Category Archives: US Politics

Urgent Election Reform


Elections

 

ELECTION REFORM

Elections are the sacred well of democracy. When the waters are poisoned there is nothing left. Without fair and open elections the choices of the people are thwarted and democratic government collapses. When this happens, the government ceases to be the servant of the people, and instead allows the usurpation of government authority by an unqualified but well organized oligarchy. Oligarchs rule rather than govern. Government becomes the tool of tyrants. The United States has in recent years failed to provide fair and free elections.

The collapse of fair and open elections has already resulted in a substantial loss of our democracy. Our country, despite our boasting of being the world’s oldest and strongest democracy, has allowed our basic institutions to crumble. We have gone from “Every vote counts in the election,” to “The election will be decided by who counts the votes.”

There are a series of reforms that are urgently needed if we are to salvage what remains of our democracy. The following is a partial list of those urgently needed reforms.

Abolish the Electoral College

Twice in the past sixteen years the Electoral College has thwarted the will of the American people. This is simply unacceptable. In 2000, Al Gore lost Florida and the election by only some 500 votes out of 103 million votes cast. There was a cluster of errors in the Florida vote count. It is estimated that Pat Buchanan erroneously gained an estimated 32,000 votes that were intended for Al Gore due to the “butterfly ballot” fiasco. There were other irregularities as well, including the handling of absentee ballots. By counting ballots on a state-by-state basis, such irregularities come to the forefront and determine the outcome of the election. But when the national vote is taken as a whole there is a different outcome. Any irregularities are “averaged out” and the winning candidate is the overall choice of the electorate.

In 2016 we had the will of the people thwarted again by the Electoral College. This time it was 80,000 people across three states that would have changed the election outcome. In the end, Hillary Clinton received 3,800,000 more votes than Donald Trump in what turned out to be her losing effort.

The Electoral College perhaps made sense in the 18th Century. At that time the United States was a confederation of states, much like the European Union is today. But by the time of the Civil War, our nation became one nation and not a collection of states. The Electoral College, that vestige of the 18th Century, makes no sense in the 21st Century.

End Gerrymandering

We have gone from voters selecting their candidates to office holders selecting their voters. Our current system of gerrymandered districts thwarts the will of the voters. Elected officials can stack the deck on state legislative chambers and the United States Congress by manipulating district boundaries. These boundaries are normally set by the very state legislators that benefit from manipulating these boundaries. We need to remove the setting of district boundaries from the political process. In California district boundaries are set by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Since implementation in June 2012, independent studies have confirmed that California now has some of the most competitive districts in the country. Other states need to follow similar procedures.

Support Voter Registration

New voter registration procedures have become a new form of poll tax. Estimates are that hundreds of thousands of citizens have been disenfranchised by these efforts. The burden of these procedures fall disproportionately on the poor, people of color, and the elderly, and those for who English is a second language. We need a new national voters’ rights act to replace the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was essentially struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.

No one could deny that we need to clean up our voter rolls. There is no systematic effort to purge the rolls of deceased voters or those who have moved away. But so far this has not been a real issue. After searches for voter fraud spanning decades, no one has ever found more than a handful of actual voter fraud issues, and certainly never enough to sway an election.

In many states convicted felons have a lifetime ban on voting. African Americans make up 13% of the population, but 38% of the prison population. Voter disenfranchisement due to a felony conviction has a strong racial component. It is possible to disenfranchise whole communities by refusing to allow convicted felons to vote, including those who have already paid their debt to society.

Maintain Poll Access

Every election seems to have issues with voter access to polling places. Amazingly, such issues only seem to occur in selected precincts. There is misinformation as to poll locations or hours. There are shortages of ballots or voting machines that do not work. Too often people in these “selected” precincts must wait for hours to cast their ballots. This is another burden that falls disproportionately upon the poor. An hourly worker might have to rush to vote before work, while a salaried manager could vote at his or her leisure.

The act of voting should not be an ordeal. Instead of a 12 hour election window we should be given an extended time of perhaps one week to vote. We should be able to vote by any number of means. We can invest and do banking online. Calculate and pay taxes online. We should be able to vote online as well. For those without computer access, voting computers could be set up in libraries, schools, offices, or other public places. There should also be mail in options for those who are computer challenged. If we can use our bank ATM cards in Mexico City, or Bangkok, we should be able to vote from anywhere during an election period without difficulty.

Demand Election Integrity

Somehow we need to make our elections work. There have been endless reports of lost ballots, voting machine malfunctions, and absentee ballots that have been lost or ignored. Elections should be determined by the votes casted and not by who counted the votes. Here again is a situation where “selected” precincts seem to have much greater irregularities than the norm. If we cannot trust our state and county officials to conduct fair and accurate elections then perhaps we should have outside parties, such as fiduciary institutions, or CPA firms, to collect and count the ballots.

Voting machines, ballot counts, and any online or mail voting methods must be fool proof. This is our democracy we are talking about. We need to provide the resources and make the effort to insure that every vote counts. “Accidents,” “oversights,” and “unavoidable situations” must not be allowed as excuses. These can be avoided by proper planning, training, and redundancy.

