Archive for June, 2005

The Thinker

Needed: A Leave Sharing Law for All

When it comes to giving employees time off, American employers are way behind the rest of the industrial world. American employers are not required to give employees any vacation. When I worked for Montgomery Ward I was entitled to a week of vacation a year. Considering how little they paid me I was amazed they gave me any time off with pay at all. At least it didn’t cost them much.

The de facto minimum vacation for full time salaried workers in the United States these days is two weeks. Some employers force employees to draw from a block of leave to be used for both sickness and vacation. Longer-term employees usually get three weeks of vacation a year. But from inquiring my friends I have found that it is pretty unusual for any private sector employee to accrue much more than three weeks of vacation a year these days. Non-profit and educational organizations are often the exception.

Other countries are much more progressive than the United States. Argentina, hardly one of the top industrial economies, mandates a minimum of two weeks of vacation for each employee. The European Union requires at least four weeks of vacation, but it is often more depending on the country. For example, France requires at minimum of five weeks of vacation. Spain requires at least thirty calendar days of vacation a year.

Federal employees like myself have what now seems to be very generous leave policies. During the first three years of employment you earn four hours of leave every two weeks, which translates to about two and a half weeks of vacation a year. From years four through fifteen you earn six hours a pay period, or close to four weeks a year. If you hang in beyond fifteen years you earn European levels of vacation: eight hours a pay period. This is a bit over five weeks of vacation a year. But federal employees also earn sick leave: four hours every two weeks. Unused sick leave accrues from year to year. Because of my accrued sick leave from over twenty years in the civil service I am well prepared financially for a long-term medical problem.

However not all civil servants are so fortunate. I have an employee who is dealing with major medical issues in his family. The situation is unlikely to improve in the short term. Not surprisingly he has exhausted all of his sick and annual leave, yet still he has to provide care to his very sick wife and manage his children. Fortunately the Family and Medical Leave Act allows him to keep his job while he take care of his family. But for most employees this would also mean his income would also stop.

Fortunately the federal government goes the extra mile and offers civil servants leave sharing. Basically it allows employees who are dealing with major life crises and have exhausted all of their leave to petition their colleagues for help. Those coworkers who choose can give the employee some of their leave.

This is one of those progressive and painless ideas that should be law. In our increasingly expensive world many people are living closer to the margins. Such is the case with my employee who bought his first house only a few years ago. He has just started building assets. I encouraged him to apply for leave sharing and he eventually agreed. While there is no guarantee that other employees will donate their leave, he is well known and respected so he is already getting significant donations. And unfortunately he will need it and more. I am hopeful that the many generous employees where I work will keep contributing their leave to him until his crisis has finally passed.

Leave sharing in the federal government is not automatic. A physician must document the need. The employee must apply for it. And the employee’s supervisor has the right to reject his request. Of course few supervisors are so heartless. The leave can only be used to deal with the care he needs for himself or his family.

What leave sharing amounts to is a fairly painless way for someone dealing with major family problems to keep their financial head above water. Even with leave sharing financial solvency is no guarantee. Major medical issues often bring hospitalization and other costs that can leave an employee deeply in debt or even in bankruptcy. But having a steady income coming in during the emergency and the promise of a job when the crisis is over can be a godsend.

I had one coworker who donated his leave to my employee immediately. He told me that a few years ago he had major back problems. They had him immobilized for many months. He burned through all his leave too, even though he had plenty of it. He too had the leave sharing option and fortunately his coworkers came through for him too. He told me he would have become bankrupt now without it. Now that he is in a position to return the favor and he does so gladly. “I donated some of my hours,” he told me. “And I will give him more leave if he needs it.” I agree. And so will I.

Not surprisingly, leave sharing was not an idea that came out of a Republican administration. Rather it was an initiative of President Clinton. It was an outgrowth of the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed into law by a Democratic Congress back in 1993. The following year Clinton issued regulations that created the federal leave sharing program. At the time of course there were the usual blathering that the FMLA would leave the United States less competitive. Happily twelve years later the skeptics have been proven wrong. The public has warmly embraced FMLA. Those employees who work for progressive employers that offer leave sharing have even more for which to be grateful.

I hope some future (and doubtless more progressive) Congress passes a universal leave sharing law. It is really a no-brainer. By keeping many people out of bankruptcy, it is good for the nation’s creditors. It saves the government money by keeping many of these people off welfare roles or from drawing food stamps. And in fact it really doesn’t cost employers anything. Leave costs just shuffle from one employee to another. It usually saves employees money because long term employees are more likely to have leave to donate, and they tend to cost employers more money. But most importantly leave sharing can be an enormous source of comfort for people who already have their hands full dealing with tremendously challenging personal problems.

 
The Thinker

Three Mini Movie Reviews

It’s summer time and you know what that means: mindless summer movies that digest faster than the theater popcorn in your stomach. I’m not sure if I would have seen any of these movies on my own. But my wife wanted to see them and won’t go to a movie by herself so I tagged along.


Madagascar

Only in an animated zoo could a lion and a zebra become best friends. For some wacky reason the animated specimens in New York’s Central Park Zoo just love being on exhibition, particularly Alex the Lion. Only the penguins seem ticked off to spend their lives as captives, so they plan an escape. Marty the Zebra, hearing from the penguins how great it is in the wild, decides to follow along with them. Soon all of Marty’s zoo pals follow him in order, for some crazy reason, to convince him to come back to the zoo! Hilarity ensues as the animals run around New York City and create general havoc. As a result of their escape, the animal rights people eventually convince authorities that they should return to the wild. So they end up on crates bound for Africa. All seems well until the evil penguins take control of the ship. They steer the freighter onto the beach of Madagascar, which Alex the Lion mistakes for the San Diego Zoo. Eventually of course they figure out they really are in the wild. The lemurs see the lion as a way to escape natural selection and try to make him their best friend. Alex meanwhile misses his steaks and has trouble avoiding his natural desire to consume Marty the Zebra. The penguins eventually find that Antarctica isn’t quite the paradise they imagine, and conveniently return to Madagascar. And that’s pretty much the plot.

For an animated movie it is short but reasonably entertaining. I must have missed most of the jokes because the more you know movies the more entertaining it gets. Still you can count on some decent laughs. The more you are prone to laughter the funnier you are likely to find it. Unfortunately I must be something of a sour puss. So I mostly sat there unmoved while everyone else seemed to be howling.

It’s probably no longer in the theaters. But no matter, you can easily wait for the inevitable DVD. It’s a fun animated movie that most people will really enjoy. At 86 minutes it feels much shorter so you may not actually finish your popcorn by the time it is over. This is a solid B+ of an animated movie and well crafted by the digital wizards at Dreamworks. So it earns a 3.1 on my 4.0 scale. But I suspect you will find that one viewing is plenty, as it was for me.

