do.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

July 1 is Day One for student loans

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For many people who must borrow money to access higher education, July 1 is a big day.

On that day, the rates on federal student loans will drop nearly a full percentage point. The government will also free up access to more unsubsidized Stafford loans. And unconsolidated variable rate Stafford Loans will drop to 4.21 percent, more than three percentage points below the current rate of 7.22 percent.

Compared to what college students were getting before, I'd say these developments are enough to put a smile on any student-debt-worry-wrinkled face.

Personally, I was lucky. I locked in my federal student loans at a cool 3.5 percent interest rate back in 2003. But I just missed the start of the time frame for New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's probe into the shared beds of financial aid offices and private student loan companies.

No doubt, this is good progress on the part of our government. Now if only private student loan companies would follow suit...

For me, federal student loans were never the problem. Private loans, on the other hand, nearly cost me my decent credit and played a role in my decision to change jobs a couple of years ago.

After I graduated, my full student loan payment on both the federal and private loans (both sets of which I consolidated) was about $350 - very manageable, because at the time the interest rate on the private loans was about 4.5 percent. Two years later, those interest rates doubled to about 8.5 percent.

I'd gone to college to be a newspaper reporter, knowing full well the money would suck in the beginning, but I didn't care. I was doing what I loved and believed the money would come later. Ready and willing to wait it out, I deferred my student loan payments. Then, the folks at the Student Loan Corp. came calling, and said I could no longer defer my private loans. I suddenly realized I couldn't make the payment on my salary. I tried to compromise and work things out with the company, but they wouldn't budge. So, I found a better-paying job as a communications specialist. In the month or so it took to transition to the new job and pay scale, I couldn't pay the loan. Even though I explained and explained the situation and always paid on time before, rude and nasty collections staffers from the company called relentlessly, one so rude and demeaning she reduced me to tears.

I consider myself somewhat lucky, because I at least enjoy what I do now and I didn't have to make a drastic career change. But realize there are others who had to find a higher salary doing something they hate or have no passion for, all to satisfy the hungry student loan beast and avoid life-ruining credit blemishes.

I hate the fact that I cried in audible earshot of some scumbag collections agent who had her soul taken from her when she signed on to do her job.

Perhaps she could get her soul back if the government did something I think would over time truly boost our economy and society: simply turn all those federal loans into grants.

Let's face it - most middle class families don't make enough, but they still make too much in the eyes of the federal government to qualify for grants or even the maximum amount of student loans allotted. My parents saved and saved for years for my college education and in a matter of two years, it was gone. That's why they took out private loans for me and while I'm forever grateful for the intent, the resulting blow to my wallet is just unnecessary.

But if all the federal loans I took out had been grants, I'd have a lot less debt worry on my hands right now. So would millions of other students. That's the kind of debt shrinkage that would enable newly-minted baccalaureates to (gasp!) save money, buy the stuff they need to start a new job and a new life after college, even purchase real estate. Call me crazy, but those sound an awful lot like economic stimuli.

Not to mention, many students of color or working class students who would otherwise never consider college because of their financial lot in life might finally get the true access to higher education they deserve, creating more diverse workplaces and more equality among classes and races.

If we can spend billions on a war Congress didn't even authorize, why can't we give money to our future leaders to go to college? That's something I'd rather see my tax dollars go to anyway.

So on July 1, I hope college students enjoy the slight lightening of their debt load - and I hope our country's leaders think about just how easy it could be to widen the college road.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Rest in peace, Tim Russert

From now on, something will be missing from my Sundays.

As a journalist, I looked up to him. As a political junkie, I turned to him for information. As a middle class Catholic family man from rough-and-tumble upstate New York, I identified with him.

He spoke at a commencement ceremony at my college, The College of Saint Rose. I sat wide-eyed in the presence of a such a giant in journalism. I remember thinking about how I wanted to a reporter and how I'd be happy if in my career people might respect me half as much as they respected him.

I always admired how he never forgot where he came from, and how that place, and the people in it, permeated every question he asked.

