Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Craziness is Coming

There are a lot of stories coming up today, so instead of posting a full note on each, I'm condensing to one long post, and entrusting you can read the articles for more info.

1) According to a new report, America will need to spend about $1 trillion over the next 25 years to improve and repair our water system. That's a pretty hefty chunk of change, even if it's spread out over the course of decade or two. Like most infrastructure investment, it's been placed on the back burner by the GOP as Washington tries to handle it's "debt crisis." But like most infrastructure jobs, repairing water mains and lines could be a huge boon to the economy through job creation. And the great thing about it is, it's needed just about everywhere. The government could easily funnel money into projects that are targeted to high-unemployment areas to alleviate the economic pressures there. Jobs would go to where they were most needed, it would get people up and working again, and start the economy going in the right direction. And it's not just water, but roads, bridges, and especially the power grid.

But as I had a friend point out, our utilities are largely owned by private, for-profit companies. These companies have allowed their systems to fall apart while continuing to jack up prices on their services. In my home state, an out-of-area company recently purchased one of our main power supply companies. Immediately, they attempted to sell it since the companies power station was about to lose it's license. The fact that businesses like this will play financial games with people's power, water, and other services is very distressing to me. Either utilities for the public should be owned by the public (i.e. government), or the government should have more direct control over how they're run.

2) The Dems are attempting to trap the GOP in the senate with their own policies by agreeing to vote on a transportation bill that has an added amendment to allow any employer to deny health coverage on moral grounds. This idea has been thrown around ever since Obama's mandate required all employers (even religious ones) to cover contraception for their employees. Neglecting to point out that over 25 states already have legislation that requires this, the GOP started attacking the position, and then tried to go a step further by saying that any employer, religious or secular, should have the ability to deny a health care service if it went against their morals. There are, of course, a lot of problems with this surrounding reasonable restrictions to the law. For example, what's to stop an employer from covering any procedure they want in order to save money, simply by saying it goes against their personal beliefs? The issue that arises is that there is no way to legislate or dictate a person's morality. There is no way to prove or disprove a person's convictions, and so it becomes a legal nightmare to prove that someone acted out of fiscal concern rather than moral concern. And there's no limit to what can be denied, either. It could be extended to cover anything that is normally guaranteed under a companies health plan.

3) The birther movement may be a bad joke to most Americans, but one man is redefining the debate in a decidedly discriminatory light. According to the article, Mr. Warren seems to think that any person that is not a white male can be in public office. This is based on his literal interpretation of the original constitution without all those pesky amendments that came later and guaranteed rights for millions in the female and minority categories. And unfortunately, he's not alone in his thinking. Racism is not dead in this country, unfortunately, and it seems to me that a politician, regardless of race, should be able to stand on their principles and not their pigmentation.

4) And now for the irony/hypocrisy stories. There are a few. First of all, Republicans are lambasting a proposed energy source that they used to support because Obama now supports it. Big surprise. Since fossil fuels will not be around forever, I thought it would make sense to invest in new, renewable energy now, mostly so we could be at the forefront of future technology and bring ourselves a huge economic boom by selling that technology to other nations. Oh well.

National Review Online has a post that attacks Liberals for a tactic that was not only used by the GOP in the 2008 election, but was originally proposed by Limbaugh. The post tries desperately to make a distinction between the two ideas, which is futile since they're exactly the same. It concludes that the liberal plan is bad because it was orchestrated by liberals, a clearly unbiased notion.

The CEO of JPMorgan Chase has complained that members of the media make too much money. This coming from a man who made about $23 million last year, gives millions of dollars in bonuses to his employees anually, and targeting a group who's average income is 40K a year. It's an astounding assertion for Mr. Dimon to make, and one I'm sure many Americans would disagree with him on. After all, reporters didn't cause a financial crisis, receive a bailout, or trade in risky securities that caused financial ruin for millions. No, I think most people are on the side of the media for this one.

And finally, Mr. Glenn Beck is continuing his campaign against ESPN for firing two employees who made vaguely racist remarks about Jeremy Lin, the newest hotshot for the Knicks. I'm not a basketball fan, and have not taken part in the "lin-sanity" that has apparently been going around, so I wouldn't have picked this story as being interesting. But something caught my eye, and I couldn't figure out if it was purposeful or accidentally hypocritical. The premise of Mr. Beck's argument is that ESPN acted too rashly to comments that were made out of innocence and that were not intended to be racist. While he is complaining about how we should be less sympathetic to minorities, he is sitting in front of a screen depicting the head of a Native American in full headdress. Not sure if this is hypocritical, or merely ironic, but the fact that Glenn picked that particular image for his screensaver I think symbolizes his inability to understand why people would find such images and phrases offensive in their context.


Wait, just found another one. This one speaks for itself.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

7 1/2 things

According to some such thing, you're supposed to know seven and a half things each day. Huffington Post has graciously started compiling lists of 7 1/2 things in order for you to meet your quota. Here's the list for today.

Paying for College

One of the best ways to break the cycle of government dependence is through higher education. While many low-income families struggle to make ends meet, there are cheap community colleges, as well as loan and pro-rated tuition programs, to help every child go to college if they want. Having a college education opens many doors, and can mean a step up not just for the student, but for their family as well.

But of course, there are those who don't think the government should be subsidizing the education of America's youth. In Arizona (of course, where else?), lawmakers are considering a bill that would require all college students and their families to pay a minimum of $2,000 a year towards their college education.

It's a good idea in theory, but without exemptions for things like poverty, it will be disastrous in practice. Considering that low-income families are the least likely to send kids to college, and the families that would get the most out of it, I feel there should be an exemption for those pleading poverty to waive the fee.

