Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Why are we so afraid

As I have mentioned multiple times in the past, I receive a weekly email which summarizes the votes taken in Washington while also detailing how those who represent me cast their vote.  Last week, the House passed a bill 231-198 (not passed in Senate yet) called Concealed Carry Reciprocity Between States which would permit any person authorized to carry a concealed weapon in their home state to carry that weapon in any state that permits the carrying of concealed weapons.  The bill also expands the right to carry concealed weapons in the national park system and any other land administered by the federal government. 

I am not a fan of expanded access to guns, or of any new law that enables more people to carry a loaded gun on their person.  I am not believer that more guns make us safer, but do believe in the evidence that shows that countries with stricter gun laws have less instances of gun violence.  I also believe the statistics that suggest that one is as likely to be killed with a gun by someone they know (violent acts of passion) as someone they don't know, and am horrified by the number of gun accidents that claim the lives of our children.  Additionally, I am not happy that those who have a conceal carry permit from a state with a very low bar as to who qualifies for that permit, are now legally carrying a concealed weapon in states where the process is more restrictive.

Today, while walking the dog, I saw a bumper sticker on a neighbor's car that read (paraphrase)
Kill them all and let God sort it out.  There appeared to be a coiled snake pictured in the background, similar to one often seen with the Don't Tread on Me sayings.

I know that we are bombarded with doom and gloom everyday.  The media loves to regale us with stories of impending disaster, knowing that, for whatever reason, bad and negative news sells.  Consequently, we are afraid.  Afraid of ISIS, Russian election interference, government overreach, climate change, the nanny state, income inequality, slow economic growth, the future of social security and Medicare, loss of liberties and freedoms.  Not to mention a nuclear capable Iran and North Korea.  Fear is fanned on a daily basis to gain our dollars and sway our votes, all the while distracting us from evaluating the real risks we face.

So, why are we so afraid? 

Certainly, age is a factor.  We are an aging country, filled with too many people facing the very real duo of old age and death.  Hence we hearken back to the perceived "good old days" when in fact those days featured legalized discrimination, both racial and sexual.  We remember the past through the filter of the eyes of children who were unaware of the atrocities of the world, protected by the adults in the room, except now the adults prefer to discount all those horrors, especially those who have pale skin and male genitals.

Also, our place in the world is less secure, or at least we are less respected.  We believe it is because everyone else is less than grateful for our part in winning the Great War, and maintaining the balance of power through military might, black ops, and a whole lot of money.  But the line which separates the enforcer from the bully is blurry, and we fail to recognize when we have crossed it, expecting the world to do what we say just because we say it, whether right or moral.

And there has been much change in the last 50 years and change is often uncomfortable.  We are being asked to live the spirit of our Christianity by actually loving one another despite the variety of our color, gender, or sexual orientation.  We are being asked to judge people on the quality of their character as Martin Luther King dreamed.  We are being challenged to reject the tribal fears that result in so much US vs THEM thinking and reacting. 

And boy, is it hard. 

So, better to tread the easy path and seek the easy answers.  America first, when the world is still in need of leadership, money first when personal happiness and family stability are attacked at every turn by corporate thinking, selfishness first because if everyone took care of themselves, we would all be OK, even though it is so painfully obvious that part of being human, perhaps even the reason for life itself, is to help others where others is defined as all humanity.

I feel confident when I say that some who see that bumper sticker I saw today will cry Yea in agreement believing that the God of their religion will recognize the good from the bad based on their particular definition of who is bad and who is good.  But what if we replace one word on that sticker, replace God with Allah.  Are we now confident that Allah will know which sort is good and bad?  That we ourselves will pass that test?  Would such a sticker enrage us with the assumption that Allah only knows that non-Muslims are the wrong sort even though we may admit that our version of God would label Muslims the wrong sort?

Fear is not an easy emotion to conquer.  We all struggle with it, some less successfully than others, hence the current opioid crisis that afflicts our country. 

There is a fluff movie about sports that I like called The Replacements.  There is a scene in the movie where Gene Hackman, the coach of the football team, asks his players what they fear.  After some silly insect answers, the quarterback played by Keanu Reeves, gives a meaningful answer about quick sand and how once you feel trapped, no matter what you do it is not enough, because you are in over your head.  Which inspires multiple real answers from the other replacement players about the life they are trying to escape, dead end jobs, prison. 

Hackman convinces his players that shared fears are easier to overcome, and, of course, the team wins the big game, not with the star quarterback who crossed the picket line, but with the replacement quarterback who had far less talent but who had faced the fears that drove him out of the game in the first place.  A man with "heart" as Hackman describes it.

Perhaps it is time for us to admit our fears, as individuals and as a country.  Certainly we are afraid, but just as certain, we will not conquer that fear by partisanship, isolation, and confrontation.



 

   

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

#makechristmafamilyfriendlyagain

Haven't had the desire to post lately.  Seems pointless some days, considering the limited exposure my thoughts receive, the ever increasing drive of President Trump and the GOP to repeat the mistakes of the past by diverting so much money and resources to the rich, corporate and individual, the hypocrisy of the far right that is so eager to end abortion that they will sacrifice the future to elect child molesters, misogynists, and public servants all too willing to destroy our environment, and the simple fact that for those of us who work retail, the holidays are exhausting.

