What about The 50.8%?

In the grand scheme of things, our country’s fiscal issues are getting the most news coverage . We’re a country coming out of a recession (yes, we are) and people are afraid of being plunged back into one because of political infighting and legislative hardheadedness from Congress. News media was obsessed – would they compromise?

They did compromise. The country is saved. And now the news media is left to talk about how they compromised and how they didn’t, what specific changes came out of these negotiations, and what didn’t get done (like Sandy relief and debt ceiling negotiations). News outlets have been covering this for months, and will continue to do so until everything finally gets settled, leaving little airtime left for other important news stories.

Which is a shame. Because in all the coverage of the fiscal negotiations, no major networks reported that Cantor and Issa killed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

Continue reading

Uganda Journal: the arrival

HotelBalconyI wake up to the indistinct sounds of people chattering and a continent’s worth of bird chirping, or so it seems. I hear someone’s rooster crow every once in a while off in the distance, but it’s 9 a.m., so he’s probably been at work for a while now and I’ve been ignoring him all this time. After flying halfway around the world on about three and a half hours of airplane sleep, once I got to my hotel room in Kampala, I slept the sleep of the dead.

The trip to Uganda has gone smoothly. I ushered in the New Year somewhere over 30-degree longitude, although the captain made no announcement when the time came, so I don’t know exactly when in the flight that happened. No ball from Times Square. No noisemakers or pots and pans. No champagne. Just a distracting episode of Smash on the in-flight movie screen.

BelgianBeerDuring the layover in Brussels, I drank a beer just so I can say I’ve had a Belgian beer in Belgium. It was 8 a.m. local time on New Years Day, and except for a long line of people waiting to board a plane to JFK, the airport was cavernously empty.

We fell in with a Uganda dissident, Yoga, who was returning to his home country for the first time in years. He’s been living in exile in the United States with his wife, who’s since become an American citizen. Yoga has the kindly demeanor you hope Morgan Freeman has: that wise, friendly uncle who exudes calm.

During the years of Idi Amin’s reign in the 1970s, Yoga went into exile to escape political prosecution. Following the dictator’s fall, he returned, but by the mid-80s went into exile again because of a falling out with the new government of Yoweri Musevini. Yoga, it seems, had once been part of that circle of politicians, although he doesn’t get into specifics and I don’t ask. I’m content to let him talk.

Yoga’s return to Uganda will last for four months, and it comes just as the president and the parliament are about to square off over a corruption case involving the possible murder of an opposition member of parliament and subsequent cover-up by the executive branch—like Watergate but with a dead body. I don’t know much about current Ugandan politics, so it’s something I’ll have to look into later.  When I have the chance to ask one of our hosts about the controversy, he smiles it off. “It’s not a big deal,” he tells me.

Yoga promises me to send me some links to several newspaper editorials he’s written for The Monitor, the largest of Ugandans non-government-run newspapers. During the months ahead, he expects to make the rounds of Uganda’s talk radio programs. I hope he keeps in touch.

The flight from Brussels to Uganda takes us over the cloud-shrouded Alps, which I don’t get to see. Hopefully on the way back. The weather clears somewhere over the Mediterranean, but by then, I’ve tried to steal my few hours of sleep, which keeps getting interrupted by flight attendants offering drinks and, later, ice cream bars.

By the time I wake up for good, we’re over the Sahara: sand as far as I can see, which is pretty far, considering our altitude. “Sea of sand” seems so cliché, but as someone who’s spent a lot of time in my life staring at the ocean, there’s no more fitting metaphor. The wind-shaped contours look, from this height, like storm-tossed waves of orange, amber, umber, and burnt sienna—even bleached tangerine. I wonder, for a second, what it would be like to crash land down there—how small and lost we would be. It makes me feel lonely.

SaharaSunsetThe Nile River snakes into view, wide and verdant in the midst of the barren landscape. The desert has magnitude but the river has a power of its own, majesty against majesty. When the sun finally sets over the desert, the horizon turns into a blood-read seam between sand and sky. The curve of the earth throws the desert into shadow. The sun, incandescent, becomes the Sahara’s last shade of orange as it sinks away.