But the thing that really gets me about this is that education spending, especially for college, should be a no-brainer for a group of politicians who want people to be independent of government support. A child coming from a poor family is more likely to be poor. If they received state subsidy as a youth, they're more likely to receive it as an adult. The only factor that has any effect on that is education. It is in the best interests of everyone to subsidize education for every student who wishes to go to college.

Consider the numbers. If a student must pay $2000 towards their education, it's a one-shot deal that saves the government 2k per student. If a person instead is forced to apply to the roles for welfare, food stamps, housing, etc, they could be receing $2,000 from the government in three months or less. And that can be for life. So, which costs the government (and by extension, the taxpayers) more? State college education, or social programs?

Personally, I think that college should be cheap or free for everyone. We need to promote a vibrant, intelletual community of youth who will bring us back to the forefront of the world in the coming years. The more people who are highly educated, the fewer will rely on the government for aid. It would fundamentally change America, but I believe it would be an affirmation of our greatest promise: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Welfare

It's a party-line debate that's been discussed many times: at what point do we stop providing support to people who are living in poverty? The argument of conservatives is that little to no support is the right course of action, since it encourages people to go out and find work. On the other side, liberals tend to claim that a strong welfare system keeps people housed, clothed, fed, and cared for when they can't afford to do it themselves. To be sure, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. We can't simply leave people to their own devices, especially in an economy with 1 job for every 5 applicants (I spoke with one person who was one of forty applying to the same job), but neither can we afford a long-term welfare state that grows exponentially with each passing generation.

Michigan recently hit upon the idea of limiting access and time frames for people to receive subsidies. They point to various numbers that show that limiting funding of welfare pushes more people into the workforce. However, critics point out that the numbers do not actually round out. According to the article, not only did Michigan limit access to welfare, but also to food stamps, causing the number of eligible families to drop. They then used the drop in food stamp recipients to point to the success of their welfare cuts. In other words, they engineered their own success.

The welfare debate is important, because it highlights an underlying question: what is the responsibility of government to its citizens? And, what are the citizens' responsibilities to themselves? To be sure, America has always been a DIY nation. The government was founded to be in an endless tug-of-war between it's own power and the rights of the people. Unlike in the UK, which is founded on Monarchy and a more extensive governing power, the US struggles with what should and should not be given by the Federal government, and who should receive it.

While the solution to welfare cannot be an extreme in one sense or the other, it is important to at least acknowledge the need for the social safety net. Even if it were limited to the elderly, disabled, and those who could not work for other reasons, the system would be necessary. But I believe it must also encompass those who are simply destitute. While you can make the argument that people should be able to provide for themselves, consider how many jobs must be filled in this country that are menial, low-paying, but otherwise necessary? Someone must fill those jobs. And that someone likely has children at home. No matter how you look at it, there are people who will be making substantially less money than others, but still have to support themselves and a family. I happen to believe that it's the duty of government to provide for the health, nourishment, and lives of its citizens. I would no sooner see families subjected to starvation in this nation of plenty than I would allow my own family to starve.

Welfare must have its limits. We must work to cut out those who do not need help, and those who use the system as a way of subsistence. But the overarching goal of Welfare should be to provide support where it is needed, and encouragement to the next generation to do better. In order to truly end government support to those in need, we must make it to a point where none are in need. Realistically, that can never happen, so welfare must persist, and be funded, for the sake of our own humanity.

Friday, February 24, 2012

All Apologies

Republicans have been saying that Obama goes around the world and apologizes for America. Recently, it was found that US troops had burned a number of qurans at a military base. Obama apologized to the Afghan President when this news broke, but not before an Afghan soldier shot and killed to US soldiers.

The reaction from the Right was swift. Gingrich in particular had some choice words about the POTUS, including "he is consistently apologizing to people who do not deserve the apology of the president of the United States period."

So, the question is, should Obama have apologized for the quran burning by US troops? Well, considering the outcry from the Muslim world over this issue, I would say yes. Considering the fact that two soldiers died as a direct result of this, I would say yes. Obama was attempting to be diplomatic, and probably saved lives by issuing his apology.

What worries is me is this sentiment that America does not need to apologize to anyone for anything. It's a disastrous mentality that, among other things, could jeopardize national security. Look at what's happened because of these quran burnings. Thousands of protesters taking to the streets. Is that a safe place for our soldiers? Does it bode well for our national security?

And turn the tables. If we found that Afghan soldiers were burning Bibles at their military bases, would there be an outcry here? Absolutely. We'd likely see politicians on the air demanding an apology, and wondering why the President doesn't do something. We'd probably see demonstrations from Christians, and likely some holy book burning as well. So, if it's likely that we would react with shock and anger at the desecration of the Bible, why is it that people like Gingrich can't seem to understand what the burning of the quran means to Muslims?

The final point, of course, is to consider what would happen if Gingrich had been in the White House? It sounds as though he would not apologize to Afghanistan, which would likely prompt a much greater backlash over the burning of the Muslim holy book. It's acts of this kind of disrespect that trigger terrorist organizations. Following the Iraq Invasion, Al Qaeda saw a jump in recruitment. Why? Because American soldiers were killing a lot of Iraqi citizens, and their family members were seeking justice. With something like quran burning, the number of recruits to terrorist organizations will probably go up as Muslims seek retribution for the disrespect they've been shown. How does that not impact our national security and the stability of the Middle East?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Education reform, AZ style

While the rest of the country if worrying about education in an academic sense, Arizona lawmakers are going after partisan extremist educators in an effort to remove are partisanship from the classroom.

Thanks to Glenn Beck and his not-quite-really-but-definitely-is-biased news website, we have this little article to better understand the law being passed through the state legislature.

