Thursday, July 16, 2015

Iranian Nuclear Deal

I caught a bit of President Obama's news conference regarding the recently signed nuclear deal with Iran.  I found it very interesting on a number of fronts.

First, I happened to catch a question asked by a general, don't recall his name.  His question, to paraphrase, was, Why are you content to let Iran hold 4 American hostages?  I am often amazed at the lack of respect this president has received, from questioning his birth straight through to claiming he hates America.  But here is a general, a man, I assume who may not demand his troops to like him but does demand their respect, publicly disrespecting his commander in chief.  Amazing.  To Obama's credit, he chastised the general telling him he should know better than to assume that the President of the United States is content with American hostages, then rephrased the general's question as, why did we not link the release of those hostages with this deal, a much more reasonable question, which the president then answered.

Anyway, before posting I googled pros and cons of the Iranian nuclear deal.  I found the following article, from a source that I generally find at odds with my own perspective.  See below.

Perhaps the question we should debate first is, why negotiate a deal with Iran at all?  One easy answer is that we negotiated with the "evil" Soviet Empire through both the SALT and START treaties.  In the name of mutual assured destruction we engaged in a decades long cold war that happily never ended in destruction.  Was it the treaties, some ratified, some not?  Was it the process of negotiation whereby the two sides came to know each other a bit better?  My point is that diplomacy is a far better way to get one up on your enemy than open warfare. 

The deal itself is full of compromises, no friend to the GOP presidential field, many of whom have already vowed to defeat or undo the deal before even knowing all the details.  The main points of the deal, as are understood currently, is that we have traded the relaxation of economic sanctions for the legal right to inspect Iran's nuclear facilities.  I thought it interesting that Obama emphasized the legal part of this deal, as it has always seemed his goal to get a signed treaty that can be used to justify future sanctions or other actions with legal backing, should Iran violate the treaty. 

The down side is that the inspections do not appear to be spontaneous, in that the inspectors can not show up without notification.  Also, by eventually relaxing economic sanctions, there may be more Iranian money to fund actions against United States interests, especially Israel.  From what I can gather, these are two of the more important details that opponents are unhappy about.

Curiously, I wondered what the viewpoint of the Iranian citizen was of this accord.  Of course, we have long ago labeled Iran as an enemy, but the fact is that before the revolution in the late 1970's, Iran was very westernized.  It had a vibrant middle class, with an emphasis on education and advanced degrees.  While this middle class has been hit hard by the policies of the various Ayatollahs, there are still millions of Iranians who would prefer a normalization of relations with the western world, especially in the areas of commerce.  My understanding is that they are for any treaty that presents Iran as a willing partner with the world in solving problems.

Unfortunately, Iran also has a large percentage of people who are hardliners.  Who hate America and consider her their enemy.  Like those in America who believe that only with force can we "control" Iran, there are those in Iran who believe that only with force can they fight to retain their sovereignty.
Considering that those extremists in Iran see some American politicians and pundits who blithely talk about "nuking" them, it is no wonder that we are not to be trusted.  And, of course, the GOP reps and senators who some time ago sent Iran's leader a letter telling them that Obama shouldn't be trusted, doesn't help. 


Obama said this treaty isn't necessarily about trust, admitting that it is more of a hope that Iran will comply with its tenants while leaving America and its allies with a legal document against which to hold Iran accountable should they renege. 

But really, how far can we trust a country that we call our enemy, and they us?  From that respect then, perhaps the only basis for negotiation is to make sure that both sides get some of what they want.  Mutually assured satisfaction (MAS) if you will.  It seems to me that only when both sides have something to gain can a baseline agreement be reached.  After all, we wouldn't have signed a treaty that allowed for no inspections, why would we expect Iran to sign one that did not relieve sanctions? 

Now, I know that many people are against this treaty precisely because Obama is for it, but some truly do not like it on its face value.  That is fair, but why is it that they fail to admonish the old saying, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar?  Perhaps in the long run this is a good treaty, or at least a good start.