After a brief stop in Kigali, Rwanda, we hopscotch up to Entebbe, Uganda, and from there drive to Kampala. The single stretch of road has no streetlights but is crowded with cars and motorbikes and pedestrians, all navigating the dark by headlights or nothing. I get glimpses of the streetside shops crowding in: concrete bunkers, corrugated metal, heaps of stuff I can’t identify, an occasional cookfire, shanties, packed earth. People everywhere.

When I awake, I am eager to see Uganda in the light. The dark impressions clutter the edges of my consciousness—not to mention decades of anticipation.

I tease myself, throwing open only the drapes but leaving closed the white gauzy privacy curtains. I see lots of green out the window. I let that tantalize me while I get cleaned up and ready. Then I come back, ready finally to see the full view. I push past the curtains and out onto the small balcony.

HotelBalcony02The vacant lot next to the hotel bursts with broad-leafed banana trees, although directly in front of me I see a three-and-a-half-story avocado tree stretching up to reach my balcony . There are plenty of smaller trees and bushes I of course don’t recognize, but the lot looks like a miniature jungle. On the far side, atop a the roof of another hotel, a stork stands vigil—three feet tall, perhaps, black-feathered except for a bald neck and head. It manages to look sinister and gawky at the same time.

To my left, a manmade lake teems with hundreds of other birds, most of which congregate on an island near the shore. There are Nile perch and mudfish in the lake, I’m later told. A few people walk along a wide dirt footpath along the lake’s near edge. On the far side, I see squat buildings that stretch off toward the hillsides beyond, where they all jockey for space among the trees. Everything’s off-white or the color of terra cotta or jungle green.

I stay on the balcony for a long time, letting Uganda show itself to me as it will. There will be more to see, and it will look vastly different than this little idyllic glimpse, but for the moment, after a day of travel and a lifetime of waiting, this is everything I need.

Reading in 2013…

CATEGORY: WordsDayLike you, I have my moments of acquiescing to the typical sorts of things people do at the New Year. Rather than make resolutions (“I’ll write 5 pages a day” -”I’ll complete two book manuscripts this year” – etc., ad nauseum, knowing full well I don’t work on any schedule but my own), I’ve gone for simpler plans – trying to organize (in my own slightly eccentric way) activities that I will do this year.

One of those activities is, of course, reading. Because I’m a writing professor as well as a writer/author myself (my nicety in differentiating between those two terms is surely idiosyncratic,  but I think of a writer as someone who writes, happily, I hope, for a personal purpose: satisfaction, venting, learning – and an author as one who writes , yes, probably for those same purposes, but with an eye to publication), I read a lot. Sometimes my reading – and I mean here my personal reading as opposed to my academic stuff – can get really scattered and I’ll go on jags. By that I mean I’ll read poetry for a month to the exclusion of all else (or history or creative nonfiction or novels or short stories) until I get sick of a genre and wander off to something else.

It can be fun, but it always feels messy to me and at the end of the year I always feel as if I should have had a plan.

So, I’ve made one – of sorts. Continue reading

Tournament of Rock IV: Rick Springfield vs. Duran Duran

We have another nailbiter to report: by a scant three votes, our third quarter-final winner is…AC/DC! Congrats to Eric Clapton, who goes home with our thanks and a copy of the Tournament of Rock home edition.

One more semi-final slot remains to be filled, and both of our contestants have enjoyed strong fan support so far in the tournament. Gentlemen: start your engines!

Up first, here’s Duran Duran with “Save a Prayer,” which I have always felt is one of the greatest videos from the ’80s.

Rick Springfield counters with one of the greatest songs in power pop history.

Click to vote.

Here’s the up-to-date bracket.

Is $6 billion in political spending a big deal?

Is $6 billion a lot of money?

Depends. To Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, perhaps not so much. To me and 99.99 percent of Americans, yeah, it’s a lot of money. But, like much in life, the assignment of value often lies in placing context around any piece of data. So what context should embrace the more than $6 billion that the Center for Responsive Politics says “was spent by federal campaigns, super PACs, political nonprofits and the party committees” in the 2012 election cycle?