Fortunately, writing, being one of those activities that, in the end, is as much a selfish pleasure as it is a vehicle to communicate, educate, inform or entertain, inspired me to communicate my newest idea.

Make Christmas Family Friendly Again

#makechristmasfamilyfriendlyagain

Unfortunately, to accomplish this, we would need to have a serious discussion about our national priorities. 

There are many iconic scenes embedded in our traditional holiday TV shows.  From the brief conversation in Miracle on 34th Street between Santa (Edmund Gwenn) and Alfred, the young man (Alvin Greenman) who also likes to "play" Santa in which they bemoan the influence of money and sales during the Christmas season, to George Bailey's (James Stewart) realization that doing the right thing and being kind above all is the true definition of what makes A Wonderful Life in contrast to the scheming, money grubbing ways of Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) to the miraculous transformation in A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge (Alastair Sim) comes to realize that the business of men is mankind, we are yearly reminded of the reason for the season, regardless of religious background or belief. 

Yet, at the same time, and in the name of economic prosperity, higher corporate dividends, and simple greed, decisions are being made to remove the family from the holidays, or perhaps more insidiously, redefine family to reflect a more consumer, materialistic version. 

I predicted in my last post that I don't think it far fetched to imagine the post Christmas sale bonanza to start on Christmas night sometime in the near future.  All it will take is one large retailer to realize that there are enough people who prefer to save money than be with their loved ones, enough people who like shopping better than conversing with family and friends, enough people that are all too eager to trade in their crappy gifts for something they prefer, enough people who are lonely enough to volunteer to work rather than experience the enhanced sadness of another holiday alone, enough data to show that if you open the stores, people will come, and we will have post Christmas sales beginning at 6:00 on Christmas night.

So, realizing that people are the last thing that matters when the choices are employees and profit, I propose an alteration of the federal holiday which includes Christmas day to included the following:

All stores closed by 5:00 Christmas eve
All stores closed Christmas Day
All stores closed the day after Christmas
If possible, no work beginning 5:00 Christmas eve until the morning of December 27th

While last minute shopping will never disappear, let's get everyone on their way home by dark.  Once home, let's focus on visiting family, eating large quantities of food, falling asleep in front of the TV, arguing politics, religion and sports with those we love, acknowledging the blessings we have whether it be in church or at home or as a volunteer at some local shelter, and any other family tradition specific or general, as opposed to worrying about work on 12/25 or 12/26.

A Christmas holiday that enables us to wind down from the frantic nature of what is so much more a holiday spending spree than a celebration of the birth of Jesus.  And who knows, perhaps by pulling back from the accelerated pace of our modern life for that one extra day, we might spend a little more of the holiday season with friends and family we don't always have the time to see the rest of the year, and perhaps, oh who knows, perhaps we might even realize that all the time we spend chasing material comforts, all the justifications we have for why we must sacrifice time with those we love so we can make that last sale or earn just one more buck, is time wasted. 

Make Christmas Family Friendly Again is about looking at our collective selves in the mirror and deciding that money, possessions, wealth and all the trappings of a profit oriented society belie the reasons why we cry at the end of It's A Wonderful Life when the entire town delivers money, a few dollars at a time, to save their friend, and laugh through tears when Scrooge reaches out to his loyal employee, Bob Cratchit, and humbly visits his nephew on Christmas Day, and feel warm inside when Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) jumps from the car and runs up the sidewalk into a strange house with the certainly that Santa found that house for her, and her mother (Maureen O'Hara) and the nice man next door (John Payne).   

We know what we should be doing, we know that money is not the end game of our lives, and the measurement of our judgement, yet we turn our backs on the truth. 

Make Christmas Family Friendly Again is not just about admitting to ourselves that the pursuit of riches is shallow, it is about the realization, both individually and collectively, that when we take the most holy day of the Christian calendar, Christmas Day, and make everything associated with it revolve around buying, selling and profit, we are engaging in the exact opposite behavior that was the message of Jesus.  And making a mockery of our belief that we are a Christian nation. 

     

 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Thanksgiving Traditions

Happy Thanksgiving to those whom I did not see in person this past week.  We were able to entertain family on both sides of the marriage, some on turkey day itself, and some on Friday.  All in all, wonderful food, company and conversation.

In addition to the traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner with all the trimmings, we engaged in some other events that have become synonymous with this day of thanks. 

