Friday, March 30, 2012

The Least we can Do

A new bill proposed by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) would raise the minimum wage by 35% and tie it to inflation. The bill would also do a number of other interesting things, like investing money in renewable energy research and in upgrading schools. While the bill is expected be heavily opposed by business groups, it's worth noting that this is a concrete effort to reinvest in America and give people a chance to make a living.

The other measures included in the bill would make overtime available to more workers, require companies to give more sick days to their workers, and would allow more workers to join unions. The bill is blatantly partisan and favors the democratic majority in the Senate, but it also favors another group that has been in decline over the last several years: middle-class Americans and the working poor. These groups would see a huge difference if these measures were put in place. The minimum wage change alone would be a big benefit. But like most partisan bills, it doesn't stand a chance when the two houses of Congress can't agree.

You could argue that raising the minimum wage would be bad for business, leading companies to lay off more workers. The problem with that logic is two-fold. First, companies are already sitting on large amounts of cash that they aren't spending. They are making record profits, and raising the minimum wage will hurt them somewhat, but won't make it impossible to do business. Second, most companies are already operating with the lowest number of workers they can. If they were to lay off any more, they wouldn't be able to meet demand. Besides, the economy is turning around somewhat, we have good jobs numbers, and things seem to be coming together. Does that mean that we should allow businesses to keep paying their employees at the same rate they have been since 2009?

Republicans will say that they can't support a bill that would hurt businesses and the economy. They will argue that this bill would cause the markets to plummet, unemployment to spike, and the economy to get worse. My question, then, would be why are they favoring businesses to Americans? Sure, it will cost businesses more to hire people. But, if all of those minimum wage workers have 35% more money in their pockets annually, they are going to spend approximately 35% more money in the marketplace, which will boost sales figures and profits. Furthermore, having a higher minimum wage may put more people into taxable income brackets, thereby putting more money in the pockets of Washington to help pay down the debt.

There are a lot of ways to look at this, but I strongly believe it's a step in the right direction for America's lost workforce. Let's strengthen our middle class again, and get back to the powerhouse economy we used to have.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Are we there yet?

The recent case of the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida has ignited a lot of public outcry and national attention. While a lot of people are wondering why this particular case is any different from the many cases of gun violence in other cities across America, the fact is that it has brought some of the biggest names in civil rights to the forefront to advocate for justice on Trayvon's behalf.

What gets to me is the media's ADD-style of reporting. They focus on soundbites, they focus on opinion, and they focus on conspiracy theories. Supporters of Zimmerman will tell you that he was attacked and that Trayvon was the aggressor. There is even some evidence that has been reported that backs up this claim. However, those who are advocating for Trayvon have produced their own evidence to counter that. It's becoming a media circus, and while this serves to shed light on the issues of racial tensions in America, I have to wonder what it means for us when we become so wrapped up in these stories.

Are we, as a nation, at a point where we can put race behind us? A lot of people are saying we are and that we should. But many of those people are the one's who are saying Zimmerman acted in self-defense. Most of them are white, and most of them are conservative. Am I profiling? Perhaps, but it's an observation I've made. African Americans seem to have a lot more to say about race issues, and this is most likely because they deal with it all the time. I'm not in a position to understand what they go through for being African-American. Race doesn't matter to me personally, but I realize that it plays a role in our policy and our media.

I believe that we have to let racial issues be publicized only insofar as they allow us to move past them. We have to highlight injustices so that they can be corrected. But to dwell on racial issues, even dwelling on their continued existence, can have a negative impact. I've grown tired of reading articles that have to do with the Martin case. The media is saturated with this story. While in the beginning I felt it was an important story to hear and that it might help expose prejudice, it has become a meaningless succession of finger-pointing, rallies, and punditry. The message that was originally conveyed has been lost in the white noise created by it's own media success.

I don't think we're close to a time when race will no longer matter. I believe we can get there, but it's going to require facing our darkest cultural corners and shedding light on philosophies and policies that have become vestiges of discrimination. It will be painful, and will likely upset people in its scope. But I think it's possible and very necessary if we are going to move past things like the Trayvon Martin incident, both his death and the current firestorm.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Supreme Court VS. HCR, Day 3

Here is the  transcript for the third and final day of the SC Health Care hearing. We should be getting the ultimate decision by late June. At this point, I don't think anyone can predict with certainty which way it will go.

Health Care Reform in Supreme Court Day 3 Arguments

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Supreme Court VS. HCR, Day 2

Well, that was fast.

Here is the available transcript for day 2 of deliberations into the US Health Care law.

You may ask why I'm posting over 130 pages of boring content to my blog that no one in their right mind will ever read. Well, that's because I believe that, either way this goes, it will be a landmark and that we need to preserve it for posterity. I also believe that the average person should have access to records about a case that has such far-reaching consequences. Stay tuned for day 3 coming up tomorrow.

SCOTUS Health Care Reform, Day Two

News of the Day

Today on the news networks, it's all HCR. Very little is being said about other stories, and those that are being covered are mostly fluff. So, in the interest of expanding the discussion to other topics (I'll probably update on the Health Care battle later), here are some other stories that I thought it was worth mentioning.

1) A new documentary by the same group who exposed Wal-Mart now aims at the Koch brothers, outspoken supporters of conservative interests. The documentary is meant to shed light on the vast empire that brothers have created, and expose how they spend their money to influence policy across the nation.

