Featured

A Race Among the Ruins

Posted in: Featured, Politics and People | By: | January 28, 2014

These pieces are not fun to put together. When finally assembled, the picture of Texas looks more than a little unsettling. In fact, it often looks pretty damned backwards. The reverse gear was spinning fast cogs in the lieutenant governor’s debate in Dallas between four Republican candidates seeking to win the primary. A quartet of be-suited and privileged white males lectured on life and the right to choose in a city where a family has just endured one of the most horrendous situations anyone might ever contemplate.

They were busily trying to save the fetus of an unborn child, described by doctors as “distinctly” abnormal, which was, nonetheless, alive inside of a brain dead mother. A former CIA agent and energy millionaire, a former Marine, a former vice president in college of the Future Farmers of America, and a former sportscaster known for wearing large blue foam hats on television, offered their advice and counsel to a man who had discovered his 33 year old pregnant wife unconscious as a result of an embolism.

“This baby could have been born. If I had been in that judge’s shoes, I would have ruled differently,” said current Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, who is believed to have never been photographed in the wild without wearing a suit and tie.

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The Casual Mr. Dewhurst

Dewhurst’s politically craven comments ignored the facts that doctors said the child was sufficiently deformed on the lower half of the body that it was impossible to tell its sex and that there appeared to be an accumulation of fluid on both the brain and heart. After being beaten by Ted Cruz in a U.S. Senate race, though, Dewhurst continues to recalibrate his conservatism to exhibit adequate extremism to please the people who voted against him in that contest.

Thankfully, neither Dewhurst nor his opponents have gotten anywhere near a judicial chair in Texas. A district judge in Tarrant County ruled that the doctors at John Peter Smith Hospital could legally remove Marlise Munoz from life support. The hospital administrators had insisted they were following a Texas law that does not allow disconnecting pregnant women from life support, which meant that her husband, Erick, already dealing with the inevitable grief of losing his young wife and child, had to seek a legal remedy to the idiocy that was compounding his tragedy.

He spent two months fighting to save his wife from the indignities of misinterpreted law and the backwards reproductive politics of Texas.

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Marlise Munoz

Doctors had said there was no way the child could have been born alive at 23 weeks of gestation, and with apparent deformities. But they had not consulted with Dan Patrick; the TV sports guy turned state senator, who knows better than any doctor.

“Life is so precious,” he said. “There is nothing more precious than the life of a baby in the womb. We are born in the image of God. Whenever we have the opportunity to preserve life, we should.”

And whenever we have the chance to ignore ignorance, we ought to do that, too, because any handicapped child born into a life in Texas has been delivered unto additional disadvantages by the mere fact of their geography, and the politics of people like the four “debating” GOP candidates.

Consider what might have happened to Erick Munoz, a paramedic and firefighter, had he been a single father with a profoundly disabled child. If caring for the baby caused him to lose his job, the four Republicans might help him get the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in Texas, which is a maximum $263 per month. The courageous quartet would have saved the child for life in a state that has the highest percentage of its population uninsured, and, if there were problems caused by development as a result of fluid on the brain, the baby and its father would have learned that Texas is 48th in Medicaid payments and 50th among all states in mental health expenditures.

They are consistently sanctimonious and in favor of life while it exists the womb. After that, if the child finds itself in Texas, it is pretty much on its own.

Fortunately, sanity prevailed in the legal system and the district court judge ruled that the hospital was misreading the Texas Advance Directives Act and that the regulation did not require a brain dead, pregnant woman to be kept alive for the sake of the fetus. Unfortunately, the four ponies of the apocalypse dedicated themselves to changing Texas law surrounding brain dead women and fetuses.

“It’s a tragic intersection, the right-to-life concerns and when life ends,” Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said. “We should always err on the side of life. I think we have to change the law.”

There is a tragedy, of course, but it is political, and reflects the possibility that one of these four Republican males might end up holding public office and further influencing life in Texas.


Along a River, A While Ago

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | January 05, 2014

The radio station was an unremarkable brick building encircled by palm and fruit trees. My intention was to use the airwaves of a local broadcaster to launch a journalism career after spending too much time as a disc jockey. A vision of myself reporting from the Khyber Pass was not hard to conjure even as I delivered stories on the air of giant bird attacks and drunks driving into irrigation canals. These were the reports I daily read into the microphone located down at the bottom of America.

The news part was more of a privilege than a job, though. Management really just needed a technician to flip on the transmitter and make the tape player properly function and constantly monitor the carousels. Nobody at the station cared too much about news unless there were advertising dollars to be generated by information from the police blotters or the positive nonsense offered by the chamber of commerce.

“We’ve got a congressman and a mayor, and they run things down here,” Charlie, the station manager said. “But I don’t want any politics on my air. Ribbon cuttings, only. Then get some car crashes, stabbings, robberies, drug arrests, that kind of thing from the cops and I’ll let you do the news.”

Down to thee tropical clime

Down to thee tropical clime

We were just married and down from Michigan to the tropics. The radio station owner rented us a portable building for housing and we lived in that just below the transmitter tower. The carpeting was the kind of cheap green fake turf that is used on miniature golf courses and we tried not to laugh every time we walked through the front door. Banana palms grew tall enough near the windows to obscure most of the sunlight and I paid one week’s salary for each month’s rent.

The decision to run for the border was made in the midst of a Midwestern blizzard. I had read in the back of a trade publication that there was an opening at the AM station in far South Texas and I had sent the address a cassette tape of myself reading the news, which had been recorded at my brother-in-law’s kitchen table. Charlie had called the farmhouse up in Michigan where my in-laws lived and had reached my new bride.

“He said he has a cottage in an orange grove that we can rent for cheap and you can start as soon as we get there,” she said. “He said he was going hunting but we could just call and leave him a message to let him know if you wanted the job. Oh, and the temperature was 78 degrees down there today.”

My judgment was impaired because I was in a phone booth outside of a truck stop on I-94 not far from Chicago and snow was almost up to my knees. I had been caught out by a blizzard on a return trip from a job interview at a radio station in Peoria. Although I barely heard the little red-haired girl’s words, I caught the phrases “orange grove” and “78 degrees” and there was nothing else to consider.

“Just call him back and tell him we’ll be there as soon as we can, or leave that message.” I had to almost yell to be heard above the wind. The snow outside was flying horizontally and I realized I was certain to be sleeping that night in a booth at the truck stop coffee shop.

A few days later we loaded our 1968 Opal Kadett station wagon with wedding presents and began driving southward toward Texas. I had always loved reading cowboy stories in school and when my father was not crazed with anger and instability he laid on the couch and watched old black and white westerns with Randolph Scott ridin’ the range alone.

“Looky there, buddy boy,” he used to say. “They got them table top mesas out near Las Vegas. I’m gonna go out there someday and see me one a them.”

My love of the west may not have come from daddy but I have never been interested in anything east of the Mississippi River. The first trip I took through Texas on a motorcycle a few years before graduating from college had convinced my teenaged brain that I was destined to live in the state. This notion surely had a narcotic effect on my sensibilities because I had accepted a job 1500 miles from home without even speaking in advance to my future employer or having any idea of my actual job responsibilities or what I was to earn.