Last minute food and drink shopping Wednesday evening

Mimosas in the morning before company arrived

Macy's parade on TV

NFL Football on and off throughout the day

Eating until full, and then eating some more

Falling asleep on the couch

Turkey soup

Desserts, desserts, desserts

Thanksgiving, or at least the way we celebrate Thanksgiving, is uniquely American.   But we are not the only country that has established a day of thanks.  For a quick primer on how some other countries recognize and acknowledge Thanksgiving, click on link below.

https://modernfarmer.com/2017/11/countries-celebrate-thanksgiving/

One new tradition in which I did not participate, was Thanksgiving night shopping.  Obviously, the concept of shopping for Christmas gifts on the day after Thanksgiving is well established in America.  Black Friday is the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season, the season in which retailers hope to generate enough sales and profits to move their ledgers "into the black" as opposed to being in red which equates to losing money.  For a more detailed historical perspective on how black Friday earned its name, click on the link below.

https://www.thebalance.com/what-is-the-history-of-black-friday-3305711 

Anyway, as I said, we did not end our Thanksgiving feast early, or chase our relatives out of the house, or turn off the NFL, or cut short dessert, to drive to the local mall for any of the various blockbuster or door buster sales that began Thanksgiving evening.  My recollection is that this new tradition, Black Friday sales beginning Thanksgiving night, is only a few years old. 

Perhaps, being the procrastinator that I am, I have even less interest in shopping on Black Friday than most, let alone Thanksgiving night.  Perhaps, as the middle class continues to find its buying power shrinking, we have little choice but to rush from the comfort of our homes on Thanksgiving to find the best deals possible.  Perhaps, for those who have made the "business" decision to open the stores on Thanksgiving night, the pressure to satisfy the insatiable greed of the stock holders and corporate boards, outweighs their instinct to allow their employees to more fully enjoy the holiday.  Perhaps America is really about money, pure and simple, and all the posturing about family values and traditions is just window dressing for the rich to enjoy the fruits of the labor of the working class.

Or perhaps, we really don't understand the meaning of thanksgiving, or Christmas for that matter.

I would imagine that if twenty years ago 100 Americans were asked if stores should be open on Thanksgiving, most would have responded negatively, perhaps even thinking the idea of shopping on Thanksgiving un-American, or at least not very family friendly.  I wonder if a new poll of 100 Americans asking if stores should be open on Christmas would react just as harshly.  Let's hope that the idea of shopping Christmas night, to get a head start on the after Christmas sales, does not occur to the Wal-Mart family or any such large retail chain.  Sadly, I wish I could say it will never happen, but I would have thought that about shopping Thanksgiving evening as well.

In the meantime, take a moment to count your blessings and, when the holiday rush seems overwhelming, take a moment and remember the reason for the season.



       

Monday, November 13, 2017

Means testing not Mean Policies

There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning the GOP tax reform push.  Ostensibly, this was advertised as the first real tax reform since the 1980's.  The tax code is too complicated, which it is.  There are too many loopholes, which there are.  Taxes are a burden to the American worker and the business community.  Hm, not so sure about that one, but I will circle back later.

History seems to indicate that the buying power of the average worker has been eroded, beginning with high inflation rates during the 1970's, followed by tax cuts to those in the upper income brackets, a surge in the availability of cheap labor throughout the world, the ease of corporations to move their "headquarters" to where ever taxes were less, and the focus away from quality goods at a fair price to selling whatever generated the highest profit. 

Certainly, some of the above will not be fixed by lowering tax rates for the biggest corporations and richest individuals, but instead will increase the burden on everyday people who will be faced with tax burdens passed from federal to state to local (the real trickle down economic theory), or cuts in basic services to the neediest among us, or both. 

I recently mentioned to a sibling that I do not find my tax burden all that high.  Perhaps I am lucky, perhaps I am misinformed, but with mortgage, SALT, education, and charity deductions, along with the standard deduction per head, I find my final tax rate to be more than acceptable, if I consider that my taxes pay for

- environmental safeguards
- a strong military
- a mostly free interstate highway system
- relatively safe food sources
- reasonable health care costs and access to above average health care providers
- education system up to 12th grade
- security of knowing social security and Medicare will assist the navigation of my senior years when income will be static
- much more that I am sure I could list if I spent more time

Now, of course, we can all debate on how to distribute those tax monies.  More here, less here, etc.
But, are we really not getting our monies worth? 

In the past I have proposed a floor for all tax rates meaning that if the rate for your income is 35%, you may take deductions down to 20%, no more.  Perhaps the only bracket that can result in 0% rate would be for those whose income puts them at the poverty level or below, but I would eliminate tax credits that result in people receiving a refund greater than the tax they have paid.  The tax system should be just that, a system designed to collect the monies needed to run the government, not a system for helping the poor.  Those programs should exist on their own, paid for by the taxes collected!

As an enhancement to the floor tax rates, there should also be means testing for most, if not all of the tax breaks.  Certainly one home owners should have a mortgage deduction.  Perhaps even a partial for a second home.  But nothing after that.  This is especially true for the hundreds of business expenses that can be written off.  The neighborhood hardware store should be able to take full advantage of tax credits to help him/her create a successful business.  But mega-corporations don't need all those advantages.  Means testing would put a scaled limit on all those tax write-offs so that all businesses up to a certain size get the same credit in actual dollars.  Once the top of the scale is reached, credit ends. 

It is well known that upper middle class tax payers end up paying a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the very rich.  With some type of floor philosophy along with means testing, no individual making $150K per year should ever experience the dubious distinction of paying a higher tax rate than Warren Buffet or General Electric.

