Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 in Crazy, Part 2

Tom Tomorrow

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Monday, December 23, 2013

Winners and Losers




Income inequality has been getting worse for a long time, and it's not merely by accident. Actions taken by the federal government, orchestrated and demanded by those who pay for our representatives, have caused the majority of the inequality to happen and get worse.

As I noted in a previous post, economists point to mass income inequality as a reason for economic slow-down. Those at the top bankroll elected officials, who then de-regulate the markets, roll back safety net programs, cut taxes on the wealthy, and tilt the game in their favor.

A pervasive feeling among the working and working-middle classes is that there is no such thing as upward mobility, that in the world of winners and losers, they are perpetual losers. Like the football team that goes 1-15 on the season, they just can't seem to get a break.

And really, the game is stacked against them. With money protected as free speech, those with more of it inherently have more "free speech" than other people, meaning they can exercise it more. And the longer the manipulation by money on politics goes on, the greater the distortion. For decades, tax cuts and deregulation have helped the wealthy reach previously unheard of levels of oppulence, while the rest of the nation has seen their relative incomes drop.

We have all seen the consequences of these actions. When the housing bubble burst (a bubble that was made possible by deregulation), the wealthy and the big businesses got bailouts and financial life-preservers from the government, even while the economy was in freefall and shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs a month. People were being pressed into poverty by the millions. Then, at the exact same time, there was a renewed campaign to cut social programs, deregulate, and further cut the taxes of the wealthy.

All of this flies in the face of the "American Dream" which says that if you work hard enough and long enough, you'll be successful. When the odds are stacked against you from the beginning, that chance doesn't seem to exist. I don't believe that everyone should be equal because not everyone is. Some are smarter, some are harder-working, some are not. But everyone should be given an equal chance at the beginning. Money shouldn't be able to buy you success, while lack of it dooms you to failure. A child should not have their potential limited because of the economic position of their parents.

There will always be winners and losers in a Capitalist system, or in any system. That is how the world works. But we should strive to make sure that the winners don't win everything, and that the losers don't lose everything. When people are a car accident or medical emergency away from bankruptcy, when families have to choose whether to buy food or pay bills, and when a skilled worker has to settle for a low-paying job because they can't find work, there is something wrong.

I hope that we will see a slowdown in the overall income inequality in our country, and that a balancing act takes place. If more people make more money, and enter the middle class, and start spending, and make themselves into a powerhouse for the economy, we will see things turn around. And the more influence a group has over the nation's direction and fortunes, the more influence they have over its government. If the middle class starts becoming the focus of Washington again, maybe we'll see more work being done to support them or, at least, curb the out-of-control growth of the wealthy.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Numbers

There's been a big debate recently over raising the minimum wage. The magic number this time around seems to be $10.10 an hour. The arguments usually fall like this: raising the min. wage would be great for the economy, because more people would be able to buy more, or it would be bad for the economy because it would cost more to employ people, which would cut into profits and cost jobs. The debate has been raging for a long time, and is one of the reasons the minimum wage has stayed so low so long.

Well, a new study by EPI (Economic Policy Institute) presents evidence that raising the minimum wage would be a great boon for the economy. In fact, it would mean a boost of $22 Billion just during the phase in process.

Raising the minimum wage has always made a lot of sense to me. I get why some people say it would be bad, and I can understand their reasoning. After all, if we pay people more, won't things cost more? Well, no. Pricing is set by the company, and if the company is making a huge profit, the wage increase won't force them into the red. But there's another side to this. If people make more money, they'll spend more money, especially if they are in the lower wage bracket. That means more sales, more profits, and more demand, which translates into more jobs. It's demand-side economics, and it works.

This new study from EPI shows that raising the minimum wage would be good for businesses, for consumers, and for the government as there would be fewer people relying on social programs to cover their expenses. It makes a lot of economic sense to raise the wage and to give people a good chance at making it on their own. And isn't that what Republicans and Conservatives are always gunning for? Getting people to be independent and do things for themselves? Here's their chance to make it happen!

Free Speech and All That

If you've been paying attention the past few days, you've probably seen the story about the Duck Dynasty guy getting canned for making some incredibly inflammatory comments about the gay community. The comments were made in an interview with GQ Magazine, and immediately blew up across the internet. Within 24 hours, the guy was cut from the show, and supporters of both sides came out in force to show solidarity.

As you can imagine, the whole thing has turned into a major media debacle, with folks like Sarah Palin claiming the comments are protected by free speech rights and that the Duck guy should be able to say whatever he wants without condemnation.

Originally, I wasn't going to write about this. I've never seen the show, and the story doesn't really interest me. What the guy said upsets me, and I don't agree with him, but I also respect that he has a right to say it.

The reason I am writing about it, though, is because of something a co-worker said. He pointed out that all this backlash, the guy losing his spot on the show, and the subsequent debates and discussions have done nothing to limit his free speech, take away his rights, or violate the First Amendment.

"Go read the First Amendment. Go look it up. It doesn't say anything about a person being protected from consequences for saying what he says." So, naturally, I looked it up. Here's the text:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."


There it is. Now, this guy from the TV show has every right to say what he wants. So do the rest of us. But the television company has the right to fire him for it. People have the right to be upset about it. Nowhere in the First Amendment does it say that a person is protected from the consequences of their actions or from criticism for their beliefs. It states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (I've reworded it for clarity). Congress has made no law that restricts this man's free speech. Nor has Congress acted to prohibit him from saying what he said. He has operated well within his rights, and so has everyone else.

The argument coming from those who support the Duck Dynasty franchise state that this man has had his rights violated. I can't for the life of me figure out what they mean. They say he is protected by the First Amendment. I agree, but I don't understand why they are pointing this out when he is not facing a situation that could arguably involve the First Amendment.

And just as he has the right to say what he wants, I and everyone else in this country has the right to say what we want. So, if I want to say that I believe that man to be a bigoted, ignorant hick who hasn't got enough sense to fill a cash register, I can do that. If I want to say that Sarah Palin is a brainless, loud-mouth pundit with no understanding of her own rhetorical irony, I can do that. It's all Free Speech.

Glad we cleared that up.

Lines in the Sand

The US is currently taking part in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. For years, Iran has been the target of economic sanctions placed on it by the US and European nations in response to its nuclear tests, which many believe are indicators of the nation's desire to construct a nuclear weapon.

However, it appears not everyone is happy about the fact that we are pushing for peaceful solutions to the Iranian situation. Rather than letting the negotiations play themselves out, a couple of Senators have decided to play with fire by producing a bill to levy even greater sanctions against Iran. If it passes, it could be a major issue for the US as it tries to work out a resolution with Iran.

The problem is that, if the US Senate votes to pass these tougher sanctions amid negotiations with Iran, it could disrupt those talks completely, and negotiations could break down. Rather than waiting to see what happens, these Senators would rather take the gamble.

Their argument is that the tougher sanctions would only be put in place if talks fail, but that doesn't address the issue that passing the sanctions could cause the talks to fail. Why not craft the bill, have it ready, and if the talks fail, then pass it? Seems to make a lot more sense to me.

Preventing a successful negotiation could have dire consequences, not the least of which could be further alienation of Iran from the rest of the world. This bill could seriously jeopardize America's position in negotiations, by indicating to Iran that they're not serious about resolution since we're planning for the talks to fail.

I understand that the Iran issue is a delicate one, and I am fully aware that allowing Iran to construct a nuclear weapon is in no one's best interest. All that is apparent, but it should also serve as a caution for anyone who is thinking about tampering with the negotiations. The stakes are very high, and I sure wouldn't want some hot-headed Senators getting in the way of such a delicate situation.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bridging the Gap

A recent survey conducted by the AP found that more than 3 dozen economists agree: the gap between the rich and rest in America is having a detrimental impact on our economy. It's the same thing that's been said for years, but rarely has there been as much consensus as now.

Part of the reason for this is that the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown larger than at any time in our history. The growth in the stock market has resulted in an even greater boost to the affluent, while those benefits have not had much impact on the majority of Americans. Also, while more jobs are being created, they are consistently low-wage jobs that keep people below, at, or barely above the poverty line.

Economists now seem to agree that these trends are harmful to our economy as a whole, but it's by no means a new idea. There have always been people who say that greater inequality is bad, and that a strong middle class is essential to a healthy economy. Yet we are seeing a shrinking middle class, a growing number of people struggling on minimum wage or low-wage jobs, and more and more people making it, but barely.

There are some good signs for the economy. Housing is stabilizing, credit is loosening up, there are more jobs to be found, and more investment. But if we don't address the issues of inequality, and do more to support those at the bottom of the economic ladder, we aren't going to see nearly as many gains as we could.

