Thursday, May 31, 2012

DOMA ruling

Today, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional. The law, which prohibits same-sex couples from accessing many of the benefits that heterosexual couples receive, has been debated heavily for years, but this is the first major ruling to strike it down since 2010. While the ruling will likely be appealed to the next highest court, it still give marriage-equality advocates reason to celebrate.

The argument from those who support the ruling is that it is up to states to decide what constitutes marriage and who should get those benefits. While many states have banned gay marriage, eight have so far made it legal. In those states, and others where such marriages are recognized, legally married couples were being denied certain things that the federal government offers to straight couples, such as survivor's benefits, jointly-filed taxes, and medical benefits.

Those who oppose the ruling do so on the grounds that same-sex marriage itself is wrong, and that granting these couples that they feel are married wrongly these benefits constitutes a weakening of traditional marriage. They claim that, by offering these benefits, the government will encourage more people to engage in same-sex marriages, and that there could be rampant fraud as a result (never mind that marriage fraud may already be a problem among heterosexuals - I haven't seen any reports on it).

Personally, I feel this is a huge step forward for America. It means that people are no longer treated like second-class citizens because of who they are. We're all Americans, and we should be treated as such.

The freedom of self-destruction?

Freedom is a funny thing. There are a lot of ways to describe and define what "freedom" means. Freedom will mean different things to a libertarian, a liberal, a conservative, or an anarchist. When it comes to US domestic policy, Freedom is a powerful buzzword. And it raises an important question. What do the American People have the freedom to do? What is it that we are allowed to do in the name of personal liberty and freedom? What are the limits to our freedom?

In New York, for example, there is a controversial debate going on now as Michael Bloomberg recently announced that he is planning to ban the sale of sugary drinks and soda above a certain size. The argument is that these drinks, especially in excess, contribute overwhelmingly to obestity in children and adults, and can lead to diabetes due to their high sugar content. The opposition claims that, like cigarettes, people should have the right to buy something that they know is unhealthy for them. They invoke the "slippery slope" argument, which is pretty poor logic in any circumstance. Where does it end, they ask? Will they ban all soda in any size? All candy bars? What about banning sugary juice drinks? Will we be forced to drink only water? Clearly, that is not the case, but it is worth having a discussion over just what people should have the freedom to do. Should people have the freedom to drive without seatbelts, even though it is in their best interest to wear one? States like New Hampshire certainly think so, while other states say no.

In the case of cigarettes, there is an additional level of complexity because smoking can harm people who are nearby, and not just the person who is smoking. Should people have the freedom to smoke wherever and whenever they want? Traditionally, lawmakers have said "no." When I was living in New Hampshire, I saw the state change it's law to ban smoking in public restaurants. Overnight, it became more healthful to go out to dinner because you didn't have to breathe in the smoke from the "smoking section" of the restaurant.

And what about the freedom to know? How much should we be allowed to know about what our country is doing, domestically and overseas, to ensure our safety? A recent report by NPR highlights a committee that was meant to oversee these government operations, but that has not been active for years because Bush and Obama have both either failed to put forth individuals for consideration or have had those appointees stonewalled in the Senate. The question then becomes, do Americans have the right to know and the freedom to request information about our government's operations? And where does that freedom stop in the name of safety, security, and privacy?

This is an important, ongoing debate to be having at the national level. The more we discuss and keep this at the forefront of policy, the more it will be defined and reflected in legislation. We as Americans have a lot of freedoms, even the freedom to choose things that are harmful to ourselves like oversized sodas or cigarettes. What we have to discuss is what the limits of our own freedoms should be, and what the government's role should be in either maintaining that limit or changing it in the name of liberty. Should we have the freedom to live in poverty? Should we have the freedom to treat our children the way we want, no matter what? These are the questions, along with many others, that will drive this debate in the future. As with everything else, no answer is set in stone, no position is final, and the discourse will only strengthen us as a nation.

Gaffes

Recently, Mitt Romney's campaign gained some attention for misspelling "America" as "Amercia" on an Iphone App. The gaffe became a major sensation on the internet, as people spoofed the mistake in photos, Twitter hashtags, and more. The mistake was later corrected, but Comedy Central decided to do their part in commemorating this most recent in a long history of great political mistakes.

Here's a list compiled by Comedy Central's website of ten of the most memorable political gaffes. While you could argue for your own personal favorites (Obama pronouncing Corpsmen "Corpse-men" for example), it's still a pretty funny list. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Depends on how you look at it

In politics, a lot has to do with the perspective you take. Look at the HCR law. Some love it, some hate it, but mostly because of the exact same provisions. Everyone has their own opinion about what's best, and that's how we get debate, discussion, and hopefully balance in Washington.

