On politics, money and the death penalty

The death penalty – telecommunications money – Donald Sterling – corruption – shifting politics – even abortion access – it was all in a day’s conversation for the popular Week to Week political roundtable at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club today. But audience members, at social gatherings before and after, spoke of how the lively discussion – fueled in part by some pointed questions from the audience – indicates the widespread nature of citizen concerns in the information age.

“You can keep up with the basics of everything through social media,” said one thirty-something woman in a chic business suit, “but that makes you want events like this to dig a little deeper.” An older woman in the same small group added, “Well, I still read newspapers. And online magazines. But having a chance to hear real, live journalists discuss what they’re writing about is important.”

The program featured Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle columnist and “Token Conservative” blogger; author and former columnist Joan Ryan, Media Consultant for the San Francisco Giants; and Carla Marinucci, Senior Political Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Roundtable host is John Zipperer, Vice President of Media and Editorial for the Commonwealth Club.

Discussion of embattled, racist L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling quickly led to talk of what crimes and misadventures do or do not affect aspiring politicians. “Neel Kashkari is in fifth place behind a registered sex offender (Glenn Champ) who’s in third place,” Saunders commented; and Marinucci added that California Senate candidate Mary Hayashi denied having shoplifted $2,500 worth of goods from Neiman Marcus in 2011 despite having been convicted of the crime. All of which leaves open the question of whether people in public positions are, in fact, judged by what they do (Marinucci invited everyone to watch the video of Hayashi’s meeting with the Chronicle editorial board) or, as Saunders pointed out about the Sterling case, what they say.

On money and politics, the panelists were in agreement that telecommunication dollars killed the kill switch bill CA State Senator Mark Leno now plans to reintroduce. The bill would mandate software on smartphones that would enable owners to lock their devices remotely once they are lost or stolen. With smartphone theft rampant and law enforcement strongly backing the bill it might seem a win-win… except that, as Marinucci pointed out, replacement of phones and tablets is a $30 billion business for the wireless industry and no small business for replacement insurance companies.

There was less agreement on the death penalty, and the recent botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett, convicted of a horrendous crime in 1999. Saunders, who favors keeping the death penalty in California, suggested that some of the talk about individual cases and issues is not unlike abortion opponents using legal means to achieve extra-legal ends, as in passing state laws which effectively deny constitutional abortion rights. The panel did not take on that issue.

But Ryan, who strongly opposes the death penalty, stood her ground. She pointed out that the problem with securing proper drugs is that countries which could supply them have long since abandoned the death penalty and are incredulous that we still have it. “Do I mourn him (Lockett)? Not at all. But we have the ability to lock him up forever. I am against the death penalty because we are diminished by it.”

Zipperer wound up the event with the traditional Week to Week news quiz on current events ranging from local to international. In this audience, nobody answered wrong.

Ahead for women: good news & bad

The years ahead could be not good times to be a woman.

Childcare support? Abortion access? Equal pay? Contraception coverage?

How we will fare in the years ahead — those of us who are females of the species — is an open question; and some of the answers being bandied about are not pretty.

Paul Ryan’s budget would repeal benefits and protections currently enjoyed by millions of women, forcing us to pay out-of-pocket for potentially life-saving things like mammograms and cervical cancer screenings. Cuts in food stamps would hit women disproportionately, cuts in Medicaid would have a similar impact: women make up 70 percent of Medicaid’s adult beneficiaries. Prescription drug costs? Up, thanks to the re-opened Medicare drug coverage gap, the late and un-lamented donut hole. The list goes on, almost as glaringly as the list of benefits to the super-rich goes up. There are not a lot of women, especially single head-of-household wage earners, among the super-rich.

At a recent Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific (CA) gala, former Michigan Governor and Current TV host Jennifer Granholm ticked off these and other ways GOP policies take from women and give to the super-rich. But Granholm, in a conversation with CA Attorney General Kamala Harris moderated by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carla Marinucci, framed the opposing political policies as overall good news. With the GOP’s social and economic attacks on women in such sharp focus, she said, they can be seen for what they are — and defeated.

One can hope.

There are plenty of smart, honorable registered women Republicans. Whether they will worry about senior women having to pay more for drugs, or low-income women losing health benefits, or all women continuing to have to work three months more per year just to make what men make, that’s one of the questions still open. Reproductive justice? All women lose when reproductive rights diminish.

But at another meeting last week the focus was on distaff good news. The National Abortion Federation held its annual meeting, complete with continuing medical education for physicians, nurses and all those who will enable the progress and preservation of reproductive rights in the years ahead. This writer was fortunate to be invited to the Membership and Awards Luncheon, surrounded by extraordinary men and women including several award winners I am privileged to call friends. NAF President and CEO Vicki Saporta was among the speakers, and her report was one of optimism. My own optimism about the future for women in the US.is centered in three of the award winners whom I quite fortunately happen to know. They include:

Maggie Crosby, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, honored for her decades-long fight for reproductive justice — or, more accurately, her repeatedly successful fights for reproductive justice wherever it was about to be compromised.

