Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Money is Speech

The Citizen's United decision passed by the Supreme Court awhile back has been a contentious ruling since it came out. Now, Arizona has passed a law to help remedy some of the major issues with the law. Specifically, Arizona has given candidates a public financing option that will give their campaigns money to equalize funding to those who receive private contributions. It's all in the name of political fairness, since there is now no limit to the amount of money can be given anonymously to a candidate. The law is designed to level the playing field and give all politicians the opportunity to reach the voters.

Unfortunately, this law is being contested as unconstitutional and has been brought before the Supreme Court once again. Since money is now considered speech, and the limitation of money is a limit on free speech, the opponents argue that, by giving money to other candidates limits the rights of those who receive private contributions.

Taking a leap here to make a connection, I'm going to say this argument is similar to the argument against gay marriage. Those who support it say it is a way to give everyone equal rights. Those who are against it say that it marginalizes the value of the rights of heterosexual couples.

I really hope that the Supreme Court will vote to keep the law on the books, because it would be a ruling that helps negate some of the influence of the rich and powerful over the political arena. When a billionaire is able to give millions and millions to a political candidate, it's not a fair and balanced system. When the poor have less influence because they cannot contribute to a campaign, it's time to level the playing field. This law does that. By equalizing the money being given to political campaigns, the law gives power and influence back to the little people and brings a sense of balance back to elections.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Entitlement Reform

This is a great blog post by Robert Creamer about why the proposed entitlement reform is a bad thing. He lays out some very good arguments about the root causes of the reform movement, their intentions and goals in arguing for reforms of entitlements, and what those changes will cost the average American. I strongly recommend reading it.

Along with entitlement reform, Conservatives are seeking to cut eligibility of households to participate in the Food Stamp program if a working member of that household is on strike. What it essentially does is tell people that, if they are fighting for better wages and benefits to be able to support their family, they will now lose the safety net they depend on. Oh, and the bill also adds the following to the Declaration of Policy in the Food Stamp program:

"Congress further finds that it should also be the goal of the food stamp program to increase employment, to encourage healthy marriage, and to promote prosperous self-sufficiency which shall mean the ability of households to maintain an income above the poverty level without Government services and benefits."

We Deserve Better

I've been reading stories about the London protests over public spending cuts and wondering how this should reflect on the American system and what we are facing now. It struck me that, as a whole, Americans have not been standing up for things like reasonable tax distribution, reasonable spending cuts, and reason in general. There have been isolated demonstrations in response to specific issues (WI is a good example), but the overarching problems have not been addressed in this way, especially not recently. It's as if the people in America don't know or care that they are being taken advantage of.

This really bothers me. I've tried to understand the theory of tax cuts for the rich. I've tried to rationalize the reduction in spending for programs that benefit the poor, specifically medicare and social security. I've tried to wrap my head around deregulation, privatization of social security, continued privatization of health care, and the tax breaks and other handouts given to big businesses and wealthy individuals. I've tried to figure out multimillion dollar salaries plus multimillion dollar bonuses every year despite "economic distress", the poor job gains each month when businesses are posting record profits, and the belief that it's the government that's keeping people from working. I try and I don't understand.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's the government regulation that keeps businesses from hiring because they are worried about losing their money to taxes and overhead costs. Maybe, by giving the rich an even larger slice of the pie, we will see that investment lead to better returns for the millions of lower and middle class Americans currently struggling. And maybe, by deregulating, the quality of our goods and services will not deteriorate for corporate profit; perhaps they will stay the same or get better to promote competition.

I could be wrong, but I don't have that much faith in humanity. For one thing, all of those things require me to allow people to operate on the worst parts of human nature: back-stabbing, greedy competitiveness, a disregard for others, and a self-serving bias that comes before everything else. This is the underlying principle of Capitalism, and it is sad that we promote these traits as methods for success. Secondly, things like fiscal conservatism have been hijacked and claimed to be part and parcel of social conservatism. Recently, conservatives have said that social conservatism means fiscal conservatism. Really? I don't understand how allowing a woman the right to have an abortion, or allowing two men to marry, leads to a less fiscally responsible society. But things like morality, ethics, and opinion have become the currency and battlegrounds of our politics. There's no debate on the ethical ramifications of corporate tax giveaways, but we hear no end to the debate on the ethical ramifications of marriage equality. We as a people have been forced to forget underlying issues, the crumbling foundation that we are poised upon, and are instead told to focus on the peeling paint on the walls of our democracy.

There is no easy solution, but that is what people demand. We have been told, over and over, that if we just vote for candidate X, if we just deregulate, if we just cut taxes for the wealthy, if we just ban abortions and gay marriage, then everything will even out and we will find ourselves on the far side of an economic crisis. But the golden age of America is passing before our eyes because, by making these quick decisions, we are allowing the things that brought us to the top to die away. We are looking for a bandaid to fix a broken arm, and aren't interested in the slow, careful healing that's required.

