Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Science vs Religion

"...it is agreed that Scripture, in order to be understood by the multitude, says many things which are apparently and in the literal sense of the words at variance with the absolute truth."

"If I were allowed to give my opinion, I would say that it might be more appropriate, and more befitting the dignity of Holy Writ, to stop every lightweight popular writer from trying to lend authority to their writings, often based on empty fancies, by quoting verses from Scripture, which they interpret or rather force into saying things that are as far from the true meaning of the Scripture as they are near to making complete fools of themselves when they parade their biblical knowledge in this way."

Both these quote are from a letter sent to the Grand Duchess Christina in March 1610 from Galileo whose scientific research supported Copernican heliocentrism but which were attacked in sermons and at society parties, which one might call the internet chat centers of the day.

Unfortunately, as time passed, Galileo was tried by the Church, forced to recant his "errors' and died in 1642, blind and under house arrest.

I found this quote in the Spring Edition of Lapham's Quarterly, titled Discovery, which I just began reading this past week.  It struck me as incredibly relevant today, and incredibly sad that over 400 years after such a brilliant man was pilloried for his intellect, and ability to advance man's understanding of the world, we still find ourselves at the mercy of those who insist that the Bible is a science book, those who justify their beliefs under the guise of "alternative facts", and those who question climate science research in order to justify a status quo that maintains economic power in the fossil fuel industry which just coincidentally heaps huge campaign donations on our elected officials.

And, of course, the equally insidious practice of manipulating the masses with anti-elitist rhetoric, and a rose colored nostalgia for the perfect past, all the while further empowering the 21st century's version of the papacy of Galileo's time.

I expect it naive of me to imagine that the battle between science and religion might one day end in a mutual acceptance of each other's importance.  Perhaps it is human nature to resist change when that change contradicts the interpreted foundations of one's holy book or sacred beliefs.  While Galileo may be the most famous, perhaps even most talented person to ever be persecuted for his challenges to the status quo of his time, his tragic end is certainly not unique.

What is both amazing and irritating is that some might rate Jesus of Nazareth as the person most harmed by his attempt to educate his contemporaries, as I would expect that were his teachings being followed today by those who lead us politically, economically, and socially, our debates concerning income inequality, immigration, religious intolerance, gender identification, and equating money to free speech, might have a completely different tone, or might even be unnecessary.

Science vs Religion, logic vs spirituality, believing in what you can see and quantify vs belief in what is beyond your ability to understand.  Perhaps the problem is that, while there are surely battles that must be waged, the war is not needed.

We need people who have been blessed with an insatiable desire to understand the phenomena of our existence, just as we need people who are blessed with the ability to make sense of the randomness of disaster and death.  Both help the rest of us stay focused on living our lives with less fear of the uncertainty of life, and death, and more joy in the time we have to experience life as we move towards the inevitable end.

Science gives us a method to uncover the dangers and the wonders of the natural world.  To fashion a better world for our children and grand children.  Religion gives us a method to accept the things we have not yet uncovered as part of humanity's travels down the path of life.  Denying that some things have yet to be divined can be just as limiting as denying that some things have been figured out through the use of the tools given to us by the creator.    

I hope that as I continue to read Discovery, I might stay open minded to perspectives that I may not have encountered to date, or that I have dismissed in the past.  In is certainly not an easy philosophy to maintain, and I expect to fall short more often than I succeed.  But isn't that what discovery is about; recognizing and exceeding ones limitations whether personal or as a community?


Monday, April 17, 2017

The First 100 Days

As we close in on the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency, I imagine there will be much commentary. pro and con, as to how President Trump has performed.  Of course, the tone of those opinions will vary widely, depending on the news source one is inclined to follow.  I have been attempting, lately, to watch such a variety of news channels, from BBC America to MSNBC to Fox News, and have found it an interesting experiment in how the various news/opinion outlets choose their news topics, report on said topics, gather "experts" to convey certain spins on these topics, and even what news "crawls" accompany the reporting of these topics.  I would imagine that if, as it is believed, our TV and radio signals are circulating throughout the solar system, and beyond, there may be some rather confused aliens trying to figure the happenings on the third rock from our sun.

For me, it has been not as bad as I imagined, and far worse than I expected.

On the positive side, the sun continues to rise in the east, and set in the west, although I think it safe to predict that Sean Spicer may disagree with that "fact" at some future point in his tortured reign as White House press secretary.  Other positives include Trump's choice of retired General James Mattis as Defense Secretary, H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, John Kelley as Homeland Security Secretary, Elaine Chao as Transportation Secretary, and Linda McMahon (despite my belief that wrestling is an entertainment sport, not a competitive one) to head the Small Business Administration.

I am especially happy, and hopeful, that Mattis and McMaster will provide the adult viewpoint in the room when truly serious and consequential discussions take place about the use of military and nuclear force to resolve our problems.

As an investor in Wall Street to fund my retirement, it has been a nice run up since the election, as most of our portfolios should demonstrate.  Of course, Wall Street generally favors a GOP president under the guise that the GOP is more business friendly than the Dems, but history shows that the stock market does not perform better with a republican in the White House.  In this case, however, it is clear that Trump's campaign rhetoric excoriating job killing regulation, and his cabinet choices which represent a slice of the richest men and women in America, makes Wall Street more inclined to expect a more business friendly administration, hence the 15% improvement since the November election.  While I hope that stocks might, if not continue their incredible rebound since the low of 6626 on March 9, 2009, at least mostly maintain their value, it is hard to imagine that an over 300% increase in 8 years is not bound to hit a speed bump sometime soon.

Lastly, it appears that President Trump's foreign affairs inexperience, and overall reactionary modus operandi may be serving him well.  As opposed to Obama's more thoughtful and calculated approach to handling crisis situations, Trump seems to have generated more attention from our enemies with his willingness to use military force to send a message.  Perhaps it is merely because the victims of his decisions had grown used to getting away with atrocities, perhaps because the only way to fight fire is with fire, but Trump has gained some credibility, domestically as well as internationally, with his latest decisions.  Hopefully, those who were on the receiving end of our big stick will not choose to continue to test his resolve, and up the ante, banking on our reluctance to use the ultimate weapons of mass destruction at his fingertips.  

