We love dirty laundry

It’s a strange time for the newspaper industry — especially here in Maine, where we recently witnessed several seismic shifts in the media landscape.

Hedge fund financier and philanthropist Donald Sussman said he wanted to save a Maine institution and will keep his hands off the wheel of editorial decisions. (Bangor Daily News Photo)

Yesterday it was announced that Donald Sussman’s investor group will now own a 75 percent stake in the company that publishes the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Waterville Morning Sentinel and the Maine Sunday Telegram.

That’s all fine and dandy, except for one small twist: Sussman’s wife just happens to be Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and she shows no sign of leaving Maine’s First Congressional District anytime in the near future.

Sure, Sussman says he has only the best  of  intentions, and adamantly vows that he will not interfere with the newspapers’ editorial process. Yeah, okay…whatever. For the record, I actually have a full-head of hair.

I was lucky to work for a family-owned group of weekly newspapers. David & Carolyn Flood gave me a very long leash, but I was never foolish enough to forget that I was on a leash. The Courier was not my paper.

There were many times when my editorials and opinion columns came nowhere close to matching the opinions of my employers, but they sighed…rolled their eyes…and kept giving me a paycheck. For better or worse, I was promoted three times during the seven years I worked for David and Carolyn.

My salary steadily increased and the newspaper thrived. The Courier was the paper of record in Biddeford and Saco, but I always knew I had a boss…heck, sometimes I even paid attention to David.

But all good things come to an end, and it remains to be seen whether the Press Herald or smaller weekly papers such as the Courier will continue to survive in this brave new world of digital media.

Regardless of the financial implications of producing dead-tree news, the Press Herald and its sister publications have crossed a murky line, despite the financial necessity of the decision.

It’s a tough call. Do you fold, and allow a historical institution to become nothing more than a memory? Do you surrender and send hundreds of employees to the unemployment line?

Or do you hold your nose and make a deal with the devil?

I’m sure Donald Sussman is a nice enough guy. I’ve never met him. But regardless of his Boy Scout oath to be ethical, every story that involves his wife, her decisions or her detractors will now be tainted with lingering doubt.

In November 2010, the Portland Press Herald surprised many of its readers by endorsing Republican Dean Scontras over Pingree during her campaign for a second term. If that happened now, we would have to wonder whether such a stance was motivated by an editorial board trying to make a public statement about its objectivity.

Journalists bristle when discussing ethical standards, so I do not envy the dilemma now faced by the reporters and editors at Maine Today Media.  No matter what lines they feed themselves before going to bed each night, each one of them also knows that they also are on a leash . . . a very tenuous leash.

But before you criticize reporters being on a leash, consider the plight earlier this month for the more than 50 employees at the Village Soup newspaper who were laid off when that group of weekly newspapers suddenly closed.

Being off the leash feels good, right up until you discover that you no longer have a bone to chew.

Like a heat wave

Did you enjoy your summer? I hope so, because now we return you to your regularly scheduled weather for late March in southern Maine.

There was rampant speculation about last week’s freakish heat wave, an anomaly that shattered local meteorological records and sent scores of disappointed people to Old Orchard Beach in search of Pier Fries.

Some folks opined that increasing solar flares from the sun were to blame. Others said fiery rhetoric from presidential hopeful Rick Santorum was dramatically increasing gaseous emissions and further eroding our fragile ozone.

And, of course, global-warming alarmist were out in full force, smugly announcing that the much-anticipated end of the world is now in full swing.

But leave it to those crazy Brits to get to the meat of the story.

Apparently, the earth has a long track record of warming and then cooling. It’s a cycle that’s been going on for centuries, long before rednecks like me were driving F-150s to suburban shopping malls in pursuit of consumer electronics and plastic bags.

If you don’t believe me, check this story in London’s Daily Mail newspaper, which reported a new study that throws a monkey wrench into the global climate change debate.

According to the story, a team of scientists led by geochemist Zunli Lu from Syracuse University found that contrary to the ‘consensus’, the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ approximately 500 to 1,000 years ago wasn’t just confined to Europe — it extended to Antarctica.

