July 26, 2011

Obama Redefining 'Poverty'

By David Paulin

Originally published at The American Thinker

What does it mean to be poor in America today? For typical "poor" households -- as defined by the government -- it means cable television, two color television sets, and two or more cars.

As for housing, it means living in air-conditioned comfort -- in decent accommodations with even more space than "average" Europeans have. (Not poor Europeans, to be sure, but "average" Europeans.) Moreover, most "poor" Americans get the medical care they need, and they eat enough -- in fact, they eat too much.

In short, the lifestyles of most "poor" Americans are vastly at odds with dire government statistics about poverty in America -- statistics that invariably send liberals and media pundits into hand-wringing fits and moralistic outrage. Now comes an antidote to this absurdity -- a report released by the Heritage Foundation that is appropriately titled: "Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?"

According to the Census Bureau, more than 30 million Americans (one in seven) live in "poverty." Yet the Heritage Foundation's report underscores that being poor in America today actually has little to do with what most Americans regard as deprivation.

Even so, the Obama administration is nevertheless poised to expand these absurdities -- making the definition of poverty even more divorced from reality than it already is, according to the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield. Ultimately, they point out that the president will further sever the connection between poverty and "deprivation" -- by reclassifying poverty as being all about "inequality." As they explain:

Under the new measure, a family will be judged poor if its income falls below certain specified income thresholds or standards. There is nothing new in this, but unlike the current poverty income standards, the new income thresholds will have a built-in escalator clause. They will rise automatically in direct proportion to any rise in the living standards of the average American.

The current poverty measure counts (albeit inaccurately) absolute purchasing power (how much meat and potatoes a person can buy). The new measure will count comparative purchasing power (how much meat and potatoes a person can buy relative to other people). As the nation becomes wealthier, the poverty standards will increase in proportion. In other words, Obama will employ a statistical trick to give a new meaning to the saying that "the poor will always be with you."

The new poverty measure will produce very odd results. For example, if the real income of every single American were to triple magically overnight, the new poverty measure would show no drop in poverty because the poverty income standards would also triple. Under the Obama system, poverty can be reduced only if the incomes of the "poor" are rising faster than the incomes of everyone else. Another paradox of the new poverty measure is that countries such as Bangladesh and Albania will have lower poverty rates than the U.S.'s -- even though the actual living conditions in those countries are extremely low -- simply because they have narrower distribution of incomes, albeit very low incomes.

Ultimately, "[t]he new measure is a public relations Trojan Horse, smuggling in a 'spread-the-wealth' agenda under the ruse of fighting significant material deprivation -- a condition that is already rare in American society," they point out.

Most troubling, they point out that "grossly exaggerating the extent and severity of material deprivation in the U.S. will benefit neither the poor, the economy, nor society as a whole."

Of course, the Heritage Foundation's report is hardly news to many middle- and upper-middle-class Americans who have ever stood in line at the grocery store -- right behind a shopper using a food-stamp card to buy bottled water, junk food, and soft drinks -- a shopper who then loaded up an SUV with a basket full of groceries. Recently, an article in the Wall Street Journal seemed intended to cast sympathy on food-stamp recipients at a Walmart. But it inadvertently did the opposite -- suggesting some food-stamp recipients do not seem all that needy.

If you want to see real poverty, don't go to Walmart. You should visit one of the shantytown slums surrounding Latin America's major cities. And while you're at it, visit a solidly middle-class neighborhood. By American standards, those neighborhoods would be poor -- and yet they are neat and orderly. Their residents are thrifty, hardworking, and well-mannered -- and they're determined to give their kids a good education. In those neighborhoods, people don't park their cars on their front lawns and young men don't walk around with pit bulls. There are no gangs or drug-dealing.

Liberals are loath to admit it, but poverty is not about income "inequality." More often than not, it's about culture and values -- and that's especially the case with poverty that's handed down from one generation to the next in the same families. That said, American is unique in another way in respect to its "poverty."

It's the only country in the world where poor people are fat -- another absurdity that liberals are loath to acknowledge.