2) More information is now coming out about banking practices that may be less than legal. According to an article published by CNN, banks have been tampering with their lending rates to attract investors. Normally, lending rates are set by the banks and approved by an independent party. In this case, the banks were setting up lending rates that were unsustainable, but that netted them millions in profits.

3) You know what? Health care is just too big a story at the moment. Because of this, I will stop here and reconnect when the transcript of the day's events is released. Until then, keep your fingers crossed.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Supreme Court VS. HCR, Day 1

Today was the first of three days of deliberation on the health care law in the Supreme Court. Today's discussion was on whether there was a case to be brought before the SC at all. In most cases, there has to be some harm that's been done to somebody in order for a lawsuit of this type to be filed. However, the piece of the law that is questionably constitutional (the Individual Mandate) has not gone into effect yet. Therefore, no one has yet been "caused harm" by the bill. Those who are set to defend the bill will likely make this argument, though it's not expected to get them very far. At best, it will mean dismissing this case until 2014, when the mandate goes into effect.

For a full transcript of today's proceedings (if you have any inclination to read them), look below.

Supreme Court Health Care Law

You can't make this up

While the story here is questionable, the reason I post it is to draw attention to the comments on the parent site. The Blaze, which is an arm of Glenn Beck's media group, posted a story that has been somewhat underreported by other media.

The story centers around comments that Obama made to a Russian official during his time in Seoul. The comments were along the lines of Obama saying that he would have more flexibility to work with Russia after his election, and that Vladimir Putin needed to give him space at the moment. While these comments seem pretty harmless in the sense that Obama has been an outspoken supporter of reducing our nuclear missile stockpiles along with Russian, The Blaze takes it in a slightly different direction.

What's interesting here is how much the readers on this website take away from the story. It is historical fact that most President's push harder for their core policies in the second term, since they no longer face a reelection bid. The comments on the article, however, reflect a group of people who are seeing these comments as a clear indication of a militant future, a possible civil war in America, and aggressive racial tactics pushed by this administration. These comments also seem to point to overly aggressive solutions to these issues.

Here are some choice comments that I found:

"After 4 more years of Obama the only choice left for conservatives to save this nation will be a revolution. With freedom on the line it could get very ugly – probably the end of our country as we know it."

"HI TREASON
When will the officers of the US Armed Forces going to more against this Traitor. We are at war and the Commander of the Armed forces has conspired with an enemy of the American people. Impeachment does not have any penalty, conviction of Treason does."

"This amounts to treason. Will this story be heard on TV and radio. Begin impeachment before this racist destroys everything."

And last but not least:

"The arrogance of the Marxist POS heathen knows no bounds and I’m sure the dems with their union thug pigs will be engaging in voter fraud to ensure the Marxist heathen four more years of tyranny.The democrat party is the communist party,F U all and burn in hell you filthy maggots."

Clearly, there are some disjointed people out there. And things like this don't make it any better. These same people claim that the Obama administration is literally going to take over everything. While the text of the executive order makes no such claim, I can see how people who are so unbalanced could take it that way.

I find it extraordinary that there are people so incredibly hostile towards our President. While I can respect and understand people who don't like him (I don't even like all of his policies), blatant violent hostility towards Obama is profoundly concerning to me. I think that you can debate a politician in the political realm, and you can argue for an alternative point of view, but to openly suggest that the President of the United States is planning to launch a second Civil War is insane.

Friday, March 23, 2012

News of the Day

First, there's the debate over gas prices. While Obama recently agreed to putting a rush on the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, the deal would still leave most of the line unconfirmed at this point. Obama noted that the reasons for this were good: the line could disrupt wildlife and people's homes, and there needs to be more discussion about the route of the pipeline. Obama also pointed out, again, that he has no control over gas prices, and that the new pipeline would have little impact as well. That's not enough for most of the President's opponents, who continue to maintain that Obama is not doing enough to help the gas prices or open up for more domestic drilling (just as a note, domestic oil production is the highest it's been since the early 2000's. Just saying).

Then there's the Israel/Iran issue. Well, Iran is continuing to do whatever it is they're doing according to some sources, while Israel is saying that it's the threat of military violence and not the imposed sanctions that are having the most effect in deterring Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. Funnily enough, Iran didn't slow its work until after sanctions came into place, so you figure it out. While Iran is still able to finish out its current contracts, it is not allowed to renew them, which means that in the next few months they are going to run out of places to do business with.

Congress has been busy as well with all manner of things, like the JOBS Act. Of course, not everyone is happy with the bill, particularly the parts that would allow for major abuses on Wall Street. Despite these concerns, and a large body of evidence to support Wall St. restrictions, the bill easily passed both houses of Congress, and is facing little opposition from either party.

Obama is setting up to nominate Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim to be head of the World Bank. It's a big move and will likely have support from many of the developing nations that are part of the WB. While those smaller countries have been looking to gain more influence, Kim's background in health and particularly his work on AIDS and tuberculosis will probably make him an appealing choice for those groups.

Santorum made some interesting comments about who he would rather have as President. Santorum claims he would rather have Obama serve a second term than see Romney elected. Santorum claims there's little difference between the two. Backlash from other candidates, as well as conservative media, has been swift and brutal. Santorum, who has been considered the second-place candidate to this point, is probably going to see further reactions from the conservative community with decreased contributions, and probably falling poll numbers.