UPDATE: It seems this story was released at an auspicious time. Another article, this one written by Anthony Orlando, takes a stab at this same issue, and comes to the same conclusion. This is actually a much better article than the one linked above, as it gives more direct evidence for its findings and, in my opinion, is better written.

And that's not all. Do you remember back in the last campaign cycle, when Newt Gingrich suggested that poor kids should be put to work cleaning up their schools after they were done for the day? Well, Georgia Republican Jack Kingston has made a similar proposal. This one involves forcing poor kids who receive free/reduced lunch to work for it by sweeping the floor or doing other menial tasks. Mr. Kingston even says "yes, I understand that that would be an administrative problem, and I understand that it would probably lose you money." His argument, of course, is that it would instill the right values in those kids, namely that there's no such thing as a free lunch.

The thing that bothers me about Mr. Kingston's proposal, aside from the obvious issues with child labor laws and the ethical ramifications of forcing the poor to work for what the rich are given, is that it is ridiculous to suggest that kids in elementary school will even get the concept by being forced to work for food. When I was a kid, and I got lunch at school, I knew that my parents paid for it, but it wasn't a concept I understood. I just knew that I brought a check once a week, and I got my lunch. It didn't instill the idea in me that there's no such thing as a free lunch; that came from my parents. If Mr. Kingston wants to teach kids that they have to work for what they earn, then revamp the school system so that kids are challenged, and have to work for good grades. Or, ensure that their parents can get good-paying jobs so that they see their parents go to work each day and see their lives get easier and better because of it. Those examples of working for your success will be better for kids than forcing them to work before they can eat.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Why Pope Francis is Great

Pope Francis has been making quite a name for himself. In November, he presented an 84-page apostolic exhortation, in which he bemoaned the corruption of "unfettered Capitalism," and decried our social inequality as a symptom of greed and an unhealthy control of markets and money.

Since then, the Pope has received a lot of attention, some positive and some negative, for his views. Some labeled him a Marxist, others deified him for his commitment to the ending of inequality.

I'm not Catholic, and don't plan to be, but if I could, I would shake the hand of the Pope and thank him for these views. More than any other major figure in recent history, I feel Pope Francis has an understanding of the issues that face our world, and a commitment to changing them.

While the Pope does not have a hand in the matters of state, his position on things like Capitalism and social issues can have a huge impact. In Michael Moore's film Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore interviews several religous figures, one of them a Catholic priest, who all agree that Capitalism is a form of evil. They propound that it pushes a love of money and material wealth that is completely contradictory to Christian doctrine.

This has been one of the most interesting relationships I've seen, between free-market Capitalists and the religious Right. They both subscribe to conservative politics, but come at it from completely different viewpoints. If you were to look at their core values, you'd think that they should be diametrically opposed. Yet, somehow, they come together over in a strange way to form a kind of double-base for Republican politicians.

The purest expression of this has been religious leaders advocating for deregulation and other conservative views that seem to fly in the face of Christian morals. Cutting things like food stamps and other programs that help the poor might seem un-Christian, but these Christian Conservatives have somehow married the idea to their self-described religious convictions. I still can't quite figure out how they've done that...

The point is, this Pope seems to have a very practical head on his shoulders, and has decided to take a stand on some of these institutional issues that have plagued us for so long. I hope he is able to make some progress in these areas over time.

Oh, Christmas

Fox News has become (in)famous in the last several years for their recurring stories on the "War on Christmas," an entirely fictionalized attack on the free expression of this nation's most popular religion. Every year, around this time, Fox and its many pundits go out of their way to bring you stories about the fact that Christmas is being marginalized by the greater society. And every year, it becomes more and more ridiculous.

Take, as an example, Fox's news story about a school that supposedly banned christmas trees and the colors red and green from their "winter party." According to the article, the school has violated the Texas Christmas Law, which states that anybody can call their holiday expression anything they want. The irony, as pointed out here, is that the school was exercising its freedom to call it a winter party, as protected by the law, and didn't ban anything at all that as christmas related.

Anyone who has been through a few holiday seasons in America can probably tell that Christmas is by no means in jeopardy. In my area, there is one radio station that plays nothing but Christmas music from November to January, and at least five others that play Christmas music regularly each day. Driving down the road, I see dozens of houses with Christmas lights, Christmas trees, and lit crosses. In the stores, despite the signs that read "Happy Holidays!" the pervasiveness of Christmas crap is apparent. At Home Depot yesterday, there was a chair for Santa, fake trees and ornaments, wreaths, Christmas lights, and not a single display for Hanukkah or any other holiday. Everything is red and green.

Statistically, Christians take up a huge percentage of Americans. A Pew research study conducted in 2007 (the most recent I could find, unfortunatley) shows that a whopping 78.4% of Americans classify themselves as Christian. Even in the general population, Christians are in the vast majority.

What bothers me most about this annual tradition is that it completely ignores how other religions must feel at this time of year, and seems to perpetuate the belief that Christianity should somehow be placed above other religions during the month of December (which it already is, based on the observations above). What drives me nuts is that our Constitution says that we have a "freedom of religion," which to me means any religion is equal in the eyes of our nation. But we have this pervasive culture of fanatical religious extremists who want their religion plastered on every street corner and in every shop window, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Even as someone who has celebrated Christmas my whole life, I'm appalled by this lack of Christian understanding when it comes to the rights of expression for others.

The Argument over Guns

If you are at all interested in politics and what makes our society work, I would strongly encourage you to read The Thirteen American Arguments by Howard Fineman. He posits that we are a nation born to argue and that the arguments we have actually make us a stronger, more unified nation.

Well, here's a long-standing argument that has taken hold in our nation. With every new tragedy, and with every anniversary of a tragedy, we hear more and more about the need to address firearm safety. On the one side, there are those who believe that the 2nd Amendment to the constitution guarantees citizens the right to bear arms in any circumstance. They believe that an American citizen has the right to any firearm they choose, any size magazine, any type of ammunition, etc. They believe that the way to curb gun violence is to give more people guns, because no one is going to want to pull a gun on someone that could pull a gun right back.

On the other side, we have people who believe that the 2nd Amendment is antiquated and referred to a style of weapon that no longer exists. They believe that guns and ammunition should be tightly controlled, and used only in very specific circumstances. They advocate that concealed firearms, large-capacity magazines, and automatic weapons are not necessary for the general public, present major safety concerns, and are not meant to be protected by the 2nd Amendment.

There are plenty of people on both sides of this issue, but the majority of folks fall somewhere in between these two extremes. I certainly lean more toward the control end of the spectrum, but will always subscribe to a common-sense approach to gun safety and control.

The issue that I see coming up with this debate, however, is the extreme stances both sides are taking in order to push their views. For example, nearly all the sheriff's in the state of Colorado have refused to enforce new gun laws. On the other side, gun control advocates have stepped up their plans to fund candidates in the 2016 elections. I don't agree with either of these approaches.

Firstly, I don't believe that a law enforcement officer should refuse to enforce a law, even if they don't personally agree with it. Like the Florida sheriff who released a man who had been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and was then acquitted of misconduct charges, who claimed he did it to uphold the man's 2nd Amendment rights, a law enforcement officer should not be able to ignore the law simply because it does not match their personal beliefs. If there's a law on the books, the police are supposed to uphold it. Shouting "fire" in a theater is technically free speech, but we don't allow people to do that. What if a police officer doesn't believe that people should smoke marijuana in a place where it's legal. Will that officer still arrest people for it? Can an officer refuse to arrest someone for murder if the officer believes it was self defense?

Conversely, I don't think that any special interest groups should throw money into elections. If they want to advocate for stricter gun control laws, I will support that (to a point). But attempting to buy election results goes against my belief in the democratic election process. No one, not even groups I agree with, should be able to spend unlimited amounts of money in campaigns to elect politicians that will vote the way they want. It goes against the principles of our country (in my opinion).

As I've said before, I believe in taking a common-sense approach to gun control. I live in an area where hunting and recreational shooting are very common. My state has some of the loosest gun laws in the country, and one of the lowest gun-related crime rates. I think that, if people are given the tools to act responsibly, and only use guns in recreational capacities, there's not a problem. But when a person says that they have the right to carry around and AK-47 with an extended clip, that's where I draw the line. A gun like that might be fun to shoot, but you don't need one for personal protection or for hunting. If it serves no peaceful purpose in your life, you don't need it. If you want to shoot an AK, go to a gun range that carries them. Common sense also tells me that you don't need a high-capacity magazine, armor-piercing rounds, or assault-type weapons for personal protection or recreation. I have no problem banning personal ownership of assault weapons (indeed, it used to be banned, with the NRA's blessing. The NRA also used to support universal background checks).