July 18, 2011

Hugo Chavez returns home amid reports of 'botched' surgery in Cuba

Originally published July 5 at The American Thinker blog

By David Paulin

Hugo Chavez made a surprise return to Venezuela on Monday, helping to ease political uncertainty that he will be unable to govern as he battles cancer.

"Now I'm going to get some rest," Chavez said.

How much rest? And how serious is Chavez's cancer? Well, neither Cuba nor Venezuela's governments have said much about that; not surprising given that authoritarian regimes are invariably closed-mouthed regarding the health of their leaders.

Meanwhile, a Spanish daily newspaper claims to have gained access to a Venezuelan medical report that sheds light on Chavez's medical treatment -- or mistreatment -- in Cuba for what it said turned out to be colon cancer.

In a July 2 article, El Periodico reported that a Cuban physician botched Chavez's first surgery -- "erroneously" treating him only for a "pelvic abscess" instead of for a cancerous tumor. A "few days later, the injury to his (cancerous) tumor fistulized," spreading an infection to the rest of his body, El Periodico explained. With Chavez in serious condition, Cuba then flew in a Spanish surgeon from Madrid to perform a second surgery.

According to El Periodico, Chavez's "colon cancer...has perforated the intestinal wall and provoked an abdominal infection." It added: "The president, for a minimum of three months, will have to have a colostomy."

Chavez's Spanish surgeon may have been José Luis García Sabrido, chief of surgery of Gregorio Marañón Hospital of Madrid, El Periodico said; however, the paper noted it could not confirm that. García once operated on Fidel Castro -- surgery that apparently was needed after Cuban physicians botched an earlier surgery on Castro, according to some accounts.

Most ominously for Chavez, El Periodico said he "will be unable to receive chemotherapy because the first (surgical) intervention prevents it." Chavez's condition is "serious" because of the possibility that the tumor has produced a metastasis" (spread cancer cells) due to the first, inappropriate surgery.

Despite El Periodico's remarks about chemotherapy, Chavez nevertheless hinted he was indeed receiving it -- during remarks he delivered during a TV appearance on Venezuela television last Thursday. Chavez admitted for the first time he had cancer but failed to elaborate on the type or stage of his cancer.

In Venezuela, Chavez will reportedly be treated in a military hospital. It's not surprising the 56-year-old Chavez would prefer a military hospital over a public hospital. Under Chavez, Venezuela's public health-care system has undergone a major "Cubanization," leading to what has been described as a collapse of public health care. (For more on that, see an American Thinker article that was based on U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.)

Venezuela, of course, has private hospitals, and I can attest that the ones I visited, when living in Venezuela during the 1990s, were first-class. However, many of Venezuela's top physicians -- perhaps including my own -- have no doubt left Venezuela as the country's economic and political situation has deteriorated during 12 years of Chavez's mismanagement and introduction of "21 Century socialism" -- during which large segments of the economy have been nationalized. No doubt, Chavez's anti-Semitism also drove off many of Venezuela's top physicians who are Jewish, perhaps including my own.

Some political observers speculate that Chavez will now be undertaking a shake-up of his cabinet. Since Chavez surrounds himself with "yes men," he might want to find a credible successor to take over -- in case he's unable to return to his regular TV and radio addresses that often ramble on for hours.

For a rough English-language translation of the article in El Periodico, click here. Below is a YouTube clip from the Associated Press showing Chavez returning home from Cuba.

How bad is Hugo Chavez's cancer? Very bad, say Physicians

By David Paulin

Hugo Chavez probably has colon cancer. He is clearly a sick man -- very sick. And he could be facing treatment for eight to nine months. That's the consensus of physicians who watched a video that Chavez made in Cuba, and that was broadcast to stunned Venezuelans on Thursday evening. In it, Chavez confirmed widespread suspicions about his health, saying he'd undergone two surgeries in Cuba to remove a pelvic abscess and cancerous tumor. He hinted that he was receiving chemotherapy. But Chavez failed during his 20 minute address to reveal the type or stage of his cancer -- or say when he'd return to Venezuela. The country's political situation is growing more uncertain the longer Chavez is gone.

"My first duty as a revolutionary is to fully regain my health," said the former coup leader and paratrooper.