“I’ll pay you $160 a week and you can rent the cottage for $160 a month,” Charlie said after he finally got his wet, unlit cigar out of his mouth. “I’ll need you to sign on in the morning by 5 a.m., do the news every half hour, play some music, get the weather on the air, and then you can do whatever you want from 10 o’clock until 3 in the afternoon but I want you back here to do it all over again until 6:30.”

“That’s not a cottage,” I said.

“You want the job and the cottage or not?”

“Yep, sure do.”

The radio station served a twenty-six city market in the sub-tropical region of Texas known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Small border towns had emerged along the northern side of the big river and they straddled a highway that almost paralleled the Mexican frontier as it reached toward the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville. A 5000-watt directional signal pulsed up and down the Rio Grande for hundreds of miles and gave the AM broadcaster a bit of historical market dominance.

The Valley so Low

The Valley so Low

We did not, however, understand much about the place where we were now living. A national news magazine had recently sent a reporter to the Lower Rio Grande Valley and had published a cover story under the giant block letters proclaiming, “The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas: America’s Third World.” The story indicated that the valley had the lowest literacy rate in the U.S., highest incidence of intestinal parasites, which was a consequence of the greatest concentration of outdoor privies, lowest average annual income, worst rate of child mortality, and smallest percentage of high school and college diplomas in the entire country.

The news Charlie wanted on his air, however, was not about social ills and bringing attention to difficult issues. Portraying the valley as too troubled would be bad for business and that meant less money spent on advertising and fewer cigars for Charlie. He was happy when he turned on his radio New Year’s Day and heard me reading a report about a giant bird that police said had terrorized several people the previous night.

“I’m telling you, this bird’s wingspan was twice the width of our patrol car,” one of the officers told me. “There’s no bird that big down here but that’s what we both saw.”

A man in Brownsville told police that his trailer was shaking in the middle of the night and when he went outdoors he looked up and saw a giant bird, “taller than a man,” and it swooped down toward him with “huge claws trying to grab me.” A similar narrative came from an agricultural worker further up river. He said he had been walking in an orange grove and suddenly a creature flew at him out of the sky and grabbed his back with talons bigger than human fingers. Skeptics did not know what to think when he showed his bloody back to emergency room doctors who had to patch up shredded skin.

The story refused to die because more witnesses claimed to have seen the great bird. Our phone began ringing with calls from journalists all over the world after the Associated Press sent a dispatch across the wire. Within a few weeks, I was almost convinced I saw the creature buzz a donut shop during my dark morning motorcycle commute to sign on the radio station.

“We should cut a record on this.” Our program director was always looking for methods to keep up the number of our listeners. In Houston, they had contests on the air and gave away new cars but Charlie refused to offer his audience much more than movie passes, which was hardly a reason to tune to our frequency.

Rio Grande Gold Records

Rio Grande Gold Records

“I’m serious,” TK said. “Let’s do one of those flying saucer type interview records where we’ll have a character interview the big bird and his answers will be short clips from current hits.”

The 45-RPM we produced was as silly as the concept but it remained number one on the playlist for three or four months. I wrote a narrative piece about the legend of the Big Bird, which became the B-side, and Charlie took the two cuts to Nashville and had several thousand records produced and shipped back to the valley. TK and I guessed that maybe 20,000 were sold but we never knew because any profits went to Charlie and the radio station.

TK was a slender and soft-spoken man and he loved working at the radio station with a passion that escaped me. Nothing bothered him. He was a black man in a 99% Hispanic population and he programmed the radio station with disco and pop chart songs that had more potential to become popular in Chicago and Detroit than in Donna and Edcouch, little towns along the Rio Grande. His insight, though, was astute and he consistently picked gold and platinum records to play in advance of their national success. His office was lined with gold records from recording studios whose artists he had helped make famous.

None of that made any difference to Charlie. TK was constantly being badgered by the station manager to play different music. We both discovered that little we did seemed to be of value to our radio boss. After winning reporting awards and writing stories that drew national attention to our obscure little operation on the north bank of the big river, I petitioned Charlie for a raise. My tenure on the job as disc jockey and news director had reached eighteen months and I thought I deserved an increase in pay.

Charlie agreed. He told me there was to be a “little something” for me in the next pay cycle. The description was painfully accurate. When I opened my check envelope, I looked at the numbers and did not recognize an increase. Fortunately, Charlie had done the math for me in red pencil on the stub. The numbers were pathetic. He had written, .05 per hour x 40 hours = $2.00 per week x 52 weeks per year = $104.00. I laughed, momentarily, thinking he was kidding and then I went into his office, unannounced and angry.

“Are you serious, Charlie?” He did not look up from whatever he was reading. “This raise on my check. A nickel an hour?”

“I thought you wanted a raise.”

“I did. Not an insult.”

“You don’t want it?”

“I want a real pay increase.”

“That’s what I gave you.”

“No, you didn’t.” I just looked out the window at the orange trees and the sunshine and wished to glory hell I was not in this man’s office. “Tell you what, Charlie. Looks to me like if all you can afford to give me is a nickel an hour increase, the station must be in dire straits and you all must need that nickel worse than I do. Why don’t you go ahead and keep it?”

“Okay, I will.”

Without ever taking the cigar out of his mouth, he went back to whatever he had been reading. My next paycheck went back to $160 a week before deductions, instead of the $162 he had offered. We did not notice the difference in our lives, even though the extra two dollars might have purchased a couple of hamburgers at Mr. Q’s.

The work was never drudgery, though, and almost always inadvertently entertaining. Language differences were a frequent source of humor. The majority of the borderland spoke Spanish as a first language and a significant part of our audience lived across the river in Mexico. Many of the callers to our request lines were children, learning their first words of English, what constituted a verb and how it was properly used. Often, instead of asking us to play a song for them, we were requested to “put” a song. Eventually, I stopped calling our phone tree the “hit lines” and began referring to it as the Rockin’ Rio “put lines.”

The language gap also meant that listeners, regardless of their age, were often uncertain of the lyrics they were hearing. There was also the possibility that we did not understand what was being requested when we took listener calls. I learned this one morning before sunrise as I was recording a caller’s request to be played back on the air as the song was introduced.

“Hello. Rockin’ Rio hit line.” There was a pause and then a tiny voice.

“Mister? Mister? Can you ‘put’ a song for me?” I thought it was a little boy.

“Sure. I’d be happy to ‘put’ a song for you. What would you like to hear?”

“Can you put that song by that Mary?” Momentarily, I did not know what he was asking.

“Uh, you mean the hit song by Mary McGregor?” She had gone to number one with a ballad called, “Torn Between Two Lovers.”

“Yeah, her, mister. Can you put that song ‘Born Between Two Cupboards?’”

I am not sure if the coffee that came out of my nose was heard over the air but I do know I was able to stifle my laughter until I closed the microphone. First, though, I had to introduce the song.

“Direct, from our Rockin’ Rio Put Lines at 686-5454, by request, this is Mary McGregor, and Born Between Two Cupboards.”

Maybe that’s why Charlie took his nickel back: I was too much of a smart ass. But this was border radio and an AM station on the edge of America. We were not changing the world. In fact, the world changed the valley but not until five or ten years after it had finished with the rest of American culture.