On the negative side is virtually every other cabinet pick.  From climate change denier Scott Pruitt heading the EPA to school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as head of the Department of Education to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price who has publicly decried the Affordable Care Act but was not able to present a replacement that his own party could pass to foreclosure king Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary, the Trump cabinet is loaded with people whose perspective of the direction America must take is virtually the exact opposite of my own.

And, to top it off, Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.  Zero diplomatic experience, serious business ties with Russia, whom in case you forgot, is the money behind Bashar Al-Assad, Syria's president and competition (in Spicer's world) for worst man in history.  At this point, no one really knows if there was any quid pro quo between some of Trump's campaign officers and the Russian government, but it is certainly not in question that there is some lots of circumstantial evidence as well as a serious of suspicious coincidences.

But worse, if we accept the fact that foreign forces attempt to influence elections in America, just as we have influenced as well as created regime change in multiple countries around the world, it is the White House budget proposal that cause the most concern.  Massive cuts in programs that help real Americans will be tossed aside like an old shoe, should anything resembling the proposed budget get passed.  The list is gargantuan, too large to even begin to detail here.  It it clear that in the name of making America Great Again, President Trump's vision is more weapons, a bigger stick to wave at our enemies, and less federal support for those not born with his silver spoon.  Fortunately, we know the budget won't pass in its current form, but we also know that many important programs will be axed, many safety nets will be cut, and many more decisions that place short term economic growth over the long term health of American citizens and our environment will be proposed and passed.

So often in life, we are unable to understand when pivotal moments occur.  Later, with the advantage of hindsight we may shake our heads in understanding, but usually the moments pass without our recognition of their importance.

Electing Donald Trump as President, along with granting him a GOP majority in Congress may well be one of those moments marked by history as a watershed.  But, and this is the critical understanding, it does not have to be interpreted as a negative moment.

Our sun, a star, will eventually experience an explosive death, a supernova.  Generally, just before this event, the star obtains the brightness of 100 suns, for a short time.  Perhaps this election, and the years which are to come, will be marked by history as the last great burst of activity which is characterized by greed, selfishness, and short sighted decisions.  Perhaps future historians will note with pride that this election galvanized the movement which shattered the belief that electing the rich will uplift the citizenry, that destroying the environment to justify job creation is myopic, that dehumanizing our enemies to justify their killing is still murder, that material wealth is only as good as the ways it is used to end poverty, hunger, and need, and that cooperation is the foundation upon which humanity's spiritual evolution was built.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Seeking Hope

Just finished reading the April issue of National Geographic.  Amazing edition, cover to cover!!

Four articles in particular blew me away.

Two articles referenced climate change, one from the perspective of a rational explanation of the science behind the assertions that climate change is real, and the activities of the human race is behind the shift, and the second from the viewpoint of real life people who live in Alaska and are experiencing the change in climate first hand.

The initial article details the evidence.  Three consecutive years of a new record for the highest average global temperature since records have been kept.  Last year's average was 1.69 degrees warmer than the 20th century average.  No natural cause explains the change.  Human emitted greenhouse gases form a steadily thickening blanket that traps hear at the Earth’s surface.  More than 9 out of 10 climate scientists agree that carbon emissions cause global warming.  Its real, and it is dangerous.

From dwindling acrtic ice to more intense weather to the reduction of wildlife species with even more (one is six) in danger of extinction in the next 80 years, the negative consequences of climate change will not go away despite the efforts of the fossil fuel industry to cast doubt, and the current administration’s head in the sand attitude.

With reference to the Alaskans already experiencing the effects, it only takes a trip to the lower half of this huge state to spend time with those who see the change first hand to know it is real.  In “Racing the Thaw”, the reduction of the permafrost is creating a frantic rush to save the artifacts now being revealed, artifacts that had been frozen in the ground for hundreds, even thousands of years.   As only Nat Geo can, we read about the Yupik people and their struggle to adapt to changes which are slowly, inexorably, preventing them from continuing the tradition of their ancestors.

But, as is the thinking at Nat Geo, there are many ways to address the issue.  The advances in wind and solar power technologies have resulted in clean energy becoming cheaper than fossil fuel sources.  It is now just the will to begin the switch to cleaner energy that stand in the way of an eventual changeover from oil, natural gas and coal.  Of course, it is a process, a process than can take years, even decades, but the longer we delay making that concerted effort to change, the more damage we do to our environment.  Damage that may not be reversible if we wait too long.

The third article is called Beyond Human.  It describes man’s efforts to take evolution into our own hands, through enhancement of our bodies.  It is a fascinating depiction of how various subsets of our species have evolved in specific ways to adapt to an environmental challenge.  A trait that allows for high altitude breathing, and one that enables living in deserts by modulating the excess energy produced when body temperature rises, demonstrate that our species is always adapting.  Now, medical advances have provided over 20,000 people with implants that have enabled them to not only hear or see as if they had the working organs that we take for granted, but at times, provide a hearing or seeing function that is an improvement over the standard abilities.  Cyborgs among us!

Reading this article after the lead article about climate change, expands one’s viewpoint to think that, in addition to the everyday changes that we can make to counter the effects of climate change, perhaps there will be evolutionary tweaks that the coming generations of humans will also use to survive, and even thrive, on a planet that we have altered.

Finally, there was “Life After ISIS”, which detailed the horrific crimes against humanity and the environment that have been perpetrated in Iran and Syria.  The sadness of lives lost and families blown apart, in addition to the won ton disregard for culture, and for the environment, is depicted in all too stark reality.  Last week’s revelation of civilian deaths via chemical weapons in Syria demonstrates that it is not just extreme fundamentalism but governmental thirst for power that can lead to man’s cruelty against man.  But again, within the destruction and inhumanity, examples of hope are still to be found.  Men and women striving to create some sense of normalcy for their children within such carnage.  