Monday, July 13, 2015

Pa State Budget

After Tom Corbett was elected governor, I wrote a post about his first budget.  That was 2011.  At the time, I was saddened by the deep cuts the first Corbett budget offered as a way to balance the state's income and revenue, but not surprised, as he ran on a campaign of no new taxes.  What surprised me was the general sense of outrage over that budget, and the next 3 budgets, that helped lead to the first incumbent governor to lose a reelection bid in PA history. 

I say surprised because he told us he wouldn't raise taxes, we foolishly believed that was the solution to our problems, then gnashed our teeth over the cuts that were passed.  Of course, since we seem to be stuck in a no win battle of raise taxes or cut benefits kind of thinking, no new solutions were offered either.  So, for 4 years we passed a balanced budget only to find ourselves towards the bottom of lists such as state revenue growth, job creations, and education funding. 

Now comes the 2015-16 budget battle between newly elected Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and the increased GOP majority in the House and Senate.  In some ways, I admire Pa voters for choosing a new leader while presenting him with a similar arrangement of house reps and senators.  Not sure if we meant to do that, not sure if we are actually thinking that when we vote, but by electing a DEM Gov and a GOP controlled legislature, we are saying to our public servants, Hey, we aren't sure what we want, but we expect you to work together to find common ground between our own schizophrenic needs and wants, and make the best choices possible for all of us.

So far, unfortunately, neither side has acted as adults.  Wolf's budget is unanimously voted down due to a clever politically motivated approach by the GOP, then the GOP budget is vetoed by Wolf.  One might say, score 1-1; or one might say score 0-2 where 0 represents the citizens of PA, and 2 represents the bullshit of PA politics.

Admittedly, Pennsylvania is a difficult nut.  A huge portion of our state population lives in or near a city, while a majority of state reps and senators come from counties that are rural.  The phrase Pennsyltucky has been used to describe this dichotomy.  It takes quite a balancing act to understand the opinions, perspectives and needs of such a diverse population.  One might even say it takes a lot of compromising so that each position gets a bit of what they want.  And, while compromise is an extremely dirty word in our national political debate, it is only a bit less dirty in our state debates.

As a tax payer, a parent with one child still in college and one a recent graduate with large college debt, and as a public employee with a job in the oft maligned PLCB, I believe I have a rather unique perspective.  Here are my thoughts.

Education funding should be our top priority.  When we continue to allow wave after wave of urban children leave school early, or graduate with inferior skill sets, we create future expenses that cost much more per individual whether it be through incarceration, public assistance, or reduced tax revenue.  Funding needs to be from stable sources and needs to be equitable in its dispersion.  There is a new formula recently proposed that, with a few tweaks, should be enacted so that so school systems with the least ability to generate revenue, get a bigger share of state aid.

Just as important, since less money is finding its way to the classroom, pension reform goes hand in hand with education funding.  The fact that it is through poor, past legislative decisions and the refusal by the state to always pay their legal obligations to the pension fund that has created this mess seems lost in the solutions.  That being said, there will need to be a reduction in the multiplier which is used to calculate pensions.  We can't continue to promise money that is not there.  Of course, those about to retire must not be affected, but for those decades away, a new formula needs to be enacted.  Perhaps even an option to take the money already invested, and opt out of future contributions and a future pension.  Personal choice.  And, however the details shake out, the state needs to recognize its debt to the pension fund and find a (hopefully) temporary revenue source to erase that debt.

There is also a huge need for transportation funding.  Literally billions of dollars are needed to fix our infrastructure.  Inevitably, higher taxes will be required.   A small increase in the base income tax rate, in addition to a sliding tax rate not unlike what many states have in place will help.  Also, while I have said many times before that the window to tax the Marcellus shale boom has closed somewhat, an extraction tax needs to be enacted.  For now it will not provide as much revenue as needed, but the cycle of high oil prices will certainly return again, and perhaps this tax will become a more productive source of revenue in the future.  I am not a big fan of applying the sales tax to more products and services as it tends to fall disproportionately on the lower income brackets, but there are luxury products and services that could be removed from the exempt list.  Perhaps even an increase in the liquor tax which began as the Johnstown Flood tax.  Clearly, the tax money no longer goes to anything related to Johnstown, but is a stable revenue source for the state.  Lets rename it what it is, an alcohol tax, increase it by 2%, and earmark the money for education or transportation or both.