Howl’s Moving Castle

I was so taken with Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful animated movie Spirited Away that I consider it to be the best animated movie I have ever seen. So it took little arm-twisting from my wife to go see his latest movie. As with Spirited Away, it was not available at my local multiplex. We found it in the smallest theater inside the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia. Unlike Spirited Away, this movie was not dubbed so we had to suffer through subtitles. Even its credits are in Japanese. According to the Internet Movie Database it apparently is in the process of being dubbed. So if you have to see it then you may want to wait for that version.

While the movie has its moments, it is no Spirited Away. It is not even close. The plot is very loosely based on Diana Wynne Jones’s book of the same name. According to my wife, who read the book, it has little in common with the book. This surreal version of Earth seems to look like Bavaria in the 19th Century, except the signs are in English and everyone speaks Japanese. The plot frankly doesn’t make a much sense. There are fantastic looking airships constantly overhead and some big war going on. A hat maker named Sofi, trying to escape some soldiers who want to rough her up, runs into Howl who is exactly what? A wizard of some sort? Anyhow he lives in a weird house that is actually the moving castle. Its main door is a magic door that opens onto four different realities, depending on how you change the dial by the door. The Witch of the Waste (there is little to explain why she is there or what her beef is) puts a curse on Sofi that transforms her from an 18-year-old beauty into an old lady. Through much of the movie Sofi plays an old lady, who acts as Howl’s housekeeper. The moving castle, by the way, is pretty cool: a decent sized castle with legs that huffs, puffs, and moves around this alternate version of Bavaria. Along the way Sofi makes a number of weird friends including “Prince Turnip” (a scarecrow) and Calcifer, a fire with an attitude. They are reasonably amusing as cartoon characters go and there is a cute doggie that even grown-ups will chuckle at.

It has its moments of being visually stunning like Spirited Away. But unlike Spirited Away, it is a soulless and rambling animated movie. In Spirited Away every character had soul. Here they are all soulless. I guess it’s too much to expect a master like Miyazaki to produce a masterpiece every time. Sadly this isn’t it. Unless you are a huge Miyazaki fan or have to see everything that is anime, steer clear of this movie. While not a bad movie it does not rise to the level of a good movie. Rather it is a visually interesting mediocrity from someone who should have done much better. If you see it enjoy its imaginative elements and cute characters. Just don’t expect any of it to come together into something coherent. 2.3 on my 5.0 scale.

Batman Begins

A proper summer mega blockbuster requires lots of car chases, lavish special effects, expensive sets, things crashing onto or into other things, fancy costumes, fancy props and top tier actors in parts that are generally beneath them. The typical result is a lot of mediocrity where dazzle substitutes for real acting, solid direction and a great script. I’ve seen too many of these kind of movies — you know visually stunning movies that are truly dreck like Van Helsing.

But big surprise: Batman Begins is a really good movie! Rather than scientifically creating a blockbuster, director Christopher Nolan figured if he is going to build elaborate sets and make lots of things crash into each other then he might as well make a convincing fantasy movie. What we get are genuine character development and consistently excellent acting from the whole ensemble. Of course you have to suspend disbelief that Wayne Enterprises just happens to have a research division full of abandoned products that Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) can make available to the young Mr. Bruce Wayne. But in spite of being a fantasy it is just plausible enough that you buy into the whole nutty scenario. You find yourself caring not just for Batman, but his hot sometimes girlfriend/prosecutor Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Albert and the future Commissioner Gordon. Christian Bale is dead on as Batman, and clearly the best of the many actors who have put on the uniform. Michael Kaine is delicious as Alfred the Butler. Liam Neeson is in here too and plays the part of a bad guy for a change. In short the movie really didn’t need all these special effects. This crew could have pulled it all off for one tenth of what they spent on the movie.

Seeing Batman Begins reminded me of how the summer blockbuster has fallen on hard times. I’m trying to remember how many years it has been since I saw a summer blockbuster worthy of the name. For me I have to go back to Independence Day, released in 1996. This Batman movie is totally engaging and wholly sucks you in. There were times when I actually had to restrain myself from jumping out of my seat when Batman made some spectacular and well-timed entrance.

Except for one over the top scene involving epic numbers of digitized bats in the middle of the movie, I can’t think of anything to dislike about the movie. I can think of lots of movies I thought were better on many other levels. This it is high-class and expensive summer cinema at its best. It’s a solid A, so merits a 3.6 on my 4.0 scale.

 
The Thinker

America: An Empire In Decline

The era of the United States as the world’s superpower is ending. A new superpower is emerging: China. It is likely that when the history of the 21st century is written that it will be a century marked by the decline of the United States and the emergence of China as the world’s new superpower.

In truth our self-proclaimed superpower title is more fiction than reality. Yes, our current military and intelligence spending is unprecedented. But we still delude ourselves into thinking that we are shaping world events. Rather events are shaping our country. At best our presence in Iraq keeps the country from slipping into total anarchy and civil war. It is at least half there already. In Afghanistan the situation is somewhat better. But after three and a half years the Taliban are still a force that has not been vanquished. As our forces get stretched and are needed elsewhere, it is likely that our long-term presence in Afghanistan will be more token than a controlling element.

Terrorism is the 21st century equivalent of anti-colonialism and revolution. We have become targets because our economic empire has become too extended. Gone are the days when territory could be controlled through the strategic use of gunboats and garrisons. Revolutions against well-established powers are unlikely to be won by conventional armed forces. Consequently terrorism and insurgencies seem attractive. These new kinds of conflicts are won through attrition. Eventually one side tires enough to go home. Perseverance wins.

We will see this happen in Iraq over the next few years. In reality the war in Iraq is already lost. It is lost because you know what I know in my heart: we don’t have the stomach to fight this war indefinitely. For all of Bush’s bravado you can see the reality in declining armed forces’ recruitment rates. By embracing an all-volunteer army we have decided in effect that we will wage only elective wars. Only those who choose to fight it will put their lives at risk. Even College Republicans, meeting this weekend in Arlington, Virginia don’t seem to have the stomach for it. They are glad to support our troops by saying the right words. But they are largely unwilling to put their bodies where their mouths are. War has become somebody else’s problem. For those of us not fighting it, our part is reduced to that of cheerleader.

Sensing a lost cause and no sense of urgency, baby boomer parents are encouraging their children to go to college rather than fight America’s distant wars. Congress has repeatedly said no draft, no way, most recently right before the last election. The message is clear: like with our deficit spending and reckless tax cuts, we shall have our cake and eat it on the national security front too. This translates into armed forces, already stretched to the breaking point that must eventually break. Money alone cannot win wars. It requires both materiel and boots on the ground. Lacking either of the two it fails.