Require Financial Disclosure

We must never again allow any candidate to run for President of the United States without submitting at least five years’ worth of federal tax returns. In the past this has been the custom, but it was not a requirement. Trump was able to avoid this disclosure despite his frequent assurances to the contrary. The president must be free of any conflicts of interest. Without the income tax disclosure there is not even a roadmap to look for possible conflicts. This disclosure must be made at the start of the election cycle so that voters have a chance to review and analyze these documents. For this reason the documents must be disclosed before any names are placed on the primary ballots. California now has such a law. We need a similar rule for congressional candidates as well.

 

Do not be deceived by health savings plan proposals


U.S. Capitol

 

As the Congress discusses the reconfiguration of our health care system, one “solution” that keeps coming up is various options related to health savings plans. These plans need to be recognized for what they really are, a con of the health care consumer. Sure, you can get health care, but you must pay for it yourself with money that you have saved. Saving money sounds like a good idea, and it is. It is great to have saved a little extra to cover those expenditures that fall outside of your normal budget. The problem here is that the cost of medical care can be so excessive that it would be virtually impossible to save enough.

Medical care is expensive. There are stories of Canadian tourists who find themselves with a two hundred thousand dollar medical bills for having a baby in the United States.  Any serious medical illness can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think about an emergency situation such as a heart attack or a stroke. And for those who believe that they are too healthy for such an emergencies, think about getting hit by a car while walking or riding your bicycle.

That is why insurance is needed. Perhaps the best that you could ever hope for from a health savings plan is enough money to cover your deductibles and copays. That is pretty much what happened to me last year.

I have excellent medical coverage for myself and my wife through my employer. I have no deductibles and modest copays that are capped at $3,000 per year. I had a series of medical issues, nothing major and certainly nothing life threatening. I had three emergency visits, three nights in the hospital, and two outpatient procedures. The total cost paid by my insurance carrier was in excess of $65,000. My out of pocket cost was capped at $3,000.

When a patient does not have medical insurance the hospital will jack up the cost to well above what an insurance carrier would pay. If Blue Cross would pay $30,000 for a particular procedure, an uninsured patient will likely be charged $50,000. The reason for this is that the hospitals offer volume discounts to major insurance carriers. Thus, the $65,000 in medical expenses that I incurred last year could have easily been charged at over $100,000 if I did not have insurance.

It is one thing to save $3,000 to $5,000 to cover deductibles and copays. It is quite another thing to save the hundreds of thousands that a serious medical condition might require. And for many households, even saving $3,000 to $5,000 is virtually impossible. There are so many other priorities for our dollars. It is estimated that for 40% of the households in our country, an unexpected bill for $500 could be a financial calamity. What happens if the furnace goes out or the truck breaks down? For some, saving $3,000 to $5,000 in a Medical Savings Account could take 5 to 10 years, and that assumes that no withdrawals from that account would be required during that time period. .

The idea of offering up health savings plans as an alternative to health insurance is beyond ludicrous.  It is a glib and irresponsible diversion tactic offered up by those who wish to deny coverage for medical care.

An Administration Based on Falsehoods


trump-clown-kingThe Trump team has done nothing but lie to us. His people would tell the most outrageous lies throughout the election and transitional period. Now they are continuing their outrageous lies from the White House.

On day one of the Trump administration, Saturday, January 21, Press Secretary Sean Spicer gave his first official briefing. In it he berated the media for “distorting” the crowd numbers at the inauguration, and then proceeded to list a series of “facts” that were nothing more than fabrications. There are numerous pictures, videos, and statistics to support the media’s version of events. Then, Spicer spewed out a torrent of lies. In this case Spicer simply made up numbers such as mass transit ridership that had no basis in fact. These utterly false statistics were disputed by the transit authority. According to CNN, four of the five main statements made by Spicer at that event were totally fallacious. The Orwellian notion herein being enacted is that falsehood becomes truth when trumpeted loud and long.

Kellyanne Conway went on television the next day to explain that Spicer had not lied, but only presented “alternative facts”. I do not know about how this works in your world, but in my world an “alternative fact” is simply a lie.

And of course the larger issue here is that Trump, on his first day in office, must have higher priorities than arguing about attendance figures at the inauguration. This raises the problem of his extreme narcissism which will be a topic for a later chapter.

Trump during the campaign would hammer the same lies over and over, often times repeating each lie multiple times in one sentence. The Trump people routinely tell more lies than can even been debunked. While the press and pundits are trying to analyze the first lie, the Trump team has issued a hundred more. Trump complained about unfair media coverage even when the media did nothing more than show video clips of Trump’s prior pronouncements.

The Donald wants to suppress freedom of the press under the First Amendment. He wants to decide what is news and to punish those who publish otherwise. This is not the thinking of a democratically elected leader. It is rather the rantings of a dictator seeking absolute power and control.

The Trump team refuses to answer questions, and instead pivot and distract by changing the subject. During the campaign the standard pivots were to Hillary’s emails and Bill’s sex life. Neither of these are relevant now, so get over it.

Kellyanne Conway was just one of dozens of Trump spokespersons who lied to us throughout the campaign and transition period. There was also Kayleigh McEnany, Katrina Pierson, Jeffrey Lord, Chris Christie, Paul Manafort, Corey Lewandowski, Rudi Juliani, and more. Paul Manafort is now under investigation for the Russian connection. All of these spokespersons spread an endless barrage of lies, distortions, pivots, and distractions. All of them would pivot and throw red-herrings in order to not answer questions. Now it looks like the Trump administration will continue in the same vein.