There is plenty of blame to go around. It is on our shoulders that we have become lazy and blind to our own oppression. We are to blame for allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of. But it is also the fault of those who have taken our money and our freedoms, and have forced us into a cage of misinformation and shadows. And how do we break out? How do we effect the kind of social and political and economic change that will bring us back to prosperity, back to the forefront of technology, economic innovation, and education? I don't have all the answers, but I have opinions. I have hope. Let's stand up, like the citizens of London, for every square inch of our liberties and benefits. Let's not roll over once more and let our future be gambled away for short-term gains. Let's act like citizens of the best country in the history of mankind. Let's act like Americans.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Editorial

A great editorial by Bob Herbert, an 18 year veteran at the New York Times. The article, titled "Losing our Way," describes the economic crises that plague America today, and how these crises impact the working people.

Some of the insights and information are very good, and Mr. Herbert is exceptionally well-written on this topic. He makes some plain assertions and discusses a topic that has been chewed over by the media so much that it has become unrecognizable.

This is a great article, definitely worth a read, and I would encourage everyone to do so.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Segal, the Lawman

Cockfighters, beware! Steven Segal will find you and roll down your street in a tank!

No, it's not a joke. It happened. In Arizona. A man who was suspected of cockfighting was visited by a swat team in an armored vehicle, bomb robots, and tank being driven by actor Steven Segal.

The stunt was meant to promote Segal's new show Lawman, on A&E. This site has a great video of the arsenal brought to bear against this perpetrator.

Segal cleans up our streets, one chicken in a cage at a time!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eugenics in America

In case you are not familiar with the term, eugenics is the belief that we can create a perfect human race, eliminating disease and defects, by controlling who can reproduce. It's a theory that was first put forth by a couple of doctors at the University of Vermont, but was demonized by the Nazi's in WWII. Today, eugenics is considered very far beyond the pale, and just about everyone believes it to be wrong.

But not everyone.

According to pediatrician Stephen Potter of the Children's Hospital in Cincinnati, we could bring eugenics back to America by screening embryos for genetic defects that will lead to further complications. A doctor that treats children and pregnant women thinks that we should allow testing on embryos so that we can discard those with high risk for deformation and illness.

The question has to be asked, then: what are the limits? What constitutes bad genes? Will an embryo with genetic predisposition to something like dwarfism be terminated, even if the likelihood is small and the condition is not life-threatening? And what happens if a parent opts not to kill the embryo? Will they be told that, because they decided to keep their child who has health problems that they will not get financial assistance as it was their choice and they must live with the consequences?

These are serious problems with eugenics, genetic selection, and all the rest of it. I don't think that Dr. Potter's plans will get far, particularly with all the crazed conservatives running around in congressional halls across the country, but it's still a disturbing plan.

Why I can't vote Republican

There is no issue that I put more emphasis on than education. Above and beyond any other position or principle, it is education that has, does, and will define our country as a success or a failure. Our freedom and legal requirement for all citizens to be taught is a right that defines us and separates us from nations we tend to see as oppressive. A country is defined by how it treats the least of its citizens, those least able to help or provide for themselves, and it speaks volumes of our humanitarian roots that we have so focused historically on education.

That being my mindset, I believe we should spare no expense in the education of our future, our children, and the continuing education of our workforce by making higher education affordable for everyone. I believe that public school is the shining light of our nation, but that it has become bogged down with standards and has become ineffectual at its purpose. And who has perpetuated this? Who has pushed for education reforms and national standards?

Republicans.

The sick irony in this is that, as a whole, conservatives tend to devalue education, to the point where its defunding has become a platform and talking point. The cons emphasize their family values, push for home education, and complain about how "brainwashing" our schools have become. Yet, instead of looking to fix the problem, the exacerbate by passing legislation like NCLB, which makes schools even less effective. They call for the slashing of education funding, and then go to rallies and say that public education is failing our children. Hypocrisy all around.

The result of this continued destruction of our education is a move toward home schooling. In fact, this has become a part of the GOP line, promoting old-fashioned education principles, teaching children at home where they are safe from the overwhelming standards of excellence and where parents can teach them whatever they want. They can teach them that 2+2=5, that guns are a gift from God that liberals want to take away, or that lower taxes on the rich means that those at the bottom will live happily ever after.

The problem with promoting home schooling and private schools as a better alternative to mind-altering public options is that those are not feasible for people who have to, you know, work for a living. It's a further hypocrisy of the GOP that they will come out and say they are defenders of the working class and then work for years to take away working class education. What person with a full-time job has the hours it takes to effectively school their children? What person making less than $50,000 a year has enough money to send their children to private school? Very few, if any, would be able to stomach that, but that is what is being emphasized by Republicans.