If you get a chance, and have the resources, pick up the April edition of National Geographic.  While it may disturb you, it may also help you focus your understanding of what is truly important.  Not who wins the next sports championship, or the next reality show contest, or any of the dozens of distractions that are being used to keep us from thinking about and discussing the real issues which will shape the future for the Earth as well as mankind.                 

Thursday, April 6, 2017


I finished the Winter Edition of the Lapham's Quarterly, called Home, last week.  As I was reading it, I bookmarked a few entries with the intention of commenting upon them after I was finished the entire edition.  So, here goes.

Floor Plans, from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo begins with the question, do you greet your house?  It reflects her belief that in the process of her job as a "decluttering consultant" she feels it important to establish a connection with the house itself, along the lines of acknowledging that by showing respect for the house, the process of making the house more of a home for its inhabitants will be revealed naturally.  Kondo also comments positively on the act of tidying up, as a way of not only making one's shelter cleaner and more organized, but as a sort of worship towards the house, and consequently the inhabitants.  Her words struck me as I have more than once told people that sweeping the floor is good for the soul.  To me, it provides a break from the thinking part of one's day, yet still produces a positive effect.

Collectibles, from Travels in Hyperreality by Umberto Eco, discusses the need for people in general, but Americans in specific, to fill every space in their home with an object, especially an object that of itself represents something, usually glorious or revered, from the past.  Eco demonstrates his disdain for this practice in very clear terms, especially when the collections contain mostly fake or faux objects of antiquity.  He understands why someone might want to visit a house with objects d'art from various points in history but considers the homes themselves as unlivable, garish and pathetic.

Betty Friedan Reads the Labels from The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan is a remarkable reflection by Friedan concerning women as housewives.  Friedan, who cofounded the National Organization for Women, kept house and raised her children while taking freelance writing jobs on the side.  As the result of a questionnaire from her alma mater, Smith College, Friedan found that many of her college educated classmates were similarly dissatisfied by the lack of opportunity for women with brains, as well as the societal assumptions that women were still defined by the upkeep and appearance of their homes and children.

What is especially interesting about this essay is Friedan''s research into the marketing methods of the business world which had determined that women purchased a majority of their products.  Her investigation into how these companies perceived women, how they manipulated advertisements to present women with products and services that would provide the satisfaction that their lives lacked was fascinating.  Ultimately, women were separated into three groups; the True Housewife, the Career Woman, and the Balanced Homemaker, each targeted with a different marketing plan to produce more sales.  I have never read the Feminine Mystique, but if this is the type of information contained, perhaps I should.

At Grandmother's House, from Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson would interest anyone who spent any time visiting or living with their grandmother.  It touches on the the differing cultural attitudes towards housework, (in Mendelson's case, one Italian, one English/Scottish/Irish), as well as the "feel" that a home should or shouldn't have, depending on one's tradition and experience.  She also makes a wonderful point about how some consider housework a never ending chore while others find a gratification in daily housework in that routine tasks can be determined and completed.  A closed circle as opposed to the tasks of the business world that can last for weeks and months.

The Old Neighborhood, from Pseudo-Lot, or Concerning Patriotism, by Karel Capek is an interesting take on the bible story of Sodom.  Capek's version features Lot as unhappy that God is going to destroy his home, to the point where he attempts to convince the angel tasked with warning Lot that there is good in Sodom and that perhaps God might reconsider his decision.  Capek's Lot indicates that his love of the Lord is connected with his love of Sodom and its people.  In light of the extreme partisanship of our politics today, where it seems that party is more important than country, I found it interesting that Capek seems to value patriotism over religion.  The fact that Capek died soon after the Munich Agreement granted part of the original Czechoslovak Republic to Nazi Germany, and that Capek was number three on the Gestapo's arrest list demonstrates that he put his money where his mouth was, so to speak.

Lastly, Whistling in the Dark, an essay by Renata Adler discusses the flow of refugees and immigrants into Germany from the viewpoint of a woman whose parents fled Nazi Germany in 1933, who was born in Italy, then moved with her family as a child to New York in 1939.  The essay touches on many aspects of the decision by Angela Merkel to accommodate tens of thousands of people from the Middle East.  It recalls Adler's trip to Germany to visit one small town that had been assigned a consignment of migrants, detailing the wide reaction of the townspeople, the preconceptions and disappointments of the migrants, and, Adler's own opinions as to whether such a plan could work.  It is a compelling essay in that Adler does not sugarcoat the problems, does not demonstrate prejudice against the migrants, does not convey the all or nothing reporting that seems so common in the media today.  Unfortunately, there is not a happy ending, in that those consigned to the small town she visits are determined not to qualify as refugees, and must leave Germany. Additionally, there is an air of doom about Adler's final paragraph which reflects the opinion of some of those asked to take in people from a completely different culture, a doom aptly reflected in the title of her essay.

For much of our early history, men did not establish homes. as much as shelters.  It has only been the last 10,000 years or so that we began the slow cycle away from hunter-gatherers to a rural, agrarian society to, just in the last few hundred years, more urban in our settings.  During such a journey, home has meant a myriad of things to humans.  Today, with the prevalence of instant communication, the sense of home is both less important and more critical to our self perception.  We change homes multiple times in our lives, sometimes even changing citizenship.  We are so much more global, yet at the same time, a nationalism has taken hold of the world.

If home is still, "where the heart is", let's hope that are perception of home continues to expand so that one day we will all consider Earth our common home, and treat it, as well as each other, with the love and respect that coincides with the sharing of the place where our heart resides.                      

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Bottom up Economics

Before starting this post, I spent some time researching information found when I Googled "bottom up economics"; specifically I looked for articles that advocated for it using logic and examples showing successful applications, and articles that disagreed with the concept, preferring a supply side, or trickle down economic approach as is generally associated with President Reagan.