We were briefly awake after 9/11 but have gone back into our happy, delusional slumbers. It is better to slap yellow Support Our Troops stickers on the back of our SUVs than encourage Junior to enlist or even to buy hybrids. Life is good. Our X-Boxes have the latest games. And besides, there is a new Batman movie at the multiplex. In our hearts we know the war on terrorism is in shambles. Yet it provides a certain balm to not openly acknowledge the fact and to throw the onus on our dysfunctional leadership.

So others step in where we increasingly fear to tread. While we are distracted in unnecessary and unwinnable wars much more tangible threats exist that we are poorly prepared for. One exists above the 38th parallel. A madman that now seems to have acquired nuclear weapons runs North Korea. But because more troops are needed in Iraq, we shuffle some from South Korea. Our pompous behavior will not even let us engage in dialog with North Korea unless they will first agree to all our conditions. Meanwhile North Korea lobs practice missiles over the Sea of Japan and scares the bejesus out of their long time enemy, the Japanese.

But North Korea is hardly the only worrisome national security issue facing us. It turns out that North Korea may have gotten a lot of its nuclear parts from our so-called ally Pakistan. And Pakistan seems to be rife with its own internal problems that could explode into civil war. And this could place its considerable nuclear arsenal in the hands of real terrorists. Instead, we are more concerned about Iran doing the same thing. In addition there are unsecured or poorly secured nuclear stockpiles all over the remnants of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. While Iraq represents zero threat to our national security, those vulnerable nuclear stockpiles offer very real and scary threats. It is unlikely that while we have been distracted in Iraq and elsewhere that terrorists have been idle. In fact there is evidence that terrorists are hard at work trying to put together a nuclear bomb.

While our buttons keep getting pressed we are largely missing the strategic problem of an emerging Chinese superpower. Much like the British showed the Japanese how to create a modern navy, we are busy giving China many of the tools it needs to challenge our superpower status. And the Chinese have been very busy moving from an agrarian to an industrial economy. We help them build automobile plants and open Wal-Marts. This infrastructure provides the basis for sustaining their wealth and gives them the means to rapidly improve their own military. Meanwhile the Chinese are spreading their influence across East Asia and the Pacific. They are creating a de facto commonwealth where loosely aligned countries like Indonesia and Vietnam provide the oil, goods, or the labor that helps them sustain their growth rates. China is a country about the same size of the United States. With no real adversaries it is free to fully tap its abundant resources to build up an Asian version of the United States, just without our democratic principles. In the short term we love the cheap goods we get in return. In the long term we exacerbate our own superpower status.

We can hope that China will emerge as an enlightened superpower like Great Britain was. But the early readings are that this will not be the case. Their sense of nationalism and their history of warfare suggests otherwise. It is a country that seems determined to grow very quickly into both an economic and military superpower. Finding conscripts for their armies is no problem. The supplies of peasants are plentiful and military service is not necessarily an elective. It is a country where you learn to do as you are told and to subsume your individual desires when needed for the goals of the state. Despite its modern trappings it remains a dictatorship.

A nuanced approach by America over the next generation toward China might allow us to become long-term strategic partners instead of future adversaries. But that probably will not happen. It is not part of the Chinese culture to integrate their culture too much with other cultures. We lack a nuanced approach because our political system encourages short-range tactics rather than long-range strategic approaches that are broadly supported by both parties. So it is likely that China will continue to be far down our list of national security concerns. Instead, we’ll be dealing with increasingly costly brushfires caused by our complex needs from the rest of the world.

But mostly we will find it more convenient to ignore these problems. For it is always Morning in America now. We are fat, happy and easily distracted by our vices. Sometime in the next decade or two we will wake to find that we are no longer the superpower we thought we were, the Chinese are in the driving seat, and that we will be playing an increasingly poor defensive game.

Every empire has its time. Ours is drawing to an end.

 
The Thinker

Celebrities Trapped in Immaturity

Oh big yawn! Tom Cruise is getting hitched again, this time to Katie Holmes. She’s 16 years younger than he is but that’s no problem for the 42-year-old Cruise. I will give him credit for making it through ten years and eight months with Nichole Kidman. In that sense he beat the statistics, certainly for both celebrities and for the American marriages that last on average seven years. But his second marriage to Penelope Cruz lasted three years. So I hope Katie Holmes is not naïve enough to think that she will succeed where Nichole and Penelope failed. Enjoy your time together with Tom, Katie. It’s likely to be fleeting.

But Tom Cruise is hardly alone. Jennifer Lopez lasted eight months with Cris Judd and thirteen months with Ojani Noa. Angelina Jolie made it two years each with Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thorton. Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt survived five years, but I’m willing to bet they shared residences for less than half that time. Drew Barrymore and Tom Green: 5 months. Drew and Jeremy Thomas: 19 days. Since apparently so many celebrities can’t maintain a real marriage I hope they, or at least their lawyers, have brains enough to insist on stringent prenuptial agreements.

Why do they bother? Why do they cheapen marriage for the rest of us? There needs to be some sort of special marriage certificates issued to Hollywood celebrities that gives the appearance of marriage but none of the actual expectations. Because it is pretty obvious that most celebrities have the emotional maturity of Ferris Bueller. (Bueller was played by Matthew Broderick who, incidentally, may be the exception: he is eight years into a first marriage with Sarah Jessica Parker.)

Okay, granted Americans in general talk a good talk on marriage, but aren’t great at following through on the ideal. The statistics are pretty sobering. But as bad as our overall marriage statistics are, Hollywood celebrities are far worse. Three quarters of celebrity marriages end in divorce. And I don’t know if there are statistics out there for the average duration of celebrity marriages but I suspect it is a lot less than seven years. Seven months is likely closer to the reality.

I think I understand what is going on. Basically most celebrities while very attractive and talented tend to have the emotional maturity of teenagers. When you are a perfect 10, when you ooze with talent, when you have more than enough money to live an opulent lifestyle, when great looking women/men are constantly clamoring for your body, it is easy to succumb to temptation. Just ditch the current spouse and pick another perfect 10 from the gene pool. Repeat as necessary but don’t absorb any karmic lessons. In short you don’t have to ever grow up. You get to act like Michael Jackson just limit your lovers to adults!

Admittedly there will come a time when their fame diminishes and their looks fade. And then it will be rough. At that point it is likely that any dwindling fortune and residuals is all that will win them a spouse. Unless they are very lucky they shouldn’t expect that that they will ever encounter anything resembling genuine love.