I still fell in love with the place, though, and the Winter Texans who drove 35 miles per hour on the inside lane with their blinkers endlessly flashing, the RV parks in the orange groves, long irrigation canals with dirt tracks for running, elegant Washington palms lining every street, authentic regional food from family-owned restaurants, weekend nights and rum punch in Mexico, short drives to the beach and South Padre Island, the way the wind came up off of the gulf every afternoon and cleared out the air, and even finding entire heads of cows sitting up in the frozen foods section of grocery stores before learning they were dropped into holes filled with coals in backyards on Saturday nights and eaten as barbacoa de cabeza the next morning after church.

My career did not advance very far from the Lower Valley. I went upriver about three hours to Laredo and began working in television. The border still felt a bit like the Wild West in those days and there was no shortage of news. Charlie and I never spoke again after I left but I heard that late in life he had opened an ice cream shop down on the island and sent his profits to a home for abandoned children in Mexico. I was pleased to know there was such generosity in his veins.

TK went back to college and got his master’s degree and became an educator and administrator and is the principal of a high school a few miles distant from the studio where he loved to play records and talk. We have remained the best of friends through passing decades, his kindness and sensibilities providing perspective when I lose my way. I still have not made it to the Khyber Pass, though journalism delivered me to many exotic locales and historical moments I never anticipated I might have witnessed back when I was spinning “Born Between Two Cupboards” on a turntable.

The little red-haired girl is still around, too, and I would take her hand again and go back to that corn popper radio station tomorrow and our crumbling adobe under the palms and do everything all over again without the slightest change.

But I might need at least a dime an hour pay hike.


The Old School, Revisited

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | December 06, 2013

The little girl walking between us held our hands as we crossed a footbridge over the river. Tree leaves were colored red and gold and hues of yellow and orange and a few floated down to the water after light gusts of wind.

“This is pretty, daddy,” she said.

Ten-year-old children are rarely wrong with their assessments of the world. The Red Cedar River gurgled gently beneath our feet on a clear October afternoon up in Michigan and the sky was a blue that might have been as clear as the air has ever been since the internal combustion engine started running.

Red Cedar River

Red Cedar River

A stadium rose before us against the sky and thousands of people were gathering in tents and around vehicle tailgates at its perimeter. Band music came down the river and we hurried toward friends who had been absent from our lives for years.

“This is your college, right, Mama?”

“Yes, baby. Daddy’s, too.”

We had been gone, however, for twenty-five years. But I had a rationale for this behavior. My explanation was that the four years out of the century that it had been my good fortune to attend Michigan State University could not be surpassed. We had protested a war, listened to great music and lectures, discovered books and teachers and new cultures that led us to think, and we were perfectly immobilized by the first warm days of spring and green sprigs of grass from beneath the snow.

I did not want to jeopardize those memories by returning to discover they had been distorted by my youthful naïveté. I worried about urban expansion intruding on the campus, encountering undergrads that planned to walk from receiving their diplomas to luxury car dealerships, even a decline of respect for tradition, more pavement, and disaffected students.

Spartan Stadium

Spartan Stadium

I was wrong, terribly wrong, and lost a quarter century connection to one of America’s greatest institutions, consistently and unpretentiously doing the work that improves lives.

MSU is an acronym popping up everywhere on the Internet in recent weeks because of the unexpected accomplishments of its football team, and the perennial emergence of basketball power. The football team, though, is to be met in another stadium in Indiana by Ohio State University, a place of learning that asserts its exceptionalism by beginning its title with the article, “The.” The Ohio State University’s arrival at the conference championship game was anticipated but the journey of the Spartan squad to excellence has not been readily apparent to even sports bookies. The benefit of this development, though, accrues to more than just the coach and players.

Although the argument is generally sound that collegiate athletics are over-emphasized to the detriment of academics and research, the less acknowledged fact is that sports are the best method for delivering a university’s brand. When a team excels, the broader institution benefits. We are all attracted by achievement and seek its association. My curiosity about MSU began as a teenager when I saw the flickering gray images of a football game on our old box Zenith TV. The Spartans had played mighty Notre Dame to a 10-10 tie. East Lansing was less than an hour distant and I had never been there but I suddenly knew where I was going.

A backstory was invisible on that TV screen. A young man from Texas stood in the midst of the game and seemed to change the outcome with his great strength. Bubba Smith had been a legend in Texas high school football and had met with the University of Texas coach Darrel Royal about playing for the Longhorns. Royal supposedly told Bubba, “Son, I’d love to have you but it’s just too soon for Texas.”

Bubba - A Texas Legend Gone North

Bubba – A Texas Legend Gone North

No such concern was expressed by MSU coach Duffy Daugherty, and an African-American teenager from the piney woods of East Texas began a football career in East Lansing alongside George Webster and Gene Washington, two more of the black players who both later joined Smith in the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1966, when MSU shared the national championship, the team had two black captains. The University of Texas did not offer a scholarship to a black football player until 1970. MSU’s first black football player, Gideon Smith, earned a varsity letter in 1913.

A small percentage of us do not make good sports fans. We prefer to play more than watch and cheer and we wonder how there are places where multi-million dollar weight rooms are considerably more important than classrooms. But we also know the value of sports to inspire and illuminate human potential, even to hint at what might be achieved by nations operating with a commonality of purpose for a greater good.

Silly overstatement? Maybe, unless you consider what happened at Jenison Field House set close by the banks of the Red Cedar. A half-century ago, MSU hosted what became known as “The Game of Change.” Mississippi State University had qualified to play in the NCAA tournament but Jim Crow laws in Mississippi were preventing the basketball team from playing schools that had integrated their rosters. They were scheduled to meet Loyola, which had four black players. The Mississippi coach snuck his team out of state and traveled to East Lansing with his all-white squad. Loyola defeated the Bulldogs from Starkville by ten points and went on to win the national championship in 1963, but men of principle and honor had helped to clarify who we really might be as a people.

Loyola's National Championship Team 1963

Loyola’s National Championship Team 1963

Michigan State’s current athletic director Mark Hollis saw the historical and marketing value in commemorating the “Game of Change” and facilitated a game between the Spartans and the historically black Tuskegee University. A plaque was unveiled outside the old field house as part of the ceremonies to memorialize an event that today prompts as much pride as the 1979 season in the same building when Earvin Johnson led a national championship basketball season for MSU.

Plaque Outside Jenison Field House

Plaque Outside Jenison Field House

Hollis, whose business acumen also created the “Carrier Classic” basketball games, has an insight on what works at his university. He led the effort to bring football coach Mark Dantonio back to MSU. The stern-faced Dantonio does not trifle with inadequate preparation or partial effort. He talks about graduation rates almost as much as he does pass routes. There are tricks in his playbook and a belief that the mundane repetition of practice and execution can lead to greatness and his psychology has taken MSU back to national prominence in football.

Which matters because more people will learn about Michigan State University. And they will ask questions. What makes the president of MSU, Lou Anna K. Simon, refuse the offer of a “significant salary increase” for the past five years? Simon and her husband are members of the Clifton R. Wharton Donor Recognition Society, which honors donors of more than $2.5 million.

