Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit, Trump and the Power of Fear

The vote by those living in the United Kingdom to leave or stay in the European Union (EU) occurred this past week.   I have read a number of stories about the "Brexit" vote, most of them from the media of the United Kingdom.  A few interesting facts:

Turnout was 71% of eligible voters, the highest percentage for a nationwide vote in almost 35 years. That is over 30 million people!

Younger voters voted overwhelmingly to Remain, while a majority of older voters opted to Leave.   Unfortunately for the disappointed younger voters, those in the 18-24 year old voting bloc stayed home in droves, while older voters chose to participate in their country's future.  Strange, considering that it is the younger generation who will need to live with the consequences, good and bad, of this historic decision.  More than one pundit put the blame for Leave squarely on younger voters using math to demonstrate that had 70% of young voters managed to inconvenience themselves and go to a polling station, Remain may have won the day.

Of the four countries that comprise the United Kingdom, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, voters in two of the countries voted for Leave, England and Wales, while voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain.   The fact that the voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain but, by their inclusion in the United Kingdom are compelled to Leave, has sparked new discussions of an independent Scotland vote (one was just recently held in which voters chose to stay in the UK), and talks of a reunification of Northern Ireland with Southern Ireland which is not a part of the UK.

For more information about the ramifications of this decision, which will effect every aspect of life in the UK as you will see by the breadth of the article, cut and past the following link (from BBC, of course), into your browser.


Some of the articles I read in American newspapers, linked the popularity of Donald Trump with the result of the Brexit voting.  While there were a number of reasons proffered for leaving the EU, with saving the money which the UK contributes to the EU for homeland needs, and less onerous EU regulations for business among them, many consider Europe's continuing immigration dilemma to be the driving force behind those who voted to Leave, as one of the tenets of membership in the EU is the free movement of people between member countries. By leaving the EU, Leave proponents promised that the UK would better be able to control immigration and secure its borders from those not welcome.

Which brings us to The Donald.

It seems clear from exiting polls and the various national surveys, that Trump's popularity is limited to white males.  As has been the case for the Republican Party in recent times, many in the white majority vote for GOP candidates based on a negative perception of women, Latinos, African Americans, the LGBT community, and any other minority.  This viewpoint, stoked by the GOP, inflames the fires of its white base by blaming the ills of America on those minorities.  While the GOP establishment may react with outrage at the more openly prejudiced and outlandish of Trump's statements, the path towards an all white party has been laid brick by brick these last 50 years.  At least Trump has the courage to state it out loud, and not pretend, which is why his following is so loyal.  He says what they think, or have been taught to think, about women, blacks, Mexicans and gays, while the politicians who have conspired with the extreme right wing pundits to encourage those biases, downplay them in public to win the votes of those just slightly right or left of center, especially the independents.

Getting back to Brexit, the money which will be "saved" by eliminating the membership fees in the EU, is significant, perhaps 5 to 10 billion pounds.  However, considering that the 2016 spending budget for the UK was 716 billion pounds, we are talking about a 1% savings.

(By the way, if you want to see that budget, revenue and expenses, cut and paste the following link.  You might want to sort expenses in descending order and note where defense falls)


And, as for the business community, most favored Remain, as it enables the free movement of goods across the borders of 27 other countries.  While it is not the best comparison, there was a day when all the states of America levied tariffs on goods which crossed their borders,even from other states. Now, of course, that idea seems ridiculous, but at the time, legislators and businessmen felt the need to protect the business community of their individual state from the dumping of cheap goods from other states.  Membership in the EU grants the UK business community the luxury of exporting its goods to other countries with less monetary obstacles which explains their disappointment in the vote.  Of course, there is some hope that a future trade agreement between the UK and the EU might be forged that will maintain that favored status, but in the meantime, there is uncertainty, and it is uncertainly that the business community abhors, hence the temporary plunge in stocks across the globe.

Which seems to point to the immigration issue as the main reason for Leave votes.  Yet, like the rhetoric of Trump, is this issue driven more by fear than facts?

