Sunday, March 29, 2015

Religious Freedom?

Governor Mike Pence of Indiana is having a rough weekend.  The reason?  His signature of Senate Bill 101, otherwise known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA.).  Upon signing the bill, Governor Pence said:  “The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.”

Within hours of signing the legislation the backlash on the bill started.  Several significant business leaders have decried the decision including the CEO of, Apple's CEO Tim Cook, and the CEO of Gen Con LLC, who was planning on holding a major convention in Indianapolis and who now is considering canceling or relocating the convention.  The convention would infuse the state with an estimated $50M of revenue.   The reason people have come out so strongly against the decision to sign the bill is that they believe it gives corporations and individuals the right to discriminate against same sex couples.   Effectively, the law legalizes discrimination against gays.

The supporters of the bill argue that this supports religious freedom in that someone cannot be compelled to offer services or goods in violation of their religious beliefs.   This is not a new phenomenon.  Similar laws are on the books in 19 states, so perhaps Governor Pence felt like this wouldn't cause the firestorm of controversy the passage of the bill ignited.

The passage of the bill and the statement by Governor Pence (full text here) have set out another battleground in the current civil rights struggle regarding equality for LGBT people.  The bill's detractors are mobilizing en masse, and boycotts, social networking campaigns, celebrity and political voices raised against the passage are indicators that this issue will not be ignored.

What Governor Pence and the supporters of the bill claim is that they are protecting religious freedom.  Their point of view is that if you are religious, your religious beliefs trump the reality of day to day life.  You, as a religious person with a business can claim that your life is somehow adversely impacted by doing what you do every day, which is to sell your goods and services to consumers.  Somehow, simply because someone is gay and you are forced to serve them you have been injured.  The Governor and the authors of the legislation have a myopic view on this, because attempting to protect one's beliefs is causing injury to others.  There is an old maxim that is relevant in this discussion:  "The right for you to swing your fist stops at my nose..."  I think however, this has less to do with religious freedom than it does with religious disapproval of a person because of their sexual orientation.

The legislation, like many other similar laws passed by other states are in my opinion the dying throes of an antiquated and bigoted philosophy.  I sincerely believe that in 50 years our grand kids and their children will look back on this time and say "What were they thinking?"  It's already happening, but old prejudices die hard (see Ferguson) and hate has a long memory.   What I cannot abide though is the notion that a religious person (and face it folks, we're talking "Christians" here) would believe that the central figure in their faith would behave this way with gays anymore than he would with left-handed people, short people, fat people, tall people, and well you get the point.   Jesus Christ never had anything to say about gays.  Nothing, nada, zip.  The man was silent on a subject that seems to consume a large population of his followers to the point they will picket funerals, bully people, and pass laws that make discrimination against them legal.  I simply don't understand the idea that someone who said "Love thy neighbor as thyself" would sanction this behavior towards fellow humans.

Prejudice is all around us and in us. We all have our biases.  I for example, absolutely despise banjo music and think all banjos should be gathered up and thrown in a land-fill never to have their twangy, plucky, irritating sound heard again for eternity.  But, hey, I'm not trying to get anti-banjo legislation passed because my religious beliefs prohibit that horrible noise.   I get the prejudice. Guess what?  If you don't like gay marriage, don't get married to someone of the same sex.  If you don't like gay sex, then don't have it. There is an easy way to deal with this, and it's called "put on your big-boy pants and get over it".

I don't understand someone claiming treating people equally somehow violates your religious freedom.   If your religion compels you to behave this way perhaps you have the wrong religion.  Or, more likely, you're cherry picking the teachings of your faith to fit your particular prejudice.  It's not like it hasn't been done before.  For hundreds of years, "good Christian people" used religion to subjugate, terrorize, and murder people who didn't look like them or think like them or worship like them.  It's happening today with certain sects and factions in the Islamic community.  It will likely continue until people finally realize the commandments and directives they believe in are not derived by their gods but are actually manipulations written by some humans with an agenda.

It's no surprise to anyone who has read my articles that I am an Atheist.  The reason I am an Atheist is that I do not believe in a "God" who behaves worse in general than his/her/it's creation.   Am I certain there is no God?  No.  Just like those who believe in God are not certain there is.  Certainty requires evidence, and not simply faith.  Evidence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent deity is sorely lacking.  I digress though, as this isn't a rant against religion (that will come later).  The point of this post is twofold. One, we are humans and are different in as many ways as we are similar.  We are also a progressive species, and over time this ridiculous idea that gays are flawed humans or are "wrong" will fade into the dustbin of history.  Just as we don't burn witches at the stake anymore, we will one day not have absurd arguments about gays and their choice or lack thereof of life-style.

Finally,  and somewhat back to religion for a moment:  
I have an incredibly hard time believing that this guy (an ordained Presbyterian Minister) would be so hateful and prejudiced against other people because he spent his life telling people that "He liked them just they way they are".  Even though I'm an Atheist, I believe there has been no one in my lifetime that exemplified the teachings of Jesus Christ with respect to loving one's neighbor better than Fred Rogers.  If you think for a moment that this man didn't live his life in a manner that respects Jesus and truly represents Christianity, then your definition of Christian needs some additional thought.  Also, if you think for a moment that this gentle, wise and authentically kind person would support a law like the one passed in Indiana, then you need to go back and watch a few of the episodes of the "Neighborhood".  I think you'll come away with a different point of view. 

To couch this legislation as religious freedom protection should upset people of faith.  It is using their faith as a tool of manipulation to provide cover for bigotry and hatred.  I think the Governor and in particular the authors of this legislation should be ashamed of themselves and I would only ask them this:  If your child was gay, would you be proud that a store in Indiana can refuse to sell them a meal, or a suit, or a car because of who they are?  Seriously?

Tell me what you think,


Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Why I'm not supporting Hillary for 2016

The recent revelations of Ms. Clinton's failure to comply with government regulations regarding the use of email notwithstanding, I will not be supporting her almost inevitable bid for the presidency in 2016.  The reasons are many, and I will detail a few o them here.  However, before anyone believes I'm jumping ships over to the clown car that contains the group of the latest Republican wannabes, let me dispel that now.  I will not support a bunch of people that don't espouse belief in science, in diplomacy, in a women's right to control her own body, in marriage equality, or in dealing with income inequality and poverty.  The host of utter disappointments in the Republican field are as bad as they have ever been, and there is no way in hell that I'd lift a finger to support these charlatans.

Now that being said, let me return to the topic at hand.  Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States, Senator from New York, Secretary of State of the United States, is without a doubt a capable and intelligent woman.  She is also emblematic of what is wrong with politics in the United States today.  For too long, (at least since the 1980's) we have seen political parties do their best to convince the country that they are the "saviors" of America and just buying into their spiel will put things right.  To be sure, that's the way the system works.  One side derides the other, while both are claiming to want what is best for the population at large.  Listen to them both carefully, boil down their messages and essentially they say the same thing over and over again.  We want an America where every one can progress and achieve the American Dream!  We want a secure and strong America!  We want to make absolutely sure that you know we're the right party for you and those other guys are (insert whatever invective, pejorative, denigration or derision you want here).

Ms. Clinton has been in the public eye since the 1970's, when she partnered with William Jefferson Clinton, probably the greatest political campaigner and thinker about politics that I have ever seen in my lifetime.  She and Bill forged a partnership in the early 1970's and she transformed herself from a Goldwater Republican to a McGovern backing liberal.  Mr. Clinton has gone through many transformations himself.  Again, from being a McCarthy, McGovern liberal to transforming into a center-right Democrat as he needed to regain the governorship in Arkansas and eventually become the 42nd President of the United States.

Something happened along the way from Little Rock to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Both of them moved into the seductive and almost irresistible arena of big money politics.  Now, this may have been a political necessity, because if you don't get elected, you can't govern.  You can't get elected unless you compete, and in the latter part of the 20th century and certainly in the last two decades of the 21st century, you can't compete or get elected unless you have money.