Madam President - Lou Anna K. Simon

Madam President – Lou Anna K. Simon

Maybe people watching the game will hear about how Athletic Director Mark Hollis and his wife Nancy gave the university $1 million for academic scholarships and arts programming. Or they might learn about basketball coach Tom Izzo and his wife Lupe’s $1 million dollar gift to the university, the institution that provided a diminutive free throw shooter from the Upper Peninsula a path to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Hollises

The Hollises

Possibly, someone will talk about the day a University of Michigan fan spent several thousand dollars to have a skywriter leave the message, “Go Blue” floating above Spartan Stadium and how Scott Westerman, the Executive Director of the Alumni Association, took to social media and turned the blue into green as a fund-raising challenge to fight cancer. More than forty thousand dollars were raised for ovarian cancer research in the state.

Blue Turns to Green

Blue Turns to Green

There is considerably more that those of us who are prideful would like to share. We think it is significant that the Department of Energy has chosen our university for a $730 million dollar facility to conduct rare isotope research; The Institute for Scientific Information lists 27 MSU researchers among the top 250 “highly cited” scientists in the world; the Journal of Product Innovations Management ranks MSU third in the world for effective technology transfer from invention to marketplace; MSU is among the top five universities in the U.S. for sustainability practices; was chosen by the Carnegie Foundation as one of the nation’s first “community engaged universities,” U.S. News and World Report picked the elementary and secondary education programs as the best in the country for the 19th successive year as are the graduate programs in nuclear physics and the College of Natural Science along with the undergraduate discipline in supply chain logistics. There are far too many accolades to mention.

We also have a football team.

And one of its achievements this year is to bring attention to what has been happening at Michigan State. The sons and daughters of auto workers and teachers and waiters and bank tellers and carpenters and truck drivers are able to matriculate at a university that has given them an opportunity beyond the reach of their parents. In return, those students have completed research that expands our understanding of the universe, become doctors, actors, written great literature, and engaged in countless other important endeavors.

The three greatest living writers in America, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford, and Thomas McGuane, all took their undergraduate degrees from Michigan State. Harrison, whose books are likely to be as eternal as Mark Twain’s and Ernest Hemingway’s, has been guided in his work by his simple proclamation, “I seek the substantial in life.” I have concluded in my own retrospection that is what drew him, the son of an agricultural agent in Northern Michigan, to East Lansing. There is a crucible at the old school and minds issue from it with capabilities not previously even contemplated.

I was not yet a published writer that autumn day we escorted our daughter to her first MSU football game but I was falling back in love with the campus after a long separation. Our daughter went to an MSU homecoming later as a teenager and concluded she was going to leave Texas. She had been given special encouragement in her decision from the late governor of Texas Ann Richards. Amanda Noelle spent two of her four years in East Lansing as a resident advisor and after graduation began her career as an academic recruiter, convincing other Texas young people to attend MSU.

Her mother, the little red-haired farm girl who has stood beside me and also stood me up every time I faltered since we met one spring day on campus, has become a kind of international MSU brand and stepmom on social media. She is a friendly shoulder for homesick Spartan students and offers as much friendship as advice. Known as the Crazy MSU Lady, she maintains a constant flow of information about the university, its programs, students, and alumni. She still falls into my arms but these days it is sometimes because she loses her balance while standing on top of a table at a sports bar as she screams and cheers for Sparty on TV.

I mostly just stay out of their way, except when I am caught up in these big moments. And then I can’t help myself, either.

I get a bit proud.


The Cheap Fix to HealthCare.gov

Posted in: Featured, Politics and People | By: | November 03, 2013

Fixing the problems with HealthCare.gov is not expensive. To be effective, however, there should actually be no repair process. Instead, the entire site needs to be rebuilt from scratch. The cost, according to at least one industry leading software architect, would probably be only $4-$5 million. And it would take about nine months. The public evidence regarding the site’s failure indicates that developers did not perform realistic testing as the system was being built, and instead waited until deployment, which proved catastrophic.

“This should have never happened,” said Jeffrey Palermo, who has designed and built successful systems for large businesses. “And the approach to solve the problem probably shouldn’t be to go back and try to fix what has been created. That might not even be possible. There needs to be a re-start and a new system built from scratch.”

Jeffrey Palermo

Jeffrey Palermo

According to Palermo, who has built two successful software companies, HealthCare.gov was not designed to operate independently of the systems to which it was connected. The website, as a result, inherited the limitations and performance characteristics of the older, less functional systems operated by the government and other vendors. Those systems were not architected to manage the type of traffic experienced by Internet-scale websites like the HealthCare.gov.

“I think there was a central fallacy in the operation,” said Palermo. “That was the idea that it would be possible to connect that many people at once to government servers and other vendors that operated the systems that were providing backend data to HealthCare.gov. The health care site’s servers could manage the traffic but when they began connecting to other data servers at the government and elsewhere, it all collapsed.”

Palermo, who worked on critical commercial transaction systems at major enterprises like Dell, suggested flawed architecture in the design of HealthCare.gov was responsible for the mess. The correct approach would be to have the government site cache the information about various health care plans directly on HealthCare.gov instead of interfacing with another system just to show options to the user. If that data were managed on those servers, the buyer could make all decisions without any information being transferred to or from outside systems. No connection would be necessary until there was a decision made to purchase. And new and modified plans could be reloaded on a schedule. In addition, data submitted by users can be quickly accepted by the website even though fully processing that data takes a bit longer.

“This isn’t exactly a new concept,” said Palermo. “It’s the way Amazon and Dell and other large commercial sites function. Data from online orders are managed on their sites and their servers and then they are placed in queues to be processed by backend servers after the consumer decides to buy. And in order to decide what to buy, the user sees a cached product catalogue at the website level so you don’t have to go to slower backend systems just to browse products before you buy.”

Palermo, presently the CEO of Clear Measure, Inc. in Austin, TX, said Dell’s operation represents a good example of how HealthCare.gov ought to function. One set of back-end servers manages product catalogues, and a separate group of web servers takes in data from on-line purchases. Yet another set of back-end servers processes order fulfillment. Dell.com doesn’t maintain a direct link to the back-end systems. It uses queuing of data to ensure the website never slows down.

This is, apparently, not what was created by the federal government. Because all of the information was known about the health care plans available for purchase, design logic would have placed as much of that and other information on the government site and avoided external connections until there was a need for a transaction, or to grab data from a government server regarding the purchaser. But that data can be placed in a queue and then later delivered to the external government or vendor system with a speed that does not exceed its functional capacity.

“So much of the money spent on that system went into other things,” explained Palermo. “Managing various teams and gathering health care information. The site should have been the easy part. And I’m serious; I could put together a team of about 15 people and have a new and functional HealthCare.gov done in nine months for about $4 million. Who knows what the government will spend on a repair that may never work?”

The Obama administration, nonetheless, has reportedly rewarded a lucrative repair contract to the same company that built the original flawed HealthCare.gov. Quality Software Services, Inc, which is linked to a major campaign donor of the president’s, created the dysfunctional data operations on the site. And has also been given a contract to fix it.

Bad technology does not mean HealthCare.gov is bad policy. But bad technology can destroy good policy.


Storm Crazy

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | June 02, 2013

Storm chasers are not crazy. They are either scientists or journalists doing their jobs. Anyone might make an argument that by choosing those endeavors for income they lacked a spoke from one of their wheels but the truth is that some times things choose us. And they become our jobs, our lives.