I feel for Luke. I know what it's like to lose your dad, your hero, suddenly and too soon.

Deepest condolences to the Russert family, from someone who Tim Russert, through his extraordinary professional example, inspired to do her best.







Saturday, June 7, 2008

A hidden housing mess: overpriced homes

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We've all heard about "mortgage crisis" this and "credit crunch" that, and it's all blamed on evil speculating lenders who bamboozled hopeful home buyers with deceptive mortgage terms.


Yes, sleazy lenders are to blame. So are stupid home buyers. But I've yet to hear anything about how overblown home prices may have also contributed to the dashing of American dreams.

What's perplexing is that towns and assessment companies perpetuate this ridiculous cycle of inflation under a clever guise of legality.

Let me give you an example.

A friend of mine bought a house last year in our hometown. I'm going to adjust the prices here to protect privacy, but the math will be the same. The original sale price of the home was $300,000. After a price reduction or two, it sold to my friend for $270,000.

Then, the official assessment came from the town. Lo and behold, the home carried a taxable value of $300,000. Now why would anyone want to kick in taxes on an additional $30,000 they didn't even pay? At first, the assessor wouldn't budge. Then, my friend took the assessment to court - and won.

The assessor later apologized for his "error" and informed my friend that it would be corrected immediately.

This scenario brings to light what I view to be a very deceptive practice in towns that take part in "rolling assessments," or property assessments conducted annually.

In the state of New York where I live, towns are "required" to have an equalization rate of 100 percent. (Equalization rates, by the way, compare a home's assessment to it's market value. The lower your town's equalization rates, the more your town's properties don't match up to fair market value). This is to ensure fairness of taxes and fairness of sale price.

But here's how "fair market value" can quickly become unfair: when I was still a fledgling reporter, I did a story on "transplants" - or downstate residents and New York City folk who move upstate to escape the bustling city and its ridiculous home prices. These people are used to paying big bucks for a house, so when they come up here, a super-nice house on a super-nice piece of property still sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars less than what their homes in the city will sell for. What a bargain!

So much of a bargain, in fact, that many will make offers on homes that well exceed the asking price - because they can. One of my future in-laws used to live in Brooklyn. One day, somebody knocked on his door and offered to buy his home. He said no. Then the guy said, "I'll give you double your asking price." SOLD! They took their equity and paid cash for a sprawling $400,000 property in the Hudson River valley. No haggling, no negotiating, no nothing.

Who's to say that property was worth $400,000? Was it assessed properly? Or did they just go by what some guy was willing to pay?

Which brings up the other issue. Towns - particularly those that perform rolling assessments, simply don't have the time, energy or manpower to go to each and every property and REALLY assess it. They try, but often fail. A true assessment should involve a full walk through both the outdoor and indoor aspects of the property. Instead, most assessment companies hired by towns perform "drive-by shootings" - that is, pulling up in front of your house, snapping a picture from the car, and driving away.

How can one capture a true, fair and balanced property assessment within the confines of a digital picture window?

You can't. Which is why that extra $100,000 some big shot offered you for your home will often automatically get tacked on to your property's value - regardless of whether or not it's worth such an increase. Awesome for you, not so awesome for whoever gets suckered into buying your home.

There's a legal term for this practice of assessing houses based on their sale value: it's called "welcome stranger." Technically, it's illegal, but as you might have guessed from my friend's situation, versions of it happen every day.

Don't get me wrong. Assessors really do try. But how can one person possibly get it right all the time, every time?

So be diligent and check your property's value on your town's assessment rolls - especially if they perform assessments annually. This information is available to the public in your town assessor's office. If you're not happy with your assessment, challenge it. Make them come to your home and take a tour. Ensure that fair market value stays fair. Because you wouldn't want to be the guy paying more than you have to either.






Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Middle class women willing to take a beating?

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Do working class women have more self-respect? It appears so, according to one counselor in Mississippi.

The counselor penned a very interesting article in her local community newspaper in which she states that studies show poor women are more likely to seek help to leave a violent relationship.