I believe that the argument over gun rights will never be completely resolved, nor should it be. The argument forges us into a stronger nation where everyone can have their views taken into consideration. The problem is the fundamentalist, black-and-white rhetoric that has taken over the conversation, and drawn battle lines around their extreme viewpoints. The middle ground is a no-mans-land of crossfire and punditry, and nothing seems to every get done. Let's bring back some common sense, common respect, and have a real conversation about guns, using our inside voices and everything.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Still not there yet

Politics is a marathon, not a sprint. It's a never-ending slog through muddy water in the dead of night with a thousand invisible things make menacing noises at your from every angle. And you have to keep on going, because off in the distance, however faint it may seem, there's the promise of better days, a better nation, a more perfect union. If you can tough it out, you'll be remembered as one of the greats who was on the right side of history. If you fall, well, at least you tried.

But we're not all running in the same direction, and some of our esteemed representatives seem to be following paths that make no sense to the rest of us. And while we've made progress in some things, we have undoubtedly lost our way in others.

Take, as one example, the new law passed in Michigan that forces women to take out an additional insurance policy that will cover abortions in the case of rape. While statistically, rape victims have a low chance of opting for a rape-caused pregnancy, the state of Michigan has decided that a woman must plan ahead for the possibility of being brutally attacked if she wants full access to medical procedures that are supposedly guaranteed under federal law. This is unbelievably horrendous for two reasons. First, it forces women who want to exercise their freedom of choice to purchase a product that men do not. Isn't that discrimination? Isn't that creating inequality between the sexes? Surely, men don't need to purchase abortion insurance, since they will never have to worry about getting pregnant. Secondly, this law implies that a woman has to take responsibility for the consequences of being raped. It shifts the responsibility and the consequences to the victim instead of the perpetrator. Again, a man does not need to purchase an abortion plan, even if he then goes out and rapes a woman who becomes pregnant. The responsibility is placed solely on the victim.

What astounds me is that this whole law was passed as a way to prevent people from having to pay for an insurance plan that covers something they find morally reprehensible. Never mind that the people who get on the insurance plan never have to actually have an abortion. Apparently, Michigan believes that merely having the option available in their insurance coverage causes people to lose sleep at night. It's absolute insanity, and the result is a degradation of women's rights and freedoms.

It's depressing that we are watching this happen in 2013, that we still have groups who believe in this kind of legislation, and believe that they are moving in the direction of a greater, more equal and perfect nation.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Once in a Lifetime

It's an occurrence that some say happens only once in the lifetime of a congressperson. Historical documents point to a time when such things happened on a regular basis, but it has been many years since the last time such an event occurred. Some believed it was a myth, others that it's time was long gone. But all those who said it couldn't be done have been proven wrong. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you...a federal budget.

Before you get any ideas that such a thing has been met with fanfair and celebration, think again. While we have a budget that has passed the Senate and is looking good in the House, there are many fringe groups on both sides of the aisle that have expressed their frustration with the plan.

For those on the Left, there are concerns about the fact that federal workers will have to contribute more to their pensions, as well as for domestic spending cuts. For the Right, there are concerns that the plan rolls back some of the Sequestration cuts (which the Right claims as a great victory, if you can believe that). They are also not happy about continued Defense cuts, and the fact that overall spending reductions don't go far enough.

This is one of those times where the old saying "a negotiation is successful when nobody's happy" comes to mind. Those on the extreme Left and the extreme Right are dissatisfied with the plan moving through Congress. Some are even calling for it to be stopped in the House (doesn't seem likely, thank goodness). But from my perspective, anything that pisses off the fringe groups and makes the middle ground happy is a solid plan. And, if it can pass Congress, that's even better.

What amazes me the most is how people on the extremes would rather see NO budget than a budget that fails to adhere to their strict extremist views. While there are things that I would like to see happen, I understand that I am only one person with one point of view, and that everything must be negotiated and a middle ground must be found. If this budget proposal has a shot in hell of passing Congress, and Obama stands by his agreement to sign it when it hits his desk, then please, for the love of Democracy, pass the damn budget! Stop pandering to extreme special interests, stop playing to your nut-job base, and just pass the damn thing. Please. The American Majority will thank you!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Barack Obama's Business

Recently, Huffington Post published a story about Obama's role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership FTA. Newly released (and heavily redacted) memos from the talks show that the United States is taking a very aggressive, pro-business stance in the talks. Their position would open up a whole new range of powers for businesses on the global stage, and would, by extension, limit the powers of consumers and countries to respond.

Based on the memos, which are linked in the above article or can be read here, it seems that the US is bullying other countries into what they want, though these other nations are resisting. At first glance, it appears that Obama and his administration are taking a very strong stance in favor of multinational business at the expense of the nations and people involved.

Other news agencies have been slow to pick up the story, and many are simply taking their info from Huffington Post at this point. That's all well and good, except for one thing: Huffington Post had to go back and add a bit to their story. Here's what they included:

“These are not U.S. documents and we have no idea of their authorship or authenticity,” a spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said. “Some elements in them are outdated, others totally inaccurate.” The spokesman declined to specify which parts were outdated or inaccurate

That is a very important point to make, because it raises two possibilities. One, the US is lying about some elements of the memos being "outdated" or "inaccurate." Two, the contents of the memos are not accurate, and is being released as a way to disrupt the talks or discredit the US.

I don't know which it is, but either one is plausible to me. It's no secret that Obama has been much more friendly with big business than his left-wing supporters would like. It's also not a secret that the Obama administration has taken a strong stance in these talks before. If the administration really is trying to ramrod its ideas through on this agreement, at the expense of the other nations involved (not to mention we the people), that's incredibly concerning. If our largest, most powerful companies are granted even more power on the world stage, it will result in less power and control for individuals and governments to keep them in check.

On the other hand, it is likely that this memo could be produced by a different nation in the talks, or some other organization, as a means to tarnish the US position and gain some measure of leverage over them. Because the US is the main party to these discussions, gaining some measure of power over them would be ideal for lesser countries. If the spokesman from the Office of the US trade rep is being honest, it would indicate that the US has perhaps softened its position and is working more agreeably with the other nations involved.

Either way, the memos are disturbing, as they indicate that the United States is still engaged in talks that would seek to empower multinational corporations to overstep individual governments. While I believe in streamlining and making sense of our regulations on business, I don't believe that they should have the power to overstep a government to realize more profits.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Reboot

On Wednesday, President Obama spoke at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington D.C. thinktank, and outlined his commitment to closing the gaps of income, inequality, and opportunity in America.

The speech was long, about fifty minutes, and there was a lot covered. Obama spoke at length about the many issues facing our nation, from income disparity, falling wages, increased poverty, and lack of access to supports, to overarching corporate interests, lack of social progress, and gridlock in government.

While many people heard, read, or saw this speech and called it just another "reboot" for the administration, others like Paul Krugman see it as a major shift for Obama and his policies. I happen to agree with Krugman.

Obama has certainly had his share of struggles the last few years. But that doesn't take away from his accomplishments, nor does it detract from his plans for the future. Plans to bring jobs back to America in the form of infrastructure and scientific research, expanding social programs to help with further education and economic stability, streamlining the tax code and regulations to make business easier and more affordable, and continuing to try and create ladders of opportunity for people to reach into the middle and upper classes are all great goals.

As you might imagine, not everyone agrees on how to do this. I happen to agree with Obama's plan to focus on the consumer and the citizen rather than on the company and the CEO. Giving benefits to the wealthiest doesn't work, but giving benefits to the working classes does.

And before anyone says that Obama has done nothing but break the economy, take a look at the latest numbers, showing that unemployment has dropped to 7%, the lowest point in five years.

This speech may just be a reboot for the administration, but it is also a declaration of commitment to fundamental ideals of American society. It is a reaffirmation of our goals and aspirations as a nation, and a call to open the lines of dialogue and get back to work, so that we can fix our nation and make it better for the next generation.

7/18/1918 - 12/5/2013

How do you measure the worth of a life? Do you count the number of people who have been inspired by that life? The number of people who loved the person? Do you count the number of things they accomplished, or the impact of their actions, or the legacy they leave behind?

By each of these counts, Nelson Mandela was an icon of our times. His life was full of hardship, defeats, victories, and triumphs. He spoke with the voice of a nation, and earned the respect of millions around the world. His work in South Africa against racism, corruption, and institutionalized discrimination set an example for all, and inspired many modern leaders.

