Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Walking the Walk

The Planetwalker's Commonwealth Club appearance in Silicon Valley was postponed, and it's too bad – we'll miss hearing from the legendary John Francis PhD. He's one of those people who helped build the Bay Area's international reputation and character.

Alongside other luminaries of the Bay Area's environmental movement like Paul Hawken, Dr. Martin Griffin, Jr., or the great Mrs. Elizabeth Terwilliger (to name only a few), Dr. Francis tackled and brought to light a challenging and sad aspect of our society.

He's best known for a personal saga. But that amazing story sometimes clouds a deeper message, so Hawken's work at the intersection of environment and commerce is further illuminated by Francis' writing.

Periodically mucking-up our oceans, beaches and marine life is a cost of doing business these days, and the global shipping industry grows ever-more ponderous without scrutiny. The container ship that struck the Bay Bridge in late 2007, leaked some 58,000 gallons of bunker oil into the bay, illustrating that point most recently. But that spill is one of many, and seems minor when compared to the 1971 spill that unfolded after two oil tankers collided beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel.

Ports in Oakland and Long Beach rank among the most heavily trafficked in western North America, insuring that the treasured marine sanctuaries just off our coastline will continue to serve double duty as “on-ramps to the global economy.”

Francis' story reminds us that our willingness to regulate polluting industries – such as shipping – is constrained by our dependence on imported goods. Critics like Francis pin some of the blame for these environmental catastrophes on ship pilots or greedy executives, but their livelihoods are fueled by consumer demand. John Francis is out to change that.

Check out his latest books or watch his TED presentation below.

And keep an eye on The Commonwealth Club's program listings for your chance to hear him in person.

– A. Shaw

Wild Animals Face a Tough Road Ahead


Actress and activist Bo Derek (above left) and Peter Knights prepare for their Commonwealth Club program on protecting wildlife. Photo by Riki Rafner.

Last week in New York City, a majority of the City Council members signed their support for a bill that would prohibit “the display of wild or exotic animals for public entertainment or amusement.” writes Jennifer Lee of The New York Times. This bill has passed through the offices of New York City legislators before without much luck, but it recently received a new influx of attention centered around the Ringling Brothers circus. The Ringling Brothers circus arrived in New York City last week, just days after the closing arguments in a federal lawsuit charging the Ringling Brothers circus with violating the Endangered Species Act by mistreating their Asian Elephants.

The animals that make up the Ringling Brothers circus are of course only “wild” in the loosest sense of the term. In fact, the numbers of these animals actually alive in the wild are quickly declining. Recently, Bo Derek and Peter Knights came to The Commonwealth Club to talk about illegal wildlife trade. Knights, executive director of WildAid, and Derek, an active member of the WildAid board, discussed the wildlife black market, thriving due to the high demand for these animals, or parts of these animals, for food, medicine or pets. If New York City were to pass this bill, it could help to reduce the demand for exotic pets, because exhibiting them could no longer be used as a source of income, and in effect could help increase their numbers in the wild. It would also prevent the Ringling Brothers circus, and any other form of entertainment that used wild or exotic animals, from performing in the city.

Some people see the Ringling Brothers circus as a way to keep endangered species alive. At this point many species rely on captive breeding programs of some kind to survive, but there seems to be a large moral dilemma surrounding just how to go about keeping these species around. Michelle Prado, the lead lawyer for the Ringling Brothers in the federal lawsuit, argued that at this point “There is no wild,” and without the captive breeding of these animals they would die off completely. John Phillips, the executive director of the New York League of Humane Voters, which is a strong supporter of the New York City bill, contended that breeding these animals in sanctuaries is far different from breeding them for the circus. “If they wanted to stay in Florida and breed the elephants and try to run a conservation center,” Phillips said, “that would be a completely different story.”

The quality of the animals’ lives, not just life itself, seems a central part of the work to keep alive dying species. Because of this, many zoos have had to rethink the appropriateness of exhibiting certain species. Elephants specifically have been phased out of many zoos due to their inability to thrive in a zoo environment. “Just as polar bears don't thrive in a hot climate, Asian elephants shouldn't live in small groups without many acres to roam," said Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan when the Detroit Zoo closed its elephant exhibit in 2005. Both the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Francisco Zoo have dealt with much controversy over their elephant exhibits. The Los Angeles Zoo recently received permission to finish building its new six-acre elephant exhibit, but a condition placed on the San Francisco Zoo stating that any new elephant exhibit must be at least 15-acres means that The City by the Bay will likely never house elephants again.

Wildlife advocates such as Derek and Knights seemed to be in constant battles with the Bush administration over laws passed that allowed for businesses to take far fewer environmental precautions. Especially upsetting to them was a Bush administration midnight regulation that allowed federal agencies to “in many cases rely on their own personnel in deciding what impact a project would have on a fish, bird, plant, animal or insect protected under the Endangered Species Act,” rather than having to consult independent wildlife biologists and pass the usual checks by the Fish and Wildlife Service. But on March 3, 2009, to much applause from the environmental and wildlife communities, President Obama overturned this regulation.

Wild animals, both free and captive, are basically at the whim of humanity. Their survival and their quality of life depend on us, and there are still many questions about the best ways to handle the massive problem of extinction many species now face. Bo Derek and Peter Knights hoped to use their event at The Commonwealth Club to call attention to this plight and to educate consumers on the enormous power they have to take a stand against the mistreatment and illegal trade of wild animals. “As a voter you only get to vote every four years, but as a consumer you get to vote on the kind of world you want every day.” Knights said. “In all of your consumption decisions, you can shape the world we live in.”

To listen to the Bo Derek and Peter Knights talk, click here, you can purchase the audio of the event here.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Obama Ousts Wagoner from GM

President Barack Obama has reportedly requested and received GM CEO Rick Wagoner's immediate exit from the company he's headed for nine years (and where he's been employed for three decades).

The move comes one day before Monday's announcement by the White House of its plans for the auto industry, which has received billions of dollars in aid from taxpayers but has not yet satisfied the Obama administration's criteria for submitting a workable recovery plan. Chrysler and GM have between them taken $17.4 billion in government money, and they're seeking more than $21 billion more.

When Wagoner made a high-profile speech to The Commonwealth Club less than a year ago, on May 1, 2008, the executive touted the company's efforts at adopting green technology and responded to audience questions about GM's commitment to delivering on those promises. (See video, above.) At the time, the big question was the price of oil, which had spiked at more than $140 a barrel; that would, of course, fall, but only as the economy went into a tailspin. (Read a PDF of Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy's column about her ill-fated GM electric car, the EV-1, a column that Wagoner referenced in his address to The Club.)

By the time many of you have read this blog posting, the Obama recovery plan for the carmakers will have been announced. Will it help drag Chrysler and GM out of the murk and back into profitability? Will it be a money-pit for taxpayers? What would you suggest the government do? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Yelp Under Fire


“The biggest scam in the Bay Area.”

“Coercive, unethical, and, possibly, illegal.”


Seems like Yelp is learning what some of its clients are going through.