Finally, Bank of America has come up with a new program. They say that when a qualified person is foreclosed on, the bank will rent the property to that family at a lower rate than their more former mortgage. That way, the family can stay in their home, and they can afford it. Win-win, right? Yeah, not so much. See, if the bank owns the property, the renter gains no equity on it. They simply live there and continue to pay the bank. In other words, instead of the bank sitting on a bunch of empty properties that generate no income, the bank now makes money from the people they foreclosed on by renting their property back to them. They will make a more steady flow of money from a lot more people, and won't have to worry so much when their clients can't pay. Oh, and there's no rent-to-own feature, so people can't earn their old homes back, they can only rent them.

Building a Reputation

The Internet is such an essential part of all our lives now that we hardly ever stop to think about the vast amount of information that's out there. You can find websites that cover literally any topic. Many companies and even prominent individuals have their own sites now, and any person can have a Facebook page, Twitter account, or blog. But we also tend to be somewhat prejudice towards information on the Internet. Anybody can post anything they want. Which means information on the web should be taken with a degree of suspicion.

On that note, I present this website and its marketable service as evidence of just how crazy things can get online. The website claims that they can help people block personal information from being available online, and can help stop false or distorted information from being accessed. Not sure how it works, but it sounds legitimate. Unfortunately, this company doesn't seem to discriminate between content that is absolutely false and absolutely true. So, an individual or company that has a terrible track record could utilize these services, and make all that bad stuff go away.

Consider the plight of Rick Santorum (just google "santorum" to see what I mean). In that case, this service may be helpful to the Presidential candidate in clearing up that embarrassing issue. On the other hand, Santorum could use it to block content that may not appeal to voters, but is still accurate. That could be press releases, video content from speeches, sound bites, or direct quotes or copies of his speeches. He could easily limit videos of him endorsing Mitt Romney in 2007/08.

And what about private businesses? What if a company that installs plumbing has a bad habit of using low-grade pipes that burst after 30 days? That company could go online and have this website limit access to the plethora of bad reviews out there. They could even direct people to the few positive reviews that are available.

In other words, information on the internet is not as free as once thought. Companies like this one have the ability to stifle accurate representation and community conversation about people or businesses. If they can do this, who's to say they can't work in the other direction, promoting negative content about a particular person or company? Apparently, it no longer matters if a person is a jerk or a saint; the information on the internet is just another commodity.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Different Perspectives

There are a lot of different ways to look at economics around the world and in America. Because of the recent debt crisis, recession, and whatnot, there are a lot of different groups and individuals spouting their quick-fix ideas to get everything rolling again. Places like the Cato Institute have come out recently to say that austerity in Europe is not working and that the only solution (ironically) is deregulation and tax cuts. On the opposite side, you have people like Paul Krugman, who say that taxes and regulations are important to preserving the recovery in Europe and the US, that stimulus spending can save, and that reinvestment is the key to prosperity.

The same debate is going on over oil prices, with one group saying it's the President's fault and another saying it has to do with speculation and supply/demand economics.

There are even debates going on over things like energy, whether it has to do with oil pipelines, green energy companies, fuel efficiency standards, or fracking restrictions. There are people who are on every side of every issue, and they all have evidence to show why they're correct.

This article is a bit dated, but is a great explanation of how Progressives and Democrats see the strategy of the GOP over the last several decades. They point to ballooning spending and deficit under GOP Presidents dating back to Reagan, and say that it's all part of a plan to stick Democrats with the bill and force them to make tough and unpopular decisions about cuts in social programs and tax cuts.

The ultimate solution to all our worldly political and economic woes is undoubtedly somewhere in the middle of all these arguments. Deregulation may not be the single solution, but it can be helpful in some cases. Restructuring government agencies to cut the cost and size of government can be helpful. Tax cuts targeted to certain groups can be beneficial. Infrastructure spending can be a boon to the economy. There are a lot of solutions, and they all have something to bring to the table.

Unfortunately, we seem to live in a world of one-track-minded leaders who can't see past their own partisan views to the bigger picture. Supply-siders scoff at the notion that demand drives the market, just like Keynesians can't figure out why supply is so coveted by those who like the Laffer Curve. Oil-drilling fanatics disregard facts about increased domestic oil production and it's minimal impact on gas prices, while green-energy fanatics ignore the blatant problems with our renewable energy technologies. It all ends up becoming a blame game and nothing gets resolved.

So, how do we solve these differences? Can we negotiate? At this point in time it doesn't seem possible to reconcile the two extremes in Washington. Whichever side you think is doing things right, the other side seems hopelessly misguided. The only way for us to get back to a meaningful discussion is to step away from the Left/Right extremes, come back to the center, and acknowledge that we all want what is best for America. We can quibble over tax brackets, emissions caps, the role of government, etc, but at the end of the day we have to understand that the person we see as our worst enemy is still our ally when it comes to making this a better place to live. Once we figure that out, I think we'll see meaningful progress again. And that can only be a good thing for the USA.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Test your Health Care Know-how

With the SC gearing up for a debate on Obama's Health Care bill, I thought it would be nice to see how much people really know about Obama's bill. So, fresh from Politifact, here is a little test to see what you know, or think you know, about HCR.

Personally, I only got about half of those right, so I hope others out there do a bit better. It's been said that, despite the conservative majority, opponents of the HCR law will have a tough fight ahead of them. Not only are they trying to undo a piece of legislation that is at least partially very popular, but they are also attempting to do this while the POTUS who signed the legislation into law is still sitting in office. That's never happened successfully before.

Even some conservative judges have ruled that the law is constitutional, and they are quoted in the article. The argument for constitutionality seems like it will stem from an argument that it is lawfully within the powers of the government to regulate or mandate something that affects interstate commerce.

