Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hot under the Collar

For the second time in a month, the Northeast is facing a massive snow storm. Thousands of flights have been canceled, and we're looking at well over a foot of snow in many parts of the eastern US. Not only that, but frigid temperatures and wind chill are coming in with the storm, ensuring that temperatures fall to well below zero for millions of Americans.

Whenever this kind of thing happens, I get annoyed. Not just because the weather is awful, but because I have to endure all the conservative talking heads cracking jokes about global warming. "Cold enough for you?" and "How's all that global warming working out for you?" seem to be the hot one-liners this year. 

It's true that we've seen some startlingly cold temperatures, far below the norm. And it's true that we are getting a lot of storms and so one this winter that would seem to, on the surface at least, go against the widely understood notion of global warming.

But these quips and jeers are not only stupid, they're completely bogus. We're currently experiencing a harsh, cold winter, but the southern hemisphere is going through one of the hottest summers on record. Australia in particular is sweltering. And that's not the only evidence of climate change. You know all these snow storms we keep getting? They're linked to it as well. 

It annoys the hell out of me that we have people out there who completely dismiss climate change out of hand. But what gets me more is why they do it. They don't listen to the scientific evidence, they don't have a discussion with people who are trained and experienced in the area of weather patterns. All they do is talk about the controversy

Let me set the record straight. Just like with the theory of evolution and the origin of the universe, mainstream science is VASTLY in favor of climate change theory. The only people who dissent from those positions are the scientists on the payrolls of companies that would have to spend billions to counter climate change, or who are working for conservative think tanks. These pseudo-science "controversies" that are touted by the Right don't actually exist, but they try to use them to push their own personal beliefs into the mainstream discussion as credible alternatives to what is largely established fact in the science community.

Bundle up, stay safe, and keep the climate-change deniers at bay.

The Future of the Right

With this year's elections starting to draw more media attention, more attention has started shifting to the struggles between the establishment GOP and the Tea Party. While the GOP has always been the party with the strongest mutual support of its candidates as opposed to the fractured Left, the division between more "moderate" Republicans and those on the extreme side threatens to sink the entire Right in the upcoming political campaign seasons.

An article on Salon's website sums it up well. The Tea Party, comprised of the extremists of the Right-wing, will stop at nothing, and will compromise nothing, to achieve their goals. They will cut off their proverbial nose to spite their face, even if it means losing more ground than they already have in the public discourse. They are trying desperately to alienate themselves from the establishment GOP, which they feel is not extreme enough in its ideology to be of any use to the country.

When the GOP lost the last Presidential election, the RNC produced what has become known as their "autopsy report." Basically, they analyzed the demographics of voters, the campaign slogans and appeals, and pointed to areas where the Republicans needed to fix their image. Now, the Republicans have, for the most part, ignored the autopsy report's suggestions, and continued with obstructionist tactics and old talking points, which is not that surprising. Like I said, traditionally the Republicans have been adept at supporting a single candidate for high office, and so they have a good chance of prevailing over a Democratic party that is much more divided.

But the Tea-Party supported group, American Principles in Action, published their own report that attacks the GOP autopsy and lays out its own plan for growth and change on the Right. The rebuttal report's primary argument is that the GOP failed in the Presidential election because it...get this...wasn't conservative enough. According to the APA's report, if the GOP had taken a more conservative stance on social issues, been less willing to compromise, and had presented a more conservative economic policy, they would have attracted more voters from groups like Latinos, women, and the blue-collar working community.

The irony, in my mind, is these are exactly the groups that would choose not to vote for a more conservative Republican candidate. Specifically, why would Latinos vote for a party whose policies would force them to carry papers to identify themselves at all times? Why would women vote for a party that states that they want to restrict a woman's access to medical procedures and protections that are guaranteed under the law? And why would blue-collar workers want to vote for a party that would strip away safety and health regulations, gut the rights of unionized workers, eliminate the minimum wage, and cut health benefits?

What the GOP learned long ago, and has since forgotten, is that they have to balance their rhetoric in a way that makes it appealing to voters. The mainstream Republican party does not expect to get many women to vote for them when they champion restrictions on a woman's right to make her own medical decisions, so they have learned to compromise. They have become satisfied with the limits they got that restrict federal money for abortions, and that place certain restrictions and requirements on them.

But the Tea Party hasn't learned this yet, and it doesn't seem like they are going to at all. They seem to believe that anything that they don't agree with is treasonous for America. They don't believe in compromise, they don't believe in difference of opinion, and they haven't realized that their brand of conservatism will gain them no supporters among certain groups. They have somehow convinced themselves that everyone is a conservative, and that if they just get more conservative, they'll start winning elections. That's not how it works.

I'm sorry to say that the days of the Moderate Republican seem to be dwindling.I hope that we don't lose common-sense conservatives, because we do need them as a counter-weight in Washington. But we need a counter-weight that is willing to compromise. We need conservatives who understand that our nation is founded on compromise and runs on all representatives working together. We need a Congress that will find solutions to our problems instead of letting the whole thing go to shit on principle.

The future of the Right is uncertain. I do not envy them at the moment, but I do feel sorry for all of us who may feel the effects all too soon.

Monday, January 20, 2014

This is what a REAL cover-up looks like

Warning: This story covers a graphic topic. Read at your own discretion.

This is sickening. This should have the world screaming for justice. This needs to be answered.

A new report on the fight in Syria has unearthed evidence of what is being called "Industrial-Scale Killing" of Syrians by the government. The report is based on a large cache of documents that were smuggled from Syria, and implicate the government in the murder of more the 11,000 people. Photos that were made part of the cache show corpses with signs of torture. Many have marks indicating electrocution, strangulation, or other forms of torture. Many of the bodies appear emaciated as well, as though the victims had not been fed.