So, here is one perspective that was taken by Forbes columnist Rick Ungar about Obama spending. In the article, Ungar makes the argument that Obama has increased spending at the slowest rate in decades. This does not mean he has spent less, merely that spending has gone up slowest. The comments on this article are good reading as well. Rick, unlike some other Internet columnists, actually responds to comments personally, which makes for very good conversation.

Ungar also makes a point of linking to a rebuttal of his findings by the Heritage Foundation, giving an alternative perspective on the data. This analysis concludes that, along with the stimulus spending, Obama has increased our deficit by huge amounts. It also concludes that Obama is calling for further spending increases and will continue to drive up our debt with frivolous expenditures.

I don't need to tell you which article I agree with more. However, it is worth noting that these two groups are looking at very similar data and coming to completely different conclusions. It's like the debate over taxes. Conservatives tend to say that the wealthy pay more in actual dollar amount, while liberals tend to argue that they pay less in percentage of total income. Which is a more accurate way to look at it? That is the essence of the argument, both over taxes, and over government spending.

On a different topic, the same back-and-forth can be seen. In the world of finance and fiscal policy, the Left and Right are shoring up their sides with rhetoric that is equally, if not more so, divisive.

In his most recent op-ed, Paul Krugman paints a picture of what self-described "fiscal conservatives" are doing in the name of keeping taxes low. In particular, this article focuses on Chris Christie, whose state is facing huge budget shortfalls. Krugman notes that Christie's plan, rather than raising taxes to cover some of the deficit, is to take money from infrastructure and energy programs instead. In traditional GOP fashion, the governor is proposing cuts to programs already in place and operating to avoid raising taxes on the wealthy.

On the other side of the coin, you have an op-ed from Fox News contributor Karen Poczter. While it deals with a different situation, it still sheds light on the views of conservatives on things like investment and spending. The article describes the position of Ms. Poczter on how Americans view financial institutions in times of prosperity vs. times of hardship. She points out that people tend to have a strongly negative view of Wall Street during recessions and recoveries, but that they are largely silent during years of prosperity. The article suggests that we should endeavour to engage in "pro-business" policies (lower corporate taxes, less regulation). The article comes off as a emotional defense of business practices that make people money, and condemning the American people for complaining about that during a recession and not during a time of growth.

So, on the one hand, we have people who are making a case for more reasonable, balanced approaches to spending and business reform, while on the other hand we have people advocating for less infringement and more personal accountability. What I noticed most in the Fox News article was that, near the end, the author expressed that she wished everyone would come together, lay their differences aside, and adopt the policies she supports in her piece. In other words, she expects everyone to agree with her, or she will continue arguing with them.

It's all a matter of perspective and opinion. It would be helpful for everyone if there could be a discussion, but that doesn't seem to be happening when everyone is convinced of their own absolute correctness. No one is willing to bend on their principles and face losing support. We need to promote an environment where our politicians learn to look at things from the perspective of the opposing side, and understand that everyone has something valuable to add to the conversation.

Memorial Day

I know it's a day late, but I wasn't near a computer yesterday to post this. I wanted to take a moment and say "thank you" to all those who have served, are serving, will serve, and especially those who have died for this country.

I probably don't say this enough, but I love America. It's not perfect, but it's an amazing nation. For hundreds of years, Americans have fought and died to preserve freedom and unity domestically and abroad. We have gone from a small collection of coastal territories, into a small collection of unified states, into the greatest nation this world has ever known. We have not always been the most honorable, and at times we have been on the wrong side of history, but we have always perservered and made ourselves better and stronger with time.

On Memorial Day, we celebrate our brave men and women who have fought for us throughout our history. Those named and unnamed heroes who have shed their blood, who have been wounded on the field of battle, and who have supported and tended to our active soldiers are the heroes of a great nation. They are the reason I can write the things I do with protection. They are the reason we have debate, the reason we have a government, the reason we have a nation. They are our staunch protectors.

I would like to extend a personal "thank you" to those who serve now and have in the past that I know personally. There are quite a few of you. I'm honored to know you, and to know that you risked much for my freedom. I won't forget, and I have unending gratitude for your service and sacrifice.

God Bless America.

Friday, May 25, 2012

You can't make this up

Here are just a couple of hard-to-believe stories I stumbled across today. Seems the whole world is going bat-shit crazy.

1. Glenn Beck, master of the paranoid delusion, is at it again, this time over the botched Facebook IPO. Glenn believes, and spends 20 minutes describing, that the IPO was a planned failure orchestrated by the government to further a takeover of the internet. Apparently, the greed of the CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the ineptitude of the bank involved, and the sheer idiocy of the investors are not factors at all. Instead, it was all a government conspiracy, just like NPR.