The law states that teachers can be fired for expressing partisan viewpoints in the classroom. However, the language of the bill leaves the definition of "partisan" open to interpretation. The examples quoted in the article are things like "teaching the controversy" of evolution, and discussing the "doubts" about global warming. In other words, the bill is designed to push a radical right-wing interpretation of science and social issues by casting doubt on issues that are pretty well accepted in the science community as fact.

But again, the language of the bill does not stop at just science. It could be used to fire teachers for offering certain "partisan" books or videos to their class, for promoting "partisan" math concepts, or delivering a "partisan" lesson about any given subject. And who is going to decide whether something is considered partisan? The school district, apparently. That means that the school district can make a determination about any teacher and any curriculum they want. They have complete control over the partisan nature of the curriculum in their schools. That means they could label any talk about evolution as being "partisan," any talk about global warming being "partisan", and they could ignore discussions on things like creationism, intelligent design, etc. State and federal standards of education no longer apply because the school boards will be able to limit what is discussed based on partisan affiliation.

This bill is likely to have far-reaching consequences for education in Arizona, should it pass. It will mean immunity from federal mandates on education, it could mean the hyper-politicization of education, and could create the atmosphere of indoctrination it's supporters claim they're trying to stop.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The New Strategy

Recently, it seems as though Obama is finally getting his head around the fact that the GOP in Congress simply won't negotiate with him. So, he's switched tactics, and it's working out well for him so far.

His most recent proposal is to lower the tax rate on large businesses and manufacturing companies. It's an idea that has been promoted by the GOP for a long time. What's the catch? Obama's proposal also closes big tax loopholes enjoyed by big corporations, and goes after companies that hide assets overseas. Again, these are things the GOP has supported in the past. The question is, how will they respond to this move by Obama. Their gut reaction, I'm sure, will be to criticize the plan for either not going far enough, or having too many parts to debate. Obama is proposing a cut in the tax rate from 35% to 28%. To put that in perspective, Mitt Romney has called for a corporate tax rate of 25%, Gingrich 12.5%, and Santorum effectively 0%. The argument will likely be that Obama's tax cut is not big enough for the GOP to support.

But they should support it. Mostly, because they have pushed for any kind of tax cut they can get, and this is a big one. It directly benefits their wealthy contributors, and could help the economy. But also, it will result in the closure of tax loopholes and cheats that only benefit big business. In the world of taxes, I don't think it's fair that a multi-national corporation can hide assets overseas, and pay little to no tax to the government, while I have to pay my full amount every year. Remember GE, who got money back from the government after posting record profits. All because of these tax loopholes. The GOP should be all over this.

So far, the story is too new for there to be a lot of response, but I am looking forward to what the Republicans in Congress have to say about Obama's plan.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The other AA

Affirmative Action is being brought before the Supreme Court this year in regards to college enrollment. The story goes that a white student was not offered a place at a Texas college because the college reserves a certain number of spots in each class for students of a minority race. The white student then sued the school, and it's been bouncing around in courts for a while and will now be heard by the SCOTUS. The student is set to graduate this year from a different college.

Personally, I think that AA can be overdone, but serves a vital purpose nonetheless. Without it, there is no mandate that prevents discrimination, only laws to respond to it if it's already happened. The quarrel over AA has been a question of whether a person being considered for a professional or educational position can be seen without the context of race, or whether their race is a defining characteristic that sways the eventual decision. The AA standards have been put in place so that a person's minority status is not necessarily a hindrance to getting a job. It is a pre-emptive measure against racism in the work place and in schools.

AA has been controversial, though, as many people believe it is giving special treatment to minorities. In fact, some even go so far as to say that it is reverse racism, targeting whites. The people who make these arguments will point to things like the story linked above and say that that student could have had a spot in their first choice school if it weren't for affirmative action. Defenders of AA look at it as one person being denied a spot because it is filled by someone of equal value of a different race. And thus, the debate continues.

I happened to find this story linked on Fox News as well. I point this out, not because it is a more succinct or better-written summary, but because the comments connected to it drew my attention. Here are a few choice examples:

- "one thing about education neighbers is: The more that learn to read, the less learn how to make a living. thats one thing about a little education, it spoils you for actual work. The more you know, the more you think somebody owes you a living."

- "Lets hope they get it right this time and actually make these losernorities work for a spot in college instead of being given preference just because they are not as intelligent. Then go after the jobs and get rid of racial preference and quotas companies have to meet. Maybe if the most qualified gets in college and gets that job America can return to greatness."

- Lets face it they are the race with the Lowest ave IQ now thats a seldom spoken fact the education boards from yrs past Knew and are not allowed to mention why do ya think we have some of the lowest scores in the world in High Schools AA and the N[******] that they test PURE AND SIMPLE FACT"

- "Anyone who supports affirmative action is a racist."



Very refreshing to see people speaking their minds, isn't it? This kind of diatribe is so abysmally appalling, that I'm thankful I only tread on over the Fox News on the rare occasion. It's things like this that solidify me as a pro-AA kind of guy. While it can be overdone, it is still an important piece of legislation. These are people with no decision-making responsibility in government, yet they vote for representatives that share their positions. Imagine if a public figure said any of those things. They'd be burned at the stake of public opinion. It really upsets me that ignorance like this persists, is so obvious with just a few clicks on the computer, and yet we are debating whether something like AA is even relevent or useful.

You were saying?

Those on the talk radio circuit have been issuing dire warnings for years now about Obama's economic policies. Specifically, they have been screaming about the deficit and debt, claiming we need austerity measure NOW, and Obama's unwillingness to cut social programs and increase the tax base are sure signs that he wants America to fail. They have said (I've heard it from Rush, Glenn, and Howie Carr at various times) that inflation is on it's way, bigger and badder than ever before. Any minute now...any minute....