Since allegations of the site’s “Mafia-esque” advertising tactics broke this past February in an East Bay Express expose [http://www.eastbayexpress.com/news/yelp_and_the_business_of_extortion_2_0/Content?oid=927491], reviews of the relatively new online forum have become increasingly hostile. Some accuse the company of recruiting advertisers with the promise of deleting their business’ bad reviews, while others are angry at Yelp’s inconsistent methods of filtering out reviews at random. Daggers are being thrown on both sides, but one thing is clear: Yelp needs to regain user trust, and fast.

A San Francisco native, Yelp was launched in 2004 by Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons, both former employees at PayPal. The site acts as an intricate Yellow Pages, where anyone can post reviews about a restaurant, flower shop, gym, doctor’s office, etc. The reviews range from caustic to glowing, and are accompanied by a rating of 1 to 5 stars. Since its inception, Yelp has spread to most American cities as well as the UK and Canada, and it boasts 20 million visitors in the past 30 days. For newcomers to a city, it is often a godsend, but for business owners, a few bad Yelp reviews can cause significant profit damage.

Stoppleman and Simmons talked about their company in an October 25, 2007, speech to The Commonwealth Club’s Inforum division, which caters to young professionals in the Bay Area. [Listen to streaming audio: [http://www.commonwealthclub.org/archive/07/07-10yelp-audio.html ]

The East Bay Express article quoted restaurateurs and shop owners noticing bad reviews moving to the top of their profile page right before Yelp account managers called them, often aggressively, to encourage advertising or sponsorship. Advertisers pay anywhere from $300 to $1,000 a month, for which they can highlight themselves in search results, place one positive review at the top of their review column, and enhance their page. But some store owners claim Yelp salespeople insinuated more – such as getting rid of or rearranging bad reviews, promising to write positive reviews themselves, and, if the offer was refused, taking down positive reviews or writing negative ones. A more recent article in The Chicago Tribune [http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/technology/chi-0309-yelpmar09,0,3536868.story ] cites the owner of More Cupcakes, Patty Rothman, being guaranteed “good reviews on the site if we catered one of their parties for free."

Stoppelman, who is now CEO of Yelp, has been quick to respond to these allegations. Two days after the Express expose, Stoppelman posted a blog about the “9 Myths of Yelp” in which, among other things, he explained how “Yelp’s numbered search results …have nothing to do with who is paying us.” He also told the Tribune that there is no link between advertisement and review placement, and that Yelp salespeople have zero access to the site’s infrastructure. As for the disappearing reviews, Stoppelman says that some entries disappear because the site’s filter automates which reviews are removed and which get to stay. He agrees that the filter is “overly vigilant, in some cases removing legitimate reviews,” but says that many reviews are deleted by the writers themselves. Solutions being toyed with include allowing business owners to personally respond to negative comments, as well as tinkering with the site’s filtering system. (On March 18, 2009, Kathleen Richards of the East Bay Express wrote a follow-up [http://www.eastbayexpress.com/news/yelp_extortion_allegations_stack_up/Content?oid=946025 ] to her Yelp story and commented on Stoppelman’s reaction. She noted: “Stoppelman criticized my use of anonymous sources, calling it ‘fraught with hazards and ... strongly discouraged by most editors.’ Yet Yelp is a review site based entirely on anonymous sources.” So the debate goes on.)

The problem with Yelp lies in its inconsistency: in the way it handles advertising (a necessary venture, since Yelp’s revenue relies solely on advertising and sponsorship); the fact that its contributors are, much like on Wikipedia, a group that is not held responsible; and their strange balance of promising to keep certain reviews on the site while others mysteriously succumb to the computer’s algorithmic filter. Then there are the advertisers who want more for their money, who are upset after $700 per month still has not rid them of negative reviews. In a February CNET article, Kirk O. Hanson of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University said Yelp “created too many temptations for misbehavior.” Unless Stoppelman and his staff can restore trust, consistency, and reliability in their company, Yelpers and business owners alike will continue to battle it out.

Until then, I'm giving it two stars.

U.S., Russia Push 'Reset' Button; Distrust Remains


While most of the industrialized world prepares to fix the world's economy next week in London, an important geopolitical sideshow will be taking place when the U.S. and Russia discuss an old Cold War sticking point.

With the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) due to expire this December, old diplomatic ploys and negotiations are returning to the table while both sides have retained suspicions of each other's intentions. Back in 1982, President Reagan presented the then-Soviet Union with an offer to reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons pointed at each other. The beginnings of the START suffered many starts and stops during the 1980s. The treaty was not signed until 1991.

The Bush Administration's announcement late last year to install weapons interceptors in Poland and radar capabilities in the Czech Republic -- two former members of the Iron Curtain -- is reminiscent of an earlier tactic engineered in 1983 when Reagan announced plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as "Star Wars". The Soviets perceived it as a threat, even though the plan's feasibility and cost was widely questioned. The presence of SDI and, in hindsight, last-ditch efforts by the dying Soviet empire to show strength were a few of the reasons the agreement took nine years to ratify.

The other piece to the puzzle, then as it is now, is growing Russian insecurity over its Central Asian border, namely Afghanistan and Iran. The Obama Administration deftly linked missile defenses in Eastern Europe with the need to limit Iran's growing nuclear capabilities. A not-so-secret letter between Obama and Medvedev laid out this tit-for-tat reasoning that U.S. missiles in Poland would not be needed with a nuclear-neutered Iran.

Columbia University Political Science Professor Robert Legvold told the Voice of America that while Russia and Iran have strong commercial ties, he believes they have limited power in persuading the Iranians politically.

If the route chosen by the United States and Europe is to try to increase the pressure of sanctions, particularly in terms of petroleum and the export of refined petroleum products to Iran, then Russia would become crucial in that respect. But it's not clear that even tougher sanctions with everybody participating will force Iran's hand. So I think at the end of the day, there's a limit to how much the Russians can do in shaping Iran's choice.

Whether Russia has any real influence over Iran is also clouded by the suggestion that the U.S. and its NATO partners are unlikely to bargain with Russia at the expense of the Cold War organization's solidarity. During a meeting yesterday with the general-secretary of NATO, Obama said as much and reiterated support for former Russian satellites of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO in the future -- a topic already infuriating the Kremlin.

U.S.-Russian relations as it relates to Afghanistan will also take prominence during the April 1 summit. Legvold, who with Stanford professor Coit Blacker will discuss U.S.-Russian relations with The Commonwealth Club's CEO Gloria Duffy this Monday, said Russian's attitude towards Afghanistan has been inconsistent.

They clearly are uncomfortable with a NATO and a U.S. military presence in Central Asia. But I think they genuinely are concerned about failure in Afghanistan, which would allow the Taliban back into power and create potential instability in Central Asia, which is their southern front. So we will have to see where they go in the longer run. But right now they have not been as helpful as they could have been, even if you put the best face on it.

The problem today may not be nuclear war between the one-time super rivals, but a consensus of how post-Cold War Europe and Central Asia should be divided. Both sides seem committesd to renewing START on the basis of nuclear warheads as deterrents rather than vehicle of threats. The question is whether both sides can reconcile their differences with the common need to quell instability in the Middle East.

Columbia University professor Robert Legvold and Director and Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Relations Coit Blacker will discuss U.S.-Russian relations with CEO Gloria Duffy Monday at The Commonwealth Club of California at 6 p.m. Click here for more program information.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bad News Bears


The US economy is still suffering, and some serious strategic and structural changes are needed in business and government to address the underlying causes of the crisis.