Many people, from the President of the United States, to nearly every major political and social figure in our world, has spoke on this man. Some knew him personally, many did not. And while there are voices who even now speak out against Mandela, his work, and his legacy, those voices are overpowered by the millions who join in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela and express admiration for and inspiration from his work.

Mandela's passing is sad, and we must mourn the loss of such an inspiring figure. But we must also use this moment to recognize that we are all, at our core, human. We are all people. We may have differences and those differences may divide us from time to time, but on a more fundamental and important level, we are alike. Mandela taught the world that doing what is right is not always easy, but it must be done by someone. Why not us? Why not you? Why not me?

Today, the world will mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela, and in the days to come, the loss will be felt. But we will all come to value his life, his legacy, and his teachings, and I sincerely hope that we can lay aside the prejudices we experience, and work closer together to move our world forward. Mandela will forever inspire, forever be remembered, and forever be revered.

Minimum wage woes

Texas Republican Joe Barton has added his voice to the small group of die-hard conservatives who say we should do away with the federal minimum wage. Though Barton himself does not give his reasoning, the theory that other Republicans have touted is that raising the minimum wage would hurt businesses and would dampen hiring.

Here's the thing, though. If everyone makes a bit more money, and has enough to spend on more luxury items, or even just more to spend in general, that helps the economy. It goes back to supply-side vs. demand-side economics. If you believe that putting more goods on the shelves will translate into more sales, then minimum wage doesn't matter. If you believe that putting more money in the consumer's pocket will translate into more sales, then minimum wage matters a lot.

According to Republicans who support the abolishment of the minimum wage, like Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), we should increase the earned income tax credit instead. This would allow people to get more of their tax money back and keep it out of the government's hands. The plan sounds good in theory, but there are two problems with it.

First of all, a company with no minimum wage requirement could pay their employees whatever they wanted. If you think there are a lot of people in poverty now, barely surviving, imagine if they are getting paid half or even a quarter of what they are now.

Then, if that were to happen, those people wouldn't be paying much less - if anything - for federal taxes, so the earned income tax credit bump would be pointless. The government would still be losing all that revenue, the people would be losing what little they're making already, and super-profitable companies would become even more obscenely profitable.

On the flip side, of course, there are those who want to increase the federal minimum wage and tie it to the cost of living. Those voices, mostly in the Democratic party, are much more prominent. They also happen to represent the majority opinion of the American People, which is supposed to be how our representatives vote.

I sincerely hope that we will see some movement on the minimum wage issue, because it represents a chance to do something significant to help the economy. More buying power means more buying, which translates into a better economic outlook. Not to mention that it would help people pay their bills, meaning they would no longer need to rely as much on financial assistance. Win-win-win.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The wrong way to right

A recent article on Huffington Post caught my attention. With all the recent debates around gun violence and firearm control, there is more pressure than ever on elected officials, their advisors, and on local and state governments to formulate a response. Worse still is the pressure being placed on them by advocacy groups on both sides of the issue, such as the NRA.

Well, there's a new group on the gun control side, and their approach is somewhat different. The group "Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense" is going after private companies, demanding that they restrict their customer's ability to bring firearms into their locations.

While I understand this group's concern, and I believe in common-sense gun restrictions, I don't think this is the best way to go about pushing for reform. The main issue I have is that, unless the company has a strong reason to be for or against gun control, they're not likely to alienate half their customers by taking a public stance on the issue. And while there are those who would argue that companies should do what's right rather than what's profitable, I would argue that companies exist to be profitable. Whether that's good or bad is another debate, but it makes no sense to disregard reality.

The other reason I don't necessarily agree with this approach is because it opens up a legal can of worms for companies who do this. Let's say a company complies with this request, and no longer allows customers to carry firearms in their stores. A person in a state where this would otherwise be allowed could easily sue the company for denying their right to bear arms, and they could potentially win. Just having such a lawsuit would be bad publicity for gun control in general.

If we are going to change the way we approach gun rights, we need to do it in a universal, balanced way that invites public inclusion. I strongly support common-sense gun control, and fervently believe that it is the responsibility of our elected representatives to deal with this issue. While special interest groups, non-profits, and prominent individuals can put their weight behind various initiatives and plans, I don't believe that private companies should be cornered into making a public statement about gun control, whether they support it or not.

And just as I don't believe private companies should get involved in the debate, I don't believe they should be able to opt out of any laws that are passed at the state or federal level. In general, but certainly in the case of gun control laws, companies should not get special treatment.

Why it will never be Hillary

If you've been paying attention to national politics for longer than two minutes, you know of the Clinton Legacy. No, not Bill. Hillary Clinton has become a prominent figure in national politics for years. From Presidential Primaries to Secretary of State, Hillary has been putting her name out there, and spinning the Clinton brand, for two decades.

There has been plenty of speculation regarding Hillary's future in the spotlight of national politics, with the biggest rumor being that she is planning to run for President in 2016. This rumor is talked about with a mix of interest and trepidation by the Democrats, and with scorn by the Republicans.

While I think that a female president would be great for our country, I don't think it will ever by Hillary.

First of all, I don't believe that Hillary is right for the Democratic Party. She's certainly an inspirational figure against the backdrop of history. She's probably the closest any woman has come to the most powerful job in the world. But she presents little that is innovative or inspiring, and doesn't seem to have much to offer a 21st century Democratic party. She has energy and passion for her ideas, but I don't recall her ever presenting an innovative or original plan that would solve any of our problems. In some ways, she's the Ron Paul of the Democrats: a perpetual candidate, with a die-hard base, but a message and plan that doesn't translate well to the broader public.

Hillary does have a key strength in her husband, however. Bill Clinton still commands a great deal of respect and loyalty in the Democratic camp, as well as among independents. Unfortunately, Presidents are not elected because of their spouses, no matter how good their spouse is at giving speeches.

Secondly, Hillary is already the primary target for the GOP. She has been a leading figure of Democratic Party politics for years. This has given the GOP ample time to evaluate Hillary as a candidate, learn where her weaknesses are, and develop a strategy to defeat her. The more likely it appears that Hillary will run, the more the Republicans are going to dust off their anti-Hillary strategies and go to town.

One of the reasons I believe Obama was so successful in the 2008 election was because he was an enigma to the Republicans. They had focused their attention on the big name in the race, Hillary Clinton. When Obama started pulling ahead, and then won the primary, the RNC had to scramble to get a handle on Obama. But the GOP has been ready for a Hillary Clinton candidacy for years. Ever since her husband's presidency and Hillary's subsequent popularity in presidential races, the RNC has been planning how they would defeat her. If Hillary were able to secure the primary, the Republicans would be more than ready.

If the Democrats are serious about keeping the White House through the next campaign cycle, they should be wary of getting too comfortable with Hillary. While she does have some great strengths as a candidate - experience, public recognition, and a strong support base among women and many Dems - I would be concerned about the apparent confidence the Republicans have regarding a general election battle with Mrs. Clinton.

That's not to say that I would disavow Hillary as a politician. In fact, I think Hillary could be a great asset to a Democratic Presidential candidate. Whether she's on the ticket as VP nominee, or is slated for a top position in the administration, utilizing Hillary in a supporting capacity could be the winning scenario. It brings her expertise and strengths to the platform, but limits her exposure to direct Republican attacks.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Fail

Tom Tomorrow


This seems to be a recurring problem: major catastrophes, highly divisive issues, and general idiocy combine to create a practical shit-storm of people doing things that go against common sense. When things get worked up, when there's a lot at stake, or when there's a chance for public grandstanding, people seem to lose the ability to use their brains and operate in a way that makes any sense.

Take, as a great example, the way the media was chomping at the bit over the Boston bombings. Here we have an American tragedy being turned into a fear campaign that is plagued by misinformation, sheer idiocy, and people just making things up as they go. This coming from people who are supposed to be professional fact-checkers.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Common Sense Fails Again

The Senate, in predictable fashion, stopped every one of the President's new gun policy provisions. Every single one failed to receive the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. This is really maddening, especially for those who are family members of victims of gun violence. Not even universal background checks withstood the Senate. That's apalling to me.

The President, as you can imagine, was pretty pissed. And why shouldn't he be? He was, after all, trying to save lives by putting common-sense protections in place around guns. I get that some people think an assault rifle with a 30-round clip is nice to have because you can. I get that some people live in dangerous areas and need firearms for their own protection. I get the recreational use of firearms for hunting and marksmanship competitions. What I don't understand is how asking people to go through a background check limits people's freedoms to own a gun. If they have nothing in their record that would prevent them from having a gun, then the background check won't stop the purchase. If they do have something in their record that would prevent them from owning a gun, then they shouldn't have one. Simple.