As is the case in almost any topic one might want to discuss, there are cogent assertions for both theories, as well as specific examples cited proving each is more correct than the other.  Additionally, there was some comments about a mixed approach, the theory being that neither can work all the time, neither will fail all the time, and, that both can work some of the time.  In other words, there are circumstances where each one can be applied, successfully, to produce positive results.  Which also means that when you see an expert citing the advantage of one over the other by using past examples, that expert MUST detail how the conditions of the time mirror the conditions of today.  Merely citing an example when something once worked, certainly does not guarantee it will work now.

The real trick then, is deciding when to apply one over the other.  I say trick because, with macroeconomics, it is very difficult to easily assess the current conditions while still involved in those conditions.  It is generally only afterwards that a true assessment can be made as to how a change in economic theory and application worked, and even then, it is still only guesswork.

For instance, did the economic bail out of the banking system in 2008 work?  I could argue that based on the fact that since 2008, unemployment has dropped significantly, the stock market is at an all time high, and the dollar is as strong as ever, it was a successful strategy.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to know what would have happened if the Bush/Obama Administrations had not provided monetary relief.  Same with the auto industry.  Would it have recovered on its own, or would it still be recovering, which means those thousands of jobs, both direct and indirect, may not be there today.

If we decide that, all in all, our economy today is better off than it was in 2008, then, despite some assertions that it MAY be better had nothing been done, it seems reasonable to conclude that top down economics in this situation worked.  Large employers were saved from bankruptcy, which meant that thousands of jobs were saved, which meant that more money was spent for goods and services, which ultimately produced an environment where more jobs could be created to respond to that increase in demand.

One might argue, that the depression of the 1930's may have occurred, or one could say been made worse, by the approach at the time to allow the market to operate without government intervention. Now, I know that is only a theory because, again, one does not know if an approach similar to what was done in 2008 would have worked in 1929.  Again, only theory, but certainly some logic to it.

But government provided handouts is not really what top down or bottom up economics is about, even though I found it cited in most of the arguments against bottom up economics.  In those discussions, handouts to the poor in the form of welfare and anti-poverty programs was often cited as the essence of bottom up economics, along with the proof that since the United States has spent billions of dollars in this manner and there are still poor people, then bottom up economics is a failure.

A better explanation of bottom up economics was provided by an author who compared, in generalities, Wal-Mart and Google.  Wal-Mart is notorious for its poor record in the area of providing health benefits and a livable wage, while Google goes out of their way to pamper their employees.
Of course, it is not strictly fair to compare the necessary work skills required by employees of these two companies.  One could easily say that Wal-Mart treats their employees similarly than all other retail employees while Google must offer more incentives to get the best people as do all tech companies.

Still, whether we isolate Wal-Mart and Google or just generalize by referring to retail, fast food, and other service industries when compared to industries that require more educated, and/or more specifically trained employees, the facts remain that a larger percentage of the employees of those Wal-Mart like companies require government assistance for health care, shelter and food, than for those companies more like Google.  Which means the American taxpayer foots the bill so that industries that do not provide basic wage and benefits can maintain their profit margin, and their low prices.  Which also means that those employed in those industries along with other lower wage earners, have little choice but to patronize those establishments, thus creating a perfect circle of low pay, cheap goods, trapped consumers.

While employers who provide better wages and benefits, create citizens who have their own money to spend on goods and services, not government provided money.

For me, bottom up economics has little to do with government handouts, and everything to do with employers who understand that employees work the hardest when paid a livable wage with decent benefits, just like supply side economics is not usually associated with government bailouts but is more about creating an environment where innovators and job creators are encouraged, not stifled.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co, was in the news recently after lamenting that there was something wrong with the United States.  He cited a number of issues, all legitimate, but listed tax overhaul, regulation reduction and infrastructure spending as solutions.  But what he didn't say, to me, was the problem.

Income inequality, especially when we examine the wages of those in the top 5% as compared to those in the bottom 50%, must be addressed.  The median AGI (Adjusted Gross Income) as detailed from the 2015 tax returns of all American households was approximately $35,000.  The bottom 50% of all 2015 returns paid less than 5% of the taxes collected.  As long as we continue to tolerate
non-livable wages, especially as paid by the largest of our employers, our economy will continue to be dependent on artificial stimuli, government provided or otherwise.

Perhaps if Dimon lead by example and took a pay cut, let's say from his current $35 million salary to only $25 million, and then encouraged other CEO's to do the same, and then perhaps if those making only $25 million could get by with $20 million, and those making $20 million might struggle through with only $15 million, and so on, perhaps there would be room to give raises to the everyday people who perform the everyday functions of those companies.  And this goes for entertainers, sports stars, etc, because that same IRA data shows that the top 5% earned one out of every 3 dollars, the top 10% almost one out of every two.  Put another way, the bottom 50% of households earned only one in nine dollars.

Shifting compensation will provide more money for those who earn the least, with little effect on the standards of living of those at the top.  Shifting compensation to those who earn the least will remove some from welfare and other government subsidy programs.  Shifting money to those who earn the least will provide that little extra that may result in a new purchase.

That is what I think of as bottom up economics, and it doesn't require a price in increase on products or services, just a more equitable distribution of salaries.

Bottom up economics, as I see it, has very little to do with government spending and virtually everything to do with private business compensation and benefits packages.  It has everything to do with the belief that the rich, the really super rich, do very little for improving the economy via purchases, as they buy products only meant to convey status or improve an already luxurious lifestyle, when they aren't guarding their wealth, while the everyday workers spend their money in their local economies which improve their communities, and create the need for more employees.  No big corporation or company hires new workers unless in response to the need to increase production, yet it is only when more money is in the hands of the everyday people that more goods and services need to be provided.

Somewhere down the line, I have faith that the American voter will realize that electing rich people will not result in a more equitable income distribution.  Somewhere down the line, business men and women with vision will realize that unless the bottom 50% of wage earners have money to spend, their businesses will see limited growth.  Somewhere down the line, government and business cooperation, not in the form of rigged tax laws and special interest influences, will emerge to create an economic environment that encourages innovation over monopoly, equitable income over greed, and the proper balance that rejects short term solutions that sacrifice our natural environment.

