The Thoughts and Musings of Tom Allain

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it

Stephen Colbert
(b.1964)

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It’s Been Nine Years, But Not Long Enough to Forget

August 26th, 2014

In August of 2005 we learned the word “Katrina” isn’t just a girl’s name, but a horrific hurricane. She began in the South Atlantic and moved northeast. It moved over Florida and gained speed and danger: she moved over the Gulf of Mexico and struck New Orleans on August 29th.

The next few days were horrific to watch, let alone to live through. The administration of President Bush claimed to have responded well to this, but virtually nobody believes this. Thousands were stranded without basic needs such as food, water, or bathrooms. If you don’t believe me, check out my page on this. We are still living with his failures on this and many more events.

His decision to strip FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) of anyone except his cronies showed a breathtaking lack of compassion. The hurricane and aftermath made us all aware that our government was horrifically unprepared for a completely predicable event.

I’m impressed with those who lived through Katrina, those who were part of the solution, and those who continue to rebuild. And as an American citizen, I apologize for those members of our government who made promises they never intended to keep.

Forty Years Ago Tonight: Where Were You When President Nixon Resigned?

August 7th, 2014

OK, so you need to be at least as old as me, and probably older to answer this question. As for me (I was 14), my family was on vacation in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. That afternoon my father told me that President Nixon was going to speak on national television.

I had known that the noose was closing on him and I believed that he was guilty of a cover up. I asked my father if Nixon was going to resign and he said it’s hard to believe that he asked for time on national TV to do anything else. I was swimming in the hotel pool when my father peeked his head out the door and told me he was coming on TV. I got out of the pool and wrapped a towel around my shoulders; I went into the hotel room, watched him resign, and went back into the pool. The next morning I saw the headline in the New York Daily News.

Because I grew up in northern Virginia and started reading the Washington Post from the time I could read, I had a front row seat on the Watergate scandal. I know way more than anyone should about it, but I’m amazed at how badly President Nixon handled this.

On June 17, 1972 five men were caught and arrested in the Watergate office complex, more specifically, the offices of the Democratic National Headquarters. Almost everyone believes that President Nixon knew nothing about it and was caught off guard when he got word.

It was silly on several levels. President Nixon was running for re-election against Senator George McGovern and was expected to soundly defeat him (which he did). The burglars were looking for information that the McGovern campaign had on Nixon, but if they did have anything, it would have been at McGovern headquarters, not the DNC offices.

In any case President Nixon saw the arrests as an attack on him and ordered his staff to pay the burglars to make sure they didn’t testify in their trial that they had been ordered by anyone to do this. Over the next 2 years it all unraveled. We learned that while President Nixon didn’t order the break in, he tried to cover it up. We call that obstruction of justice.

Forty years ago today he was facing the real possibility that he would be impeached and removed from office. In a decision that I supported then (and now) he chose to resign, fearing that an impeachment and trial would divide the nation. The next day Gerald Ford took the oath of office and became the next President. In another decision I agreed with, President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. It may have cost him his re election in 1976 but I think he did the right thing.

In the last 40 years I’ve come to recognize the strength of our nation. Not many nations could survive the voluntary resignation of a sitting President and the orderly transition of power to another without the fear of a military takeover. Watergate gave us an unprecedented Constitutional crisis but the next day the government opened for business and did well. Its employees showed up for work just like every other day. The national parks open for business, Social Security checks were processed and mailed, and everything was worked like it should.

August 7, 1974 was a bad day for many reasons, but a good day for the confidence we all should feel in our government.

The Justice Chronicles Volume 15: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: This Is Going To Cost Us

July 16th, 2014

The end of June is always an interesting time for me because I get to read a small mountain of Supreme Court opinions. I’ve generally found these opinions easy to read and it gives me a leg up on those who listen to 30 seconds of a news story on the opinion.

Far and away the opinion that has interested me the most was Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Inc.. Here is my (brief) analysis: According to the terms of the Affordable Care Act, if you are an employer you are required to provide health care to your employees (you can get tax credits if you employ only a few people). As part of this you have to provide birth control.

Hobby Lobby and a few other privately owned companies objected because they oppose abortion and feel that certain forms of birth control actually abort a fetus after conception. They filed suit against the Department of Health and Human Services and the court agreed with Hobby Lobby.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the 5-4 majority. He argued that if a company is privately owned by a small number of owners and they all agree that a law (in this case the Affordable Care Act) violates their core values, they are not required to violate those values. Much of this was based on the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissent. She argued that this will open a door to much greater problems. If we allow these companies to exempt themselves from laws that violate their beliefs, where do we end? What if another company finds all forms of birth control? Or a company whose beliefs on homosexuality prevent them from employing gays or lesbians?