Well, that hasn't happened, at least not due to the debt. We are seeing inflation pick up a little, but not overwhelmingly, and not because we are wallowing in debt (which we're not really). The inflation we're seeing is mostly because of gas prices which are driving up the cost of everything. However, that's a factor that is not within our control. At least, not without major renovations to our energy system. So, should we be thankful that the POTUS has not seen fit to chop our government to pieces over debt worries? I certainly think so. And Paul Krugman agrees with me.

This is the man who knows what's going on, and can make it easy to understand. All you have to do, according to Paul, is look at Europe. There, austerity is the name of the game, and they are heading for another recession. If anything is going to harm the US economy, it's a failing Europe. And why are they failing? Didn't they incorporate austerity? Well, those guys on the radio will tell you that it's because they're socialist nations who've borrowed their way into a hole to pay for all their programs, and now they're feeling the heat. Well, that would explain it, but then why isn't America in the same boat? Aren't we wallowing in debt as well? They say our crisis is just around the corner, or that it's already here, but the kinds of issues we're seeing in Europe just aren't materializing here. Why?

The short answer is, because we played it smart. We are still supporting our citizens, we haven't cut social programs, and we're attempting to balance the budget with minimal impact on lower-income families. We're not jumping into austerity; we happen to be moving toward prosperity again.

The only issue, of course, is that there has been local austerity, towns and counties that have cut spending to the point where they can barely run their own governments. Spending is so low in some places that firefighters won't respond to firefighters, and governments can't hire people to count their votes for the upcoming elections. The underside of austerity is that it will bring government and societies to a standstill. It will cripple any kind of forward movement.

And a word on our deficit and debt. The majority of the debt we hold is debt we owe to ourselves. We do owe a lot of other countries, but the amount of money we would make from expanding the tax base is miniscule compared to the amount we would make if we raised taxes on the wealthy by 1% and closed loopholes. I know that those solutions put me on the "liberal" side of things, but I don't care about that. It's a solution to the problem, in fact the only solution that is backed by economic evidence that shows it is a sound idea. If we were to cut spending only, there would be no surge in consumer confidence. Such a view is rooted in the misconception that small government is good for big business. We must seek to reverse this thinking if we are going to set our course for the next few years and keep our ship from sinking.

A long drive up the middle

I recently picked up a book by Howard Fineman entitled The Thirteen American Arguments. The premise of the book is that Americans are born to argue, and that there are thirteen various topics that will never be fully resolved, but whose debate has defined and shaped our nation since it's founding. Some of the arguments are very public, such as the role of religion. Others are more subtle, but no less fundamental, such as "who is a person?" and "who is an American?". As Fineman writes, as long as we have a lively, respectful debate on the various issues, America will continue to be at the forefront of democracy, human rights, and social innovation.

While somewhat dated now (the book was published in 2008), it remains a unique look at our public discourse, and brings up a key factor in how we as a nation tend to survive. While Fineman refrains from taking a side in the debates that are had over these issues, his point of view is that the center is the beating heart of America, with the extremes being something like the forces of gravity that challenge us to keep our system running.

While I tend to be a more left-leaning person, and fall into the trap of finger-pointing and labeling of the conservative side, my rational thought is that we as a country of united individuals need to return to more classical forms of discussion and debate, at least to incorporate a sense of mutual respect, honor, and civility to the whole system. We hear nothing today that is not a slander, slam, or reproach of a political opponent. Our discourse has been reduced to name-calling, thinly-veiled prejudices, and over simplified political positions. Part of the problem is that we as Americans have learned to be complacent, to take what is given without using our brains to process. Instead, we leave the analysis to our media, to politicians that we trust, and forget that they are part of the same system.

The point of Fineman's book, and the point of this post, is that neither side has all the answers, and neither side can operate effectively without debate. Our country depends on our ability to compromise, to be able to take another point of view, and to come up with solutions that satisfy everyone. Unfortunately, the center is not holding as more and more political influence is being felt from the extremes on both sides. There is no real debate on the issue of abortion rights, the roll of government in religious institutions, or the rights of women. Instead, lines are drawn in the sand, and the two sides battle over who is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. There is no compromise, because both sides have become convinced that they are the only ones with a workable solution. But the world does not work this way, and we have to embrace the art of compromise and diplomacy if we want our nation to come back from the brink of social idealism.

The only solution we have is to compromise. If we fail, and allow one extremist view to dictate the direction of our nation, there is no going back. We will have effectively shifted our frame of reference in a given direction, and there will be no going back from that. As much as I dislike the views of many conservatives, I remind myself that they are essential to the balance of power and opinion in America. I only hope that others will come to see this, and will stop the all-or-nothing policies that have been wreaking havoc in Washington.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Limits on Free Speech?

It's a controversial topic, and it keeps coming up: just what are people allowed to say, when are they allowed to say it, and what protection does the First Amendment offer to someone who makes threats, derogatory statements, or lies?

An example of just how hard it can be to respect free speech comes from the Westboro Baptist Church, who has routinely been dragged into court for defamation and slander, but have never (to my knowledge) lost a lawsuit. In fact, in at least one documented case, they were allowed to seek damages from the plaintiff for violating their first amendment rights. It's a sickening display of our legal system. This is a group that has become infamous for it's hateful rhetoric and despicable practices of picketing funerals.

So, do we draw the line at this kind of incendiary language? Or do we have to allow it? Can we stop this group from expressing their views? No, we can't.

The problem is, we are only as free as those we limit the most. If we take away the free speech of an extremely homophobic organization like Westboro, we essentially limit the free speech of ourselves. Sure, we might never say those things, or even think them, but to say that no one can limits the rights of people to say what they wish.