Another thing. I've heard a lot of people say that background checks will lead to a database of gun owners. But that's erroneous as well, since background checks are all done on paper, at every level, and it's against the law to computerize any of it. You can't plug in people's names on the computer, you can't document anything in a spreadsheet, nothing. Everything is handled via paper forms and physical filing. It makes for a convoluted, disorganized system, but that's what is expected so that we don't get a national database of gun owners.



Ruben Bolling

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Why it Matters

It's exceedingly ironic to me that the people who claim to revere our system of government and its constitution and bill of rights are the same people who go to very extreme lengths to fight it.

In North Carolina, a small group of Republicans have introduced a bill that would exempt the state from federal laws, regulations, or oversight. In essence, it would emancipate the state from the federal government entirely. And, in a new and exciting twist, these same Republicans have added an additional stipulation to their bill which would create an official state religion.

They're not the only ones, either. Mississippi is trying to do something similar by creating a board that would have the power to nullify federal statutes. And North Carolina is no stranger to thumbing its nose at the feds either. One of the requirements for any person to hold public office in the state is that they believe in God, though this has not been an enforceable stipulation for decades.

What's interesting is that North Carolina's own constitution seems to protect against just such a measure (see section 5 in the link). So why are they doing it? To shake off the tyranny of the federal government, of course!

I'm not sure what these Republicans are hoping to gain by attempting to nullify federal law, but I highly doubt it'll be successful. For one thing, it's unconstitutional. For another, it goes against the founding principles of our nation, which they claim to support. It is essentially secession without a formal declaration.

The federal government is what really gives us our national identity. The federal government is what grants us our rights and freedoms. It's what oversees our work with other states and countries. It controls our military, and creates the foundation for all of our industries, infrastructure, and investments. It is what makes America.

The debate in Washington may have sent us into a world of craziness where nothing gets done and everyone gets blamed. But we can't abandon our founding principles and doctrine because of how our current representatives are acting. The point of federalism is that there is an overreaching body of laws and limits that serve to protect the country and propel it to greater and greater success. Granted, the process has fallen apart recently, but that's not a reason to abandon it.

The process matters, the philosophies of our governance matter, the debate and even the dysfunction matters. It matters because it is by this mechanism that we develop and change to meet the needs of our ever-changing world. If we simply turn our backs on the system, not only are we failing our principles of a unified nation, we are trampling our history and allowing political division to end the conversation we've been having for hundreds of years about what is best for the country as a whole.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Division

The Supreme Court is taking up Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, and it's going to be a big shift in social policy for the US either way it goes. But it shouldn't be.

Gay marriage has become the political talking point of choice for social conservatives and liberals alike. They use their position on this one issue to grapple with their base. For the conservatives, it has always been a losing battle as it becomes harder and harder to explain their opposition without sounding like discriminating bigots. The main argument they've wielded in recent years is the whole "Bible says it's wrong" argument. The problem with that argument, as you may have guessed, is that our political system is not built on religious doctrine (one can make an argument for or against its influence). But it's the only argument they have against gay marriage.

The funny thing is, fiscal conservatives should really be in favor of gay marriage, since it measns more tax revenue for the federal government. It also means a more streamlined insurance industry, since providers won't have to fight with those who've lost life partners and want to collect benefits. It would make it easier for couples looking to adopt as well, since there wouldn't be such a big issue over which partner will have custody.

Aside from the legal and social reasons for supporting gay marriage, it's worth noting the profound moral reasons as well. Denying rights to a segment of the population because of their lifestyle is discrimination, pure and simple. It doesn't matter if you believe that homosexuality is biological or if it is a choice, if a person is living their life in the manner of their choosing, it is wrong to limit their rights and protections because of that. It is an imperative of equality that we extend the same rights to all individuals in equal measure. It was decided decades ago that all individuals over the age of 18 were allowed to vote, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. It is illegal to discriminate for a job based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. This same logic should be applied to marriage.

I understand that Christians feel that to allow gay marriage is to threaten the institution itself. The problem is, there are many people who are not Christians who get married. Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, Atheists, and Agnostics all get married. Does this threaten the Christian marriage institution? If a person chooses to become a Muslim and then gets married, is that a threat to Christian marriage?

So, I'm hopeful that the Supreme Court will ere on the side of equality and fairness, and not be bogged down by a religious doctrine that is meant to hold no weight in our politics anyway.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Cyprus Bailout

The recent news that Cyprus would be taxing 10% of every savings account in domestic banks has sparked major backlash, as well as a negative ripple effect through the global markets. But there's more than an unprecedented tax that makes the Cyprus situation unique. And it's worth taking a look at just why this tax is being placed on the people of Cyprus.

So, like many other small EU nations, Cyprus took advantage of the protection and stability of the Eurozone to borrow large amounts of money, driving themselves into debt. Like other countries that have done this (Greece is the best example), Cyprus was abruptly cut off when the recession hit back in 2007/08.

The thing that sets Cyprus apart is its banking system. First of all, the banks can make almost no money on bonds, so they focus a lot more on savings. Because of that, the Cyprus banks have very loose regulations to help attract big investors. This has led Cyprus to become a major tax haven for foreign Oligarchs, specifically Russians. Many wealthy Russians use the Cyprus banking system to keep their savings free from higher domestic taxes. The EU struggles with banking because different nations have different laws and regulations, creating pockets where investment and savings grow while others shrink. The Cyprus banks used all that foreign money to invest and keep themselves afloat, at least until the crisis.

Now, Cyprus is asking for a bailout for its banks. In other nations, the EU (really, Germany, but it's essentially the same thing) has demanded steep austerity measures to offset the influx of cash to bail out the government. But it's not just the governments that are asking for bailouts, its the banks. In Cyprus, the banks are demanding a bailout from the Cyprus government who, in turn, is asking for the money from their creditors.

The problem, though, is that the EU is not about to bail out a bunch of wealthy foreigners, especially not Russians. They are loathe to pour European Union money into a banking system that is used by wealthy non-EU tax cheats. So, the creditors gave Cyprus the ultimatum: charge the savings accounts to help with the bailout cost, or say goodbye to the Eurozone.

It's an interesting calamity. Cyprus is a relatively small country, like Greece, and both have been threatened with EU ostracization. Both have relatively small economies, and both have borrowed huge sums of money to help improve and maintain a high standard of living for their citizens. But Cyprus has been given what appears to be a no-win situation. Either they steal 10% of their citizens' money, or they are kicked out of the Eurozone. You can imagine why Cyprus faced a near-run on the banks, stopped only when the government ordered all the banks closed until Thursday, likely when the 10% tax will be incurred.

But wait, there are some limits on that tax. For one thing, it won't touch anyone with less than $100K. Second, it's worth noting what the alternative appears to be: the end of the Euro in Cyprus. What will everyone's money be worth when it has to be converted into domestic currency? Not only that, forget about Eurozone trade, Eurozone politics and "borderless" diplomacy, easy Eurozone protection and support, and so on.

Like I said, the EU has essentially put Cyprus in a situation they cannot possibly work out without serious damage to their credibility, economy, or both. The EU, and especially Germany, has got to stop demanding blood sacrfices for every penny they kick to these developing nations. Places like Greece and Cyprus can't keep up with the rest of the Eurozone economy, so they have to borrow. Then, the big banks in Germany and the other lending nations call in these debts, and demand austerity for them. Those small countries don't have much of a budget to slash, so every little bit hurts. This leads to layoffs, depressed economies, and more borrowing to keep things running, which demands more austerity to keep the cycle going.

I'm not saying the major powers of the European Union should just give away this money, and I can understand their reluctance to bail out the Cyprus banks. But they have to see now that austerity helps no one and hurts everyone, and that continuing to hold small countries to impossible standards, to the point of forcing complete chaos in their economy and banking system (not to mention global implications) is unwise, unfair, unjustified, and downright stupid. If they expect to get their money back from a country that has to steal the wealth of its citizens (by their own direction, mind you), and demanding spending cuts, they have no concept of basic economics and investment returns. That money has to be put to use, it can't be shackled to austerity cuts.

So, that's basically the Cyprus story. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and how the rest of the Eurozone responds to whatever Cyprus ends up doing. Seeing as how they've closed their banks until later in the week, they seem to be leaning toward tax. Or, they are attempting to prevent a run and buy themselves enough time to fashion a new deal with their lenders. I wish them well. Any deal would be better than what they've been handed now.