Can we spend a little less at the federal level?  Of course, all large entities have fraud, duplication, inefficiencies, and outright misappropriations.  But we cannot continue to behave as if deficit spending can go on infinitum.  The dam will break, eventually, and it will be the middle class who will bear the burden of its collapse.  For all the talk about kneeling or standing for the anthem, and who is more patriotic, who isn't, perhaps it is time to link the patriotism question to the tax rate one is paying.  To me, wearing a flag on one's lapel while stashing millions of dollars off shore in a tax free haven negates the meaning of the flag pin.  Perhaps, instead of railing at athletes who kneel during the anthem, the president should publish a list of the richest people who pay the least taxes!

Oh, that's right.  President Trump brags about how little taxes he pays!!

A true patriot might realize that every dollar saved to enhance one's wealth, every dollar written off to improve earnings shares, every dollar withheld from the government so that one more big house, or car, or diamond ring can be purchased, is one less dollar paid to our active military soldiers, one less dollar for veteran care, one less dollar for border security, one less dollar for local police, one less dollar for teaching supplies, one less dollar for choose your favorite government provided benefit. 

As for the tax burden preventing American business from thriving, well, yes, small businesses are undoubtedly hurt by the tax system.  This should be the litmus test for any tax reform.  Does it help the small businessman and middle class worker more than anyone else?  If not, then tax reform is just another money shift to the top.  Did we learn nothing from Reaganomics?

Means testing not mean policies.

     


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

False Choices

It is nothing new for politicians and pundits to present choices which encourage the listener to prioritize goals, encourage resources to be directed to issue A over issue B, or when all is lost, pick the lesser of two evils.  After all, like any American, our government must make hard choices concerning where is should expend its resources and how it should collect the money to afford those decisions. 

Traditionally, and I say traditionally as the United States government has run a deficit for the vast majority of its 225+ years of federal budgets, we, as a nation, have spent more money than we received in taxes.  This was especially true for the presidents who were in office during WW1 and WW2 when the percentage of our national debt grew the most in history.  More recently, since fiscal year 1982, the 36 federal budgets under the last 5 presidents (Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, Obama) have created $18.6 trillion of our total $20 trillion debt; about $13.8 trillion of that in only the last 16 budgets! 

https://www.thebalance.com/us-debt-by-president-by-dollar-and-percent-3306296

Of course, this trend is not just confined to our federal budgets.  State and local debt is over $3 trillion, and the total household debt in America just broke a new record at $12.7 trillion.

https://www.usgovernmentspending.com/compare_state_spending_2017bH0g

Clearly, we are a nation of consumers who do not save for our big ticket items, are not prepared with an emergency fund to pay for unexpected failures of big ticket items, are not content with the possessions we have, and/or do not earn enough money to purchase the items we feel we need to improve that lack of contentment.  In other words, through easy credit, a keeping up with the Jones's philosophy, and a serious lack of discipline, we are a nation of debtors.  And I include myself in this assessment!

Just as clearly, the time for hard choices is upon us.  The recent GOP tax reform proposals take a swipe at the problem by reducing our nation's tax rates (reducing revenue) in hopes that increased spending will lead to a demand for more products and services which will spur economic growth, reduce unemployment even further, and create more and higher paying jobs.  Unfortunately, the bulk of the tax breaks are going to those in the top tax brackets.  As we witnessed during the Reagan and Bush 1 administrations, not enough money trickled down to the working class in America, the national debt increased by $3.4 trillion (from 1 trillion to 4.4 trillion) in those 12 years, and the beginning of the stagnation of the buying power of the middle class began.  As a result, it is not too hard to imagine another jump in the national debt, even more incredibly rich people, and a continuation of the disappearance of the middle class. 

Additionally, as the mantra of reduced government regulation continues to fly from the lips of these same legislators, forward thinking plans to address climate change, invest in the green energy industry, and protect our environment are scuttled by the short term vision of interstate pipelines, bringing back coal jobs, drilling in our oceans, and pretending that spewing pollution and contaminants into the air is not the same as taking a shit on your front porch.

But that is the rub.  We are told that we can't have cheap energy unless we pollute our environment. That we can't have low employment without mega corporations paying little or no taxes.  That we can't have gun control without freedom.  That we can't have a standard of living which enables everyday people to work only one job, have a few children, take a few weeks of vacation, and retire with the knowledge that they won't have to choose between food and medicine unless we allow corporations free reign to move jobs and profits offshore while still reaping the benefits of American security. 

In as partisan as is our political discourse, as unequal as is the income of the top compared to the bottom wage earners, as rabid as is the criticism and support of President Trump, we need to dissect and dismember the arguments of those who present us with false choices.  When we can afford to pay our star athletes $40 million a year to play a game, our top CEO's the same and more to run our businesses, when we read of hedge fund managers who net 8 and 9 figure salaries while underfunded pension funds threaten the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of retired Americans, and billionaires who area legally able to deduct the result of their bad decisions from future tax payments, when we are startled to learn of inner city school classrooms that lack the basic teaching materials, and that upwards of one in five children go to bed hungry at some point in a calendar year, then we MUST stop accepting false choices from our leaders and demand that our voice and our vote is for the most pragmatic process to reduce taxes for the middle class without sacrificing our elderly, the most sensible way to control gun violence while maintaining our freedoms, the most efficient means to address the very real threat of climate change while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels; in other words, the best of two (or more) options. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Las Vegas Killer

It has been almost three weeks since the worst mass shooting in United States history, and we don't seem any closer in discovering the motive for this horrendous act.  There appears to be no political basis for the killings, no religious reason, no past belittling incident or employment related activity.
Nothing has been revealed, to date, to explain why the murderer chose Las Vegas on that particular day during that specific concert.  His family is devastated, his girlfriend beside herself with grief, due to the unexplained actions by a man they considered sane, a good brother, a good companion.