I only hope that somewhere down the line occurs before we have traveled too far in the opposite direction.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Sanctuary Cities

Immigration has been a hot button topic for quite a while, but especially so in light of the anti-illegal immigration rhetoric which contributed to the election of Donald Trump.   Within the vitriolic debates concerning immigration, illegal and otherwise, there is an interesting side bar concerning sanctuary cities.  Sadly, as is so pervasive with media coverage of any topic that is controversial and/or partisan, actual facts are often missing so I thought I might do some research on the topic in an attempt to present some information that may not be widely discerned.

First, what is a sanctuary city?  The most accurate definition that I encountered is that a sanctuary city is one which permits residence by illegal immigrants to help them avoid deportation.  Those that argue against the existence of a sanctuary city will often expand that definition to include the more damaging statement that these cities refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement by allowing felons to roam free and commit violent crimes.

When I hear that more expanded definition, I generally ask why the municipal police and city government officials of a sanctuary city want violent criminals to go free in their cities? Unfortunately, rather than asking that question, many people accept the premise that those (usually liberal/democrats) who govern those cities must hate the citizens of their city, or, even worse, tolerate the crimes of the illegal immigrants in order to gain some kind of political recognition, or perhaps praise from the humanitarian community which is at best, naive, at worst, blind to the evil and violent nature of the illegal immigrant.

If we assume otherwise, that advocates for adopting policies that do not cooperate with federal immigration laws actually do care about those people who live in their jurisdiction, and have reasons not naive or nefarious. then what are those reasons?

First, let's understand the nature of an illegal immigrant.  They are people who have fled their native country, sometime because of a government that is corrupt and insensitive to the needs of its people, sometimes because economic hardship drives them to seek opportunity elsewhere, sometimes to escape violence or civil war.  Some are aware that they might be able to apply for refugee status if they can prove that they qualify, but most either don't understand the nature of government laws that differentiate between refugees and immigrants, or have decided to take the chance of entering the United States illegally rather than continuing to live in a dangerous or poverty stricken environment.

Are there illegal immigrants who prefer to steal to survive in their new country?  Of course, just as there are US born individuals who eschew hard work for the easy way out.  So, again, why would a municipality treat those that commit crimes differently, if they are undocumented rather than US citizens?

Cities with significant illegal immigrant populations defend their actions to provide residence and services to illegal immigrants in an attempt to try to lessen the fear of deportation, so that the undocumented will be more willing to report crimes, get health services or social welfare benefits and enroll their children in school.  The logic is that, since they are here and are interested in becoming productive citizens, we should encourage them to be "Americanized", so to speak, by incorporating them into the fabric of the community.  In this way, they are less likely to resort to crime, more likely to stay out of trouble so that their desire to seek better opportunity and provide such to their children is more likely to be realized.

Of course, addressing the illegal immigration issue is more than just advocating for sanctuary cities or for mass deportation of all those here without documentation.  And, that is the rub, not enough discussion and too few solutions that are neither too far right or too far left.

Perhaps before discussing sanctuary cities or mass deportations, we might move away from the dehumanization of those here illegally and try to understand them as people.  The following information might be helpful.


I am not sure that sanctuary cities are the answer, although I clearly do not think that we should "round them up and send them back".  I thought that the DREAM act would have been a good start. It included a host of requirements before granting conditional residency, and targeted young people who were brought to this country illegally by their parents.  But, using Senate rules requiring 60 votes, not just a majority, it was defeated in 2010 by a 55-41 vote (curiously, 4 senators did not vote which I find obscene).  Only 3 of 42 Republican Senators voted in favor (36 against, 3 non-voting), while 50 Democratic Senators voted in favor, 5 against, 1 non-vote.  Both Independent Senators voted in favor.

Some might say that the increase of sanctuary cities is in part due to inaction at the federal level to address illegal immigration.  With (at least) 11 million undocumented people in our country, states and cities have to establish some policies.  In fact, a number of states enacted their own version of the DREAM Act when the no action came from Washington.

At this point, with an estimated 30% of the illegal population having lived in America for over 15 years, with approximately one in three illegal adult immigrants caring for a US born child, with well over 90% of the illegal children in our country attending our schools, it seems foolish, and frankly inhumane to think we can solve this problem through mass deportations.  

But make no mistake, illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes, or are recidivist of even petty crimes, should be deported, as was done under both Presidents Bush and Obama.  And, securing the border to limit future crossings should be well funded as it has been since illegal immigration from Mexico and other countries to the south has been.  Since 2003 the budget for the Border Patrol has increased from just under $6 billion to over $12 billion.  Additionally, employers who avoid paying livable wages by hiring illegals, especially those employers in California, Texas, and Florida which account for almost half of all undocumented workers, should be held accountable for the incentive they provide for future illegal crossings.

In the end, sanctuary cities and illegal immigrants is a people problem.  And, like all people problems, only solutions that treat them as people will be successful.  Anything short of that reflects poorly on our country, and our standing in the world as the "shining city on a hill".

Thursday, March 9, 2017

News, facts, and opinions

There has been a lot of talk recently about the integrity of the news media.  While this is nothing new, it seems that the focus has been intensified with the rise in popularity and election of Donald Trump. Regardless of your opinion concerning the delivery of real news or fake news by the media, it is important to remember the importance of an independent media in our democracy.

Notwithstanding the Watergate investigation that led to President Nixon's resignation, an independent media is a critical watchdog for the citizens of any country who wish transparency in the policies and activities of their elected officials.  Without such independence, the free flow of information to the citizenry is blocked, transmuted, and recreated so as to inform the public only that news which is complimentary to the government.  Propaganda is one of the main tools of a government that wishes to control its people, which explains why seizing control of media outlets is one of the first maneuvers undertaken by dictators and autocrats.

When talking about the news media with friends and acquaintances, I often hear wistful reminiscence of the golden age of broadcast news.  They just gave us the facts, it is said, without opinion, allowing us to make our own judgments.  Just the facts.  Yet, with the recent creation of the phrase "alternate facts", is it possible that it is only our naivete that leads us to believe that Murrow, Cronkite, Facenda, etc, did not present the news to us in a slightly biased fashion?