By the way, the reason there aren't more links in this is because so few new agencies are reporting on it, at least beyond the fact that it is happening. Let's hope this gets more attention.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Social Imperialism

Social Imperialism takes many forms and comes from many sources. The book The Constant Gardner is about British Imperialism in the developing nations of Africa, partnering with private industry (in this case, big pharma) to make tons of money and maintain socio-political control while the population is victimized as lab rats. Social Imperialism is the idea that a powerful outside force creates a need and then fills that need as a means of control and concentrating power.

As we begin to learn more about the new Pope, whose past has been spent serving the poor and destitute, it is worth noting that such work often comes as a result of those same institutions and their previous impact.

The Catholic Church is a great example. Their resistance to birth control in the Third World has not only contributed to the spread of AIDS in Africa, but has also done nothing to help with overpopulation and resource shortages. These types of decisions lead to situations where these countries must rely more and more heavily on the aid of organizations that directly contributed to their inability to support themselves.

Social Imperialism exists in the US as well. The cycle of cutting social programs, relegating spending to individuals, and stagnation of wages creates situations where those people most effected have nowhere to turn but private lending companies or privatized social programs, who in turn back the politicians that created those situations in the first place. Dependency is the currency of Imperialism, and power is it's wealth. With Dependency comes power, and with more power, more dependency is inevitable.

Social Imperialism is about more than just exploiting a situation, but creating a situation to exploit. There is enough food in the world to feed everyone, enough energy and technology that we no longer need fossil fuels, enough money to fully fund all of the infrastructure and health care plans we could ever want, but none of that is done. Why? Because there is no Power or Dependency to be gained from giving people a measure of control over their own lives. Great, powerful companies, wealthy and well-connected, control these systems, through government or not, to create a system of dependence on their product or service, so that they might gain more power over the people. That is the goal of Social Imperialism.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Self-serving Bias

Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed last week about the booming stock market. As you may have noticed, the DJIA has been on a hot streak for the past week and a half, setting new records each day in what has been seen as a clear indication that things are getting much, much better. That, at least, has been the opinion of many well-respected economists and politicians.

As Krugman points out, though, making vague assertions about the state of our economy based on the stock market is not good economics, or even good logic. In fact, he says, you need only look at the stagnant wages, stubborn unemployment, and fantastical corporate profits to see just where all the growth is happening. And that's nothing new.

Krugman's article is particularly great because he points out a phenomenon that I've been frustrated about for some time. It's the tendency of academics, pundits, and politicians to propose ideas, and then take available evidence as validation for them. Krugman's point, and my complaint, is that this happens all the time, and it leads to shoddy reporting, bad science, poor logic, and eventually failed policy.


A great example that I know of is the issue of Glenn Beck, who has been spouting for years about the approaching hyper-inflation, and the need to go back to the gold standard. It's a self-serving idea, and Beck takes every up-tick in inflation as a sign that it's coming.....riiiggghtt......abbbbboooooouuuuuttttt........

Except it hasn't come. It's been five or more years, and it still hasn't happened. Beck argues that he's good at predicting what will happen, not when it will happen. That's a genius excuse, because it gives him an unlimited amount of time to be proven right. If we experience hyper-inflation at any time in the next few decades, you can bet Glenn will be tooting his own horn about how he was right all along. He was just many, many years ahead of his time.

Krugman has several examples of this self-serving issue, and how many people get caught up in these things. It's like the people who see the face of Jesus in their Cheerios. Has an Atheist ever seen Jesus in their Cheerios? No, because Athiests aren't expecting to find it. Until our greatest minds stop trying to prove how great they really are by being right all the time, maybe we should stop listening to them so closely when they try to tell us they know exactly what's going on.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Changes

So, it's been a while since I posted. I keep meaning to, but things have been very busy here recently and I haven't had time. Quite a bit has happened, which makes it even harder to just jump back in. But I wanted to point out an interesting and, in my opinion, important trend that I've noticed.

Ever since Obama's reelection, Republicans in the House have been acting differently. They've scaled back their rhetoric on a large number of topics, from the VAWA bill to immigration and entitlements, and even on taxes. Basically, they've made some strides toward the center.

While they've been doing that, they've been digging in their heels in other areas. The sequester (which they then tried to end, but only for the military-industrial complex), Wall Street Reform, and nominations have all been targeted recently for the GOP, which has solidified their positions on these issues by grandstanding (literally, in the case of Rand Paul), mass obstructionism, and essentially business as usual.

In other words, the GOP is moving while standing still. The reason for this, I think, is to put themselves in a good position for 2016. They failed in their attempt to oust Obama by sheer force of hyper-partisan willpower. In the 2012 elections, they tried to ignite their base at the expense of the general electorate. In 2016, they seem to be looking for a broader support system to carry them into the White House. They won't be facing a popular incumbent, and so I think they are attempting to build a track record that is more popular with the general public.

The VAWA is a great example, as is their renewed stance on immigration reform. In both cases, the GOP was once a staunch opposition to reform in both areas, and used their muscle in the House to kill any new measures. The VAWA reinstatement alone took months of back and forth wrangling over something as simple as protecting victims of violence in same-sex relationships. Standing on this principle during election season may have been smart, but digging in their heels on a bill that has major public support would have been stupid.

How does this change things in Washington? I think that it speaks to a slight change to the normal gridlock we've been seeing. I think we'll see a bit more movement in Congress to pass largely popular bills and nominations through without so much fuss. We're still going to see major opposition to big legislative measures, but it would take a miracle to change that. All in all, Congress seems to be working a little smoother, and I hope that it will continue to do so for our benefit.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dealing with Idiots

If you've been paying attention at all the last week or so, you've heard about the sequester, how it will cost thousands of jobs, billions of dollars for necessary programs, and essentially drive our nation into a fiscal oblivion from which we may never recover. If you've really been paying attention, you may be wondering why in the hell we're even still talking about this. Surely, it's political suicide for any politician to stand in the way of preventing the sequestration from taking place.

Well, the idiots in Congress are doing just that. It appears as though both parties are trying to gain the upper hand in negotiations over how to avoid the sequester. Democrats and Republicans alike want to be the ones that set the terms for this discussion. In reality, it shouldn't matter since whatever deal is reached should be equally terrible for both parties, but good for the American people.

I've been wondering why it is that our representatives are failing to negotiate over something that is clearly a very bad idea. Why aren't they doing more, meeting around the clock to hammer out proposals, working together to save us all?

Here's one reason: they're afraid of the repurcussions. What repurcussions. The best example is John Boehner, who appears to be worried about losing his speakership should he cave on revenue increases. With that much of a consequence on the table, it's no wonder both sides are hesitant to give anything.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Oh, Religion

Few things irk me more than idiotic religion. I have nothing against Christianity in theory, but it's a practical mess. For one thing, the Christian lobby is very strong in Washington, advocating for free religous expression for them, and limited expression of others.

This video from Russel Brand's show serves as a great reminder of how messed up religion can get, and how it can warp people:



One of the things that really gets me is when the guy from Westboro says "If the holy spirit doesn't move you to do something, you don't do it!" He's implying that every single action carried out by a human being is dictated by the Holy Spirit, by God. If that's the case, then homosexual behavior, violence, infanticide, abortion, etc. are all perpetrated by the Holy Spirit as well.

Then you have people who know religion is crazy, and go out of their way to make it even crazier, like this guy in New Jersey who refused to take a strainer off his head in the name of religious expression.

When it comes to religion, people need to just live and let live. For one thing, our political system is polarized enough without introducing the harsh doctrines of conservative Christianity into the mix. And, if you were to remove religion's influence from our political discourse, there would be a much healthier discussion over issues such as gay marriage, women's health and reproductive rights, abortion, rape, domestic violence issues, and education reform.

A friend of mine is fond of saying "our society will not be free until the last priest is strangled with the entrails of the last king." Not sure I believe that entirely, but the point is well taken in a way. Until we relieve ourselves of these arbitrary notions about what's acceptable to the "cosmic entity" we choose to pray to, we will be woefully unable to consider other points of view as valid, and will continually fail to make progress on issues that impact our society as a whole.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The H-1B

Two stories caught my attention on NPR the other morning. The first had to do with 3D printing, which is slated to be the next generation in manufacturing and industrial design. The new technology was mentioned by Obama in his SOTU address last week. 3d printers, which allow an individual to scan and "print" 3-dimensional objects, is believed by some to be the herald of a new industrial revolution. The question is, how does the US capitalize on this new technology? As it gets cheaper, and questions are raised about copyrights and piracy, how can we turn this new technology into our second wind?