Married old farts like myself (twenty years this October, thank you very much) know that marriage is not so much about joy as it is about constantly working through relationship issues. While it has its virtues, hard work comes with the territory. That I have survived twenty years in my marriage does not mean that I am a marriage expert. Like a fingerprint, each marriage is unique. But like all marriages mine has had its ups and downs. It has rarely felt like being on a cruise ship. Rather it’s been more like being on a sailboat in the midst of a tempest with periods of relative calm. But basically I’ve grown accustomed to the rough seas. We’ve spent a lot of time bailing water keeping the marriage afloat. I am sure there were many times when we were tempted to chuck it all. For both of us I don’t think the reality quite met our reasonably well-grounded expectations. But at least they were grounded in some reality. We both knew we were flawed people with our own issues. And we had an inkling that when bad things happened we had an obligation to work through our issues as best we could. Sometimes we did a bad job of working through them and sometimes we did a good job. But we hung in there.

In short marriage requires a lot of accommodation, talking and perseverance, something that seems in short supply in Hollywood. It also requires a lot of humility, something virtually unknown in Hollywood. And it requires two people to actively work at the relationship, rather than be passive participants.

The truth is that being attractive and talented is more of a curse than a blessing. I have to infer that it gives a person a very skewed picture of the real world. Eventually though those glamorous stars are revealed to their glamour spouses as just another guy or gal with issues and dealing with the issues is, like, no fun. And that’s when the temptation often becomes irresistible. Their marriages, which were tentative artifices anyhow, quickly crumble. Likely there are some hurt feelings but my bet is that they are easy enough to plaster over. There is an endless supply of others who want to get embroiled in their glamorous world.

So, truly, I am glad to be ordinary. In some ways despite all their talent, looks, and money I have some sympathy for our celebrities. The kind of marriage the rest of us know seems to be unknown to many of them. But it has its virtues and comforts along with its constant challenges. And for better or worse many of us who survive in long term marriages grow a lot spiritually from hanging in there. We may be battle scarred, but at least we have encountered the reality of two people bound in a long-term intimate relationship. Now let’s see a movie on that.

 
The Thinker

Government of the Corporation, by the Corporation and for the Corporation

Well, it’s now official. We live in a country of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation. The last nail in the coffin was today’s really amazingly bad decision by the United States Supreme Court. By 5-4 justices agreed that local governments could unilaterally take away a person’s home or business merely in order to revitalize a local economy. In short your home, where you and generations of your family may have been living, is now expendable if the local politicians feel that a Wal-Mart better enriches the local tax coffers serves the public good.

In previous years (that we will soon look back at with nostalgia) a government could take your property only if it served a compelling public need. Typically eminent domain was exercised to build new freeways. But now, after centuries of emulating the British common law notion that a man’s home is his castle, our Supreme Court has turned this idea on its head. Now your home can be confiscated because it might make a lovely location for a new Starbucks. So don’t feel bad, property owner. Instead, think with satisfaction on the lovely tax revenues that patronizing yuppies will bring in to state and local coffers from all those Mint Moca Chip Frappuccino Blended Coffees. Clearly that is more important that your desire to continue to live your humdrum and ordinary life in your own house. But don’t worry. The government won’t steal your property. You will get “fair market value”. This means you are compensated for the property, but you certainly won’t get a dime for your distress and hassle. And since the fair market value is unlikely to buy you something in your neighborhood (which may not exist after the developers are done with it) you may join others exiled in outer exurbia and forced to endure nightmarish commutes.

Maybe this is a logical result of the “run government like a business” mantra coming from what we hilariously call our political “leadership”. Governments are not about profit and loss but are about doing the people’s business. It used to be that our politicians truly represented the people. Now it is clear that they are wholly aligned with corporate interests. If you represent a business, and particularly if you also give them fat campaign contributions, you will get first class service. Us annoying citizens, you know, the ones who actually pay taxes and vote, we get coach class service. Yep, tiny bags of pretzels for us. After all if we can afford to contribute to a political campaign, it’s likely to be $50, not $50,000.

You have to wonder what tortured logic convinced five justices to wholly forget our history. If they hadn’t recently ruled against medical marijuana I might have accused them of being high on something when they were writing their opinions. So let us review. A republic is a representative form of government. It exists to serve the needs of the people. There is nothing at all in our constitution that says that governments are formed to serve the interest of corporations. Through much of its history Great Britain’s government existed to serve the needs of its kings and queens. (Arguably for a time it existed to serve the needs of the British East India Company.) In our country citizens are not peasants. We have basic and inalienable rights. Governments become legitimate from our consent. We form governments to help us meet our common needs, not Wall Street’s.

And if government doesn’t serve our needs then, according to our Declaration of Independence, we have the right to alter or abolish it. We are unlikely to rise up in revolution on this particular issue. But some part of me would understand if the citizenry felt a revolution was justified. So after this decision we have little choice but to hope that some future Supreme Court smells the smelling salts or that our Congress, now carefully populated with politicians who also care more about corporations than the citizenry, specifically write a law to constrain this outrageous breach of the use of eminent domain.

This decision is particularly puzzling because it was the erstwhile liberals and moderates on the Supreme Court that allowed this travesty to occur. Justice John Paul Stevens, the court’s most liberal member, wrote the majority opinion. Even Justice Clarence Thomas got it. “So-called ‘urban renewal’ programs provide some compensation for the properties they take, but no compensation is possible for the subjective value of these lands to the individuals displaced and the indignity inflicted by uprooting them from their homes,” he wrote. Justice O’Connor noted, “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”

As a liberal I am appalled. Individual liberty is at the heart of liberalism. Liberals see the role of government to ensure that all citizens have equal rights and protection under the constitution. We protect people from corporate excesses. And now in one fell swoop this decision puts the interests of corporations above those of the citizenry.

You have to wonder if this court will wish they spent more time considering the implications of this ruling. Let’s hope the pressure from the citizenry will be fierce enough so that Congress does the right thing and creates a law that prohibits these uses of eminent domain.

 
The Thinker

The Vortex of Dying

Five weeks ago my 85-year-old mother could still get around. It was true that she often needed assistance. About half the time she could raise herself into her walker. Yes, she was a bit awkward shuffling forward or turning in her walker. But once started she could generally push herself forward. When she sat she was more likely to plop into her chair than brace her fall. But arguably she was mobile. She had some vestige of independence.

Five weeks ago she could also feed herself without much problem. Although her hands shook from time to time a drug made her tremors manageable.

Five weeks ago my mother lived in her own apartment. My father tended to her and was her constant, if sometime reluctant companion, day and night, catering to her many and seemingly endless needs. She slept in her own bed. Every evening she could count on a quality dinner at the dining room in their retirement community. She would enjoy that daily cup of coffee (now decaffeinated) served to her by waiters in uniforms. The coffee was poured into real china cups. She could count on enjoying a tasty entree fresh from the kitchens of the Riderwood dining facility. She especially liked the shrimp entrees.

