Jim Webb is a Non-Starter for Me

The first Democrat to officially enter the 2016 sweepstakes is former West Virginia Senator Jim Webb. He’s a right-of-center Reagan Democrat who served as the Gipper’s Secretary of the Navy, an angry ex-Marine who is absolutely bellicose on foreign relations and a complete non-starter for me.

While he voted with the party when he was in the Senate, his comments since then — and some of the material in his warlike novels — have turned me off completely.

The Democrats can’t affect the national policy agenda by trying to out-conservative the Republicans. The Democratic agenda needs to push farther left on the issues on which most Americans agree with that agenda, not dragged to the right. The GOP has been moving the national conversation to the right for decades. Time to push back.

 

Who Might Fill Giants’ Holes in Off-Season?

This is my second Hot Stove League post of the post-2014 season. Like my first one, it focuses on my team, the San Francisco Giants.

When I ended that post, I summarized the situation as follows:

Assume for the moment that the Giants re-sign Panda, replace Romo with Strickland, and lose Peavy. That means we’re still looking for a left fielder and a starting pitcher and probably a southpaw in the pen.

If they don’t re-sign Panda, replace Romo with Strickland, and keep Peavy, they still need a left fielder and a left-hander in the bullpen plus a third baseman.

So let’s look first at left field, then at left-handed relief, both of which will be needed regardless of whether the G-Men keep or lose Sandoval.

Left Field

Probably the top two free agent prospects for the Giants are Alex Rios of Texas and Baltimore’s Nick Markakis. But you’d also have to include Emllio Bonifacio and Naori Aioki on any short list. Free agency is full of decent-to-potentially-great outfielders this season. The question is going to be what the Giants can afford under the cap.

Alex Rios, Texas free agent outfielder

Alex Rios, Texas free agent outfielder

Rios was a relative standout for the Texas Rangers in 2014 until he bruised his thumb. But the club bought out his option and let him try free agency with a .280 average, which is just about exactly his career number. He was due to be paid $14 million, so the decision wasn’t unexpected, particularly for a club with an embarrassment of outfield riches, though much of it is untried.

Rios’ biggest downside is his age (34) but he was one of the fleetest baserunners in the AL in 2013 and it’s hard to see how a bum thumb can slow that down. On the other hand, the Giants seem to have an allergy to stealing, so maybe that’s not a consideration.

My guess is he’ll get a 2-3 year deal in the $8-10 million range, based principally on longevity concerns. At that price, he might be a good interim pickup.

Markakis is a little more interesting. He has just about the same amount of MLB experience as Rios (eight years) and his BA is almost identical. But he’s three years younger plus he’s a two-time Gold Glover.

The problem us that Markakis is going to be slightly more expensive than Rios. He probably commands something in the $45-50 million range over four seasons.

Bonifacio has a bit of a weak stick (career average .262, 2014 average .259), he’s 30 years old and he’s bounced around a bit. On the other hand, he earned under $1 million in 2014 and if Giants Manager Bruce Bochy sees him as a good chemical fit for the team, a friendly clubhouse and supportive coaching could bring this guy out of the shadows. If he can be had for under $2 million on a short-term deal, he may be worth the risk.

Aoki is a steady .287 career hitter with a reputation for putting the ball in play. He’s not a power hitter but he has great range and a decent arm. He was a defensive key to the Royals’ 2014 World Series run. Reports are that he’s interested in a three-year deal, which makes sense for a 32-year-old. He made $2 million in 2014 and is looking for $8 million per year in his next deal. That’s probably not outrageous but may be a bit steep for the Giants.

I like Gary Brown, a Giants farm system product, as well as any of these guys, frankly. He’s a bit of a light hitter (he hit .265 at Fresno last season) but he’s pretty solid defensively and the age of 26 has a long future. He’s a hot enough prospect that when the Giants were negotiating for Hunter Pence two years ago, the Phillies were keen to make him part of the package. For 2015, he wouldn’t be as much immediate help as either Rios or Markakis, but since the Giants will probably flounder a bit next season anyway before taking it all again in 2016, giving the youngster a year of seasoning might make some sense.

Left-Handed Reliever

Free agent pickings for southpaw bullpen guys are really slim. Particularly in the Giants’ price range. I’ve scoured the wire and the only possible candidate I can come up with is Andrew Miller. But before I could even get this column online, he had multiple three-year offers that would reportedly make him the highest-paid reliever in the game who is not a closer and doesn’t have closer experience. (That’s not too big a deal; that number currently stands at $6 million.) The Giants would be crazy to spend over $7 million on the guy and with 22 teams expressing interest, the bidding is likely to get silly before anyone acquires him.