There are a lot of questions about HCR and I think that the bill is far from perfect. However, it fixes many of the problems we have with health care, and I have yet to hear of a better alternative from any politician in the race for the White House. If there is a better system out there (I like the idea of single-payer, personally, but it'd never get through Congress), let's hear it.

UPDATE: Also from Politifact, here is a breakdown of the claims about HCR that have been rated "false" or worse. Interesting list, and they do their best to provide source material for each of these claims.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Craziness is Coming

1. A great piece by a woman complaining about the various laws that have been coming up to restrict access to abortions, contraception, and preventative health care for women. Very well written, and it touches on some of the most outrageous bills being considered across the nation. While the Right calls it a war on religion, and the Left calls it a war on women, the fact is that the debate over contraception shouldn't be happening at all. It's a ridiculous fight to have, particularly since contraception directly reduces the need for abortions, something social conservatives find abhorrent.

2. A week or two ago, a racially-suggestive anti-Obama bumper sticker went viral. The bumper sticker's designer has since come out in defense of the design, saying it is not racist. According to the creator (you cannot make this up), the bumper sticker is not racist because, even though it invokes the N-word targeted at Obama, the dictionary does not list "racial slur" as part of its definition. Funnily enough, that's not exactly accurate. Or even accurate at all.

3. As usual, Evangelicals say the darndest things. This is especially true when they are introducing someone equally insane and doubly public, such as Rick Santorum. Pastor Dennis Terry offered some kind words for the presidential candidate just before his mental filter malfunctioned. The pastor went on to say that, among other things, the US was founded as a Christian nation, and that people of all other faiths should leave. He also said Liberals should be part of the exodus as well. The idea that America is a profoundly Christian nation is backed by studies into the religiosity of American Citizens, but it's patently false that America was founded to be a "Christian Nation" in a socio-political sense. Pastor Dennis ought to do a little more reading of history before making these claims.

4. A great kick-in-the-head piece from CBS points out how our national debt has grown in the last few years, and is slated to continue growing at diminishing speed. At this point, it seems the best politicians can hope for is a debt that will simply rise slower. There are, of course, ways to correct this, but they would spell political suicide if they were enacted and politicians are more concerned about their own power and privileges than the debt of the nation it seems. There could either be massive spending cuts, massive revenue increases, or a combination of the two. Those are the three options. The only thing to decide (and apparently the crux of the issue) is just which path to take, and by how much. Studies have shown that none of the Presidential candidates, Right or Left, have a plan that will eliminate debt increase, not even Ron Paul.

5. Lastly, GOP leaders released their version of a budget for the upcoming FY. Of course, the budget is more symbolic at this point, but what it does is essentially everything that Obama and the Dems would refuse to do. It guts food stamps and Pell grants, reforms Medicare into a voucher system, and balances this with - you guessed it - tax cuts.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A War of Words

At least, that's what it is at this point. With America still chugging along in Afghanistan, and most people tired of endless war, you'd think the suggestion that we start another one would be met with a little more resistance.

But the drums of war are sounding in Israel, it seems, and Iran is in the cross-hairs. Iran, who has been developing nuclear capability (they say for peaceful purposes; their sworn enemy Israel says otherwise), is being pressured by international sanctions to stop their projects and make them more transparent to inspectors.

With Iran seemingly defying these demands, the US is in a tough position. Israel, who has long been presented as a close ally to the United States, is demanding support from us in their intent to bomb Iran to the stone age. Israel, we are told, is ready to spark a pre-emptive engagement with Iran, and is waiting on US support. Meanwhile, here at home, American Media is playing up the various sides of this debate for the info-tainment of it's customers. On the one hand, we are strong allies with Israel. America has a large Jewish population, and we've generally overlooked that nation's various diplomatic shortcomings (we practically ignore it's treatment of Palestine). On the other hand, America has been at war now for over a decade. We have grown tired of foreign nation-building, we've spent trillions of dollars with no material outcome, and we've thrown ourselves into an economic slump before calling off the troops. So, who's right?

Well, to be sure, Iran having a nuclear weapon is a concern. Their leaders have stated many times that they would like to destroy the nation of Israel and return that land to the Palestinians. Nuclear capability by any nation in that part of the world should raise red flags, especially when you consider how things like technology and weaponry have a funny way of moving from one group to another. It is in the best interests of the world, Israel and America in particular, to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

But then you have to consider the lessons learned from the last several years. We went into Iraq on the apparently falsified information that they had WMDs. We lost thousands of soldiers there. We are still fighting in Afghanistan, in a situation that has quickly started deteriorating. Furthermore, we should have learned that war can be much more costly and much less effective than diplomatic policy. We are already sanctioning Iran, we have cut off treaties and contracts with them, and several banking and lending groups have starved them of funds as well. While Iran has outstanding contracts for oil sales, it cannot renew those contracts while under sanction. Eventually, they will be starved economically, and will have no funding with which to pursue nuclear capability.

Finally, you have to look at where we are getting most of our information. First and foremost, we are hearing from pro-Israel individuals and organizations. Many of these groups, though not all, have been calling for military action against Iran, which is understandable given their political ties. We are also hearing a lot from conservative politicians, who have also been outspoke supporters of the Israeli state in the past. In all, the number of voices calling for direct action seem to vastly outnumber and overcome any voices of caution or diplomacy.