I never chased tornadoes as a TV news correspondent. Hurricanes, however, I raced in their direction, thrilled by the logistical challenges and slow motion drama that unfolded. I did run to the aftermath of twisters, though. In Wichita Falls in 1979, there were people found inside their cars a few miles from where they had last been seen at stop lights, their vehicles crushed by falling from the sky. Parts of the asphalt were torn back like an earthen scab by the F-5 that passed through Jarrell, Texas in the late 90s, and the Chihuahuan Desert town of Saragosa just disappeared in the first tornado ever recorded in Pecos County, Texas back in the late 80s.

But reporting on what a storm hath wrought is almost cowardice compared to going close to see and understand its power. I always thought tornadoes were to be run away from, not chased. The scientists try to get close enough to determine the funnel’s path and then set instruments in front to see if they can gather data that may one day help predict formation and, as a consequence, save lives. But what about the news crews? Why are they taking these risks?

One answer is that their editors in New York want drama. The closer a camera gets to a tornado the more a video can be promoted and drive viewership. Videographers share some of the guilt. Most love risk, getting close to the flame. A combat photographer once told me in Central America that, “After you hear a bullet whiz past your ear, it changes your life. Everything is different.” I somewhat glibly responded that, “And the day a bullet enters your ear it changes your life, too. It ends it. That’ll be really different.”

All of this is prompted by injuries to a friend who is as fine a person as I have ever known and who was a long time colleague in the TV news business. Austin Anderson and I began working together in the early 80s when he was a student at the University of Texas, where his father, Al Anderson, was a legendary journalism professor. There was nothing Austin would not do to get the video to tell the story. We chased criminals across the Caribbean and presidents and hurricanes across the U.S. and he was always where he needed to be with his lens. He made every correspondent with whom he worked look like they were great journalists even when they were often nothing more than the benefactors of Austin’s entrepreneurial determination. The lazy ones could’ve sat at the bar and waited for him to come back with the video, and I know a few who did.

Airborne before earth bound

Airborne before earth bound

Austin was driving the Weather Channel’s Tornado Hunter car near El Reno, Oklahoma when a funnel abruptly changed course and lifted his vehicle. Reports vary on how far it was thrown through the air but it was discovered on the far side of a barbed wire fence after rolling over several times. Mike Bettes, another journalist riding with Austin, said they were “weightless for a moment” and then started tumbling. He escaped serious injury but my old friend Austin is in a hospital in Oklahoma City where he is facing surgery for a broken breastplate, ribs, and damaged vertebra. He is, however, alive. A doctor has indicated it will be at least three months before he can again pick up a camera. But he will pick up a camera again. And he will still be one of the best in the business.

A few of my colleagues from my days in television, and those who never worked in that industry, have expressed dismay that a person might put themselves at risk to get a better, more dramatic piece of video. But that is the mandate of the profession: get more and better than the other crew. Great photographers are also subject to a psychological phenomenon called “distancing,” which allows their brains to process what they are seeing through their lens as not real or a part of their immediate environment. There is no other explanation for combat photographers getting video in the midst of firefights or my friends Jim Peeler and the late Dan Mulloney who stood with their cameras in the crossfire between ATF agents and the Branch Davidians of David Koresh to record some of the most famous news video in history.

I believe in another kind of “distancing.” I believe in the kind that puts distance between any tornado and me.


A Drop to Drink

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | May 22, 2013

Americans, Texans in particular, have gotten pretty good at poking holes in the ground to find oil. But we are not that innovative or visionary regarding the more precious resource of water. We continue to act as if there is a bottomless well. Hell, we even use water to force oil into wells to make it simpler to extract the energy source. But we won’t really need oil if we run out of water.

And that is actually possible.

Up on the South Plains in the Texas Panhandle, the water source used to irrigate cash crops, the Ogallala Aquifer, is drying up. The 175,000 square mile underground sea is believed to be the largest source of freshwater on the planet and since humans started pumping it up from the ground it has dropped as much as 50 feet in about 10 percent of the area. The worst parts of Texas and Kansas have seen water level declines of up to 200 feet. If we use it up, getting a refill won’t be easy. Aquifers take about 6000 years to recharge and one of this size might take a few more millennia.

A solution or a crime?

A solution or a crime?

What’s happened? The usual: greed, stupidity, and political obliviousness.

In the Sandhills of Western Nebraska, where nothing but grass has grown natively, center pivot irrigation has been transforming the environment for decades. Shallow aquifer wells are used to almost flood the hills with water that has been mixed with ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and suddenly the sand hills become covered with cornstalks. Rising prices of grain and the demand for corn to create ethanol on global markets have made it profitable for corporate agricultural interests to grow cash crops on sand that was meant for wildflowers and wild grasses bending in the wind. And the result is that the aquifer shrinks back from its furthest reaches down into the Texas South Plains.

Sins in the Sand Hills: Hungry or Thirsty?

Sins in the Sand Hills: Hungry or Thirsty?

Where the Edwards Plateau Aquifer runs down to Van Horn and the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, there are vast groves of pecan trees. They grow as a result of irrigation, farming, not nature. Texas, like much of the west, uses frontier water rights laws that are referred to as first in time, first in right. The owner of the land, therefore, can irrigate as much as he or she might like as long as they are the first ones to pump the ground water. Subsequent rights owners can use as much water as they want but they cannot impede upon the rights of the first in time owners of the water.

There are even more fundamental problems than outdated law facing the arid southwest. Texas government is estimating as many as 1800 people daily move into the state. They will all need a drink of water and many of them think they need a lawn. If the numbers are accurate, there are about 45,000 new people living in Texas every month. Many of them come from the Midwest and are used to abundant rainfall and lush yards around their homes. They arrive in Texas, plant water thirsty grass, put in irrigation systems, and marvel at their green lawns. Up market neighborhoods even have covenants requiring lawns, which is criminally unconscionable.

Much of the state’s newcomer population will live along the I-35 corridor, which roughly traces the Balcones Escarpment, a break in the topography that runs from west of San Antonio to near Fort Worth. Geologists often describe the formation as the place “where the south ends and the west begins.” To the east, there is black land farming that succeeds frequently on natural rainfall while west of the escarpment there is an increase in limestone, desert vegetation, and little topsoil. Generally, the entire region is arid and water may soon be worshipped.

The great glaciers of ancient times did not make it this far south and, as a consequence, Texas really only has one naturally occurring lake, (maybe two if it is considered that the trees and animal activity across a creek that created Caddo Lake are natural.) Lakes in Texas are reservoirs, manmade by spanning rivers with dams. The most famous is probably Buchanan Dam, which brought electricity to the Hill Country for the first time in 1937, and created a lake that rose up to the size of the Sea of Galilee. After years of drought, however, and constant population growth, Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, critical water supplies for Central Texas, are below 40 percent of storage capacity.

The governor of Texas has lately offered as a solution that the state’s residents ought to pray for rain. More enlightened leaders in the legislature have passed a $2 billion dollar constitutional amendment that will be used to create new water supplies for the future, if voters approve. But there has to be water before it can be captured and stored. And there are already legal disputes over shrinking supplies.

Rice farmers near Houston have long had historic legal claims to millions of acre-feet of water from Lake Travis but the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) is compelled to seek different uses for the shrinking resource. Meanwhile, San Antonio, which is the largest city in the US without a reservoir, wants to build a pipeline to transfer water from Lake Travis to the Alamo City. San Antonio voters have refused several times to approve bonds to build a reservoir, in part, because they sit upon the Edwards Aquifer, which has seemed an endless supply. But it’s not. Each year measurements show a drop in sustaining levels of fresh water, and the springs stop running at 95 percent of the aquifer’s capacity. We clearly are not good stewards of the resource.