Which leaves the farm system which, fortunately, has two good prospects at a minimum. Unfortuantely, one of those just shot himself in the foot with a PED (performance-enhancing drugs) suspension of 50 games.

Adalberto Mejia is the guy with the drug issue. The 21-year-old spent last season in AA ball where he compiled a career-high and disappointing 4.67 ERA. He features a low-90’s fastball and a quality circle change but he can also throw a devastating slider that’s his go-to strikeout pitch. He has excellent control (though apparently not self control) and is viewed as a top-5 Giants prospect. He probably did himself in for 2015 with his suspension, though.

Michael Kickham, Giants left-handed relief prospect

Michael Kickham, Giants left-handed relief prospect

The other minor league prospect for the Giants in the left-handed reliever category is Michael Kickham. At 25, his control needs work (he gave up 75 walks in 150 innings of work last year) but he has great quality stuff and he doesn’t have to be in the strike zone to get guys out. In 2014, he looked like this: 3.05 ERA, 1.29 WHIP with 137 strikeouts across those 150 innings. At one point last season in Fresno, he put up 4 consecutive quality starts in which he struck out 25 and walked only six, so he’s definitely capable. While he might benefit from another year in the minors, he could benefit greatly from some Righetti coaching and some Bochy nurturing.

Conclusions

It might not be the best they could do in a different scenario, but given the relative paucity of relievers this year and the overall team picture, I think the Giants should give Rios a shot if they can get him for two years at under $20 mill and start with the idea of promoting Kickham to the Big Show bullpen for a quick look-see.

I’m Going to do “Hour Of Code” This Year. How About You?

Hour of Code LogoLast year, some 15 million students around the world learned some basics of computer programming in a wildly successful “Hour of Code” experience. This is an amazing program assembled by an eclectic group of technology companies and philanthropists and educational institutions in which people are taught some basic ideas of programming in a single hour at no cost to anyone.

I checked out the program after the fact last  year and was fascinated. This year, I’ve  volunteered to coordinate the program at my granddaughter’s school in Monterey. So every day from Dec. 8-13, I’ll be spending my time in the computer lab at her school, helping students and a few teachers experience the joy of moving past passively using a computer to bossing it around.

This program is exciting, easy to implement, free to everyone, features a lot of celebrity names from technology and entertainment, and has the potential to spark serious interest in our profession. Plus last year, it resulted in more than 10 million girls being introduced to programming.

I hope you’ll consider volunteering to help out with your local school or district in 2014 as the sponsors hope to exceed last year’s enrollment and expose even more kids to the empowerment that is computer programming.

 

More Conservative Anti-Science Poppycock

The U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday passed a bill that would ban subject-matter experts from advising the EPA on regulations while opening the door to such advice from industry representatives with no specific expertise and a clear political, anti-regulatory agenda.

You can’t make up this kind of stuff.

As reported by Lindsay Abrams at Salon.com, the bill forbids scientific experts from participating in “advisory activities” that either directly or indirectly involve their own work. She went on to explain:

In case that wasn’t clear: experts would be forbidden from sharing their expertise in their own research — the bizarre assumption, apparently, being that having conducted peer-reviewed studies on a topic would constitute a conflict of interest.

Or, as Union of Concerned Scientists Director Andrew A. Rosenberg said in an editorial for RollCall:

“In other words, academic scientists who know the most about a subject can’t weigh in, but experts paid by corporations who want to block regulations can.”

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, along with two others designed to interfere with the EPA’s work. One of those bills would ban what the GOP calls “secret science” by which it means science that hasn’t undergone testing beyond that required by accepted scientific practices. The other would put a rush on permit applications for permits by bypassing provisions of the Clean Air Act.

The trio, wrote Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, in an editorial for the Hill, represents “the culmination of one of the most anti-science and anti-health campaigns I’ve witnessed in my 22 years as a member of Congress.”

Lakota Sioux May Stop Keystone in Its Tracks

If Congress lacks the moral courage and climate insight to put a stop to the outrageously bad idea that is the Keystone XL Pipeline, maybe the Sioux Nation can show the way.