It seems to me that we should be stepping lightly on the issue of Iran. It is clearly concerning for Iran to have nuclear weapons, but the sanctions and stress already placed on the nation should be sufficient to starve them. In the past, America has resisted the chance to negotiate with Iran for whatever reason, and has relied instead on political ostracization and socio-economic pressures. In his recent book A Single Roll of the Dice, Trita Parsi notes that there have been several occasions, both under Bush and Obama, where Iran has offered to sit down and discuss it's nuclear program, and the US has declined. This tells me that the US government has less concern about Iran than Israel, or at least believes that the threat of Iran is not as severe as pro-Israel groups would lead us to believe.

There are no perfect answers, and certainly we can't know what the best course of action may be. I happen to think that pre-emptive action against Iran should be used only in the economic, political, and diplomatic sense. We don't need another war in the Middle East. We don't need to show our support for Israel by sacrificing our own soldiers for their cause. If Israel wants to strike Iran, they have already said they will do so with or without the blessing of the US. We should wash our hands of the whole thing, step back, and let them duke it out.

Krugman on Health Care

Krugman takes a break from the European Debt Crisis this time to discuss the merits of Health Care Reform. Specifically, he touches on the fact that there is a lot of disinformation swirling around the media about the bill, and that much of the fear-mongering about it being a takeover of health care is flat out insanity.

Mostly, the problem is that all the fear about health care reform has been built on supposition and not so much on fact. People who disagree with it in principle have been hard-pressed to find things to criticize, so they have taken to voicing concerns about things that aren't there. Death panels? Not from HCR, but you wouldn't know that from watching FOX News. Skyrocketing costs? Not according to the CBO, which has released several reports that the costs of the bill are actually lower than anticipated. And the government mandate? Still there, but it doesn't destroy private health insurance. Instead, it bolsters it. There's no public option to compete with, and anyone who receives health care through their employer will see no change. Those who can't afford health care on their own will receive subsidy to get it, according to the law.

The biggest problems with the bill are that it is not being accurately represented, or explained, in the public square. It's being dragged through the mud by the GOP candidates, despite the fact that those pieces of HCR already enacted have helped millions of people. Anybody with a pre-existing condition can no longer be denied health care coverage by their insurance companies. That alone is a huge milestone, and ends one of the dirtiest tricks in the insurance industry.

Later this month, HCR goes before the SCOTUS. Whether it survives that or not is a matter of heated debate. Many seem to think it will be stopped, others aren't so sure. It comes down to the votes of the conservative justices, who hold a one-seat majority. I don't know whether it will stand up to the scrutiny of the high court, but I hope that it does. Some of the greatest innovations in the history of American Policy were unconventional at the time, and challenged the status quo. But that is what America has been for a long time: the land that challenges and changes based on the needs of its people.

Project Veritas invades Vermont

On Super Tuesday, thousands of Vermonters voted in the Primaries. Unfortunately, a few people voted that shouldn't have

Project Veritas, the conservative political group led by James O'Keefe, has released a video of their members fraudulently checking in to voting areas around the Green Mountain State. The point of the video was to show that voter ID laws are needed to crack down on voter fraud. The video shows members of the group checking in to various voting areas by assuming the identification of people who are either deceased or no longer residents in the area.

While the point they are trying to make may be a good one, the group unfortunately created more problems than solutions. For example, aside from this act of fraud, there was no other voter fraud to speak of in the state. Nor has there been in the past. Furthermore, the group deliberately and clearly broke the law in order to show that breaking the law was possible. This is like explaining to a police officer that you were speeding just to prove that it could be done. It's a bit of a stretch to say that this group thought out their video.

Voter ID laws may be an answer to a problem that hasn't arisen yet, but that doesn't mean we should just jump to prevent fraud before it's an issue. As some of the lawmakers from the state have noted, this doesn't justify scrutinizing the existing laws, it just means that voter registration rolls should be kept in better order. Those who have died or moved should be taken off the list in a more timely and efficient manner. I think that, if laws were strengthened around keeping registered voter lists up to date, you would have the same level of fraud prevention without infringing on the rights of the citizenry to vote.

Project Veritas may have tried to make a good point, and in some ways I agree that there are issues with the voting system. But voter ID laws are not the answer. And neither is breaking the law. The group should be held accountable and brought to court over the acts they clearly committed in their video, and we should take what lessons we can from them about how to strengthen our system while preserving it's core values.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

When did funding become a bailout

The Senate today passed a bill that would keep the federal Highway Trust Fund at it's current level for the next two years. In a recession, the fact that no money was cut from this fund is great, because the outlook was that this infrastructure spending would save or create in the neighborhood of 2.8 million U.S. jobs. Second only to education, infrastructure in my mind is the best way to spend our tax money. It creates jobs, makes for a more efficient system of transportation and information in America, and makes us more attractive to companies. Also, considering the fact that we have to maintain a minimum standard when it comes to our roads, rails, and runways, the spending on infrastructure projects is something that can be seen and felt by every American every day.

But not everyone is happy about this. Sen. Jim DeMint (R - S.C) decried the bill, saying it was a $13 billion bailout of the HTF. DeMint also said he believed highway funding for repairs and upgrades should be handled at the state level.

First of all, funding a federal program is not akin to a "bailout." It has been standard practice for a long time for Congress to give money to the HTF for its contract work. A "bailout" is something that the government or another organization does when they give money to a floundering business to keep it from shuttering its doors and cutting jobs. A "bailout" is pouring money into the coffers of a private business and telling them they have to keep operating. Funding the HTF, a fund of the US government, is not a bailout.