2. At the other end of the insanity spectrum, you have the SEC, who recently decided that Lehman Brothers is too much of a hassle to investigate and possibly prosecute. So, they have backed off, sending the message that you can tank the economy, lie to the public, to investors, and to the government, receive bailout money to pay off your CEO's, and avoid scrutiny of your actions. If crime pays, everyone becomes a criminal. The SEC should really rethink this whole investigation thing, especially since it will probably encourage other major firms to follow in the Brother's footsteps.

3. And one that's not so surprising is a new AP study which shows that CEO pay went up 6% this past year, the second year in a row that it has increased. I don't know about you, but I've never gotten a 6% raise in a single year. Furthermore, the study found that CEO pay averaged about $9 Million for a public company. Pretty astounding...


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Volker on Trial

JP Morgan is still making headlines as it answers questions about how it could have lost so much money (the actual figure is well into the billions, but no one seems to know just how much for sure). The Senate Banking Committee has starting to hear testimony in a hearing to discern what happened under Mr. Dimon's watch. But as this summary points out, the panel was more interested in trashing regulators than the bank itself.

The main criticism being heard during this hearing is that the Dodd-Frank Act, and specifically the Volker Rule, should have foreseen this catastrophe at JPMC, and should have done more to prevent it. In other words, regulators were the root cause of the problem. The Senate committe members also took time to complain about regulations in general, seeming to be of the opinion that regulations were to blame for gross mismanagement of risk at the bank, and its eventual financial meltdown.

Funny story here. The Volker Rule part of the Dodd-Frank Act has not gone into effect yet. So, these Senate committee members are criticizing a regulatory measure that has not even gone into effect yet, and that their own party has been trying to stop.

The Volker Rule is a rewrite of the Glass-Steagall, which was repealed in the late 90's, and which separated consumer banking from speculation practices. It's worth noting here that JPMC lost all this money betting it on risky securities, the same practice that caused the 2008 crisis.

Why should we care about he Volker Rule? Because banks are no longer just places to put your money. The big banks, like Bank of America and JPMC, not only keep your money but also trade in securities, futures, and stocks with their own assets on the line in order to generate huge profits. When Glass-Steagall was in place, speculative practice and consumer banking had to be kept separate. The reason was, all of the consumer deposit money is federally insured, meaning the government subsidizes those accounts with tax dollars in the event of a fiscal crisis. So, when a bank like JPMC loses $2 Billion or more of it's own money, they are actually setting up a situation where they may accept tax money to keep them afloat. You know that whole "too big to fail" thing? This is where that comes from. This is why we bailed out the banks under Bush and Obama. This is why something like JPMC is a red flag and should be regulated against.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear Senate Republicans really get that. And it's no wonder, considering who's paying for their reelection. Check the link above for that information as well.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

News of the Day

1. A new report put out by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concludes that the cuts in federal spending that are set to occur on January 1st will have a detrimental effect on the economy and could push the US into a double-dip recession. Like double-dipping chips, it probably won't make a good impression on those around us. As with most CBO reports, it does not suggest solutions, leaving that up to the legislative body of government. Good luck with that. By the way, here's the way Fox News is spinning it.

2. Two articles, opposing ideas. This isn't really a news story, but a detailed look at both sides of the aisle when it comes to the history of civil rights. The Left claims that they have always been the supporters of civil rights for all, while the Right claims the same thing. They both point fingers at the other for being opposed to equality, and have used this divisive rhetoric to great effect in generating votes from those who believe them. It has long been the Democrats that have championed the mantle of civil rights leaders, but now the GOP is gearing up to tear that down with their own version of history. Here is the article that supports the GOP stance, and explains their position. In response, here is an article that seeks to debunk the Right-wing claim. You can decide for yourself which one you think is more accurate historically.

3. This HAS to be the worst defense ever thought of, and certainly used, in a case of accidental death. One of the defendants in the case of the Florida A&M drum major who died during a band hazing ritual, stated in his deposition that the victim wanted to be hazed. So, there is no disputing the fact that this person engaged in hazing, and no dispute that this act directly caused the victim's death. The defense of this person is that the victim wanted to go through with it. This is like a murderer saying that they shot the victim because they asked to be shot. At some point, you have to question whether you should do something just because someone asks you to. You know, it's that whole "if he asked you to jump off a bridge..." thing.