The second story had to do with H-1B visas for migrant workers. The visas are available to highly skilled and trained immigrants, usually in engineering and computer industries, to help attract skilled workers to the US. The problem, as the story points out, is that many companies who hire skilled workers are more interested in picking up foreign workers on the H-1B visa than American workers. Why? Because those who are here on a visa are more apt to stay despite bad pay, long hours, and minimal benefits. American workers are more picky about their jobs, especially those with high-level skills.

Obama's SOTU made it clear that he is interested in seeing a revitalization of our productive industrial sector. Engineering, science, and technology have become major priorities in our education system. Yet we continue to fall behind the rest of the world in technological research, development, and manufacturing. Our car industry aside, we've essentially lost all major manufacturing industries to cheaper foreign labor.

The reason these two stories peaked my interest is because they seem to answer their own questions: how do we move forward with a new technology, and how do we get companies to hire American workers? The solution, it seems, would be to focus our energy on new technology, and turn the US into a leader in things like 3D printing. Right now, it's still a largely unexplored field. It's getting cheaper, no doubt, but it could be much more accessible in years to come if we devote time and money to it now.

3D printing is just starting to make waves in manufacturing, being the newest result of combining production with new-age technology. The US has a unique opportunity to take this new technology and use to as a catalyst for major economic change.

How does the H-1B fit into this? In my opinion, the work visa is a great idea in the sense that it allows us to bring bright, capable workers here to help our economy and to help in the production of American products. On the downside, we have the issue of those workers taking jobs from Americans. The solution, in my opinion, is to limit the number of H-1B workers a company can hire based on how many Americans they hire to equal positions. For example, for every H-1B engineer a company hires, they have to hire two American engineers to positions of equal pay value and work. That would keep Americans from being shut out of these jobs, while still keeping a place for foreign workers to find jobs as well.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

SOTU 2013 Review

Last night, President Obama gave his fourth State of the Union Address. The full speech lasted approximately one hour, with long periods of commentary and analysis before and after. The rebuttal for the Republicans was handled by Marco Rubio, who also handled his extreme thirst very well. The Tea Party also had their say via Rand Paul. A comparison of these three views is available here, though I caution that it is not exactly neutral (it's the only one I could find).

Here's a breakdown of the major issues that were discussed in the speech and responses last night:

The Economy: Obama started out by laying out his vision for a new, 21st Century US economy that focuses on the technology and training of the future. He talked about the recovery that has been slow and unsteady, yet inevitable, over the last several years. He also discussed his plans to help cut through the regulatory red tape that keeps businesses back, making it cheaper and easier to conduct business in the US in the hopes of enticing more business and jobs to our shores. Obama's tagline here was "we don't need a larger government; we need a smarter one."

That's good news to me. It all sounds great, and if Congress will work with him then I see no reason this can't happen. After all, Republicans want to de-regulate and reduce the size of government. They want to encourage business growth. That sounds like a great place to start the conversation to me. Of course, no one side has all the answers, but it seems as though this vision of Obama's should be at least considered by the Right.

National Debt: Coincidentally, the Treasury Department had some interesting information to share regarding our national debt the other day. Obama made it clear that he wants to move some of our funds around, shore up certain programs while carefully cutting others. Again, he talked about reducing regulatory issues to help cut costs at the federal level. Obama also called for revenue increases and spending cuts to take place, calling on Congress to continue with a bipartisan plan to balance the budget.

Again, sounds pretty good, and the Treasury Department's report makes it seem as though we're on the right path. I think that we should start with a fiscal house-cleaning, by which I mean reorganizing our regulatory systems, cutting out waste and abuse, and redistributing money to vital programs. Only when that has been done should we look at tax increases, and only on those who already pay the least, and only so much that we can pay for all our programs. I will say, though, that I oppose the balanced budget amendment, because it forces government into regressive tax and spending policies due to tax limits. More on that in a later post. Suffice it to say, we need revenue and spending cuts to take place in a common-sense fashion, and only when needed.

Immigration: This is an issue that the President largely glossed over in terms of border issues. Instead, he fell back on his record of deportation, which is the most robust of any recent president. Obama called for comprehensive immigration reform, including pathways to citizenship that were easier to understand and more abundant, and which will require background checks and tax registration.

In this case, I wish Obama had been a little more direct. He's got a good record on immigration, but he didn't use that. I think the idea of comprehensive reform is good, but he's going to have a difficult time convincing people that it's not amnesty. I think Congress has more pressing issues, and that this one may fall by the wayside. However, we will eventually get around to fixing our immigration system by redefining the laws, enforcing our laws, and creating a system where it is more attractive to come here legally than illegally.

Sequestration: Obama talked about this briefly as well, making the point that sudden, deep cuts that were planned by Congress, passed by him as part of a debt ceiling deal, and since resurrected by Congress, would be bad for the economy. He called on Congress, like with the national debt discussion, to work out a debt deal that prevented the sequestered cuts from taking place.

Again, I think Obama should have been a little tougher here. The sequester was not his idea (as many Republicans, including Rand Paul in his rebuttal, have claimed), but he has not been working as closely with Congress as he could to avoid them. He's laying the responsibility solely on their shoulders, which is actually right where it belongs. After all, by the coveted separation of powers, Obama should have no say whatsoever in budget issues. However, I feel as though he should challenge Congress a bit more to work with his administration to meet the debt needs of the government in a way that prevents these automatic cuts that no one wants.

Energy/Infrastructure: Obama was very vocal in his support for the next generation of energy. He called for more solar, more wind, and more natural gas exploration. He called for a reinvestment in our roads and bridges, in making our infrastructure work cheaper and smarter and faster to help businesses cut costs. Obama talked about developing more green energy through wind and solar power, and tapping into natural gas to help bring America back to the forefront of energy production.

In this case, I think Obama hit the nail right on the head. He was clear that we need more renewable energy, yet also clear that he's willing to let the natural gas boom continue. I think that this year will be an important one where we balance our energy needs, environmental needs, and financial needs in a way that delivers comprehensive energy reform. I think we need to invest in our own technology, our own development of energy, and create the energy solutions of the future right here at home.

Education: Obama talked about education briefly as well, focusing on his plan to expand pre-k education to nearly every child in the United States. He called on Congress to pass education reforms that refocus on technology skills (science, math, etc.), and also called on Congress to work with schools around the country to provide programs that encourage students to pursue higher education and to go into the technology, manufacturing, and engineering fields.

This was one of my favorite parts of the speech, because Obama laid out such a great plan for our educational future. I absolutely agree with him that we need pre-k to be available to every single child, especially those in low-income situations. I think we also need to work on more localized standards of education rather than nationalized standards, since cultural differences from one place to another can make a huge difference in learning style and progress. My own personal views on education are still way off the status quo, but this would be a good way to move toward successful education practices.

Military: Obama talked briefly on our military development and successes. He congratulated the US on our plan for the drawdown in Afghanistan, and our reinvention of warfare with the use of drones and diplomatic support to local military forces. Obama emphasized his commitment to preventing terror attacks on US soil, and to targeting key terror cells in foreign nations that present threats to the United States and its foreign interests.

This is one of those topics that is a little touchy with me, especially considering North Korea's recent exploits. I think we need to focus on keeping our men and women out of harm's way, but must also focus on preventing as much collateral damage as possible. That means, highly focused targeting of terror suspects, and preventing civilian casualties whenever possible. Overall, I think Obama was very strong on this part of the speech.

Guns/Domestic Violence/Equal Rights: Each of these topics sort of rolled into one another towards the end of the speech. While Obama did not come right out and endorse assault weapon bans or anything like that, he strongly condemned the recent violence in our country and called for Congress to review common-sense legislation to prevent further massacres. He also chastised Congress (House Republicans, mostly), for failing to pass VAWA, and for slowing down things like equal pay laws that help women in the workplace.

This is the point that seemed the most tense for me, and when Obama was most likely to attack the Republicans. He was very clear that he did not approve of doing nothing over the gun debate, and was equally clear that he expected Congress to get it's shit together and work on a solution.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Korea

North Korea carried out a surprise nuclear test today. While the total magnitude registered less than 1/3 of the Hiroshima bomb, the political and social implications are great.

First of all, the U.N. is placing record sanctions on Korea, and has turned most of the world's nations against them. But that didn't stop them. Their people are starving and impoverished, and this is what they spend their money on. North Korea has also conducted long-range missile tests with the intention of targeting the US.