For years now, there have been concerns about atrocities in Syria. We have seen evidence of the government using chemical weapons on its own people. We have seen them dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, killing hundreds. We have seen the government ramp up attacks on "rebels" in the weeks leading up to planned peace talks as if trying to soften them up.

And now this. It has been an ongoing debate in Washington as to how we should respond. We have been waiting for solid evidence of crimes orchestrated by the government. Now we have solid evidence, so what will we do?

I believe that America must set an example here. I hate the idea of going into another country that has not attacked us directly. However, as a member of the world community, we have a responsibility to act when the laws of that community are broken. I firmly believe that action must be taken, whether directly or indirectly, to remove Assad from power in Syria and bring Democracy to that nation.

I hope that Congress can put aside its partisanship in the name of justice, and support the President if he should choose to respond with military action against Syria. If he does not, then we must support him in whatever decision he makes regarding this latest intelligence.

My thoughts and prayers are with the Syrian people, and I hope that a resolution to the conflict will come soon.

Benghazi Style

I didn't want to talk about this again, because I see it as a non-issue. I know that it's a big talking point on the conservative side, but I want to point out a few things that I hope will clear the air.

The first is that this whole notion that the administration is unsympathetic about Benghazi is ridiculous. The most popular bit of evidence for this argument isn't even true. That whole scandal with what Hillary Clinton said? Yeah, not really a scandal at all. What bothers me most is not that it took this long for someone to point this out, but that conservatives don't seem to have realized it themselves. This is exactly what they did with the "You didn't build that" theme from the last election. It's a quote that was taken completely out of context and used to make the exact opposite point that the speaker was initially intending to make.

The second thing I want to point out is how silly this whole thing is. I will say that it is a tragedy that four Americans lost their lives. But so is the fact that more than five times that lost their lives during attacks on American embassies during the Bush administration, and no one got up in arms then. It was a tragic event, absolutely, but for the Right to make this much political hay over the controversy is perverse.

How many times have conservative pundits ripped the gun control lobby for using school shootings to further their agenda? How many times has the conservative media criticized the Left for using national tragedies to place common sense limits on gun ownership? This is exactly what the Right is doing with Benghazi.

Now, I know that I'm going to get some comments about this post, and that's fine. I welcome a discussion on this issue, just like any other. But I want the conservatives out there to be aware of the hypocrisy that many of them are exhibiting here. Please tell me what evidence there is of a cover-up. Please tell me why you think that this administration has done something so much worse than any previous one when it comes to this type of thing? Why is it this time, this one event, that has caused so much turmoil?

I leave you with this. The lives of Americans are no different than the lives of other people on this planet. We are all human. We all have families. We are all loved by someone. We can mourn for those who have lost their lives for this country, but we should also recognize those who have lost their lives for other countries. Do our enemies not weep for their dead? Of course they do. Benghazi was a tragedy that cost the lives of four Americans. But to take that tragedy and turn it into a political movement of this magnitude, when greater tragedies have garnered much less attention, is abhorrent to me. We are not special because of where we were born, we are special because we were born at all. The deaths of those in Benghazi may have been prevented by a thousand different things, and no one person is to blame for that. It is just as easy to blame congressional Republicans, who failed to increase funding for security of foreign embassies many times in the years leading up to Benghazi. Let's remember those who died, agree to do better in the future in their honor, and move on.

And just for a light end to it all, I present this: what Republicans sound like when they go on about this stuff.

Something Smells

Freedom Industries, the company that most say is responsible for the chemical spill that has left hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia without clean drinking water, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Now, this is not because the company has run out of money. This is because, under the guidelines of Chapter 11, the company cannot be sued. That means that the more than 30 lawsuits filed against the company as a result of the chemical spill are null and void.

But there's something else that seems to have gone on over at Freedom Industries. Apparently, the company hadn't paid taxes in years. Then, there was that whole thing about no proper inspections since the 90's. All in all, this chemical spill seems to highlight a number of glaring issues that should be addressed.

Let's start with the issue of the inspection lapses. A lot of pundits have argued that this lack of inspection was because the EPA was simply sitting around doing nothing. They argue that it was failing to uphold the laws and regulations that were already on the books. In actuality, the lapse was due to budget cuts that made it impossible for the EPA to do its job effectively. I agree with John Boehner when he said that we have enough regulations. What we need is for Congress to give the EPA enough money to actually enforce them. The only place I think we need more intervention is understanding the effects of these chemicals. As of now, they're not listed as toxic to humans, but that's only because no one has bothered to test them. We should put up the funding to find out what the impact of this spill is going to be, and the company should be held responsible for those medical issues that derive from the spill.

Then, there's the whole tax issue. While this might seem unrelated to the chemical spill, in my mind it speaks to the attitude of the company in general. If they are ambivalent about paying their federally mandated taxes, it is likely that they are ambivalent about other federally mandated things like safety regulations and so on. I would not be surprised to find that Freedom Industries knew about issues with containment of these chemicals, and that they chose to ignore them.

Finally, there's the issue of how the public found out about the spill. From what I understand, the company wasn't even aware that it had happened. There was some kind of delay between when the leak started and when authorities were notified. Not only did people consume water that was contaminated, but even after the water ban was lifted, residents reported dirty, discolored, or contaminated water coming out of their pipes.

Now, given all of this, the company has filed for bankruptcy, essentially shielding it from any personal responsibility. They will force the taxpayers to cover the cost of their spill, and will be immune from legal action for their negligence. That is NOT how America is supposed to work. in America, it appears that flesh-and-blood citizens have been replaced, or at least made secondary, to our corporate citizens. If a person caused this much damage and mayhem, and contributed to the health risk of 300,000 people, would we let them get away with it by declaring bankruptcy? Absolutely NOT!

MLK: The Principles of Equality

Today is Martin Luther King Day. To me, this holiday has always been about remembering the struggles that minorities have had in this country to attain freedom and equal representation under the law. It is a day to celebrate the triumph of our nation over bigotry, racial discrimination, and our history of slavery. 