Speaking of the PLCB, Pennsylvania is one of only two states that controls the sale of wine and spirits.  It is a system that was historically poorly run with little concern for customer service.  When I first was legally able to drink, the state stores were of the "conventional" model.  That meant you stood on one side of the counter, told the clerk what you wanted, and he picked your product for you then tallied up the total and collected the money.  Now, 30+ years later, wine and spirits shops are self service.  There is a website which provides information on store hours, product availability, an online store, monthly wine club subscriptions, and even advice on mixing drinks and hosting parties.

Even better, the PLCB generates millions of dollars in profits in addition to the taxes that are automatically collected.

Still, product availability is restricted to the 600 or so state run stores.  Legislation that will allow for direct wine purchases by Pennsylvanians from out of state wineries and vineyards while also offering separate liquor licenses to existing beer distributors and restaurants to allow their patrons to purchase wine and spirits will increase revenue while improving convenience.  Additional legislation that frees the PLCB to expand hours when and where necessary, vary profit margin by product, and other such common business practices will also improve customer satisfaction while increasing revenue.

If we want to allow beer and wine sales in grocery stores (I would not include spirits at first), then we need to make sure that this decision will create jobs, not just convenience. New items in convenience stores do not require new employees, but getting new product to those new outlets might.  That is why maintaining the PLCB's wholesale system is key.  This will force importers to find new ways to get their product to market, resulting in the need for sales, warehousing, and transportation positions.  As a PLCB manager, I am less concerned about losing our monopoly as I am about losing much needed state revenue.  A compromise approach (oops, there is that word again), that maintains the state presence in alcohol sales, while creating more outlets for the consumers seems the best of both worlds.  And, again, an increased revenue stream that can be earmarked for specific needs helps eliminate the yearly wrangling over what benefits to cut or what taxes to raise.

Also, what about more cooperation between the business sector and government?  It is so often presented as an adversarial relationship but the truth is that with cooperation both sides win.  Don't all business owners want our schools to produce smarter kids, don't they want safe roads to more their goods, don't they want a strong middle class to purchase their products and services?  And, don't politicians want successful businesses which means a bigger tax base along with less need for public assistance?  You would think that such intelligent, innovative people who can build businesses and win elections would also realize that we succeed, or fail together. 

Obviously, there are no easy answers.  But solutions come more readily, if priorities are set and referenced with each possible answer.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, sometimes sacrifice is required.  We can't eat our cake and have it too.  Sometimes we must decide to forego satisfying a need now, for a more complete satisfaction in the future.  I truly believe that most Pennsylvanians accept that philosophy, but don't often trust their public servants to use additional money (the sacrifice today) for a better tomorrow.  Frankly, the performance regarding the 2015-16 budget does nothing to alleviate that concern.  Let's hope that compromise becomes the buzz word in Harrisburg over the next few months, and that common sense, and common goals are the methods used to craft the 2015-16 state budget.   


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Gandhi and Pluto

The July edition of National Geographic has, among others, two articles I found very interesting.  One concerns the legacy of Gandhi's teachings in India today, the other the long awaited fly by of Pluto by the New Horizon spaceship.

I am not sure if the connection that occurred in my mind between the two articles would have happened had I not read them consecutively, but a connection nevertheless sprang to me as I walked the dog.

Is it possible that other forms of life in the universe will only be discovered when mankind begins treating the forms of life on earth with respect and equality?