Apart from lies The Donald’s other rhetorical techniques includes bullying, heaping abuse on others, and scapegoating problems. He would also promise much but never provide any plans or solutions. Real solutions must be grounded in facts and not fantasy. No one is going to build a wall. No one is going to deport 12 million people, breaking up millions of families in the process. No one is going to be excluded from the United States based solely on their religious affiliation.

The inaugural address was despicable. Rather than addressing the nation Trump only addressed his supporters. Part of being “presidential” is to realize that a president must serve all of the people, and not just those who voted for him or her. Trump attacked all those who oppose him, blamed the media for under reporting the inaugural crowds, and then whined to the CIA that the media was biased. Trump acts more like a playground bully that anyone who could govern this country.

Trump is now and will always be in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution which forbids the president to take any money from foreign powers. Trump has business entanglements in at least 50 countries, and many of these involve foreign governments. Trump denies having any business interests in Russia, but the record is clear that he has been working to establish businesses in Russia for the past thirty years.

Trump’s lease of his hotel in Washington from the federal government is now illegal and must be terminated. Sean Spicer has told us that as president, Trump is above the law and can have no conflicts of interests. But Spicer is describing a dictator, not a president bound by a constitution. More lies from Spicer. More lies is all that we can expect from The Donald and his rabid attack dogs.

The White House website now has a plug for Melania’s ongoing jewelry business. Trump will use every opportunity to abuse the office he holds for personal gain. Spicer two days before the inauguration told everyone to stay at the Trump hotel in Washington. The Trump administration will be marked by endless scandal and corruption, so get used to it.

And let us remember Trump’s tax returns. Trump promised over and over that he would release his tax returns 1) if he ran for election, 2) when the IRS audit was completed, 3) when he was elected to office. This, like everything that the Donald has told us is simply a self-serving lie. We can only assume, along with Mitt Romney, that Trump will never release his tax returns because they are toxic if not radioactive. Without his tax returns we cannot even begin to grasp what is needed for the Donald to be free of conflicts of interest. What we know about his businesses is bad enough. What we do not know is potentially horrifying.

On day one there is enough to impeach The Donald based on the emoluments clause alone. His ties to Putin and his relationship to Russia is further grounds, but this will take more time to substantiate.

And finally, the election irregularities, most of them predicted by The Donald, are grounds for his resignation. Nixon was right. Watergate was indeed a “third-rate burglary” compared to what has happened now. The Russian connection and the various election irregularities will take several years to sort out. But the emoluments clause and the numerous financial conflicts of interest are immediate grounds for impeachment.

We need to trust a Republican Congress to impeach Trump and to put an end to this obscenity that is the Trump administration.

 

The Electoral College Has Failed Us Again


It’s time to dump the Electoral College (November 2016)

statue-in-grief

For the second time in recent history, the Electoral College has thwarted the will of the American voter. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, as did Al Gore in 2000. That is twice in 16 years that the Electoral College has failed us. The Electoral College is an 18th Century anachronism that may have made sense back then. But is the 21st Century it has become a disaster.

No one wants to see another Electoral College tragedy like the one that occurred in 2000.  George W.  Bush was elected by a handful of votes in Florida that overrode the choice of millions of voters across the country.  In truth, the election was decided by one vote when the US Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision gave Florida and the election to Bush. Now it has happened for a second time and the results will be even more devastating.

The Electoral College is full of mathematical aberrations which make for unfair elections.  Wyoming has a population of 563,626 and 3 electoral votes, or one electoral vote for every 187,875 people.  California has a population of 37,253,956 and 55 electoral votes, or one electoral vote for every 677,345 people.  Thus the vote of a Wyoming resident counts 3.6 times as much as the vote of a California resident.

But there are even more to worry about. The rules are not even consistent from state to state. Maine and Nebraska split their votes according to congressional districts. While this might actually make sense, the rules should be standardized across the nation.

Even more troubling is the potential for an “unfaithful elector.” One of the electors from the state of Washington declared that he would refuse to cast his ballot for Hillary Clinton out of personal conscience. On election night there were some scenarios that pointed to an Electoral College tie vote at 269 each. In such a situation, one unfaithful elector could change the results of the election out of personal whim, and not be accountable.

The Electoral College system disenfranchises those who vote for the losing parties in each state.  If you are a Republican in California or a Democrat in Texas you need not even bother to vote for president.  Your vote for president will not even be counted in this winner-take-all system.  The only way to make your vote count is to move your voter registration to a swing state, like Florida, where it just might make a difference.  But such shenanigans are shameful and ought not to be necessary.

The Electoral College made sense in Eighteenth Century America.  Back then America was much like Europe is today.  The European Community is still a collection of nations, even though there is the beginning of a European government. In the Eighteenth Century colonial America was also a collection of nations.  People were Virginians or Georgians or New Yorkers.  No one thought of us as a federation.  In the Eighteenth Century it made sense to vote for the president by states.

The name “The United States of America” comes from the Declaration of Independence.  But what the Declaration of Independence really says is, “… the thirteen united STATES OF AMERICA.”  The emphasis was on the individual states and not on a union.