Now there’s an inconvenient truth that ought to be as easy to understood as a trip to Peaks Island.

We had an Ice Age long before we had SUVs. Peaks and all the other islands in Casco Bay were created long ago when southerly flowing glaciers carved out the island masses.

Even in Greenville, Maine — arguably the state’s greenest community, there is evidence of historical global warming: it’s called Moosehead Lake.

We have a moral obligation to be good stewards of our natural resources; and none of this should justify industrial pollution or irresponsible human behavior.

It’s just that you should remember that there is an agenda to the global warming hysteria. It’s a belief that individuals should not get to choose how much energy they use. Other people want to tell you how you should heat your home, what kind of car you should drive and what type of lightbulbs you can use.

Look, if it helps you sleep at night by driving a Prius… knock yourself out. If you want mercury-laced, curly lightbulbs in your kids’ playroom — have at it.

But don’t think that any of that is going to fundamentally change the planet’s natural evolution.

Earth’s climate has been changing since the beginning of time.  To think that you can save the planet is the height of arrogance. The planet will change with or without you.

If you want credibility, then lead by example: ditch your car, buy a bicycle and get off Facebook….computers are made of petroleum-based products and they consume gobs of electricity.

If only the Neanderthals had Twitter, maybe they could have stopped those damned glaciers.

But then, where would I drive my boat?

Moosehead Lake, Maine

Global warming has been good to me—even if only to give my furnace and my wallet a much-needed break during the final days of winter.

More fun facts about “global warming” here

We don’t need no education

Molly Lovell-Keely, editor of the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier, thinks parents should pay more taxes than non-parents to fund public schools.

In her March 22 opinion column, Lovell-Keely concedes that she’s taking what will likely be an unpopular stance, but doesn’t hesitate to continue blathering about the pitfalls of public education funding.

“If I had my way, people with children would pay more taxes than those without and the more children you have, the more taxes you would pay,” Lovell Keely writes.

Beyond her horrid sentence structure, there is an amazing lack of logic in Lovell-Keely’s analysis.

For starters, she fails to explain exactly how we would collect more property taxes from parents who do not own property.

But let’s say we could squeeze some extra money from these apartment-dwelling, non-property-tax-paying residents, is it Lovell-Keely’s opinion that only children whose parents can afford to pay the additional tax burden deserve a “public” education?

If so, what’s the point of public schools?

Lovell-Keely continues butchering the English language with this tidbit: “

You can talk to me about the greater good and how children will grow up to contribute to the society I live in, but I still won’t change my mind, not right now at least.”

As I continued reading Lovell-Keely’s column, two thoughts dominated my thinking.

1.) Did she got school? and 2.) This “editor” would benefit mightily from a copy editor.

Lovell-Keely tells us that she is not an anti-tax crusader, best evidenced by this gem of a sentence:

“I’m happy to pay for fire and police services and I would always support the public works department if it needed a new garage or equipment.”

Lovell-Keely tells us she does not have biological children, and then dazzles us with another dose of sixth-grade logic when explaining that her husband would have to pay more taxes because he has a school-aged child.

Someone needs to tell Lovell-Keely how public school funding works.

It’s certainly understandable that taxpayers have concerns about the soaring cost of public education, but you’re being more than short-sighted if you don’t understand the admittedly intangible benefits of public education.

Taxation is a touchy issue, but the solution is not a pay-for-service structure. If that’s the case, I want a rebate on my property tax bill. I did not call the fire department last year. I did not use the city’s general assistance office. I did not need the police, nor did I require the services of the planning board.

If our community is better because we have adequate infrastructure, then aren’t we better if we have good schools that are accessible to all residents? If only people with children should pay more taxes, should college kids pay more to attend publicly funded colleges and universities?

My state taxes help support the University of Maine system. My kids will be going to Harvard, so screw everyone else. I only want to pay for what I use.

Thankfully, I don’t have to pay for the Courier. It’s free, and it’s worth it.