As hard as it is to listen to members of that organization, we have to remember that this is the dirty underside of our valuable speech rights. The freedom to say what we wish comes with the caveat that we have to let them say what they want as well. If we limit them, we limit ourselves. After all, whose to say that limiting that kind of speech would not lead to limiting other kinds? And who would make those decisions? Based on the amount of power some organizations have, it's perfectly reasonable to expect that limits could be placed on people talking about contraception, gay rights, immigration, or any number of other things. It sounds crazy, but when we live in a world where courts allow limitless campaign donations from anonymous sources, I don't put anything past our judicial system.

So, we have to live with the folks from Westboro. At the very least, they are a constant reminder of just how wrong religion can become, and a good measure of where people stand on the issues of God, homosexuality, and free speech.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Attacking Women Right and Right

It's been a tough couple of weeks for women in America, and it's only getting worse. They've seen the government twist itself in knots over whether or not religious institutions should have to cover contraceptive products for women, including birth control pills. But that was just the beginning. There are two other major bills pending in Congress that will directly impact women's health, and a third that is working it's way through Virginia state congress that could eliminate a woman's right to abortion.

The first bill in US Congress that is being debated has to do with an exemption to the Affordable Care Act. The bill was produced by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo), and would not only provide the protection to the church, but would allow any employer to deny health coverage based on religious or moral conviction. However, it does not set up any safeguards to protect against abuse of this power, meaning an employer could deny coverage of anything they wanted if they claim it is being denied on moral or religious grounds. That means, denying coverage could extend to gay couples, interracial couples, single mothers, or those of differing religion. All the employer would have to do is say they are denying coverage for moral reasons.

The second bill, produced independently of the ACA, is a reauthorization of the VAWA act that was originally passed under Clinton. It has been reauthorized each time it's come up with major bipartisan support. However, this year, it faced some opposition for the first time (not enough to stop it, but enough to send a message). The opposition, led by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), said that they objected to a few new provisions that were added this time around. Specifically, the additions extended rights to LGBT couples, illegal immigrants, and gives authority to indian tribes to charge non-indians for domestic crimes against members of their tribe. In the case of the illegal immigrants, the bill would expand the availability of visas for domestic violence victims so that they may be more likely to come forward.  While I can understand the objections in an academic sense, I can't believe that congressmen would vote against a bill that not only protects women, but seeks to expand that protection. If someone were to murder an illegal immigrant, isn't that investigated and isn't the person arrested and charged with murder? I should hope so. That's because illegal immigrants still have representation under the law. If an illegal is beat to a pulp by a partner, shouldn't they feel like they can come forward and seek protection?

Finally, Virginia has seen its House of Delegates pass a Personhood Bill which could cause a major issue for women's health. The bill would acknowledge any fertilized egg to be considered a living person with legal protection. That means a woman who is pregnant and is in a car accident that causes a miscarriage could sue for loss of life. However, the bill does not provide any limits on what the Personhood aspect could affect. For example, the bill could potentially outlaw abortion or birth control. It could mean legal action if a woman has a miscarriage. And as if that weren't enough, the bill also requires any woman seeking an abortion to have a trans-vaginal ultrasound. It is the definition of adding insult to injury. As a way of attempting to protect women against this legislation, the small minority of Democrats in the VA House proposed an amendment that would have protected BC from being marginalized by this bill. At the time, the GOPers were saying that their intent was not to disrupt women's health services. However, they blocked the amendment that was proposed that would prevent that disruption. That tells me that they have every intention of limiting women's access to BC and health services.

So, all in all, not a great time for women in America. It's astounding to me that there can be such blatant disregard for women's rights in America in the 21st century. We have seen the wholesale dismantling of the gains women have made in America in the last 100 years. Their access to abortions, free or reduced health services, contraception, and legal protection from abuse is being challenged in the houses of government across our nation. It is unacceptable for America to be a land where every person is not equal and has the freedom and ability to seek what they need. I truly hope that we as a nation can steer off of this dangerous course that is bringing us closer and closer to full-on discrimination.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A bit of light reading

This might be a bit much for some people, but for reference, here is a link to the 2013 budget proposed by President Obama. It runs a bit over 250 pages, and I certainly won't be reading every word, but I will be skimming it and trying to pass along the link so that it can be analyzed fairly by various people.

Obama's budget is already under fire, and it's been said that it is purely symbolic and has no chance of passing. While I'm sure that's the case, it is worth noting that this is the first budget we've had in three years or so. It's been a long time, and I hope that this one actually is debated and not simply shelved or earmarked into oblivion as tends to happen.

Criticisms of the budget include things like: It's a campaign slogan. It doesn't address our problems. It turns us into Greece. It doesn't reduce the deficit. It plays with the numbers. It's not sustainable. It's a talking point. You get the idea. The point is, there are a lot of people with R's next to their name in Congress who are not happy with this, and are seeking to change a good amount of it. While it's a good idea to have differing views in Congress and running the country, especially for something as important as the budget, it does raise concerns that the two sides are too distant to be able to come to a resolution.

Consider taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Here is a group worth billions of dollars. Surely, a 1% tax on their personal income would not make much of a difference. But despite the majority of Americans agreeing with that, GOP leaders are obstinate in their refusal to allow it, even in the name of balancing a payroll tax cut extension.

And consider spending in education, health care, and infrastructure. Self-investment is a job-creator waiting to happen, a machine of progress just waiting for the cash to fuel it. But the GOP has stomped on this idea, claiming that such investment is bad and produces no results for the economy. It's a short-sighted view they take on the subject, and one that will come back to bite them in the future.