The sovereign nation of the Lakota Sioux has announced that “Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.” The tribe has promised to close its borders to pipeline workers which, as a sovereign nation, it has the right to do. The nation has asked both the Department of Interior and the Department of State to investigate but has been met with deaf ears. Which is hardly a new turn of events for Native Americans.

“The Lakota people have always been stewards of this land,” [tribal President] Scott said. “We feel it is imperative that we provide safe and responsible alternative energy resources not only to tribal members but to non-tribal members as well. We need to stop focusing and investing in risky fossil fuel projects like TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. We need to start remembering that the earth is our mother and  stop polluting her and start taking steps to preserve the land, water, and our grandchildren’s future.”

Native Americans have traditionally focused their decisions by asking what the impact will be seven generations into the future. If global climate change continues unchecked for another five years — and that includes permitting this pipeline to be built — we will have crossed the Rubicon (to mix metaphors) and reached a place where the likelihood of human extinction is very, very high.

It would be the ultimate irony if the Native Americans who have been shoved from pillar to post, ignored and bulldozed for decades, became the conscience of our nation at a time when we are in such grave peril.

Pot Ingredients Kill Virulent Brain Cancer

A new medical study has found that a potent brain cancer called high-grade glioma responds extremely well to the chemical components in marijuana. Scientists using an extract of whole-plant marijuana rich in pot’s main psychoactive ingredient THC as well as cannabidiol (CBD) showed “dramatic reductions in tumor volumes,” the article describing the study reported.

This is yet more scientific evidence of the efficacy of marijuana as a medical treatment alternative for many kinds of conditions. In my home state of California, medical marijuana use is already sanctioned and controlled but in many other states, fear of marijuana as a gateway drug prevents this treatment from being made available.

It’s the 21st Century. We should be well past the time when ignorance of science or fear of “reefer madness” ought to be depriving a single person of treatment that can alleviate pain or reverse horrific medical conditions.

 

 

Time for Progressive Senators to Be Obstructionist?

Globe on fire in folded human handsThe Senate blocked the Keystone XL Pipeline yesterday thanks largely to a coalition of progressive Democratic Senators who are emerging as a possible voice of conscience in the coming GOP-dominated Congress.

While the stoppage will certainly be temporary, at least from the perspective of Senate action, this new group voiced by Elizabeth Warren and including Sheldon Whitehouse, Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley among others appears, based on news reports, to be ready to play the obstructionist role so long occupied by the Right over the past six years. They are being called the “hell no” caucus and Merkley of Oregon drove a stake in the ground with his promise to “use whatever tools I have as a senator to protect the environment.” Yes, this includes not only filibuster, but a whole range of procedural tools that Republicans have jealously guarded and enhanced in recent years.

Meanwhile, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has lost his grip on some of these left-leaning Senators. Claire McCaskill, for example, voted against Reid and told a reporter, “I’m not going to let them defund Planned Parenthood, for example.”

Unfortunately, a number of centrist Democrats — focused on short-term political goals rather than long-term human ones — is prepared to join Republicans in backing the horrific idea of the pipeline. That’s where the “hell no” caucus plans to do a lot of its work. It’s not only about the environment but it is about the environment. Global climate change is a real, imminent threat to the survival of the species and it’s essential that someone play a leadership role here. It would be fitting of a caucus of progressives played the same exact role of stopping all unwise legislation that the Tea Party did in the last three Congresses for the Republicans.

As Whitehouse said, “We will have more tools in the minority than we had in the majority.”

The net result may well be two more years of stalemate in the Senate, which is not good but is preferable to a dismantling of sound environmental policy by a Republican Party hell-bent on giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the environment who line their campaign coffers.

Obama Can Still Salvage His Presidency: His Top Priorities for Me…

…are, in order of importance:

  • global climate change
  • criminal justice reform
  • immigration reform

Global Climate Change

I am greatly encouraged by what I’ve seen and heard lately from the Obama Administration on global climate change. Several people inside his White House have indicated that he has settled on this as his signature issue, the thing he must get done in the final two years of his Presidency. Not that they care, but I agree.

Humanity is in peril. I know that sounds extremist. I know that most people disagree or have no opinion. Most people are wrong. The science is there. The math cannot be argued. The trend lines are all wrong. We are headed for catastrophe. We have already gone too far to avert it; all we can do now is minimize the damage from it. If everyone in America read Greg Craven’s book, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate, we could end the discussion and proceed to addressing the problem. He demonstrates with absolutely unarguable logic that the cost of doing nothing is far too enormous a risk to take.