NCLB standards are being ramped up again this year, so that things that were taught in 5th grade this year are being taught in 4th next year. So, the child who is now in 3rd grade will be learning 5th grade level concepts in about six months. Oh, and do you remember that scientific method from school? The several steps to perform a scientific experiment? I learned it in 7th grade. Children now learn it in 1st. This has got to stop.

the art of doublespeak

Newt Gingrich, the cheating, brainy GOP champion of the 90's, has been flopping like a dying fish all over the air waves, criticizing Obama for being too friendly with Libya, then criticizing Obama for doing exactly what Newt said he should.

Gingrich, like so many GOPers these days, is trying everything he can to discredit the President, even if it means contradicting himself. Conservatives don't care about the hypocrisy of their own arguments because, as long as they are making people upset and angry with Obama, they're doing their job.

In the great book 1984, there is a scene where a politician is giving a speech during "Hate Week." During the speech, he is ranting and raving against Eurasia, the enemy. Then, an aide comes up and whispers in his ear and, in mid-sentence, the speaker switches his attack to Eastasia, and all the people simply accept the change in that moment. This is a lot like how our current conservatives seem to operate. They spit and scream about something Obama does, but when he changes tactics and acquiesces to their demands, they begin to spit and scream about that as well and setting themselves up to oppose it. Obama compromised on health care reform, the wars, Guantanamo Bay, the budget, and just about every other major piece of legislation. Yet every time he did this, the GOP screamed about it.

Quite regularly, Rush Limbaugh explains Obama's incompetence by saying that Obama has failed to close "Club Gitmo", one of his campaign promises. Before Obama was elected, Limbaugh slammed him for wanting to close the prison, saying it would compromise national security. Now that it's being left open, Limbaugh is slamming Obama for being ineffectual and being unable to get anything done.

This consistent doublethink by the GOP should have made people aware of the kind of fear and hate-mongering they perpetuate against their opponents. There is no acknowledgment of facts, no acknowledgment of compromise by the Left, just attack for their actions, whether the GOP once promoted them or not. At least Newt is among friends.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Abortion laws

There have been a couple of new laws passed in various states in the last few days, and they raise some eyebrows. Firstly, you have South Dakota, which has passed the most strict guidelines for receiving an abortion: three-day wait, anti-abortion counseling, and other red tape that are meant to deter a woman from choosing an abortion.

And then there's Arizona. Arizona has passed an abortion bill that will make it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion that is being sought because of the race of gender of the child. First of all, the doctor has no way of knowing what the true reasons for an abortion are, and it's not his place to know or care. It's his job to respect his patient's wishes. Second, the lawmakers who passed the bill have said that this bill is meant to combat gendercide in the U.S. which isn't even a problem. The percentages of girls and boys being born in the U.S. is the same as it has always been: girls are slightly higher. Since the numbers haven't changed in a generation or more, there can only be two explanations: either gendercide has been a problem in this country for over fifty years, or it simply doesn't happen in America. Places like China and India have problems with female babies being killed, but we don't. So what's the point?

Well, Arizona Republicans point out that women of ethnic minorities have higher rates of receiving abortions, and claim that this practice may be subject to the new restrictions if the abortion is being sought for racial reasons. Does this sound insane, bigoted, racist, and deliberately virulent to anyone else?

I understand and respect the GOP's position on abortion. I understand that they see it as a crusade against murder that abortion must be limited and, eventually, outlawed. The problem is that abortion is a right in America and should be available when needed. Doing anything less than protecting the rights and well being of women is a disgraceful dereliction of public duty and responsibility to the citizens our lawmakers represent.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Updated list of accomplishments

Dated by now, to be sure, but this is an updated list from the one I posted here. Never let it be said that Obama did nothing.

Where our tax dollars are

This is mesmerizing. Don't look at it too long or your blood pressure is likely to spike.

Losing Faith

Polls are interesting things. They're never very reliable but people seem to depend on them quite a bit. They're very easy to distort and present things the way the sponsor's want them to.

With that very large grain of salt, I present this. Of all the polls out there, this one might be the most accurate though, as I've said, that can be very hard to determine. It's no secret that people are fed up with Congress and government, squabbling over slivers when there's a tree coming down. I think people saw the Dems as being the ones that screwed everything up (they're not, they're just the ones that inherited a mess and were expected to clean it up), and so they went for the GOP last November. Now, I think people see that this isn't a partisan issue, no one side has a magic wand that is going to make this all go away. But that's what the people want.

Look at the Tea Party and all they stand for. They scream and yell and stamp their feet in the name of small government, low taxes, no entitlements, and no handouts. But the Tea Party is not for eliminating Social Security, Medicare, or the entitlements that they receive. They just don't want them given to the people who are not like them. They thought that if they could just get rid of Obamacare that everything would turn to strawberry fields. Well, that didn't happen and wouldn't have worked anyway.