Second, DeMint is either dense or being deliberately misleading when he asserts that the states should have sole control over road construction, repair, and modification. DeMint claimed that the states could do the same job in less time for less money and do it better. I hate to break it to Sen. DeMint, but he's living in a fantasy world if he believes that. For one thing, states don't have that kind of money. They're hurting financially as it is. Then, once they have the money, they have to work with other state governments to design interstate systems. Remember, the federal government bankrolled and built the Interstate Highway System, not the states that the IHS passes through. The federal government is one big beuracracy. The states are a multitude of smaller ones. It would be utter chaos trying to figure out how to fund, maintain, construct, and operate roads across state lines without the federal government.

Finally, DeMint's comments underscore a kind of disconnect that has become very common in Washington lately. There seems to be a misconception about infrastructure spending, and what is worth the time and money. While Congress has been fighting over the Keystone pipeline, they killed a bill that would have funded national high-speed rail projects, an investment that would certainly create more jobs and make us more attractive to businesses. It seems as though some in Congress are keen to sweep infrastructure spending under the rug as a way to balance the budget, even though spending on infrastructure is one of the best tools we have at lowering unemployment. It strikes me as odd how the discussion will always switch between jobs, the economy, the budget, the deficit, the debt, jobs, etc. as if each of these things were mutually exclusive issues. They are all connected, however, and this new spending contract will help to bring all of them, and the rest of us, to a better place.

Executive Overreach

Recently, Eric Holder claimed that the President has the authority to order the assassination of American citizens who have ties to terrorism without any kind of judicial proceedings or oversight. In some ways, it's a way to show that Obama is tough on defense and national security, which his record should prove to just about anybody. But this decision is a major overreach of executive power, and one that could have serious consequences for American foreign policy and homeland security.

In the past, the US has not allowed the POTUS or any other official to order the assassination of American citizens, regardless of their affiliation with terror organizations. A person's nationality has always trumped affiliation to various groups around the world. But the question on many people's minds is, where does this new executive power end?

Could Obama conceivably call for the assassination of American citizens with ties to the KKK, or Weather Underground? Even if they are residing on US soil? What about people who are affiliated, but only as part of the Cheney Doctrine?

And, what about another President? What if Santorum ends up in the White House and has this power at his disposal? Who will he target? Abortion Doctors? Homosexuals? It may sound extreme, but this executive power is extremely vague and generalized. Like so much, it is open to interpretation. The only fact is, this power grants the President the ability to target anyone they deem a threat to national interests. Whether those interests are social, political, or personal is left open.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Lies

There are two pervasive ideas that have ingrained themselves in to the psyche of the political Right. This is not to say that they are held by every person who is a conservative, but they have become major political platforms of the established party. These ideas have come to light in recent weeks as conservative candidates continue their fight for votes in the political primaries.

One is the idea that public education, particularly post-secondary schooling, is a trap set by liberal intellectual elitists designed to promote liberal agendas and policies. Santorum in particular has been vocal in his opposition to higher education, most notably when he called Obama a "snob" for suggesting that every American should go to college. The problem with this view, of course, is that it does not take into account the significant impact of a strong education on America's future. In fact, it doesn't consider the positive aspects of having the most highly educated, highly skilled job force in the world. Santorum denounces college education as snobbish, and hints that it is the product of a liberal mind-control agenda. This mentality is particularly damaging because it justifies, and in fact celebrates, ignorance, as well as an idea that Americans should choose not to go to college if they have the choice. The attacks on public education have been equally harmful, and have caused budget cuts, top-heavy administrations, bulky and unwieldy standards, and unreliable measures of success. Considering the importance of higher education (and indeed, education at every level, from the earliest age) to our continued growth as a nation, should it not be a primary focus of our spending, time, and attention? Shouldn't our lawmakers dote on our public education system, and strive to make it the best, rather than the most efficient?

The second idea is that things like the environment are of no consequence when placed against the importance of wealth. This idea has become so markedly pervasive among so many different groups (not just on the right) that it has almost reach the status of irrationally common-sensical. Consider the recent reports about fracking, which include concerns that the process may be causing tectonic shifts (mini-earthquakes), and that the process is driving polluted water into people's wells and waterways. And of course there is the argument over domestic oil drilling. This one in particular is a hot-button issue with gas prices so high at the moment, but experts all over the place will tell you that domestic drilling will do nothing to solve the problem. After all, opening up more areas to drill for oil only means that we allow private companies to set up rigs in those areas. Those companies still sell their oil in the global market, meaning they still get top dollar for domestic crude (if you want the true culprit who is responsible for the gas prices, look to Wall St.). The same logic has been used regarding the Keystone pipeline. The GOP likes to say that the pipeline will create jobs and lower the gas prices, which is why they want to push it through. But consider this. The pipeline might create jobs for a little while, but so would the national high-speed rail program the POTUS pushed last year and that the GOP fought until it went away. That was a bigger project that would have created more jobs. The pipeline will not lower gas prices, for the reasons stated above. And the pipeline could have a serious impact on the environment it passes through. In reality, it is going through the same process as every other project, and parts of the pipeline are already being built in some spots. But it has become a political talking point for the Right to continue using whenever they want to switch gears and talk about jobs.