The Clintons learned this lesson quickly as they are both incredibly intelligent people.  I believe they made a conscious decision that steers toward the meme that the "ends justify the means".  In other words, they would sell-out to Wall Street and other big-money people so they could get to the White House and then govern as best they could.  I believe that both are idealistic in some areas.  The work they have taken on is substantial and hard, and there are many other ways to get wealthy, so this isn't about personal, material gain. It is about power.   Power.  The ability to influence people and events to your manner of thinking.  The ability to force people and events into behaving the way you want them to.  It is I believe the singular drive for Ms. Clinton as it was for her husband.  They are in my mind the real-life model for Frank and Claire Underwood from the Netflix series House of Cards.  Now, I do not believe they would resort to the deviltry and chicanery that the Underwoods have done on their way to Pennsylvania Avenue.  That of course is fiction (by the way, I think series 3 is vastly disappointing).    I do believe however they are thinking first about how to arrange the chessboard in their favor. I think they will use whatever means necessary to achieve their goals.  Therein lies the problem to me.  When anyone moves beyond doing what is right for the people they serve to the doing what is right for them, then they have lost sight of what the job is.

Ms. Clinton is smart. She is accomplished.  In terms of capability, she puts her erstwhile competition over in the GOP clown car to shame.  She would probably get elected in a cake-walk.  But I hope not.  I hope she thinks about this and decides to forgo the campaign.  She won't, because like her husband, the White House is the goal, and for whatever rationalized reasons she comes up with, she believes she is the best person to be President.   I don't.  I'm looking for a game-changer.  I want someone that can look up on the job as a job and something that requires commitment to the values and vision the candidates campaign on.  What I foresee in a Clinton administration is more triangulation, more gamesmanship, more working around the edges of a problem than actually fixing it.  I see an administration that will be too cozy with the Lloyd Blankfeins and Jamie Diamonds and not one that will focus on the hard work to resolve the hard problems in the country.  I see a massively divisive government if she is elected, even more so that the current situation, because before their was Barack Obama, there was Bill and Hillary.  I remember well the invective thrown at the Clintons by the Republicans then and they look like amateurs compared with the nest of vipers in the GOP today.  So, there will be even more noise about perceived wrongs and executive overreach with a Clinton Administration.  I think the country is exhausted with this noise out of Washington. I certainly am.

I don't see anyone who has shown an interest in the job that fits that mold though and it is disappointing.  It's certainly early and there's always a chance someone might enter into the fray that is focused on really solving problems versus accumulating power.  

So, this liberal will not be supporting the presumed nominee for the Democratic Party.  I am looking for something else.  I wonder what Bill Gates is up to these days?

Tell me what you think.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson - Now What?

Like many, I watched the announcement of the Grand Jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson on charges for the death of Michael Brown.   The St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, rambled on regarding the process and facts presented to the Grand Jury for a good 8 minutes before finally announcing the no-bill.   Now, there were several things wrong with this whole event.  First and foremost, they made the announcement at around 9pm in the evening, after announcing the day before that the Grand Jury's decision  would be forthcoming.  So, what did this do?  It allowed the people waiting on the decision to build up an enormous amount of emotion on the issue.   Rather than announcing it in the morning, they wrongly waited until the evening.  I suppose they were attempting to plan for the aftermath of the announcement and get police prepared.  Then of course, what everyone expected to happen did indeed happen.  Despite pleas from Michael Brown's parents to protest without resorting to violence, violence occurred.  It was inevitable for many reasons.  First, there were people who regardless of the decision would act out.  Second, there are people genuinely upset with the police, the district attorney, the governor, the country at -large and acted out of despair and hopelessness.  Thankfully, the damage and injury was contained somewhat. It could have been much worse.  The sad thing is the whole situation never had to result in the outcome that occurred on Monday evening.

Mr. McCulloch, the prosecutor with responsibilities to present the facts of the case to the Grand Jury bungled this whole thing from the start.  First of all, they waited far too long to impanel the Grand Jury. Then, the process by which the Grand Jury reviewed the information seemed to be intentionally focused towards confusion.  In most cases, prosecuting attorneys present a recommended charge for the Grand Jury to consider in weighing the information presented.  The point is this: Does the information presented support a specific charge to the point that an indictment is warranted?   Mr. McCulloch did a "data dump" of thousands of pages of information regarding the case, had several different witnesses, including Officer Wilson testify in front of the Grand Jury, and presented a list of "possible charges" the Grand Jury could consider.  Now, this is unusual for many reasons. First, the lack of a recommended charge. Secondly, testimony from the Officer.  This rarely happens in a closed Grand Jury hearing.   The testimony given by Officer Wilson is an amazing account of the incident, and in my view it had an influence on the decision to indict or not.  The point here is, that a Grand Jury hearing is not a trial.  It is a hearing to determine whether there should be a trial.  Given the outcome and the history of Mr. McCulloch's tenure as prosecuting attorney, the result of this doesn't pass the sniff test of credibility in my view.   This decision to no-bill could have been the proper one. But, so much time had passed, and so much dysfunction from the prosecutor's office polluted the sense that this was a fair process that the decision is dubious whether proper or not.

We have an officer with a very suspicious story about the events of August 9th who will not be taken to trial.  Officer Wilson's account of the day in his testimony do not square up with witness accounts, or even his own initial reports of what happened.
That's not necessarily a surprise, as often witness accounts vary and sometimes change based on time.  But the fact of the matter are this:  Officer Darren Wilson fired 12 shots from his gun, seven of which entered Michael Brown's body.   Officer Wilson indicated that Mr. Brown attacked him while he was still sitting in his police cruiser, attempted to grab his gun, and then ran away, then ran back towards the officer.   Mr. Brown at one time was about 150 feet away from the officer, who continued to discharge his weapon.  Officer Wilson, up to this incident had never discharged his fire-arm in the line of duty.  This time, however, he fired twelve rounds at an 18 year old man.   He killed a man that was under suspicion for robbing a convenience store.   His account of the incident suggests a confrontation with a "demon" like figure who Officer Wilson was afraid would beat him to death.

Perhaps all of that was true.  Perhaps Mr. Brown was a superhuman
that could run through a series of bullets and get to Officer Wilson and hurt or kill him.  Perhaps the accounts of the incident came down exactly the way Officer Wilson describes it.  The first question I have and a lot of other people have is why did it have to happen?  Officer Wilson, in his own words describes Mr. Brown as being aggressive from the point of initial contact.  If this is true, and as Officer Wilson describes it, he called for back-up, why didn't he wait?  Why didn't he withdraw from the situation until more support could arrive?  Why, did he continue to involve himself into a situation that escalated to the point that an 18 year old was killed?  What was the hurry?  This was a confrontation that didn't have to be a life or death situation.  The circumstances could have been De-escalated and with additional support Mr. Brown could have been confronted, arrested and then dealt with in a proper manner.  Instead, we have a dead kid (yes, an 18 year old is a kid), an officer whose life is forever altered and a set of parents who had to put their kid into a casket and into the ground way too early.

Police violence has become an all too frequent affair.  Since August 9, 2014, there have been 14 teenagers shot and killed by police officers.  We are seeing more and more aggression from police that includes an severe increase in shootings and violent confrontations.  I believe there are many reasons for this and have some thoughts on how to attempt to resolve what seems to be an ever escalating level of violence.