4. Wal-Mart is back in the spotlight (to someone like me, anyway) as Democrats in Congress are investigating whether Wal-Mart execs that are also affiliated with the USCOC are using the business lobby to push for a change in the laws they broke. Specifically, the Chamber of Commerce has been trying to loosen bribery laws that Wal-Mart has been investigated for breaking recently in relation to its expansion into Mexico. What is interesting about this push by the COC is that several top Wal-Mart officials sit on the board for the group that is lobbying for a change in these laws. In other words, there is a good chance that Wal-Mart is using the COC to duck out of legal ramifications for bribing Mexican officials. If only we all had the backing of the nation's largest business lobby...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

These tricky little things called facts

You may remember not too long ago there being this big debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would ship oil from Canada to refineries in the US, and proponents said it would create jobs and lower the price of gas here in the States. Opponents, meanwhile, claimed that the effect of the pipeline would be negligible, both for job growth and gas prices, and that more needed to be done to preserve the environment that he proposed pipeline would go through. It was this last bit that drove Obama to stopping the original pipeline plan, pending an investigation into the environmental impacts and looking for alternative routes.

Now we know that both groups were wrong. Opponents to Keystone XL were wrong that the pipeline would have minimal impact on gas prices. Supporters were wrong that the pipeline would cause gas prices to drop.

In a new report, the National Resources Defense Council indicates that the Keystone XL pipeline would actually cause an increase in gas prices. The reasons for this are a bit tricky. Basically, the pipeline would ship oil to Texas, whose refineries are more prone to developing diesel instead of gasoline like in the Midwest. This would mean that those refineries would cut their gasoline production, causing supply to drop and prices to rise. When TransCanada proposed the pipeline, they said it would cause a price hike in gas that would translate into greater returns for Canadian oil-producers.

What's so interesting about all of this is that it shows what a difference time and investigation make. If we had simply OK'd the project, we might never have heard about the impact it would have on our gas prices and production. This also serves as a strong reminder that any gasoline produced by oil coming through Keystone XL belongs to a private company and not the US. In other words, we have to spend the money to bring it here, spend the money to refine it, and then pay the company to purchase that product. Keep that in mind.

So, should we go ahead with the Keystone project? I think it's probably inevitable. Some places are already putting people to work building some of the less-contested sections of the pipeline. I doubt this new information will make much of an impact with those who strongly support the project, but it should at least get people thinking.

News of the Day

1. An interesting article by the Huffington Post looks at the approximately 2,000 people who have been exonerated for crimes after the evidence against them was found to be faulty or misleading. While that's nowhere near the number of people who are sent to prison every year, it should give us pause to consider the implications of so many innocent people being put behind bars.

2. An article in Buzzfeed highlights the ongoing "race war" being waged in conservative media. I have been following conservative sites long enough to know that there is a definite undertone of inequality to a lot of what they post. It's not always race-related, but it sometimes is. As I said in my previous post, check the stories and especially the comments that are posted on conservative news sites. They could shock you.

3. Facebook went public last Friday, which started with much fanfare, and is now resulting in an immense hangover for all those who invested a little to heavily on the stock that was supposed to be the next Google IPO. As of today, Facebook has dropped again, meaning the roller coaster has continued for a third straight day of trading, wreaking havoc on the wallets of serious investors. The controversies surrounding Facebooks privacy settings, and ongoing concerns of how Facebook uses the information you post to attract advertisers, is likely a big factor into why the stock has been so wobbly.

4. The President recently announced that US troops would begin withdrawing from Afghanistan soon, and that our "war" would end by December 31, 2014. That seems like a long timetable but, as you might expect, there are quite a few people voicing concerns over this. In particular. This drawdown will mean that Afghan security forces will be taking a more direct role in keeping the peace and security of their country, similar to Iraq. Another issue, as the link above points out, is that we will likely be funding Afghanistan security forces after our departure, meaning long-term defense spending will be used overseas and will be a hot-button political issue for quite some time.

5. This one is just silly. Last week, Notre Dame sued the Obama administration over the contraception "mandate" in the health care bill. This week, other catholic institutions are following suit. As anyone who pays attention should be aware, the so-called contraception "mandate" has a) already been watered down for religious institutions, b) does not affect the institution itself, and c) still leaves the choice of whether to use contraception up to the woman, who should be the one making that decision anyway. All the law states is that insurance companies must cover contraceptives in their plans. A change to the law made an exemption for religious institutions, but not the companies that provide their health care. To me, it seems as though the Catholic church is trying desperately to control the decisions that their employees can make. Shocking.

6. This one is mostly for the comments, if you have the time to read them. The story itself is another conservative pastor making waves with another inflammatory speech about the LGBT community.