While these issues, and many others, are being debated in the halls of Washington, those of us outside the realm of national politics are feeling a direct impact of these policies. Already, public education is moving out of reach for many students, and financial aid is drying up. Already, we are seeing the power of money and greed taking over the debates on oil and domestic production. Truth is in short supply these days, and it only seems to be getting worse. No one listens to experts, taking their information instead from the sources that simply reflect their own preconceived notions. Expertise is no longer valued as highly as instinct and individual opinion.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

News of the Day

Once again, there's a lot going on, and I don't feel like writing a full post for each of these, so here's a list of the interesting bits of news floating around this morning.

1) A new report shows that the number of hate groups in the US has risen sharply over last year. These are not just organizations that speak out against particular groups, but organizations that plan and attempt to carry out more direct operations, such as rallies, handing out fliers, and/or violent acts. It's concerning to think that our nation is growing in the number of groups of militaristic extremists. These are groups on both the Left and Right that have a profound hatred of government or of particular groups of people. Unfortunately, it seems to be a historical trend in America to attract and foster people who view the world with distrust and hate.

2) Continuing their march towards a state of complete insanity, the Arizona state legislature recently passed a bill that would allow gun owners to carry loaded firearms onto school property. Proponents of the bill say that this is for convenience, since gun owners currently have to leave their firearms in their cars and park off school grounds when going to school functions or dropping their children off. Of course, a better solution might just be to leave their guns at home, but that thought never seemed to cross the mind of legislators as they drove this bill through the House. The bill would allow anyone to carry loaded weapons on school grounds, which is a surprising move considering the recent gun violence that seems to be escalating around America. While this bill is said to protect people's Second Amendment rights, I would like to know where those rights end. After all, Rights must have reasonable restrictions, otherwise they are the instigators of chaos. We don't allow the mentally ill or certain convicts to purchase and own guns. We don't allow people of a certain age to have gun permits. Common sense and safety need to be considered, but neither seems to have a place in the AZ bill.

3) Recently, once again, Paul Ryan has criticized a plan put forth help balance the budget because it calls for tax hikes. However, this is an interesting case because the business lobby in Washington has put its support behind this bill. While Ryan likes to say that tax hikes would harm job creation and the economy, business owners themselves are debunking this myth by endorsing a plan that would raise their taxes. While the bill proposed is not likely to pass, and has a lot of things in it that are not popular on either side, the fact that the GOP mouthpiece still attacks it in the name of businesses that endorse it should be telling.

4) Also in the realm of education, ignorance has won out over common sense in Utah. the Utah state legislature has passed a bill that cuts sex education classes in public schools and restricts teacher's from discussing homosexuality even if they are asked about it by a student. The proponents of the bill say that this is to ensure that sexual information meets the ethical and moral standards of each student's family, and that the public school should have no place in teaching anything except abstinence-only programs. While statistics and history have shown that abstinence-only education leads to higher rates of teen pregnancy, this fact was conveniently ignored by the legislature.

5) Just to prove how crazy investors on Wall St. have become, this is what they did just the other day in response to a story that wasn't a story at all. It amazes me that our financial institutions are so mindless that they would heed three disjointed words as truth and simply jump at the chance to start investing.

6) Finally, more proof that young college grads are in a very bad position at the moment. With few exceptions, most recent grads have found they're making less, if anything, and now have the additional burden of loans to pay off. The whole economy is suffering, and these guys are in the unfortunate position of having the least experience in their fields. It's really too bad that a college education doesn't open any doors anymore. Hopefully, things will get better and we'll see stronger job growth going into construction season, and the elections.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Civic Duty

Yesterday was Town Meeting Day here, and Super Tuesday in several other states. It looked like a mix bag for the GOP, with no clear winner emerging as both Santorum and Romney scooped up major delegate numbers. The final votes have not yet been tallied, but it's going to be close no matter what.

No matter who wins the nomination, the important thing is that yesterday symbolized what makes this nation great. Open democratic elections, free from tampering, violence, hostility, political ideology, and fraud. We don't have to worry about government operatives stuffing ballot boxes, or detaining dissenters to prevent them from voting. No one's life is in danger when they cast their vote. It's the pinnacle of free expression, and something that should be practiced whenever possible.

Aside from the primaries, there were votes on the local level too. While I tend to focus most on national politics, state and local affairs have just as much of an impact. No matter where you live, civics affects you. The number of people who vote has been rising, but it seems as though we still have many citizens who are not participating at any level. Like any right, the vote is something we must use if we don't want to lose it. I don't think we will ever lose the physical aspect of voting in America, but we can very easily lose the significance of a vote.When we place no emphasis on public policy and discourse, and allow the powers that be to simply continue their agendas without challenge, we lose our voice and potential for change.

It is an astounding thing to be able to influence one's own government. It is astounding that we have freedom of speech, of the press, and freedom of and from religion. But such rights as these are only as powerful and as important as we make them by our actions. So, go out, vote, and be a part of keeping America true to it's citizens. We deserve it.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Targeted opportunity

A recent report found that nearly all the gains in income made since the recession's worst years (2008-'09) went to the top 1% of wage earners, meaning 99% of the population divvied up 7% of total gains. The report indicates that America, despite the upheaval of a recession, has not steered off of the path of income disparity that it has been hurdling down for the past several decades.

The numbers out of America's working classes show that things are stagnant in terms of growth, income, jobs, and overall quality of life. The states are all ripping their balance sheets to shreds in order to stay afloat, and the Federal government is quibbling over social issues. Is there going to be any help for the low-to-middle income Americans and those who need jobs any time soon?