As a result of both the magnitude of the horror, and the ease at which the gunman was able to collect so many weapons of mass killing and fire them so quickly, there has been some talk of new gun legislation, at least in terms of the bump stock aspect which enabled the killer to virtually turn his semi-automatic weapons into more rapid fire devices.  But, to be honest, I don't expect much progress even here.  The NRA exerts too much influence, especially on the House of Representatives, and there are too many radio talk show hosts and TV pundits making the case that guns are only tools, and that all tools are capable of abuse. 

And, in one way, those advocates of less gun control, are correct.  Without addressing the culture of violence that permeates America through the glorification of vigilante justice, the right to defend one's property with deadly fire, the oft repeated threat of nuclear engagement against our enemies, and the more recent emergence from what we thought was the backwaters of our most virulent history, the white nationalist (aka Ku Klux Klan) movement, we will never have any meaningful debates concerning the place of guns in our society. 

Guns, and the violence and death that follow their use, will be with us for the foreseeable future.  The most frightening aspect to the hunt for a reason behind the Las Vegas massacre, is that in the past instances of mass murders, a motive was easily discernible.  That motive, terrorism, mental health issues, divorce, job loss, political disaffection, all lent themselves to the rationale which allows us to pretend that guns don't make killing people easier to do.  Those obvious reasons justify our misplaced excuse for the lack of common sense gun laws by claiming that the perpetrator would have done the dirty deed some other way; its not the gun but the user at fault.

Now, assuming a valid reason for the actions that resulted in so much death and injury in such a short time is not discovered, we are faced with the real possibility that each and every sane, law abiding  American is just one moment away from committing a similar act, because we refuse to address the simple fact that accumulating a large and potentially deadly store of rapid fire weapons can be easily accomplished by anyone.  Even more so by those we consider safe, right up until the moment they peer through the site of their legally purchased, legally enhanced automatic weapon and begin to mow down innocent citizens. 

In our desperation to find a reason for such a horrible crime, we ignore the history of how we arrived at this moment.  We pretend that the we can't connect the dots, from our founders who created the 2nd amendment to provide them with a means to address the tyranny of an unresponsive and foreign government to the misinterpretation by the Supreme Court to equate militia with everyday citizens to the profits of the gun industry, to the fame and influence of those in the media who trade success and money for the death of Americans by flaming the passions of those who prefer a reason to shoot first, and ask question later.

Violence control is the topic under which I place all such posts related to guns and our obsession with justifiable violence.  I will continue to use that reference, just as I will continue to be perplexed by those who do not see that violence may be as American as apple pie, but it does not reflect the teachings of all the great prophets, and certainly not the reason behind the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Birth Control

Another disappointing decision by President Trump came last week when he removed the requirement for birth control coverage (under the Affordable Care Act) for employers who claim religious objections as their reason for refusing to pay for such coverage.  Clearly, those in the Christian right who saw fit to sacrifice their principles in support of a thrice married man, guilty of infidelity at least twice, and who openly bragged about being able to touch women in their private parts with impunity, were rewarded.  Additionally, the recent House passage of a bill which would make abortions illegal after 20 weeks, 4 weeks less than the viability aspect of the Roe vs Wade ruling, tosses them another bone.  Perhaps I should be grateful that there is still some compromise left in America, considering the polarization of our times, but then again, there is a fine line between compromise and the more Machiavellian method of ends justifying the means.

Notwithstanding the presumption that President Trump most likely used birth control (or made sure his partner was "safe") during his "womanizing" years, and the fact that the vast majority of Americans use some form of birth control, especially condoms, of which upwards of 450 million were sold last year in the United States (see link below), and that the mantra of responsibility for oneself and one's actions is not far from the lips of those who justify gutting government programs for the poor and needy, why is it that the Christian right, especially Roman Catholics, consider birth control other than the rhythm method, immoral?

https://www.birthcontrol.com/condom-use-statistics/

I will leave you to decide the answer, with top choices being a reflection of a time when religious leaders knew that a bigger flock meant more money and influence, that there has always been a bit of misogyny as a foundation for most of the big religions, that our DNA drives us to protect our babies, unborn or born, or more simply, that men like to play and will develop all kinds of societal rules and norms to justify their fun while punishing the objects of their lust.

Still, it would be funny if not so sad that in the year two thousand and seventeen, the idea that family planning would not be supported by all the institutions that we turn to for guidance, religious or governmental, seems ludicrous.  Especially when we contemplate the simple fact that it took all of human history up until the early 1800's to get to one billion people on earth, 123 years more for us to reach 2 billion, only 33 years to get to 3 billion, and that we have added another billion every 13 years or so since which means that even the low end projections put our planet's population at 14 billion by the end of this century. 