Beverly Whipple, an extraordinary woman whose story — at least some small snippet of it — is included in Perilous Times. Whipple was leaving immediately after the NAF meeting for an extended motorcycle trip around Europe with her partner, but they slowed down long enough for a table-full of us to celebrate at the awards luncheon. More on Beverly Whipple in a few days.

Sarp Aksel, Past president of Medical Students for Choice and current Executive Clinic Chair of the ECHO Free Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. For those of us in despair about the future of abortion rights, Sarp Aksel is the face of hope. Bright, highly skilled and highly trained, and totally committed to women’s health and autonomy, Aksel is representative of the men and women determined to protect women’s reproductive rights.

Those who would take away women’s right to choose or ability to earn might well make gains for the super-rich in the near future. But they will have to contend with people like Saporta, Granholm, Crosby, Aksel and a host of other fighters for justice… including most of the women of America.

Holidays and the “Worried Well”

Our local paper, the thin-but-still-here San Francisco Chronicle, greeted the morning recently with a story about a new hospital facility for “the worried well.” And I say, just in time. Some of us may be sick; most of us, I suspect, are among the Worried Well. Especially from now until next January 1.

The facility in question is the Brain Health Center, part of the California Pacific Medical Center‘s Davies campus. It is designed (with a little help from an anonymous $21 million gift) to address a multiplicity of brain-related issues, including help and support for those in fear of lurking neurodegenerative disease. If you haven’t ever worried about where you put the car keys or left the cell phone you can stop reading right now. You are in that tiny population of the angst-free unworried. Then there are all the rest of us.

(Since I am a contented Kaiser member, I feared for a moment that CPMC was one-upping us. But a quick check reveals Kaiser offers things like core dementia training and behavioral understanding, not to mention support groups without end to comfort the Worried Well.)

Worried Well issues range far beyond the challenges of short-term memory loss.  WWs don’t know where the next paycheck, or mortgage payment, is coming from, or whether that little lump might be malignant. Or if the good-looking guy at the party is ever going to call. Closer to home for yours truly it’s how a half-century of accumulated Stuff scattered around a four-story Victorian will ever reduce into the 1600-sq-ft condo at the continuing-care place where worries would be less and wellness more.

Here is the good news: faith trumps angst. At the annual Thanksgiving Day interfaith service sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council, the hearts of the Worried Well were encouraged by just about every known faith tradition. A little inner peace from the Buddhist bell, a few stories building trust and understanding from the Mormons and the Muslims, eloquent prayers from the Jews and the Brahma Kumaris. Pastor Maggi Henderson of Old First Presbyterian Church, who organized this year’s service, then spoke convincingly of how hard it is to be angst-ridden when simply contemplating being loved by the creator.

So it seems, with science and religion BOTH looking out for us, the worried may yet be well.

Leaving the driver at home

Ummm. About this robotic car business. Everyone says its day is near, and halleluia. Governor Jerry Brown, with a recent stroke of his pen, made it legal in California. According to the Los Angeles Times, driverless cars are already legal in Nevada anyway, and under consideration in Arizona, Hawaii, Oklahoma and Florida. (Further recent news from MVTrac suggests that if you fall behind in the payments on your robocar the repo guy might send a robotrack to snatch it back home. Clearly, people may become extinct.)

I am all in favor of driverless cars that allow passengers to catch up on business en route to that urgent presentation, or finish dressing the kids on the way to school. Computers are certainly less likely to kill me in the crosswalk than all the drivers loose in the land today who are eating hamburgers, concentrating on cellphone conversations or texting their buddies while I’m trying to cross the street and wishing they would notice.

But there are bugs to work out. Have the robocar people ever gone on vacation with two preschoolers who need to go to the bathroom right that minute? Do they have any idea how frustrating it is already to argue with the obnoxious GPS lady who insists you take Geary Blvd wherever you’re traveling east-west in San Francisco, when you know darned well the lights are timed on Bush and Pine? And can they figure out how to program a sudden rainbow, or the view of the beach just several blocks away, or even an aberrant pull-over to watch goats grazing in a field?

The Driverless Car Gets Stuck on a Curb

The Driverless Car Gets Stuck on a Curb (Photo credit: Melody Kramer)

 

The car manufacturing people say not to hold our breath for driverless vehicles. They’ll figure it all out, I’m sure, before this latest wonder comes to American roadways. But in case they need a consultant on really important details, I could make myself available. For a fee. And perhaps a drive down the coast.

 

 

Is Facebook worth it??

Well, after all, maybe so.