Five weeks later finds my mother in a nursing home. The place is called Renaissance Gardens. It is a nursing home adjacent to the retirement community. She can no longer get herself into her walker. She cannot even lie down without assistance. Almost every act requires assistance. Her condition, PSP, means it is difficult for her to move her eyes. So she can only focus on what is straight ahead of her. She can still tilt and rotate her head slowly, but doing do brings fatigue after a while. So most of the time she listens and stares blankly at whatever happens to be in front of her.

Her days consist of meals, bed rest, occasional visits from occupational therapists and physicians, a visit or two from my father or a family member, and more bed rest. Her nights are long. She claims she doesn’t sleep, at least not very much. Days and nights blend together, as they have for many years now. She can read but only with concentration, and not for long. Her hands are not agile enough to hold a book. She has no interest in television and cannot concentrate on it.

And her condition is unlikely to improve. She may visit their apartment briefly from time to time. But it is unlikely that she will ever spend another night in her own bed. Instead she will be managed. Life is and will continue to be endlessly frustrating to her. Nothing can be done on her schedule anymore. She must wait. Wait for meals. Wait for someone to take her tray. Wait to be turned. Wait to be lifted into her wheelchair. Wait to be helped to and from the bathroom. More often than not she is changed like a baby. Underpants are useless. For the rest of her life she wears Depends.

She still hears very well, as long as her hearing aid batteries are fresh. She knows where she is. Even if she were mobile she cannot escape her ward. You see you have to know the number to type on the pad by the exit door and she doesn’t know it. Nor could her wobbly fingers press them accurately. She can recall most events clearly. Her hair may be gray but she has the skin of a woman twenty years younger. Her face may sag but there are few lines on her face.

Yet she keeps receding. She is clearly mentally ill. The extent of her illness is difficult for me to gauge, but it can be hard for those of us who love her to endure it. She is told one thing and remembers another. A 2 p.m. appointment becomes 1 p.m. in her mind. A fifteen-minute wait magnifies in her mind to an hour wait. As a result she is often bitter, resentful, and generally a complete killjoy. With luck, perseverance and enough conversation she can lapse into something like the mother I used to know. But increasingly the mother I knew throughout my life is gone. I ache for the moments when she acts familiar. But three quarters of the time or more she is not the mother I knew. The face is there but her personality has been magnified. The good parts have receded. Her unpleasant aspects have been grotesquely magnified. She acts more like a child than an adult.

To those of us who know and love her, she is in some sense already dead. Dead, yet alive, yet also inexorably sliding down a slippery slope. She is moving down a vortex from which life cannot escape. Hope is gone. She recognizes the reality of her condition but cannot fully grasp its dimensions. So she is understandably angry and depressed by her reality. She talks about her own death much more frequently now. She both resents her husband and admires him. She resents that he won’t spend every waking moment by her side engaged in conversation. She resents that he won’t lift her or put her down, even though he should not at 78. She resents that he cannot make things right for her, even though things are about as right as they can get under the circumstances. But she still admires the husband and father that he was, and wonders why on the dawn of their 55th wedding anniversary the husband she thought she knew and trusted is now more like Mr. Hyde than Dr. Jekyll.

For my father is being pulled into her vortex too but so far is clinging firmly to its edge. He is doing the best he can for his wife, wishing he could do more but finding it impossible. He has limits that he must respect. He loves his wife but mourns these changes in her too. He feels confused, hurt and resentful when she lashes out at him in anger. He knows it is her mental illness that makes her do these things. But it makes most interactions with her painful. It makes him want to see her less, not more. Yet he plods forward in his marital role as best he can. Her bills get paid. He sorts through her many medical issues. My Dad is fraying a bit at the seams too. He must pull away. For the first time in his life he is seeing a therapist. We wonder how he survived so long without one.

And now he comes home to an empty and deathly quiet apartment. He makes his own meals, but not for two. But he now he has freedoms he didn’t have before, like being able to get out for regular walks. But always there is the psychic tug of his wife and her wants.

No one is at fault. Everyone is doing the best they can. And no one is happy about the situation. We wonder how long my mother will be living like this. How long before death finally overtakes her? Days? Months? Weeks? Years? Most patients with her condition live one to two years after they are committed to the nursing home. There is no way to know for sure. But considering the extent of her deterioration in just the last five weeks I suspect it will be sooner rather than later.

We recognize that we are not super humans either. My siblings and I still have our own families and commitments. We love her as much as we always have. But we cannot be there all the time. She has to cope with this unhappy phase of her life as best she can. Yet she does not seem to be in pain most of the time. Her basic needs are seen to. Her other needs are difficult if not impossible to meet.

So we grieve too. Seeing a parent decline is like watching a fatal car wreck in slow motion and in exquisite detail, except we cannot turn away from it. We feel the emotional impact of her decline. We wish we could wave a magic wand and make things better. Like my father we cannot really turn off our feelings.

In the process we wonder if we see in our mother what we too will go through in time. Despite her high quality of care it still looks like a nightmare. I find myself hoping for a sudden and quick death when my time comes. Is what my mother going through really life? Is this the “culture of life” that we claim to so highly value? Or is it just existence? Whatever it is, it seems like a horror.

So we too stand on the edge of her vortex looking down too, confident that for now we will not be sucked into it but knowing our time will come too. We look because a lifelong commitment of love between parent and child means we cannot turn away now. For myself, I move through the rest of my life seemingly normal on the surface but a changed, humbled, frustrated and sometimes scared person. I hope when my time comes I will be more graceful in my decline. I want a death like King Theoden’s on Pelennor Fields. But I suspect mine will resemble my mother’s. I’d like not to think about it but I cannot. The pain is too close, too tangible and too persistent.

My mother will not survive this but we will. Death is a natural consequence of life. The feelings we go through when we are dying are natural too. I know I won’t enjoy this time of her life. But I will survive it. Perhaps when these horrid years are behind me I will live fully again, humbled but grateful for each day of good health. I hope so.

I wish I lived in a culture that had a better attitude toward dying. I wish my mother were a devout Buddhist instead of a Catholic wondering if she’ll die with a mortal sin on her soul. I wish she could embrace the changing experience called dying. But for the moment she is not in that space. Perhaps before the end she will embrace it. And perhaps someday I will too.

 
The Thinker

Needed: A New Contract with America

Is that the earth that I feel moving beneath my feet? Probably not. But those of us with sensitive political ears can feel the political earth beginning to shift. It’s just a faint tremor at the moment. It could be nothing. Or it could be a sign of a coming political earthquake.

Those into reading political tealeaves will find plenty to read lately. They may mean nothing but collectively they suggest a trend. For example last week a handful of Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives came together to sponsor a bill. It requests that the President set a timetable for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq starting in October 2006. This particular resolution will doubtless go nowhere but it may be a harbinger. What is important here is the precedent. It makes it easier for others with similar feelings to voice them.