In other words, access to birth control, education about family planning, and an understanding that sex education is not a green light for sex, but rather guidelines for responsible sex (there is that word responsible again).  More important for Americans to understand, is that the fastest growing population rates are generally in countries that we consider third world (South and East Asia, Sub-Sahara).  Places where there is a lack of education and/or a lack of resources.  Is that what we aspire to as well?

Of course, there are not that many employers who actually use the religious objection reasoning, although I would like to see a list of those employers granted that exception to see if they are sincere, or just cheap.  So, one might say that if an employee does not share his/her employer's convictions then they should find another job. 

But what if the employer has an epiphany one day and suddenly converts to an anti-birth state of mind.  Is there a grandfather clause that protects employees that were hired before the owner saw the light?  Or what if the company is sold to a new owner with these objections?  Again, OK for senior employees but no new ones get the benefit?  Or, more likely, what if the CEO of one huge corporation realizes that he can save some money on health benefits, is struck by the lightning bolt of the evils of birth control, and seeks the exemption, thus creating a competitive edge in that particular marketplace.  It wouldn't be the first time that, once one large company changed policies, the rest of the industry followed.  (See fees for bags on airlines).  Oh lordy, what a coincidence that the majority owners of all the large corporations in the retail sector suddenly converted to Catholicism!!

Also, when we consider the misplaced fear of sharia law taking over our country, well, what if my employer supports sharia law?  Are they protected by the same rationalization that allows Catholics to discriminate against non-Catholics when deciding company benefits?  I would like to see the panel of pundits debating that issue on Fox Five.

And, speaking of our objections to sharia law?  Aren't laws that establish that an employer's religious beliefs can be used to justify how employees are treated, a version of sharia law?  If we are going to pretend that we are a Christian nation, then I am on board, as long as we address income inequality, the accumulation of wealth in too few hands, our addiction to guns and violence as methods to solve interpersonal and international conflict, and the rampant materialism that gauges success by one's bank account, regardless of how that wealth was earned.

In the end however, there is a simple answer to those who believe that they should not have to pay for their workers to have access to birth control.  (By the way, I would endorse all parents who work for companies like this to become pregnant, but those same companies probably don't have a very good parental leave policy; perhaps that should be addressed before we allow them the exception.) 

That simple answer is to get employers out of the health insurance business.  Remove the incentive that allows big corporations to get price breaks for health insurance premiums, by placing all American in one large pool, or allow each state to create their own pool, perhaps in unison with a neighboring state, if their population is small.  As it is today, better health benefits, better access to affordable premiums and health networks, go to those who work in industries where an advanced education is required.  Pharmaceuticals, financial, energy jobs, doctors, lawyers, politicians all have better access.  In essence, the health insurance industry is organized to discriminate, through higher premiums and deductibles, and less access to better health professionals, against those poorer, less educated working class Americans.  It seems a bit surprising that no enterprising young lawyer hasn't created some kind of class action suit along those lines.

Sometime, hopefully soon, enough Americans will realize that we succumbed to the rhetoric and showmanship of a reality TV host when we went to the polls last November.  He has no great ideas except those he borrows from a time long gone.  And, he has no concern for anyone but himself, as is displayed daily through his self-aggrandizing tweets, and relentless obsession about how he is treated, talked about and judged.

 

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Power of Symbols

The power and meaningfulness of symbols in any culture, country or ethnicity is often palpable, always prevalent.  For America, the Liberty Bell, the Pentagon, our various national monuments to presidents, the bald Eagle, Pearl Harbor, all represent something important to each and every American. 

And then there is the flag - Old Glory.

As important a symbol of our country and our freedom as any other.  Steeped in history, from its creation at the hands of Betsy Ross, to the inspiration it provided Francis Scott Key, to the struggling, brave men who hoisted it on Iwo Jima, to the proud display of our enduring strength depicted in pictures of the flag on heaps of concrete and steel in the aftermath of 9/11, the Stars and Stripes is perhaps our most iconic of national symbols, and most controversial.

The most recent controversy centers around well paid athletes, predominately African American, who chose to kneel during the playing of the national anthem, rather than standing and facing the flag.  Many people who do not follow professional sports, and American football in particular, may not be aware that the first athlete to "take a knee" did so during last year's season.  But when President Trump chose to enter the fray in the past two weeks, it suddenly became the biggest topic in town, discussed on everything from day time to late night entertainment shows, to talk shows of all types, and even to business shows. 

And, as is true of so much of today's discourse, passion on both sides often exceeded compassion for other viewpoints, and thinking before opining.

A quick question here.  How many verses are there in the Star Spangled Banner?  If you said one, that is because we generally only here the first stanza.  If you said two or three, you may be guessing, or perhaps you heard someone sing more verses at some point in your life.  If you said four, you would be correct, and, I would bet in the minority, small minority, of Americans.