More impoverished women, she says, are more aware of the social services available for escaping abusive relationships, and do not have stigmas associated with seeking help from these services, basically because they're usually on a list to get a government check somewhere anyway.

Professional women married to white-collar men, on the other hand, will stick around and play punching bag because they fear their powerful husbands might use connections against them. These girls also fear no one will believe them, as well as the threat of being "ostracized from the social community." (Oh, the scandal!)

I don't know about you, but if I wanted to leave a husband who beat me on a regular basis, the opinions of some Gucci-wearing hag who secretly criticizes my outfits at tennis club every week wouldn't exactly influence my decision.

This information makes me wonder if rich people really do value money more than true friendship. If you're hanging out with "women" likely to take joy in gossiping about your unhealthy marital situation, then that's not a "social community." That's a "superficial prison." And if you're willing to bear a concussion or two because you're afraid you'll lose all of your nice things, then that's beyond pathetic.

Perhaps the less you have to lose, the more you have to gain.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Everything's going to pot...pie

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As I munched an apple and guzzled some Silk Light Soy Milk Wednesday morning, I listened to a story on NPR's "Marketplace" about a rise in the number of people buying food at Dollar stores. One man raved about the tasty Dollar Store pot pies he now regularly scarfed for lunch. He said they were just as good but so much cheaper than the New York City street food he could no longer afford.

"Well, so much for trying to eat healthy," I said aloud.

His stumping for the $1 pot pie made me think about the chain reaction that rising gas and food prices could be setting off. The chain goes something like this: gas prices rise, food prices rise (both already done), people sustain life on cheap packaged food, health begins a toilet-swirl decline, health insurance skyrockets even more, diet industry prospers even more, life expectancy goes down...

Maybe that's a little fatalistic. But when middle class folks are forced to do more with less,
pre-packaged pot-pie goodness from the Dollar Store - preservatives, corn syrup, fat and all - makes a whole lot of economical sense, despite the obvious health faux pas.

And that presents some problems. For those of us who'd like to lose weight and live healthier lifestyles (which is pretty much just about everyone), microwavable meals that cost 99 cents simply aren't the best food choices, no matter how tasty. As much as I don't like to admit it, one of the cardinal rules of healthy living is the following: If man made it, don't eat it.

But when Aunt Jemima sells her stuff cheaper than Mother Nature, who can blame people for skipping the produce section?

In an attempt to help people get their daily servings of fruits and veggies without having to put them on a credit card, here are some possible options:

"The 99-cent evangelist." Author Christiane Jory wrote a book about how to make gourmet food using items that mainly cost $1 or less. No endorsement from me on the health factor, but at least this book will show you how to make that canned chicken look pretty.

Shop at Aldi. They sell healthy stuff at a rock-bottom price. A friend of mine who's a personal trainer says he began shopping here to help lower his monthly grocery bills while still buying super-healthy items such as almonds and low-fat yogurt.

Grow your own food. Don't have a green thumb? Food prices these days might force you to get one. I don't have my own backyard yet, otherwise I just might try to grow my own food. I'm starting small with a hanging herb planter.

Stock up on healthy food coupons. A number of sites offer universal coupons for healthy items made by organic food brands , as well as simple savings on everyday healthy foods.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A down cycle of corporate conscience

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Executives from America's top five oil companies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, taking a huge guilt weight off my shoulders by revealing that yes, it is possible to be a millionaire and a victim.

In between Senator Patrick
Leahy's scathing sarcasm, these rich, white, well-dressed middle-aged men attempted to explain why, in the span of a three-month quarter, their companies managed to ratchet up profits more than 620,000 times the country's average annual salary - in the midst of a so-called oil crisis, no less.

For instance, last quarter their companies - Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp.,
BP America Inc., ConocoPhillips Co. and Shell Oil Co. - collectively reported $36 billion in profits, according to MSNBC. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called that a lack of "corporate conscience." The oil executives called it an "up cycle."

Tomato,
tomahto.