Normally, the garrulous Chavez speaks without notes during television and radio addresses that are long and rambling -- sometimes lasting hours. But in Thursday's address, he read from a prepared statement and seemed like a shadow of himself -- nothing like the talkative, high-energy Chavez that Venezuelans are used to. It was something physicians familiar with Chavez couldn't help but notice.

According to an article in the Miami Herald by reporter Frances Robles, physicians in Venezuela and Florida who watched Chavez's address agree his cancer is serious:

"What struck me is that at one point during his announcement, he misspoke and said 'evolution' instead of 'evaluation.' He corrected himself, but it was odd that in a video that was so staged - complete with props of the Venezuelan flag and a painting of Simon Bolivar - they did not do a retake," said Douglas Leon, president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation. "What does that say? To me, it says he can only stand up for about 20 minutes, and they couldn't let him stand for the time it would take to do it over."
Based on what Chavez revealed, his prognosis does not look good, according to other physicians quoted in The Herald's article:

"The presence of an abscessed tumor is not a good sign, said Dr. Thomas J. George Jr., an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Florida and a specialist in gastrointestinal cancers.

"This is usually because the cancer is fairly aggressive,'' he said. "This could be a variety of different cancers -- none of them good."

The top possibility, he said, would be colorectal cancer, followed by prostate, bladder, or perhaps a sarcoma -- a soft tissue cancer.

"Prostate would probably be the best option in terms of prognosis," George said.

He also said it's possible that the original abscess drainage procedure itself could have contaminated the area with cancer cells. Treatment, doctors agreed, would be aggressive radiation and chemotherapy.

"Prostate tumors normally do not cause this kind of abscess," said Leon Lapco, president of the Venezuelan-American Doctors Association and a surgeon at Mercy Hospital. "I would say it's his colon, the large intestine. It's the most likely to cause diverticulitis, perforations and abscesses."

Chavez has been in Cuba for three weeks. In Venezuela, he surrounds himself with "yes" men and has has no credible successor to take his place should his health continue to deteriorate. All of which throws his vision of "21st Century socialism" for Venezuela into doubt.

Chavez admitted during his television address that he'd failed to take care of his health -- a trait that could perhaps be expected in a man widely described as a narcissist -- a vain glorious strongman who believed he was on a divine mission to lead Venezuela for most of his life. In the end, the seeds of Chavez's destruction may, ironically, have been contained in his own personality.

Believe it or not, Al Jazeera seems to have the best news report on YouTube regarding Chavez's television address to Venezuelans:

Originally published at The American Thinker blog.

July 15, 2011

Confusing Headlines: Reporters for WSJ and Dow Jones Newswires provide different tales of Hugo Chávez's medical condition

By David Paulin

Does Kejal Vyas, who recently joined Dow Jones Newswires in Caracas, read the paper for which he sometimes writes, the Wall Street Journal? It's a question that alert Journal readers may be asking after reading a story by Vyas in Thursday's newspaper. His story contradicts reporting in last week's Journal.

In his article, "Chávez Says His Cancer Could Need Treatment," Vyas makes a seemingly questionable claim that got past his own fact-checking and the WSJ's copy editing. He wrote: "Two sources close to the president say he has colon cancer, but that hasn't been confirmed." (Emphasis added)

Well, that's an interesting statement because just last week, veteran WSJ reporters José de Córdoba and Ezequiel Minaya announced in another article ("Chávez Is Believed to Have Colon Cancer") that Chavez's cancer had, it seemed, been confirmed. They wrote: "President Hugo Chávez appears to be suffering from colon cancer, according to two people with direct knowledge of the president's condition." (Emphasis added)

Am I missing something here?

Of course, maybe the problem here is that the "two people with direct knowledge of the president's condition" are not such great and knowledgeable sources after all. Or maybe the weasel word “appears” means that de Córdoba and Minaya have in fact not confirmed what their writing suggests they have confirmed. One thing is certain: de Córdoba and Minaya probably got their asses chewed out for having failed to get a story that other media outlets had reported days earlier.