People have been taught that every problem has a quick fix solution. Stop-gap budgets, bailouts, deregulation, cutting taxes, stripping organizations and programs of funding or their identity, and seeking to destroy entitlements to those who need them are all just bandaids. There's no long-term fix there, they just make the numbers look good for awhile. And this has been going on for years. While the rest of the world was revolutionizing and recreating themselves every few years to remain competitive, America has grown lazy in its innovation and evolution. It has become stagnant, holding on to old ideologies and "tried and true" ways of doing things. These approaches don't work anymore.

The way to solve our issues is not with fast promises and short-term solutions. We need to look at the underlying issues that are causing these problems. The disparity between rich and poor, the overwhelming influence of corporate America on our politics, and the imbalance of power and voice are what we need to address. I'm hoping this poll means that people see that we need more than tax cuts for the rich and to repeal universal health care. We need a plan.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Union percentages

Here's a great visual to outline the percentage of American workers in a given state that are part of unions. It should come as no surprise to most people that the states with the lowest percentages are Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, and North Carolina. The highest percentage states are Rhode Island, Michigan, Connecticut, New Jersey, California, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska, and New York.

I find it interesting that the states with the lowest percentage of workers in unions are mostly southern conservative states. These are states that traditionally go overwhelmingly republican in elections, tend to favor conservative legislation, and are the focus of GOP campaigns every reelection cycle. They are the backbone of conservative power in America, and that impact can be seen in these numbers.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bills in Congress

Just added this to my "links" page, but wanted to post it here and urge everyone to take a look at the bills that are being sponsored in Congress and who's sponsoring them.

Two sides of the taxation coin

There have been two separate plans put forth by two very different people that outline a decisive difference in how our lawmakers view taxes.

One, put forth by Ron Paul is this:

"HJRES 50—The Liberty Amendment - Repeals the 16th Amendment"

 The 16th Amendment is the amendment that establishes the income tax. Not only that, but Paul's bill also wants to abolish estate and gift taxes, and keep the federal government from creating any program that directly competes with citizens. For example, this bill would make it illegal for the government to create a federal bank to provide competition to other banks and lenders.


On the other side of the tax debate, Jan Schakowsky, a rep. from Ill, has put forth a bill that would create new income tax brackets for the excessively wealthy, breaking up the top tax bracket. Schakowsky's bill would make it so that a person making $350,000 a year and a person making $350,000,000 a year are no longer paying the same percentage in tax.


Looking at these two proposals, it's clear that there is a wide range of opinion when it comes to taxes. Some want to get rid of them, some want to raise them on those who can afford it. I tend to favor the second plan of having a graduated tax curve that increases as income increases. Our current plateaued tax model is based on income ranges that go back over fifty years, before people were making billions a year as well as bonuses of several million dollars as well. 


Taxes should be set at such a level that the Federal government comes out as close to even as possible. Raising taxes on the most wealthy, the ones who can afford it, will help deal with the deficits. Once that's out of the way (and I do believe it wouldn't be such a problem if we used common sense solutions), we can then reduce the tax rate and force the government to operate as a nonprofit organization. Every dollar brought it beyond overhead costs should be reinvested in America and our interests. It's a long way to the green pastures of financial stability, but taxes are the way to get us back on track.

The Laffer Curve

It seems that conservatives are maintaining a stranglehold on the theory of the Laffer Curve, while liberals are maintaining their staunch opposition to its ideas. The Laffer Curve is a theory of economics and taxation that says that the revenue received from taxation caps at X% tax rate (X% is constantly changing and open for discussion or dispute). The idea is that, when you have a 0% tax rate, the fed has no tax revenue (obviously), but that at 100%, no one will work because there is no incentive, bringing the fed tax revenue back to 0. The curve therefore represents the federal income based on the assumption that it is 0 at the extremes, and therefore maximized somewhere in the middle. The trick, accordingly, is to find the balance where the Fed receives the max amount of money while workers simultaneously have the lowest possible tax rate to create a work incentive.

The problem with this theory is that it is arbitrary, simplistic, and too open to interpretation. For example, conservatives tend to argue that the crest of the Curve is somewhere around 30%, so they continually argue for a tax rate as close to 30% as possible. Liberals tend to argue for a higher percentage, at least for the upper class. That's the other issue: the Curve does not take economic disparity into account, an issue that has become vastly more important as the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically over the last few years.