First, some observations on the current state of affairs:

1. The "war on drugs" is responsible for much of the confrontation occurring between police and young people.  The aggressive policing, "no-knock" searches, stop and frisk policies, etc. establish an immediate and palpable level of suspicion for the police.
2. Disproportionate responses to incidents with militarized police procedures.   SWAT teams, riot gear, tear-gas, and a higher level of aggressive response is causing more and more violence.  SWAT teams used to be specialized tactical forces that were only called out in the most dire of circumstances. Now, in some jurisdictions, SWAT teams are delivering an executing search warrants.
3. Police that does not represent the community.  In Ferguson specifically, this is a major problem.  Ferguson is a suburb of St. Louis, and has a population of about 20 thousand people.  Two-thirds of the residents in Ferguson are black.  The police force in Ferguson has 53 officers, 3 of which are black.  The police actions are skewed disproportionately toward incidents with black citizens of the community.  In 2013, there were 5318 "police stops" (traffic tickets are a major source of city revenue in Ferguson. It is a notorious speed-trap).  Of the 5318 stops, 4632 were tops of black citizens and 686 were of white citizens.  That's a 87% to 13% or about a 6 to 1 ratio.  Now, I don't think the black people in Ferguson are that heavy footed, and even with the population being 66% black, it's still a highly inflated figure.   The data on arrests is no better. In 2013,  there were 521 arrests made by the Ferguson police department.  of the 521 arrests made, 483 were of black citizens and 36 were of white citizens. That's a 93%  to 7% or about 13 to 1 ratio.  Now considering that only 5% of the police officers in Ferguson are black, and 93% of the arrests in 2013 were of black people I wonder what the perspective of blacks toward the police might be? 

Now,  how to address:

1. Politicians have to get off their asses and do the hard work of diffusing the aggression and acrimony between police and the citizenry, particularly the lower income communities.   They can do this by focusing on engagement rather than estrangement.  Instead of running on a "tough on crime" stance with bellicose statements and policies that enforce things like mandatory minimum drug offenses they have other choices.  They can get into the community and work with the business leaders, clergy, educators, and others to increase community policing, alternative discipline strategies for first offenders and the like.  This approach is having success in some cities. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake in Baltimore and Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans are seeing some successful response from the communities with this approach.  Coupled with a change in approach, we must stop the insanity that is the manner by which we deal with drug offenders.  The amount of arrests and incarceration for drug offenses is idiotic and has proven to be an abject failure. Getting cops out of putting cuffs on a kid for holding a joint and back to  protecting that kid from a dealer will go along way to get some credibility back in the community.

2. Get the beat-cop back on the beat.  Rather than having fewer cops, we need more.  We need more that are engaged and known in the community and are not walking down the street looking like they are about to engage Al-Qaeda in Mosul or Fallujah.   During the Clinton administration, funding was delivered from the federal government that help put several thousand police back on the street, and in particular on the "beat", where they became known and familiar. Guess what, in those areas, crime rates dropped.

3. Get a police force, and for that matter a government that is representative of the community.  The Ferguson example is ridiculous.  There is little chance for a community that is overwhelmingly unrepresented in city government and in the police force to heal and trust each other particularly when the statistics about police behavior are so upside down.

4. Better technology and training for police.  It's clear the situation with Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown could have been avoided with better actions on the part of the Officer.  Training officers on alternative approaches to confrontation would be useful.   Body-Cams recording incidents between citizenry and the police would be immensely useful in situations like the one between Wilson and Brown.  Having a visual record of the events would allow for an objective view of the incident and could have quelled the violence and rioting that occurred last Monday regardless of what happened.  We should have mandatory body-cams on patrolling officers.  It will help them. It will help the citizenry.  It will help the good cops and will deter bad behavior.   Why this isn't standard police gear just like their weapon or handcuffs or radios are beyond me.

5. Do a much faster job of investigating police shootings or violence.  There is no reason why it has taken from August until now to come to resolution on the Wilson / Brown issue.  The amount of time taken, along with the leaks from various sources only inflame a situation like this.  Fast and aggressive investigation with transparency in the process can help.  Every facet of local and state government in this case failed.  The Governor should have appointed a special prosecutor to investigate this instead of Mr. McCulloch because of his close association with the Ferguson police department.  Now, whether or not that impacted his approach on this is immaterial. The perception it conveys to the public is what matters.  An independent investigator not associated with the police would have given the perception of objectivity and could have given the community a level of confidence that this wasn't rigged in Officer Wilson's favor from the beginning.

We have an opportunity to learn from this monumental fuck-up and do better.  We have to do better. It makes me sick to my stomach to see this happen over and over again.  We can be a better nation than this.  If we expect people to respect the rule of law, then the rule of law has to work effectively.  It certainly is not doing so now.

Tell me what you think.


Wednesday, November 05, 2014

So, That Happened

Well, what a night.  If you are like me, it wasn't a very good night.  The 2014 mid-terms swept Republicans into control of the Senate, boosted the majority in the House of Representatives and swept several Democratic governors out of office.  It was a massive victory for the GOP.  It remains to be seen if it is a massive victory for the country.  Certainly, there was a bow-wave of Republican energy in the election.   The overwhelming victories the party of Reagan racked up cannot be attributed to anything other than the people of this country want the GOP to govern.  At least the people who voted.   Now, it's very early to point to the exact reasons why the elections turned out the way they did.  There will be months of analysis of exit polls, discussions and debates on why things went the way they did. There will be accusations, there will be explanations, there will be whining from my side of the aisle, there will be gloating from the other side.  All of that has its time and place and will eventually be out there for us all to talk and debate about. But, in advance of all of the talk that will fill the radio and TV time in the near future, let me offer up some observations on what happened.

1. The country is sick of politics and government in general. The political machine in this country has become a never-ending cycle of attacks, cynicism and gamesmanship focused on nothing more than trying to convince one side is the devil and one side is the angel.  The money that has been poured into the process on both sides of the political spectrum is astounding, and it's become tiring to continually watch and hear the governing process in this country tear itself apart. People are rightly disgusted with the process and last night it was manifested in two ways:  The first is voter apathy.   It's still early to see the exact numbers, but turn-out seemed to be lower than usual for mid-terms.  Now, for older voters, it seemed like that turn-out was up, but for the below 30 year old crowd, it was pathetic.  This is a sign of apathy from the electorate and disconnection of the government to the people.  So, the party that openly despises government in general won in large numbers last night. Why?  Because they seized upon the anger, frustration, and general unhappiness that the people have with the government and did a brilliant job of focusing all of that energy on one specific person.   The President of the United States.

2. The country is massively dissatisfied with the President.  President Obama's job approval rating is sitting about 40% and has been this way for a long time.  Interestingly enough, the party that won big last night have a general job approval rating in Congress of something like 14%.  However, it's easy to focus on one person than a group of people, and it's apparent that the country has had it with the President.   Either by voting against him or not voting at all, the young man who offered "Hope and Change" in 2008 has taken another major loss in the mid-term elections.   It's not surprising that the party out of the White House loses ground in Congress in mid-terms.  This is especially true in the mid-terms during the 2nd term of a President, any President.  It's happened to every 2 term president since Reagan, but this thumping was massive.  The President's own party ran away from him in almost every race.  It's clear that the folks who were energized to support the President were far outdone by the folks who were energized to oppose him. 

3. The election seemed to be not about issues but anger.  Core conservative ballot measures, such as Personhood bills went down in defeat everywhere they were on the ballot.  Marijuana legalization referendums passed everywhere they were on the ballot except Florida.   So, on specific issues that were on the ballot, seemed be tilted towards more progressive attitudes.  However, this didn't hold true for the people on the ballot.  Candidates such as Joni Ernst in Iowa, a Tea Party favorite, took Tom Harkin's open Senate seat rather handily.  She and several others on the ballot last night voiced the anger at Washington and could pose big problems for presumed Majority Leader McConnell after the new Congresss comes in to office next January.  All over the country, expressions of distrust and dissatisfaction with Washington's lack of action were voiced with the candidates who won. 

4. Conservatives have made their case.  I'm totally surprised that Sam Brownback won reelection in Kansas.  Same with Pat Roberts in Kansas.  Both candidates were deeply flawed and in Brownback's case, his track record for the state has been horrible. Yet, he was reelected.  Rick Scott, the deeply unpopular governor in Florida won reelection over a former Republican Charlie Crist.    In Texas, Wendy Davis's campaign was obliterated by Gregg Abbott, a conservative candidate with the charisma of a snail.   As a liberal, atheist, gay-rights and tree-hugging, union loving voter, this of course saddens me deeply, but you have to acknowledge when you are on the wrong side of the country's perspective, and it's clear that I am. The conservative movement in the country is strong, and it is likely to make the 2016 presidential race very competitive. 