And these nervy Congressmen are simply echoing the opinions of the majority of the American people, who are queasy about the whole Iraq war in general. The American people have turned against the war. It remains to be seen whether these opinions have sticking power. But it is reasonable to assume that they will. There are no short-term expedients that are likely to change the fundamental situation in Iraq. And the situation will be that Iraq will remain an anarchistic mess, with insurgents having the upper hand controlling the country.

Even Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove will have to feel queasy at some of the latest polls. For example, a recent CBS/New York Times poll shows that Bush’s approval rating at 42%, one point from an all time low. When you look at the numbers for other questions Americans were asked in this poll you can see the bigger cracks in the pavement. 45% of Americans say going into Iraq was the right thing versus 51% who say we should have stayed out. This is the first time in this poll that the public has decisively flipped on the Iraq war.

On Bush in particular the news is not good. 56% of Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of the economy. 51% disapprove of his handling of foreign policy. 59% disapprove of his handling of the War in Iraq. 62% are upset about his attempts to reform Social Security. Democrats are trusted 48% to 31% to come up with a better plan for saving Social Security. Overall 61% of Americans say that Bush does not share their priorities for the country.

So the news is not good for Bush, even though our economy is not in recession. The sole area where Bush gets higher marks is in his overall handling of the campaign against terrorism. Here he gets 52% approval and 40% disapproval. But Congress’s ratings are in the toilet. 71% of Americans say Congress does not share their priorities.

Political prognosticators like myself who are wondering if there is a political earthquake coming in 2006 and 2008 look at two factors. First, is this a transient shift or a permanent trend? It is difficult to say for sure. The American people don’t have much trouble drifting toward apathy as Election Day approaches. When that happens the turnout is depressed. And when that occurs the status quo is likelier to be maintained. Second, can Democrats successfully translate general unhappiness into new political power? That is also problematical. A coherent and widely embraced Democratic message is needed.

But it can be done. Ironically the Democrats have an ideal model to follow: the Newt Gingrich Contract with America. In 1994 the Contract flipped the House of Representatives from Democratic to Republican. With incumbents virtually certain to win reelection in normal years, it takes a mighty effort to convince voters to change the status quo. That is why the time has come for Democrats to organize much the same way that Gingrich organized Republicans for the 1994 elections.

The House of Representatives can be switched back from Republican to Democratic. To succeed it requires only a moderately pissed off public. Fifteen seats need to flip from Republican to Democratic in order for Democrats to regain the majority. Before the 1994 elections Democrats ruled the House: 258 to 176. After the Gingrich revolution Republicans ruled 230 to 204. It was a stunning election. Forty-four seats shifted, over 10% of the total seats in the House! Only fifteen are needed to change things in 2006. This is very doable with the right message and the right organization. The Senate is less likely to flip. Republicans control the Senate 55 to 44. However it only takes one house of government to flip Democratic and to bring back divided government. And that bollixes up much of the neo-conservative agenda. So as Democrats our focus needs to be on the House of Representatives. 2008 of course offers the opportunity for a presidential election and for the Democrats to retake the White House.

So if this broad discontentment against the President and Congress can be maintained and if the Democrats can present a new coherent plan for America that addresses the actual concerns of moderate America then Democrats can at least begin to move back into political power. On the surface this should not prove that hard to do. Republicans have proven themselves no friend of the middle class. Poll after poll shows that the public understands that Republicans are shifting wealth away from them and into the upper classes. And they don’t like it.

What is needed now is leadership. It is heartening to see liberal blog sites like DailyKos.com come up with a progressive vision for America. Such a vision should clearly contrast what the Democrats will do if given power with what we can assume the Republicans will do if they remain in power.

The difficulty will be coming up with a coherent message that will attract moderate and independent voters. Progressives will be gung ho on issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage. These are important and defining issues for Democrats, but they need to be reframed. Kos did a good job of doing it. However in order to gain political power these issues should not be highlighted. The seven plus or minus two rule should be used. This is the number of different ideas we can keep in our mind at one time about a particular area. Democrats need to focus on items that moderate and independent voters care the most about. This is not a time to be shrilling for gay marriage. We should not be against it, but it should not be highlighted. Pragmatism needs to be the order of the day.

If we let him Howard Dean, the current chairman of the Democratic National Committee, can help us focus on what is important for Democrats to win. It’s important to concentrate on a few important factors that will swing independent voters. If I had to name some I would name universal health insurance, living wages, secure borders, respect for international law and environment-friendly policies as some of them. But these issues should be research driven and focus group tested. And once we have positions they should be hammered relentlessly and embraced widely by Democrats. The contrast of the Democratic vision with the Republicans record should be crystal clear.

But the key to winning this election is also attitude. Newt Gingrich had and continues to have plenty of attitude. Howard Dean has attitude too. Although their philosophies are different Gingrich and Dean are really two of a kind. Having an attitude can be a good thing when leveraged at critical moments. Voters pick up the larger context from attitudes that are poorly expressed in words. The context is simply this: Republicans have bungled big time. It is time for people grounded in real life to run the government again. And this is best communicated through attitude and simple slogans. If we are looking for leadership I trust that Howard Dean will be able to distill it for us into a simple message. We need to be wise enough to trust him.

 
The Thinker

More Thoughts on Love

Why do we love others? Why do we want to feel loved? These are seemingly simple questions with answers that I believe are more complex than they seem. As you might suspect I’ve been pondering love and the meaning of love recently. I’ve actually written about it before. Our angst filled need for love is pervasive. What are ninety percent of the songs on the radio about? Love. Why do we marry? Usually we do it for love. Why do romance books sell more than any other kind of book? Because we enjoy the addictive feeling of a romance and because we know that in real life passionate love is fleeting.

It strikes me as odd that with so much need for love there seems to be so little of it. Or perhaps there is plenty of love, just not enough to keep up with demand. The need for love can be insatiable. It can be a craving. It can be an addiction. If you have ever been fortunate enough to be loved in a way that is meaningful to you then you probably have experienced the crushing feeling when it is withdrawn. Withdrawal from a love relationship can be so painful that many of us will endure relationships that are not loving at all, but offer the illusion of love.

The latest book which has me thinking about love is Harville Hendrix’s well known book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. Hendrix talks a lot about projection, but it was Sigmund Freud who invented the term. Psychological projection happens when we project onto our spouses and significant others our own dark sides that we cannot acknowledge. It’s a bit humbling for many of us to realize that the roots of our romantic conflicts are unresolved issues from our childhood (usually centered on our relationships with our parents). According to Hendrix we are usually attracted to those people who on an unconscious level we realize can help us work through our inadequacies. Generally we sell ourselves on the illusion that our significant other can complete us. It is harder in our romantic haze to see the reality of the person our lover actually is. We know intellectually that our lovers are flawed human beings like ourselves. But it is more intoxicating and certainly more pleasurable for us to believe they fit into us as if they were a perfect puzzle piece.