It is also a time to look at our nation as it is now, and decide where we should go in the future. There are a lot of different views on the issue of race relations in America, and a lot of people have very different opinions. There are those who believe that our country has come a long way, but that there is still great amounts of inequality and racial tension that need to be dealt with. There are others who don't consider race to be an issue at all. And then there are those who believe that racial minorities are the problem and that we as a nation should do more to promote white culture and end "reverse racism." 

Martin Luther King Jr. made his historic speech in Washington because he wanted to share his vision of America with the world. He wanted everyone to know that his movement was not about special treatment for Black Americans, it was a movement for equal treatment. He talked about a world where children of every race and creed, every religion and social class, would live and work and play together with no notions of difference between them. He saw a world where those things did not define them. It was the "content of their character" that people would be based on.

As we move forward into this new year, I believe we have fallen short of Mr. King's vision once again. I believe that we still still suffer prejudices in our thinking, and that we still see the world in terms of the color of skin or in the nature of one's lifestyle. We hear people all the time condemning those they do not agree with, those who do not believe as they do, and we hear people being personally attacked for their beliefs. This happens on all sides of all issues, and it is wrong.

I firmly believe in having discussion and debates with those I disagree with. I believe in respecting other people's point of view, and discussing those views without criticizing the person themselves. But this is not an attitude nor an action that is shared by many in our government or media. They continually assault people's character rather than their positions, turning discussions into character assassinations, and stalling any hope of healthy, productive discourse.

This is tied to King's vision. It is a symptom of a sick society that perceives a person's worth based on their convictions, and not on the fact that they are a person, a citizen of the same nation, with just as much right to their beliefs as anyone. We are constantly hearing people denounce political opponents, lay waste to their competition, in an effort to win elections based, not on their achievements, but on their adversary's failures. That is NOT how a person should win a campaign.

I hope that this is a year of change, and that we will see a growth in understanding and respect in our government and media. I am not confident in this, but I hope. That is all any of us can do. Hope, and speak, and try to move the pin of society in a direction of greater equality, greater respect, and greater cooperation.

The Long View

Politics is all about cycles. Campaign cycles, fundraising cycles, congressional cycles. Things are constantly turning, changing, and moving. As soon as one campaign season is over, people start speculating about the next one. It's a common pastime of many talking heads to lengthen the campaign season by talking about possible candidates, exploratory committees, and fundraising strategies well in advance of the elections themselves.

It seems as though election seasons get longer and longer every time around. Like winter here in the Northeast, each campaign season seems to be longer than the last, not to mention colder, darker, and more dismal. And just like the political pundits and parties that are taking a longer view of political trends, it seems the American People are starting to as well.

This may actually be a good thing, since it will mean people looking at the impacts of their immediate decisions. But it may also have the effect of creating a more polarizing constituency for many candidates. What often seems to happen is that, as we get closer to elections, the candidates become more and more marginalized as they seek the approval of the broadest number of voters in their districts. With longer campaign cycles, that process may mean greater movement to the extremes.

And whether you feel that the Republicans are poised to take back the government this year, or whether the Democrats will dominate over a struggling GOP, you have a long wait before finding out if you're correct.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Budget Politics

It's probably the biggest debate that we have annually in Washington. How much money should we spend? Which programs are worthy of funding, and which aren't? There have been decades worth of fighting over earmarks/pork-barrel spending/pet projects/campaign promises and we by and large have gotten through these debates over and over again.

In recent years, however, the debate over money in Washington has changed. It's no longer a question of what to fund, but whether we should be funding anything. Last year, this debate reached the point of government shut down on principle. That's a bit insane, as many people pointed out at the time.

But the insanity hasn't ended there. Despite Republicans pushing for a rider last year that required there to be a budget in order for Congress to get paid, those same Republicans are now mulling the idea of not passing a budget this year at all. That's because the no-pay rider had only a one-year limit, meaning it no longer applies.

The reason, as far as anyone can tell, is that Republicans don't want to force a vote on a federal budget during an election year, since they know they're going to have to pander to their rabid base of limited government, anti-tax, anti-spending Tea Partiers. In other words, Republicans are playing politics in Washington all over again, and may well leave the government unfunded to help secure their re-election.

Of course, Republicans aren't doing anything completely different. After all, they've spent years doing things that make no sense, all in the name of cozying up to their base.

Instead of choosing to forget about passing a budget or going after agencies that protect American workers from abuses, why don't they do something that appeals to the broad spectrum of American society? Why not get the word out about the President's proposed trade bill? It would be a disaster for America, and yet Republicans have been largely silent about. Not only that, but even the CEOs that would benefit from it are feigning ignorance about its contents. Some of the language in the TPP, like giving companies the ability to ignore the laws in foreign countries, could be disastrous for the world, let alone for America. Why not take a stand against that?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Getting our Voices Back

You may remember a big story that kept cropping up during the last campaign cycle. It had to do with new laws requiring voters in some states to show a state-issued photo ID before voting. The concern from many people, myself included, was that these laws not only did little to prevent the few cases of voter fraud that were uncovered, but unfairly targeted the poor and minorities who were less likely to have state-issued ID cards in the first place.

In June of last year, the Supreme Court struck down a key measure of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which prevented discrimination by state governments against any legal citizen. The argument from the court was that the law was outdated, and that the requirement that changes to voting laws in states with a history of racial discrimination be approved by the federal government was unnecessary.

A new bill has been introduced in Congress, however, that seeks to change this. Though starting out small, with only a few backers, the bill promises to reset the condition of federal oversight for states that have discriminated in the past, and would expand that oversight to additional states.

While I won't say that this will fix our voting system, I am glad to see that steps are being taken to protect the rights of American citizens from being denied. We can argue all we want about how it's a new age, and how discrimination is no longer an issue, but if Voter ID laws continue to keep people from being able to exercise their right to vote, then that is a problem.