7. Finally, here's a fun little comic to read. Enjoy!

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Growth of Hate

This article sheds light on a trend that I've been seeing for a while. I make a point of visiting sites like The Blaze, Drudge Report, and Fox News almost daily. On these sites, it's very clear that many of the commenters have quite a bit of hostility towards minorities. I've posted some of the unsavory comments I've found before, and it always disturbs me what people will say on the relative anonymity of the Internet.

To be sure, there seems to be an increased amount of racial tension going around America. Part of it is due to having our first minority President. Part of it is due to things like the media circus around Trayvon Martin. And part of it is due to the fact that minorities are starting to take up more of our total population than Caucasians. All these things together, plus the stress and anger around financial meltdowns and failing government have sparked outrage among certain groups.

The problem of hate is not a purely conservative or liberal issue. It goes beyond politics, even as it affects political discourse. But the truly insidious thing about racism is that those who believe these things don't believe it's wrong. I remember seeing bumper stickers of the stars and bars that claim "It's heritage, not Hate." That might be how that person feels, but the problem is that the confederate flag is a symbol of hate, a legacy of violence and racial inequality, and that can't simply be washed away by a person claiming it's just their heritage and they have a right to express it.

While hatred and racism have been a stain on American history and culture of a long time, it is a great concern that groups with malicious intent are so prevalent, and getting more numerous all the time. On places like The Blaze, you have people talking about armed rebellion against the government and the second Civil War. On Fox News, you have people talking about Obama being a Muslim, and talking about taking the rights of citizens away. These are not idle or incendiary things, and there receive no reprimand (often, their celebrated and echoed in other places). There are those who are threatening liberals, and anyone who disagrees with them. And again, this is not simply to be mean, but what people honestly believe.

I hope that we can move past hateful rhetoric, and see a day when this kind of incendiary speech is no longer prevalent. While people have the right to say hateful things, we should be concerned about the health of our society when we see how many people are joining groups with malicious intent towards their fellow Americans. We need to support each other, not attack one another, and embrace the multiculturalism that America has. It sets us apart, and will help to define us in future generations as the nation that put peace and brotherhood before hatred and discrimination.

Raising Tariffs

The local NPR station ran a story this morning that the US has dropped a 31 % tariff on Chinese-made solar panels. As you might expect, this has China furious, seeing as how they're the biggest producer of solar technology in the world. Chinese officials are already threatening that the move by the US Department of Commerce will be a major detriment to world trade.

What does a 31% tariff on solar panels mean? Well, it means that Chinese imports will be that much more expensive in the US. It means that US-made products will be more competitively priced, and it means that US industry will be helped along in becoming a more reasonable maker for solar panel products.

This is a debate that has been a major, if silent, player for America for decades: free trade vs. fair trade. While Free Trade agreements like the one's we have with China (and recently some South American countries) give us the benefit of cheap, plentiful goods to fill the shelves at Wal-Mart's everywhere, the downside is that it strangles our own industry. American citizens are not in the habit of buying significantly more expensive products because they are made in America. Solar panels and other cutting edge technologies are much cheaper as imports than domestically constructed products. Tariffs help to level the playing field, and set a precedent for future trade with China and the rest of the world.

This new move by the US government means that domestic solar companies will be able to market their products more competitively. Right now, China is developing a monopoly on solar technology. Like most advanced technology, China is able to develop solar panels cheaper, faster, and better than any other country. They have the worker capacity to continue growing in the field of renewable energy until they are the only game in town. Naturally, the US wants to get into the game, and this tariff is the way to do it.

Consider Solyndra, that company that Repubs are always trying to turn into a thorn for Obama. The reason Solyndra, a solar panel construction company, went under is that they couldn't compete with Chinese imports for cost. America is woefully behind in our research and development of energy technologies, and funding for that research is being funneled primarily into oil and natural gas projects. So, that leaves the technology of the future in the hands of China, our biggest competitor in the world markets.

I, for one, believe this tariff will be a huge boon for American industry. We need a little more economic isolation and self-reliance. We import more than any other country. We need to invest in ourselves, not in the industries of other countries. If we can impose a tariff on things like solar panels, that gives our own industry an edge, and the chance to make money, expand, and help our domestic economy. It's a win-win for the US.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Libertarians could learn from Cambodian Street Children

I recently watched the Documentary Small Voices, which details the lives and struggles of children living on the streets in Cambodian cities. In one scene, one of the street children goes to a shelter to ask for assistance. The child is told that they are homeless and living on the street due to transgressions in a past life (nearly the entire population of Cambodia is Buddhist, and so believes in Karma and reincarnation).

What does this have to do with Libertarians? Well, Libertarians are constantly saying that people have only themselves to blame for being poor, for being unemployed, for being uneducated, and for being unable to move up in the world. They say that it's people's personal responsibility to help themselves, and that everyone should just be looking out for their own best interests. The hitch that Libertarians run into is that they can't explain pervasive poverty when someone has worked hard their whole lives and was simply born into a culture that does not allow them to advance.