"Most of them are criminals and rapists" appeals to an already existing prejudice and gut feelings about people with a different skin color and culture.  Yet, most studies indicate that illegals are less likely to be involved in crime for fear of being deported.

"Ban all Muslims", or "Ban all immigration from countries who are our enemies", or any other such phrase gets loud applause at Trump rallies, but has he visited one of the hundreds of refugee camps in Turkey or Greece and seen that upwards of two thirds of these unfortunate people are women and children who have been forced from the homes due to violence and instability?  And what about the fact that most of the 911 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia?  Also, if the next domestic act of violence is committed by a 2nd generation American from Germany, will Trump add Germany to his banned list (after all, they were our enemy in the worst wars in history)?  Or how about France; we don't like them and they don't like us right?

Certainly, immigration, illegal or otherwise, is a difficult issue.  But there are two sides to immigration, the side that admits that when you allow millions of people to enter your country, there will be some bad apples, and the contrasting viewpoint that immigration is good for a country by providing new ideas, new cultures, a new source of labor.  Do we paint all people of a certain nationality or religion with one broad brush or acknowledge that most immigrants are everyday people trying to improve their lives and the lives of their children?  And, with that acknowledgement, fashion immigration policy that recognizes that a structure to identify and remove those with evil intent must include a path for those, like our own ancestors, who are good people in search of work and safety.  Just as all Italians were not deported when the Italian Mafia plagued some of our bigger cities, all Muslims or Mexicans need not be barred from America because of the actions of the minority.

Unfortunately, as long as there are politicians and news organizations that prosper from populist movements that rely on fear mongering, decisions to retreat into a shell, to blame anyone not like us, and to vote with out regard to facts, will remain with us.  


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Repeal 2nd Amendment?

Quiet, relaxing morning allowed me to read the Sunday Inquirer, and gave me the inspiration for today's post.

The sports section first, my fluff reading so to speak.  Fluff because while I enjoy watching sports, I don't get as excited as some "fans" who live and die with the city's sports teams.  

Then right to the lead story in the Currents (Opinion) section which featured pro and con arguments for gun control.  Unfortunately, nothing new there, nothing we haven't heard ad nauseum after each and every mass killing, which is the really sad and terrible part, that there have been so many of these horrific acts.

At the back of Currents, an interesting letter to the editor in which the writer encouraged religious leaders of all faiths to preach a repeal of the 2nd amendment.

Finally, the Local section which included a summary of the higher profile votes taken by our elected officials in Washington this past week.  But before I reached that page, I found a thought provoking article by one of the staff writers concerning the everyday anguish that occurs in America as a result of senseless violence, both mass killings like in Orlando and the less publicized but more common violence that happens all too often in our neighborhoods, especially in those of our big cities.  At the end, the writer asks the frequently asked question which is voiced after all such mass killing events - When will this end?

Then, finally, back to the votes on Capitol Hill.

In the House, a vote to block a floor vote on a bill (shelved in the GOP controlled Judiciary Committee since Feb 2015) which would prohibit the sale of firearms or explosives to individuals on the FBI's Terrorist Watch List.  That's right, the GOP controlled house is against such a bill in its current form.  Although to defend those GOP representatives, the House did pass by overwhelming majority an anti-terrorism package that among other things, requires better cooperation between law enforcement agencies and requires the Department of Home Land Security to more effectively counter ISIS recruitment propaganda.  Pretty bold move, eh?

And, of course, the House passed a $576 billion military appropriations bill (the Senate's version is $602 billion).  Sadly, the House version stripped out funding for the president's directive to the Department of Defense (DOD) to identify and assess the impact of climate change on national security (classic head in the sand thinking), and voted to refuse to consider a new round of military base closings despite the DOD's own estimates that it has a 22% surplus in its domestic facilities.

Finally, the GOP controlled House voted not to limit surveillance currently authorized under the Patriot Act.  Among other strategies not deemed illegal, are the ability of the government to coerce businesses to build security flaws in their products that would facilitate searches by law enforcement agencies, and the necessity of the NSA to obtain warrants for the surveillance of American citizens' overseas communications as is required for domestic communications.