Stupid is as stupid does

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” — Benjamin Franklin

When we become adults we no longer need our parents to make critical decisions in our lives. We are free to fail, free to succeed, and yes…even free to be flat-out stupid.

Adolph Hitler’s pursuit of a ‘more perfect world” included a government campaign against smoking and the individual right to bear arms….among other things.

Freedom, however, does not come without risks and costs, especially when it comes to our rights to wallow in pure stupidity.

But what line should our government draw between an individual’s desire to exercise his or her inalienable right to stupidity and the protection of other citizens from those stupid choices?

The Biddeford City Council is just half an inch away from enacting an ordinance that will prevent residents from using fireworks anywhere in the city.

The council’s decision follows on the heels of a recent reversal in state law that now allows the sale, use and distribution of fireworks. But the new state law also stipulates that individual communities may set their own standards regarding the use, sale and possession of fireworks.

By allowing individual communities to establish their own fireworks ordinances,  a resident of Bangor could –theoretically — have more freedom than a resident of Biddeford.

Some animals, apparently, are more equal than other animals.

Laura being stupid with sparklers, in direct violation of state park policy

My wife, Laura, is a member of the city council’s Policy Committee. She and other members of the committee voted unanimously in favor of the city’s ban on the use of fireworks.

When asked why she voted in favor of the ban, Laura explained that the majority of residents who testified before her committee supported the ban. Furthermore, she said, the local ban was adamantly supported by both the city’s police chief and the fire chief.

It makes sense to me that government officials, such as the police and fire chief, would want to ensure public safety by having greater control over public activities. In a sense, this is the fundamental and  appropriate role of government: to provide for the public’s general welfare.

For example, the city is not infringing upon its residents’ Second Amendment rights by enforcing a policy that limits the use of shotguns in certain parts of the city; nor is the city infringing upon its residents’ First Amendment rights by limiting public comments at city council meetings to five minutes.

Reasonable people can agree that individual rights have some limits. Your freedom of speech does not allow you to scream “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater.

But then again, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and what do we do about all the stupid people and their stupid choices?

It is a slippery slope with grave consequences that should be weighed carefully.

On July 4 1978,  I violated state law, local ordinances and the core elements of common sense by using a Roman Candle — a type of firework device that launches brilliant shots of exploding matter into a brilliant, although brief, display of color and sound.

I was 14 years old, and I nearly blew off my testicles by holding the tube improperly while sitting on the front stairs of my childhood home.

I lit the fuse and pointed the tube across the street, toward the parking lot of the Armory building on Franklin Street in Saco, then the home of 133rd Engineering Batallion.

Fortunately, there was an adult present who saw that the fuse was pointed toward my crotch.

“Hey, turn it around!” he screamed just before the tiny balls of fire began jettisoning toward my own tiny balls of fire.

Obviously, I survived the incident and learned a valuable lesson about protecting my genitals.

Under today’s standards, however, I would have been prosecuted by the Department of Homeland Security for firing upon a federal facility, and my parents would have been charged with child endangerment.

But it all turned out fine. For better or worse, my testicles remained in tact, and I went on to make many more stupid choices.

Stupidity is the cornerstone of innovation, and it’s a trademark of America and our willingness to take risks, make mistakes and ultimately succeed.

Imagine strolling on a North Carolina beach in the early 1900s and watching as two brothers played with a “flying machine.” How stupid! Those men think humans can fly like the birds!

Go back further in history. How much sense did it make for a bunch of disgruntled farmers to take on the world’s most powerful army in a rebellion against a mighty throne?

And what about the stupidity of Columbus, and his epic failure to find a new route to India?

Acts of stupidity and risky behavior provide us with tremendous value and opportunities. More importantly, our right to be stupid is inextricably linked to our pursuit of happiness.

Therefore we ought to be damned careful as we set out to create a utopian society. After all, Adolph Hitler was one of the world’s most outspoken critics of smoking.

In fact, Hitler went after the smokers long before he set his sights on private gun ownership and the Jews.

Thus, whenever government infringes on our God-given right to be as dumb as a door-knob, it ought to include much deliberation and considerable thought and debate about the unintended consequences of such legislative endeavors.