But in the spirit of FDR’s comment about fearing fear itself, I believe the US media is making this crisis far worse than it needs to be. As the headlines and newscasters scream the latest bad news – job losses, stock market plunges, poor corporate results – investors’ jitters increase. They shun the markets, which dries up the capital available to companies, which reduces their operations, which leads to layoffs, which leads to foreclosures and falling consumer spending, which drags down the banks, which . . . you get the picture. It becomes a self-perpetuating negative cycle, which our national leadership is struggling to turn around by pumping bailout money into the damaged economic sectors.

But it seems to me that this cycle of doubt itself, rather than fundamentals of the economy, is partly to blame for the dizzying decline in the market averages and the associated fallout. The media reports the economic news that fuels this downward cycle. And I believe there is more here than just the media acting as the bearer of genuine bad news. So let’s take a hard look at what is going on in the media today and how that affects news reporting.

As we know, the traditional media is highly threatened now, because its historic business model, based on advertising, has been blown to smithereens by the internet. Few newspapers and not many radio or television operations have successfully made the transition to the Internet era. We have a front row seat for this sorry spectacle here in the Bay Area, as San Francisco’s only daily newspaper, The Chronicle, dies a slow death. The Rocky Mountain News ceased publication in February, and both the LA Times and New York Times are wobbling.

As the classic media fights for its life, publishers, editors and reporters grasp at hyperbolic subjects and viewpoints they hope will command attention, in a struggle to retain readership and viewership and to continue to attract advertising dollars. Bad news has long been known to draw more attention than positive stories, so it’s not surprising that a concentration on bad economic news would dominate the media right now.

But there are degrees in the extent of negative focus. At the moment, editorial decisions are being made in favor of covering bad economic news at the expense of other important topics, concentrating media coverage obsessively on negative stories about the economy. For example, last month a TV editor scrapped a story for which I was to be interviewed on some important good news - a potential US-Russian deal to work together on stopping Iran’s nuclear program and to cancel the missile defense plan for Eastern Europe - to instead report on the latest US government support for the insurance company AIG. Those micro-level editorial decisions being made throughout the media are what in the aggregate are producing the unitary focus on economic bad news.

No one, least of all I, would argue for media happy talk about the economic crisis. The real underlying factors behind the crisis – the long neglect of a prudent energy policy, the need to rethink the criteria for extending credit to homebuyers, for example – need to be reported in full, and the media should help to surface new directions and policies to put our economy on a sustainable growth path.

But this constant yammer of the latest declines on Wall Street and how Joe Public feels about the disaster surrounding us is simple fear-mongering, which leads to bearish behavior by investors and shoppers. I am afraid that the media’s own perceived interests, at this time when their backs are against the wall, may not be serving public needs as they once did when they could be counted on for more fair and balanced coverage.

This points up the importance of reading, watching and listening critically to what the media is currently reporting, discounting the crisis tone and looking more at the fundamentals of the economy. As President Obama said in his inaugural address, “our workers are no less productive today than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished.”

We are experiencing a crisis of confidence, and I fear that the media are fanning the flames in an effort to save their own skins. The ironic thing is that media perceptions of their own interests may be shortsighted. The economic downturn may finally demolish many media companies, whose business fundamentals are weak, along with all the other individuals, companies and other organizations that are being so negatively affected.

Using the Decriminalization of Drugs to Calm a Restless Nation

The parallels between the first 100 days of the Roosevelt presidency and that of Obama's have been much commented upon, with Roosevelt's first days being used as a yardstick for legislative achievement or at least activity. Now a new link between the two eras has begun to emerge: the decriminalization of marijuana.

In 1933, after Roosevelt enacted a steady stream of legislation to secure the nation's economy that would last generations, he repealed the 18th Amendment allowing for the sale of alcohol. While it was long a Democratic desire to do so, the practical reason was to generate tax receipts from the sale of liquor and expand various programs to put people back to work. It seems times have not changed much in 76 years.

Former San Francisco Supervisor and current State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano says the flailing California economy could receive a $1 billion boost by taxing the sale of marijuana. The legislation is currently in Sacramento. According to a Time article, the estimated $14 billion in sales of the drug would nearly double the state's next largest cash-crop -- milk and cream.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also signaled that the government is beginning to soften its decades-old stance against marijuana when he said that federal raids against California cannabis clubs would cease (such dispensaries are legal in the state) and states would be allowed to make their own laws on the subject.

As populist anger continues to bubble over regarding the economy, a steady stream of huge unemployment figures and the current scandal of corporate bonuses paid with taxpayer money, The Nation's Alexander Cockburn thinks making pot legal might calm the citizenry the way making alcohol legal was intended to cool pre-Great Depression America.

Ending Prohibition was functional to social control. If people head for the bars, they'd be less likely to man the barricades, calling for real change. As FDR's popularity soared, so Obama's popularity has soared for dope smokers, among them those whom the herb is the best and cheapest line of defense against pain.

The Internet has cultivated a large following of cogent pleas for decriminalization easily outnumbered by thousands of hokey ideas and conspiracy theories. The functionality of hemp seems to be quite popular on many of these sites. One unlikely voice in the crowd is noted travel author Rick Steves, who recently visited the Commonwealth Club of California to discuss not marijuana, but his film on Iran.

In a interview this week with Salon, the author gave his views on the elitism of many of our laws regarding pot.

The fact is, the marijuana law in the U.S. is a big lie. It's racist and classist. White rich people can smoke marijuana with impunity and poor black people get a record, can't get education, can't get a loan, and all of sudden go into a life of desperation and become hardened criminals. Why? Because we've got a racist law based on lies about marijuana.

It is unlikely a full repeal of many of these marijuana laws would occur under Obama -- the nation and the relative strength of many moderate Democrats and the Republican party would make it difficult even under the guise of increased tax revenue. What the attorney general's announcement indicates is a willingness to look away similar to what law enforcement already does when there are bigger problems than a high schooler smoking pot during fifth period.

--Steven Tavares

Friday, March 20, 2009

More and More Languages on Verge of Extinction

Earlier this week, people gathered in droves all over the world to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. But most of these people didn’t realize that while they were all jubilantly enjoying green beer and rejoicing in the name of the Irish, the native tongue of Ireland became one day closer to extinction. All over the world, many of the earliest spoken languages, surviving only in small indigenous communities, are fighting a losing battle against more dominant languages. A recent Washington Post article states that by the year 2100, half of the world’s remaining 7,000 languages will vanish.

When Ireland was founded in 1922, about 250,000 people spoke Gaelic, the traditional Irish language, but these days that number has plummeted to around 30,000, writes Kari Lydersen of The Post. Languages die off mostly due to small native groups coming into contact with larger more dominant groups. Elders stop speaking and passing their language down to younger generations due to both voluntary and forced assimilation. Sometimes the languages of indigenous people are forced out by intentional national policies. Other times, indigenous people, wanting to avoid standing out as separate from the majority culture, abandon their own dialects.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has estimated that more than half of the world’s present-day population only communicates in eight different languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Bengali and Portuguese. And more than 3,000 languages today are now spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.