So, to be succinct, the GOP controlled House is more than eager to weaken pretty much any of the amendments to the Constitution when it comes to fighting terrorism, except the 2nd Amendment. Can you say NRA influenced, GOP controlled House?

Still, at the end of the day, it is not fair to blame those men and women.  In reality, we all share the blame via the culture of violence that permeates America.  It is not about having a weapon that can mow down multiple targets, it is about the belief that it is OK to use violence to resolve disagreement and conflict.  And, it is certainly not about the 2nd amendment right to self defense, as other military only weapons, bazookas, tanks, napalm, etc, are illegal for sale to everyday citizens, just as assault weapons and guns with the ability to fire multiple bullets in seconds should be.

But again, will such a ban eliminate killing in America?  Not as long as we believe in the Hollywood shoot em up movies and lessons derived from such, that good people with guns always do the right thing.  And the mistaken mantra of the NRA that more good people with guns will deter the bad people from both committing crimes, and may even stop those acts in process, and that new gun laws will only keep law abiding citizens from owning guns.

Which brings me to a query?

What do you call a person the day before they kill one of more people with a legally purchased gun?
A law abiding citizen.

Unfortunately, good people do bad things.  Sometimes in the heat of passion, sometimes during the fight or flight adrenaline rush that evolution has provided for us, sometimes as a reaction to difficult times, stressful situations, mistreatment or merely bad luck.  While I would like to think that we are evolving towards a time when violence will be the last choice of conflict resolution, not first, in the meantime, perhaps it is time to consider that the technology to harm each other has surpassed our sense of morality that prevents such harm.  And that in our current state of fear which is whipped up daily by those who profit from our anxieties, it is even more critical to limit access to tools which are meant for one purpose only, to mete out easy and efficient death.

Repeal the 2nd Amendment as was so bravely suggested?  No chance.  But restrictions on the type of guns that can be owned, regardless of the "goodness" of the owner, can be created that would limit availability of such weapons while still providing recognizing that responsible gun ownership needs to be supported.  

And, to answer the question of when will it end?  Perhaps when all our leaders, government and religious, and all those who have influence will preach love, understanding and restraint rather that hatred, ridicule and violence.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Pacifism, and Murder in America

Another mass killing event recently.  Possible anti-gay sentiments, probable anti-America sentiments (even though he was a native American), most assuredly mental instability issues.  As soon as the story hit, the predictable sides were formed.  I sometimes wonder if in 50 years, historians will shake their heads at the NRA, and wonder how they were allowed to exert so much influence on our elected public servants, as well as those citizens who mistake self defense for the right to kill.

As a consequence of this most recent mass killing, there is a push to make it illegal for anyone on the FBI's watch list for terror suspects to purchase guns.  Apparently, the Orlando killer had been on that list, but was removed after a 10 month investigation.  Sounds like common sense, to deny 2nd Amendment rights to anyone suspected of terrorism, yet I thought the entire argument for no new gun laws was that if a criminal wanted a gun, they would get it despite the law.  So, how does this law prevent anything?

In fact, how does any law prevent a criminal from breaking that law if the fear of incarceration or punishment does not exist in their minds?  I guess laws are only for the law abiding citizen because he/she is afraid of getting caught, not because the act is wrong or immoral.

Oh, but wait.  Without a law and its consequences, when someone does commit a crime, there would be no way to punish them.   I guess that means that the penal code exists, not just to deter crime, as those who argue for the death penalty cite, (funny how some of the very same people against gun laws are advocates of this line of thinking in relation to capital punishment) but to have a mechanism to punish those who violate the laws that have been established to protect the vast majority of citizens.

Ah, the two sides of a civil debate on the necessity of laws which establish right and wrong, the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment which allows for the right to self defense, but not necessarily the right to own military weapons that can only be used for mass killings, and the facts that indicate that America has a love affair with vigilantism, and a completely blind belief that guns owned by good people will only be used for good.