In a Dec. 27 donation-seeking email to supporters, the center referred to “these massive sums” [emphasis added]:

Presidential candidates….$1,377,000,000
House Candidates………….$1,010,000,000
Senate Candidates…………$720,000,000
Party Committees……………$1,800,000,000
Outside Groups……………….$1,210,000,000

Are these, in fact, “massive sums”? In the context of political spending, yes: They are the most in American history, surpassing the $5.3 billion in the 2008 election cycle, and that was double the $2.6 billion spent in the 2004 election cycle. Of course, what makes the 2012 election cycle even more memorable is that $1.2 billion spent by “outside groups.” They spent nearly as much as the presidential candidates alone.

It appears that, like death and taxes, record-breaking spending by politicians and “outside groups” is inevitable.

Giving money to a political entity, either anonymously (thanks to a variety of 501(c)s) or openly, is a voluntary act. No law requires a person (or a corporation) to surrender money to a candidate or an “interest” group. (Yes, much of that “surrender” is motivated by a simple goal — access to power.) For individuals, political giving involves “disposable” income. (I wonder how shareholders view corporate political giving: ROI?)

For giggles, let’s render a few comparisons in how Americans shed “disposable” income in the 2012 election cycle to put that $6 billion in context.

Americans drink. A lot. In the 2012 election cycle, extrapolating from 2011 spending, Americans spent about $320 billion to buy beer, wine, and liquor.

Americans smoke. Still. Again, extrapolating from 2010 figures, Americans bought more than 600 billion cigarettes, providing the six major U.S. tobacco corporations (extrapolating from 2010 data) more than $70 billion in profits in the 2012 election cycle. (Sadly, the National Cancer Institute only had about $10 billion to spend to defeat cancer.) On the bright side, all that smoking brought about $50 billion in sin-tax revenue to the states.

As we’ve heard lately, Americans have about 300 million firearms. Over the 2012 election cycle, gun manufacturers produced (again, extrapolating, etc.) about 7 million firearms, earning revenues of about $22 billion. The National Shooting Sports Foundation says the annual economic impact of hunting and shooting on the U.S. economy is about $28 billion, making that about $56 billion for the 2012 election cycle.

Americans are a generous lot. Extrapolating from recent figures, Americans gave about $600 billion — repeat, $600 billion, or about 100 times political spending — to charity during the 2012 election cycle. In 2011 alone:

Corporate donations remained flat at $14.5 billion last year, foundations made almost $42 billion in grants – an increase of 1.8 percent – while gifts from estates jumped more than 12 percent to $24.4 billion. The study estimated 117 million U.S. households, 12 million corporations, 99,000 estates and 76,000 foundations gave to charities during the year. Their money went to around 1.1 million registered charities and some 222,000 American religious groups. [emphasis added]

Yes, I know: A big chunk of all that money was given for less than altruistic reasons — such as tax advantages, currying favor, or, in Mitt Romney’s case, manipulating charitable giving to prevent him from being caught in a fiscal lie.

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? A few comparative statistics can surely put the $6 billion spent on politics into a more credible light, eh?

Right. That’s a convenient fiction. So here’s the comparison that matters the most to me.

As a potential political donor, I have insufficient disposable income to permit a significant contribution to a candidate, let alone approach the legal maximum of $117,000 for an individual’s transparent contributions. That also means I cannot make an anonymous donation of any import to a “trade association.” I’m not Sheldon Adelson, the 12th richest American, who with his wife gave nearly $40 million to Republican causes. He and 39 other billionaires (and spouses, family members, etc.) gave hundreds of million of dollars in the 2012 election cycle to influence outcomes.

Bottom line: Their phone calls to presidents, members of Congress, and executive branch officials will get returned. Mine will not.

That’s the context that matters. And big-time donors are already vetting the field for 2014 and 2016.

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(The Center for Responsive Politics is a non-profit organization that tracks political money — lobbying, direct campaign contributions, soft money, and so on. It does not accept donations from corporations, unions, or trade associations. That makes it a relatively fair umpire for examining money in politics.)