Defining stupidity is nearly impossible. Beauty, after all,  is in the eye of the beholder.

Do you think the government should tell you what is okay to eat? Do you think the government should dictate who you can marry? Would you prefer that the government provides your health care, your housing and your food? Can you imagine the consequences?

How dependent are you prepared to be? How much of your liberty are you willing to sacrifice for your security?

Fireworks have become a symbol and trademark of our liberty. They define our brilliance, our diversity and our strength as a nation. They remind us of the explosions that had far greater consequences more than 200 years ago.

It would not be hard for the city to set some reasonable guidelines for the use of fireworks. We could establish acceptable hours of use. We could set policies that include where the use of fireworks is permissible, such as a required 20-foot setback from a neighbor’s property.

In America, you have the right to define the course of your life, and that means you have the right to be stupid.

If we don’t stand for stupidity, then what will we stand for?

The Biddeford City Council will hold a second reading on its proposed fireworks ordinance on Tuesday, April 3.

Boys and chain saws

As I continue building my case for the power of stupidity, I submit further evidence that liberty is often as much fun as it is precious.

Want to make a 16-year-old boy smile? Hand him a chainsaw.

Things did not go exactly as planned.

But that’s the beauty of stupidity, the opportunity to figure things out; the foundation of failure that often leads to success…or at least the cleansing of the gene pool.

Note: We did not intend for the tree to fall into the pond, nor did we intend for my father-in law to be rolling around in the back yard.

But we learned, kept going and successfully took down three more trees.

Yup, stupid can be defined as climbing up a 24-foot ladder, wearing shorts and slippers with a cigarette dangling out of your mouth and a chainsaw in your hand.

I have health insurance. It was my risk, but are you okay with it being your risk?

God bless, stupidity!

More soon!

I don’t wanna be right

The most vocal supporters of President Obama’s push to reform our nation’s health care system will invariably say that health care is a “fundamental right.”

The so-called “right to affordable health care” has become the mantra and favorite talking point for those who say health care in the United States ought to look a lot more like it does in other countries, including Canada, Norway, Sweden or Denmark.

These folks generally support a single-payer system of health care, which resembles the current Medicaid program and effectively eliminates the need for private insurance.

But is health care — or even access to health care — a right?

In our first installment (Money for Nothing), we followed up on questions posed by Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant on his Facebook page:

So the moral question is: What should a society do in such situations? What should government do? Do we act, or do we allow the laws of Darwin to supersede our compassion, integrity and our humanity? The system is broken. . .”

Although we previously discussed the difference between health “insurance” and health “care,” Casavant’s questions also beg a discussion about where morality and government should — or should not — intersect.

Casavant’s questions also prompt a more focused pondering of how our nation defines “rights.”

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is probably a good place to start when examining the concept, definition and limitations of “rights” held by the American people:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Reading that sentence it becomes crystal clear our nation’s Founders understood basic rights come from a higher power than government. And this is a fundamental point.

Government cannot bestow rights; otherwise government can take away rights.

Your rights are yours, with or without a government.

The government’s limited role, as defined by both the Declaration and the ensuing Constitution, is to secure and defend your individual rights as part of a much larger group.

But the Declaration of Independence also opens the door for a legitimate discussion and debate  about other “rights” beyond Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, which are described as being “among” other, non-specified rights.

The argument for health care as a right gained further legitimacy when our Founders drafted the Constitution. It is within this document that our Founders more fully explored the concept of government’s appropriate role in promoting the “general welfare.”

Although the subject of health care is not discussed in either the Declaration or the Constitution, it could be reasonably construed as much of a “right” as public education — another topic not specifically discussed in those documents.

During our nation’s formative years, there was no such thing as public education. Education was reserved for the privileged few who could afford it.

Today, however, most people generally agree that our nation is better off when our citizens have — at minimum — a certain level of education.

Although our nation continues to grapple and debate public education funding, those costs and the ensuing delivery system is much easier to control than the cost and delivery of health care.

And here’s where it gets really tricky.