By the theory of the Laffer Curve, all income levels should be able to thrive on a low, flat tax rate. The problem is that the "low flat" tax model favors the rich disproportionately, and still requires the lower classes to pay themselves into poverty. It also means that, if taxes are raised then they are raised on everyone, not just on those who can afford it. There's no flexibility in the Curve and so its model could not successfully be implemented, but it is still used as a model for conservative tax plans.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Short Term Solutions, Long Term Problems

There has been, as most are aware, an overlong debate in Washington over the federal budget for the year. To date, lawmakers have merely passed stopgaps and pushed back the deadline for a final vote, tending to cut bits and pieces at a time rather than a large portion at once. This has caused a great amount of turmoil, and both sides are pointing fingers and blaming opponents for not cooperating.

The reason I think this might be good is that it is giving us a chance to think about the long-term effects of the cuts that have been proposed. For example, the initial budget put forth by the GOP called for a 28% cut to the funding for the National Weather Service, including the centers that monitor and report warnings for earthquakes like the one that struck Japan and had minor effects on the U.S. west coast. Had the original budget been adopted, that 28% cut would have been immediately implemented, and the safety of millions of people would have been put at risk. Imagine what would happen if there wasn't someone there to read the seismograph when a real shaker hit California. How many people would die without prior warning? Is it really worth it?

Of course, there are other examples, but the problem is that the effects of these cuts could be very long term, a generation at least in some cases. Look at education. GOPers calling to cut funding for things like Head Start won't see the error of the decision until those children flunk out of college or can't finish high school. Cutting education in any way shows few immediate effects other than the loss of job and increased class size, fewer classroom instruments for instruction, and fewer education services. As if that were not enough, the long term effects are worse still. Lower graduation rates, lower college attendance, lower overall grades for kids who come from larger classes and/or receive no Head Start or other services.

Unfortunately, our lawmakers seem to be looking at the short-term gains of their decisions. They are not looking at what it will cost in the long run. Why not cut something that is overwhelmingly expensive like defense? Why not slash military spending and force the pentagon to be more fiscally responsible and selective about its weapons and technology programs? Why not cut the funding for the federal government, cut the wages of our lawmakers, and make them pay taxes? It makes more sense to me that we cut spending in every area. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I agree with Rand Paul on that point. Everything should be considered, even Defense and congressional budgets.

Here's a good opinion piece on Medicaid as an example.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A fiscal slap in the face

Didn't pick up on this until late, but thought it was certainly worth a post. I thought that Wisconsin would be the worst and that public backlash would scare other conservative lawmakers toward making better choices for the public. Instead, we get this.

To be clear, this is a bill that allows a person to be appointed by the governor (rather than elected) who will perform several illegal and immoral acts in the community without any oversight, warning, or limitation other than their own twisted imagination. Oh, and they don't have to have even the most basic understanding of the area they are dealing with. So, a person who has never taken a course or class on education could very well be put in charge of teacher's contracts and school budgets. A person could simply fire any elected official that they don't like on the grounds that it will save money.

Welcome to the end of Democracy. And thank you to MI for this rousing performance. You have outshone WI in your complete disregard for human dignity and the democratic process. Sleep tight.

BofA landslide begins

The first pieces of information against Bank of America have started coming out through anonymous sources to be posted on various websites. Here is a link to the best I've found so far. If you poke around, particularly on HuffingtonPost and Daily KOS, you may find links to other sites.

This is a big story, one that has been brewing for months, since Julian Assange and his explosive exposure of documents from U.S. embassies around the world. Assange threatened to release documents about an American bank, and BofA has been running a campaign against him since. These first few pieces clearly show employees of BofA attempting to mislead auditors by eliminating the connection between reference numbers in their database and the loans held by individuals that they pertain to.

Every Child Left Behind

Obama is expected to come out in favor of reauthorizing NCLB for the next school year, heralding it as a great success in American education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has warned that NCLB needs to be rewritten in order to make it viable and flexible to meet the needs of the wide range of schools in our country.

If anyone has paid attention to our education statistics, it would appears as though NCLB has not been doing well by our children. Working in an education field, I am constantly witnessing what has become, in the words of Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010), "Test mills". Children are pressured to learn factoids, not concepts. They are given the very basic building blocks of information but not the context in which to put them.

In college, I was taught to take what I was learning and apply it. Take the information and turn it around on itself, use reflection and application to turn that into a vastly more complex and useful structure of knowledge that is more flexible. Children in our school's today are not pushed to do this. They are not pushed to ask 'why', to internalize what they were told and fit it into a continually growing network of information.

And the answer is not to privatize schools, to set education as a fiscal luxury rather than a right of all citizens. Things like school consolidation, larger class sizes, more qualified and lesser-paid teachers, and one-size-fits-all standards and testing are designed to save money, to turn education into a "profitable" business. But education is not meant to be profitable. It's like infrastructure and state-based health care. They don't make money, but we need them. Education doesn't make money for anyone except the people who work in the schools.