I understand that some people believe we have a problem with voter fraud. Maybe we do, but I haven't seen any evidence to prove it yet. But even if it's an epidemic in our society, we need to use measures to combat it that preserve the right for people who are using it correctly. And voter ID laws have been shown to do little to counter voter fraud as it currently exists.

I hope this law will pass, and that we can bring some measure of sanity back to our voting process. It seems like it should be such a simple thing to accomplish. But like all simple things, we have to have a debate over it, and lines drawn in the sand, before we can even begin to discuss solutions.

The Obamacare Religion

The fight over Obamacare reached a new level of insanity today when Glenn Beck (not really known for his logical reasoning to begin with) came out with a new talking point: Obamacare is a religion!

Beck's argument is that people are "tithing" to the God of Obamacare, big Government, via the website, and that the creation of Obamacare equals the establishment of a state religion, which is expressly forbidden by the Constitution.

Now, I will ignore the obvious stupidity of trying to make the argument that Obamacare is a religion, and instead point out the less obvious hypocrisy of Glenn Beck arguing that there shouldn't be a state-established religion. I say this because, if you have spent even just a few minutes with Mr. Beck's website, you will notice a strange trend that tends to favor Christian religion. That is, stories that promote Christian philosophies, condemn non-Christian actions, and generally try to create the sense that America is a Christian Nation.

Beck's argument, to me at least, seems rather over the top. If he wants to debate the law itself, he is certainly free to do that. But he shouldn't be telling people it's a religion when it's not, especially when he's spent a good part of his career and media space promoting the idea of a state religion.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Insanity Season

Do you know how you can tell when representatives are nearing a new election? Easy; they start pandering to the craziest of the crazy! Here are a few examples:

1. Republicans in North Carolina have cut the taxes of the wealthy even more, while hiking taxes on the poor. If you hear any of them complain about Democrats engaging in class warfare, you have carte blanche to laugh at them.

2. Tea Party candidate Ken Buck (CO) explained that he could understand wanting control over your own body and what happens to it. He said he felt this way when he was a cancer patient. But even though he understands this, he still doesn't think women should be allowed to control their own health choices. Awesome.

3. Bob Goodlatte, a rep. from Virginia, argued that Republicans should be in favor of limiting access to abortion for women because it promotes job growth. Goodlatte points out that jobs will be created to care for all the babies women are forced to have when they get pregnant. It will boost the economy, he says. It will be like another industrial revolution. It'll be like factories that are pumping out babies. It'll be like.... creating a new generation of children who grow up in extreme poverty because a woman was told she didn't know what was best for herself.

Welcome to election season, 2014, everybody!

Skin in the Game

The phrase "Skin in the Game" became a popular one during the last election cycle among Republican candidates. The argument is that only those who pay taxes (the "skin in the game") should have a say in how our nation is run. They talk about broadening the tax base, and getting more people to pay taxes so that more people are directly involved in our democracy.

It's crap.

As an article on Addicting Info recently pointed out, the idea behind SITG is being taken to a greater extreme in some conservative circles. This video from the article shows Bryan Fischer suggesting that only property owners should be voting.

Of course, I realize that many conservatives don't believe that, but it concerns me that the super-conservative base does when most mainstream candidates are listening to that base in the primaries and even into the general election.

The problem with the SITG idea is that it completely ignores why many people don't pay any taxes at all. It's because they're poor. The Republicans may scream and make a fuss about class warfare, and may complain about the Democrats trying to overthrow the wealthy and make America into an egalitarian slum, but SITG is Republican class warfare right back. And, as I said, Republicans who support this notion don't seem to know what poor really means.

I would also like to point out that, if Republicans were to actually pursue this theory to the point that Fischer makes, they will be removing the right to vote from American citizens. Not only does that fly in the face of Democracy and the Constitution, it would also eliminate a good number of voters from both the Democrat and Republican base.

So, the idea behind skin in the game, while definitely a conservative wet-dream, doesn't really work in America. This is a country of, by, and for the people, not of, by, and for the wealthy people. The notion of broadening the tax base to create more revenue means taxing those who are too poor to pay taxes now, cutting into their ability to pay for basic necessities. Besides which, the amount of tax money squeezed from the poor is nowhere near as much as could be taken from the wealthy who can actually afford it. There are some great tax possibilities that would barely impact the economy or the wealth of high-income Americans while protecting the poor from taxation that they can't afford.

American Slavery

It's a supercharged word in America: Slavery. When you bring it up, it conjures images of southern plantations, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. There's still debates going on among various groups about whether there is still racial division in this country, and whether it is something that needs to be addressed.

But we still have forms of slavery in America. They just happen to be less obvious. For one thing, women are struggling against a kind of institutionalized slavery by being unable to exercise freedom over their own bodies and health choices. When it comes to laws that restrict access to abortions, limit women's access to certain types of birth control, or require woment to undergo medically frivolous procedures to simply access their own rights, it's a kind of slavery. We are denying women rights that they would otherwise be entitled to under our laws. Why? Because a group of people (many who are not women) don't believe in it. Hypocritically, one of America's founding principles was that each citizen should have the freedom to pursue the life that they think is right for them.

In a similar vein is the slavery that those in the gay community must endure. Theirs is a slavery to that denies them equal representation and rights under the law because they love someone of the same gender. It has largely been proven by mainstream science that homosexuality, like skin tone, is a matter of genetics, not upbringing or personal choice. But beyond that, even if it was a choice to be gay, shouldn't people be allowed to make that choice for themselves? Denying people fundamantal rights and freedoms that are enjoyed by others, simply because they are gay, is a form of slavery to my mind.

