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.