Oddly, I published two short stories on Amazon earlier this week.  They are The Pacifist and The Massacre that Changed America, combined under the name Pacifism, and Murder in America.

Copy and paste the link below to access information to purchase this most recent effort.


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Government VS Business

Recently I have come to realize the obvious; we need more cooperation between the business community and our government leaders to solve our nation's problems.  I say obvious, not necessarily because it is an obvious topic of discussion on the airwaves, in print and on social media, but because if one is to look back on most of the great successes which have occurred of late, it is through cooperation that success has been attained.

How did America progress from a country just emerging from the Great Depression to help defeat Hitler and the Nazis during World War 2?  Cooperation from the business community in diverting energy from domestic to war time products as well as the cooperation of the American public to sacrifice a little for the war effort.  And afterwards, when the men returned from war?  Cooperation between the government and educational system to provide skills to the veterans, and then cooperation between government and businesses to provide jobs for those same veterans.

One might say that the explosive growth of the middle class after WW2 was due in large part to such cooperation.  Most people forget that individual and corporate taxes were astronomical by today's standards, yet, whether by design or happenstance, this level of taxation enabled the government to invest in the people of America via education and jobs.  Businesses still thrived, despite the lower profits and individual wealth, because those working employees and customers alike, had money to spend via the education that opened new doors and the livable wages being earned.  I like to call it bottom up economics, a drastic departure from the trickle down theories that became popular in the 1980's.  Certainly there were rich people and poor people, some of that due to the racial and gender discrimination that still existed in the 50s and 60s, but by most measures of quality of life, America reached its apex in those decades following the Great War.

Currently, it would not be fantasy to suggest that the United States is still the best place in which to live and raise a family.  However, by most quality of life standards, education, income, health, life expectancy, etc, we have fallen down the list.

What has changed?

Too much success too fast?  Some might argue that our role in freeing the world from the clutches of evil, and our eventual victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, left us no where to go but down.
Or perhaps we just forgot how we got there?  Cooperation.

To me, the creation of the corporation, that ultimate legal instrument that provides the benefits of success without the responsibilities of failure, began the decline.  Of course, at first, it provided a boon.  Initially, it seduced even those who knew that double digit growth was not sustainable. Cheaper products manufactured off shore produced a bump in revenue, with less labor costs.  The fact that real people were losing their jobs, people who previously purchased the products and services of the corporations, seemed lost on those making the decisions.

The allure of the stock market, and the ability to "earn" millions of dollars just by giving money to those corporations via stocks, again worked for many, became a cog in the evolving wheel that defined the American dream.  But those corporations and the value of that stock was controlled by individuals more interested in making the stock more valuable.  Responsibility to the stock holders was priority one, responsibility to the employees, their families and the communities where they lived fell by the wayside.  

Or maybe, we were cognizant that cooperation was necessary, but forgot that the end result of that partnership was supposed to be the good of all Americans.  Some might say that our current tax system, even the current state of our political system, has resulted in too much cooperation between Big Business and our government leaders to rig the economic system in favor of those holding the cards.  Big trade agreements open up markets, and provide more competition and choice, but are used to justify even more job outsourcing.  New laws that aim to provide health insurance for those who face bankruptcy or death when they get a losing hand in the birth lottery, are used to justify reduced hours for employees by employers who refuse to do the right thing, and then given a pass by the some public servants who should hold them accountable but prefer campaign donations.

Still, I read articles on an almost daily basis about government and business cooperation that results in change for the better.  From fighting malaria in Africa, to providing safe migration routes to true wildlife in western America, there is much to celebrate when government and business cooperate for a positive reason.  And lets not forget the simple tax break which allows charitable contributions and helps millions of Americans attain food, shelter, and medicine when they draw a losing birth lottery hand.

It is all well and good to use eminent domain to justify the removal of poor people from their homes so that a sparkling new casino can be built, if those displaced people are provided with a better opportunity and that community prospers via jobs, improved schools, and safer streets.  But it does not benefit America when the vast majority of the income from that casino finds its way to too few pockets.  Not to mention when the casino fails and the American taxpayer gets the bill via bankruptcy laws that grant forgiveness to the corporation's principals.