Click here for complete version --  https://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/pdf/ssb_lyrics.pdf

An easier question might be, how many stars and stripes are on the flag?  I would like to think that a majority of Americans might say 50, but all?  And, if 50 is your answer, why 50?  Hopefully, one for each state in the union, is your answer. 

And, assuming one has scored 3 out of 3 so far, do we know when the playing of the national anthem while presenting the flag before sporting events began?  Which sport was the first?  Was is always before the game started or did it perhaps first occur during a game at the time when people stood up for a different reason.  (Yes, there is a hint at the origin there).

So, one last question then, are we any less patriotic if we don't know what each star and stripe represents, or if we don't know all the verses of the Star Spangled Banner?  Or if we stand and face the flag but mouth the wrong words?

Conversely, are we more patriotic because we perform the ritual of standing at sporting events and removing our hats when the anthem is played and the flag displayed even if we don't know the origin of the action? 

The flag and the anthem are symbols of everything we have overcome to this point in our nation's history.  Symbols of our victory over England, twice, our ability to recover when attacked by foreign enemies.  And perhaps most importantly, they represent our unique form of government, and those most extraordinary documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

But even more incredibly, more powerfully, the flag and anthem evoke different memories, different experiences for the citizens of our country.  One thing to a veteran who can still remember the horrific sights and sounds of his fellow combatants as they sacrificed their lives on the battlefield.  Another to the immigrant who is grateful each and every morning as he prepares for work, and his children for school, in a country that judges him and his family, not by his native origins or fluency in English, but by his work ethic and character. 

When we see various politicians and pundits rail for or against those athletes, does it matter if, when asked to defend the flag in Korea or Vietnam or the middle East, they choose to hide behind their family's name or money?  Does the fact that they wear a flag pin on their lapel over ride their avoidance of service, or lessen the harshness of their tone in judging someone else's patriotism?

While being respectful of our national symbols is certainly important, is it also important to understand what those symbols really mean, and that our country is great precisely because freedom is a tough act, requiring us to, if not understand, at least permit other citizens to voice their concern when they see freedom diminished, even if it conflicts with our version of respect and patriotism.

Finally, is it more patriotic to stand and face the flag, or to pass legislation that improves the ability to access and afford health care?  More patriotic to remove one's hat when the anthem is played, or to draft tax reform that elevates the take home pay of the millions of hard working poor and middle class Americans rather than those already in the top 5%?  More patriotic to worry and fret and argue over the interpretations of other people born in the land of the free, or to label and then demonize groups of Americans that look, love and worship in a different way?

If we don't fully understand the profound meaning of our national symbols, then it certainly doesn't matter if stand, kneel or lay prostrate on the ground when we hear a song for which we don't know all the words, or why it is being played at that moment in the first place.




Monday, September 11, 2017

President Trump is Right on DACA, for all the wrong reasons

President Trump's recent decision to end the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program (DACA) was met with swift condemnation from the Democrats, lukewarm support from the GOP establishment, and loud applause from his base and those on the far right.  Same old same old.

For me, Trump's decision is the correct one, but for all the wrong reasons.

First, let me be clear when I say that deporting children whose only crime is to have parents who risked everything to cross illegally into our country is cruel, certainly not Christian, and clearly not the action of a nation which aspires to be viewed as the moral standard of the world.

We know we need immigration reform.  We know that, like those who fled Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, there are millions of people born south of Texas who are fleeing from economic hardship and poverty.  And we know that our borders must be secured to permit entry by the vast majority of people who we should welcome while still identifying and removing those who do not deserve to participate in the opportunities which America can afford.  So why has there been literally zero progress in the past 50 years to reform our immigration laws?

It is politics, pure and simple, inflamed by our natural tendency to distrust people unlike ourselves, the proliferation of garbage news on the internet, the insidious rhetoric spouted daily by politicians and pundits who prefer power and money over truth, and the philosophy of the Grand Old Party in general and Candidate Trump in particular who had convinced enough Americans that people born in Central America can not be trusted.

You see, once you demean someone based solely on their race, country of birth, sexual preference, or any such characteristic, it is hard to go back.  When economic parity is disappearing, it is much easier to point the finger at the immigrant, illegal or otherwise, who has a darker complexion or different facial structure or disparate cultural traditions.  The fact that those people generally earn the lowest wages doesn't matter, as the real culprit in the growing income disparity are those with the most wealth and resources.  Those same people who donate large sums of money to campaign war chests, who create patriotic sounding organizations with one issue agendas, and who manipulate our legal system by encouraging laws which favor their needs or using the courts to tie up legal challenges by victims who don't have the resources to withstand lengthy hearings and appeals.

When President Obama attempted to spur Congress to create new immigration policy, he was thwarted multiple times by the GOP controlled Senate and House.  Finally, Obama signed an executive order creating DACA, and since then about 800,000 individuals have taken advantage of it.
Unfortunately, Obama attempted to expand the scope of DACA and these expansions were successfully challenged in court and the changes were struck down.  In the meantime, challenges to the original DACA rules moved through the courts.  It was in the defense of this program that Trump and Attorney General Sessions found themselves at odds with Obama.  