The Gandhi article recounted what many consider his penultimate action, the 1930 Salt March.  For those of you unfamiliar with this event, at the time, there was a tax on salt production, proceeds of that tax going to the coffers of Britain, as India was still part of its empire.  Gandhi's decision, in retrospect, to stage this march to the sea where he would illegally (not pay the tax) produce salt, is genius, but was not universally supported by those advocating for Indian independence.  As is so often the case with leaders who talk the talk but do not walk the walk, Gandhi understood that the way to reach the common people was to relate the need for freedom to their lives.  As Gandhi said, other than water and air, salt was the commodity most required by Indians considering the extremely hot weather of the country.  Noble concepts were one thing, salt was a part of everyday life.

What is so amazing about Gandhi was that his focus on salt, so basic yet so powerful, was just a part of his message.  During his walk, he stopped at some of the poorest villages in the area, and went out of his way to challenge the caste system by inviting the "untouchables", not only to be part of the walk, but as a symbol to those Indians who supported the caste system so they might understand that the meaning of freedom was not just freedom from British rule, but freedom from poverty and social injustice for all Indians.  To further that ideal, he encouraged spinning of cloth, not just, again, as a protest against Britain, but to encourage everyone to wear khadi, to look the same, as an analogy to his hope that by looking the same, everyone, high born or low, might be treated with similar fairness.

The thought that started the connection to Pluto, was Gandhi's belief that religions are not for separating men from one another, but to bind them.  He revered Jesus, could quote verses from the Bible and Koran, and was a devout Hindu, but he also knew that true independence needed to be founded on a democracy based on laws not religions.  Considering the misguided attempts by fundamentalists in many corners of the planet to fashion their governments from specific tracts of their religious tomes, Muslim and Christian, it is not surprising that Gandhi's dream is still illusive, both in India and in much of the world.

Perhaps, if we were to judge our religious leaders on their similarity to Gandhi, his lack of material possessions, his time spent among those with the least, his efforts to promote equal treatment of all people, we might find those leaders to be without moral high ground, and it might explain why too many of those leaders advocate messages of blame, isolation and hatred as opposed to unity, community and love.  It is far easier to get rich when your message promotes friction than it is when you advocate for tolerance and peace.

And, perhaps, despite our best efforts to find life in the universe, despite the myriad of vessels we have cruising through the solar system and beyond, despite the radio and TV signals that even now communicate how we live and how we die, we have not found life outside planet Earth because we haven't learned how to treat life on planet Earth.  Whether it be the animals that we slaughter for their skin or their bones, the sea creatures we poison via our dumping of trash in the oceans, the birds we kill by belching toxins into the air, or the people we dehumanize due to their skin color, gender, age, or any other trait that is deemed different, our lack of love for life on this tiny blue ball spinning anonymously in the cosmos, might be the reason for this lack of success.

There are those who worry what life from afar might do to us, but perhaps they have not come forth because they worry what we would do to them.  Based on what we do to each other, it would not be surprising.


Marriage Equality

For those of you who like numbers, my last post was the 250th of this blog.  Congrats to me??

After the historic Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, I sent letters to two local newspapers.  Neither was published so I thought I would include the longer version in this post.

To the Editor:

This past Sunday, I was fortunate enough to read a pro and con opinion article in regards to the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.  I generally attempt to read both sides of an issue, when possible, as I believe it is important to read (or listen to) those with a different perspective on an issue.  This is especially true when considering the proliferation of extreme positions that seems to pass for rational discussion in today's media. 

In this particular instance, the person representing the negative perception regarding the gay marriage decision, Mr John Yoo, makes a salient point about the give and take between our three branches of government.  He emphasizes the desirability that big changes be made law through the voting booth, either directly by state referendum or in Congress through direct representation.  He rightfully states that decisions made in our courts should have a legal basis, not be founded on popular opinion or religious background.  Yoo's disagreement seems based on the fact that not all states have legalized gay marriage and that the current GOP controlled House of Representatives, an elected body, does not support this change.  He calls it a short circuiting of the political process.  Oddly, he does not reference the religious background of the four dissenting Supreme Court justices, nor the religion based opposition to gay marriage in his article. 