As in all partnerships, there should always be a certain amount of tension.  Stories of successful athletic teams with individuals who fought off field abound.  Businesses should be free to manufacture and market products without regulation which strangles incentive, but they also need to be aware that without some restrain, there are those in business who will violate any and all common courtesy for others.  Will do anything, say anything, for money.  The American people need to be protected from these sharks, and so business profitability may suffer a bit in the short run but will be the better for it when those who value money above people are prosecuted.

Conversely, government officials, especially well meaning ones, need to stay focused on regulations that target specific behaviors and actions, and remember that top down approaches should only be the answer in extreme cases.  Regulations that work in New York may not work in Colorado.  Perhaps it would be better if the word "guidelines" came back in vogue.  Leave the specifics to the state and local lawmakers as much as feasible.

I guess, in the end, it is about cooperation that helps others, not just ourselves.  Cooperation that recognizes that sometimes short term sacrifice results in long term productivity.  Cooperation that raises prospects without harming a segment of the population without voice or recourse.  Cooperation that presumes the sharing of power, not exclusivity of it for one side or the other.


Monday, June 6, 2016

The Passing of Muhammad Ali

The passing of Muhammad Ali over the weekend has generated a huge amount of news coverage, both in the established media outlets of print, TV and radio, and on the the social networks of twitter, facebook, etc.  While certainly not surprising considering his multi-decade fight against Parkinson's Disease, it is still a shock when a sports hero of such fame and accomplishment leaves us.

For me, Ali was always the foil against Joe Frazier, perhaps more so than for most people as I was born and raised in Philadelphia and its suburbs.  I can still remember my disappointment when Ali was victorious in the Thrilla in Manilla, that iconic battle that will be forever remembered in boxing history.  Ali personified the outspoken athlete in those days, dancing and taunting his opponents until he surprised them with his strength and punching power.  Frazier won with grit and guts, relentlessly taking the best punch his opponents could muster until unleashing one of his devastating hooks to the jaw.

For me, Frazier was the man of the people, Ali the braggart, the showman.

Later, as an adult, I realized that while Ali's career as a boxer was and will always be legendary, his stature as a man was even more heroic.  I was a bit too young to fully understand the ramifications of his suspension from boxing for failure to report for military duty.  My perspective was mostly colored by the adults in my life who condemned him for his perceived lack of patriotism, at best, cowardice at worst.  Perhaps that is part of why I rooted against Ali during the years after his suspension was overturned by the Supreme Court.  I can distinctly recall listening to the fight in Zaire, and being crushed when Ali beat George Foreman so easily.

But as time passed, I was able to gain a more adult perspective of Ali's resistance to enlisting during the Vietnam War.  Clearly, like any protester, Ali was well within his rights to express his opinion that the war in Southeast Asia was morally indefensible.  But what is most impressive, is that unlike the vast majority of Americans protesting that war, Ali put his money where his mouth was.  He was at the peak of his manhood, late 20's, looking at many more chances to earn a lifetime of money, and cement his legacy as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, yet he walked away from it.  How many of us would do the same today?

What is most striking to me about that time in history, is that Ali was not the only athlete or person of fame who converted to Islam.  Others, not as famous, but still in the public eye did the same, many of those also to the detriment of their careers.  The teachings of Mohammad, and the spirit of Islam motivated those people to swim against the stream and embrace a religion that was not considered American.  How Ali lived his life during those times, and after as his mind began to betray him, only he and his god know for sure but the multitude of stories I have heard seem to indicate that his public demeanor as the "greatest", included the willingness to be among the public, the everyday men, women and children who he encountered.

Now, of course, Islam is perceived in an entirely different light.  Where we once scorned those who chose that religion over a Christian one, as cowards, only fifty years later we now perceive many of that faith as terrorists.  I imagine that, as is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in between.  But one thing is for sure, the persona created by Muhammad Ali, the incredible combination of killer in the ring and gentleman outside it, will never be repeated.