Commentary & Opinion

Total student debt in America has hit the $1 trillion mark, exceeding, for the first time, national credit card debt.  Yet at this very moment, the airways and media outlets are alive with stories and opinion pieces regarding the imminent doubling of the interest rate on new Stafford Subsidized Loans to undergraduates.  While in college at least half-time, students holding such need-based, federally guaranteed loans pay no interest; rather, the government pays the interest which accrues during that time.

Total student debt in America has hit the $1 trillion mark, exceeding, for the first time, national credit card debt.  Yet at this very moment, the airways and media outlets are alive with stories and opinion pieces regarding the imminent doubling of the interest rate on new Stafford Subsidized Loans to undergraduates.  While in college at least half-time, students holding such need-based, federally guaranteed loans pay no interest; rather, the government pays the interest which accrues during that time. These loans, currently at a  3.4% interest rate, represent a critical element in the to


For as long as I can recall the Port Authority has been a mystical institution with enormous responsibility and with an overhang of patronage and soft money allegations. In a recent audit the Port Authority was described as dysfunctional and running up billons in cost overruns. Most significantly, the audit spoke to “insufficient cost controls” and “a lack of transparent and effective oversight.”


The AP recently revealed a spying operation by the New York City police on Muslims and Muslim institutions. What should we think about that?

Several years ago I arranged to teach a course on Privacy Law because I wanted to figure that out. I read, studied, corresponded with experts in the field and chaired a committee to come up with solutions. Here is some of what I’ve come up with.

For those public broadcasters who always ask the question: “Is classical music dead or doomed?” in interviews before every concert they air, this commentator has a simple coherent answer: “Only if you will it!”  Most Public Broadcasting execs seem privately convinced but too chicken to say, what they already believe.  So they ask the question, praying someone else will intone the answer they seek.  Theirs’ is a suspicion fallaciously raised, ever since ‘Classical Music’ was born.  In truth, as the inimitable ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong used to put it:  “There’s only two kinds of music… Good and Bad


We love to complain about the lack of a coherent national energy policy. It’s a perennial complaint no matter who is in the White House or which party controls Congress. We blame the oil and gas companies and their hold on our politicians. If Congress had the people’s interests at heart, the story goes, we’d have a rational energy policy in this country that would emphasize efficiency, wean us off the dirty stuff and shift us to clean renewable energy.

In the beginning, the country’s public radio stations decided they needed an organization to provide them with world and national news. Probably based on As It Happen from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, National Public Radio (NPR)’s All Things Considered was started.  If the member stations all kicked in, it was theorized, together they could afford a formidable news-gathering operation.  Today, WAMC alone pays the network more than $800,000 a year. That’s a lot of money.  It’s worth it, but it’s a tremendous burden considering all the other things we do here.

Despite the ever-shrinking number of smokers, cigarette use is still a top public health priority.  And despite the incredible gains that have been made, the carnage caused by smoking still takes an enormous physical and financial toll.

Into this debate comes a product that advertises itself as a way for smokers to reduce the harm caused by cigarette use and a way for smokers to comply with smoking bans in work and public places.

That product is the “electronic cigarette” or e-cigarette.

Lately, I’ve been seeing and savoring quite a few foreign language films: titles that have not enjoyed across-the-board theatrical releases in the U.S. This lack of theatrical exposure is not because these films are lacking in quality. They are in fact engrossing and provocative.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1980s, at a time when HIV/AIDS was decimating the gay community. AIDS has since been rendered a chronic but manageable illness with the development of effective antiviral drugs (at least for those who can afford them), but at that time a diagnosis of AIDS was considered to be a death sentence.


Writing in the New York Times (4/8/12) Ross Douthat argues “that religious common ground has all but disappeared.” The existence of a Judeo Christian center that helped bind the teeming nation together is in retreat, he claims. In a nation as divided as ours, religious polarization is inescapable as the race to the presidency has already suggested.

Tasked with helping draft a constitution for India after World War II, B. N. Rau traveled abroad speaking to jurists. In Washington, Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter advised Rau not to include a due process clause in the Indian Constitution. Instead India should have a clause simply requiring that no one be charged with a crime but by the law of the land. That was the meaning of the Magna Carta in 1215 which said:

No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned … or in any way destroyed … except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

In 2001, after receiving a solicitation letter in the mail and then viewing a TV interview of Walter Cronkite, Honorary National Chairman of the Interfaith Alliance, this commentator became a member.  The idea of religious and lay leaders of many faiths joining together to ensure utmost support for the constitutional certainty of both religious freedom and church/state separation was an irresistible inducement.  When I later learned of the formation of an affiliated unit, in New York State, I became an avid supporter.

 This past week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued final regulations to require oil and gas drillers to capture harmful air pollutants that escape from wells during drilling operations, and from natural gas storage facilities and pipelines.  The final rule is a first, and it's good news. But the new rules take 2 and a half years to become effective. New York can and should do better.

Cigarettes cause cancer.  Each pack has a warning label that tells us that.  Tobacco smoke not only hurts the smoker, but the smoke also harms non-smokers.  That’s the reason why laws were passed banning smoking in all work places and public places. 

