Friday, August 31, 2007

Import safety: what is Sen. Cornyn's position?

I responded to one of those Consumers’ Union e-mails about product and food safety and Chinese imports, asking you to sign their form letter and send it to your senators and representative. I’m rather upset that we have so underfunded the Consumer Product Safety Commission at a time when so many of our products are manufactured elsewhere. I have nothing against international trade. I’ve taken a few economics classes and I think it can be very beneficial to a country. However, when you’re talking about toys that my child plays with, you’d better make damn sure that they’re safe.

So I added some of my own thoughts about this to the Consumers’ Union form letter. I probably was not as respectful as I should have been to United States Senators, but I figured it would give their staff something to read other than the form letter. I’m not sure the staff really reads these at all. It seems more likely that they try to figure out what subject you’re writing about and then issue a form letter right back to you.

So I added my hot opinions about product safety and how upset I am that we seem to be putting international trade above the health of our children. One of my son’s favorite toys is still “on vacation” because of lead paint, so it’s personal.

Well, the response I received today from Sen. John Cornyn, R. TX, included the following paragraph:

As you know, the last decade has given rise to a strong, multinational trend toward free trade. Such historic agreements continue to bolster American competitiveness, enhance relationships between the United States and foreign governments, improve global economic conditions, and expand the market for American exports. These multinational agreements give American consumers greater choice as well as spur domestic economic growth by eliminating tariffs on American goods. However, as we continue to support our American workers and economy we must closely monitor trade practices that pose a threat to our nation’s supply chain. As China continues to industrialize, it is at a strategic crossroads. Although the United States welcomes a peaceful and prosperous China as a vital part of the global community, questions remain about the choices that Chinese leadership will make as China’s power and influence grow.

Other than stating at the outset of the letter that the Senator “share(s) my concerns regarding the safety of our food supply and consumer products that enter the U.S.,” there was no mention of oversight of consumer product safety inspections or beefing up enforcement against businesses that import this junk. Pretty much just concern that we don’t shut off that all important stream of international trade with China. There is a vague reference to monitoring Chinese "trade practices," but other than that I don't get much of a sense of protecting the American people. Just so we’re clear, the message I am getting is: I share your concern, but free trade is more important than our children’s health. Glad to know where the people stand in the pecking order. (Please tell me if you can decifer something else in the politico-speak above.)

Maybe I should not draw such conclusions from these form letters, but I don’t really have much choice but to try to interpret the correspondence I receive. Can it be that with all the news about Chinese imports Sen. Cornyn still doesn’t have a paragraph cobbled together about it? Maybe I will follow up with him and ask if that is the impression he intended to give. Maybe that will get me a better answer. But a note to the senator: I do not wish to be lectured about the benefits of free trade. I would like to know what you plan to do about the safety of our imports!

Surely he doesn’t expect the free markets to fix this by punishing the firms who ship poison into our borders, at the cost of American lives, does he?

Just so I don’t end the week on a downer: happy Labor Day weekend and enjoy the start of the football season!

Until next week, I remain your humble servant,

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bishop Stanton shakes finger at Chicago Episcopalians

Warning, I’m diving into religious waters this morning, which for some reason I have been reluctant to do in the maiden days of Filibuster Vigilantly. I'm no expert or theologian. Just a pew-sitting Episcopalian.

When I clicked on Unfair Park this morning ("link") I was surprised to see a picture of my Bishop, the Rt. Rev. James Stanton, staring back at me (I love the caption under his picture). It appears he gave a quote to the Chicago Sun Times for a story they reported on the Rev. Tracey Lind, a finalist for bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. There are four other finalists, but of course the article is about Rev. Lind because she is a lesbian. And Bishop Stanton doesn’t like it one bit. I’m not sure how they chose Stanton for the anti-gay quote, but here ‘tis:

Bishop James Stanton of Dallas, a catalyst in the global effort against gay bishops, called Lind's nomination distressing.

"It's an action that says Chicago really doesn't care what the rest of the Anglican Communion says," he told the Sun-Times.