So, perhaps libertarians should take a leaf from Cambodia's book and convert to Buddhism. Then, they can argue that people are poor, not necessarily for choices they made in this life, but because of things they've done in a past life as well!

I'm joking a bit, of course, but the point I'm trying to make is that Libertarians claiming that each and every person is an island and completely responsible for their own success of failure is laughable. Do Libertarian's protect and provide for themselves from the moment they're born? Of course not. We all rely on other's at some point, and it is the role of government and society to care for and nurture those who are a part of society.

Libertarians really ought to consider the whole Karma and reincarnation thing in their rhetoric. It would make it much easier to explain why a person who has worked their hands to the bone for their whole lives is still dirt poor.

News of the Day

1. It's the same old story with Republicans, who continue to march in lock-step over taxes, complaining that they're too high and need to be shaved down a bit more. Even Mitt Romney, who has his most recent speech fact-slapped here, is getting on the low-tax train, despite his calls for reducing the national debt. Republicans are arguing that our entire debt situation should be fixed only with spending cuts. There are some fundamental problems with that view, chief among them that defense cuts never seem to materialize (despite the fact that the defense department itself has asked for cuts and their budget is easily the largest in the government). I would also point out that, when you talk about defense cuts, the standard reply is that it would destroy jobs, even though the GOP has spent years claiming the government doesn't create a single job. Hmm....

2. And in a similar vein, we have Boehner saying that he is hoping to have another debt ceiling fight in early 2013. He's actually looking forward to bringing America to the brink of default again, and possibly another downgrade in our credit rating. I still don't understand why this is being used as a hostage situation by the GOP, but they seem to think that destroying the borrowing power of America, and making us look like fools to the rest of the world (again!) is a reasonable response if they are unable to strip Americans of the much-needed social supports during a recession in the name of ideology.

3. Due to a surprising drop in the number of students expected to pass their standardized reading exam this year, the state of Florida has decided to lower it's passing grade. As you might expect, this has lent a new piece of evidence to the opponents of high-stakes testing, who say that overly testing students and making hiring and payroll decisions based on the outcomes is wrong. Clearly, standardized testing has become a major issue for a lot of states, as they continue to try and balance budgets while maintaining high standards of success.

4. We've seen this before, and it doesn't usually end well. Firefighters in California are petitioning to start charging for services. Granted, the services they are wanting to charge for are not directly related to putting out fires, but it still sets up a situation where a person may be denied a necessary service because they can't pay. Remember last year when there were stories of local fire departments standing by watching houses burn because the owner's had not paid for the fire department's services. That kind of thing, while it helps the bottom line, is incredibly harmful to the well-being of individual citizens

Monday, May 14, 2012

Proving the Rule

Recently, JPMorgan Chase reported losing approximately $2 Billion in a trade deal. While that is a staggering amount of money, and there has been some significant fallout from this, it has also reignited debate over how we can (and whether we should) take steps to prevent these kinds of things.

Rest assured, this isn't the only scandal to rock the business world this week, as three former GE execs were convicted of fraud in New York. But the fact that JPMC, one of the largest investment firms in the world, would so quickly lose so much throws us back into the debate over financial regulations in the marketplace.

On the one hand, we have Paul Krugman explaining why we regulate these kinds of things, and the ongoing struggle between federal limits and investors finding sneaky ways to continue gaming the system. On the other hand are those who normally protest oversight of financial institutions. This group is surprisingly mute on this particular incident, though it's bound to come up eventually in the "regulations drove them to it!" argument a la 2008 housing crisis.

Now, it may be true that over-regulation forces banks and financial institutions to make risky investments in order to generate capital so they can keep running. That may be true. But if that's the case, wouldn't the bank want to make sure that their investment was sound before dumping money into it? Wouldn't they want to know they could turn a profit? In other words, it's oxymoronic to think that banks would act more recklessly when there are rules to prevent them from being reckless.

Imagine for a moment if there were no regulations, or very limited regulations, on what bankers could and could not do. No limits on how high they can leverage their trades, and no oversight to monitor who is doing what. It's a free market design, applied to a "market" that does nothing but generate money out of thin air through investments. Somewhere along the line, people became confused about "free market." A free market philosophy is meant to apply to a market that produces a good or service. But the financial markets don't. They just produce cash. And giving them free reign to drive our economy into the ground in the name of wealth is just ridiculous.
So, the JPMC issue reaffirms the need for strict oversight and regulation of the financial markets. At the very least, it demands that we start discussing the role of financial regulators, what their powers should be, and what should be off-limits for these big banks. As Krugman points out, and as we should all be well-aware, financial boondoggles in the private sector can have huge impacts on the global economy, especially when the institution doing to boondoggling is backed by tax dollars as JPMC is.