I'm hopeful that a budget can be agreed upon, but it's going to be a long, painful process to watch from the sideline of American media outlets. It's going to be rife with campaign catch phrases. It's going to be partisan talking points and symbolic votes on the left and the right. All that matters is that there is a plan moving forward that will benefit the nation, the people, the economy, and the future. Here's hoping.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Building Bridges to watch them Burn

The new transportation bill engineered by House Republicans has been the target of much criticism. It calls for more highways and toll roads to be built, paid for by money from off-shore drilling. Sounds like the kind of thing the GOP would have dreams about, doesn't it?

Well, here's the latest news on the bill: a little piece slipped in under the guise of a "technical correction" that would strip transportation workers of overtime pay and would make them exempt from minimum wage laws. It's a piece of legislation that would cripple the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which established a minimum wage. The bill, if passed, would be a huge boon to transportation companies, who already push their workers to obscene work hours and questionable conditions.

While the outcry has not been overwhelming, it is growing and has some bipartisan support. In particular, Ray LaHood, the Transportation secretary and former Republican congressman, has been harshly critical of this provision.

This kind of legislation should be a wake-up call to where the leaders of the GOP are focusing their attention. They are trying to squash the rights of some of the lowest-paid, over-worked people in the nation so that their employers can enjoy a few extra dollars in their pockets. This, as they attempt to boost off-shore drilling to pay for toll-roads across America. The amount of money they are talking about is insane.

But I fear that this is the wave of the future. I fear that the leaders in Washington will fight to end the minimum wage, will take away worker's protections, to fundamentally change what it means to have a job in America. It will no longer be seen as a right but as a privilege. Those who work for these transportation companies could quit their jobs, sure. But with such high unemployment, they will be out of work and making nothing. So, they're stuck if their bosses are given the power to reduce their pay and deny them overtime compensation.

What happens when workers are no longer able to demand more from their employers? What happens to America when our workforce is given no defense by the federal government and is forced to work for pennies a day instead of the minimum wage which draws so many people to our shores? The answer is, we lose a piece of our identity, of our democracy, and we set ourselves back on the course of history.

CPAC 2012

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is the annual three-day rally for the conservative American politician. With stump speeches by presidential candidates, moguls of the conservative wing, and numerous tasteless or ill-times jokes, it is the definition of media-glorified conservative politics.

This link provides video from a number of headliners at CPAC, including Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Scott Walker. Of course, the main video of that linked article is also entertaining, so feel free to watch that too.

The person to get the biggest headlines out of CPAC, though, was Sarah Palin. She came out in full-on attack mode against Obama and his policies. As usual with a conservative rally, most of what she said were one-liner slapsticks that got people to laugh or applaud.

Overall, the CPAC conference was what you would expect. Loud, childish, and hopelessly partisan. There was no indication that any of those present even wanted to work with the President, opting instead to attack his policies and distance themselves from them.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Wall Street needs to suck it up

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone has a great op-ed about the whining going on by investment brokers on Wall St. He takes apart some of the main arguments being presented by Wall St. employees, mostly targeting the Dodd-Frank law, and goes after those who are not only making vastly more than the average American, but are complaining because their bonuses are not big enough this year.

It's a sad state of affairs when people on Wall Street, who produce no tangible good or service that benefits anyone but themselves, make so much more money than people who do provide those goods and services to others. Not only that, but then they get six-figure bonuses each year for a job well done. And then they have the audacity to complain that their bonuses, not actual pay, is being reduced.

The article is a bit long, but very well written, and full of interesting information and insight. Taibbi does a great job of dismantling the information spewing from Wall St. about its own financial situation, and gives us a peek into the twisted world that investment banking has become.

Burning Water

I found this video that somebody linked to on a message board today, and I think it's worth a look. The guy in the video lives in an area where there has been hydrofracking to release natural gas deposits. Politicians these days have been fighting over whether this is safe, with the GOP largely ignoring the concerns of the science community and embracing fracking as a new cheap, efficient technology for retrieving natural gas.
The Republican candidates for President have all been complaining about environmental regulations. They have talked about dismantling the EPA, rolling back protections for forests and wildlife. They have said that they want to open up all of America for oil drilling to help us attain energy independence. My question to them would be this: how do you justify that view when we have people whose tap water ignites?

The problem is that, while science warns us to the dangers of fracking and extensive oil drilling, there's still plenty of money to be made. Despite the fact that people now have flammable water coming into their homes, fracking continues. Reports of this no doubt have been sent to various health organizations and the companies, but I've not heard anything about this at all. Shouldn't this be a story in the news?

At this point, it is still profitable, and there is still little being said or done to stop it, so fracking and extensive drilling will continue. But I wonder what will happen if/when people start getting sick or start dying? What will happen when it's too late? And isn't the health and safety of American citizens more important than profits? I certainly think so.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Food Stamp President

Recently, Gingrich got in some comments about Obama being the "food stamp President", saying that he had put more people on food stamps than any other President in history. There are a lot of things wrong with this statement, starting with the fact that the President doesn't put anyone on food stamps; people have to apply for themselves. Second, the food stamp program has expanded as a direct result of the unemployment rate going up and there being no jobs. And finally, as Representative Luis Gutierrez recently pointed out, Obama is not the greatest food stamp President of all time. That honor belongs to another...

Well, both Bush Presidents presided over massive expansions of the food stamp program. Why is that? Well, both happened to preside over times when jobs were lost and more people applied to the program. It makes sense, really. And remember, it's not the President's fault that so many people are using the program.

It's too bad that programs like food stamps are targeted by conservatives. After all, the program is designed to keep Americans from going hungry. Roughly half the beneficiaries are children. Another 10% are the elderly. These are people who can't provide for themselves. While some do use food stamps as a permanent source of food for their families, most don't want to be on the program. The food stamp program helps millions of Americans get what they need to survive, and we need to preserve that. While I don't think we should be in the business of helping people subsist for long periods of time, I think that the system can be made helpful, temporary, and supportive for families.