I find Justice Ginsberg’s arguements compelling. To the extent that government has no business deciding which relgious beliefs are appropriate, we rely on people of those faiths to determine what they find offensive. And while mainstream America supports gay rights and birth control, good people of different faiths oppose them. If you are an employee of a small, privately held company, you are essentially a hostage of their beliefs even if they are not your own.

I read the opinion (I downloaded it for free on my iPad) and see a disconnect with what I’ve been reading in other outlets. The most troublind disconnect I’ve found is the impression given that these will only apply to small companies. But the opinion applies to companies with only a few owners, not employees. For example, Hobby Lobby is owned by one family, but they employ 16,000 people. Koch Industries employ 60,000. Simply put, as long as these companies don’t go public they can subject their employees to anything they want.

This wasn’t prominent in the decision, but I think this is an important issues: while Hobby Lobby and other companies are privately held, they are also incorporated. This allows the family financial protection if they go bankrupt; the creditors can only go after assets in the company and not personal assets. It seems to me, though, that these companies are trying to have it both ways. If they want protection for themselves, shouldn’t there be some protection for their employees? If these families see their companies as an extension of their own values, shouldn’t they then be compelled to “go all in” and not protect themselves?

I wonder how long it will take for the Court to see that they’ve opened a bad door.

Tony Gwynn: 1960 – 2014

June 18th, 2014

Monday we received sad news (though news many of us in San Diego knew was coming): Tony Gwynn died of cancer of the salivary glands at the age of 54.

This was sad news on several levels. He was much too young. We who love San Diego, baseball, or just loved watching a man who respected the game, his family, and himself with equal ferocity, will miss him.

He was a Los Angeles boy he grew up rooting for the Dodgers. After high school he came to San Diego State University where he played basketball and baseball. In 1981 he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 3rd round. After a year in the minor leagues he made his major league debut with the Padres on July 19, 1982. He never left. Even though he could have made much more money by moving to another team when he became a free agent, he decided to stay in San Diego.

From 1982 to his retirement at the end of the 2001 season he put up some incredible numbers. His career batting average was .338, with 3,141 hits (it’s assumed anyone with 3,000 career hits gets into the Baseball Hall of Fame). He made the All Star team 15 times and was the National League batting champion 8 times.

But the best thing about Tony was his character. He never stopped studying the game, even drawing the respect of the often prickly Ted Williams.

After his career he continued to contribute to the game coaching the SDSU baseball team. We knew things were bad in March when he asked for a leave of absence.

I had the pleasure to meet him several years ago at a charity event. We just spoke for a minute, but he made me feel like I was the only person in the room. You can read my account of that meeting here. Though he and his wife were the keynote speakers, they carried themselves with the kind of class I’d always heard about.

One final note: He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2007. A few months after that San Diego experienced a fire that destroyed dozens of homes. Tony put the word out that if anyone lost an autograph of his (from a picture to a baseball to a bat) in the fire, they should let him know and the would replace them. As an added bonus, he could put “HOF” on the autograph (Hall of Fame). The fire came close to his home and his showed his character in that he was concerned so much with the fans.

He was Mr. Padres and we will miss him.

God Bless Tony, and I’m glad you’ll be reunited with your father.

D Day Plus 70 Years. A Day To Remember

June 6th, 2014

The airwaves have been filled today with remembrances of June 6, 1944. These anniversaries are becoming more poignant as the number of those who were there are dwindling. It won’t be many years before we lose our last survivor.

The numbers are staggering. By early 1944 it was clear that the allies would need to make an amphibious landing on the shores of France, but it was not clear where or when. Adolf Hitler believed it would be at Calais, the narrowest part of the English Channel. He was wrong. Around 6:30 a.m. that morning, allied troops began landing on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches, south of Calais.

On that day 160,000 troops landed and began an inch by inch conquest of France. About 9,000 died on those beaches. We should never forget that.

D Day is also a reminder that landmark events sometimes turn on small, bizarre decisions. Hitler’s personal doctor, Theodore Morell, regularly injected Hitler with something he called “Vitamultin.” There is good reason to believe that one of the ingredients was amphetamines. On the night of June 5th, Hitler left instructions not to wake him. When reports began to come in about the invasion, Hitler was not awakened. When he finally did wake up, he believed the invasion was a trick and the real invasion was going to be at Calais. He refused to move troops to the invasion, and this eventually made the allied victory happen.

A few years ago I met a man who was part of the invasion. He told me that he was transferred to England with the understanding that he would be part of the invasion. During the day he drilled and prepared for the invasion. At night he was housed with an English family. They were not thrilled to house an American: all they knew about America was what they saw in movies about organized crime in Chicago in the 1920s. His room had only a bed; the rest of the room had been stripped of everything else. The good news is that as they got to know him, they recognized that this American was a good guy. He got home one day and found his room had the bed, and also a dresser and art on the wall. He was pleased to have dispelled their prejudice.