If we declare health care as a “right,” how does that impact your other rights as an individual?

If the government provides your healthcare from cradle to grave, then does it not follow that the government can dictate your health choices and even many of your lifestyle choices?

If we allow government to take care of us, are we not abdicating our individual pursuit of happiness?

I moved out of my parents’ home because I was ready to enjoy my adult freedoms. I wanted to come and go as I pleased. I wanted to make my own choices about what I eat, when and where I sleep and all the other benefits of freedom.

If my pursuit of happiness includes a poor diet that includes a daily regimen of Big Macs and French Fries, are you responsible to help pay the cost of my inevitable need for a heart transplant?

We have established standards and limitations for public education.

We accept the fact that not every child will be able to attend Harvard or Yale. Of course, you have the “right” to apply, but those universities also have the right to reject your application.

If you want to make the moral case for public health care, what happens when your health care contradicts your neighbors rights to his/her religious beliefs?

During the Vietnam war, even our military made accommodations for drafted citizens to be conscientious objectors. If you are Catholic, should you be required to help pay for abortions and contraceptives?

Where do your rights as an individual end — or start — in a society that provides you with health care?

How much of your liberty are you willing to sacrifice for your safety?

One of the most ardent opponents of smoking was Adolph Hitler, a man who envisioned a nation of supreme and physically fit citizens. Mentioning Hitler in this debate is intended to be inflammatory, only if to give us pause.

If you have the right to health care, does that mean that other people should financially support that right? If so, are there any limitations to how much health care any one individual wants or needs?

These are legitimate questions and not very convenient for either side of the debate.

If we propose that health care is a right, then we will need to completely reconstruct our health care system. We would have public doctors and nurses, whose employment contracts and salaries are negotiated by the government — just like teachers.

We would also have public health care clinics that are less desirable than their private counterparts.

In the end, those with money would have better access to service than those without money.

Sound familiar?

The hypocrisy found in these arguments is overwhelming.

We want our choices. We want our freedom, but we would prefer that the consequences of our individual choices are funded — at least in part — by other people.

Maybe it’s just time to move back in with mom and dad.

If you would like to further explore the arguments for and against the concept of health care as a right, you may want to visit this website.

Money for nothing

August 2009: Large crowds in Portsmouth, NH, protest outside a high school where President Obama speaks about the need for health care reform.

Anyone with a pulse and an IQ exceeding room temperature can likely agree that our nation’s health care system is seriously flawed.

But that’s generally where the agreement stops.

That’s why I was impressed when Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant posed a series of observations about Maine’s own raging health care debate on his Facebook page.

Casavant is also a member of the Maine House of Representatives, and his comments were based on his observations during a legislative hearing about how best to address rising health care costs.

“Clearly, resentment [of] the Obama plan drives a lot of these bills,” Casavant noted, referring to the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009.

“For some, the costs of treatment and medicine exceed their ability to pay,” he said. “So the moral question is: What should a society do in such situations? What should government do? Do we act, or do we allow the laws of Darwin to supersede our compassion, integrity and our humanity? The system is broken. . .”

I applaud Casavant for raising the topic, but submit that our health care system is NOT broken, it is fixed . . . meaning it is rigged.

Our current system is either outdated and ineffective, at best ; or it is favorably geared toward an ever shrinking pool of those who can afford to keep up with skyrocketing costs.

Are you with me, so far? Good; because this is where the debate gets tricky.

Before we proceed any further, we must agree to at least one basic fact, regardless of our individual political/cultural/socio-economic viewpoints.

Health “care” and health “insurance” are completely different topics that are too often linked at the hip.

Let’s start with health insurance.

If you drive a vehicle in Maine, you are required by law to have a minimum-liability insurance policy. This law exists to protect drivers who are harmed by another driver’s neglect or carelessness.

Driving, as the state of Maine tells all new drivers, is a privilege, not a right.

I will take that a step further and say that health “insurance” is also not a right.

Laura and I scored tickets to see President Obama speak about the need for health care reform in 2009. Then, just as it is now, we both had reservations about the president's plan. Laura tried to ask a question, but she and many others did not get picked.