On April 13, The Commonwealth Club will host an event on The Rosetta Project, a global endeavor that aims to amass a free and publicly accessible online archive of all documented human languages. Language is inextricably linked to culture, and as languages die off, many fear that we will also wave good-bye to the customs and fables that give many cultures their unique identities. Though it may seem that The United States is not involved with such loss of identity -- since English is the most dominate language of all -- this country was founded by immigrants, has a majority language fashioned from numerous foreign tongues, and an identity based on the customs and stories of many different cultures. The loss of languages around the world may hit closer to home than we realize.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Helicopter Ben: Printing Money

"Helicopter Ben is still throwing money out there," said conservative businessman and Forbes editor Steve Forbes in his August 7, 2008, speech to The Commonwealth Club.

Forbes was referring to Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and one of the two key figures in the government's response to the credit crisis and the please-don't-call-it-a-depression recession (the other figure is the Treasury secretary). Forbes (see video below) also said, "Ben Bernanke once wrote academic papers saying the way you deal with a crisis is you print more money, throw money at it. He even made the analogy that Milton Friedman did to throwing money out of helicopters, which is why his name inside the Fed is Helicopter Ben."

Forbes was speaking back in August, when the full extent of our economic troubles was not yet known. Now comes news that Bernanke announced plans for increasing Fed Treasury purchases and mortgage-backed-securities purchases to the tune of more than $1.2 trillion. The Fed basically makes its own money, so it's printing the money and pumping it into the economy to try to unfreeze credit markets and improve the health of the financial system (which Bernanke told "60 Minutes" this past Sunday was key to recovery this year).

Forbes isn't the only person who raises an eyebrow at efforts to vastly increase the money supply. The same concern is behind the growing criticisms from the governments of Germany (a country that has strong memories of the disaster wrought by runaway inflation during the Weimar Republic) and France.

Put simply, the fear is that printing lots of money right now might bring an earlier end to the recession, but it will be nearly impossible to shrink the supply at just the right amount at just the right time at just the right speed during the recovery to prevent runaway inflation.

Is it a case of the lesser of two evils? Can Bernanke -- an expert on the Great Depression -- successfully manage the transition to recovery? Will the $1.2 trillion be enough to make a difference? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

AIG is a consumer scammer, too.

Here is a side of AIG of which you might not be aware. I assist with the care and finances of an 88-year-old relative who has Alzheimer’s disease. When I assumed this role, her finances were in disorder, and she had been scammed financially by various people who prey on the elderly, an all too common situation.

And one of the scammers was AIG. When I reviewed my relative’s bank statements, I noted a monthly debit from her bank account at for $18.95 identified as “AIG.” After taking care of some bigger problems, I finally got around to calling the phone number identifying this charge to find out what it was.

I was told that it was accident insurance. I replied that my relative had no car and had not driven for many years. The AIG representative said that it wasn’t that kind of accident insurance, but it would protect her if she was injured riding in a car or crossing the street. I replied that typically the auto owner’s insurance policy or her own healthcare coverage would cover that, wouldn’t it?

So I asked how my relative came to have this insurance. AIG said that it was because she was a valued client of her bank. Huh, I said?

So AIG had phoned this mentally incapacitated elderly woman, asked her if she wanted to be protected against being injured, and when she said “yes,” started automatically debiting her bank account. No policy was signed, no paperwork changed hands, and she didn’t directly make any payment to start this coverage. If her bank allowed AIG to do this, then it is at fault for sharing my relative’s private banking information with them.

I provided AIG with medical documentation of my relative’s Alzheimer’s dementia, and asked them to refund the several hundred dollars they had charged her for these premiums over the past couple of years. They replied that they would stop the coverage, but not refund the premiums because she had consented to the coverage, something of a contradiction since I had documented that she was mentally incapacitated. AIG hoped that I was satisfied with this answer. I was not.

I tell this story for two reasons. First, to give further evidence of what kind of a company AIG is. And second, to illustrate the kind of free-wheeling business practices on which their financial model has been based. This kind of insurance scam is the equivalent for the insurance industry of the sub-prime mortgage practices in the lending industry. It is not a solid basis for business growth and has led to inflated concepts of their market and company prospects, which then pull the whole economy down when they are deflated.

Finally, further regulation of company practices is needed when it comes to financial scams on the elderly. A company should be barred from marketing this kind of product to people over a certain age and from instituting a policy without the consent of a mentally competent friend or relative. And they should certainly be barred from starting to directly debit an elderly person’s bank account.

Pickens' Wind Plan Loses Support as Oil Prices Fall


T. Boone Pickens and tree-hugging environmentalists make quite an odd couple. The man who says he has lost his fortune three times over is betting on wind power as the next big thing in energy. But the constituency most likely to support his efforts -- liberal-leaning Democrats -- often distrust his former career and politics.

Pickens is, after all, an 80-year-old former oilman, who the Washington Post's Dana Milbank says lost over $2 billion dollars last year after betting oil prices would continue to rise when they actually sunk to new lows. In the past, he was a supporter of the infamous Swift Boat attack against Sen. John Kerry and voted for Sen. John McCain in the last presidential election. When HBO's Bill Maher pointedly asked Pickens last week how he could justify his new-found support for clean energy when he previously supported candidates with a background in oil and coal, he brushed off the question by saying he wasn't a politician and said he did not support McCain's candidacy except as Maher said, "in the voting booth."

The "Pickens Plan" has taken its lumps of late, including the easily defeated Proposition 10 in California, which touted clean energy and tax credits for the purchase of hybrid vehicles. Detractors pointed out that Pickens had more than skin in the fight and may have financially benefited by its passage. The lack of investors and public policies in favor of his plan also hurt his efforts. Last fall, the Wall Street Journal reported that at least 50 percent of Pickens' investors had dropped out because of falling oil prices and the realization that the economy was entering a severe downturn. With oil prices currently in the low-to-mid $40-per-barrel range, it is no wonder the perpetually positive Pickens is bullish on oil prices rising. Reuters reported last week that Pickens predicts the price tag for a barrel of crude to rise to $75 by the end of the year.

Last October, Google CEO Eric Schmidt visited the Commonwealth Club also touting alternative methods of reducing the cost of oil on America's treasury. Read the post here and watch the speech here.

Therein lies the twin ironies of the Pickens Plan, where the acceptance and transition to clean energies such as wind and natural gas are predicated on oil men with an eye on oil futures along with the support of Americans most likely to consume less "Texas Tea."

You'll have an opportunity to find out for yourself what this enigmatic and controversial businessman believes. T. Boone Pickens will discuss his plan to build the world's largest wind farm and how America can begin to limit its addiction to foreign oil next Wednesday, March 25 at the Commonwealth Club. Click here for more information.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Obama Adviser: Fundamentals of Economy are Sound

Christina Romer, one of President Obama's top economic advisers, echoed one of Sen. John McCain's most derided campaign quotes when she told David Gregory on yesterday's "Meet the Press," "The fundamentals [of the American economy] are sound in the sense that the American workers are sound, we have a good capital stock, we have good technology," she said. "We know that -- that temporarily we're in ... a bad situation."

California residents can get a fuller sense of her interpretation of the health of our economy and how it will be affected by continuing government actions when Romer appears at The Commonwealth Club of California in -- we hope -- the near future. She had been scheduled to appear at The Club tonight, but she had to postpone the speech when government business came up. (Keep watching The Club's web site for a new date when it is scheduled.)