We need to go back to before NCLB, before national standards, before there were demands for what was taught by what year, and let teachers have the flexibility to make learning fun and easy for our children. We need to teach our children how to process information, how to make an educated decision. Repealing NCLB will undoubtedly help the struggling institutions, will bring a standard of excellence into the classroom that doesn't punish "bad" teachers, but praise the effort that every educator makes each day.

Watch this for a great interview with Ravitch by Jon Stewart.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Freedom, for better or worse

One of the hardest pills to swallow in America is giving rights to people that you don't agree with. The hearings in Washington in front of the HSC is a prime example of how we forget that those who believe differently still have a right to do so. Perhaps the hardest group to turn the other cheek with is the Westboro Baptist Church. I've written about them before, and they are constantly in the news, whether it be for a lawsuit they have slipped out of, a counter-suit they have won, or some new antic they are going to be performing at the expense of the peace of mind of their victims.

I recently read that WBC plans to picket the funerals for the seven children who died in that PA fire recently. This comes immediately after the church has "won" on a supreme court decision that their antics are protected under the First Amendment. While I, like just about everyone outside of WBC, finds their rhetoric completely nauseating and reprehensible, I have to agree with the supreme court that it is protected under the First Amendment.

It's the hardest thing, but the right thing, that has happened here. What if, hypothetically, the decision had gone the other way and a precedent was set for those who use inflammatory language and actions to be without constitutional protection? I think we would begin to see other people's free speech being taken away or challenged. Consider what would happen to our social discourse: if you think the PC is bad now, wait until people are no longer protected by an all-encompassing first amendment. No one would be able to say something bad about their opponent, no one would be able to go out and speak their mind and their beliefs because they could be jailed for libel or slander that is no longer protected. And what about the underground movements? What about the outspoken supporters for socialism or radical democracy? How long would it take to silence the voices of those who upset the status quo? What about silencing unions' voices (what little they have left)? How long before anyone who challenges the political powers that be is labeled a dissenter or felon?

There is a lot hinging on our freedom of speech. It is the freedom that spawns and protects and ensures all the others. It is the freedom that sets us apart, makes us unique, makes us American. And as much as we may hate the words that are spoken by people like WBC, we should at least respectfully acknowledge their right to say them, unless we are prepared to censor ourselves along with them.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Radicalization

Today begins the hearings into the radicalization of U.S. Muslims. I hadn't even realized how far this had gone until headlines started popping up on the internet today as witnesses began to testify to the House Homeland Security Committee. The hearing is meant to determine just what role radical Muslim ideology plays in American Muslims, how they are affected, and what the results might be for our security.

This is ridiculous.

First of all, Muslims are not the only people who ascribe to a religion that promotes violent radicalism in its extremes. Look at good ol' Christianity. When it is taken too far, it becomes Westboro Baptist, it turns people into bombers of abortion clinics and killers of abortion doctors, and it drives people to be so intoloerant of others that they will campaign to burn their holy books and burn crosses in their front yards. It becomes persecution and mass murder. The decision to hold hearings on Muslim radicalism is nothing more than fear-mongering turned viral, turned political power play, and used to churn up mistrust against someone who feels they should bow before their God when they pray.

Secondly, the fact that we are singling out one religious group for the focus of a hearing seems somewhat anti-American, doesn't it? The country that brought us manifest destiny and the justified murder of thousands of Native Americans is now worried that someone else's beliefs might make them think America is bad. Again, I'll reference Westboro, who thinks that America is evil as well, and yet are not the subject of hearings to determine how safe they are and how they affect their adherents. We have a freedom of religion in this country for a reason, and this hearing seems to be disregarding peoples constitutional protections of religious expression.

Lastly, these trials have the feel of being rigged. We all "know" that radicalism in any way is bad, can be bad for anyone, from radical liberalism and conservatism to radical social trends and militarization. We all "know" that there are those who see us as being their enemy and we are worried about their involvement in our country. Fine, I agree with that. But we have also built barriers that keep us from empathizing with others that we don't agree with. We have overgeneralized the term "Muslim" and turned it into a group of people we cannot trust, despite an overwhelming majority of them who wish us no ill will whatsoever. We have lost the ability to take a step in another's shoes. We don't seem to understand or care that what we do to American Muslims might do more harm than good in this sense. We don't see how we are marginalizing, criminalizing, an entire religion because of a few who have committed great atrocities in the name of their God and prophet. You can argue that this is not the reason or the intention of these hearings, but it doesn't have to be. The fact that they are happening is enough.

If we are going to have a hearing on radical Muslims, we should continue the trend and have hearings to address radical Christianity, radical Judaism, radical Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Paganism, and any other -ism we can come up with. Somehow, I don't see it happening.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

America's money

This is a great bit by Michael Moore regarding the financial situation in America. He discusses some of the major issues in our country, such as the growing gap between the rich and poor, the shakedown of those programs that help bring more money into the country.