On the night of June 5th he remembered boarding the transport ship. He told me that some of the troops prayed the rosary. Others played cards. They were all scared.

The invasion was horrible. The sea was red with blood and the sand was littered with bodies. But he survived. Eventually the war ended because D Day achieved its purpose: it started with a beachhead and ended with the liberation of France and Germany.

My thanks to him and all those who spent the night of June 5th wondering if they would live another day.

General Shinseki: We’re Not Doing Right By Him, Our Veterans, or Our Nation

May 31st, 2014

We got word yesterday that Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the VA resigned his position. While we could all see it coming, I’m sorry that more members of Congress asked a few questions before demanding his resignation.

The story began earlier this month when it was learned that employees of the VA hospital in Phoenix were falsifying appointment records. If a veteran asked for an appointment at any VA facility, he or she was supposed to get that appointment no longer than 14 days out; this was shortened from 30 days as a way to cut down on long delays in getting appointments.

Unfortunately cutting the expected wait time by 16 days didn’t change anything else. The reason for the long delays is simple: we have too many patients and too few providers. Middle managers did what they normally do when faced with an impossible deadline: they cheated. The cooked the books to make it seem that they were hitting their numbers when they weren’t.

There are a few articles worth reading on this: The Associated Press and today’s Los Angeles Times give a much more complex picture of this scandal.

I had to do a little digging for this information. It seems the 24 hour news cycle has reduced the story to this: The VA is incompetent, we need to find a scapegoat, and it’s news to go to the top: Eric Shinseki. Congress followed suit and began clamoring for Shinseki’s resignation. It finally became clear that they could clamor (and get on TV) seemingly forever, and a good and talented man fell on his sword.

The problem with the VA is much more systemic. In the last half of the 20th century we had wars in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, along with countless other small actions. In the first decade of our current century we’ve already seen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to the AP article, the VA has seen a 17% increase in enrollments since 2009. Right now the VA carries 9,000,000 patients with 85,000,000 appointments per year. The VA web page shows 2,962 job openings and 746 of these openings are for doctors.

Simply put they haven’t been able to provide enough staff to cover the patients they are tasked to care for. That’s the problem.

Congress needs to provide adequate funding and prevent staffers from having to do this.

And as for General Shinseki, he deserves better than this. We owe him an apology.

San Diego On Fire

May 18th, 2014

If you accessed the news in any format this past week, you’ve been hearing about wildfires in San Diego. For those of us who live here, we’ve spent at least part of the week watching the news if only to know what to say to well meaning relatives and friends who think we are toast.

Every part of our country, and indeed every part of our world, brings challenges. Maybe it’s hurricanes, or earthquakes, or tornadoes, or blizzards. Here in Southern California it’s becoming wildfires. Many found their way here out of love for the weather and the false assumption that watered lawns and full taps magically appeared.

Many also falsely assumed that any fire would be put out before it costs us anything. Since I moved here in 1995 we’ve had a few years where we’ve had fires that have gone out of control. The years 2003, 2007, and now 2014 will remind me of uncontrollable fires. They will remind me that the price of a house with a spectacular view comes with the acknowledgement that a fire may begin far away but hungers for a house with a spectacular view.

Out of good luck more than anything, my home is generally pretty safe from these wildfires. But the homes of the patients I serve are not. I’ve gotten used to the process of learning about the location of the fires and determining which of my patients are in danger. I’ve gotten used to spending hours calling cell phones hoping to find where they went after getting word in the wee small hours of the morning that they have to leave. I’ve gotten used to preparing conversations with people in the last chapter of their lives who need to understand why they can’t die at home because their home no longer exists.

Is there something I can’t get used to? Yes. I can’t get used to hearing politicians who insist that dramatic changes in weather patterns are not due to our actions. I can’t get used to those who have the ability and willingness to trash the futures of our (and their) descendents because the cost of honesty is their re-elections. I can’t get used to the fact that their ambition for wealth or power is more important than anything else.

Nancy and I don’t have children. But we do have nieces and nephews. We do have neighbors, friends, and loved ones who do. We care about the world we’re giving them. We love Southern California. We love the idea that this is a part of the world that welcomed us. We grieve that this may well be a part of the world that will no longer be liveable. We grieve that, unlike our ancestors, we cannot give to the next generation better than we were given.

We don’t see the recent fires in the context of a random event. We see them as the natural result of climate change that our leaders choose to ignore. And we see the need to elect leaders who won’t do that.