I don’t mean the IPO. We didn’t get any of that stock for the family portfolio, and anyway, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll took care of the stock-buying issue (don’t bother) in a recent column.

What I’m talking about is the frustration of being at Facebook’s mercy; the bewildering, nonstop fiddling around; the unfathomable decisions made to let you see the postings of a few people you barely knew 30 years ago, only to decide you really would rather see those of other people you knew 20 years ago but not as well. Is it ever worth the hassle?

It turns out, if you put up with this foolishness long enough there could be a payoff.

I have a Facebook friend named Stephenie, whose back window anchors the narrow view through the trees and across the fence from my urban kitchen window. We met in real time some years ago when she hung a lighted wreath in her window the day I came home from having a mastectomy, and I took it as an omen for good. (She feared it was taken as offensive to someone when she found my note “To the people with the lighted wreath in the window” stuck in her apartment mailboxes, but we got beyond that.)

In addition to being young, smart, beautiful and very busy, Stephenie is a gourmet cook. I know the first part from our several real time encounters, and the gourmet cook part from her Facebook postings, which Facebook is currently allowing me to see.

Creamy Golden (Boozy Vanilla Bean Dotted) Custard

Creamy Golden (Boozy Vanilla Bean Dotted) Custard (Photo credit: Sifu Renka)

The latest was an absolutely gorgeous photo of a newly made Raspberry Tart with Whole Vanilla Bean Custard + Apricot and Pear Liquor and Brandy Glaze. Dripping with elegance.

So I added a little comment: “Feel free to call if you absolutely have to get rid of the leftovers;” clicked Enter and forgot about it.

Twenty minutes later the doorbell rang. And lo! there stood a smiling Stephenie with a take-out box of two slices of tart.

I am not divulging the real time address of my culinary source. But for once, thanks, Facebook.

Medicinal pot, Yes. Legal pot, bad idea

Wafting around California these days is a lot of rhetoric about legalizing marijuana, a proposition (#19) that will be on the ballot in November. Californians being Californians — I’m one; I know — and pot being pot, there is no shortage of heated opinion. Here is one more.

Countless Americans suffer from chronic or short-term conditions which could be relieved by marijuana. To deny them such relief simply makes no sense at all. The sooner everyone wakes up to the logic of marijuana as comfort care, and it becomes universally legal and available, the better.

Legalizing the weed for recreational delight, though — essentially making it available to all comers — makes very little sense at all. It’s an addictive substance, folks. It messes with your mind. All we need is a whole new population of messed-up folks to add to the messes we already have.

This is just one addict’s opinion. But if one addict’s opinion is only anecdotal, some others, below, are worthy of serious consideration. They were offered by the California Society of Addiction Medicine in an op ed piece by the Society’s president, Dr. Timmen Cermak, in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 22. The Society is taking no position on Prop. 19, Cermak explains, “but we wish Californians would look at the research before they make up their minds on how to vote.” This space applauds that suggestion.

The Society of Addiction Medicine is made up of “the doctors who specialize in the treatment of drug abuse; we work every day with people addicted to drugs, including alcohol,” Cermak writes. “We are a diverse group of doctors committed to combining science and compassion to treat our patients, support their families and educate public policy makers.”

Since very few of the Society of Addiction Medicine’s 400 physician members believe prison deters substance abuse, legalizing marijuana would have that small, back-handed benefit. “Most (of us) believe addiction can be remedied more effectively by the universal availability of treatment,” Cermak writes. “When, according to the FBI, nearly half – 750,000 – of all drug arrests in 2008 in the United States were for marijuana possession, not sales or trafficking, we risk inflicting more harm on society than benefit. Prop. 19 does offer a way out of these ineffective drug policies.”

But other research should raise alarm bells. Cermak’s essay is excerpted below, with a few points worth pondering bold-faced:

“Two-thirds of our members believe legalizing marijuana would increase addiction and increase marijuana’s availability to adolescents and children. A recent Rand Corp. study estimates that Prop. 19 would produce a 58 percent increase in annual marijuana consumption in California, raising the number of individuals meeting clinical criteria for marijuana abuse or dependence by 305,000, to a total of 830,000.

“The question of legalizing marijuana creates a conflict between protecting civil liberties and promoting public health… between current de facto legalization in cannabis clubs and revenue-generating retail marijuana sales… The society wants to make sure voters understand three basic facts about how marijuana affects the brain:

“– The brain has a natural cannabinoid system that regulates human physiology. The flood of cannabinoids in marijuana smoke alters the brain’s delicate balance by mimicking its chemistry, producing a characteristic “high” along with a host of potential side effects.

“– Marijuana is addicting to 9 percent of people who begin smoking at 18 years or older. Withdrawal symptoms – irritability, anxiety, sleep disturbances – often contribute to relapse.