Allow me to respond (since this is my blog). First of all, Rev. Lind has not been elected yet, so I’m not sure why her being a finalist is so distressing. Of course, she could be elected and then what? I suppose then we’re really going to be in trouble with those African Archbishops who have already set up shop in the United States against the wishes of the Windsor Report, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (TEC), the Archbishop of Canterbury, a handful of other official statements from the Communion, and of course against good catholic order. I’m sure they will write more nasty letters with help from their American friends about the Episcopal Church and how we’ve abandoned the Christian faith delivered once and for all to the saints, and we’re heretics, and (my favorite) apostate. So since that’s already happening, what’s the difference?

The difference would be that TEC would be taking a stand to say that we welcome all of God’s children warmly and that all orders of ordained ministry are open to faithful Christians, their sexuality notwithstanding. We would be stating that we intend to stand by our non-discrimination rules that already state that we will not bar the door to a candidate based on their sexual orientation.

And most importantly, we would be sending a message to the world that proclaiming God’s radical welcome is more important than staying in the good graces of blustery bigoted Archbishops who would require nothing less than our repentance of this welcome. I think the majority of TEC has already made this choice. Let’s not be shy about proclaiming it, with God’s help.

Father Jake has a snippet from each of the nominees that they wrote to introduce themselves. Looks like a good slate of candidates. God bless them and the Diocese of Chicago as they call their new bishop.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Please take a moment to contact Governor Perry

A miscarriage of justice will take place this week without the intervention of Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Kenneth Foster is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Thursday. Foster was not the trigger man. He was sitting in a car 90 feet away when a shooting took place. These facts are not in dispute. Foster does not appear to be a good guy, but he did not kill anyone. The Dallas Morning News had an editorial on this yesterday, and it was also pointed out by Unfair Park. The Waco Tribune Herald ran this column.

You can contact the Governor through his web page at I sent him a short note. I know that only my friends and family are reading this, but maybe a few more voices can help make a difference.

The sentence was commuted (hat tip to Mr. Roberts). Gov. Perry did the right thing here. Eventually maybe we can decide that a civilized society does not execute its citizens. I have hope that we can get there, even in Texas.

Late summer doldrums and Bush crony resignations

I guess we can't blame Al Gonzalez for waiting until the week before Labor Day to resign. Like Karl Rove two weeks ago, it sort of gives the impression of leaving on one's own terms, because everybody who was criticizing them is currently on vacation, as are the news consuming public. Well, good to be rid of them whether or not there is a media circus and chorus in Washington waving goodbye. Now our justice department can perhaps start to heal from the damage inflicted by the partisan crony of Mr. Bush. Remember, Mr. President, the new AG will have to be confirmed by the very body that Mr. Gonzalez had been fibbing to. Let's try to get someone who will put the American people above the Republican party this time.

(If Dick Cheney resigns this week it will be a trifecta hat trick grand slam summer. Don't hold your breath.)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Subprime mortgage meltdown

So we've been dealing with this little liquidity problem in the financial markets for a couple of weeks now. It has affected not only the price of the securities containing the bundles of mortgages that lenders sell to investors; it has affected dang near everybody, from the lending operations that are laying off thousands and closing up shop to anyone invested in the stock market including the foreign exchanges, to people trying to buy or sell a home.

So why did this happen? Why did banks make so many loans to people that couldn't repay? Why did the rating agencies give investment grade marks to the securities that included these loans? Why did investors assume that the risk of default was sufficiently diversified away? Why did the individuals who sought these loans enter into such a risky proposition?

To answer a few of these questions: The borrowers were assured that their home values would only go up and that they could refinance when their rates reset. The lenders were just going to sell the loan to an investor, so it wouldn't be their problem if the loans defaulted. The investors relied on the rating agencies. I don't know what the rating agencies' problems were; they came to the realization that there was a problem way too late. Everyone was passing the hot potato, paying it forward, or playing financial musical chairs (pick your favorite metaphor).

I do think that the lenders had an ethical obligation not to make these risky loans. This is called predatory lending, and will likely be defined as such by the states or the US government soon. That's where I would cast the first stone. Several state legislatures are already at work on this since the feds haven't done anything about it. I mean, how hard is it to require a paycheck stub before you give someone money? And to get some reasonable assurance that a reset interest rate would be affordable to the borrower?