Stay tuned in the coming days for an article about media coverage of Chavez's medical condition (at this blog or The American Thinker) -- and the WSJ's sometimes problematic and even dishonest use of unnamed sources.

July 6, 2011

In a Death Penalty Case, Texas battles Mexico, Washington (and the World)

By David Paulin

Humberto Leal Garcia Jr., a 38-year-old Mexican national, is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Thursday, July 7, in the Texas death chamber. He was convicted for the 1994 rape and murder of 16-year-old Adria Sauceda in San Antonio, Texas -- a crime that was particularly sordid as far as rapes and murders go.

Leal, however, isn't your typical death row inmate found guilty of an unspeakable crime. He has friends and supporters, mostly liberals: anti-death penalty advocates, law professors, and myriad others with various agendas. All have an international outlook -- and misplaced confidence in the efficacy of international law. One of them is President Obama.

Leal is now the object of a tug-of-war: Gov. Rick Perry and his Republican administration are on one side -- and on the other are Mexico's government, President Obama, and the International Court of Justice in The Hague. With the clock ticking down on Leal's life, this is a standoff between what liberals might call the forces of enlightenment (Obama and friends) and a gang of right-wing Christian zealots in Texas led by Gov. Perry.

At issue are lofty legal technicalities concerning international law: specifically, whether Texas violated the 1963 Vienna Convention in respect to Leal and is ignoring an edict from the International Court of Justice in The Hague on how it ought to be treating Mexicans accused of serious crimes in the state. Last Friday, lawyers for the Obama administration went to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a stay of execution for Leal. Gov. Perry is determined not to grant it.

The case revolves around an alleged slip-up made by law-enforcement authorities in San Antonio. After arresting Leal, they failed to tell him that as a Mexican national, he had a right to contact Mexico's consular officials. Supposedly, Leal would have exercised that right -- and then Mexico's government would have provided him the best defense Mexico could buy.

Predictably, the mainstream media has given lots of sympathetic coverage to Leal in a case pitting Texas against Washington, Mexico -- and the world. As The New York Times recently put it: Leal "was denied his rights under the Vienna Convention to consult Mexican consular officials" (emphasis added). In fact, Leal wasn't denied anything. He simply wasn't told what his rights were under an obscure provision of the Vienna Convention concerning consular relations; it was often overlooked at the time by local police departments. The convention is signed by some 183 nations, including Mexico and the United States.

Why wouldn't Leal think to ask about seeing a consular official -- something most Americans would do if arrested in Mexico or other foreign country? Perhaps it was because Leal had been in the U.S. since he was 2 years old and regarded himself as an American. Or perhaps like many poor and uneducated Mexicans, Leal would be shocked to know that Mexico's government -- in spite of its notoriously corrupt and inefficient criminal justice system -- would be eager to provide him with top-notch defense lawyers.

Or perhaps San Antonio's police were caught in a Catch-22 situation. In many parts of Texas, police are forbidden to ask criminal suspects about their immigration status -- doing so is regarded as racist "profiling." Accordingly, police couldn't very well ask Leal if he was a Mexican and perhaps in the country illegally. Mexico's government has protested loudly against such outrages.

Of course, Mexico's sudden interest in citizens like Leal smacks of political grandstanding, motivated by the feeling that Texas and other parts of America have essentially become appendages of Mexico.

The lawyer whom Mexico has provided to defend Leal is Sandra L. Babcock, a law professor at Northwestern University. She seems to think that in another trial, she could raise enough doubts about her client's guilt that a jury would give him a life sentence. Among other things, she claims a Catholic priest raped Leal when he was a boy. But given the weight of evidence against Leal, it's inconceivable he'd be found innocent in another trial.

In coming to Leal's defense, the Obama administration claims that if the U.S. fails to do right by Leal, Americans abroad could be denied access to consular access when accused of crimes. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief that executing Leal "would place the United States in irreparable breach of its international-law obligation to afford [Leal] review and reconsideration of his claim that his conviction and sentence were prejudiced by Texas authorities' failure to provide consular notification and assistance under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations."

In another effort to save Leal, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has asked Gov. Perry to commute his death sentence to life in prison.