The administration looked to be using the Sunday morning and evening public affairs circuit to paint the picture of an ailing economy beginning to stir. In addition to the president's comments earlier in the week and Romer's assessment yesterday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told "60 Minutes" the recession would "probably" end this year. (View the video here.)

A story on Fox News makes note of the similar language used yesterday with that of McCain's uttered just days before the fall of Bear Stearns last September. It quotes White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs making a hard-to-understand argument in the administration's defense, "there's a definitional difference between sound and strong."

When Romer comes to the Bay Area, maybe they'll have the definitions figured out.

Populist Anger Continues to Rise

Jon Stewart is a comedian, not a media critic, but he voiced America's frustration with the financial system last week when he sparred with CNBC's Jim Cramer. Robert Reich is an economist who better summed up the essence of Stewart's populist rant in a word: "helpless."

Writing in Salon.com today, the former Clinton administration cabinet secretary is a frequent speaker at the Commonwealth Club of California. Reich spoke at the Club in January, saying that the federal stimulus bill needed to be much larger than the legislation that ultimately passed ($787 billion over two years). On his blog, Reich recommends that the Obama administration quickly draft another stimulus bill of roughly the same size.

He also believes the populist streak that is becoming more fervent across the nation as instances of financial impropriety increase is hindering the confidence of the American people and rendering them helpless.

If our very own Secretary of the Treasury [Timothy Geithner] doesn't even learn of the bonuses until months after AIG has decided to pay them, and cannot make stick his decision that they should not be paid, AIG is not even accountable to the government. That means AIG's executives -- using $170 billion of our money, so far -- are accountable to no one.

The possibility of this firestorm of populism possibly engulfing the Democratic-led Congress and White House may be the impetus for a story in today's New York Times in which top White House officials fear the backlash could make future bailouts more difficult to push through Congress.

Reich also makes an interesting point regarding AIG's financial priorities if it were forced into bankruptcy last fall, instead of being propped up by the government.

Had AIG gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy or been liquidated, as it would have without government aid, no bonuses would ever be paid (they would have had a lower priority under bankruptcy law than AIG's debts to other creditors); indeed, AIG's executives would have long ago been on the street. And any mention of the word "talent" in the same sentence as "AIG" or "credit default swaps" would be laughable if laughing weren't already so expensive.

In the meantime, Geithner and economic adviser Larry Summers, among others in the administration, continue to say there is little the government can do to stop AIG employees from keeping their portion of the $165 million pie. And New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo wants the names and job performance records of every AIG employee receiving the infamous bonuses. Whether such efforts at instilling confidence in the accountability of recipients of the bailouts works or not will likely play a big role in forming future attitudes of American citizens toward government response to the economic crisis.

--Steven Tavares

Schwarzenegger Makes a Big Splash at The Commonwealth Club


"The Commonwealth Club brings me luck," joked California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger when he spoke at The Club last week. He used his appearance (his second in 12 months) to kick off an energetic campaign to fight for a handful of ballot initiatives that he says will help California stave off another brutal budget fight like the one we just endured; he said that the initiatives, if approved by voters in a special May 19 election, will make the state take money from the boom years to help smooth out the bust years.

If the governor wanted to attract attention with his speech and the audience question-and-answer session (see photo below of Schwarzenegger being asked questions by Commonwealth Club VP Greg Dalton), he succeeded wildly. Press coverage of the event, beginning with a live broadcast over KQED radio in the Bay Area, was extensive, and we've collected just a sampling of it here.

1. The Christian Science Monitor: California's Voters Get Next Say in Budget Battles

2. The Los Angeles Times: Schwarzenegger Begins Campaign for Ballot Measures

3. Bloomberg: California Teachers Plan Rally as 26,000 Warned of Job Cuts

4. The Guardian (UK): Schwarzenegger Urges California Voters to pass Budget Reform Measures

5. CBS 5 (San Francisco): Poll: May Election Nears, Few Focus on Props

6. LAist: Battle Over May 19th Election Props Begins Heated Race

7. San Diego Union-Tribune: State Budget Springs a Leak

8. KQED Capital Notes: "It's the System," Says Guv

(Photos by Amanda Leung)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Remembering the Recall: What Didn't Change

On October 5, 2003, Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria C. Duffy wrote the following article for the San Francisco Chronicle. The topic was the state's special election to recall Governor Grey Davis. Her comments about the structural problems inherent in the state's governance system regardless of the governor, have proven prescient.

Recall symptomatic of political ills/Recall the system
By Gloria C. Duffy

Those who back the recall election in California do so with understandable
frustration at the magnitude of unsolved problems our state faces. But the
risk is high that if we simply change the occupant of the governor's
office, it will be a change without a difference for the challenges we

Our basic problem in California is our inability to address effectively
the serious issues confronting us -- the budget crisis, transportation,
immigration, housing, environmental protection, job creation, the energy
crisis, health care and the deterioration of our educational system and
our parks -- because our decision-making is hamstrung by a statewide
system. Changing the way any elected governor or other state officials
operate is highly unlikely until we address the flaws in our system. Most
seriously, campaign financing is out of control in California. The last
governor's race cost $130 million. Only candidates who are personally
wealthy or spend most of their time raising money can achieve statewide
office in California. An elected official makes decisions about thousands
of issues every year, virtually all of which touch the interests of groups
that are past or prospective contributors. This requires public officials
to walk extremely narrow lines between legitimate decisions and ethically
questionable ones, and to shun hard decisions that might affect a certain
sector -- say the utilities or unions -- because they know they will need
to raise money from them in the future.

Through redistricting, Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature
have created safe legislative districts that favor incumbents. This has
excluded would-be challengers to inadequate representatives and formed
strangely shaped districts that have little in common other than voters
who habitually make the same party choice. Term limits for legislators
were well intentioned, but they have resulted in elected officials who
have little time to accomplish goals or obtain seniority and are always
positioning themselves for the next office, to the detriment of doing
their legislative job effectively. The joke going around is that a
first-term assembly member is a freshman, a second-termer is a speaker,
and a third-termer is senator-elect.

The initiative process, created by Progressive reformers a century ago,
was meant to be the citizens' method of direct legislation. But it has
turned into a huge money operation, where many initiatives are backed and
opposed by special-interest groups who pay large amounts of money to
professional signature collectors to gather the support necessary, and
engage in often misleading advertising about what the initiative is and
what its impact will be. The voters are left trying to guess what it's all

The primary system promotes those who are at the extremes of both parties
-- liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans can most successfully
navigate the state primaries because interest groups at the extremes
support candidates in the primaries. When those elected collide in the
state Legislature, not much gets done because there is little overlapping
framework of common philosophy or desire to cooperate. The requirement of
a two-thirds majority in the California legislature to pass a state budget
also makes efficient decision-making very difficult. Many states require a
simple majority.

Largely because of voters' cynicism about their ability to have any impact
on this system, we experience extremely low voter participation in
California, around 30 percent in recent elections, which magnifies all
these problems by essentially removing the citizenry from the governing
process. An inattentive citizenry, uninvolved in the governance process,
gives rise to a system and elected officials who do not serve their needs
-- witness the popularity of the recall.