Moral hazard
Robert McTeer, the former president of the Dallas Federal Reserve had a good column about moral hazard yesterday in the Morning News. I will note that his is the only finance article I have ever read that references Billy Joe Shaver. He is suggesting that the Fed bailout of the financial markets increases moral hazard because future risks will be assumed to have a floor. He ends up defending Bernanke's actions of helping to bail out the financial sector, though, as the fallout was so all encompassing.

If the industry just wants to pass the hot potato rather than regulate itself, we have institutions that can regulate it. But will we see the next crisis coming sooner? Keep your eyes peeled for exotic financial instruments.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

'Kid Nation' - CBS exploits children for your entertainment

This is disgusting. I don’t really have any other words for it. CBS should be prosecuted for child endangerment and child labor. The parents were accomplices. A description of the contract signed by parents and children from the NYT article:

The 22-page agreement leaves little room for parents to argue that they did not know what their children might encounter. As is standard in such agreements, the parents and the children agreed not to hold the producers and CBS responsible if their children died or were injured, if they received inadequate medical care, or if their housing was unsafe and caused injury.

But while such agreements might be standard for adult participants in a reality show, it also takes on a different tone when the minor and the parent are being held solely responsible for any “emotional distress, illness, sexually transmitted diseases, H.I.V. and pregnancy” that might occur if the child “chooses to enter into an intimate relationship of any nature with another participant or any other person.”

Morning Edition did a story on this as well, and stated that the studio classified the set as a “summer camp” rather than a television production in order to get around some state laws.

God save us from ourselves!

Update Friday: The LA Times reports that the New Mexico attorney general is launching an investigation into possible violations. Child advocates are also encouraging the states where the children reside to look into possible truancy violations. Whether laws were broken or not, doesn't this seem wrong to anyone at CBS? Anyone over there have a moral compass?

Thanks for caring, Guv!

Governor Rick Perry has given us more of the same with the Orwellian-named Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). His appointee to chair the 3-person board is H.S. Buddy Garcia, already a member of the board which has set new standards for friendliness to industry. From the Morning News:
Mr. Garcia voted with Ms. [Kathleen Hartnett] White on two key issues this summer – the approval of the state's North Texas smog strategy and a permit for TXU's Oak Grove power plant, a two-unit, coal-burning plant in Robertson County.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has threatened to reject the North Texas smog plan unless the state strengthens it. State and federal officials are discussing potential changes to the plan.

There is still one seat vacant on the Commission. Let’s hope that Governor Perry balances this agency to focus on improving Texas’ air with his next appointment. I’m not holding my breath.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

NTTA - share the love, or at least the tolls

Someone made a great point over on the comments section of Unfair Park regarding our infamous Trinity toll road. The original post is pretty funny. The point the commenter made was that the road is going to cost a bundle and the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) is going to be collecting tolls on the Trinity parkway, built on land given to the NTTA by the city and Dallas gets nothing in return for its land giveaway. Nada. Just a highway in our park.

Of course the whole point of locating the toll road in the floodplain was that the land was free. I guess some folks didn’t think through that this would be a revenue generating asset and that Dallas would not share in that revenue. This is not new information, but it is a good way of looking at it, especially when you’re arguing in front of a bunch of well-heeled Dallasites.

JFK Memorial

I recently had occasion to go to the Records Building downtown, which is right across the street from the Old Red Courthouse and the John F. Kennedy Memorial. I remembered some small controversy (probably more of a kerfuffle) recently about how the JFK Memorial does not do justice to such an iconic figure as John F. Kennedy. I am not sure but the rumblings may have started with this architecture critique.

At any rate I wanted to take a moment to visit the monument and see for myself. While the information outside the memorial states that it is not intended to mourn a passing but to celebrate a life, it evokes quite the opposite.

Once you enter the structure, which is like a large empty room, you are at once completely separated from the city around you, with only the blue sky and clouds above. My eyes were drawn skyward, which suggests hope, but it was clearly bittersweet looking up from an empty tomb. The square slab of granite in the middle does look like a funerary marker, regardless of what Witold Rybcynski says. The whole monument invites one to pause and ask “what if?”