All of those people moving down from Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and the lake-dotted states may one day find a reason to go back north: a simple drink of water. The Midwest, once called the Rust Belt, will likely rise again.

Because nothing grows forever without water.


The Little Red Heart of Soul Track Mind

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | May 04, 2013

It’s an odd little spot, really, sitting between the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Highway 90 as it runs through Alpine, Texas. Not much bigger than a convenience store parking lot, the location is flat and sometimes dusty when summer hovers relentlessly over the Davis Mountains. The great freight trains rumbling through toward California often rattle the bones of people arriving to hear a night of music at a venue known as Railroad Blues.

When Soul Track Mind performs, the wooden dance floor gives off its own sweet vibration. While the notion of popularity for soul music in remote reaches of the Texas Trans-Pecos might seem improbable, the appearance of Soul Track Mind in the mountain town of Alpine is an event of some note. The cowboys and accountants, secretaries, cooks, mechanics, college students, and a few housewives are jumping shoulder-to-shoulder and toe-to-toe listening to the notes of seven white musicians who play well outside of ethnic expectations.

“I started this less than five years ago with an ad on Craigslist,” said front man Donovan Keith. “And now I think we’re the perfect example of the old school blue collar band where we work for everything we get, fight for respect everywhere we go, slowly work our way up from small clubs to bigger clubs, and earn every fan with the intensity of our live performance.”

The coming together of a seven-piece soul band on an Internet ad site is not unremarkable but there is a certain level of amazement when their talent is gathered on stage. Soul Track Mind’s performances are not just stylish trumpet or sax solos and blurry guitar riffs; they are a cultural exclamation point about American music. Only one band member has any African-American lineage but they were all drawn to the sounds of rhythm and blues with a touch of Motown and a bit of basic guidance from classic soul. They come out of a gritty melting pot that includes seasonings from Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, Billy Preston, the later works of Ray Charles, and more contemporary influences like the Black Keys and John Legend.

“But we don’t emulate,” said trumpet player Zach Buie. “We innovate. We love playing up the fact that we are one of very few bands making the effort to have a horn section, which really splits up our money. Lots of soul bands just fire their horn sections. Our music is original.”

Those other soul stylists also do not over expend too much creativity on plaintive ballads and keyboards, which Soul Track Mind indulges in on their just released album. Keyboardist Sam Powell’s touch is a perfect emotional bed for Keith’s mournful voice on the cut “Remember Me.” In fact, almost every track on the band’s new album seems ideally arranged and mixed in a style that, after one listen, imprints the song on the memory in a way that it is impossible to imagine any other production of the music and lyrics.

Ballads are not what get the house bumpin’, however, and the night STM played Railroad Blues the necks were probably too sweaty from swinging to be nuzzled during the slow dances. Donovan Keith’s style as a singer and dance performer is under the deep and abiding influence of Sam Cooke. Keith’s voice has the approximate range of Cooke’s and also suggests sufficient time in down and out clubs to have some similarities in character and tonality. The closest association, however, is the unconstrained movement that travels through him from his band’s music. There are no joints in his skeletal frame that are not committed to the song, and the crowd gets it on the dance floor.

There is one point of “emulation,” however. Cooke was the first black musician of the modern era to closely tend to the business side of his art. All seven of the artists in Soul Track Mind understand they are in an industry that is still being transformed by the Internet and digital music. They build their lives and income around touring and playing gigs anywhere they can gather an audience. CDs, vinyl, and even digital downloads are loss leaders. Money comes from being onstage and filling the house. The show is the product, not the album. The album promotes the band’s live appearances in the same fashion an author’s book positions him as an expert speaker earning fees to give talks to organizations.

“We understand we are operating within a modern business frame,” said guitarist Jonathon Zemek. “You aren’t getting anywhere with album sales. Even if we sold a million, we’d still make more than a year’s worth of living for each of us by traveling the country and doing shows. Instead of using the old school model of having a record label, everything is at our fingers now with technology. We are doing our best to predict a future sustainable model.”

They have been sustaining themselves from the time Keith initially arrived in Austin and began searching for musicians to create a band. There might have also been a touch of destiny in Keith’s discovery online of the great Earl Thomas of San Francisco. Thomas possesses the sound of a well-traveled voice and leads a large diverse band that blends musical roots from genres that include African pop to blues and American folk ballads. (Not many singers can get away with mentioning the Book of Revelation’s “Seven Seals” in a lyric.) Donovan Keith was entranced by what he heard of Thomas online and sent the Californian a message that included a few vocal tracks. Keith just wanted to know if he had talent.

“I didn’t hear anything for six months,” he said. “But then I got a message back telling me that I did have talent but I needed to work on it. He told me I needed to move to a place where I could perform and play and get better. He really guided me every step of the way. I just saved up money and moved to Austin.”

The song that had convinced the exquisitely talented Earl Thomas that Donovan Keith had promise was a karaoke track called “Little Red Heart,” which appeared on the band’s first album in 2010, “Ghost of Soul.” Keith’s initial recorded performance on the song cannot be equally compared with Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” but the commonalities of what they accomplish with their vocals are undeniable. Young bands can lose lyrics in their music or they can rely too greatly on vocal talent but Soul Track Mind knows when to let the horns blow, the moment to free up Michael Mancuso’s bass line to parry with Doug Leveton’s percussions, and be led off by Buie’s trumpet, George’s sax, and Zemek’s guitar.

Maybe the most encouraging characteristic of the early accomplishments of the band is that they do not come from a group of middle class young people that act entitled. When Keith arrived in Austin and assembled Soul Track Mind, they were happy to get a residence gig on the city’s mostly black east side at a joint called T.C.’s Lounge. A style was developed in front of an audience that included University of Texas students, hippies and hipsters, older black neighborhood residents, and a few crackheads in off of the street. Ceilings swayed low toward the sinking dance floor and there was no ventilation to carry away the smell of untended and ancient rest rooms. There was, however, a big pot of whatever Baby Girl was cooking and patrons brought in their own bottles. Baby Girl, a petite black lady around 40, ran the door, cooked red beans and rice, and held down the house while Soul Track Mind found its sound.

“The locals were impressed by our ability to play soul music,” Keith said. “And they treated us so great. We would not be anywhere without those crucial development years. I thought if, I of all people, this red headed white kid, could impress these older black folks with their own music then maybe we have something here. Because they’re the kind of folks that will let you know if you’re not doing it right.”

They were doing it right. And still are. Even more encouraging, culturally, is that a band of white suburban kids playing and singing soul and R&B music is no longer that much of an anomaly. These assimilations do not turn heads the way they did when African American Charlie Pride built a career in country and western music, (though it’s still likely we might be slightly distracted hearing Bobby Blue Bland sing a John Denver tune.) But with an average age of only 26, Soul Track Mind has both a musical maturity and a creative process that delivers new songs through a work ethic that involves every member of the band. Ideas are assembled into songs. A hook pops into someone’s head. Two of them start jamming around the words. The bass player might add his line. A melody is grabbed out of the air. A recorder is hooked up for more vocals. They work and rework. Throw it out if it does not measure up to standards.