It was the Civil War that finally fused this collection of states into a nation.  The Spanish American War in 1898 marked the birth of the American superpower, capable of influencing events beyond our borders.

Now in the Twenty-First Century the Electoral College is a dangerous and destructive historical anachronism.  We are one nation and we need to vote as one nation.  The elected president should be the person who commands the most votes regardless of the states in which those votes were cast.

 

 

The Republican Party is Everything Wrong with America


THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IS EVERYTHING WRONG WITH AMERICA

voting-republican1

There was a time when Republicans were decent people, drawn from the mainstream, who loved their country and believed in the American Dream for all people. Those days are now long gone. The Republican Party has become the party of obstruction, the party of bitter and unremitting partisanship, the party of the one percent, the party of the billionaires and the big corporations, the anti-science party, the party of “voodoo economics” to quote from George H.W. Bush. It is the party of big wars, big deficits, and an unrelenting attack on the poor and middle classes.

Governance

The Republican Party has become the party of obstruction. The Republican Congress has voted to end the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) over fifty times. This type of relentless partisanship is destroying our ability to govern ourselves as a nation. Republicans believe in shutting down the government whenever they do not get their own way. This has happened at great cost to our nation and tarnished our reputation around the globe. It has hurt our credit rating and caused billions of dollars in damage to our economy.

The Republicans stated in 2010 that the party’s primary goal was to keep Obama from getting a second term in office. They were so willing to attack and obstruct Obama and his legacy that they did not mind damaging the nation in the process.  The GOP can now best be described as the Get Obama Party.

The House of Representatives has been Republican since 2010, and the Senate since 2014. And yet no one can suggest one thing that this Congress has accomplished. Here the fifty-plus votes to end Obama Care do not count as an accomplishment. Where is the Republican jobs bill? Where is the Republican immigration reform bill? Where is the Republican tax reform bill? Where is the Republican voter protection bill?

The Republican Party complains bitterly that the government is failing the nation. And yet, the Republicans control both houses of Congress, hold 31 governorships, and until the recent death of Antonin Scalia, controlled the Supreme Court. Perhaps it is time for Republicans to acknowledge that the gridlock in Washington is of Republican origin.

How can we elect Republicans who say that they do not believe in government to actually govern the nation? How do we elect people who believe that government is the problem to run our government?

The Senate Republicans have refused to even hold confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. The lengthy delay in the confirmation process is unprecedented. The Constitution of the United States clearly spells out the confirmation of federal judges as a principal duty of the Senate. And yet the Senate has refused to do its constitutional duty. The excuse given is that Obama is in the last year of his presidency. But historically this has not been an issue. Ronald Reagan nominated a Supreme Court Justice with just 13 months left in office.

To prevent Senate obstructionism, we need a constitutional amendment which states that should the Senate fail to conclude confirmation hearings within 90 days of any nomination, the nomination will automatically be confirmed.

Voter Suppression

The Republican Party is conducting a major campaign of voter suppression. It is trying to keep the poor, the legal immigrants, the minorities, and the aged from voting. There has been precious little voter fraud in the Unites States, unless of course you count the Republican drive to disenfranchise voters. Requiring government ID’s to vote seems like a sensible idea, but not to anyone who lacks such a document. In the State of Alabama, the State has closed voter registration offices in majority black counties. So, if a citizen from one of those counties wants to register to vote they will be forced to travel long distances just to register. In the bad old days there was a poll tax that kept poor people from voting. This was declared unconstitutional by the 24th Amendment passed in 1964. In 1966 the Supreme Court struck down poll taxes even for state elections. Republicans are seeking other means of voter suppression to replace the poll tax. The voter ID laws are a part of that effort.

Apart from the voter ID issue, states can suppress voting by closing registration offices, allowing (or planning) ballot shortages at non-Republican polling places during elections, circulating inadequate and even erroneous information about poll times and locations. States can ignore absentee ballots from certain counties or districts, or fail to process registration papers. These tactics were used in the presidential election in Florida in 2000. The effect of these and other irregularities in Florida was to elect George W. Bush as president by less than 400 votes.

On top of this the Republican Party has engaged in wholesale Gerrymandering as a method of disenfranchising democrat and minority voters.

It is clear that we need a new voters’ rights act that will protect our electoral process, and insure that every vote counts.

The Party of the One Percent

The Republican Party represents the interests of the billionaires and the big corporations. Its patron saint is the unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge. Its motto is: “I got mine, and to hell with everyone else.”

Of course not all Republicans are billionaires. The party is also full of very poor people who do not know that they are being played. All Republicans should be advised as follows: Republicans are either billionaires or suckers. Check your pockets to see which you are. There are many poor Republicans that are still waiting for their share of wealth from Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” economics.

Republicans seem to have two and only two ideas for building the economy. Since Reagan took office in 1981 these two basic platform planks have not changed, even though they have proved to have been disastrous for the economy.

The first Republican principal is, “More tax breaks for the richest.” Never mind that the rich are far richer than they have ever been. Never mind that the gap between the rich and the poor is unprecedented and growing daily. It appears that the only way to incentivize the rich to build factories and businesses is to grant them ever larger tax breaks and subsidies. Republican “logic” goes like this. We need to incentivize the wealthy by giving them more money. But when talking about the poor, Republican “logic” reverses itself. Doing anything to help the poor, such as by increasing the minimum wage or providing food stamps will dis-incentivize them and keep them from wanting to work.