Then there is American economic slavery. That is, people who are trapped in the Catch-22 of working long hours for too little pay, and having to either rely on public assistance or failing to move up the economic ladder. This is, perhaps, the most insidious form of slavery we have in America today. The reason I say that is, it is the only form of slavery that is inter-generational. A child from a poor family is more likely to grow up and be poor themselves. They have less access to education, health care, healthy food options, and have fewer opportunities in general. It is rooted, not only in our failure to raise the minimum wage and tie it to the cost of living, but also in the systematic dismantling of the social safety net which, at one time, all but guaranteed universal support for low-income families.

Economic and social inequality is new frontier in American rights and freedoms. We must answer the questions for ourselves about who has the right to marry, who has the right to their own moral decisions, and who has the right of economic opportunity and stability? Make no mistake, these are forms of slavery, because they directly inhibit the inherent rights and freedoms of a group of people who, by the letter of the law, should not be so limited in their rights and freedoms.

And remember, the more freedom a person has, the more responsibility. It is ironic to me that those who most loudly advocate for these forms of inequality are the very same people who advocate greater personal responsibility. They do not seem to realize that the two, freedom and responsibility, are two sides of the same coin. You cannot demand one while denying the other.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Spending VS. Investment

A semantics game, perhaps, but a debate that is constantly brewing in Washington and the public discourse. When we talk about the federal budget, it is always a discussion about spending. Should we cut it or grow it? Where do we spend more and where do we spend less? It's one of the main discussions we engage in, and it's one of the deepest points of contention between the Left and the Right.

As polarization (see the slideshow at the bottom of the article) has grown steadily over time, this discussion has become much more lively. Republicans are constantly demanding spending cuts, saying that the wasteful excess of Washington is impairing America's ability to remain competitive in the world economy. Democrats on the other hand, argue for more spending in certain areas, investment in domestic programs, and more revenue for social support.

It's all a matter of perspective. To Republicans, it's spending, while to Democrats it's investment.

But the hypocrisy of the Republican view of this is that they constantly complain about America losing its competitive edge. Whether its in the world of business, technology, business, health care, business, education, or business, the GOP are very concerned about our nation falling behind on the world stage. But what they fail to realize is that investment in things like healthcare, education, infrastructure, research, and technology makes us more competitive. It keeps us on the cutting edge.

Oh, and it creates jobs.

That must be the funniest talking point Republicans have come up with in years; government doesn't create jobs. Of course it does. Every day, in every state, people go to work because of government. Whether it's in the public sector, or for a private company working on a government contract, that government spending creates jobs.

If we want to be competitive, we have to spend money. That's how the world works. A company that wants to develop a new, innovative product could benefit from government subsidies to help with research. That's a private company using public funds to create a product that will make them money. It's investment.

The same thing holds true for education. If we don't spend money, we won't get the same results. We can argue over the best way to divide up the funds, but let's not debate the spending itself. The next generation needs a good education, and that takes money. If we want to be a strong, successful leader in the next few decades, we have to lay the groundwork now.

It doesn't matter if you call it spending or investment, it all comes to the same thing. Are you willing to spend money on us, on our future? Are you willing to invest America's money in America?

Protecting Children

Jan Brewer, the notorious governor of Arizona, used a part of her State of the State address to announce the dissolution of the state's Child Welfare Agency. the CWA, the department that investigated allegations of child abuse and neglect, had been plagued with scandal for failing to look into more than 6000 cases of alleged child maltreatment.

Brewer announced that the agency would be replaced by a cabinet-level, free-standing agency headed by the state's juvenile corrections director. As you might expect, the announcement was met with surprise and concern by the state's legislators who had no idea it was coming.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about how this new agency will work. That's because the way any government agency is run is decided by the legislature. And in this case, the legislature had no idea this change was coming. That means that, until the legislature passes laws that outline the role of this agency, pass a budget to fund it, and set up its rules and regulations, it technically can't do anything. It has no authority, no budget, no operation procedure, nothing. Until it has that, the state of Arizona has no way of investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect.

This is an example of using a hatchet for a haircut. It's a blunt instrument being implemented for delicate work. Brewer's move has potentially put thousands of children at risk. Not only that, but appointing the head of juvenile corrections to an agency to investigate child abuse and neglect seems a bit counterintuitive to me. If Brewer wanted to change how things were done, she should have gone to the legislature, and worked on the problem. If there was a scandal, fix the system, don't throw the system out and twiddle your thumbs until the new one is ready to go. It's like selling your car before you've even started looking for a new one. Sure, it might get rid of your Ford POS, but then you're stuck.

I'm really hoping that this comes off smoothly, but it definitely concerns me.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Fixing What Isn't Broken

Have you ever noticed how people tend to focus on solutions to problems that don't work? We all do this at some point. We get it into our heads that we know how to fix something, and we go about doing that same thing over and over, even though we keep getting the same result. This is, in the words of Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity.

What this comes from is our ability to see that something is wrong, but not fully understanding the problem. Whether because we lack the ability to see the issue objectively, or we lack some piece of information, or we can't accept that we are somehow to blame, we have an uncanny ability to come up with grandiose plans that benefit ourselves instead of benefiting the situation.

I bring this up because it is obvious to me that many of our esteemed leaders are suffering from this sort of delusion. They see the problems we see, but somewhere along the way, that ascribe a hyper-partisan reason for why that problem exists, and an equally partisan solution for solving it. Inevitably, the solution they come up with always seems to put them at the center, making them the hero who fixes the world. Interesting, isn't it?

A great example of this is an op-ed piece written by Mitch McConnell entitled How to Save the Senate. It's not much more than a melodramatic complaint about how no one seems to be getting along in the Senate, and how everyone (but really just Harry Reid) needs to put aside their differences and listen to everyone (but really just Mitch McConnell). Of course, while Mr. McConnell writes this, he is already hard at work doing the exact opposite.

But it goes beyond Washington, of course. When you look at the extremists out there who want to take drastic steps to change our country, we get things like this. Indeed, this is a bit better than McConnell's ravings, since it's at least a novel attempt. But the fact that this group, primarily made up of conservatives, is willing to ignore the foundations of our nation by suggesting that states can immunize themselves from federal law is crazy.