Abuses by political consultants and lobbyists are rampant. Richie Ross,
the king of negative campaigning, is reputed to refuse to work for
candidates unless they endorse all the other candidates for whom he is
working. As reported recently by The Chronicle, Ross combines campaign
consulting with lobbying, allowing him to get a candidate elected and then
have that person's ear to lobby for his clients. As the wheeler-dealer
behind Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's campaign, Ross engineered the donations
from Indian casinos, which he also represents as a lobbyist. And one
wonders whose strategy it was to put this money into anti-Prop. 54 ads,
enabling Bustamante not to return most of the contributions after a judge
ruled them illegal?

In sum, in California we have a system of governance that is not fair, not
accessible to citizens, not clean and in which the public has thus lost
confidence. This is a problem that won't be solved by a recall election.

One hundred years ago, Progressive reformers in California organized to
help citizens take back state government from what they perceived to be
corrupt officials. Led by Gov. Hiram Johnson, they instituted the
initiative process and the recall, as well as other wide-reaching reforms
of state and local institutions. The Commonwealth Club is proud to have
been a vehicle for debate and pursuit of these reforms. It is time for a
new reform agenda in California, removed from the personalities and
short-term debates of the current recall episode. The reforms of the early
20th century need to be re- examined for their current effect, and many
new issues, such as the impact of private money on statewide elections,
must be addressed. California's problems are not unique, but they are a
bellwether for those in other states and on the national scene. If we
address these issues here, California will once again provide its
leadership to the nation as a whole.

Gloria C. Duffy is CEO of the Commonwealth Club of California.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Newsom Courts California's Left; Says State's Fiscal Crisis Can Be Fixed


Putting a positive spin on California's continuing fiscal crisis, San Francisco Mayor and likely gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom says the problems can be fixed, though he did not offer specifics. The Democrat also maintained his support for same-sex marriage.

“I don't think there's anything particularly extraordinary about the state's problems,” Newsom said Wednesday night at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco. He later criticized the lack of creativity from state lawmakers. “The problem we have in Sacramento is an absence of new ideas,” he said.

Newson's visage has recently blanketed the national media, appearing on seemingly every possible news program in an appeal to gain visibility in advance of a probable run for governor. The mayor has also held numerous town hall-style meetings up and down the state and said he believes voters in predominately conservative counties like Placer share most of the same concerns as liberal voters.

"We have the exact same concerns,” said Newsom, “People there have different perspectives and points of view on many issues, but when it comes down to it, at this time, in the world we live in, in the environment we're living in, it's about jobs, it's about education, it's about health care, it's about roads, infrastructure.”

But it was the contentious issue of same-sex marriage to which the mayor is invariably linked by pundits across the nation that was the portion of the hour-long program where Newsom seemed to hit his stride and rationalized his infamous rallying call that proponents of Proposition 8 successfully used against him.

“I learned that I prefer to be the guy that made a mistake saying, 'whether you like it or not' than the guy who just sits there and plays in the margin," said Newsom, "I'm not going play it safe. I'm going to be authentic. I'm going to be myself. You may not like me, but you know where I stand.”

For a politician with state-wide aspirations, Newsom's appeal appears targeted to the most progressive wing of the California electorate, despite the unpopularity and the politically peril that supporting same-sex marriage poses to his candidacy. He was unapologetic in response to a question from moderator Scott Shafer, who at times sparred with Newsom, saying he did not regret officiating the marrying of the first same-sex couple in the city five years ago.

“The idea that someone wants to share that moment and that experience of something that has been denied them their entire life and they want you to share that, and for [me] to say no because I'm worried about my politics is everything I'm not about. If I was worried about politics I would have never done this, ever. Do you think it's helped in the context of everything else? These guys are running around -- these politicians -- on this.

"I know it's not good politics," he continued. "I understand it better than any human being alive. Every single day people are expressing their point of view about how outraged they are and every consultant saying, 'Well, just tone it down.' I can't tone [down] something as fundamental as someone else's rights. If a politician can put aside someone else's rights so they can get ahead politically ... you've got a million politicians who wish to do that. I'm never going to be that person. I never will.”

At one point early in the program, Newsom sounded a bit like an auctioneer, listing his accomplishments and talking points for a nearly two-minute stretch elicited a few groans from the audience. The point was not lost on the mayor. Later, Newsom was asked about his fight with dyslexia and said that “everyone overcompensates in their own way,” and that he has an ability to retain facts and figures that tend to muddle his message. “It's given me more empathy for special education and to recognize that we are not all wired the same, and we all have a wonderful capacity to live our lives out loud.”

--By Steven Tavares

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Central Asian Expert: U.S. Needs to Allow Iran, Others into the Afghan Question

President Barack Obama needs to give Iran assurances that the U.S. will not use Afghanistan to undermine the Iranian government, in exchange for assistance in the region, according to noted author Ahmed Rashid.

“You need Iran on every front, whatever you are talking about. Whether it is military, Taliban, terrorism or economics,” Rashid told a noon-time gathering at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco today. “I think Iran is looking for that kind of minimum security for itself and Afghanistan. I think this is a big issue. It will obviously be opposed by the conservatives in the United States, but it needs to be done.”

Rashid, the author of the best-selling book, Taliban, which became the leading publication on the subject after 9/11, is promoting his current work, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, which chronicles the missteps and possible ramifications of further instability in the region.

One way the U.S. can begin to soothe the region, according to Rashid, is by reaching out diplomatically to the Iranians. "Obama needs to make private or public assurances to the Iranians that they will not use Afghan soil to undermine Iran like the Bush administration did or to seek regime change in Tehran through Afghanistan," said Rashid, adding that the U.S. must also assure all players in the region that it is not seeking permanent military bases in the future. “I don’t believe the Americans want to stay in Afghanistan just as much as they want to stay in Iraq and that is precisely why Obama was voted in to get out of Iraq,” he said.

Rashid also said the other regional powers, Russia and China, must be allowed to join the conversation because of interests in their border security, economic issues and the presence of Islamic extremism in both countries.

The issue of how President Obama will be able to sell the re-introduction of war in Afghanistan to the American people will be a complicated endeavor, yet Rashid believes it to be paramount to the success of any involvement in Central Asia.

“It’s going to be very difficult to sell a commitment to Afghanistan, but I think it is absolutely critical," he said, "It’s critical for your own homeland security. It’s critical for Europe -- for the fact that al Qaeda has spread there. It’s critical also because of the nuclear factor: Pakistan is a nuclear power and no one can afford for Pakistan to meltdown. And, finally, it’s really critical to stop the expansion of al Qaeda before these local jihadi groups become more organized and more of a part of this global jihad."

Rashid found little to argue with in the president's announcement last month of the addition of 17,000 troops into Afghanistan while looking at it in a practical sense. “You cannot talk to the Taliban from a position of weakness, and right now the U.S. is losing the war in Afghanistan," he said. "You have the president, who himself said the U.S. is not winning, which is a polite way of saying that the U.S. is losing.”

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Inside the Pakistani Handling of the Swat Valley

The irascible Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate this week, believes the Pakistani truce with the Taliban in the Northwestern region of Swat is just one part of the eventual unraveling of the state.