“Some of our songs happen fast,” said Buie. “And others take months and months and are painfully slow. We all have a say and majority rules. Our feelings don’t get hurt like they used to. We just can’t take anything personally. We’ve got to create music and we want it to be great, entertaining music that moves people to dance.”

Which is what happens. Over and over and over. Everywhere Soul Track Mind performs. Their new album has a mix of soulful and slow pieces that tear at the heart and bang ups of horns and strings that will not allow the listener to just observe and not dance. The band is set for a long summer tour of the U.S. and they will become a favorite in every town where they stop, even when they are playing by the railroad tracks out in the lonely stretches of the Chihuahuan Desert in Alpine, Texas.

And their music will move your little red heart.

www.soultrackmind.virb.com


The Dick Cheney Presidential Library in Dallas

Posted in: Featured, Politics and People | By: | April 23, 2013

After George W. Bush had been pressured into running for president, his handlers realized he needed a vice president. The Bush family consortium called upon Dick Cheney to begin a search to find the most qualified person, which was more than a tad ironic since W certainly did not own a resume’ that showed he could manage a country or was fit for the top slot. What might be the standards for a VP? Cheney, unsurprisingly, reported back that, in fact, he was the best man for the job.

A match had been made. W, incurious about the world and possessing marginally average intelligence, was smart enough to realize that he could play at the presidency while Cheney ran the world like John Galt. The future vice president, who had been Secretary of Defense under W’s dad, George H. W. Bush, had finally realized the power he needed to make the planet safe for oil companies and defense contractors. The former Wyoming congressman had overseen the Gulf War for “41,” and he had long thought of the liberation of Kuwait as unfinished business with Iraq.

W did, too, though. He had wanted Poppy Bush to chase Saddam’s troops all the way to Baghdad and toss out the dictator. Cheney would not have to work hard to convince W that Iraq was wrapped up in Al Qaeda and Afghanistan was a secondary issue. W just didn’t care, and he wasn’t about to do the reading of historical intelligence necessary to find out or ask third party experts. Plus, an invasion of Iraq gave him a chance to do what he loved more than anything: show up the old man. He’d get Saddam and his gun and his dad would see what a real man he was, not some dry hole diggin’ West Texas loser who couldn’t get into Harvard Business School on his own and had to quit his National Guard pilot’s commission because he got “skeert” when landing jets.

Cheney got elected and let Bush live in the White House. W got to watch movies in his own theatre, had people bring him whatever he wanted to eat, and travel on a big jet plane with an office for him to sit and prop up his boots. Cheney, meanwhile, brought in Donald Rumsfeld, a pal from their Gerald Ford days, and had W make him defense secretary. The C&R Railroad ran on big oil and defense contractors and when big ol’ jet airliners crashed into the Twin Towers, Cheney and Rumsfeld were ready to execute a plan.

The Snarling, Self-Selector

The Snarling, Self-Selector

Even the redacted 911 Commission pages show C&R were working toward a regime change in Iraq prior to the New York City attacks. W liked the idea, too, but he wasn’t extensively involved until things were rolling toward war. The day the towers fell, Rumsfeld’s aide was taking notes from a meeting that proved the defense secretary was going to find a way to make war. He asked for the “best info fast…judge whether good enough to hit S.H. (Saddam Hussein) @ same time….not only UBL (Osama bin Laden.)”

Nobody knew anything yet about NYC but that same day C&R were plotting war. By November, they were polishing talking points, trying to develop a pretext for war. One of the documents from their meetings suggests ideas like “US discovers Saddam connection to Sept. 11 attack or anthrax attacks.” There were none, of course, but the next idea in the same talking points memo delivers them to their final solution. “Dispute over WMD inspections?”

Where was President Bush? Not that involved with the guys who were really running the world. They weren’t overly concerned with reporting to the boss. Might be a little complicated for him to process. C&R then got the Pentagon to set up something called the Office of Special Plans (OSP.) Chickenhawk Paul Wolfowitz, a C&R ally, ran the OSP and used it to repurpose previously discredited intelligence and to stovepipe intel to Cheney and Rumsfeld without running it past analysts. Essentially, they rumanged through intelligence garbage cans looking for something they could reframe as fact.

Wolfowitz was later quoted as saying the US had no choice but to invade Iraq because “it floated on a sea of oil.” There were no WMD. Saddam was not connected to 911. He had only made the mistake of being a bad man in a land with oil beneath the ground. W told his yellow cake uranium lie to congress, the New York Times and reporter Judy Miller spewed back the nonsense to America that Cheney and Rumsfeld were spewing at W, and we were off to kill the guilty and the innocent with the same malice. Of course, General Colin Powell first had to go before the U.N. and force the bile up from his gut that made him destroy his reputation and back the lies about WMD.

George W. Bush was a minor player in our latest American tragedy. His role was as mouthpiece for the tapestry of untruths woven by Cheney and Rumsfeld. And when the truth about WMD was finally known, W deflected further inquiry by blaming the intelligence community instead of the two men who had cooked the data and sent it to him with their pleadings to attack. If he’d had his preference, W would have stayed in that Florida classroom reading about pet goats until he got to go back to Texas.

George W. Bush is complicit in war crimes. There ought not be any building in Dallas or any other American city that bears his name. He violated the Geneva Conventions with extraordinary rendition and torture, preemptively invaded a country that had done nothing to the US, and killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings, tossed over the Constitution to eavesdrop on private citizens, cut taxes to the wealthy and corporations just as he launched two wars, and wasted what is now trillions of dollars to leave Iraq a bigger mess than when Cheney and Rumsfeld decided the president ought to decide we needed to invade.

And now they are dedicating a presidential library to W in order to maintain the historical spin. More money and time and American spirit expended on a troubled and insecure little man who only ran for the White House because of family, business, and party obligations. If there has to be a library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, let it be named after the man who actually ran the country, and not the man who simply nodded his head in affirmation. Let’s call it the “Richard Bruce “Dick” Cheney Presidential Library.”

And remember that “Dick” part is pretty important.


Atlas Has Shrugged: West, Texas

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | April 18, 2013

Like almost anyone who lives in Texas, I have visited the town of West, uncountable times. Nobody drives I-35 through the middle of the state without stopping for the famous kolaches. Hardly anyone else knows much about the little community. But it is about to become an icon of our failures to properly oversee dangerous businesses and manage our governments.

Let’s concede the remote possibility there may have been a criminal act involved. David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound at Mt. Carmel was only 15 miles distant, and, as we already know, the Oklahoma City bombing was a criminal response to the federal government’s actions. This week in April, as has been shown by events like the Boston tragedy and the Ruby Ridge shootout, can deliver us unto evil in America.

But what happened in West is probably more about government inactions.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) acknowledged today that it only inspects plants like West Fertilizer on the basis of complaints. The most basic interpretation of that statement is that a mechanical issue has to be failing so badly that someone outside of the facility is able to notice and then file a complaint to the state agency. A worried employee providing information would be the only other cause to investigate. According to TCEQ records, the plant has not been inspected since 2006 after a nearby resident complained of a “strong ammonia smell.” A fine was issued for a “failure to apply for or obtain a permit.”

What Have We Allowed to Happen?

What Have We Allowed to Happen?