Their profits in the double-billions are justified, the oil men said, because they need that money to hunt down, tap and refine new oil supplies to then prevent the probability of an all-out end-of-the-world scenario during what I'm assuming they'd call a "down cycle."
What's more, their profits come down to simple supply and demand - there's more demand, but not a lot of supply, and therefore, prices go up. They've been trying to tell people this would happen for some time, they said, but no one seemed interested enough to listen.

While I read their explanations in the news, off in the distance of my psyche, I heard the squeaky voice of the Three Stooges' Curly: "I'm a victim a'
soycumstance! I'm a victim a soycumstance!"

Sure, any member of the middle class or working poor (and, it seems, Sen.
Leahy) is bound scoff at such ridiculous claptrap being passed off as a legitimate reasoning for why many of us can't afford a week's worth of gas. Morally, it's an abomination.

But economically, it's capitalism.

These men got into the business, presumably worked hard, and with tenacity and luck, assumed their posts at the top. Sounds a little like a dream I have frequently...an American dream...

From a capitalist perspective, these men deserve their just reward. And now, they make so much money that some of them, when pressed by Sen.
Leahy, apparently couldn't even venture a guess as to what their salaries actually might be.

(That, by the way, is complete hooey. Anyone who makes that much money knows just how much is coming in and where it's going. I'd wager it's going to $6,00 shower curtains.)

For these men, capitalism proved to be a good deal. As for the rest of us, we continue to buy $4 gallons of gas, scramble on top of each other, assume a kneeling position, and form the pyramid of aching, dollar-scraped backs that enables these men to easily climb aloft and survey their vast empires.

I truly applaud Sen.
Durbin for asking: “Is there anybody here that has any concerns about what you’re doing to this country with the prices that you’re charging and the profits that you’re taking?”

The answer: "We have a lot of concern about that."

Here's hoping the collective conscience of these very lucky men could be on the verge of an up cycle.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The party, or the people?

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Barack Obama stands within inches of clenching the Democratic presidential nomination thanks to his victory in the Oregon primaries on Tuesday. Nipping at his heels is, and will continue to be, Hillary Clinton, until perhaps the June 3 primaries - or the Democratic Party's superdelegates - finally settle the score.

While many believe Clinton should just accept defeat and step aside, Clinton presses on, vowing to ensure democracy has its day over impatience and worries of polarization within the Democratic party.

And I agree with her.

I am one citizen who, despite my Democratic leanings, still doesn't know who I'd vote for. And I believe Hillary should be allowed to run for as long as it makes sense. And right now, it does make sense. The race is razor-close, and she continues to win primaries. The people are speaking.

The only downfall: without a clear winner, the fate of the nomination could inevitably lie in the hands of "superdelegates," comprised of elected Democratic officials and other party big-wigs. Despite the fact they have just as much right to vote as the rest of us, their "
superdelegate" moniker suggests one of their votes counts more than one of yours or mine.

And that's where the taste in my mouth starts to go sour.

I'd never heard of
superdelegates until this year. It sounds like a miniature version of the electoral college suited to Democratic needs. Why do the votes of these select party elite potentially trump the people's choice?

In Colonial times, the electoral college formed because our nation's founding fathers felt America's citizens were too ill-informed and under-educated to make competent decisions about the country's leadership. While we could still argue the same holds true today, there's a stark difference: those who are too ill-informed or under-educated to make such decisions chose to be that way.

We don't get our mail by horseback anymore. We don't have to wait days to receive word - in fact, these days we get miffed if "word" arrives in minutes rather than seconds.

So why is the system used to select party nominees and president-elects still designed for horse-and-
buggie times?

It makes me think of an episode from the HBO miniseries "John Adams," in which Adams receives the second-largest amount of votes for president, and thus becomes Vice President behind George Washington. It made me long for those simpler times.

Just tally up the popular vote from the primaries, and give the nomination to whoever receives the most votes. A
superdelegate's vote shouldn't hold any more weight than your next door neighbor's. The same should apply to the presidential election.

Furthermore, while those who hold the same core political beliefs will inevitably align and conspire, I fear John Adams had it right when he said the formation of political parties scared him. He feared party members would forget the interests of the people, and instead focus on the interests of their party.