Even if we assume for a moment that the Republicans are on the right track, should not the tax incentives and subsidies be tied to actually creating more jobs? What is to stop a billionaire from simply using the proposed tax cut to purchase a fifth or sixth house in the south of France?

The Republicans tell us that America is the most overtaxed nation on Earth. This is a total Republican fabrication. Our tax rates are actually lower than many developed countries. But to sell their key economic talking point they must repeat this ridiculous lie even knowing that it is untrue. When counting up the tax burden, Republicans are loathe to mention the payroll taxes paid by every worker on the first $118,500 of earned income. This tax is paid by all wage earners and self-employed persons without deduction or exception. A favorite dodge of the Republicans is to talk only about income tax rates, and not about payroll taxes (FICA and Medicare) paid by all poor and middle class workers, but from which the wealthy are substantially exempted.

Our country is a consumer market, with over 70% of our GDP generated by consumer purchases. The Republicans have got this all backwards. If you want to increase jobs and economic growth the best method is to increase the size and purchasing power of the middle class. When poor people become middle class they have money to spend, and those who started out in the middle class will have even more money to spend. That consumer spending increases demands, and leads to more business activity, growth, jobs, and increased wages.

There are an endless list of ways to increase the size and purchasing power of the middle class, including:

  • Increasing minimum wage
  • Day care
  • Early childhood education
  • Affordable and available medical care
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Job training
  • Making higher education more affordable
  • Building and repairing our infrastructure

The Party of Deregulation

Apart from tax breaks for the wealthy, the Republican Party stands for deregulation. Again, the “logic” here is that government, including all government regulations, is bad while unrestrained greed is good. It is not that deregulation is totally bad. Economies and societies function best when there is the right balance of regulation. But to Republicans, the correct balance seems to mean no regulation at all.

The Republicans tell us that we are the most regulated country on Earth. Again, this is a total Republican fabrication meant to sustain their talking points.

In a totally unregulated environment, the vulture capitalists are free to pillage, plunder, lute, and pollute to their hearts content. Without regulation we would have poisoned food, children working in coal mines, catastrophic environmental degradation, and financial fraud of epic proportions. We need the right balance of regulations to restrain the excesses of the marketplace which would otherwise be driven only by greed.

Thinking of environmental regulations alone, we are living in the sixth great extinction event. This latest extinction event is called the “Anthropocene Extinction Event,” meaning that it is totally caused and controlled by human activity. Global climate change is not something that will happen in the distant future. It is already happening today. We have more severe storms than we have ever had. We have massive flooding, forest fires, and droughts. Each month, including the just finished month of July 2016, is the hottest month on record in world history. We may have already doomed our civilization. We cannot continue with business as usual. We need to cut carbon emissions, reduce pollution, maintain wildlife habitats, foster sustainable agriculture, and find ways to mitigate the damage already done.

The Party of Deficits

The Republicans love to blame the Democrats for deficits. It is Obamacare, proposed increases to the minimum wage, early childhood education, and lower college costs and student loan costs that break the bank. But the Republicans can spend money on tax breaks for the rich, subsidies for corporations, and endless Bush family wars in the Middle East that last for decades without conclusion or even progress. The Republicans would cheerfully shred the entire social safety net for the poor and middle classes in order to give even more breaks for the wealthy.

Likewise, the Republicans refuse to invest in our crumbling infrastructure. To any rational person, when your roof leaks you fix it, for to postpone would incur greatly increased future costs. The owner of the roof would fix the roof even if it meant borrowing money to do it.

Infrastructure improvements do far more than just to maintain our present capital assets. They are an investment in the future. In the 1950’s President Eisenhower saw the benefit of the German autobahns, and made the building of our Interstate Highway network a priority of our country. It is hard to imagine what our country would look like today without the Interstate highways. Our commerce would be greatly diminished over what it is now with the Interstates. Products would cost us much more. Transportation would be much more difficult, time consuming, and costly. It takes vision to invest in the future. What is the best time to plant a tree? The answer is forty years ago.

The Party of Privatization

Republicans will tell you that government is the problem and the private sector is the solution. While this may be true in part, it does not apply everywhere and to everything. Particularly it does not apply to most government functions. If we really believe this our roads would all be toll roads built and maintained by private companies.

The Republicans are trying to kill the United States Postal Service by forcing it to prepay all pension obligations. There is no other organization, either public or private, that must deal with such an onerous financial drain. This requirement, if not reversed, will result in the death of the USPS, and the privatization of all mail delivery. The private companies will “cherry pick” the deliveries that they want, and abandon the unprofitable routes.

The Republicans want to privatize Social Security. This would be impossible from many standpoints. To begin with, there is no pot of money set aside by Social Security to pay for my retirement. As I am still working, the money I pay in on Tuesday goes out the door on Wednesday to fund the benefits of those already retired. The government, starting under President Reagan, has looted any reserve funds from Social Security so as to fund the burgeoning deficit. The simply is no funds available to place into private hands to be invested for future benefits.