I think that there could be, but only if the federal government gets to work on it. Over the next few decades, we are going to need a lot of repair and modification to our infrastructure, including water, power grid, roads, bridges, rail, and runways. All of that costs money, and it will come from taxpayers, but shouldn't it be used to help those who are jobless? Why not focus initial infrastructure jobs in areas that have the highest rates of unemployment? Bring that money and those contracts into those areas, hire locals to do the work and put some money in their pockets, and get them moving to fix up their neighborhoods? It sounds to me like a win-win situation. Workers get a steady paycheck and updated utilities, and the government gets it's act together and helps the unemployment rate.

The wealthy should be wealthy if they have earned that money. But the poor should be not be left with nothing while the rich simply get richer. Federally-funded programs can help the unemployed get back to work, even if it's only temporary, and can help bring cheaper services to areas that need them.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A worthless human being

Recently, Rush Limbaugh has gotten himself in the news again over outrageous comments he's made in reference to Sandra Fluke being a "slut". For reference, this goes back to the Congressional hearings on whether birth control and contraception should be covered by the health plans of religious institutions. Darrell Issa, who chaired the committee that held the hearings, allowed a panel that consisted solely of men from religious institutions or backgrounds to testify, but denied Fluke who was the sole witness subpoened by the Dems and the only person called to testify in defense of the legislation. The choice by Issa to deny Fluke a chance to speak at the hearing became a rallying call for Dems and supporters of the legislation, and was pointed to as a clear indication that the Right was not interested in democratic process when it came to this debate, but would simply steamroll their way to a vote. Fluke has since made her comments known by speaking solely to Democrats who gave her an audience.

Limbaugh's comments have sparked at least as much ire as the Issa hearing. But instead of backtracking, Limbaugh in his usually forward stance, jumped in with even more despicable comments, this time aimed at all the female students from Sandra Fluke's school.

Others have criticized Limbaugh very harshly for his comments, and 75 Congressional Democrats sent a letter to Boehner demanding that he condemn the comments as outrageously offensive.

The problem here, though, is two-fold. First, Limbaugh is wildly popular with the extreme Right, and Republicans in Washington are hesitant to criticize him, lest they wind up out of office in retaliation. Second, the issue on mandatory birth control coverage has become a major issue in the election campaigns of the GOP candidates. Because this is such a hot-button issue, comments like Limbaugh's become lines drawn in the sand. People who support the "religous freedom" fallacy of these arguments flock to him and his ilk, while the rest of us try to talk some sense into them. The issue has now moved beyond whether someone's freedom is being infringed upon or not. It has become a slanderous name-calling cat-fight designed to inflict as much damage as possible for everyone involved.

A crude way to live

With oil prices spiking left and right, it's become a blame game in Washington as politicians try to capitalize on people's struggles in order to discredit their opponents. Just as a side note, it's interesting that that is the first reaction of politicians, rather than a feeling that they should do something to fix the problem.

The pervasive idea is that this is all Obama's fault, that if he would just let us drill domestically, or allow the Keystone Pipeline to be built, we would be swimming in $2/gallon gas right now. Of course, that's overly simplified, and in many ways downright wrong.

First of all, the President, no matter who they are, has very little to do with the price of oil. They can sign all the drilling permits they want, open up sensitive ecosystems to be sucked dry by our drills, and disrupt marine wildlife in entire swathes of ocean, and it won't help the price of domestic gas. Why? Because all of those permits and drills and rigs are privately owned by companies who are going to refine their crude and then sell the oil on the global market. That's right, all of the oil that America produces domestically goes out into the world to be sold for huge profit by the oil companies that produce it. The US has to go into the market and compete with other nation's for that oil, which is part of the reason the price has gone up.

Here's a list of reason's the oil prices are going up, and why they are so volatile at all.

1) Demand. As the world becomes more industrialized, more countries start buying up oil, which puts a strain on the supply being produced globally. In particular, India and China are both booming and starting to siphon huge amounts of oil out of the markets, which raises the price on what's left.

2) Profit. There's a huge amount of money being made by a lot of people, and they are very hesitant to let that go, even if it would mean higher sales because of lower prices. Companies like Shell, BP, and Exxon are raking in the cash because of these high oil prices, and they probably don't want to see a drop in the costs anytime soon.

3) Speculation. More than anything else, this is what drives the cost of oil. This is due to investors on Wall Street and in the oil markets betting on the price of oil, and on oil futures. Whenever a man sneezes on an oil rig, they hike the price a few cents. When something catastrophic happens, like this crazy story about a pipeline blowing up in Saudi Arabia, the price spikes crazily even if nothing actually happened. Why? Because it's the job of these investors to predict what will happen to the price of oil and get it to move before there's a change in the inflow/outflow of barrels.

4) Unrest. With Syria engaged in a civil war, and Iran threatening atomic weapons, it's no wonder there is concern about the oil fields in the Middle East. While OPEC countries are still churning out the black gold to the tune of millions of barrels daily, the increasing volatility in the region has sent speculators scrambling to push the prices up.

In terms of presidential influence, Obama could sign more drilling permits, he could open more lands to drilling and speculation, and he could promote domestic energy policies. But as I've said, doing that probably won't do much other than line the pockets of the oil companies even further. The only way to bring the costs down permanently is to decrease our dependence on oil all together, which is why we need alternative fuels and more fuel-efficient cars. Those are solutions that Obama is already pushing. I think he's going in the right direction, and is looking at the next 10-20 + years and seeing that this is the only solution that makes sense.