All in all, this was a blow-out.  There's no other way to describe what happened and one must congratulate the winners.  They did the work, pounded the pavement, convinced the voters they were on the right side of the issues and were successful.   I hope this energy translates into something good and useful for the country.  Even with our differences in political views, the people are much closer together than it seems. All of us want the country to have a good economy, security from harm, and an ability to leave a place better for our kids. So, we have once again an opportunity to do something useful.  I hope the GOP will leverage this massive victory into something positive. I hope the President will find a way to work with this new Congress and throw out the last 6 years of obstruction and grid-lock.  It remains to be seen what will come of this, but every two years we have a chance to reset, start fresh and do something good. We've not done that in a long time, and I think that is what the country emphatically told us last night.

Tell me what you think.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

"Young men, soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they'd never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children's Crusade
Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death's bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
The children of England would never be slaves
They're trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation
Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History's lessons drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death's bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children's Crusade" - From "Children's Crusade", Sting, "The Dream of the Blue Turtles", 1984.

Today, we (some of us anyway) will pause and reflect for a moment about Memorial Day.  Initially called "Decoration Day", to honor those lost in the Civil War, Memorial Day became an official Federal holiday in 1967.   The day's meaning is really not lost on anyone. We will celebrate the sacrifice of our soldiers' loss for our country.  Usually, our politicians will soap up the day with speeches calling these fallen heroes and that they made their sacrifice for "freedom".  To be sure, some of that is true, but it is also true, that like many issues that should be much more important and prevalent to us daily, we as a country don't really think that much about the sons and daughters we have lost in combat.  We think even less of those who were fortunate enough to survive combat and make it home, but are unfortunate in the respect that they carry the physical, mental and emotional scars of bearing situations that most of us will never experience in our lifetimes.  

We're a country of war.  We were born of war during our revolution, and have been embroiled in military conflict in almost every decade of our existence.  The horrors of the Civil War, where brother fought against brother was the most egregious loss of life in combat in our history.  Over 700 thousand perished in the war.  In our nation's history, there is only one decade that there were no recorded deaths from military conflict.  That decade?  The 1820's.   That's right.  In every decade since the 1770's, American soldiers have fought and died in conflict except in the 1820's.   Total lost in the conflicts across our history run to 1.3 million dead and 1.5 million wounded.  In our recent history, the "war on terror" has claimed over 6,700 dead and more than 50 thousand wounded.

We of course honor our fallen and wounded on Memorial Day. We know they have taken a task many of us wouldn't (including me) sign up for.   Their deaths are a horrible payment that has been made for a country that on about every other day of the year generally ignores them.  We've seen the general attitude in Washington from both parties to make the soldier a tool that is used for political purposes and then cast aside until they are needed again to promote some policy, gain advantage during an election or accuse the other party of some level of ineptitude, misconduct, or other sin.

The recent events with the Veteran's Administration highlight what I'm talking about.  In 2008, President Obama, made dealing with the backlog of claims filed by veteran's with the V.A. one of major talking points of his campaign. He was going to clean the mess up and get the care to our veteran's that was needed.  He appointed General Erick Shinseki, a retired general who got it right about the number of troops needed in Iraq and was summarily booted out by the Bush Administration for telling the truth.  President Obama put General Shinseki in charge of cleaning up a bloated and inefficient administration that's sole purpose was to make sure veterans got the services they needed when they left military service.  Health care, financial assistance, educational assistance, and other services are provided by the V.A.  In many respects they do a good job.  Once you can actually get medical care, it is usually very good. The problem is handling the claims.  We have well over a million veterans alive today dating back to the Korean War and some from World War II.  It is a big job to ensure these people get the services they need.  While the current administration has indeed made some improvements, they are still failing.  Worse, now, it turns out that some of the work done by the V.A. was to "cook the books" and basically lie about the improvements on reducing claims backlogs.   This is a moral stain on an administration (Obama's) and on a system (V.A.) that should be better than this.  We know how this goes.  A directive comes from the President to fix the problem.  His secretary of the V.A. crafts the policy requirements and delineates it down to the organization.  The organization attempts to comply by the policy and some, fearing loss of job, shame or reprimand or whatever, lie about their progress.  They cook the books to say things are better.  They are found out.  The lie becomes public.  The lie becomes scandal.  Now it becomes political.  The other guys are now very interested in the troubles at the administration even though they voted to cut funding from the very organization they are now so concerned about.  The President has to speak about the problem and of course declare how mad he is about this.  Calls for General Shinseki's head on a platter abound, not only by the talk show punditry (most of whom never served a day in their life.  Rush I'm talking about you), but also by members of Congress, from both parties, because they are "shocked!, shocked! to find out there are troubles at the VA!).   It is monumental hypocrisy to hear criticism from Congress about this.  It makes me want to vomit how hypocritical they are on this topic.

General Shinseki should resign.  Not because he cooked the books. He didn't.  But, he is the leader of this organization, and as the leader, he bears responsibility and accountability for its actions.   The resignation of this man, would be the honorable thing to do and General Shinseki is an honorable man.  I don't think he will resign because I believe the administration will pressure him to stay.  If he does resign, the noise level will not reduce, it will enlarge.  The opposition to the President will not say that this was the right thing to do and we'll support the President in getting this fixed. No, they will use it as a cudgel to beat this administration and the Democrats about the head for the next two elections.   Oh, and by the way, if the situation was reversed, the Democrats would behave exactly as the GOP are doing now, so this isn't a condemnation of one party over another. It' a condemnation on the US Congress and by extension the rest of us about how pitiful and pathetic we are when it comes to taking care of those who come home from combat.   Yellow ribbons and America First! magnetic badges on the backs of our SUV isn't enough.  There are many veteran's organizations doing fine work in attempting to help out returning soldiers and the families of those who lost loved ones in conflict.   Veteran's of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, The USO, The American Legion, Wounded Warriors, etc. are all focused on helping veterans.  I would encourage all of us today to pick up the phone, get on the Internet and contact one of these organizations and give money to these folks to help our soldiers and families of soldiers.

I believe we go to war too easily and too often.  I was supportive of the attack on Afghanistan in 2001 to respond to the attacks against us in New York, Pennsylvania and in Washington in September of that year.  A response was necessary and important.  What we are doing there 13 years later I have no idea.  Why we went into Iraq is not clear, but it certainly was not because the regime in power at the time had weapons of mass destruction they were about to use against us as advertised.  I'm not cynical enough yet to believe it was simply a geo-political land grab, but cannot be sure.

I think we need to dramatically change the way we send our sons and daughters into harms way. I have a three point proposal that I think will help us think about this a little better and perhaps not have so many to mourn and remember in subsequent Memorial Days:

  1. Before we commit military forces to conflict situations, we must have a declaration of war.  The US Constitution requires it and we should respect that. We've not had a declared war since World War II.  In every conflict since then, we've had something less.  The reason I think is because Congress is too frightened of being on the record to send kids off to die.  They will "authorize the president certain powers", then if things go poorly castigate the poor devil mercilessly afterward.  This was what happened with the Iraq War.  Democrats such as Joe Biden, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton all used the weasel worded authorization to distance themselves from the resulting fiasco.
  2. Institute the Draft during Conflict times.   We have effectively separated America into two factions since the draft ended in the early 1970's.  Those who serve for economic or other reasons, and those who don't.  We have essentially divided the country into those who suffer loss and those who don't.  We know due to the demographic data that most of our military come from lower economic standing. I said most. There are some wealthy families that have members who serve and their participation is no less noble or dangerous.  However, most of us do not feel the pain of service, and if we instituted the Draft again during conflict situations, it might make us all think about this a little harder and with more conviction. 
  3. Tax to Pay for the War.  In this last conflict, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, we have essentially been told to ignore the cost of the conflict, and it would be taken care of.   We've not been asked to sacrifice, even if it is just from our wallets.  During World War II, which lasted less than half the time the Afghanistan conflict has, taxes were raised, rationing was established and everyone had to participate, whether they were in the military or not.  Victory gardens were grown by families in order to allow the big farmers to produce food for the military.  Metal was collected and melted down for use by the military. Auto manufacturers converted factories to tool up for tanks, planes and other military uses.  The country was at war, not just a few soldiers.  Everyone had to pay. Everyone was engaged. It became personal and real.   Unfortunately, we've not seen this in the last several conflicts going back thirty or forty years.  Soldiers were someone's brother, sister, son or daughter.   The majority of us were told to "go shopping".   So my proposal is to tax the rest of us to pay for the war and its aftermath (not only the rebuilding of the country we blow up, but also the rebuilding of the lives of the veteran's and their families when they come home).  We must become part of the process and not an idle observer.  We owe it to those who sign up and offer to go get themselves killed on our behalf.  
Ultimately, if we could see these three actions become part of the fabric of our decisions to go into conflict I think the result would be fewer adventures that aren't necessary, fewer casualties as a result of fewer conflicts, and if, as it is sometimes necessary, we go to war, we do it together.

I honor those lost, and I want to see us find a way to make this day one of reflection of not only for those who were lost, but those who were saved because we got our collective act together.

Tell me what you think,



Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, Race and Bigotry Issues in America

Well, we've had a considerable amount of time over the past two months with these two men.  They each have a few things in common:  They are old, they are white; they are fairly wealthy, and by their words, they are presumably racists.   Mr. Bundy, whose fame is more related to his thievery by not paying grazing fees for more than 20 years recently mouthed off with the now infamous phrase "I know something about the Negro".  Mr. Bundy recently had a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for managing federal property.  Mr. Sterling on the other hand was thrust into the news when a recorded conversation of him and his alleged mistress showed he had some rather controversial views about who his girlfriends should take to his team's (The Los Angeles Clippers) basketball games.  Both have recently made some very inflammatory remarks about African Americans. Mr. Bundy, seems to believe African American's who are on government assistance would probably be happier if they were still slaves, and Mr. Sterling simply cannot believe anyone would believe he is a racist even though he has had a long history of discrimination against African Americans and Latin Americans. 

The statements made by both of these men are of course repugnant.  They have both attempted to walk back their statements and have only dug themselves into a deeper hole by doing so.  Check out Mr. Sterling's "apology" interview with Anderson Cooper here:

Now, both Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bundy are pretty wealthy, so their attitudes don't come from not having access to good education or a lack of ability to associate and mix with people from other ethnic backgrounds.  They easily could and in Mr. Sterling's case have, engaged with people of different colors, points of view and perspectives.  What they have chosen to do is emblematic of what a lot of people in this country do regardless of income, social standing or, in fact skin color.  They have chosen a perspective that those who look differently from them somehow are "less".    The concept shouldn't be lost on us, as we all have these biases and prejudices to some degree.

The issue at large though is the idea that because we look different or worship different than each other denotes that we are indeed different than each other.   This is nothing new.  Hundred's of years ago, in the play "Merchant of Venice",  Shylock said: "If you prick us do we not bleed, if you tickle us do we not laugh, if you poison us do we not die, if you wrong us do we not revenge?"   Of course, the matter at hand in Shakespeare's play was Jewish and Christian antipathy, but it nonetheless displays that probably since we have been able to think, we've decided that we should categorize people by what they look like, who they worship, who they love, how much money they make, etc. etc.

But back to Mr. Bundy and Mr. Sterling.  They are indicative of racists in the most descriptive sense:  Loudmouth people of privilege who have decided for one reason or another they are better than African Americans and Latin Americans.   These guys are easy to spot. They display their attitudes generally through words or actions.  In Mr. Sterling's defense in this matter, he was outed by a recorded phone call, which I also have a problem with, but I digress.  These types of racists are common and we see them often, whether it is someone like this or someone who parades around in a ridiculous looking bed sheet spouting idiotic terms like "white supremacy". 

The bigger problem is the subtle racism that still occurs over 50 years after Dr. King's "I have a dream speech". The job not given, the loan not secured, the cab ride not available: these are all examples of what I'm talking about and it is as prevalent today as it was in the 1950's.  No, we don't have forced segregation and different drinking fountains for "white" and "colored" people, and there has been significant progress in some areas of racial importance.  However, this stain on our collective soul is still here and we have to work hard to eradicate it.  Racism comes from hatred.  Hatred comes from fear.  Fear comes from lack of understanding and knowledge.    What we need is wisdom.  Wisdom is the understanding and knowledge through experience that we are all much more the same than we are different.  We have the same hopes and desires for ourselves and our children. We all want to be secure and happy.   We can't get there by hating.  We can't get there by classifying people as somehow being less deserving or worthy than us because of our color.

We have made some great strides in our attempts to throw the notion of racism into the trash can of history but we have much left to do.  As exemplified by Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bundy, there are still pathetic people out there.  They are to be pitied for their views as much as they should be rebuked. They are small minded people who, if they maintain their views will never have their eyes opened to the possibilities and promise of a society that as Doctor King said:  "they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"

Our country has had lesson after lesson that setting people apart because of skin color is simply wrong.  Whether it is our own history or that of countries like India and South Africa, we can see what is achieved once the institutionalized racism of policy and government is cast aside.  If we can get there ourselves by getting rid of our own institutionalized biases then we will have a much better place for ourselves and our kids.

Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bundy: you've done us a service by reminding us that racism is alive and well in this country and we need to find more will and effort to eliminate it.  So thanks for that. I pity both of you for your views, and hope that before you breathe your last breath that you come around. It's sad to go through life with points of views like those you hold, and maybe, just maybe you can change. I hope so.

Tell me what you think.  Where are you on this issue?