Trump couldn't very well defend DACA in court because he has spent the last two years convincing some Americans that a Wall was one of the solutions to our problems and that once the scourge of illegal immigration was defeated, all would be right with our country.  The fact that upwards of 10% of those "bad hombres" are children, did not enter into his rhetoric, and could not be walked back. Also, Trump couldn't defend DACA, simply because it was Obama's plan.  

Still, despite the obvious politics behind President Trump's DACA decision, the pandering to his base and the clear discrimination against those born in Central America, President Trump is right in demanding that Congress be responsible for immigration reform.  The House and Senate need to do their job, difficult as it may be, and stop hiding behind political aspirations.  By crafting a policy that allows for citizenship for those brought to America as minors, for those who become productive members of America, for those who were foreign born but have raised their children to appreciate and respect the opportunities that America has presented to them, Congress can reform our outdated immigration policies in a bipartisan way that Trump can sign into law.

Remember, America exists today precisely because of the flood of immigrants, from Europe, Asia, Africa and now Mexico and Central America.  The circle of diversity which brings new ideas and energy, which creates proud first and second generation Americans, which allows for tolerance of the next wave of immigrants, separates us from those countries that reject non native born peoples outright, or isolates them in areas within their cities which provide the least opportunity and upward mobility.  People are not crossing illegally into Russia or North Korea for a reason.

And lastly, also remember that had immigration quotas existed in the late 1800's and early 1900's, and had the xenophobic opinions of the day outweighed those with more tolerance, many of us, those who are first, second and third generation Americans might not have been born here.  

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Reading and Thinking

I've been reading a lot lately.  Finished the James Hockenberry novel "Over Here", read through the August edition of National Geographic and began the September edition, and continued my reading of the summer edition of Lapham's Quarterly called Fear.  It has helped that I have taken advantage of the many vacation days I have built up over the past 2 years, and that the nice weather has encouraged me to read in our sun room rather than plopping down in front of the TV in our living room.

Some of the things I have read about include the disturbing fact that close to a billion people on Earth still defecate out of doors, resulting in sanitation risks that create the needless deaths of tens of thousands of children a year.

That a private sector space race is in progress in an attempt to win the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize by being the first privately funded group to land a craft on the moon, travel 500 meters on its surface, and beam images of its trip back to Earth.

That new research into the workings of the brain is revealing an amazing connection between addictive behavior and brain activity, specifically in the area of dopamine release and interceptor cells.  Research that is inspiring not only new ways to look at destructive behavior, but some innovative approaches to ending the escalating cycle of craving, satisfaction, deeper craving that is creating far too many addicts and far too many opioid related deaths.

That there are indeed, present day messiahs roaming our planet preaching their own unique version of the meaning of life, the way to happiness, and the path to God.

I have also been thinking a lot lately.

That statues and monuments are merely symbols of our history, and that removing them won't matter one bit if we don't address the underlying cause which leads everyday people to hate other people because of a more pronounced degree of sun exposure.

That words matter more than symbols, and that when we do not condemn a mind set that places one race above another, or advocates the kind of hate that drove the everyday people of Germany to excuse, at best, condone and contribute to, at worst, one of the most heinous programs of genocide in our history, we are likely to repeat such terrible actions.

That while we debate about lowering the tax on corporations that demonstrate limited loyalty to America, choosing to move jobs, monies, and home offices to wherever they get the best deal, most inner cities schools are struggling to make payroll and provide basic teaching tools, producing children, who will have learned that rich people are more important than our youth.

That work ethic seems to be on the decline while drug dependency is on the rise.  If we assume that we engage in activities that produce pleasure, thereby training our brains to seek those activities, and given that the last 35 years has produced a minimum increase in the standard of living of most Americans as compared to a hundred fold for the wealthy, then perhaps it is no wonder that too many everyday people are reluctant to buy into the version of the American dream that depicts a relaxed retirement after a lifetime of hard work.

And, if the above continues, that more and more people will look to the lottery as the only way to financial independence, or worse, find contentment in the arms of the plethora of drugs, legal and illegal, that produce far too many addled brains, as well as too many rich pharmaceutical CEO's.

That the internet provides the world at our fingertips, all knowledge, all facts, all of history, but is too often used as a distraction from living, or as a way to spread falsehoods and distortions so as to gain power and money.  And that our phones have evolved from a lump of black plastic and metal that was more useful as a paperweight than a communication device, to a hand held wonder that takes better pictures than most cameras, and enables us to find out virtually anything we need to know, from directions to a list of the tallest trees, but is unfortunately mostly used to send pictures of cute animals, outrageous comments that have been taken out of context, and viral emails that depict the everyday activities of our lives as the greatest, the best, or the worst, as if the preceding thousands of years of mankind's existence had little meaning.

That perhaps if our political and religious leaders worried less about their personal legacies (and wallets) and more about the ability of everyday people to be happy, productive, and inspired that anything is possible with perseverance, then we might be able to create a world where the basic needs of indoor plumbing and accessible, potable water, a safe and solid education, and the guarantee that hard work, regardless of occupation will result in access to affordable health insurance and health care, will come before billion dollar sporting arenas and trillion dollar weapons systems.