It's astonishing to think that a) 400 rich Americans now control more money and assets than 50% of the American people combined, and b) that many of these super-rich people, along with massive corporations pay little to NO taxes.

In order to balance the power and benefits that are available in this country, we need to raise taxes on the rich and on businesses. Back in the 50's, the top wage bracket tax rate was 90%. Why not go back to that for those making $1 Million/ year or more. Think of it this way:

A person who makes $1 Million/ year and pays 90% in taxes takes home $100,000/ year. In 2009, the median wage for workers was about $50,000, so those at the "top tax bracket" would still be bringing home double what the "average" American would. And $100,000/ year comes to nearly $2,000 a week in pay, significantly more than most Americans. As the person in the top wage bracket earns more, they pay more, but take more home. For every million dollars, they're bringing home $200,000. That's certainly enough to live on. A person making $10 million will bring home $1 million. Why would this be unreasonable? Do the people who make this much money really need it all? Maybe, but maybe they could simply learn to live on less. Whatever happened to helping your fellow man? How about funding education and health care instead of hollowing them out and then demonizing them for failing to meet impossible standards?

That was a bit off-topic, but it's been stewing in my mind for a while. Anyway, Moore makes some interesting points about control of media and economic sources, the consolidation of wealth and power, and the new revolt, sparked out of Wisconsin, that has awakened the working class American to the power of voice and action. It's worth a read, even if it is a bit long.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Real News

SOS Clinton made an interesting point regarding the quality of American news media, comparing it to Al Jazeera and saying that the latter is a better source of information than the former.

At first, this sounds like a crazy claim, and I'm sure there are going to be anti-Clinton media moguls that will pick this up and tout it as evidence of the administration's pro-Muslim views. However, the fact that Clinton can even make that claim should be evidence of how woefully far our own media has fallen in terms of delivering good, solid information. In that sense, I kind of hope the media does pick up on this. It would certainly validate her arguments.

Our news has become entertainment, and entertainment has been forced to become even more insubstantial in order to remain separate. With people like Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and even Rachel Maddow being marketed as "entertainment news", it's not surprising that we haven't heard an informationally robust and accurate story in quite a while. And this is a point that has been made over and over regarding popular faces on T.V. For example, Fox does not describe Beck, O'Reilly, or Hannity as part of their "news" team, instead relegating them to entertainment sources. However, people listen to them, and their shows are designed, as news. Opinion and assertion, posturing and finger-pointing, are the basis of our news media on T.V.

I'd like to think that other media outlets are better, and in some ways they are. The internet is, at least for now, an outlet of free ideas where information can fly at the speed of a mouse-click. Print is in decline, and is perhaps even harder to get info out of than T.V., but with editing and fact-checking it can at least be accurately bland. Radio is still doing steady business, but has been more or less hijacked by the right, which has now succeeded in defunding NPR and further solidified it's presence on the dial.

In the end, we are being subjected to more entertainment, more fact distortion, and more fluff reporting than ever. It's no wonder that a news outlet like Al Jazeera, who is in the thick of revolution and can bring information from the frontline to the living room, is doing a better job than those news agents sitting comfortably in their offices and trolling the internet. We can and should do better.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ohio falls short of public expectation

Ohio state Senate has passed a bill similar to the one stalled in Wisconsin, but that goes further by also effecting the unions for firefighters and police officers, and impacting nearly double the number of people. State Republicans narrowly passed the bill, which strips unionized workers of bargaining rights for health benefits and pensions and eliminating their right to strike in order to pressure changes. It also puts the final decision of disputed contracts in the hands of elected officials instead of the groups that are directly involved: the union and the organization handling the contract.

The problem with this bill passing is that it sends a clear message that, despite obvious public opinion to the contrary, State legislatures are willing to strip these rights from unions for small gains in battling deficits. The disinformation being spread by talk radio that the majority of people in this country want these bills to pass serves the same basic function: it causes people to think that there really is an unseen majority out there that aren't being heard or thought of, who aren't demonstrating or talking out, but that believe that unions are a useless waste of money. Never mind that hundreds of thousands of people all across the country have been protesting these measures for weeks. Never mind that it has been clearly demonstrated that these measures are purely partisan politics in nature, designed to undermine the financial base of the democratic party, and that powerful lobbies on the Right have thrown huge amounts of money behind these laws. Never mind that there is not a single public union employee who has come out to say that they want their rights to be limited in order to save a few bucks which, in the long run, won't really save anything.

Speaking with teachers in my area, I get the impression that they are mortally afraid of these laws. The unions protect the meager salaries they receive (Yes, teachers get lots of time off, but they don't get paid for it, meaning they're effectively unemployed for five months out of the year). They compromise for benefits and keeping their health care premiums affordable. They work hard to ensure that the school board does not fire the most experienced, well-paid teachers for cheaper, less experienced alternatives.  Here's a great letter describing the changes that teachers have had to go through in the past several decades.