It is tempting to generalize and suggest that all these love songs have the purpose of regressing our feelings back to our infancy. There was a time when we were truly one combined entity with our mother. In this context love seems not mystical and instead seems like a form of adult thumb sucking. Since we detached from our mothers and realized the world is a complex place we can’t help pine for those moments of intimate connectedness that we did have very early in life. In reality they don’t come again in the same way in adult life unless we accept the illusion that they have occurred. And that illusion seems to be one manifestation of this nebulous entity that we call love.

According to Hendrix many of us do so poorly in our love relationships because we unconsciously use the love patterns that worked for us in infancy. If our spouse isn’t giving us what we need we can imitate what worked for us as a child: cry and mother will come. Crying is not the usual tactic used by adults to get their lover’s attention, but we do it unconsciously in similar ways. We snipe at each other. We withdraw sex. We cut lovers off emotionally. We engage in passive aggressive behavior. Naturally these strategies don’t work very well. The problem is exacerbated rather than worked through.

Yesterday I spent about an hour with my mother, who was in the hospital. My poor mother is 85. Her affliction, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy is reaching a chronic stage. Her home will no longer be the apartment she shared with my father, but likely a nursing home. She requires more care than a 78 year old man can manage. To say the least my mother is having a difficult time accepting the reality of her condition. I could see her rage in fine display last night when I visited. Of course her congestive heart failure exacerbated her symptoms. Her sodium level was likely low and that made her a bit forgetful and a touch paranoid. But the pain from her six broken ribs was real enough. She was a hurting woman who could not begin to care for herself. She let it all out on me. No one had come for hours. She was starving. She needed to be turned because her back hurt. She was dying of thirst. Her half eaten dinner belied sincerity. It didn’t seem that I could do much to make her feel better.

Or could I? I did what I usually do when I visit her in the hospital. Ministers call it “the presence”. Mostly it involves active listening. For me it also involves holding her hand. And stroking her face. And telling her in a calm voice that yes we really do love her. And getting her some water to take care of her thirst. And seeking the aid of her nurse to help move her on her side.

But she also expressed her belief that she was a bad and flawed person. I told her we all have good and bad sides of ourselves. None of us are perfect. Eventually she calmed down. After a while she became embarrassed with her behavior and said that she would be a “good girl”. The heat compress on her ribs helped too. I realized that she may be 85 but she too was working through painful issues from her childhood. I pointed out the many good things she had done, including raising eight wonderful children. In the first days of her marriage she also tended day and night to her mentally ill mother while taking care of her infant daughter.

What I did was reconnect her to her past. I offered a mental balm of sorts. I moved her toward a feeling of oneness with the people in her life. In some sense it was a role reversal. She played the child. I played the parent. Of course her parents are long dead. But she still has the need for that feeling of intimacy that she had during her fleeting infancy. (She was one of 12 children.) I helped her connect with that feeling.

What is love? I believe that love is the force that makes us realize on an emotional level that we are not alone. I believe that love demonstrates that everything that is meaningful in our lives is in the context of a relationship. No wonder for most of us our worst nightmare is to be bereft of family and friends. We do not come into life alone but arrive physically attached to our mother. Nor should we leave this life alone. We need the comfort of meaningful relationships throughout our lives. We are social animals. We can see what happens if you are bereft of friends. At best you become weird. At worst you become the Unibombers or the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world.

Love is about positive emotional connectedness. As autonomous beings we cannot force love. We can only grant it or receive it. It is nothing more than the honest expression of “I acknowledge that you are important to me” and “I may be unworthy because I am not a perfect human being, but I embrace that you care for me anyhow.” Arguably love would not be needed at all if we were perfect.

By its nature then love is destined to often be elusive. But it draws much of its power and meaning from being so elusive and fleeting. Surviving in our modern world is often difficult and full of complex choices. Despite the trappings of modern life we still live in a world of predator and prey. How extraordinary marvelous then that the harshness of life can on occasion be pulled aside and we can feel the power of intimate connectedness and compassion. That is why I believe at its root that love feels so magical.

 
The Thinker

The Point of the Downing Street Memo

A lot of those not on the left side of the political spectrum are shrugging their shoulders about the Downing Street Memo. This memo, first published in the Times of London on May 1st, 2005, said that the Bush Administration in 2002 was “fixing” intelligence and facts around their predetermined policy to preemptively invade Iraq. Their attitude seems to be, “Yeah, tell me something I didn’t already know.”

And I agree. This certainly wasn’t news to me, even before the war. The Washington Post, for example, in a recent editorial stated that it didn’t bother to report on the Downing Street Memo recently because back in 2002 it had reported similar stories. That we were going to war with Iraq clearly didn’t require an abacus. You don’t amass hundreds of thousands of troops in Kuwait at a cost of billions of dollars unless you intend to use them.

That’s why it was especially infuriating to those tuned into the facts at the time that Bush and his team kept insisting in 2002 and early 2003 that war was not inevitable. Bush’s consistent words have been cataloged here and many other places.

The issue is not that the facts on the ground were at variance with words being spoken by Bush and his officials. The issue is that even though there was this great discrepancy between Bush’s words and his intent, he lied about it. It’s really that simple. He lied publicly, openly, brazenly and frequently to the Congress and to the American public about his intentions in Iraq.

Clinton was impeached for lying about receiving a blowjob from an intern. Yet curiously George W. Bush doesn’t even get the threat of impeachment for repeatedly lying about his intentions in Iraq. Maybe it was because we knew we were being lied to. I knew it. You probably did too. I think the Congress did too. Everyone was winking at each other. We knew that calling off the war if Saddam peaceably disarmed was a polite fiction.

Still the President lied. More importantly he went against the written intent of Congress. For in the Iraq War Resolution there is this:

(a) AUTHORIZATION- The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to

(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and

(2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.

We now know that our own intelligence agencies were telling him that Iraq was not a threat to the United States. In fact it couldn’t have been a threat at all, unless Saudi Arabia and Israel are now part of the United States. Please note the use of the word “and” in the resolution. While arguably Iraq had not abided by all U.N. Security Council Resolutions that by itself was insufficient justification by the Congress for war against Iraq. War was authorized to defend the United States from the threat posed by Iraq. If there was no threat then there was no justification for war.

Nowhere in the resolution does it authorize war against Iraq because we want to free the Iraqi people from a sadistic dictator. Nowhere does it say it must be done to bring democracy to the Iraqi people. The criteria are clear: war was authorized if our national security is in danger. You can be sure that had they been the criteria for war against Iraq that it would not have garnered more than a handful of votes.