The EPA fined the plant that same year, too. According to WFAA-TV in Dallas, the facility paid a $2,300 penalty for “failing to have a risk management plan that met federal standards.” This is nothing more than a basic outline to ensure that chemical accidents don’t happen and there are institutional safeguards that make these types of tragedies preventable.

Why the obvious, even more attendant risks were ignored in West, is a more unsettling question. The state issues the permits for nursing homes and it appears there was one virtually across the street from West Fertilizer, in spite of the known dangers of the manufacture of ammonium nitrate. Not far away, a building permit was granted for a small, two story apartment complex. Is this good judgment by state and federal, and even local agencies? It’s not like ammonium nitrate fertilizer hasn’t been known to detonate in the past. The 1947 explosion in Texas City of a ship carrying the compound killed 500 people and remains the largest industrial disaster in American history. West happened 66 years and one day after Texas City.

Texas is home to most of the nation’s petrochemical industry, and it has provided jobs and important products. But we never seem to know if sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent events like West. In fact, we know the exact opposite. According to the 2011 budget submitted to congress by OSHA, which provides most of the federal oversight for that industry, there are 7.5 million workplaces in the U.S. and only 2,218 inspectors to check them for safety violations. The number of employed nationally means that there is one inspector for every 57,984 workers. One analyst reported that means OSHA has the capacity to inspect a business work place once every 129 years. Fortunately, state level OSHA workers aren’t as pressed and they can get to a facility every 67 years.

West might be the latest failure of our commitment to provide the resources to protect our communities and our environment but there is no shortage of similar examples. The BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, which continues to destroy sea life, was a product of lax enforcement, infrequent inspection caused by staffing shortages, and an intermingling of personnel between the regulated industry and the federal oversight agency. Generations from now the Gulf of Mexico will still be suffering and people may find it hard to understand what we allowed to happen in order to hold down our tax burden and to let industry create jobs and find energy without government meddling.

How damned many times do we have to see these images and fail to connect cause and effect? Americans continue to elect and tolerate politicians that tell them everything is fine and we don’t need to invest in infrastructure and safety and there is too much regulation. There is no reason we can’t have businesses that are both profitable and safe. But we have to be willing to spend the money to fund the agencies that provide the oversight. That’s not government meddling; that’s common sense. Elected leadership does not hesitate to spend your tax dollars on fear driven industries like the TSA or defense contractors, but a few inspectors or laws to keep a nursing home away from an ammonium nitrate fertilizer plant is considered too much government?

And now we have to endure those same politicians who are quick with the budget cut running to the site of the tragedy to claim empathy and understanding. How dare they? Why do we never demand accountability until people are dead? The owner of the plant was quoted on television as saying, “This kind of thing just isn’t supposed to happen here.” It isn’t supposed to happen anywhere.

We just let it.


The Lies of Texas

Posted in: Featured, Politics and People | By: | April 15, 2013

Anyone else would be embarrassed about the timing. But not Texas Governor Rick Perry. Hell, he hardly turned red over his inability to remember three federal agencies. So, why should he be bothered by the awkward juxtaposition of his Texas ad campaign in Illinois launching just as a damning report on the state of his state is released by the Texas Legislative Study Group (TSG?)

Perry, who annoyed Californians briefly with a radio ad trying to lure businesses to Texas, has just published a print appeal to Illinois companies. He brags about how great it is in Texas and urges the Illinois businesses to “get out while they still can” after equating their situation to being in a house afire. Unfortunately, the ad goes up in Chicago just as the “Texas On the Brink” report is issued in Texas by the non-partisan Texas Legislative Study Group.

Prick Rarey

Go away, little man

And it ought to scare away anyone thinking about moving to Texas.

First, don’t consider failing. There is no safety net. If you remember nothing else from the “Texas on the Brink” report, take with you two simple facts about the Perry administration’s generosity to help the unfortunate: The average monthly benefits, per person, for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) recipients in Texas were $29.30. Worst in the nation. Not enough for tuna and crackers from a governor who spends millions on his traveling security entourage. And, second, the maximum Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant for a single parent family of three is $263 per month. If you want to eat Ramen noodles and live in a refrigerator box, Texas has you covered.

The ‘firsts” and “worsts” that have occurred during the 13 years of the Rick Perry administration in Texas are more astonishing than Perry’s obliviousness to the problems of his state. In his last legislative session, the Texas governor led a reduction of $5.5 billion in public school funding even though the state ranks dead last in the percentage of population that graduates from high school. According to the “Texas on the Brink” study, Texas also leads the nation in the percent of the population uninsured as well as the percent of non-elderly that are uninsured.

There are only two other states where the percentage of the low-income population covered by Medicaid is lower than in Texas. (Hint: Unofficial Texas state motto is, “Thank god for Mississippi.”) Those numbers make it even more absurd that Governor Perry continues his intransigence with regard to accepting federal expansion of the Medicaid system into Texas. Analysts say the money from Washington would provide coverage for up to 3 million more uninsured. Instead, standing on his quivery, semi-flaccid principles, Perry refuses to take the $100 billion from DC over ten years and instead allows federal tax money from Texas to be used to provide health care in other states, and he has the cowboy cojones to call that good government.

Texas may be on the brink, but Perry and his political playmates are doing just fine; they are busily looting the bank before riding west in the night. His scandalous use of taxpayer-funded programs has delivered wildly profitable benefits to his campaign donors and right wing ideologues. Although Texas taxpayers receive little in the way of quality services from their state, their money has, nonetheless, been used to build up three lucrative investment funds that are controlled by Perry, the Lt. Governor, the Texas house speaker, and governing boards of political cronies.

The Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), for instance, was funded by a $3 billion bond vote and was supposed to provide grants for companies seeking cancer treatments and cures. Instead, as much as $56 million in early grants was awarded without proper business or scientific review. Numerous top scientists resigned from CPRIT because of a failure to conduct due diligence and they publicly indicated awards were being granted for political favor. The top three officeholders in Texas received millions in campaign donations from recipients of CPRIT grants. The Austin district attorney’s office and the state attorney general have both launched criminal investigations.

Although the health care system in the state Rick Perry governs is last in the percent of women receiving first trimester pre-natal care, and almost 20 million of its residents live in poverty, the state’s leadership has ignored those problems and their costs to spend hundreds of millions on speculative business development funds. The Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF), and the Emerging Technology Fund (ETF), have both provided venture capital to corporations and startups promising jobs and growth, which have largely gone undelivered.

According to Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), the biggest beneficiaries of those grants have been Perry and pals, not the Texas economy. In 2011, TEF award recipients gave $7 million to Perry and the Republican Governors’ Association, and the latest report for 2012 from TPJ shows that the “GOP officials who oversee the TEF have collected $3.6 million in campaign cash tied to recipients of $307 million in Enterprise Fund Awards.” The ETF, meanwhile, has spent money on numerous startups that got cursory review and millions of dollars because of founder connections to Perry.

These are the types of disclosures that chasten most politicians. But not Rick Perry. His latest news conference was to announce that Texas would allow companies to deduct the costs of moving their businesses to the state from places like Illinois. That means more millions out of the general revenue fund, and even less money for schools. And roads. And health care. And the hungry. And the unemployed. And those struggling with poverty. But more money for businesses.

As Rick Perry would say, y’all come on down to Texas.