Did our founders not wish a separation between church and state?  It seems to me that laws preventing gay marriage are not based on legal reasons, but on social mores and religious teachings.  In this case, I would argue that a decision concerning an issue such as this is precisely the type of debate that should occur at the highest levels of the judicial system, so that the law, period, is considered, not reasons based on emotion and prejudice.

Noah Feldman, the person agreeing with the decision, states it very clear.  There is a guarantee for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness imbedded in our system of laws, and denying an American the option to marry the person he/she loves, runs contrary to that great principle.  When Feldman compares this decision with the high court's decision to rule against laws that prevented interracial marriage, it becomes a slam dunk. 

Hopefully, just as the sentiment against marriage between the races has evolved, so to the discriminatory bias against marriage between genders will fade, and those who purport to be defenders of God's view of marriage, will eventually embrace the spirit of their religion that emphasizes love above all else.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


In the Philanthropy edition of the Lapham's Quarterly I am reading, there was a recreation of an essay from someone who criticized organized charities of her day for catering to "defectives, delinquents, and dependents".  She also advocated birth control, eugenics and restrictive immigration as methods to properly secure the future of "a greater American race".

In light of recent comments by The Donald concerning his opinion of Mexicans, and the negative undertone in the perception of foreigners among those of the far right that invades much of the debate about immigration, Muslims, and pretty much anyone not white, it may surprise you to know that the above quote emanated from Margaret Sanger.  For those unfamiliar with Sanger, in 1921 she founded an organization that later became Planned Parenthood.   

Eugenics is defined as a set of beliefs and practices which aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.  At its face value, it makes sense.   We use such practices to create better strains of grains which produce bigger harvests.  Or bigger beef cattle, faster race horses, purer bred show dogs.  All in the name of the enhancement of traits that best result in more useful, more bountiful progeny.

The idea of eugenics is said to date back to ancient Greece.  I imagine it is as old as man himself, as I am sure that the cave man of old sought out mates that appealed in some way to them, while the women, when they had choice, preferred men whose traits were most attractive to them.

Unfortunately, eugenics attained a bad reputation in the 20th century.  Rather than a method to improve genetic quality through the matching of those with desirable traits, practices were developed that purported to improve overall quality via negative processes, such as forced sterilizations of those with low IQ's.  Finally, these negative strategies found their apex in the eugenics of Nazi Germany which featured the attempted genocide of undesirable "types" of people. 

I say unfortunately, because as scientists became able to identify the nature of our DNA, and to manipulate this source code to possibly eliminate the causes of genetic disease, there was resistance to such attempts to "play God".  While the Nazis misuse of eugenics was horrific, the legacy of such attempts to improve the genetic quality of men, resulted in a misplace distrust of science and retarded the advancements of genetics to combat the diseases that continue to rip apart individuals and their families.

Which brings me back to Margaret Sanger.  Her statements, taken out of context, sound more like those in America who take the easy train by blaming our problems on those that are different, than like those who continue her work within organizations such as Planned Parenthood.  The reason is that Sanger was reacting to a time in America where the institutions of power used pregnancy as a weapon to harness women.  Sanger wanted to empower women to be the "absolute mistress of her own body", and as such advocated education as opposed to the dispersal of diapers.  She wanted a strong America driven by women who bore America's future as a result of informed choices and ability to properly raise those children, not merely because their religion or husbands demanded it of them.  One woman at a time, she sought the improvement of the human condition.

Eugenics continues to have a negative connotation today.   Still, its idea, to improve the genetic quality of man, is at work with every choice made to marry, and have children.  We want the world to be better, and that assumes improvement through our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren. 

Hopefully, our methods to create such a world will reside in advancements of science to identify and eliminate DNA abnormalities, in continued improvements to access to information that allow us to make better reproductive choices, and by respecting every person, those similar and dissimilar, and not through messages of dehumanization and hate.