The argument about whether health care is a right remains a bit more ambiguous, but let’s remember we’re now discussing health “insurance,” not health “care.”

The discussion about rights and expectations have only been muddied by the nation’s new health care law, which mandates individuals to purchase health insurance in the private marketplace.

The so-called “individual mandate” is one of the more controversial aspects of the health care reform law signed by President Obama. That issue is scheduled to be deliberated by the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Interestingly, critics of the individual mandate can be found from both the left and right side of the political spectrum.

Conservatives argue that the individual mandate further erodes personal liberty and crosses the sacrosanct line between personal choice and government mandates.

On the other hand, more progressive Democrats — especially those who pined for a public option or a single-payer system of healthcare reform — describe the individual mandate as nothing more than a very big gift for evil insurance companies that stand to gain millions of new customers.

But all that debate and Constitutional introspection pales in comparison to the more fiery rhetoric associated with the subject of health insurance profits.

Left-leaning groups, such as ACORN and HCAN (Health Care for America Now) say that corporate, for-profit health insurance profits are skyrocketing and have quadrupled over the past few years.

It’s a favorite talking point of progressive Democrats and very handy when whipping up grassroots mobilization to support the president, but it’s not entirely accurate — although rated as “mostly true” by PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning organization established by the Tampa Bay Times to fact check political rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the health insurance industry is crying poverty, saying their profit margins are among the lowest of any industry in the United States — ranging between two and four percent.

So, which one is right?

Unfortunately, the inconvenient truth is that both groups are a little bit right, and a lot wrong.

And that is bad news for those of us trying to navigate the turbulent waters of this complex debate.

But simply blaming “greedy” insurance companies conveniently ignores too many other factors that drive health care costs. Moreover, such rhetoric is debatable, at best; and intentionally misleading at worst,

Rick Newman, chief business correspondent for US News & World Report, makes a compelling  case about why health insurance companies make lousy villains, pointing out that profits are hardly the root of a much larger and complex problem.

“Overall, the profit margin for health insurance companies was a modest 3.4 percent over the past year, according to data provided by Morningstar. That ranks 87th out of 215 industries and slightly above the median of 2.2 percent,”  Newman reports.

Despite my right-leaning, free-market beliefs, I admit to being somewhat conflicted on this issue, and that’s probably because my household is knee-deep in our own health-insurance nightmare.

Laura does a good job of managing her illness, but there is no escaping that MS is a progressive illness that will never go away and only get worse over time.

My wife, Laura, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just three days after Christmas in 2008. Her disease is never going to go away. It is never going into remission. It takes a little piece of her each day, even when we don’t notice it.

I also have a chronic disease, one that gets a lot less sympathy than MS, cancer, epilepsy or diabetes. For more than 25 years, I bounced in and out of psychiatric hospitals all across the country, ringing up thousands of dollars in debt because I had no health insurance.

Neither of us asked for our respective illness. We both work full-time. We pay our taxes, but we are also a health insurance company’s worst nightmare…we take out a lot more than we put in to the system.

If you’re a conservative, Tea-Party Republican, you are advised now to reach for the duct tape because otherwise your head may explode when I offer up this next tidbit:

You are paying a portion of our health insurance.

Laura is a state employee and thus, we are more than lucky to have an outstanding health insurance plan that is offered to all state employees and their immediate family members.

But even if Laura lost her job, and we relied upon a more traditional (and much more expensive) private health insurance plan, you would still be paying for our health insurance.

Why? Because in our current system, healthy Americans subsidize the costs of treatment for the ill. That is the fundamental core of the individual mandate: we need more young, healthy people in the system to offset the cost of treating older and sicker Americans.

I am not a big fan of the individual mandate – beyond the Constitutional arguments, I think the system unfairly penalizes healthy people and will do little to drive down the costs of health care.

There is a lot more to cover, but I will end this installment here and borrow Casavant’s closing observation from his Facebook post: Stalemate [on this issue] is unacceptable.

Next installment: Health Care: Is it a right?