But conservatives keep bringing out the same old short-term and short-sighted arguments. Climate reform, they say, will cost jobs, interfere with America’s global competitiveness, and hurt the economy. Those are opinions, not facts. But let’s grant for the moment — and only for the moment — that they are right. Global climate change must still be stopped. Because it is not a short-term problem, it is harder for people to grasp its significance. But what we are doing to the planet today will affect our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. When faced with a chance to do something about a huge, long-term peril, a true leader sacrifices near-term goals as short-sighted thinking.

“President Obama has made no secret that his climate crusade will proceed irrespective of what the American people want or what other global leaders caution,” said Laura Sheehan of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents the coal industry. And so it should! What the American people want cannot be paramount, not now, not in the face of this impending crisis for the entire planet. We don’t get to cast the only vote.

Affordable energy, jobs, and freedom from regulation are all short-term and short-sighted goals that ignore the reality that the human race is in peril. It is at times like these that true leadership emerges. To refuse to do the popular thing, the easy thing, to pursue the path of least resistance in the face of enormous obstacles is to pursue doomed policy. What will it matter if unemployment ticks up another point or two — and 50 years from now everyone is in peril? This is Big Picture Time and only a “lame duck” President willing to risk the judgment of history and with a vision big enough to ignore the near term politics is suited to it.

But it will take courage and stubbornness and a willingness to be attacked repeatedly, possibly even impeached. “Yet even some of Obama’s existing steps could well be repealed by ascendant Republicans in Congress, who also have plans to stop the president from going any further,” according to this AP story today. “Republicans are finding common cause with many Democrats in trying to force Obama to approve Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. And with the GOP set to take over the Senate in January, Republicans are already pursuing a concerted effort to gut his Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on power plants….”

Renewable fuels must be the cornerstone. It’s not enough to reduce pollution and reliance on carbon-based fuels because our economy still needs energy to be sustainable. What has to change is the kind of energy we produce and use. Conservatives don’t seem able to imagine a country in which many if not most of the jobs being shed by an industry that is literally a dinosaur can be replaced by jobs producing the next century’s energy. This is not policy, it is short-term politics.

I hope — and fervently pray — that President Obama will have the courage and the vision to see this through to the maximum extent he can in the face of withering blind opposition stuck in the next election cycle.

 Criminal Justice Reform

I rank this ahead of immigration reform for three reasons:

First, it affects a far greater number of people.

Second, there appears to be somewhat broad bipartisan support for it.

Third, it is a much more complex problem that requires a clear-headed thinker and while I’ve not always agreed with Obama nor considered him clear-headed, he seems likely to be more clear-headed than anyone from either major political party I see as viable candidates in 2016. Thus, I think immigration reform is more likely to get done in 2-3 years.

Immigration reform is the smarter political choice. Many of those who would be affected by criminal justice reform can’t vote. Of those that can, perhaps most are not Democrats. And I am not discounting the impact of a proper immigration policy on the 11 million undocumented workers in America. But the criminal justice system is out of control and it’s going to take a major shift in thinking to bring about the needed reforms.

Katrina vanden Heuvel took a close look at this issue in the Washington Post today. Here is her succinct summary of the problem’s components.

During the past four decades, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled even as the crime rate has dropped. We have some 2.4 million people behind bars, far more than any other country, costing about $80 billion a year to maintain. Worse yet, as result of racial disparities in sentencing, more than half of U.S. prisoners are minorities. These staggering statistics stem from the failure of the “war on drugs,” the true impact of which can only be measured in destroyed lives and devastated communities, especially among the most marginalized segments of society.

If you multiply 2.4 million behind bars by an average of eight people in their families who are also dramatically affected, this is a 20-million person problem. And that’s just the prison part of the issue, which has far more tentacles than that one.

There are strong appeals to both conservatives (fiscal impact and moral obligation) and progressives (who see it as a racial justice issue). Already two major bills have been introduced in the Senate with plenty of bipartisan (or what vanden Heuvel calls “transpartisan”) support.

But she also says that getting any legislation passed in 2015 is going to be tough sledding. Not because of a lack of support but because of conflicting and overcrowded agendas between the parties and inevitably between Congress and the White House.

This is a place where Obama can use his bully pulpit to influence some key votes and perhaps get something meaningful, if not comprehensive, done.

Immigration Reform

The framework is already in place for the President to use his Executive powers — which Republicans, who are now predictably howling about his “abuse of power” demanded for their guy when he sat on the throne — to accomplish important work here. I presume he will soon implement that set of policies and the debates and threats and arguments and irrationality will already have begun in a small number of days.