A further concern is that if individuals are made fully responsible to invest their own retirement savings, the possibility of a total meltdown is unavoidable. Instead of having retirement savings managed by Social Security, imaging a situation wherein people’s retirement savings decisions are determined by commissioned sales representatives at such firms as Morgan Stanley or the now defunct Lehman Brothers.

There is always risk in the market. As President Obama once noted, “Some people bought Google early while others bought Enron late.” Social Security is supposed to be a financial safety net and not a lottery.

Republicans want to privatize healthcare. Under typical Republican plans being proposed, instead of Medicare, the elderly will receive a monthly voucher and told to go purchase their health care on the open market. Good luck with that! It is clear that this plan will only help big insurance, big pharma, and their highly compensated sales people.

The Party of Religious Tyranny

The Republicans are the party of Religious Tyranny. The United States was NOT founded as a Christian nation. Rather, it was founded as a haven of religious freedom by Europeans that had endured centuries of religious warfare and persecutions stemming from sectarian divisions. The freedom of religion begins with being free from someone else’s religion. Freedom of religion means that each of us has the right to worship God in our own communities, and in our own ways, or not at all. It is not a license to discriminate against others or to impose our beliefs upon them by force of law.

Republicans support the effort of right-wing Christians to teach creationism in the schools. Creationism is nothing like a science. It is religious mythology pure and simple. It is no more valid than the Australian Aborigines creation stories, the Mayan creation stories, or those of the followers of the Norse Gods.

Right-wing Christians act like they have authority over all manner of public morality. Republicans have supported these fundamentalists in imposing their religious and moral views upon the nation. Gay marriage is not an issue of public morality, but rather of private relationships. No preacher, priest, or politician can tell anyone who to love. Abortion is a similar example. I do not need the permission of a Catholic bishop to have a vasectomy, or to make any other type of family planning decision for myself or my family. Religious freedom is freedom from the religious tyranny of others.

Limits on reproductive freedom deny the personhood of all women. Women are more than just mandatory incubators. They, as everyone, have the fundamental right to control their own body and destiny. Family planning decisions belong to the woman and her family, with advice from her health care providers. This is not the domain of priests, preachers or politicians.

The Ten Commandments should never be displayed at any public office or meeting. The First Commandment “You shall have no other Gods before me,” stands is direct conflict with the First Amendment “The Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion…” The harm of displaying the Ten Commandments at a courthouse is very real. For example, suppose a Buddhist comes to the courthouse seeking justice. A judge, jury member, or other government official sees the Ten Commandments and considers the Buddhist to be an idol worshiper and a heathen who is unworthy of American Justice. Now Buddhist do not worship idols any more than Catholics worship candles. But the Buddhist has already been denied justice due to the prejudice of the official.

The Republican Party is consistently on the wrong side of every issue. They claim to be the party of limited government, but they want to invade our bedrooms and to regulate every aspect of our personal lives. People are to be supported and big companies are to be regulated. As usual the Republican Party gets this and everything else backwards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Anthropocene Mass Extinction


THE SIXTH MASS EXTINCTION EVENT

Looking for sea ice for hunting

Looking for sea ice for hunting

The Earth has had five previous mass extinctions events, and we are now in number six. The current crisis is called the Anthropocene Extinction, meaning that it is caused by human activity.

Much has been published recently about global climate change. But there is a much bigger picture to see if we just “connect the dots.” The planet is in a perfect storm of anthropocentric attacks on the biosphere that taken together will severely reduce the life carrying capacity of the planet.

Forty-five percent of all mammal species are endangered or threatened. This includes everything from elephants to polar bears. Elephant populations are declining rapidly due to habitat destruction and poaching. Polar bears are starving as the loss of the arctic ice sheet makes it harder for them to hunt for seals. Recently orcas have replaced polar bears as the apex arctic predators. The large dorsal fins on the orcas have mean that they would not swim or hunt in arctic waters. But now with the substantial loss of arctic ice the orcas have expanded into this new territory.

Ice sheets are diminishing across the globe. The loss of the Greenland ice sheets will increase global sea levels by 30 feet. The loss of the Antarctic ice sheets would raise global sea levels by 300 feet. The Greenland ice sheets are showing increasing signs of collapse. There are lakes of snow melt atop of the glaciers. These lakes drain to the ground below. This lifts and lubricates the remaining ice and speeds its slide into the ocean.

Global climate change is not a future concern; it is already upon us. Hurricane Patricia was the worst hurricane on record, greater even than Katrina or Sandy. California burns while South Carolina is underwater. The weather patterns have already spun out of control. There are droughts, fires, floods, and expanding deserts.

Sea levels are already rising. In Alaska tribal villages are collapsing into the ocean. Island nations like Vanuatu are struggling to survive. In March of 2015 Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone (i.e. hurricane) Pam with wind gusts of 200 mph. It destroyed 90% of the capital city of Port Vila.

Even with all the trappings of civilization, all life on Earth depends upon its biodiversity. Who decided that it was a good idea to grow food using poisons? Consider the case of the humble honey bee. This species is critical to agriculture. It pollinates a wide variety of crops. But bee populations have been devastated by pesticides. To replace the bees in an apple orchard it would take armies of farm laborers pollinating each blossom using ladders and paint brushes.