I’m no architecture critic, but that is what it did for me. I believe it is fitting as the memorial at the scene of a national tragedy. I’m glad it’s there and I’m glad I stopped by to take a moment of reflection.

Did a real journalist read my blog?

I couldn't let this go without commenting. Jeff Siegel over at the Lake Highlands Advocate blog has also linked to the toilet voucher, which he " accident." I would like to think that yours truly was that accident. If so, cheers Mr. Siegel, and many happy flushes.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Save Dallas Water

I am proud of Dallas Water Utilities for offering this: a $90 voucher to replace your high flow toilets! Insert your own potty humor here. OK, now get your mind out of the sewer.

The Trinity: What I Think

Since it seems I am going to be posting a lot about the Trinity River Corridor project, I thought I would lay out my basic position with regards to the highway portion of the project. I am agin’ it (that’s “against” for any non-redneck readers out there in cyberland that I imagine are salivating for my next post). And here’s why, in order of importance:

1. Building an elevated multi-lane highway inside the levees makes flooding worse. This highway will have to be built tall enough and with wall support to survive a 100-year flood. It’s the fat man in the bathtub analogy. The only way to keep it from making flooding worse is to dig the ditch deeper and/or build the levees higher. This project was supposed to have a flood-control component; why would we do something that makes flooding worse near downtown? Furthermore, as Councilwoman Angela Hunt has discovered, the Corps of Engineers has never put their seal of approval on a project like this before. There are no other projects like this in the United States. How comfortable are we in doing this unprecedented project – a reliever highway inside the banks of the river which carries away our floodwater? If that is not enough, the project is being designed using pre-Katrina standards for our levees. As Wayne and Garth would say, “exsqueeze me?” Did nobody notice what happened to all those people displaced from New Orleans? Some of them are still here in Dallas, so complete was the devastation. So to reiterate point the first, this project is pretty dumb.

2. A highway is a crummy thing to have in the middle of your signature park. As this project progressed and the highway has moved further inside the levees, it is projected to eat up 1/3 of the park that was sold to the voters. Look, I don’t have to rely on the argument that there was a bait and switch back in '98. I don’t care. In my mind you can’t have a signature park with lakes, sailboats, hike and bike trails, and nature preserves if there is a damn highway in the middle of it. Duh. So whether we voted for a toll road in 1998 is not at issue; the fact that it’s not too late to get the road out of the park is the issue. Point the second.

3. Who is this reliever route for anyway? I don’t know anyone clamoring for it, and most of the people (regular people – not the big money types who are shilling for this thing) who speak in support of it don’t live in Dallas. Guess what, it’s not for Dallasites! It’s for people passing through or people who commute into downtown from the ‘burbs. How long do you think it will be before traffic on our “reliever route” slows to a crawl? And as some good souls have pointed out, more roads do not encourage the use of mass transit. We should be so lucky as to be sinking the $1B needed (so far) for this project into mass transit, of which we desperately need more to even hope to meet EPA air quality standards. Dallas has already come a long way in this regard. We have mass transit success with DART’s light rail and related development that other parts of the state envy, even as they dismiss us for our outsize proportion of Porsches and McMansions. Point the third.

Dallas is changing folks. Can you tell? Almost 90,000 people signed those petitions to get this highway on the ballot so we can get it out of our signature park and improve flood control downtown. That’s more people than voted for our new mayor. That’s more people than even voted in 1998 on the Trinity bond election that started all this. Only 38,000 people voted in favor back then (51%). This is democracy and people making their voice heard. This is real grass roots standing up for what is right against all the moneyed interest telling us what we should think. I need a bullhorn right about now. I feel like John Edwards on the stump - how's my hair?