Gingrich's claims show a clear lack of understanding about how food stamps work, or that Gingrich is simply playing on the ignorance of some voters. He is trying to make Obama out to be a terrible President by tying him to food stamps, which has been a successful program. Even though Obama has presided over a rise in the number of food stamp recipients, I don't blame him, and I commend him for not cutting funding to it at a time when millions of our fellow Americans rely on that program.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Church's Right

The big news story in the past few days has been the Obama administration attempting to pass a part of the HCR law that requires all employers to include contraception as part of their health care packages. The reason this is getting so much attention is that it makes no exemption for religious institutions who may be against birth control (primarily the Roman Catholic Church).

Those opponents of the legislation say that it violates individual liberty by forcing churches to provide contraceptive items and, some have argued, by forcing women to use them. In both cases, the argument is false. In fact, the legislation does no such thing, and wouldn't have been possible if it did. Both of those outcomes would be unconstitutional and the courts would have struck down the legislation.

The reason they haven't is that these arguments are not based in fact. The fact is, the law only requires all employers (religious and secular) to provide coverage for contraception. That does not mean they are required to furnish the contraceptives themselves. Instead, like any other health plan, a person who purchases the items that are covered would be eligible for reimbursment through their employer. It doesn't require a person employed by a religious institution to buy these items, nor does it require someone to violate their personal beliefs in order to follow the law.

But perhaps the most important point is this. Religious institutions are fighting this legislation on the grounds that it infringes upon personal liberties of religious expression. However, it does not. What it does is allows a woman to receive birth control if she chooses to. It makes it available. My health plan may cover certain medical procedures, but I'm not required to get them, nor do I choose to simply because I have the option. I make a choice for my health based on my health needs. If a woman feels like she needs the pill, she should be able to get it. That is the spirit of the law proposed by Obama. So, the position that the church has taken is not one of liberty, but of denying personal choice, which is a foundation of our country and of liberty itself. They are trying to stifle personal choice in religious rhetoric and stop individuals from accessing things they may wish to access of their own free will.

Churches and religious institutions do have rights in our nation. They now have the right to refuse to hire based on religious beliefs. They have the right to tax exemption as a religious institution. In fact, they have more rights than the common citizen. They have turned into for-profit empires that spans regions of our nation. They lobby our government and demand special protection from the same amendment in the bill of rights that they use to further their agenda in government.

The institution of religion in America is a powerful force, one that is bent on furthering it's own ideology and seeing it come before the will of those who do not agree with them. They have damned the spread of Sharia law, but have no concept of their own hypocrisy when they demand laws to be passed on biblical grounds. I hope that the administration continues to stand by it's decision to implement these changes, and that those who speak out against the free will of the people are revealed and condemned for the snakes that they are.

Midwest Upsets

Santorum pulled a fast one on Tuesday night, clinching both the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses, and placing first in the Missouri primary. It's Santorum's strongest showing so far in the race, and his first major victory since the Iowa caucus, which no one knew he had one until two days later.

Santorum's sudden, surprise victory in these races is likely the result of a number of factors. First, Gingrich and Romney have been pounding each other and leaving Santorum mostly alone (that will now change, I'm sure). Then, there is the fact that all of these states tend to be more socially conservative, which is Santorum's claim to fame (or imfamy). And finally, it has to do with timing and style. While Gingrich and Romney have both said things that alienate their base or anger moderates, Santorum's crazy views seem to have filled a niche in the American social structure.

Santorum is probably the most conservative of all those who are running in the primaries. He holds his moral convictions above all else, and people are responding to his passion and commitment. Unfortunately, his views are so incredibly conservative that the majority of Americans see him as being simply crazy. While Santorum seems to have sewn up the crazy vote pretty nicely, there are more people who don't  agree with him than people who do. So where does that leave Rick?

Personally, I don't think Santorum is going to get the nomination, mostly because the Republican party establishment has to know that he will never be elected. The only way a GOP candidate is going to make is if they can take some votes away from Obama's 2008 bloc. Santorum can't do that. It would be political suicide to put Rick against Obama.

So where does this sudden swing leave the Republicans? Well, in a bit of a jam. At least until the end of the primaries. The thing is, it doesn't really matter to the conservative base who is representing them in the primary. All that matters is getting that person in the White House. So, if Rick ends up with the nomination, the the RNC will rally around him. The same thing will happen if Gingrich or Romney gets nominated. But the person they put in that position must have the ability to convince the moderates and undecided voters to their cause. I don't think Santorum is up to the task.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Crumbling

One of the most important investments in America is our infrastructure. While education and health are vital to our survival as a nation, infrastructure is sort of the key to unlocking economic growth. With infrastructure, there's practically a limitless supply of work to be done, jobs to be filled, and money to be made. There are millions of miles of road that need to be maintained, train lines to be fixed, airports and bus terminals to be repaired and maintained, and homes and highways to be built. And just when you think everything's done, something will break and the process will start all over again. The work of maintaining our roads, rails, and runways is not only a great investment, it's the key to solving a lot of problems.

Unfortunately, America is not very good at tapping into this cash cow. For one thing, we spend less on infrastructure than most of the developed world. We have constant arguments about it in Washington, and quibble over what should and should not be funded. The Keystone XL pipeline, for example, may create plenty of jobs, and it sounds like it's already being worked on. The problem is, where we will jump on board for a pipeline that does nothing to help gas prices or anything but jobs, the same people will oppose high-speed rail projects that will bring in many more jobs and will have a greater impact. High-speed rail means less time and energy moving things from place to place, cutting the cost for those things, and thus helping the economy. Not only that, but the project would have added a lot of jobs to the economy. However, at the time, we were told that the jobs would just be a drop in the bucket and not worth the investment. But when the Keystone XL pipeline comes along, it's a different story...