“– Because adolescent brains are still developing, marijuana use before 18 results in higher rates of addiction – up to 17 percent within two years – and disruption to an individual’s life. The younger the use, the greater the risk.

“Marijuana is a mood-altering drug that causes dependency when used frequently in high doses, especially in children and adolescents. It’s important that prevention measures focus on discouraging young people from using marijuana.

“Prop. 19 erroneously states that marijuana “is not physically addictive.” This myth has been scientifically proven to be untrue. Prop. 19 asks Californians to officially accept this myth. Public health policy already permits some addictive substances to be legal – for instance, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. But good policy can never be made on a foundation of ignorance. Multiple lines of scientific evidence all prove that chronic marijuana use causes addiction in a significant minority of people. No one should deny this scientific evidence.”

So we could use the tax revenues from legalized pot. But it may surely be worth thinking twice about what the concurrent costs will be, in illness and crime and human lives.

Gay rights backers get some good news

Court actions over the past week have given gay rights advocates a few glimmers of hope, though no one is staging victory rallies yet. The long slog toward full rights for gays and lesbians in the military, at the altar and in the pulpit each saw small steps taken. But President Obama, who vowed to promote equality for all, remains caught in such Through the Looking Glass dilemmas as the Justice Department’s mandate to defend the indefensible Defense of Marriage Act, which Obama would like to see repealed. Same thing with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Alice would certainly find a trapdoor for falling down the rabbit hole on almost any stage where gay rights battles are being fought today.

San Francisco Chronicle writer Bob Egelko summed up the latest on one stage:

The federal judge overseeing a challenge to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, scheduled for trial in Southern California next week, has ruled in favor of a gay rights group on a crucial issue – how much evidence the government needs to justify the ban on openly homosexual members of the armed forces.

Obama administration lawyers have argued that courts must let “don’t ask, don’t tell” stand if they find that Congress could have reasonably concluded that excluding gays and lesbians would make the military more effective – the standard most favorable to supporters of the 1993 law.

But U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips of Riverside, in her final pretrial ruling, said Wednesday that higher court rulings in recent years have raised the bar for the government to justify laws that single out gays and lesbians for harsher treatment. Because “don’t ask, don’t tell” intrudes on “personal and private lives” and “implicates fundamental rights,” Phillips wrote, the Justice Department must show that the ban serves an important public purpose that the military could not achieve some other way.

That principle comes from the 2003 Supreme Court ruling overturning state laws against private homosexual conduct, and from a 2008 ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco allowing a lesbian officer to challenge her discharge from the Air Force, Phillips said.

Her ruling opens the door for plaintiffs in the case to put gay and lesbian former service members on the witness stand to testify about how being thrown out of the military because of “don’t ask, don’t tell” damaged them. The federal law requires that gays and lesbians who acknowledge their sexual orientation be discharged from the military. Superior officers are barred from asking service members about their orientation.

The plaintiffs, the Log Cabin Republicans gay organization, plan to present researchers who contend the policy harms the military by promoting concealment and divisiveness while excluding qualified personnel. (It is, of course, the Republicans who are threatening a Senate filibuster of a military appropriations bill that includes a repeal measure…)

The Obama administration tried to bar the testimony, arguing that it was irrelevant, and urged Phillips to postpone the trial while Congress considers the president’s proposal to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” President Obama has called the law discriminatory but says he must defend it as long as it is on the books.

On the marriage front, which currently has seen some states legalizing same-sex unions, some banning them and in California a suit to overturn the voter-approved ban, more state/federal convolutions are underway. Associated Press legal affairs writer Denise Lavoie Friday summarized what’s been going on in Massachusetts:

A key part of a law denying married gay couples federal benefits has been thrown out the window in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriage. The ball now lies in the White House’s court, which must carefully calculate the next move by an administration that has faced accusations it has not vigorously defended the law of the land.

President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that he would like to see the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, repealed. But the Justice Department has defended the constitutionality of the law, which it is required to do.

The administration was silent Friday on whether it would appeal rulings by U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro. Spokespeople for the White House and the Justice Department said officials are still reviewing the rulings.

DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman, prevents the federal government from recognizing gay marriages and allows states to deny recognition of same-sex unions performed elsewhere. Since the law passed in 1996, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, and a handful have allowed the practice.

And over at the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, meeting in Minneapolis

…delegates again approved ordaining openly gay or lesbian clergy. The measure now goes to the presbyteries, or local jurisdictions, where previous General Assembly resolutions to ordain gays and lesbians have been rejected. The General Assembly also debated but did not pass a resolution that would have changed the definition of marriage from a union between a man and a woman to a union of two people.

This Presbyterian writer can tell you that getting individual presbyteries — that’s the regional groups — to approve what the General Assembly delegates just approved is no simple matter. There are plenty of Christians, not to mention less than tolerant folks of every creed and color, down the rabbit hole.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ foes win legal victory.