The law that has passed the Senate in Ohio, and is knocking on the door of legalization in Wisconsin, are deliberate attacks on people who serve vital roles in our community. They are designed to cripple the rights of these most precious national resources and force them into accepting standards that are far below those in the private sector. What happens when a career in teaching is no longer a source of sustainable income or long term benefit? What happens when our educators get no pensions or retirement benefits, no health insurance, no sick days, and are expected to consistently do much better with much less? What happens, in short, when educators are relegated to the level of "financial scapegoat" by our congressmen? Will we simply stop educating our children? Will we demand the public school system be revamped or else shut down? Will we make even more drastic decisions in an effort to shave pennies from deficits that have nothing to do with education spending?

An Open Letter to the World

[reprinted from Anonymous]

We stand at a unique time in our history, the rise of the internet and computer technology have contributed to an unparalleled rate of prosperity for the First World.

We have created for ourselves and empire unlike any other, a global network of constant trade and communication, a new age of technological advancement. We have come a long way from our humble roots in the Industrial Revolution and the days of Manifest Destiny. We are now pioneers on new digital frontiers expanding our domain from the quantum world to the far reaches of space.

And yet, the empire faces a crisis, a global recession, growing poverty, rampant violence, corruption in politics, and threats to personal freedom. As it was before in other times of crisis, the old stories have begun to repeat themselves. The half truths, this time repeated nightly on cable news and echoed through a series of tubes onto the internet: the empire is strong, change is unwise, business as usual is the answer. In times of uncertainty there are those who seek to add to the confusion, to prey on our insecurities and fears. Those who would seek to keep us divided for their own gain. The pervasive strategy takes many very convincing forms: Liberals and Conservatives, Christians and Muslims, Black and White, Saved and sinner.

But something unexpected is happening. We have begun telling each other our own stories. Sharing our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our demons. Every second, day in day out, into all hours of the night the gritty details of life on this earth are streaming around the world. As we see the lives of others played out in our living rooms we are beginning to understand the consequences of our actions and the error of the old ways. We are questioning the old assumptions that we are made to consume not to create, that the world was made for our taking, that wars are inevitable, that poverty is unavoidable. As we learn more about our global community a fundamental truth has been rediscovered: We are not so different as we may seem. Every human has strengths, weaknesses, and deep emotions. We crave love, love laughter, fear being alone and dream for a better life.

You must create a better life.

You cannot sit on the couch watching television or playing video games, waiting for a revolution. You are the revolution. Every time you decide not to exercise your rights, every time you refuse to hear another view point, every time you ignore the world around you, every time you spend a dollar at a business that doesn’t pay a fair wage you are contributing to the oppression of the human body and the repression of the human mind. You have a choice, a choice to take the easy path, the familiar path, to walk willingly into your own submission. Or a choice get up, to go outside and talk to your neighbor, to come together in new forums to create lasting, meaningful change for the human race.

This is our challenge:

A peaceful revolution, a revolution of ideas, a revolution of creation. The twenty-first century enlightenment. A global movement to create a new age of tolerance and understanding, empathy and respect. An age of unfettered technological development. An age of sharing ideas and cooperation. An age of artistic and personal expression. We can choose to use new technology for radical positive change or let it be used against us. We can choose to keep the internet free, keep channels of communication open and dig new tunnels into those places where information is still guarded. Or we can let it all close in around us. As we move in to new digital worlds, we must acknowledge the need for honest information and free expression. We must fight to keep the internet open as a marketplace of ideas where all are seated as equals. We must defend our freedoms from those who would seek to control us. We must fight for those who do not yet have a voice.

Keep telling your story. All must be heard.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

federal budget

The federal budget is still being debated in Washington and we've heard over and over how the cuts are going to be deep and generally in the field of social services and environmental and health care programs. The GAO just released a report outlining areas of overlap and excess expenditure that they feel could save billions of dollars a year for taxpayers. Of course, FOX picked this up and is running a piece on it. One of the comments on the article was this:

"I'm not seeing the part where it says the EPA, the DOEng, DOEd, and the DOAg are all completely illegal and unnecessary, to name a few to start. Every single penny spent on them is a waste of money."

Just to be clear, this person is asserting that the EPA, as well as departments of energy, education, and agriculture are illegal and that we don't even need them. The possibility of going without these programs is as scary as the possibility of going without public education, and learning being limited to those who can afford private schools. By gutting things like education, state-funded schools falter and fail as the costs for their work increases and they receive less help. Then, those who oppose their existence can claim that they are broken and costly luxuries, that they aren't even performing the tasks they are supposed to, and can argue for their closure.