In Mexico, ordinary citizens can expect little from their country's criminal justice system; it's not a place where they can count on receiving justice. So it is surprising that Mexicans on death row in the U.S. can expect so much from their government. Americans, moreover, have always fared badly when caught in Mexico's criminal justice system; it's one of the risks of going to Mexico, and international law does not seem to offer additional guarantees of safety to visitors going there. Yet in this case and others, Mexico presents itself as a paragon of virtue, committed to the lofty ideals of international law that Texas and other U.S. states are ignoring.

In 2004, Mexico sent its top legal talent to the International Court of Justice in The Hague -- and complained about 51 of its citizens being on death rows in various U.S. states; none, they complained, had been advised that their government was prepared to offer them top lawyers for their defense.

That Hague court ruled that the U.S. was indeed bound by the treaty -- prompting President George W. Bush to ask the states to apply it and review cases involving Mexican citizens awaiting death sentences. However, Gov. Perry was unimpressed. He refused to grant a stay-of-execution for Jose Medellin, 33, an illegal immigrant from Mexico found guilty in the 1993 rape-strangulation of two teenage Houston girls, Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Peña. Instead, Medellin was executed, despite having never been informed that Mexico was ready to provide him with a great lawyer.

Jennifer's father, Randy Ertman, was outraged that international law was evoked in behalf of his daughter's killer. "It's just a last-ditch effort to keep the scumbag breathing," he said. "I don't care, I really don't care what anyone thinks about this except Texas. I love Texas. Texas is in my blood."

Gov. Perry was on firm legal ground in not ordering a stay-of-execution for Medellin to allow his case to be reviewed another time. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled Congress needed to ratify the treaty, as the Senate had done, for it to become binding on U.S. states.

Earlier this year, the Council of Europe, the continent's highest human rights body, called for U.S. legislation to shore up the Vienna treaty -- thus making it binding on U.S. states. Of course, passing such legislation could become a political liability for lawmakers who care about what their constituents think about them -- rather than what a human-rights court in Europe thinks about them.

Ultimately, the Obama administration hopes Congress will ratify the Vienna treaty in the coming months -- and that granting Leal a stay-of-execution will buy him time. This could save him from the death chamber and possibly get him a new trial -- or commutation of his sentence to life.

Meanwhile, Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recently introduced legislation to help Leal and other foreign nationals who are facing death sentences -- but who were "denied" consular assistance. The bill would provide for an automatic federal review of their cases and, most importantly, require a stay of execution if necessary. Mexico must be a big fan of the Democratic senator from Vermont.

Leal's crime, of course, has been long forgotten amid the high-minded debate about his rights under the Vienna treaty. Sauceda, his victim, had been at a party the night she died, and alcohol and drugs were being passed around. She got drunk. Eventually, she ended up being gang-raped as young men took turns over her.

Leal, claiming to party-goers that he was Sauceda's friend, offered to give her a ride home. Later, Sauceda was found nude and bloodied in a field -- her head bashed in and bite marks over her body. To rape her, Leal used a stick about 15 inches long. He left it inside her when he'd finished. The stick, according to medical evidence, was used while she was alive -- and hence the rape charge.

Leal has had myriad legal motions and appeals filed in his behalf. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stated that Leal was "overwhelmingly" guilty. Bite marks, DNA evidence, confessions Leal made to various people -- all helped to convict him. Ultimately, the court determined that whatever mistakes Leal's lawyers made, if any, were insignificant -- and that he got a fair trial. A new one would produce the same outcome.

How does the family of Adria Sauceda feel about how the case against Leal has evolved -- going from a heartbreaking rape and murder case to one in which Leal has become something of an international celebrity, a victim himself? Nobody in the mainstream media has ever thought to talk to them until the San Antonio Express-News ran a long front-page story last Sunday.

The family declined to talk about the controversy over Leal, but instead talked only about Adria. "It's like it was yesterday," said Rene Sauceda, her father. "The pain, it's like it just happened." What might the judges in The Hague think about that?

All in all, the case of Humberto Leal Jr. vs. Texas must be a fun subject for Professor Babcock to pontificate upon in the faculty lounge at Northwestern University.

Originally published at The American Thinker