UPDATE: Someone has defended JPMC. And wouldn't you know it, it's none other than Mitt Romney. A Romney advisor reported that the loss of money at JPMC was part of free market capitalism and risk, and has no bearing on taxpayers. That last bit is particularly interesting, since JPMC has its banking assets backed by the federal government, meaning it is the taxpayers that could have to dish out money for JPMC.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Austerity can be funny

Here's a great comic on how ridiculous the argument is for austerity. Just because the bottom line looks good, that doesn't equal a healthy society. If we let the argument of personal accountability go viral, we end up somewhere like this.

News of the Day

1. A recent article in the Washington Post has struck a chord with people following the Presidential race. The article describes an incident of bullying by Mitt Romney when he was in high school back in the 60's. While some people (primarily Democrats) are calling this evidence of Romney's darker side, others (primarily Republicans) are saying that it goes too far and has no bearing on the race or on Romney's character now.

Personally, I agree that the actions of people in high school should not be held against them in this context, unless those actions are legally questionable. An instance of bullying is not good, but it's not the worst thing that could happen. And Romney seems to have responded appropriately.

I will say, though, that if this were a story that had come out about Obama, it would be all over the airwaves. Conservatives would be having a field day. Look how they reacted when they got footage of Obama in college, and when they got information about his former girlfriends. A story about Obama being a bully would be a gold mine for the Rush Limbaugh's and Sean Hannity's of the world. Oh, wait, that's happened....

2. JP Morgan Chase reports that they've lost $2 Billion due to bad trades in the last month. Funnily enough, no one seems to suggest that stricter regulation of the banks might be a helpful tool to prevent this kind of thing. I'd say it's a 50/50 chance that some pundit will claim that JPM was pushed to drastic trading due to over-regulation by the government, and that we need less oversight.

3. The Paul Ryan Budget recently passed the house. The budget calls for cuts to social programs and more money going to the Pentagon, even as DOD officials say they don't need any of the $8 Billion in new spending being thrown at them.
Normally the party of fiscal responsibility, the GOP is now arguing for increased spending. Keep in mind, these cuts are due to last summer's super committee failure to reach a debt ceiling deal. According to the deal, 50% of cuts came from social programs and the rest came Crome defense. Now, the GOP is going back on this deal and want all the cuts to come from democratic programs.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

State Secrets

We were recently made aware of a failed attempt by Al Qaeda to blow up a US airplane using underwear explosives. The CIA reported that the plan was foiled after a months-long investigation. Considering the fact that American lives were saved here, shouldn't this be one of those things we can all agree to appreciate? Yeah, not so much. Apparently, some people in Congress are concerned that the Aerican people were not told about this investigation until the plan was foiled. After the years under Bush when the GOP were adamant that ignorance was bliss when it came to Americn anti-terror operations, now they are criticizing Obama for not telling the world what theCIA is doing to thwart terror plots. I don't think that we as citizens need to know what kind of things our government is investigating to keep us safe. I think we have a right to know what they are doing to us, but publicizing ongoing terror investigations is ridiculous. And calling for an investigation into how we were informed about a successful operation ignores the simple facts that it doesn't matter, it's still a victory, and we still found out about it after the fact. What would be accomplished by knowing about ongoing investigations? Wouldn't that compromise security if it was thrown to the media? Just say "thank you" and add this to the list of things accomplished while Obama has been in office.

At least we're not Greece

We have all heard about the terrible debt that Greece has incurred due to excessive borrowing, the drastic austerity measures that Greek leaders instigated to head off disaster, and the mass economic and socio-political ramifications of that austerity. Well, now there is one more thing that Greece has done that should make us all very thankful we live here. Namely, the recent elections brought several neo-Nazi and Communist candidates to power. Now, I believe that Communism has some potential as a social system. But Nazism? Really? Members of Greece's Golden Dawn party have been notorious for their views on immigration, which border on xenophobia (they've been quoted as saying they want to secure their borders with land mines). So, despite the public revolting against economic austerity, the swing has gone far in the opposite direction, and Greece has adopted extremist social policy as part and parcel of a popular economic one. Is this trade-off worth it? Are the people so desperate to avoid further cuts that they will elect neo-Nazi's? Apparently they are, but I don't think such a deal should have been made. And as bad as this is, America is experiencing a similar deal right now, albeit less extreme. The march of the GOP to the extreme right has been to the tune of incredibly conservative social policy. In order to appeal to this extreme group, Republicans have had to take on more and more conservative policies both economically an in particular socially. They have traded commonly agreed-to social positions for ideologically extreme social views as a way to gain support for their economic platforms. I respect moderate conservative views on taxation, spending, and business, but cannot understand or accept the extreme right-wing policies. I don't. Believe that we should give up on our values for the good of the economy. After all, dictatorships and oppressive regimes can be very productive. Will Greece be able to live with their decision?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Paranoia

Glenn Beck is funny. In a weird, CIA-conspiracy kind of way, he's rather entertaining. It's not until you realize that he's dead serious that you wonder whether he has all his eggs in one basket.