Monday, April 07, 2014

Time For A Diet

  I like ice cream.  My favorite is Blue Bell Home Made Vanilla.  It's flavorful, creamy (of course), and a great base to add fresh peaches, blueberries, some walnuts, etc.  It's really, really good.   I unfortunately indulge too much as anyone who has recently seen my waistline can attest.  I was enjoying a bowl of the aforementioned delight while watching the final round of the Shell Houston Open yesterday when I realized I am enjoying this way, way too often and need to scale back.   I also started thinking about the recent case decided by the Supreme Court; McCutcheon v. FEC.  I know, I know, why would someone watching a golf tournament start thinking about a Supreme Court case?   Was it brain freeze brought on by the ice cream?  No, it was the act of consuming the ice cream that got me thinking about the case.  So forgive me the somewhat awkward analogy, but I suddenly realized that our politics needs to go on a diet just like I do.  
Why? would one ask does our politics need to go on a diet?  Well, the perpetrator of the bloated waistline in our politics is not Ice Cream, rather it is the system's insatiable appetite for money.   Ah, there it is;  The ever needed, always tempting, very sweet and yummy, highly caloric and very bad for you if consumed in mass quantities item our system just can't seem to push back from. 
Now, with McCutcheon v FEC decided, like it's cousin, Citizen's United v FEC, our Supreme Court had once again made it harder for our system to inject some discipline and get it's addiction under control.  McCutcheon was decided last week, on a party-line basis and a 5-4 decision with Roberts writing the majority opinion that allowing no limits on how many candidates one person can donate to doesn't constitute a "quid pro quo" situation or harm the election process.  The Court decided that sufficient regulations existed to protect the process and in holding with the appellate court's decision it would infringe on the plaintiff's first amendment protections.  The issue at play was that Mr. McCutcheon, a wealthy businessman from Alabama contributed to 16 different candidates for Federal elections, and was not allowed to contribute to another 12 that he wanted to due to a Federal Election Commission  (FEC) regulation that curbed the aggregate amount of contributions by an individual.   The Court decided in Mr. McCutcheon's favor, and now, if you so choose, you can donate to any number of candidates up to the federal limit of $5200 per person.  
Doesn't sound like a big deal does it?  After all, $5200 per person is not that much.  So what is the big deal.  Well, the big deal is this.  This case, along with Citizens United, which basically held that restricting political contributions by corporations, associations, labor unions were both violations of first amendment protections.  Essentially, this Supreme Court has decided that realistically there are no limits of money that can be applied to the political process because money is speech.  Now, it's a nice sentiment. It's nice to think that if you want to support someone politically you should be able to do so, whether via a political contribution or your service being volunteered to answer phones, stuff envelopes, etc. etc.  The problem is the same problem I have with ice cream.  The political system can't seem to moderate itself and deal with the money responsibly.  All it wants is more and more.
The amount of money in the system has grown to a point of ridiculousness.  the 2012 presidential elections spent a collective $1.8 billion dollars to end with the election of President Obama.  Congressional elections are just as outrageous.  Consider the data below:
Dollars Spent by Winners of Congressional elections
Year - 2012:  House Winners average spend:  $1.5M - Senate Winners average spend: $10.3M
Year - 2010:  House Winners average spend:  $1.4M - Senate Winners average spend: $8.9M
Year - 2008:  House Winners average spend:  $1.3M - Senate Winners average spend: $7.5
Year - 1992:  House Winners average spend: $556K - Senate Winners average spend: $3.3M
Year - 1986:  House Winners average spend: $359K - Senate Winners average spend: $3.0M
So in 26 years, the price for a congressional seat has gone up 4.4 times, or over 400%.   It's not surprising really, as the cost of a congressional seat has a lot of value.   It an interesting point to note that on the day that a member of the United States House of Representatives is sworn in, from that day forward that member must raise $2,187 per day (730 days over a two year term) in order to keep pace with the spend of a winning candidate.   How does a candidate do that?  Well, they have fund raisers like Mr. McCutcheon, interest groups like an industry association, corporations, and Political Action Committees, and finally the party committees who all contribute.  Nonetheless, it is a mind-boggling activity when you think Congress actually has a day job.  How hard is it? Well, you try picking up the phone and talking to your best friends, family, and neighbors and asking them for two-grand a day. Do that for two years and see how many friends, family members and neighbors you still have let alone anyone who will talk to you. 
Look, campaigns are expensive.   Media buys are expensive. Travel, hotels, staff, etc. are expensive.  It's not surprising, because it is a sales campaign to convince a group of people to put their trust in this person.  Takes a lot of face time, talking, publishing of papers, etc. etc.   It's really not hard to understand that it takes a lot of money to run and win. 
The problem here is this.  Now that there is an ability by anyone, pretty much anywhere to donate however much money they want, the cost of democracy only goes up.  It's not a long leap to connect the dots that those who have a lot of money, whether they are organizations or individuals, can "buy" a lot of goodwill through their donations and contributions.   Favors are currency in politics. Debts are always called in, and you can bet that if the AFL-CIO or Charles and David Koch pour a lot of money into your campaign and you get elected, there will come a time when they come calling.  It will be expected that you vote a certain way on a piece of legislation, or keep a piece of legislation from coming to a vote, or whatever the favor is they extracted by helping to make you a member of Congress.  "A member of Congress always pays their debts", whether they want to or not.
The question the general public needs to ask themselves is this:  Do I really feel unlimited money in the system is the best way to elect our representatives?  If you do, then fine, the system is working great for you and you do not need to worry.   If you feel like no, the system is overweight, bloated, hypertensive and diabetic from all that "ice cream" it is eating, then you need to get busy and do something about it.  We've all seen the "pledges" that Grover Norquist exacts from the GOP about raising taxes.  Well, perhaps we should also have a pledge requirement for congressional candidates to not take private money contributions other wise we vote them out of office.  
The fix is simple, it is public financing.  We used to have it.  We've thrown it on the ash heap of history an look at what it has wrought.   We have a President now (Yes, Mr. Obama) who turned his back on public financing and raised almost a $1B in each of his elections.  So both parties are at fault here eating like pigs at the dessert buffet of political contributions. It needs to stop.  We need to stop the purchasing of elections, or at least make every member of Congress as well as the President start wearing the logo's of their "sponsors".  At least it would make watching CSPAN a little more interesting.
American political system:  put down the spoon and step away from the ice cream.  Please.
Tell me what you think.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Hubris: -Noun
1. Excessive pride or self-confidence;arrogance

Chris Christie's recent difficulties with respect to the George Washington bridge lane closure scandal are yet another example of Hubris in our political system and in our politics. 

The story is not new for New Jersey nor for this country.  I went and saw American Hustle last night, which was a stylized account of the Abscam sting operation in the late 1970's and early 1980's which netted a series of New Jersey politicians in a bribery and corruption scandal.  It got me thinking about Mr. Christie and the notion of political leaders abusing their power in general.

Mr. Christie is a leader.  Of that there can be no doubt. He swept into office in 2009 running as a conservative Republican in one of the bluest Democratic states in the country.  He was of course helped by the feckless and questionable practices of his predecessor, John Corzine, but nonetheless, won. He and his team proceeded to implement the policies he ran on and with significant Democratic support, accomplished much of his objectives. Christie's characteristic brashness and aggressiveness was front and center in his actions.  He is a person who is massively convinced of his capabilities and one who doesn't take criticism well.  Mr. Christie is often characterized as a "bully".  Certainly, some of his appearances at press conferences or in the media suggest that label is appropriate. 

Here's the thing about bullies, even if they are competent: At some point in time, your actions will have a rebound effect.  The more you alienate people, especially those who are suspicious of you in the first place, the more fuel you give to the eventual "payback" that will be coming. Call it Karma, or whatever you want, but it seems to be a fact of nature that what goes around comes around.

Christie is also known as an efficient and effective leader, with a tightly run administration that makes very few mistakes with respect to political  messaging or actions.  His history, whether as a U.S. Attorney fighting corruption or as a governor is one that suggests that no action such as the bridge closure in Ft. Lee would be something that would be done by an administration underling, without someone in the Governor's office knowing about it.  Mr. Christie explained in his explanatory press conference that he had no idea what his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly had done". Ms. Kelly is, right now, perceived to be the instigator of the traffic snarl by virtue  of an email that says to David Wildstein, the head of the Port Authority on the Jersey side, "Time for some traffic problems".   Mr. Wildstein's reply was simply: "Got it". 

It is difficult to believe that such an action would be taken without the Governor knowing about it beforehand or afterward, which is exactly what he says is the case.  How can an administration run so tightly have such a massive event take place and the Governor not be aware of it?  Is it possible?  Perhaps.  Is it possible that Mr. Christie placed so much trust in his staff that he simply didn't pay attention to the matter until it spun out of control? Again, perhaps. However, it doesn't seem likely. Mr. Christie acted swiftly according to him.  Mr. Wildstein and several others associated with the scandal resigned quickly.   Ms. Kelly was summarily dismissed by the Governor who said he did this because she "lied" to him.  

There is an active investigation underway and I'm not going to comment on the matter as I'd prefer to see the investigation play out and make a fact based comment on what happened and who was involved.  What I will comment on is the "tone" that seems to be in place in Trenton.  Mr. Christie's press conference was full of sadness on the part of the governor that his trusted people had "lied" to him. He spent a significant amount of time bemoaning how he had been victimized by betrayal.  There was very little acknowledgement of the troubles that the lane closure had caused to the people in Ft. Lee or the travelers on that bridge. This press conference was all about Governor Christie, who seemed "shocked" to find his lieutenants would do something like this without his knowledge, which of course would never have happened had they asked him for permission to do it.  Also, to tone, is the seemingly swift retribution that occurs if Mr. Christie's wishes are not heeded.  Whether it is firing internal staff, which he seems to do regularly, or external actions against people who don't endorse him or his plans.  See the Mayor of Hoboken to get more details about political payback.