The combination of global climate change, pollution, and over-harvesting will create a food crisis. We grow foods in arid climates unsuited for agriculture. Irrigation results in an increased salinity in the soils. Any use of irrigated land it a temporary solution to food production which causes a permanent impairment of the ecosystem. As we take ever more extreme measures to feed our growing population, every measure damages the biosphere and reduces our chances of long-term survival. We do slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazon basin. But as this land is denuded of its foliage, the ground becomes rock hard within a few years, rendering it unusable. The only current option is to clear-cut new sections of jungle and to repeat the destructive cycle.

Food production will continue to be a major challenge. Clearly we need to create a global economic system that can provide for the needs of all of Earth’s people, and do it is a manner that is sustainable. We also need to understand that we are not the only specie on this planet, and that our survival depends upon biodiversity. We need wilderness areas, pollution free wetlands, fecund oceans, rain forests, and coral reefs. We need bees and other helpful insects, and all manner of flora and fauna to survive.

Famine may be our most urgent concern. Shifting weather patterns may cause our breadbasket regions to dry up. We have seen this before on the American plains in the 1930’s. The Sahara Desert is expanding southward into the savannah, causing civil strife and tribal, sectarian uprising as people struggle to survive. Beijing is endangered by the encroachment of the Gobi Desert.

Much of the western United States are already in severe drought conditions. There is already tension between the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley and the population centers of the coast. The San Joaquin valley is the source of one-half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The San Joaquin Valley is sinking by one foot per year due to the pumping of ground water.

Southern California depends on the Sierra Nevada snow pack for its moisture. The 2014-2015 ski season was severely impacted by a lack of snow. Early indications are that the 2015-2016 season are projected to be seriously worse.

Many civilizations have collapsed due to ecological disasters. Potable water will become as big of an issue as food. Clean, fresh water will become the new oil. One third of the Earth’s population depends on the snow pack of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau for its water. This includes China, the Indian sub-continent, and Southeast Asia. But even the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking.

Monoculture has created ecological problems since the beginnings of agriculture. Monoculture is simply the alteration of the land to support one plant or animal species. Just think about that dandelion in your yard. We kill the dandelion, often with carcinogenic poisons, because it violates our notion of monoculture. We believe that our yard is supposed to be nothing but green grass, and any competing species are swiftly exterminated. How much better it would be if we would allow our yards to be biodiverse, to create habitats, and not putting greens? We need to have a change of expectations

In the beginning humans had little power to transform and destroy nature. Our ever increasing technology has given us greater and greater mastery over the Earth and its resources, and with that power we have the power to render the planet uninhabitable. Early farmers using sticks for plows, or early hunters catching whales from canoes did not have the power to undermine the ecosystem. It is a lot easier to clear a rain forest with a bulldozer than it is to clear it with a machete.

It is hard to be optimistic about the Earth’s future. While we cannot destroy the Earth we can make it uninhabitable. It is likely that the Earth is near its peak in human population. Later in this century we will see a decline in population from droughts and famines caused by shifting weather patterns. We will continue to see a host of species going extinct. The decline is already happening. The best we can hope for is to reduce the future effects.

CHANGE AGENT CAUSE DESCRIPTION EFFECT
Global Climate Change Burning of fossil fuels Increase in greenhouse gases Increased temperatures
Rising sea levels
Increased storm intensity
Disruption of weather patterns
Floods, droughts, fires, reduced availability of drinking water.
Change is accelerating as warming planet releases methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas, and reduction of ice sheets increases heat absorption
Disruption of agriculture with accompanying famines
Pollution Industrial and agricultural chemicals Increased toxicity of biosphere Contamination of air, ground, and water
Birth defects, stunted fertility
Carcinogens
Destruction of ozone layer
Plastic Trash Non-biodegradable and toxic detritus: Nylon fishing nets, Mylar balloons, plastic bags Animals entangles in debris or filling their guts with plastic
Habitat Destruction Destructive exploitation of wilderness to support civilization, overpopulation Slash and burn agriculture, draining of wetlands, expansion of cities Loss of nurseries and breeding grounds
Diminished carrying capacity for wildlife
Over-Harvesting of Resources Using up renewable resources faster than they can be renewed Over fishing, clear-cutting forests, poaching, hunting to extinction, Elimination of valuable species and habitats, reduction of biodiversity
Disruption of food chain
Monoculture Destruction of local biodiversity to support one plant or animal species Killing predators and competitors to protect grazing livestock, clear-cutting forest to grow coffee plants, sacrificing natural environment for cash crops Loss of genetic diversity, destruction of natural environment, disregard for biosphere

When does life begin?


The Christian notion of quickening

Icon of the Council of Nicaea, the First Ecumenical Council

Icon of the Council of Nicaea, the First Ecumenical Council

When does life begin? This one question has caused more turmoil than almost any other over the past several decades. Some would say that life begins at conception. Others would say that life begins at birth. People fight passionately about this issue. It is hard to strike any sort of a compromise. The belief systems of the two opposing sides have no common ground even to discuss the issue, let alone to formulate some sort of middle-way position.

There is nothing in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures that deals with the issue of when life begins. The science of conception was simply unknown to the ancients. Generally, if a man planted his seed in a woman normally nothing would happen. But on occasion, a baby would be born some nine moons later. What went on inside a woman’s womb was indeed a mystery, or perhaps even magical.