Instead of purchasing peace, the Pakistani government has surrendered part of its heartland without a fight to those who can and will convert it into a base for further and more exorbitant demands. This is not even a postponement of the coming nightmare, which is the utter disintegration of Pakistan as a state. It is a stage in that disintegration.

Though his stark assessment of a failed state in its infancy is quite candid, the notion that the Pakistani government ceded a modernized former tourist outpost to a Taliban faction that never had any roots in the region has been problematic to many in the Obama administration. They worry that fundamentalist sanctuary was created in one sweep of the pen following the truce.

The seeds of the rise of the Taliban in the Swat Valley did not materialize overnight, but had been brewing since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and in part a sidebar to decades-long conflict between Pakistan and India.

Author Ahmed Rashid, whose book on the Taliban stood as the sole text on the then-obscure fundamentalist Muslim sect after 9/11, told Democracy Now! in June that the conflicts between tribal groups and Pakistanis on the border became a religious and family affair fused with an institutional fear by the Pakistanis of Indian dominance.

The tribes are divided by an artificial border created by the British. And the Pashtuns are the main recruiting base for the Taliban, and they’re also the main recruiting base for these paramilitary forces. So you had cousin fighting cousin, cousin on the Taliban side, another cousin on the Pakistan army side.

And their failure to deal with this, largely because of their refusal to retrain and rearm as a counterinsurgency force, because they go in as this army used to fighting on the plains of Punjab against Indian tanks rather than, you know, re-equipping and retraining as counterinsurgency forces, these heavy casualties they’ve taken have led to then these very dubious kinds of peace deals, which are essentially a surrender document by the Pakistan army to say, “Well, as long as you Taliban don’t attack us, the Pakistan army, we’ll let you stay where you are.”

This is what ultimately occurred last month. In addition, Rashid said earlier in the interview, the Pakistani government portrays the specter of India as a "bogey man" to the people. He says, for example, that the government continues to offer up a scenario of a huge Indian presence up north in Afghanistan seemingly ready to pounce on Pakistan. In essence, it illustrates that Pakistan has its eye primarily on India, with which it has fought three wars and still disputes the region of Kashmir.

How does the new American president handle Central Asia? President Obama has already vowed to escalate the war in Afghanistan at the expense of withdrawing troops from Iraq. Rashid believes Obama must look at the region as one giant geopolitical puzzle. "The first thing I would recommend very much for the new president is that you have to look at this region as a whole," said Rashid, "You cannot resolve the crisis in Afghanistan without ending the sanctuaries in Pakistan. You cannot persuade the Pakistan army to end those sanctuaries, unless you persuade the Indians to do something about Kashmir."

Lately, the President has showed a willingness to heed Rashid's advice. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently said that the U.S. is open to interacting with the Iranians and their role in the region, and one of President Obama's first executive decisions was to send drones to bomb the tribal regions of Pakistan along with making talks with the Pakistanis a prime campaign talking point.

With special envoy Richard Holbrooke now in the region and the work of Clinton already in the works the days of "either you're with us or against us" have now led to a return of complex diplomatic maneuvering that is hopefully in good hands

Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos, will discuss the multi-faceted problems the United States faces in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India at The Commonwealth Club of California Wednesday at noon. Click here for more information.

Chronicle Update: Tentative Deal Reached


San Francisco might not be left without a major daily paper after all, if a tentative deal between the paper's owner and its largest union holds. As reported in today's Chronicle, the deal involves wage and benefit cuts, increased work hours, and a reduction in the work force of about 150.

As noted on The Commonwealth Club's blog here, paper owner Hearst was threatening to close or sell the paper if it couldn't get major concessions within a matter of weeks. Hearst also owns the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which is facing its own death spiral. Media observers had questioned whether San Francisco would earn the dubious distinction of becoming the first major city without a major daily newspaper. (San Francisco continues to have the free daily Examiner.)

The Chronicle notes that Hearst still has to negotiate with its other large union, the Teamsters.

In the meantime, you might want to check out the blog of Chronicle editor-at-large (and frequent Commonwealth Club event moderator) Phil Bronstein, who recently wrote about the messy newspaper industry. "The speed of technology has stunned a lot of people, along with quick-changing consumer habits. The economy sucks more than ever before in our lifetimes," Bronstein writes. "Even while slamming ourselves for being too complacent, we're also just shell-shocked by what's been happening."

Monday, March 9, 2009

Obama’s Order a Stem-Cell a Cure-All for the Controversy?

“Today, with the Executive Order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers; doctors and innovators; patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research.”

With these words and the stroke of a pen (well, six pens, technically), President Obama today made good on a much-anticipated campaign promise to lift restrictions on research that could yield new treatments for patients with spinal injuries, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and other life-threatening conditions.

Before Obama’s executive order, limits imposed in 2001 by President Bush blocked federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and restricted it to the use of existing lines. He twice vetoed congressional attempts to overturn the ban -- which many critics saw as an attempt to placate the most conservative segment of his supporters. By way of explanation, Bush said at the time, “It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect.”

Obama dismissed that approach as offering “a false choice between sound science and moral values.” And support for his decision, while predictably enthusiastic among patient-advocate groups and research institutions, also comes from some less likely corners: A Boston Globe roundup of standpoints from assorted religious leaders lends credence to Obama’s that while at times demands of faith and science must strike a “difficult and delicate balance,” the two are “not inconsistent.”

But even setting aside criticism from those like Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner -- who says Obama has “rolled back important protections for innocent life” -- assorted other challenges to the success of the research remain. The Christian Science Monitor cites one market analyst who predicts the executive order will have little immediate effect on the industry, which is currently geared toward less controversial adult stem cell research.

Additional obstacles -- from the minefield of intellectual property law to the shortage of capital in tough economic times -- may further delay realization of the field’s much-lauded potential. On Wednesday, March 18, you can get the latest outlook for stem cell research from one of its leading advocates, Bernard Siegel of the Genetics Policy Institute. Join him for “Stem Cell Advocacy 2.0: The Role of the Stem Cell Consumer Movement in the Obama Era” at noon in the club office. (For more information, check Club web site.)

--By Alia Salim

Newsom Rides the Media Circuit to the Commonwealth Club

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has been popping up in some unlikely places lately. He appeared last week as a panelist on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, is slated to speak in Oakland tomorrow night and even chatted with the mortal enemy of "San Francisco liberal Democrats" Sunday morning on Fox News. It seems Newsom's exploratory foray into a possible run for governor is in high gear, to be topped with a conversation at The Commonwealth Club of California Wednesday night. (Check out recent appearances of the mayor on MSNBC's Morning Joe here and CNN Newsroom here.)

Newsom's increased visibility during the past week might be designed to increase an early Field Poll that gave the liberal Democrat just 10 percent of the vote. To be fair, the poll was questionable, because it included Sen. Dianne Feinstein who has declined to state whether she will run (yet she still topped the poll with 38 percent).

The HBO appearance may be instructive about how Newsom plans to run as the progressive candidate on the Democratic side. On the show, he spoke candidly on topics such as gay marriage and medical marijuana (unequivocally supporting both) and skillfully wove his talking points regarding his accomplishments in the city. Though Newsom was an early supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential aspirations, he might stand to benefit from the coattails of President Obama's liberal resurgence across the country. One theme likely to be espoused by Newsom in the race is his talking point touting the existence of universal health care in his city. If President Obama follows through on his pledge to offer health-care legislation nationally by mid-year or later, Newsom might get a bounce. And as one of the first politicians to stick his neck out for gay marriage, the mayor might lead the way on two popular statewide issues that could vault him from a dark horse candidate to serious contender.