The story is weak tea to me.  Either Mr. Christie's story is not accurate, or if it is, he is purposely setting a firewall between he and his staff so they can do his bidding, but keep him distanced from being touched by any responsibility.  It reminds me of the phrase attributed to King Henry II regarding his friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, when he said "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?".   His followers, acting on the presumed desires of the King, murdered Becket in Canterbury much to Henry's chagrin, because after all, he was his friend and would never want him murdered.  

So again, the whole thing needs to be investigated and the facts brought to light.  Mr. Christie is an effective and efficient leader, and I truly hope there is nothing to this.  My instincts say otherwise, but we must let the facts bear out before deciding Mr. Christie was involved or not.

Hubris drives us to act irresponsibly because we become convinced that our way is best, and all others are just noise that must be avoided. This is a folly that infects politicians quite a bit.  Whether it is Christie or Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon or Huey Long, the idea that you are above the standards that the rest of us should follow is a dangerous thing to believe.   Mr. Christie, if found to be in the clear of this issue has an opportunity to reset a tone of what I call "effective but humble government" in New Jersey, which could then serve him well in his presidential ambitions.   Mr. Christie can turn this by invoking a philosophy that he was hired to do a job for the people of his state versus the idea that they were pleading with him to "lead them".  He can make his administration more accessible to the people and media. He can stop the bullying and focus on action without animus.   He can turn this lemon into lemonade.  If he wasn't involved.  If he is found to be lying, then he is done, and Hubris is the cause more than anything else.  If he was involved and it ends his political career, it will be too bad, because here will be another talented person who went into public service only to see their talents and energies overwhelmed by their missteps.   It's a story all too familiar.

Tell me what you think.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Good Governance? Not from Republicans.

In my last column on this blog, I spent the majority of the article criticizing President Obama and the administration for the woeful mess they have made of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka "ObamaCare").  Indeed, the problems with the web-site, the misleading statements by the President, and the monumental lack of good management on the part of HHS are worthy of intense criticism.  Most of the wounds with the roll-out are self-inflicted wounds by the administration.  Couple that with the sweetheart gift to the Republicans that now allows them to bleat "I told you so" relative to the roll-out and the problem just gets compounded.

But,  there are two sides to every story, and the one that must not go untouched is the intensive and blatant attacks by the GOP (in Washington primarily, but also with several governors) to sabotage the Obama Presidency from the outset.   There has been in my life-time (54 years) no administration that has taken more focused hatred and intentional obstruction from Congress than this one. 

There was a time when the Republican Party gave a damn about America.  Even up through George Herbert Walker Bush's administration, the GOP in Washington would actually work with the Democrats to improve the lives of the American people at large.  But now, and effectively since the 2010 elections which swept the toxic "Tea Party" caucus into the House of Representative and elected odious people like Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz into the Senate, the GOP in Congress has made it their life's mission not to uphold their Constitutional oaths and not to do the People's work of enacting legislation.  No, their life mission, beginning the moment that President Obama took the oath of office in January of 2009 was to sabotage him and obstruct every attempt at governing the President has done.

Whether it is the record number of filibusters in the Senate (The Senate, since 2009, has filibustered over 241 times against legislation or appointees by the President.), or the ridiculous and money wasting exercise in futility of voting to repeal the ACA over 40 times by the House of Representatives, the GOP has made it clear that they aren't interested in getting anything done.  They aren't interested in the economy. They aren't interested in poverty.  They aren't interested in National Security.  They aren't interested in governing.  What they are interested in is defeating President Obama and or making his signature legislation (the ACA) fail.

This systematic and insidious obstruction is the clearest example I have ever seen that at the national level, the GOP doesn't want government to function.  The icing on the cake in this sad tragic-comedy is the government shutdown, where for over 16 days, the GOP obstinacy with regard to the ACA lead to over 800 thousand government workers being furloughed, several corporations laying off people (Lockheed Martin laid-off over 3000 people), and an estimated $24 billion dollars of the damage to the economy according to Standard and Poors.  All because the GOP (the House specifically with support from Ted Cruz) refused to put a clean Continuing Resolution for funding the government on the floor for a vote.  Which, had Mr. Boehner done, would have passed easily with both Democratic and Republican support.

But, Mr. Boehner is running scared.  He is afraid of losing his job. So what does he do? He shuts down the government and for a while almost 1 million people lose their jobs.  So frightened is Mr. Boehner of a Tea Party revolt that would remove him from his speakership that he has surrendered his power to the lunatic fringe of his party who would like nothing more than to see the federal government implode upon itself.  We actually had a US Congressman (Representative Ted Yoho R-FL)say on live television, that taking the government to default by not raising the debt ceiling would be "good for the economy as it would stabilize the markets".   So rather than allow the government to keep functioning, they shut it down.  Then they complain about the government being shut down and attempt to run through small funding measures to open the pieces of government (like National Parks) they started getting flack about.

The President's approval ratings are sitting now at about 39% approval.  That's the lowest he's had since being elected.  The dip in approval is justified, given the colossal cock-up relative to the ACA and the lack of leadership he has provided in trying to make Washington work.  But, if you think that is bad. The GOP members of Congress' approval rating ranges from 18 - 21% depending upon the poll you look at.  That's almost a 20 point swing to the negative for the GOP.  So, as bad as the President is doing right now, the GOP in congress is doing worse.  It's not surprising, because they don't even try to hide their obstructionism behind arguing about policy, it is just blatantly opposing the President.

Let's not forget, the ACA is a plan based on a Republican think tank (The Heritage Foundation) who developed the framework in response to the Clinton Health Care proposals of the early 1990's.  It was modeled on the plan implemented by then Governor Mitt Romney who, along with the Democrats in 2004 implemented state-wide coverage in Massachusetts.  Guess what?  It's working there.  98% of the folks in Massachusetts have health care and it is overall cheaper than before.

So, even with the President modeling his plan on a conservative think-tank's plan and a Republican governor's plan, these guys are dead-set against it.

The lack of positive legislation coming from this Congress (jobs bills laying dormant; immigration bills laying dormant; background checks for guns being "shot-down" in the Senate), the lack of fiscal responsibility from this Congress (40+ times voting to repeal legislation that in no way the President would sign nor would the House have the votes to override a veto if it ever got through the Senate), the shut-down of the government costing this economy over $24B in the space of a month's time should tell you that the GOP is not concerned about this country. They are concerned about "winning". Whatever the hell that is.

If anyone tells you the GOP is the party of fiscal responsibility, laugh in their face and ask them what they have been smoking, because I want some.

Tell me what you think.


Tuesday, November 05, 2013

2nd Term Blues


"Doctor, Doctor, give me the news, I've got a bad case of 2nd Term Blues".   With apologies to Moon Martin and Robert Palmer, I had to steal a line from their great tune "Bad Case of Loving You" and reword it a bit for this post. 

So, Mr. President, how is it going?  Not so well obviously.   The situation relative to your standing in the polls is deteriorating.  The landmark program that you, and no other President before you was able to pass into law is running as bad as advertised.  You haven't been able to get a long term budget deal done with your opposition party.   All, in all, I would think you might be ready for your 2nd term to be over. 

However, you still have work to do on behalf of the people who sent you back to Washington.  You have got to get your act together and focus on the next 3 years being run as smoothly and competently as the last 2 have been run incompetently. 

You are suffering from a bit of buyer's remorse from the people who sent you back for your 2nd term.  I supported you and voted for you because I still think you are the best person for the job considering your competitor.  I'm very angry with you right now because you have committed a couple of the most grievous sins a politician can make; getting caught lying, and giving a utterly ridiculous opposition party ammunition to make your life harder.  What's going on? What happened to the well-oiled and crack team of political experts that helped you win two terms as President?  What happened to you?

I realize governing is not easy.  It is extremely difficult even in the best of times.  No easy decisions come to your desk.  It must be a monumental headache every morning for you to wake up and see what John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz are up to.  It must be hard to control your temper when the lies that are being said about you are continually covered by the "media" over and over again.  But, young man, you have to get past all that and focus.  You have to stop making mistakes that give this Republican Party a stick to beat you mercilessly, which is what they are doing.   Most importantly, you have to stop trying to walk back a lie by spinning.  It's cheap and doesn't wear well with you.