The problem appears to be that North Korea sees sanction by the international community as a challenge to be overcome. Their people may starve, but if they can blow something up with a big enough bang, they'll get people's attention.

I don't think we're at a point where force is needed, but we have to do something. Personally, I think we need to start putting pressure on North Korea's allies to either cut them off or face sanction themselves. There are also humanitarian questions to ask. For example, is there a way to help the Korean people while their government violates international statutes? Whose responsibility is that?

I take some comfort in knowing, though, that North Korea will never be able to strike America. Even if they develop technology that can reach our shores, our own defense will certainly stop them before they strike. And one attack is all the provocation needed for the international community to declare war. I'm not a proponent of pre-emptive war, and I think it should be avoided at all costs, but in the case of North Korea, I don't see any other solutions if things get that far.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Equality

I don't normally talk about women's rights issues, but this really got to me. I know that women's health, the VAWA, and so on are making a comeback as political issues, but that's not the whole story. I've often noticed that conservative pundits and commentators, most notably Rush Limbaugh, talk a lot about Feminists, Feminazis, and so on. They seem to think that women who stand up for themselves, speak out for their rights and freedoms, and who want a stronger voice in politics and social policy discourse are somehow destroying the fabric of our society. This is, in a word, bullshit.

Now, I don't consider myself an expert on gender issues. Perhaps I'm a bit naive about a lot of things when it comes to gender equality. I know that women have been struggling with equal pay, equal representation, and equal rights in general for years. They've been making strides in the workplace over things like maternity leave and so on, and have even made their presence known in Congress with the addition of several more representatives.

But that hasn't stopped the scapegoating of "radical feminism" by conservatives. It's the feminists that advocate abortion, sex education, and, god forbid, birth control and contraception. It's the feminist that has attacked the power of men in the office as well as in the home. It's the feminist that has taken the jobs of men, forcing them to become stay-at-home dads. It's the feminist that had destroyed the institution of marriage by demanding a voice once their a spouse, by experimenting with cohabitation and lesbianism, and by wanting to be equal to men.

What astounds me the most in all of this is that some women are actively opposed to feminism and equality. That just boggles my mind.

Like I said, I don't normally dwell on the issue of women's rights. But I've come to understand that equality among people, regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation, is essential for a just and Democratic society. What we have to do is understand that the feminist movement is still important because there are still people willing to deny rights to women.

I'm astounded that so much ignorance and hate could exist in the 21st Century, but it serves as yet another reminder of why it's important to fight for one's beliefs. The day we lay aside our desire for freedom is the day we lose our freedom completely.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ridiculousness Continuing



You may have noticed that we are still in the throes of media hype over the Benghazi attacks that took place five months ago. I could understand people's anger, frustration, etc. more if this had been a unique situation. Clearly. looking at the picture above, it wasn't. And no matter what the talking heads on the Right have to say, they haven't white-washed our history yet, and we can still remember things from more than four years ago.

Despite Conservatives trying to make this attack into a major political movement by using it to create smokescreen hearings and block nominations, there doesn't seem to be anything there to discuss anymore. Sure, there may have been more that could be done in the moment, but the fact is, our leaders acted the way they did, and it's done. As Hilary Clinton so (in)famously put it "What difference does it make now?" As crude and distant as that statement may seem (and Republicans are certainly trying to work that into every discussion), it's no less true. Despite conspiracy nuts and crazy idiots who think it was some grand conspiracy, and that we're just waiting for the cover to be blown open, there's been no new information, no new analysis, and no new heads to roll.

And now, to point out the next level of hypocrisy, which is that our esteemed former President, Mr. Bush, had a worse track record than Obama when it came to foreign embassy attacks. More members of America's foreign offices died under Bush than under Obama. Same outrage, demand for answers, hearings to barrage SOS Rice? Nope. Nothing.

So while the Republicans continue to wallow in this Benghazi delirium, and use it to further their obstructionist tactics, it would be worth noting that they are just as guilty of ignoring these tragedies as they claim Democrats are, they are just as guilty of turning a blind eye to American deaths, and they are just as willing to demand answers from a Democratic President as they are to demand obedience to a Republican one.

Renewing VAWA

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been up for renewal for a while now but, like so much else, has been waylaid by partisanship in Congress. The issue at the moment is a move by Senate Democrats to expand the protections for victims of abuse in LGBT relationships, as well as giving women who are abused by members of Native American tribes more legal clout.  Republicans tried to make their own changes in the House, but Senate Democrats have rejected their proposals, as it would actually limit the bill's effectiveness.

What's so frustrating about this is that is should not be an issue in the first place. The VAWA is a landmark piece of legislation. It has become a cornerstone for many women's health and safety initiatives in the United States over the last 17 or so years. And for what? For one line in a proposal that Democrats want to use to expand the coverage the VAWA has for women in LGBT relationships and for women who are abused by members of Native American Tribes. Sure, there are some legal issues to deal with when it comes to tribal affairs, but that's not reason enough, at least in my opinion, to stop the whole thing.

This speaks to the larger issues that have plagued our legislature for several years now. It's not enough to do what should be done anymore, it's all about making a political statement. I understand that Republicans fundamentally disagree with legitimizing those in the LGBT community. What I don't understand is how that translates into an unwillingness to treat every single woman in America as a human being worthy of protection and representation under the law. A person's sexual orientation cannot be taken into account when they are considered for employment; why is it taken into account when the law is deciding whether their an abuse victim?

I work in a pretty tough community. I see and hear a lot of violence and difficult situations. Not once, in the time I've worked where I do, have I ever considered a person's sexual orientation or who their partner is when I'm working with them. Not once have I ever taken that information into account of how I perceive or respond to that individual. And yet, Republicans are trying to say that giving them similar protections under VAWA to heterosexual individuals is morally reprehensible. You want to know what I think is morally reprehensible? Proclaiming, by word or deed, that a person is less deserving of safety, security, health, and well-being because of who they choose to love.

Friday, February 8, 2013

How to Fix Education

Teachers Pay and Hours


The chart above shows a comparison of the number of hours teachers work in the classroom compared to how much they make relative to the national GDP of their home country. In case you can't follow all the lines, the United States requires its teachers to spend the most time in the classroom, but is ranked 23rd in compensation. Korea pays its teachers the most, and the widest spread is Japan, with their teachers making the most money compared to the time they spend teaching.

What the United States seems to do more than any other nation is criticize our educators and demand more for less. We want longer hours, fewer benefits, reduced pensions, better test scores for each and every child, and all while we pay our teachers a crap salary. Education is a common punching bag for the federal government, but it also suffers from state and local cuts as well. In my area, town meetings are held annually to discuss the budget for the school. Every single time it's voted on, the first draft proposal is voted down. Why? Mostly, because community members who choose to send their children to private institutions vote no. They don't want to pay for someone else's education, but they are also removed from the consequences of these cuts. Teacher layoffs, failing to replace broken or outdated equipment and books; these are major issues if we want our children to have a 21st century, first-class education.

So, what do we do to fix this? First of all, let's make teaching attractive job opportunity. Right now, education doesn't even make it into the top 15 most lucrative professions. And look at the list of jobs that do. Most of them are jobs that people want and train for years in order to get (at least in some cases). Many of them require a large investment in post-secondary education, specialized programs, advanced degrees, and years of additional training and experience.

We demand that same level of academic and financial obligation from people who wish to teach. They must have a masters, they must have specialized training, pass regional tests designed to test their knowledge and understanding of education topics. They must regularly retake those tests to make sure their standards are still high. They are required in many cases to continue their education at an almost constant rate, something no other profession requires. Once a lawyer gets his law degree, he's not required to continue going to school. But a teacher is.

All of those things cost time and money, and are required of teachers. Yet we pay them less than most other countries, and we require more of them. We complain about how much they cost and how much we have to burden ourselves, when we're asking them to give up so much of their own time and money to stay in their positions.

The solution, as I said before I went off on that tangent, is to make education an attractive career path for our smartest citizens. Many of them are now being flooded into Wall St., law firms, or government. We need to get those people to consider education. We need to pay our teachers more so that we can attract smart, capable educators for the next generation. Wall Street does the exact same thing to attract smart investors. They have even said that they must keep their bonuses and high salaries to be able to remain competitive in the marketplace. Well, apply that logic to our education system. Isn't that a more worthwhile investment than Wall Street executives?

We can demand longer school days, longer school years, more oversight, more accountability, etc. all we want. But until we realize that our educators are overworked, overburdened, underfunded, underappreciated, and being used as a scapegoat for political deficit hawks and austerity-addicts, we don't have a chance of changing anything. We need to be better, and we can be.