Certainly, the Big 3 of news broadcasting, ABC, CBS, and NBC were run by wealthy people who were most likely more conservative in their perspectives.  And, of course, we have all read stories of how serious the censors took their jobs in making sure that the American public was not exposed to anything that even hinted of non-conformity.  But it is also true that the majority of the journalists who investigated the stories, the editors who decided content and tone, and the icons who delivered the news to us at 6:00 were much more liberal in their thinking.   One might believe that facts are facts, indisputable, provable, but WHICH facts are pursued, printed and passed along on the nightly news can certainly paint a purposeful picture, and influence the audience towards a specific viewpoint.

Take a simple fact, unemployment.  As of this moment, a case could be made that there are more unemployed people than ever before in our history.  The numbers can be verified from many different sources, and the information can be passed along multiple times on various news and opinion shows in order to make the audience believe that the job market is horrible and that our elected officials, through burdensome regulations, are holding back the economy and the job creators.

In the meantime, on a different channel, facts can be displayed and repeated that demonstrate that more people in America are working than ever before, and that more people have multiple jobs than ever in American history.  Surely, that must mean that our economy is strong, and jobs prevalent.

How can this be, you ask?  Well, first of all, there are more people in America than ever before so just through the use of aggregate numbers it is true to say that there is more of practically anything than ever before if the statistic is related to people.  Also, the average age of an American has been slowly increasing as the baby boomer generation ages plus we are living longer than before, both which equate to people spending many more years of their lives retired (not working) than in the past.

So, news outlets that report both sets of facts are correct.  And both are misleading their audiences by not explaining those facts.  They report information to an audience already predisposed to a conclusion, unemployment is or is not high, with no other salient facts to explain how meaningless the original fact is without complementary information.

(It is easy to see this bias is action if one is to look at how those who chose to report that the unemployment rate was not a true measurement since it didn't account for those that were not looking for work.  Now, with a different administration in charge, are they still reporting in that manner?)

Which brings us to opinions.  Despite what I said above, that the news of yesteryear was still influenced by perspective, I do believe that the line between news shows and opinion shows has been blurred significantly in the past decade.   While fair and balanced might sound nice, it is very difficult to find either.  Part of the problem is that while past news organizations may have been owned by conservative, rich people, they did not openly dictate the tone or direction of the news.  There seemed to have been a respect for the news itself, as if no one was above the accepted vision of news as fact driven, and the belief in a separation of news and entertainment.  Now, billionaires and huge corporations own most of the news outlets, and it is clear that the news is being used to frame discourse, drive agendas and, of course, make a profit.  When news content and presentation is being driven by ideology and profit margin, the most salacious and headline grabbing stories will dominate, while facts, if used, will be noted sparingly, in isolation of the information needed to understand the significance of those facts.

So, where are we to turn for news, and unbiased facts?  One solution is to watch news from both radical sides.  It will be tough, at first, as you might find yourself tempted to throw your shoes at the TV when you hear ridiculous statements, but by hearing both sides of a story, over and over again, it may become clear that the truth is somewhere in between.  You could also do your own research, but again, when you Google a topic, there will be returns that represent all angles and all viewpoints.  At that point you must look for fact based returns which can be corroborated by other fact based outlets.
This will help you differentiate between a fact that is viral but has just one undocumented source, and a fact that lists a real source.

There is also the smell test.  If it sounds fishy, and so far-fetched that only those drinking the kool-aid of that particular viewpoint would believe it, then it probably is dubious in its fact or interpretation.

Finally, there is what I like to think of as the half empty, half filled theory.  For whatever reason, we seem to be enmeshed in a time where people are far less positive, especially when compared to the giddy days of the 50's and 60's when the future was a place where nothing seemed impossible. Perhaps it is part and parcel to our aging population; the elderly see far less promise in a future in which death is imminent.  Perhaps it is because the promises we were made when anything seemed possible did not all come true, or at least not enough of them did.  In any case, we seem more willing to assume the bad than the good, that our kids are lazy and uninspired, our politicians are all on the take, our business leaders are all greedy, and our culture light on values, heavy on material possessions.  We now look at everything through opaque glasses, roses be damned.

We seek news, opinions and facts which confirm our half empty philosophy, not realizing there are just as many that might point us in a half filled direction.

So, take heart.  There are medical breakthroughs on the horizon that will revolutionize disease detection and cure.  There is technology to come which will continue to enhance our ability to communicate with our fellow humans so as to better understand them, and find common ground.
There is a social evolution at work which, despite any backward pendulum swing we might be in, will move us forward to labeling others as Earthlings, all part of one big blue planet.  And there is a spiritual renaissance just around the corner, one driven not by religious ideology and its present institutions that prefer an us versus them mentality, but one inspired by the thought that within every person is the capacity for good and bad, and our goal, the point of the life that has been granted to us by the Creator, is to raise up the good and diminish the bad.

Of course, that is only my opinion.      

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Rudy, and the Selflessness of the Majority

I recently watched the movie Rudy.  While I had seen it before, it had been a while.  For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, Rudy is based on the true story of Rudy Ruettiger who defied the odds and became a walk-on football player at the University of Notre Dame in the mid 1970's.

Rudy spends all of his career on the practice team, meaning he plays defense while the first team offense runs their plays over and over in order to perfect them for live action.  Rudy is undersized, so he is beat up regularly by the much bigger, faster, scholarship players who are the starters.  While Rudy knows he may never actually play a down during a regular game, he is relentless everyday in practice because he understands his role on the team.  His only goal is to dress for a game so that he can run out of the tunnel onto the football field with the other players.

As the day of the last home game for Rudy approaches, he is still not chosen to dress for the game, but unbeknownst to him, many of the starters approach the coach and offer to sit out the game so that Rudy can dress.  In the end, the coach acquiesces, and Rudy gets to watch his first game on the sidelines, with the players and coaches.