We are constantly bombarded with people telling us what's broken and how to fix it. Admittedly, things are bad in some cases. But the solutions need not be extreme, they don't need to be fanatical, and they don't need to be absolutist. They can be reasonable, they can be balanced, and they can make everyone look good. If we could get rid of this expectation of all-or-nothing, black-and-white policy and principle, we could do so much better.

Lying is Freedom!

It doesn't get much more blatant than this. Two political groups in the State of Ohio have taken a lawsuit all the way up to the SCOTUS. They are suing Ohio on the grounds that the state's False Statement Laws violate their 1st Amendment rights to Free Speech.

For reference, here is the actual law in its original language. Basically, all it does is prevent political ads from making false statements or offers to the voting public. Seems pretty basic in terms of upholding democracy, since a well-informed populace is essential for democracy to exist.

Well, apparently some of these conservative groups believe that their right to lie to the American People is constitutionally protected, and that those rights are violated by this law. Now, in a world of ass-backwards logic, this might make sense. Thankfully, we're not there yet.

If this ruling goes in favor of striking down the law, think of the implications. A person who is found to have lied under oath can simply claim that they were exercising their right to free speech. You would no longer be able to prosecute individuals for bearing false witness or any other crime related to false information.

And what about private companies? Couldn't they exercise their free speech rights by lying about what's in their products, what the nutritional content is, or how much it will cost? It's all protected, right? Lying is a freedom guaranteed by the founding fathers! It's a cornerstone of our great nation! After all, if we hadn't lied to the Native Americans, where would we be?!

In all honesty, this kind of thing makes me want to smash my head against a wall in frustration. It astounds me that this would even be brought before the Supreme Court. But it seems to me that the Right's view of Free Speech continues to widen. When the Duck Dynasty thing was going on, all the conservative talking heads were up in arms over the fact that the television network kicked the guy off the show. They claimed it violated his right to Free Speech. But like I wrote at the time, the guy never had his speech rights violated. The network simply exercised their rights to respond. Freedom of speech does not protect you from consequences of what you say or do. It merely protects your right to say or do them in the first place. It's the reason you can't threaten someone without possibly facing charges.

In the case of this lawsuit, these groups want to be able to lie point-blank to the American People, and do so with impunity. Any group that would want to spread ignorance, disinformation, and downright lies among the general population is not an ally of Democracy. I don't want to use the term "enemy" here, but that's how it feels to me. They would rather mislead the public than present the public with an honest plan that the majority would support.

I sincerely hope that this lawsuit is either dismissed or that the groups lose out in the end. I think it could be a real toss-up when it hits the SCOTUS. But our democracy, our freedom, truly depends on this ruling. I hope and pray that the outcome is good.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Fallacy of Extremism

I've tried. I've reeeeaaaalllly tried. I've read stories on dozens of news sites, watched videos, and trolled through thousands of comments. Thousands! I've gone to the extremes of both the Left and the Right. I've gone to sites that were more moderate in their views. I've covered the spectrum, trying to find a way to understand and appreciate (even respect) every view that's out there. I've tried.

I can understand the Republican view. I get it. It makes sense. I can understand the view of Democrats as well. I understand the Left and Right, the Liberal and Conservative. What I cannot wrap my head around are the extremists.

For a long time, I've been wracking my brain to understand the extreme views taken by Tea Partiers in particular. While there are undoubtedly extremists on the Left, those on the Right seem to have a special breed of crazy running through them. I decided that I wanted to learn what their values and principles were, why they held the beliefs that they did, and what kind of community they were.

I started with Fox News. Ironically, Fox has become a moderate voice on the Right, and many hardline conservatives scoff at them, calling them part of the liberal MSM. From there, I ventured over the Glenn Beck's website, The Blaze. For a long while, I thought this was the worst I would find. After all, here's a guy who believes in the Gold Standard, speaks out against establishment GOPers, and advocates for preppers and conspiracy nuts.

But recently, my delving into the extreme Right culture took a suprising turn. On a whim, I decided to check out Breitbart.com. If you recall, Andrew Breitbart was a conservative activist who passed away not too long ago. Despite his death, his brand of activist conservatism is still kicking. What I found there was insane. The stories and comments left by readers outstripped even Beck and his followers. The veiled references to Racism on Beck's site were nothing compared to the obvious racial tensions on Breitbart. Also more apparent was the open hostility towards the Left and anyone who didn't agree with those writing.

The most recent move I've made was to look at World Net Daily, which proclaims itself to be the internet's leading news site. Again, I was forced to admit that the stories, comments, language, and overall persona went beyond what I had so far experienced. When I read through some of the headlines and what people wrote in response, I had a sudden revelation.

That revelation was that I had never fully appreciated, or even understood, the extremism that existed in America. I had never taken this much time to read the words of my fellow Americans, and to absorb them. I have known many conservatives, and I have tried to be respectful and friendly with them despite our differing views. However, I have never met anyone who held the beliefs that are presented on these sites.

What perhaps struck me most, aside from the open hostility and closed-mindedness of the contributors, was how convinced they all seemed that they were right and that their view and beliefs would one day be validated. And that is what scared me most. How could people who hold such extremist views, views so obviously filled with prejudice and irrational fear, believe that the rest of the nation would agree with them?

The ultimate fallacy of extremism, of all extremism, is the belief that you are the sole vessel of truth and the right. Those who follow these insane publications and media outlets are no more right than anarchists in their view of where our country should go. But their belief that they are right, and their right to think and say what they do, will always sustain them.

When the last presidential primaries were going on, I remember hearing a conservative commentator mentioning that none of the Republican candidates were conservative enough. I thought he was joking, or at least pandering. Now I see what he meant. For the extremists, there will never be a candidate that is extreme enough. In some ways that is a relief, but I also believe that the extremists will forever be there, pushing a pulling the national discussion in their direction.