So the evidence is clear: the President lied to Congress and the American people. If his intent was not malicious and he thought the evidence truly justified invasion even though it didn’t, then he is incompetent. In either case he failed spectacularly in his duty as Commander in Chief.

So here we are more than two years later. Over 1700 of our servicemen and women have died in the Iraq conflict. More than 10,000 are wounded. Going to war is the most serious decision that a president can make. But Bush bungled the decision spectacularly. He did so against the preponderance of evidence. But if the Downing Street Memo is correct, it was not done inadvertently. It was done deliberately, even maliciously. And this too is not news either. The whole purpose of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s Office of Special Plans was to give him the “intelligence” that he needed. The CIA, DIA and NSA could not provide it. The Office of Special Plans was set up to deliberately lower the intelligence standards to provide what Rumsfeld was looking for. So of course intelligence and facts were being fixed around the intelligence.

So what do you do with a president that brazenly lies to Congress and the American people about going to war, who then takes the country to war illegally, and who won’t take seriously intelligence that doesn’t fit his own preconceptions? In any other Congress there would be articles of impeachment. If on a scale of 1 to 100, a president lying about a blowjob is about a 5. A president lying or misleading the country into a war that kills thousands of our citizens is 100. If this Congress were brave enough to do its duty he would be impeached, convicted and be clearing brush now in Crawford, Texas.

It’s unlikely though that this will be this president’s fate. But in the list of catastrophically stupid and egregious presidential decisions this one, if not in first place, would be in the top five. A president this incompetent deserves not one moment of our support. He has earned nothing but our complete and utter contempt.

 
The Thinker

The Problem with SiteMeter

Okay this is a problem that probably means I am anal but it bugs me. I’ve been monitoring this site since March 2004 with SiteMeter. It’s a nice little service, particularly since I don’t have to pay for it. It’s fun to look at SiteMeter and see what people are looking at on my blog. It’s nice to know what interests them, what doesn’t, and how many pages they looked at while they are at my blog. For a few snippets of HTML in my MovableType templates I can get this information fairly easily. So can you. Look for the little SiteMeter icon at the bottom of my pages.

Lately though my traffic, as measured by SiteMeter has been down. Way down. These things happen. The gods of Google can give and they can take. About 80% of my traffic comes from keyword searches, usually using Google. Perhaps last year when I was heavy into writing political blog entries my site was more likely to get noticed. But my political entries are fewer and further between. Why? Mostly because others say it much better than I do. It is hard to come up with a unique perspective or new political thoughts these days. Also it’s easier to strike out if you make political predictions. I’ve made some great calls and I’ve made some lousy calls. But s’okay. No one gets them all. And I suspect I am doing better than most political prognosticators.

Still it’s reasonable to wonder what’s going on. Based on Sitemeter my blog has been nearly flushed down the toilet. A month or so ago according to SiteMeter I was averaging two hundred or more page views per day. Lately I’ve gone down to as low as thirty page views per day. Perhaps with summer coming on people have other distractions. Or it could be that SiteMeter is doing a lousy job of monitoring my web site.

I am virtually certain it is the latter. Because my domain is hosted I have access to the actual web server logs. My web host offers two packages that summarize my web log information for me, Webalizer and Awstats. Awstats is the better package so when I want to use it that’s the one I use.

Here is my latest SiteMeter monthly chart showing visits and page views over the last month:

SiteMeter Statistics

And for the record here are my statistics from Webalizer since June 1st. Note that both Webalizer and Awstats seem to aggregate the statistics only once a day. That makes sense since it is probably pretty CPU intensive. It is one of the reasons that the SiteMeter solution sounded like a better solution. Its reports are all generated dynamically from a database.

Sitemeter Statistics

Finally here is my Awstats report for June to date:

Awstats Statistics

So what’s going on? Let’s take a few same dates and compare statistics. On June 1st according to SiteMeter I had about 165 page views. Webalizer reports 976 page views, Awstats shows 926. It could be that I was serving pages that were not metered. But every blog page, with the exception of certain comment pages, is SiteMetered. One thing I realized digging into it is that a log of people read my blog through newsreaders. You can’t add SiteMeter HTML code to an XML document, which is basically what a syndicated newsfeed file is. So SiteMeter never sees those requests. About 15% of my page views are to my index.rdf newsfeed page. My Atom newsfeed gets about 5% of my total page views. So for sure SiteMeter is not seeing 20% of the people visiting my web site.

It may also be that search engines spend a lot of time trolling my pages inflating my page view count. I have 1153 “hits” from search engines for the month to date out of a total of 5374 page views. I suspect Awstats and Webalizer are smart enough to subtract them from my page view counts. But if not about 21% of my page views are search engines trolling content, not actual humans reading my content.

You can read the statistics. On June 6th SiteMeter said I had around 165 page views. Webalizer said 398. Awstats said 354. On June 12th Sitemeter said about 60, Webalizer 343 and Awstats said 277.

Awstats and Webalizer are reading from the same source: my Apache web server log. It is curious that they come up with different numbers. You would expect them to be identical. I suspect that they each measure successful visits and page views differently. It is also possible that each calculates on different time zones. Webalizer though routinely shows more visits and page views than Awstats. Perhaps it includes unsuccessful page views it is totals.

But overall, either because not all my pages have SiteMeter code on them, or because SiteMeter is not capturing all the information (or some combination of both), SiteMeter underreported my actual page views by 82% on June 1st, 53% on June 6th and 78% on June 12th.

Here’s what I think is going on. Granted SiteMeter can only record pages with SiteMeter HTML on it. But this is probably no more than 25% of the pages being served. Given this it is likely that SiteMeter is not recording huge numbers of visits and page views that I am getting. Why? Well, embedded in my HTML for a blog entry is a URL that traverses the Internet back to sitemeter.com. Your browser essentially “pings” a SiteMeter server reporting the page being served on my site, and other information. It could be the Internet is busy and the “ping” doesn’t go through from the client computer. It could be the client computer has some software that prohibits these “pings” from getting out. (This is unlikely.) But it’s most likely that most of these “pings” actually reach the SiteMeter computer but it is not recording them. Why? Probably it is because SiteMeter can’t keep up with them all. It seems that everyone and their grandmother is SiteMetering their web pages these days.

Conclusion: SiteMeter’s numbers vastly underreport your actual visits and page views. Since most of us are getting it for free we shouldn’t be surprised. I know enough now at least not to be foolish enough to pay them money for advanced features. I will keep SiteMetering my site for the present. But now that I’ve delved into the matter I am confident that its numbers are pretty meaningless. I think this is a problem with any hosted (external) statistics service. Your web server log, if you can access it, is going to be accurate. Trust your server log and your web host’s statistics program and treat SiteMeter with a ton of salt.

 

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