It is this gesture of self sacrifice by some of the starters that reminds us that it is only through the selflessness of those who have, that the have nots might be granted their due.

I don't believe it a reach to suggest that if not for the white population of America, the accomplishments of the civil rights movement may not have happened.  This is not to say that the efforts of the great black civil rights activists, along with the unheralded thousands of everyday people, were not necessary.  Indeed, a suppressed minority must always take the first step towards earning equal treatment.  But it is my contention that without the realization of enough of the white majority that separate but equal was onerous, the movement may not have succeeded.

Similarly, a significant percentage of heterosexual people support the idea that an American should be able to marry the person they love, regardless of gender.  One might argue that it was legal arguments that helped progress both civil rights and gay marriage, but without the support of the majority, I contend that those legal decisions were meaningless.

As an example in the other negative, I would offer the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Clearly, few would argue that the middle class workers of America have realized very little of the benefits of capitalism in the past 30 years.  Wages are stagnant, three income households prevalent.  Even worse, one of the paths to income equality, education, has grown so expensive that the middle class finds itself caught between attending schools with lower name recognition, not attending college at all, or massive debt.  Yet, not only did this movement fizzle out, not only has the top 5% continued to garner the lion share of the improvements in the economy since 2008, but Americans elected a self proclaimed billionaire to the highest political office in the land, who in turn has appointed other billionaires to govern.  The haves not only have not bought into the need to provide more to the have nots, they have convinced many of the have nots that subsets of the have nots are to blame for our problems.

Through rhetoric inspired by all the negatives of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia, the haves have successfully turned the ire of enough of the have nots against the poor, the immigrants, the refugees, and all other people who have been doing with less while waiting for the crumbs of trickle down economics to fall upon them.  In doing so, they have awakened our most selfish of inclinations, turning the phrase do unto others as you would have them do unto you on its head; do unto others before they do it to you.

So, how do we energize the selflessness of the majority to allow for those who deserve it to attain their goals when the rules dictate otherwise?

First, we must begin to see them as individual people.  As is the case whenever we choose to consciously kill other humans, the first thing we do is dehumanize them.  Japs, Krauts, Gooks, Commies, terrorists.  Once we have reduced them to a derogatory term or class, it is much easier, psychologically, to justify actions that authorize slaughter.  Even when actual killing is not involved, it is much easier to participate in prejudice when we can find a derogatory label such as nigger, faggot, or raghead.  Once identified, it is easy to blame all the ills of society on those who resemble that group.  The fact that many of them might be children doesn't matter.

Second, we must recognize that there are bad people in every group, but that does not make the group as a whole bad.  Would we characterize all priests as pedophiles because a small percentage of them have been accused as such?  Would we condemn all firefighters because some have been guilty of arson?  Or spit at all police officers due to the inappropriate actions of the few?

There are Muslims who are jihadists, and they must be dealt with, but the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists.  There are illegal immigrants who are criminals and they must be deported, but the vast majority of illegal immigrants are regular people seeking a better way of life.  It is only by differentiating those who wish harm, regardless of their physical traits or culture or religion, that the majority can work to guarantee freedom and opportunity for all people, haves and have nots.

Finally, and perhaps this is less selflessness that self preservation, the vagaries of economics, demographics, and culture, may one day turn against someone who presently finds comfort in being part of the majority.  Eventually, all of us are in the minority.  Perhaps when we find that we must move to a different country or different area of our present country for family or for work.  Or perhaps when one of our children chooses a partner of a different race or sexual preference.  Or perhaps when our perspective of governing becomes our of favor.  Or perhaps when we find ourselves at an advanced age, a bit more dependent on those younger than us who are creating the economic rules of the land.

Will we then wish we were treated the same or better than how we treated those in the minority when the majority looked and thought like us?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hidden Figures, not so hidden prejudice

I saw the movie Hidden Figures last weekend.  Truly inspiring.  It reminds me that HIStory is the version of what happened in the past through a male perspective.  Perhaps one day, the complete stories might be told - or at least a HERstory version.

Anyway, the movie reminds us that it wasn't that long ago that there were colored only toilets, water fountains, areas on the bus, and even schools.  Not long ago that being black in America automatically relegated you to limited opportunity and a limited shot at achieving the American Dream, regardless of your abilities or work ethic or ambition.

But the movie also reminds us that despite such obstacles, the women depicted in the movie persevered.  They fought the silent battle that occurred in black households all across our nation, sometimes by sacrificing their goals for those of their children, sometimes by being the first to accomplish something and then suffering the consequences of being the first, sometimes by ignoring the ignorant whose only yard stick was skin color, and resisting the temptation to fight fire with fire by condemning all white people for the actions of some.

Now that the two terms of the first black president has ended, we are experiencing a backlash to the progress that was just beginning in the 1960's and which culminated in Obama's election. A backlash against a man of decency, insight, and vision who, by being the first, is subject to all the nastiness that assailed all those who broke the color barrier.  We hear coded phrases bandied about in the media, and by some of our elected officials about making America great again, phrases that underlie a desire to return to a time when minorities knew their place, and laws were created and enforced to maintain that status quo.  Of course, we have progressed as a society in that today, a much smaller percentage of white people believe in white supremacy as a natural rule of law, but have not progressed so far that a similar call to prejudice cannot be whipped up against those with a different religion, or culture, or sexual preference.

Does it matter that those of us with one or more grandparents who were born outside of the United States are descendants of a wave of immigration during the early 21st century which faced open prejudice from the "native" American families of the time, who themselves could only trace their heritage as Americans five or six generations at most considering that before 1776 America was not even a country?  Does it matter that President Trump himself is the child of an immigrant mother (Mary Anne MacLeod was born in Scotland), and immigrant paternal grandparents (both born in the Kingdom of Bavaria, now Germany)?  Good thing for President Trump that his grandparents came to America in 1902 and not 1942.  I would imagine they would have been treated in a much different manner considering Germany was not considered a friendly nation at that point in time.  Similarly, does it matter that two of Donald Trump's three wives are immigrants which means that 4 of his 5 children are first generation Americans?