Beyond those reforms, however, Obama still must find more that he can convince a semi-reluctant Congress to do in this important area. His proposed actions, from what we know so far at least, only affect about 5 million undocumented workers, mostly those who are parents of kids who already have citizenship or where brought here too young to be subject to deportation under any sane and humane policy.

We still need a comprehensive immigration policy shift across the board. It must be aimed at striking a balance that neither overburdens our economy and political system nor unnecessarily rejects those who seek an improved life and can contribute to our success as a nation. This is a major tightrope walk and only a lame duck President with no fear of political consequences can lead the walk across it.

When the Facts Are Against You… Conservative “Debate” in Modern Politics

The first rule of the practice of law says, “When the facts are against you, argue the law. When the law is against you, call your opponent names.”

In World War II, Nazi Propaganda Chief Joseph Goebbels famously said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

I imagine the conservatives in this country have perhaps too many lawyers in their ranks. They seem unable, when faced with facts that contradict their ideology, to respond in any way other than to shout the same lies more loudly. And those who aren’t lawyers are apparently ideological propagandists. (I’m not making a Nazi comparison here; he just happens to be the source of the quotation.)

In his New York Times column today, Paul Krugman points out that:

Conservatives want you to believe that while the goals of public programs on health, energy and more may be laudable, experience shows that such programs are doomed to failure. Don’t believe them. Yes, sometimes government officials, being human, get things wrong. But we’re actually surrounded by examples of government success, which they don’t want you to notice.

In that column, he points out several examples of this prevaricating government bashing by conservatives, whose agenda is only served when Americans believe government cannot and does not work:

Solyndra. This is a non-scandal scandal perpetrated by the GOP. Any time anyone — government or private individual or company — invests in future technologies, they’re going to bet wrong from time to time. As Krugman points out, if they don’t, they’re not taking sufficient risks to move the marker. Overall, the program of which Solyndra was the sole significant loss is earning a present profit for taxpayers of $5 billion. Why aren’t conservatives — who are profit-driven — touting this? Because it was a Democratic Party idea. No other reason.

Affordable Care Act. The conservatives dig up, often falsify and then proclaim from the rooftop outlier failure anecdotes while completely ignoring the underlying factsFact: 10 million previously uninsured Americans now have some health coverage. Fact: average premium increases — which conservatives point to as horrendously bad news (“We thought they were going to save money!”) — are well below historical average increases. Fact. Obama Administration policies — many enacted in spite of the supposedly fiscal conservatives — have brought the national debt to pre-crisis levels as a percentage of GDP all the while Republicans have been screaming about deficits running rampant.

Science research. Conservatives have made an annual tradition of finding odd-sounding scientific research projects and singling them out for ridicule without the first understanding of anything scientific. Quite apart from their obstinate refusal to look at any science on climate change — and indeed, considering their oft-repeated observations that they are not scientists (a fact of which we need no reminder given their 18th Century ignorance) — they are in the way of important research. One example is a study of how memes form and are spread, which is incredibly important in, among other arenas, the battle against terrorist tactics. But the GOP holds up this study as an example of leftist programs designed to censor or interfere with conservative speech!

Over the years, I’ve learned that it is not possible to win a debate with someone who is willing to lie or distort facts. When conservatives do this at the top of their voice, they drown out debate and obstruct progress of any kind for which their opponents could be congratulated.

Scientists “Very Confident” Philae Will Reawaken

The ingenious last-ditch effort space scientists made as the short-life battery on the Philae comet lander expired yesterday may have paid off, according to mission experts.

By rotating one of the solar panel arms on the satellite 125 degrees, they believe they have given the lander a good chance of having its batteries recharged as it approaches the sun, perhaps in the spring.  While the lander has already transmitted a huge amount of data that scientists are already busily sifting, a reawakened Philae would be a large burst of good news for the Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency.

When Philae landed on Wednesday morning (Pacific time), a system of harpoons designed to anchor it to the comet’s microgravity surface failed to deploy. As a result, the lander bounced twice and ended up in a shadowed area. Without the sun being able to strike the solar panels, the onboard batteries failed after about a day of data transmission.

Overall, the Rosetta/Philae mission still ranks as a huge success and it has another year or more to go. Rosetta remains in close orbit around the comet and plans to accompany 67P as it approaches the sun.