It seems strange to think that the Tea Party, that bastion of conservative Ideology, would somehow be able to move itself further to the Right. Just as Democrats should be concerned for the far-left ideologies that infect their extreme corner, the Republicans should do the same. Whether they will, or continue to pander to the extreme is anyone's guess. This year's elections should tell us. I just hope we don't suffer because of them.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Bully Pulpit

There have been stories floating around for years about Chris Christie bullying those he works with to get his way. While he is certainly a unique figure in the spotlight of American politics, and seems to be his own man in many ways, a new report threatens to discredit Christie in his home state and nationwide.

The report is regarding a large number of emails, text messages, and other documents that were released regarding an investigation into lane closures on the George Washington Bridge back in September. While officials for the New York and New Jersey Port Authority insisted at the time that the lane closures were part of a traffic study, the new documents reveal that the closures were planned, and apparently designed to target the mayor of Fort Lee, NJ.

The reason for the retaliation appears to be that the mayor did not endorese Mr. Christie in his reelection campaign. While Christie maintains that he knew nothing about this, a number of his top aides and advisors were clearly involved, and made no secret of their intentions or rationale.

Now, bully politics has been around forever. It's nothing new. But that doesn't make it right. These lane closures backed up traffic for hours, compromised at least four emergency situations, including the search for a missing child. That kind of thing, simply for political payback, is beyond ridiculous. It's dangerous, immature, immoral, and wrong.

I hope that Christie apologizes for his people, even if he had nothing to do with this (which, to me, seems unlikely). I don't know how the nation at large will respond to this, or how this will affect his standing in the GOP.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Poverty, Power, and Class

This week celebrates the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty." While it has been lambasted by Republicans for years as a failure, as Socialism, or any number of other things, the fact remains that many see the War on Poverty as a successful campaign that has significantly helped those at the lowest level of our economic ladder. Today, we are still fighting against raging poverty, and there are still those who argue against these measures as a way to safeguard the American People.

Johnson's War on Poverty ushered in new programs and government offices designed to help the lower class have a minimum level of support. Whether employed or not, the argument went, Americans should be able to feed and clothe their children, access medical services, and have other basic essentials. Today, we continue to debate how best to help those who struggle.

Republicans often push for training and education programs, and advocate strongly for cutting direct support for the poor. Democrats are almost entirely devoted to the idea of direct support for the needy, and have protected those types of programs for decades.

As we move forward, new challenges will always arise and we must answer them. If we can train people to become skilled workers in our society, then we should. If we can make sure that people make a livable wage for the work they do, then we should. But no matter how many incentive we have, no matter how much we encourage people and push them and try to support them, there will be those who need direct help.

Our politicians are not poor, and it is hard to imagine them understanding what that's like. They have the authority to help those in need, but it sometimes seems like they have no idea what those in need are really dealing with. In their budget reports, it all comes down to dollars and cents. There's no human face on what they are trying to accomplish.

I hope that we can find a way to balance how we support those in poverty, give them the tools to survive, the incentive to strive, and the support to make themselves better. If we can do that, we will be one step closer to winning the war on poverty that was started half a century ago.

UPDATE: A lot more stories have come out about this anniversary, including a great post from Paul Krugman, and this from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Take a look.

Denying Science

With the recent rush of cold weather throughout the Midwest and Eastern US, just about everybody has heard of this Polar Vortex. This low-pressure system, which usually sits over the Arctic, has been creating a lot of hassles this past week or so. Meteorologists have been tracking this for quite some time, using their technology to try and figure out what it's going to do.

But not everyone believes that this polar vortex exists. Rush Limbaugh explained to his listeners yesterday how the polar vortex is a hoax created by the liberal media to promote their "global warming agenda." According to Mr. Limbaugh, the frigid cold temperatures that are shattering records nationwide are nothing more than a "cold snap."

What amazes me about this story is how Limbaugh can say that a weather system that is affecting an estimated 187 Million people is a hoax. Never mind that science backs it up. Never mind that experts in climatology and meteorology are saying that this is unprecedented. Mr. Limbaugh says that it's a hoax.

It underscores a concern I have for many conservatives who deny science that does not agree with their opinions. I don't have enough information to prove that this most recent weather pattern is the result of climate change, and that climate change is caused by human activity. However, the science strongly points in that direction, and I happen to agree. And even if this polar vortex is not directly linked to climate change, denying that it even exists is ridiculous.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Unemployment Extensions

The big debate that is dominating the airwaves at this point seems to be unemployment benefits. Democrats want to extend them, while Republicans want to clip them back. Both sides have principles on the line in this debate.

Democrats see unemployment benefits as necessary for maintaining a minimum level of humanity for families with unemployed adults. They believe that, if a person is out of work, they should still be able to provide the basics for their family's existence. On the other hand, Republicans believe that provided long-term unemployment benefits reduce the incentive for people to go out and get a job, and that there is so much misuse of the system that it costs much more money than it should.

I happen to agree with both of these groups, which both make good arguments for their case. On the one hand, I have seen firsthand the waste, fraud, and abuse of unemployment. I know that many people out there use the system as their primary income, that they purchase expensive electronics and nice clothes, and that they find the cracks in the system and exploit them. But I also know that many people rely on these programs because they've been laid off, that they want to work, and that they try hard to get off the programs. I know that some places just don't have enough jobs for the number of people looking, and that the time-worn mantra of "McDonalds is always hiring" rings hollow in many an ear.

One of the points that's hardly ever made anymore is that the unemployment system is set up to help people find jobs. I've worked closely with many people on unemployment, and I've seen the paperwork and requirements involved. They have to complete a certain number of hours of job search and/or volunteering a week, usually 30-40 hours. They have to provide proof that they are applying for jobs. They have to meet weekly with economic service workers to review this information. They may have attend classes on how to polish their resumes or on how to fill out forms. There is a lot that they are supposed to do.