In that respect, I applaud Hillary Clinton for her tenacious choice to continue in the race despite all who say she should gracefully bow out for the good of her party. Her actions suggest she just might have the interests of the people, not the party, at heart.

Monday, May 19, 2008

How do we solve the gas crisis? Flintstone it

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The major online news sites all screamed the same headline today: Gas prices could reach the $5 mark by the summer.

I'm part of the collective whine from the masses over this, because if you're making a decent but by no means extravagant salary like me, that $5 per gallon is going to hurt. Gosh, just when the stings of $3, $3.50, and $3.75 had just begun to numb...

Forget summer vacations. I'm going to think twice about going anywhere I can't easily walk to.

If you're like me, the whole damn thing makes you mad, and you're looking for someone to blame. My list went something like this: George W. Bush, Saudi Arabia, Exxon Mobil, terrorists torching oil fields. But then I realized that I, like a lot of people, forgot someone:

Me.

I know you don't want to hear it, and frankly, I don't want to either, but after doing just a little research, I realized the only person I can blame for these ridiculous prices is myself. Sure, I engage in a good bitch-fest with the guy next to me every time I fill up, but the fact remains that I went to a gas station and paid upwards of $4 per gallon for gas. And that money will go on to line the pockets of mysterious fat-cat people in the world whose identities I'll likely never learn.

Hybrid hijinx

Usually, if I don't like the price of something, I don't buy it. I wish it were that simple when it came to gas. So, I decided to be like those folks on TV with proverbial green plants growing out of their heads and buy a hybrid vehicle. But when I looked into it, I realized it was just as much of a rip-off as the gas prices themselves.

I did a side-by-side comparison of the nicely equipped base model Honda Civic DX sedan, versus its Hybrid counterpart. I discovered the Hybrid cost $6,790 more than the regular old DX. But I'd make that back in my gas savings, right? WRONG. Turns out that based on a gas price of $4 per gallon and an average travelling distance of 20,000 miles per year, I'd only save $740.19, or about 185 gallons of gas each year.

To make matters worse, just about all of the one-time tax breaks offered on these hybrid vehicles have expired. And even if they did still exist, they wouldn't cover the additional cost to purchase the hybrid over a fully gas-powered model anyway.

Sure, having to fill up less is having to fill up less, which means less money in the pockets of those mysterious fat-cats, which is good. But by buying a hybrid, I'm also giving a good $6,000 more to a car company that as a result might be able to fund the presence of more lobbyists pushing for less stringent mileage and emissions requirements on Capitol Hill. And that is not
good. Sure, I could be wrong about that, but that's what I worry about. Car companies, feel free to prove I'm wrong.

So, I started plugging in other numbers, and here's what I learned: assuming the car prices stay the same (won't happen), and the gas prices stay the same (definitely won't happen), the Honda Civic Hybrid, at its current fuel capacity, would have to get way more than 500 miles to the gallon to cash in any real savings for its owner.

Don't worry - here comes a ray of sunshine. Assuming our dollars aren't going to fund special interest lobbyists for the stagnation of the automobile industry, it's safe to assume the more hybrid vehicles produced, the lower the price becomes. And one of the ways to boost production is to keep buying. I believe hybrid vehicles represent the start of some truly smart, common-sense innovations so sorely needed in the automobile industry. Now if only we could get our government to kick in the funding for some R&D...

Sorry, buying a hybrid doesn't fulfill your obligation

Look, I want convenience and comfort as much as the next SUV-driving suburbanite. But that very desire is one of the single largest reasons why gas prices are so high.

Breaking our dependence on oil requires major lifestyle changes: working within walking or biking distance of where we live, powering our homes using sources that do not run on fossil fuels, using public transportation, NOT owning a Hummer or Toyota FJ Cruiser. And let's be honest - most of us would balk at the prospect of doing any of the above.

But if you wouldn't, good for you. I admire folks who are willing to Flintstone it as a proverbial middle finger to the oil companies. Because the best way to solve the gas crisis is simple: stop using gas.