You may have noticed that I didn’t split hairs about this being a toll road versus a free road. That’s because I don’t want any road – not inside the levees. I’ll probably never drive on it. Because I already live here and my quality of life will not be improved by it. A signature park with all the amenities in the pretty water color paintings – that is a quality of life improvement. OK, I’m done preachin’. I was raised Baptist and I learned that after three points most of the congregation is asleep and ready to go to Luby’s. So “bless your hearts” for reading; now go load up a Luann platter and save me a square of fried cod and some mac n’ cheese.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Letters section today

The Morning News published some anti-toll road letters today in response to Sunday's story, which I think is a shift in their company-line policy. Maybe I started this blog right about the time the News is coming to their senses. We'll see. A nice excerpt from letter writer Michael Boydston:
The Dallas Morning News has behaved disgracefully, shilling for the project on the editorial side while on the news side ignoring or burying stories raising concerns about the project. This story makes a misleading and incorrect case that toll road proponents were straightforward with voters in 1998, in a transparent attempt to subvert the democratic process by suggesting the project should be immune from criticism now.
Over at the Observer, Jim Schutze gives us a peek into how the editorial sausage is made in regards to an editorial on federal dollars being used on Trinity development. (Ed board had said that earmarks were bad, even the ones that come to Dallas for things like fancy bridges over the Trinity.) I recommend reading the whole article, but here's the money quote:

I called Keven Ann Willey, the Morning News editorial page editor, after the second editorial appeared, because I know her a little. She said, "The publisher was out of town, frankly, and had not been aware of our thinking or our intent on this. When the publisher saw the editorial, he wasn't particularly happy with it, shall we say."
The next day the editorial was retracted. This may be par for the course with editorial boards and publishers, but I find it very interesting nonetheless.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

An open letter to the Dallas Morning News

Since they won't print my letters over at Dallas' Only Daily newspaper, I will publish this one myself on my brand spanking new blog. (So a grand total of about 3 people will see it.)

Newspapers, while an industry in massive transition, are a public trust. My hometown newspaper has lost my trust on an issue of major importance to our city, the Trinity River Corridor project. The editorial board has its place, and it is clearly in favor of putting a high speed tollway inside the levees. Fine. Even though this is the stated position of the publisher and this is never disclosed in the paper, one should expect opinion on the editorial page.

Over on the news pages, where we should be getting unbiased coverage, we have been subjected to slanted stories and headlines for months now regarding the Trinity project. There was clearly a big push to derail the signature gathering process organized by Angela Hunt and the folks at TrinityVote. And I expect there will be months more of slanted stories and headlines as we head to the November vote. This past Sunday, for example, the headline above the fold was refuting one the primary arguments of the anti-toll road crowd, that this toll road is a "bait and switch" tactic and that the voters believed they were voting for a park with lakes and sailboats; not a high speed tollroad inside the levees. Although there is a good argument to be made that a "bait and switch" occurred, the news devoted the most prominent space to arguing the other side. Is that objective journalism or what? It clearly appears that the news pages of the DMN are cheerleading for the pro-toll road group. I don't have the time or energy to assemble the body of evidence against the DMN right here, but I will try to point out misinformation of stories as they happen in future posts, to the extent that I can stomach it.

I do have to give the DMN props, however, as there was a balanced story just this morning on the council decision to place the measure on the November ballot. I wonder if the news coverage will grow more balanced as the intelligent and informed readers of the News have seen right through the bias. Several people apparently phoned and e-mailed KERA's Think asking why the Dallas Morning News reporter seemed to be taking the pro-toll road position while claiming journalistic balance versus Jim Schutze's (Dallas Observer) admittedly biased anti-toll road position.

My modest proposal
The Dallas Morning News, as a public trust to the people of Dallas, should employ an ombudsman for readers, such as the New York Times does with the Public Editor. This independent voice would have total editorial control over a weekly or twice monthly column to respond to readers' concerns and point out inconsistencies or lack of journalistic integrity in the news pages. The ombudsman would be a veteran journalist, respected in the field, and report his/her own opinions in this space. Maybe it would be a one- or two-year contract so new perspectives could be heard. We'll work out the details to ensure independence.

While the Morning News has lost my trust on this issue, it is still a valuable resource to the people of Dallas and the citizens of Texas. I give the Austin Bureau kudos for their excellent reporting during this years' legislative session. I will continue to receive and rely on the newspaper, but some trust needs to be restored.