Oh, and one more thing: a few days ago I had occasion to drive through one of the areas that burned. The burned areas look like the surface of the moon but I was amazed at how few homes were lost. Part of the reason is that the homeowners followed directions to keep brush away from their homes. But we also need to give a shout out to Cal Fire for their heroism in defending these homes. It’s going to be a long, hot summer and I’m grateful they are on our side.

Boston Strong? You Betcha!

April 15th, 2014

I’m writing this on the evening of April 15, 2014. Last year at this time we were looking with horror at the Boston Marathon bombing. If you’ve never lived in Boston it’s hard to imagine how much the marathon means. Trust me, it’s a big deal.

And it was made even harder to see that two cowardly terrorists used this iconic event to spread terror. In the blink of an eye we lost Richard Martin, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and Sean Collier. Officer Collier died a few days later, but he was every much a victim of the marathon as the others.

Of the terrorists, one is dead and the other is in custody. The justice system will deal with him, and I know the good people of Boston will do the right thing.

In the meantime the city moves on. The courage Boston showed 240 years ago when they formed the Sons of Liberty has been present over the last year.

Next week they will run the marathon again. Our prayers will be with all of them.

Good Passover to Our Jewish Brothers and Sisters

April 14th, 2014

Tonight is the first night of Passover, the Jewish feast that remembers their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The celebration is tightly scripted and comes from the 12th Chapter of the Book of Exodus. Today anyone can purchase a book giving directions for this feast; it’s called a Haggadah. Last year I read about a new edition called the New American Haggadah and this year I purchased it.

In addition to giving instructions on celebrating the feast it also gives commentary and a timeline. One commentary grabbed my attention and I want to share it here. It speaks of slavery in Egypt and how slavery continues to exist. In a sense, anyone enslaved is still in Egypt. Here is what is says:

Who can say we’ve actually left? “Whenever you live, it is probably Egypt,” Michael Walzer wrote. Do you live in a place where some people work two and three jobs to feed their children, and others don’t even have a single, poorly paid job? Do you live in a community in which the rich are fabulously rich, and the poor humiliated and desperate? Do you live among people who worship the golden calves of obsessive acquisitiveness, among people whose children are blessed by material abundance and cursed by spiritual impoverishment? Do you live in a place in which some people are more equal than others? In America, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is nearly twice as high as it is for whites. Black people are five times as likely to be incarcerated as whites. Infant mortality in the black community is twice as high as it is among whites. America is a golden land, absolutely, and for Jews, it has been an ark of refuge. But it has not yet fulfilled its promise. The same is true for that other Promised Land. Jewish citizens of Israel have median household incomes almost double that of Arab citizens and an infant mortality rate less than half that of Arabs. Israel represents the greatest miracle in Jewish life in two thousand years – and its achievements are stupendous (and not merely in comparison to its dysfunctional neighbors) – and yet its promise is also unfulfilled. The seder marks the flight from the humiliation of slavery to the grandeur of freedom, but not everyone has come on this journey. It is impossible to love the stranger as much as we love our own kin, but aren’t we still commanded to bring everyone out of Egypt?

Enough said.

The Los Angeles Book Festival: Really Guys? Did You Think This Through?

March 28th, 2014

For the past several years I’ve joyfully attended the Los Angels Times Book Festival. For many years it was held on the campus of UCLA but a few years ago it moved to USC. It was a weekend devoted to books, publishing, meeting authors, and just soaking up literary wisdom.

Also for the past few years I’ve gone there on a bus trip sponsored by my favorite bookstore, Warwicks here in La Jolla. A few weeks ago I learned, to my dismay, that Warwicks is cancelling the bus trip. My dismay isn’t that they are cancelling it, but why.

If you click on the “authors and performers” tab on the Book Festival page it takes you to a page that lists authors who will attend part of the festival. And then next to their name is a button to order their books through Amazon (I’m not hotlinking them. You’ll have to find them on your own). Yep, you heard it right. You can, with the click of a button, completely undercut the efforts made by Warwicks and hundreds of other independent bookstores.

I’m sure the festival will get a cut of books purchased through Amazon, and I’m sure this was a business decision. But so much of the flavor of the book festival surrounds independent bookstores and publishing houses, exactly the places Amazon is trying to kill. The festival should be promoting independents, not hastening their demise.

In fairness they later added a link to IndieBound which does benefit independent bookstores, but that still doesn’t level the field. If you click on the IndieBound tab it takes you to a page where it asks for your zipcode and gives you a list of independent bookstores in your area. If you click on Amazon it takes you to their webpage where you can order it at a deep discount and have it shipped. While it may not be the right thing to do, it is certainly the cheapest. The book I’m reading now, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin retails for $40.00 (and is worth every penny). You can buy it from Amazon for $22.60.

I won’t return to the festival until or unless they change this. I hope it’s not long.