Former Governor (and former just about everything in California politics) Jerry Brown is hoping to represent the state's future with an eye at its past. The other challenger, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, suffered somewhat of a letdown last week despite winning re-election. With only 15 percent of the electorate voting, Villaraigosa garnered just 128,000 votes, raising statewide electability questions.

If Newsom's past media appearances are any indication, his remarks at the Commonwealth Club should be candid -- and palatable to the hometown San Francisco audience.

--Steven Tavares

Club Speaker, SF/SPCA Tussle Over Hearing Dog Bequest

Who would have thought it would be controversial to train dogs to help hearing-impaired people?

When Glenn Martyn spoke at The Commonwealth Club on November 18, he was proud to announce the formation of a new organization to train assistive dogs for people with hearing problems. Martyn, the former director at the SF/SPCA's famed hearing dog program and a dog training director at Bergin University for Canine Studies, formed the new Hearing Dog Program with other colleagues who, like him, had been laid off when SF/SPCA closed its own Hearing Dog Program last year.

But the controversy hit the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, with an article by Leslie Fulbright reporting that Martyn's group is locked in an upcoming court battle with the SF/SPCA and another party, the Santa Rosa-based Canine Companions for Independence, over which organization should get to spend a $500,000 bequest left to the SF/SPCA's hearing dogs program "or to its successor," as Fulbright reports. All three groups say they should get the money; but the most interesting response might be from the SF/SPCA itself, which is claiming it should get funds for the program it discontinued.

Fulbright's article cites comments by SF/SPCA's communications director that "even though the SPCA stopped training dogs to assist the hearing impaired, it still provides support for graduates of the program and their animals. 'We offer vet services, training and harnesses,' she said." Earlier in the article, she says SF/SPCA doesn't consider either of the other two groups to be the successor to her organization's hearing dog efforts, but adds that "the court will look at their demands."

Martyn's Hearing Dog Program issued a press release pointing out that at least twice, the SF/SPCA acknowledged that it had closed the hearing dog program, but "the SF/SPCA has continued to accept donations made out specifically to the discontinued Hearing Dog Program."

For the record, we should note that Martyn brought along an adorable dog to his Club event so he could demonstrate how a dog alerts humans to ringing doorbells, phones, and other input. As you'll see in the short news clipping above (click on image to enlarge), the dog demonstrated something else, too. But we don't hold a grudge.

For background on why hearing dog programs are vital to some hearing-impaired people, read the short Q&A with Martyn from the September 2008 issue of The Commonwealth.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Illinois Senate Says Pluto Is Still A Planet

Having apparently nothing more urgent to tend to, such as addressing their state government’s corruption, lawmakers in the great state of Illinois have now turned to more important matters: the fight for Pluto’s honor. The planet Pluto – or rather the Dwarf Planet Pluto, or is it the Plutoid Pluto? – is back in the news. The Illinois Senate has announced that it does not accept the decision made by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 to demote Pluto, and the senators have voted unanimously to reinstate Pluto’s “full planetary status.”

On February 5, 2009, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and author of The Pluto Files, spoke at The Commonwealth Club about the plight of Pluto. During a revamping of the Hayden Planetarium in the late 1990s, Tyson and his co-workers decided to re-organize the objects in the solar system by like properties. This resulted in Pluto being grouped with icy bodies in the outer solar system, rather than with the gaseous and rocky objects that we call planets. A year later, this information made the front page of The New York Times: “Pluto’s Not A Planet? Only in New York.”

Soon after, the young citizens of this great nation raised their arms in outrage. As Tyson put it, “This created a disturbance in the space-time continuum of the elementary school curriculum.” He received dozens of letters from young soldiers in the fight to preserve Pluto’s honor. Some even drew him pictures of the planet in case he did not know what it looked like.

Finally, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union made the decision that Pluto did indeed belong in a separate category. That category was called Dwarf Planets. Later, Pluto was again re-categorized as a Plutoid. The loss of planetary status, however, does not mean that Pluto is no longer important, Tyson said during his Commonwealth Club appearance. While Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto in 1930, may not have found another planet, Tyson explained, “He found one of the largest objects of an entire new understanding of the outer solar system. That’s not just a spin on that discovery; that is a much more fundamental contribution to the frontier of science.”

Tombaugh, as it turns out, is an Illinois native, and the Illinois Senate plans on naming March 13th Pluto Day, in honor of Tombaugh and his great discovery. Maybe Illinois’ fight for Pluto does not show a disregard for the more important political issues currently hanging over the state’s head after all; maybe this is in fact their solution. Pluto might not be a bad place to build a medium-security prison to hold crooked politicians.

– Excerpts from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s February 5, 2009 Commonwealth Club appearance, “The Demotion of a Planet, and Hate Mail from Third Graders,” will appear in the April edition of The Commonwealth, the Club's award-winning monthly magazine. You can listen to or purchase the talk in its entirety at The Commonwealth Club web site. –

Thursday, March 5, 2009

State Supreme Court Takes up Prop. 8


California’s Supreme Court is hearing arguments on Proposition 8, in San Francisco this week, in the Earl Warren Building courtroom on McAllister Street. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was a prominent and vocal opponent the 2008 ballot initiative to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. Seating in the court is limited to 20, but you can watch the proceedings online here.

Barack Obama is rumored to have declined a photo op with Newsom during his visit to SF, not wanting to be seen posing with the same-sex-marriage-friendly mayor.

But Prop. 8 hearings aren’t the only reason Newsom is back in the family values spotlight. Criticism of Newsom reached a new height recently as the mayor and wife Jennifer Seible announced that they will be having a child.

San Francisco Chronicle writer, Erin Allday wrote Thursday, February 19, “City Hall chitchat has turned to how this might play in Newsom's run for governor. Analysts say that starting a family can only help the campaign -- and maybe reverse Newsom's long-standing playboy image.”

The baby announcement prompted Guardian Editor Tim Redmond to offer family advice too. “If the mayor, or the president, or the school superintendent, or the school board members, or the supervisors choose private schools, then they're saying that public education is good enough for the poor kids, but not for their own.”

Facing a tumultuous economic climate and a massive city deficit, Mayor Newsom has tough decisions to make in 2009. In his quest to keep San Francisco a thriving center for commerce and a livable city, Newsom’s had trouble meeting some campaign promises, and he is moving forward with staff cuts, opting for 1100 layoffs in the last 7 months (300 last week).

With a potential 2010 run for governor in his future, Newsom is also on the hook for stewarding some of his favorite issues -- homelessness, universal health care, and MUNI reform -- through the current recession and state budget mess.

Dispelling myths behind celebrity politicians can be a real challenge. Try your hand, and listen to Newsom’s recent appearance on KQED Radio. Or better yet, hear from the mayor directly here at The Club. Newsom will sit down for a frank and candid discussion about the issues facing the city, with Scott Shafer, host of KQED’s California Report, 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 11th.