Did it not dawn on those who lapped up Trump's association with the "birther" conspiracy, that questioning Obama's birth nation only gained traction because he was black.  I would imagine that some who thought it was a legitimate question to ask do not think they are racist, but when Obama's GOP opponent in 2008 was, in fact, not born in the United States, it sure seemed like racism in action.

That is, in fact, the problem with racism and prejudice.  When it is overt, like lynching a black man accused of a crime without a trial, it is easy to spot and condemn.  But when it is covert or subliminal, when it festers just below the surface, and needs just a bit of a nudge to spring forth, that is when it can be used effectively by those who wish to inflame our passions in the battle of us versus them. The danger is that "them" can be defined any which way.  Germans and Japs.  Commies.  Gooks.  Fags. Ragheads.  First we dehumanize, then we break out the pitchforks.

There is trouble brewing in America when a bill called the First Amendment Defense Act, as innocuous sounding as one could imagine, is introduced in the United States House of Representative (HR 2802), and that similarly worded bills have been proposed in almost 1 out of 3 states houses.

Make no mistake, these are attempts as obscene as the Jim Crow laws of the deep South, which legitimized racial discrimination except in this case it would "prevent the federal government from taking action against a person on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that (1) marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or (2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage".

In effect these bills would legalize discrimination against the LGBTQ community, making it possible to deny jobs, housing, business services, health benefits, pretty much anything one might seek in a free society, to people who believe that, in America, they should have the right to marry the person they love.

Be wary, fellow citizens!



Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The GOP agenda begins

And so the GOP agenda, confirmed at the polls last November, has begun.  While it is no surprise to me, I wonder if those who voted for our current President while also providing him with a GOP controlled Congress, were expecting some of the recent bills which were passed.  Of course, many of Trump's supporters won't be cognizant of the details of their voting, but will instead only know of those issues splashed across their favorite Fox news show or internet conspiracy website.  They will support the ban on refugees in general and Muslims in particular, even though that policy will inevitably do more harm than good.  They will support the firing of all those who might offer a balance of opinion, even though that results in a myopic view of the world and a reduced pool of solutions towards resolving our problems.  They will support the recent Supreme Court nominee, even though his far right agenda may tilt the court towards rulings that restrict individual rights rather than protecting us from the tyranny of the majority.  They will support a "wall" and a tariff on imported goods, even though the wall will result in more deficit spending and tariffs will produce higher prices for everyday Americans.

Voting along party lines, HJ Res 38 nullifies a federal rule aimed at protecting streams and drinking water in Appalachian states from pollution caused by mountain top removal coal mining.  I wonder if those who voted assuming Trump would bring back coal mining jobs also knew they were voting to allow coal companies to blast mountaintops and then dump fractured rocks and other debris into their streams and valleys.

Voting along party lines, HJ Res 41 nullifies an SEC rule under which publicly traded companies must disclose payments to foreign governments for access to oil, natural gas, coal and other mineral resources.  I wonder if those who voted assuming Trump would work for average Americans also knew they were voting to allow fossil fuel companies like Exxon, which coincidentally used to be run by our new Secretary of State, to secretly bribe foreign governments while possibly creating conflicts of interest for American businessmen who influence foreign policy.

Voting along party lines, HJ Res 40 nullifies an Obama administration rule designed to keep the mentally ill from passing federal background checks on gun purchases.  I wonder if those who voted for Trump in support of gun rights also knew they were voting to allow all Americans, regardless of mental stability to have access to a gun.  Makes all those gun rights advocates who frequently sight poor mental health services in America as the problem rather than guns, seem like hypocrites when they prefer arming those people while often also voting to cut community service funding which goes to mental health clinics.

Voting along party lines, HJ Res 37 nullifies federal regulation aimed a keeping federal contractors in compliance with workplace laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, Americans with Disability Act, Civil Rights Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, Occupational Health and Safety Act, and Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  I wonder if those who voted for Trump to help create good paying jobs for Americans and knew they were voting for the removal of worker protections against employers who would discriminate in their hiring as well as place them in harm while performing their job, and subsequently, face fewer legal challenges when an employee was treated unfairly or hurt.  I guess they expected different from an ex-real estate developer?

Finally, voting along party lines, HJ Res 36 nullifies a regulation aimed at reducing losses of natural gas through venting, flaring and equipment leaks being mined on federal land.  I wonder if those who voted for Trump to reduce foreign dependence on oil by helping domestic oil and natural gas companies, also knew they were voting to allow those companies to spew waste into the air and water on land in our national parks and land designated as tribal.  Of course, abusing Native Americans is nothing new for our government, especially when profit comes into play so perhaps this is not a surprise, but to allow the possible ruination of land which is supposed to provide respite and recreation to all of us seems a bit short sighted, if not greedy.

Just so you know, the Senate voted in favor of these new laws as well.  In addition, the Senate voted to confirm Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, 56-43.  One could argue that travelling the world making business deals to buy oil for Exxon gives Tillerson ample international experience in making a profitable deal, but one might wonder how these experiences will help when he has to deal diplomatically with a nation which does not share our values or perspectives.  

Lastly, I wonder if those who support President Trump's philosophy of draining the swamp, understand any better that Trump, how important it is to have consistency in government in regards to those who do the actual, everyday work.  Of course, it is a new President's right to change the players at the top to reflect his beliefs.  But the backbone of how the federal government works are the career people at State, Defense, GAO and the other agencies who do the work.  Inflaming the belief that all government workers are lazy, overpaid, or any of the other disparaging remarks that Trumps' supporters throw at them, belies the facts that we need competent, patriotic people in these posts to make the system work.  Improving the functions and efficiency or government is one thing. Assuming it is not necessary, or actually detrimental is another, because in the end, someone will still be introducing and passing laws, and if we fail to pay attention to those laws or fail to understand the importance of the process, then we truly will get the government we deserve, as opposed to the one we elected.