The launch of the ACA has been by all accounts poorly done.   The fact that over two years of planning and design time were available to your team and they still didn't get it right cannot be overlooked.  You guys messed this up big time.  While your intentions are very good and proper, the execution of the intended plans has done more harm to your goal of getting Universal Health Care for all than any GOP obstruction ever could.  What you and your team has to do is make sure the technical problems are fixed as fast as possible and when that is done, in humility apologize to the American People for this monumental screw-up.

The fact is that the poor roll-out has given the Republicans a chance to say "I told you so", and ramp up their fund-raising against you, you "Kenyan, anti-colonialist, Muslim, communist, so and so".  You've given fodder to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, two people that will strip a carcass of all of its flesh without a second thought.  Will any Republican step up and say "You know, I didn't like this law, and I voted against it, but it is now the law of the land and incumbent upon all of us to ensure that it is implemented as well and efficiently  as possible"?  Of course not.  They will use this as a club to beat you and any Democrat over and over again in 2014 and beyond.  So, get this fixed, and get it fixed now.  You have a small window before the 2014 campaign season starts.  Not only that, get the damned thing fixed for the benefit of the American People.  If you allow this program to fail because of the terrible implementation, then shame on you.

Secondly, stop the spinning on the lie.  You know what I'm talking about:  "If you like your health care plan, and your doctor, you can keep it".   Sound familiar?  Well, over and over again since 2009 you have said this. No, you didn't have the asterisk on the end of the phrase that said "if the insurance companies don't change the policy", or "insurance plans in place at the time of the law were grandfathered", etc., which all may be true, but that is not the point.  You blatantly misled the American People about this.  Forget the fact the insurance plans that are being canceled are "junk" plans that provided almost no coverage for serious medical events. Forget about the fact the new plans are better and from a cost of coverage stand-point more affordable in most cases.  Forget about all the benefits the program is now providing and will continue to provide.  Forget about saying this until you come out and say "I made a mistake".  You, as the leader of this country have to be big enough to go to the people and say you messed up.  You told them something that turned out not to be true. Now, were you intentionally lying about this or is it an unplanned circumstance that was not foreseen?   It doesn't matter. It reads like an intended lie and always will until you apologize for it and put it behind you.

You have the ability to recover from this.  We all make mistakes. We can get better.  Focus on getting the plan implemented correctly and focus on being a more humble and honest President.  Those are the things you can control.  Stop worrying about the GOP.  They hated you when you took the oath of office in 2009, they hate you now, and they will hate you tomorrow.  You cannot control that.  What you can do is make sure you don't let down more than 30 million people that desperately need health insurance as we know people are dying because they cannot get health care.  That must be your focus.

I like you and think you are well intended.  Be the president we all think you can be and get focused.


Dennis Sherrard

Monday, October 21, 2013

Thank you Mr. Cruz

The United States of America owes Mr. Ted Cruz, freshman Republican senator from Texas a big thank-you.  He has done this country a massive favor.  The strident Texan (by way of Canada), has through his dedicated assault on the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) crystallized the Republican Party's thought processes and behavior in a manner that only one who is blind, deaf and illiterate could not see.   Mr. Cruz's efforts, which resulted in a government shutdown for over two weeks have shown a spotlight on the reality of the Republican Party's objectives of the 21st century.  

Before Mr. Cruz, the GOP could somewhat hide under the cover of being the "loyal opposition". But no more.  Mr. Cruz and his band of merry-men including Mike Lee (R-Utah) have ripped the bandage off the wound.  They have shown the GOP for what they are:  Destruction oriented politicians.   Their hatred of this president has grown to the point of obsession.  The GOP has, since President Obama was elected made it clear they would oppose every effort the President made to enact policy, but this recent example has become something more.   The Republicans have consistently worn a mantle of "fiscal responsibility" blaming Democrats for financial malfeasance in dealing with the country's budget.  They have accused "big-spending Democrats" for exploding the debt and deficit and have pleaded with the country to follow their lead of austerity and tax-cuts.   Mr. Romney's failed election bid was built on a notion of just getting the government out of the way of business and everything would be fine.  However, this "Cruz Crew" has taken things to a new level.  They have decided it is better to not have a government at all than to allow that "insidious and disaster in the making" health care plan to be implemented.

Cruz, through his antics (faux-filibuster, "secret" meeting with 30-40 like-minded members of the US House of Representatives) has clarified the GOP for us today.  No longer a party of reasonable people with conservative views on the government and economy, the GOP has become a group of zealots who have made it their mission to destroy a president and nothing whatsoever will stop them.  Mr. Cruz derided the Republicans in the US Senate for voting to open the government and raise the debt ceiling.  He accused them of being weak-kneed and if they had just stood with those "brave and courageous" members of the House, they could have carried the day.  Mr. Cruz doesn't give a damn about the US Senate.  He doesn't give a damn about the US House of Representatives.  He cares about destroying ObamaCare.  The reason he cares about destroying ObamaCare is that he wants to be President of the United States.  

Unlike Mr. Romney, who had the unfortunate fact of having implemented ObamaCare when it was known as RomneyCare, and which has been a success in getting people covered and having access to insurance and health care in Massachusetts, Mr. Cruz has no such baggage.   He is free to label this as "socialism" and "government run amok".   Mr. Cruz is not stupid.  He knows and in fact has said that there is a window of opportunity against ObamaCare, stating that "Once it's implemented, and people begin to like it, we'll never be able to get rid of it."   Think about that.  He's essentially endorsed the program in a backhanded way.  

Forget about the fact that the program is a Republican born policy.   The framework was published as a response to the health care policy attempts of the Clinton administration in the early 1990's by the Heritage Foundation.  Adopted and put in place by Mitt Romney during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, the policy is a sweetheart deal to insurance companies.  Mr. Cruz though, will have none of this. He will not admit one benefit of the program of which there are many.  He will not admit it will have a positive impact on the cost-curve of health care expense which it is already doing.  He will admit nothing positive about the program.   As a result, he is pulling the GOP along with him in his "Zealot Express" train that will not acknowledge anything except that the law needs to be repealed.  The Republicans have been solid in their opposition of the law, attempting to repeal it more than 40 times in spite of an election that confirmed the people choose it over the GOP solution (which there is none), a Supreme Court affirming its constitutionality, and poll after poll showing that the US population approve of the components of the law even if they don't like the overall policy.

There are Republicans in the Congress who aren't as visibly strident about this as Mr. Cruz is, but just as committed to denying this President any success as the vocal Texan.   Starting from the day of the election in 2008, Eric Cantor and other members of the GOP decided not to cooperate with the President.   Think about that for a moment.  They willfully decided to obstruct and attempt to deny this President any success.  How messed up is that?  As a leader in the government, members of Congress are sworn by their oath of office to defend and uphold the U.S. Constitution.  Well, last time I checked there was a whole section in the Constitution about the executive branch.   Committing to deny the executive branch success is in my view an abrogation of their oath of office.  The government is not set up so one party can deny success of the other party.  It is set up to govern.  This group of Republicans have shown their stripes. They don't want to govern.   They want to deny and obstruct.  They want to be destructive.  They want failure.  They want shutdown.  It's taken Cruz and his efforts to display this for all to see, but now it has to be understood that the GOP is not the loyal opposition, defending policy because they legitimately believe it is in the best interest of the country.  They are a group of people so angry that this President was elected that they will do anything in their power to deny him any measure of success.  They will sink the economy.  They will hurt people intentionally. They are blind with rage and purpose.  They are in a word:  fanatics.

So thank you Mr. Cruz. Thank you for showing us what your group of compatriots really are.  We will remember this come 2014.  And by the way, the notion you have a snowball's chance in hell of being President in 2017?  I think you can kiss that good bye.

Tell me what you think.