If a person on unemployment wants to get off of it, there are many tools available to help them. From job fairs to lists of employers, training programs and free seminars. For those who want to stay on unemployment, there is enough gray area and loopholes to make that possible. If we want to curb the money that unemployment costs us, and get more people into the workforce, I don't believe cutting unemployment limits is the answer. Rather, give economics service workers the authority to reduce or eliminate funding based on the individual. They know the ones who are gaming the system, and they know which ones are serious. You can't create a dragnet that catches everyone when only about half are really the problem.

In my mind, unemployment is a bad thing, and should be dealt with. We could create all the jobs we need overnight just be investing in infrastructure jobs, expanding our highway, rail, communications, and energy sectors, providing training for new workers, and raising the minimum wage (which is another whole debate in itself). Until that happens, though, we should be giving people a minimum level of support to keep them in their homes, keep food on their tables, and provide them with the basics.

Freedom is a Wonderful Thing

Two news stories recently caught my eye, both having to do with our freedoms in this country. In both cases, an extreme argument is made regarding some of the freedoms that are laid out for each American in the Bill of Rights. in both cases, an extreme view of the rights in question are taken, and a dangerous precedent seems to be set.

The first story is regarding that group of nuns who have sued the government over the ACA contraception mandate. While the nuns and their Catholic hospital are already exempt from directly providing contraception, they are now arguing that their 1st Amendment rights to freedom of religion allows them to deny their employees access to contraception from anywhere. In essence, they are arguing that their freedom trumps that of individual citizens that they employ. They are saying they cannot fill out the form for religious exemption because it would "deputize a third party to sin on their behalf." In other words, if you work for the nuns, you can't use contraception even if you believe in it because your employer doesn't. Thankfully, it doesn't seem like many people are buying this, and the government has already responded saying that the nuns don't have a legitimate case for lawsuit.

The second story is a bit more concerning, in my opinion. A recent case before the Supreme Court was regarding a man who claims his 5th Amendment rights were violated. According to the report, a man by the name of Genovevo Salinas was questioned by police about a double murder. He answered their questions to a point, and then he stopped. At trial, the prosecutors used the fact that he stopped answering questions against him as evidence of guilt. Salinas argued that this violated his 5th Amendment rights because he has the right to remain silent. But the Supreme Court ruled that, because Salinas was there voluntarily, was never read his Miranda rights, and did not specifically invoke his right to remain silent, his rights were not violated. That is just a bit insane. What this means is that we only have rights when we publicly invoke them. So, if you are questioned by police, you don't have the right to remain silent unless you specifically tell them you are invoking that right. Otherwise, they may be using that silence against you.

In both of these cases, suits have been filed (and in one case, ruled on) that directly impact our rights as Americans. Imagine if your employer's rights trump your own. You may find yourself working for a company that doesn't allow you to access certain healthcare benefits because they don't believe in it. You may find yourself required to submit to search and seizure unless you specifically tell the authorities you are invoking your right to protect against it. These two cases open up a whole new battle over who has rights, what those rights really are, and how far they extend.

I strongly believe that every American citizen should have the freedom to exercise their beliefs, regardless of who they work for, and that every right that is guaranteed to American citizens should be honored without having to be specifically invoked in a given situation.
Matt Wuerker

Friday, January 3, 2014

Building the Future

Michael Strain recently wrote an article for National Affairs in which he outlines his idea for the next generation of the Right-wing jobs agenda. Mr. Strain has some good ideas that I myself have advocated for in the past (i.e. investing in infrastructure as a mechanism for job creation and economic growth during recession and recovery periods). Indeed, it's refreshing to see that a self-described conservative is suggesting this. It goes against the lockstep ideology that most mainstream Republicans these days seem to be favoring, which is that any kind of government spending is bad, and that domestic expenditures for infrastructure are just pork barrel spending.

Another unusual idea that Mr. Strain pushes for is for the Fed to push up inflation by a healthy margin. Again, this is something that many mainstream Republicans and a majority of hardliners have been screaming about. Specifically, the argument has been that hyperinflation is going to occur at any moment, and that if the Fed loosens up on its programs, we'll all see our economy tank once again.

Now, here's the interesting thing about this article, and Mr. Strain's points in general: they sound so very much like what Democrats have been trying to do for years. Despite Mr. Strain's comments to the contrary, infrastructure investment, increasing domestic spending as a job-making machine, and working with the Fed to help ease inflation upwards are all things that the Democrats have supported, and that Republicans (recently) attacked. So, what's changed?

In reality, nothing. Michael Tomasky, writing on The Daily Beast, has a wonderful article that firmly denounces Strain's. Tomasky points out that while Strain bemoans the fact that the stimulus bills from 2009 had little to no infrastructure spending, that was largely due to Republican backlash. Furthermore, much of those stimulus bills were full of tax incentives and breaks because of Republican demands (those same Republicans ended up voting against the bill anyway). The point, Tomasky asserts, is that Strain's ideas are not new at all, merely new for this generation of Republicans. And why haven't Republicans championed them before now? Because it was the Democrats that were pushing for them, and Republicans were opposed.

So, what will Strain's article accomplish? Will we begin to see hardline Republicans pushing for money to repair roads and bridges, or to upgrade our infrastructure? Will they advocate for high-speed rail so we can compete with Asia and Europe and cut our carbon emissions? Will they start a push for American-made green energy solutions, and vote to underwrite the research and development needed for the next generation of technology? Doubtful. It would be nice, of course, but then they'd have to explain why they were suddenly voting with the Democrats, and then the base would get all bent out of shape.

If Strain, a self-described conservative, can see the logic in approaching infrastructure spending as a job-creation engine (remember, the Republican mantra has always been that the government doesn't create jobs. Just ask any career politician), then there may be hope. I certainly think there is.