When the most recent Iraq war began, I was serving as student rabbi at a wonderful little synagogue in New England.  One of the regulars at our monthly Torah study was a World War II veteran – let’s call him Sam.  Sam would always bring consideration and deep insight to text study.  But more than that, Sam was – and is – a mensh.

BULLY, a new documentary whose title tells you all you need to know about its subject matter, has been earning reams of publicity– and deservedly so. For one thing, the Motion Picture Association of America, the organization charged with rating movies, originally slapped BULLY with an “R” rating. This designation would prevent countless young people who need to be educated about the effects of bullying from seeing this important film. (Happily, the MPAA has indeed changed the film’s rating to “PG-13.”)

The numbers are in for March auto sales and lo and behold, electric vehicles and gas-electric hybrid vehicles had their biggest month ever.  According to the Associated Press, consumers bought a record 52,000 gas-electric hybrids and electric vehicles in March, up from 34,000 a year ago. The higher numbers come –not coincidentally—as gasoline prices return to around $4 a gallon.

There have always been many good reasons to choose to drive the most fuel-efficient vehicles:

It has been widely reported that the Chinese government is providing loans and outright grants to Latin American and African nations for the construction of schools, clinics, power plants, and even soccer stadiums. The Chinese have flexed their economic prowess across the globe generating approval in many quarters and raised eyebrows and concerns in some diplomatic circles.

There was some big news for New York’s uninsured last week.  First, a report was released that examined the characteristics of those upstate New Yorkers who lack health insurance coverage.  Using data obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau, the health insurer Excellus released a profile of those who lacked health insurance in upstate New York.  Here are some of them:

HOUSE OF PLEASURES, which was shown on the film festival circuit under the more appropriate and less commercially exploitable title HOUSE OF TOLERANCE, is a stinging mood piece which explores the plight of a group of prostitutes in a high-end Parisian bordello at the turn of the 20th–century.

A hospital in Texas recently made the national news when it announced that it would no longer hire obese workers. According to the new employment policy at the Citizens Medical Center in Victoria, Texas, all new employees — be they physicians, nurses, orderlies or janitors — must have a body mass index (BMI) of less than 35.

While the Road to Serfdom is paved with good intentions gone awry; the road to self fulfillment—the dream of the modern person—is constructed with freedom stones resembling personal license. What is emerging in the United States, based in part on the empirical data in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, is a selective version of morality. If it feels good, do it. The constraints inspired by the Judeo-Christian tradition, our genetic inheritance, even our sex, are mere trifles compared to personal choice and desire. To my astonishment, even murder is justified as an act of personal morality.

Stephen Gottlieb: Environmental liability

Apr 10, 2012

Let me suggest a solution to the fracking problem. The self-styled energy companies want to draw natural gas out of the shale deposits deep below the earth’s surface. Environmentalists like myself believe that fracking will foul the drinking water, damaging a much more crucial resource than the gas they’ll extract.  We also think that if gas is so valuable, they wouldn’t be burning it off where it already comes up alongside oil wells. But that’s another story. Let’s stick to safety.

To echo the March 28th front page of the New York Times, “Adrienne Rich, a poet of towering reputation— and one of the best known American intellectuals— has died,— at the age of 82.”   Author of  two dozen volumes of superb and searing poetry, plus a half-dozen more of prose, all totaling close to a million copies in sales, she was for me and countless other committed readers, a revered teacher and prophet.  As our nation approaches an historic crisis of conscience, a most appropriate tribute to this towering literary Titan is found in her own clairvoyant words, written in 1983 but amazing

Today Dr. James Hansen, the well known American climate scientist, will accept the prestigious Edinburgh Medal for his work on climate change science. The Edinburgh Medal is awarded each year to a person of science whose professional achievements are judged to have made a significant contribution to the understanding and well-being of humanity.  Dr. Hansen will reportedly use the occasion to talk about climate change as a moral issue of unprecedented scale.

IN DARKNESS, directed by Agnieszka Holland, tells the story of a coldhearted sewer worker and small-time criminal in Nazi-occupied Poland who hides a group of Jews who are in grave danger of being exterminated. He does so for profit only, but as time passes he forms a bond with his charges and becomes deeply involved in their lives, and their plights.


Samuel Claiborne: The Current Crop of Republicans

Apr 9, 2012

Where to begin with the current crop of republicans? We have newt Gingrich threatening to lock up any judge who dares to disagree with his edicts when he’s crowned king, I mean, elected president. We have Mitt Romney’s utter tone-deafness to the woes of the middle class. And we have Rick Santorum, a man evidently sprung full grown from some bronze-age cave, fully convinced that women are chattel, and gays should be burnt at the stake.


Herbert London: The New Defense Posture For America

Apr 4, 2012

In testimony given to the Congress, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asserted that Congress’s war powers authority is irrelevant. As he described it, U.S. intervention in Libya, Syria or elsewhere would be justified by permission from “relevant” international tribunals, such as the U.N. Security Council and NATO. The approval of the congressional representatives being unnecessary.

Let’s understand what that argument about the health insurance mandate was about. Everybody agreed that a single payer system would have been constitutionally OK. It would have been based on the taxing power. However toxic taxes are to the public, legally they are not particularly toxic. Everyone admits the taxing power is broad.