This is all a way of saying that we need to invest more money in ourselves. Where I live, there is a desperate need for road repair and new energy solutions. The roads alone could add thousands of jobs. And, these jobs pay well. Think of how many people could go back to work fixing up their neighborhoods, filling in potholes, and rebuilding our nation's network of commerce?

The problem is, things like infrastructure cost money, and lots of it. There needs to be a steady stream of funding for projects nationwide, and people who work those jobs tend to get good pay and benefits. That translates into a high cost for the work that needs to be done. Unfortunately, the money that traditionally goes to funding highway projects is drying up. Thanks to more fuel-efficient vehicles, gas is being consumed at a lower rate than it was in the past, and gas tax is one of the primary ways that states secure funding for infrastructure projects. So, we're in a catch-22. We either drive more fuel-consuming vehicles to raise gas tax money for roads, or we save money on gas and lose out.

The solution would be to come up with a different way to fund infrastructure, such as through tax increases and surtaxes on certain items. The added money could be used to fill the gap left behind by falling fuel sales, and would translate into more funding for road, bridge, and waterway projects. It could work, but it will take legislative action to see it come about. Obama has already asked for several billion to be put towards infrastructure, and Congress has been fighting over funding. I hope they come to an agreement soon, and that we start to see just how government money can create jobs in America.

It's a pro-life thing

Recently, the organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure stopped providing Planned Parenthood grant money to support free cancer screenings of low-income and impoverished women at their locations. According to the Komen organization, this is because of a new policy which states that any group will become ineligible for grants if they are under investigation by any local, state, or federal agency. Planned Parenthood is currently under such an investigation in Florida to determine if the group used federal funds for abortions, which is against the law.

The problem, though, is that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization did not stop grants to other groups that are under investigations. In particular, they are continuing to give money to Penn State, the school that is currently being investigated in regards to the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal.

What many believe, and what is likely the case, is that the new VP of Komen, Karen Handel, stopped the grant to PP because she is an outspoken opponent of a woman's right to choose. This would explain why Komen has stopped funding to PP on the pretext that they are under investigation, but have not done the same thing in regards to Penn State.

The reason this really upsets me is that the money given by Komen was not being used to fund abortion. It was being used to provide free, probably life-saving, cancer screening to low-income women. An organization whose sole purpose is to raise and distribute money for cancer research and prevention has now stopped funding preventative care for the poor because their VP is pro-life. It's astounding that one person's personal opinion is being used to deny women access to preventative cancer screenings. It's apalling, and apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so.

I've talked with some people, who say that these women can go elsewhere for their cancer screenings. That may be true, but the fact that a fund to help stop cancer would pull funding for cancer screening is still mind-boggling.

I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised. After all, the whole premise of the pro-life movement is that the rights of an individual woman are trumped by the opinions of others and the rights of an unborn child. While it's sad that abortion kills an innocent life, and I am personally pro-life, I understand that I don't understand a woman's perspective, and I don't know what is best for that individual. We can't legislate and dictate what people believe, who they are, and what they feel. We can't mandate morality because it is an individual choice. And while a child may be lost to abortion, isn't the life of the mother worth something too? Isn't that still a personal choice, and doesn't that woman have to live with it?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Home Crisis hitting Home

John Boehner recently said that he felt the government should stop protecting homeowners who are facing foreclosure, and that they made bad investments and are now suffering the consequences. In some ways, I agree with that. There is a level of personal responsibility when it comes to something like this, and even if a person were given a sub-prime mortgage, they probably should have known better.

Where I disagree, though, is where there are people who are facing foreclosure and eviction through no fault of their own. While this may be a minority of people, they are out there, and I found out this week that this crisis has hit close to home.

This week, a friend of mine was surprised by the arrival of a sheriff at her home, which she has lived in now for three years or so and shares with her husband and two children. The sheriff explained (threatened was more like it, by the sound) that the family was facing foreclosure on their home, and that they would be homeless soon. My friend was utterly perplexed. Her bank had not contacted her, she had been making her payments on time, for the full amount, and had never had a single issue.

As it turns out, my friend had done absolutely nothing wrong. Neither had anyone else. The previous owner, upon selling the home, had notified their bank and submitted paperwork to transfer the property and mortgage into the name of the new owner. The old owner then stopped making payments, since it was no longer their residence.

This is where it gets complicated. The bank of the former owner reports that they "lost" the paperwork, and so did not transfer the title to my friend's name. According to their records, the house still belonged to the former owner, who was not making payments. Even though my friend was making her payments the entire time and never missed a one, the other bank began foreclosure proceedings. Here, though, is another strange twist. The bank never notified my friend, who was actually living in the home at the time. In fact, no one had heard that a foreclosure was coming. So, where did this all come from?

It's situations like this, rare though they may be, that convince me we continue to need government oversight and investigation into the mortgage and foreclosure practices of these big firms. There are many people who should not have gotten the mortgages they got, and should have known better than to believe the rates they were getting, but there are some who are truly innocent victims, and it is their stories that should calcify support for a change in the way these banks do business.

To begin with, government needs to put strict demands on banks around trading practices and the transfer of paperwork. If banks and lending agencies can give loans out to people who can't afford them, but then lose the paperwork or knowlingly commit fraud, that needs to be dealt with, and the only institution that has the authority to change those practices is the government.

I do believe that we must have government helping people who are being victimized. And while many people may be to blame for their situation, it's important to understand that even they may need some support. They may not keep their homes, but they should be able to find help somewhere. As for the innocent victims, there are enough of them that government should step in and work on their behalf to sort out just what caused these issues, and how they can be resolved.