This is a prime example of the kind of paranoid scare-tactic type of information he gives his loyal listeners. Just the word "Forward" is turned into a code for communist, marxist radicals and exposes Obama as one of them. Now, just step back and think about this. The word "forward" might not be the most common in everyday language, but we still use it on signs, in books, and many other places. If Obama's new one-word slogan was something like "Regime" or "Marx," then Beck may have a point. But using the word "forward" means absolutely nothing in and of itself. Beck tries to come up with evidence to support his claim, but to me it kind of falls flat. Mostly, this is because it's so nonsensical.

The log in the eye

Since we've seen the 1 year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death this week, there has been a lot of discussion on the topic. Mostly, however, the discussion has been about a political ad that the Obama campaign released that focuses on this major achievement. Republicans have been blasting Obama for what they perceive as turning a national victory into a political tool. The irony of this is that the GOP has been doing the same kind of politicization with a number of national incidents, in particular 9/11. Not only that, but if Obama had been a Republican, they would never stop praising him. As the link above notes, this is a strategy that has worked well for the GOP in the past: demonize the greatest success of their opponents. In this case, though, it's not John Kerry's medals; it's the death of America's most wanted terrorist. Let Obama stand on his successes and answer for his failures, just like anybody else.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On the Lighter Side

Tom Toles is one of the most prominent political cartoonists today. His work is instantly recognizable for anyone who, like me, trolls the news and information on the web. Here's a great archive of his work to look over. Hopefully something will make you laugh a bit.

Taken Out of Context

This is the most popular new defense among politicians in the days of the digital soundbite. Stemming from the fact that no one watches full rallies or campaign speeches anymore, politicians have clued into this all-purpose counter-attack whenever a quote they say hits the airwaves in a negative way: it was taken out of context.

It's a genius response, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it can be difficult to find the full context of the quote in order to verify what they said. Documentation is somewhat lacking on the web. Second, it suggests a level of deliberate distortion by the opponent, and so this defense doubles as an attack. Finally, it gives the politician a chance to backtrack on something they may have said without thinking. In this way, the "out of context" explanation is a versatile tool for any public figure.

So, when I read this story and saw that context was being used as a defense, I was curious. Now, this is not the only story of ridiculous behavior over North Carolina's Amendment 1 proposal. But the interesting thing here is that the wife of a NC lawmaker is saying something that is clearly race-related, and then goes on record saying that her words were "taken out of context".

According to the report, Jodie Brunstetter (Wife of NC Republican senator Peter Brunstetter) said this to a local pollworkers: "The reason my husband my husband wrote Amendment 1 was because the Caucasian race is diminishing and we need to uh, reproduce."


Question one: Mrs. Brunstetter claims that this quote was taken out of context. She does not deny saying it. So, my question is, in what context is this quote not offensive?

Mrs. Brunstetter went on to defend herself by saying that she probably used the word "caucasian," but that she did not mean it in a race-related manner.

Question two: If Mrs. Brunstetter used the word "caucasian," in any context, in what way does that not have to do with race? Does "caucasian" have a second meaning I am not aware of? People generally don't use words like "caucasian" unless they are referring to race in some way. So, how can Mrs. Brunstetter say that she did not mean to use a racial label in a racial manner?

This is the point we are getting to now. It's like the game of spy vs. spy: the changes in how media works prompts changes in how politicians respond to media. That inevitably changes how the media works again, and the cycle continues. Right now, context is the thing that everyone is going on about, and the one thing that seems difficult for the truncated attention spans of the American Audience to demand from its preferred media. We've seen the devastation of non-contextual quotes, videos, and information. This is how people like Andrew Breitbart, James O'Keefe, and Crossroads GPS do their business. There is so much damage that can be done with information that is baseless, distorted, and falsified that it's a wonder we haven't heard more about keeping up with this kind of thing.

Hopefully, one of two things will happen. Either the media will do it's job and provide full context for the things it reports people as saying, or the people become more proactive in demanding this information. It's nearly impossible to tell the difference between real "out of context" issues and politicians covering their asses.