The Nicene Creed gives us insight into early Christian tradition. If only Christians could absorb the insight contained in this ancient creed and thereby find, not a compromise, but rather a common language and point of reference to discuss when life begins.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, Christianity was instantly transformed from a church of martyrdom and persecution into the established religion of the Roman Empire. Before this time there had not an opportunity for the church to come together and to formulate its common doctrine. In the early centuries the church was a persecuted, underground movement. Because of the martyrdom and persecution without, as well as chaos and confusion within, it had no time to stop and codify its message.

Now with the help and blessing of the Emperor, the Christian Church came together in Nicaea in 325 A.D. to begin its life together as the established religion of the Roman Empire. One of the treasures of this First Ecumenical Council was the Nicene Creed.

Contained within this broadly ecumenical creed is one small morsel that provides an early Christian perspective on when life begins. And that phrase is,

 And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. (emphasis mine)

The reference to “the quick” refers to those babies that have become perceptively animated within their mother’s wombs. When a mother feels the first kick, the life force of the baby is asserting itself as a life form. Now, for the first time, the mother knows that she is carrying a child, as opposed to just some excess weight. The baby is now developed enough to make its presence known.

First there is an embryo developing into a fetus. The quickening marks the point of transition to a child in utero. With the quickening the child is now a full human being.

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:41)

There is an analogy to this point of transition contained both in Roman Catholic doctrine and English common law that says that a child under the age of seven is incapable of committing a sin or a crime. Before age seven the child is simply not aware of the moral implications of his or her action. For the child, attaining the age of seven marks a transition point. The child is now considered to be morally responsible for his or her own actions.

One could argue that the point of quickening, just like the age of seven, is an arbitrary boundary in a process of continuous development. And I believe that we would all have to agree to that assertion. However, as difficult as it is to set boundaries between one stage of development and another, we can all agree on at least the concept of boundaries. A nursing infant is surely innocent. With a six-and-one-half-year-old boy, or a seven-and-one-half-year-old child, we may well argue about his or her ability to know right from wrong.

The notion of the quickening at least gives us a framework and a common language to talk about when life begins. It may not be the most perfect border between fetus and child, but at least it gives us a starting point.

Quickening in the human child begins somewhere from the 16th to the 22nd week of gestation. This is four to five months, or nearly one-half of the way through the gestation period. This is literally a “middle ground” for our discussion of when life begins.

The Nature of miscarriages

There are approximately 4.4 million confirmed pregnancies in the United States in any given year. Of these confirmed pregnancies, approximately 900,000 will end in a miscarriage, or one in five. Another 26,000 babies will be stillborn. As many pregnancies go unconfirmed, and lead to unknown miscarriages, it is hard to estimate the actual percentage of miscarriages to live births. But estimates range from one in four to even one in three. (For statistics on miscarriages see hopexchange.com).

Miscarriages happen for many reasons such as the failure of the egg to implant, or implanting in the fallopian tubes. If the egg implants in the fallopian tubes this will cause an ectopic pregnancy that if left untreated will be fatal for both the mother and fetus. Other reasons for miscarriages include a lack of proper development of the embryo/fetus, and the health of the mother, including malnourishment.

When the religious right insists that full personhood begins at conception it does not seem to square either with Christian tradition or the science of conception. If full personhood begins at conception, then we should expect that all fertilized eggs develop successfully and emerge as live births. But this is not at all what happens in nature.

I believe it is more logical to consider a fertilized egg as an attempt at birth, an attempt with perhaps a 75% chance of success.

Quickening signals the beginning of viability in the fetus. It is a time when the fetus declares himself/herself to the world. It marks a transition from a lump of tissue to a developing person. A fertilized egg is little more than a genetic blueprint. It is merely an attempt to create new life. The developmental process is an arduous journey with many risks and unknowns.

We still need to go metric


Metric World

Our US system of measurements makes no sense, even to Americans. We cannot even call it English measurements because our system is different than the pre-metric English system. For example, how many US tablespoons (tbsp.) are there in a US cup? The answer is 16, but no one knows that; I had to look it up. A harder question is how many cups are in a bushel. The answer here is 148.96848 cups per bushel. How many feet are there in a furlong or a fathom? When the cookbook calls for 6 ounces, is it talking about volume or weight? How many gallons are there in a cubic foot? There are 7.48.

What do you do if your 7/8th inch wrench is just slightly too small? Now you have to mess with fractions and come up with an answer such as 15/16th inch. This same situation is made far easier in the metric system. If the 22 millimeter wrench is too small you simply move up to the 23 millimeter wrench.

By contrast the metric system is simple, elegant and highly intuitive. Everything is in multiples of tens, hundreds, and thousands. A meter is a little over a yard long (39.37 inches). A kilometer is 1,000 meters (0.620 miles). It is 10,000 kilometers from the equator to the North Pole. A centimeter is 1/100 of a meter, or .3927 inches. A millimeter is 1/1000 of a meter or 0.0393 inches.

A cubic centimeter (cc) is a measure of volume. This is where things get interesting. One cc is equal to another metric measure, the milliliter. A milliliter is 1/1000 of a liter. Liters and milliliters are used to measure the volumes of liquids. This is also called displacement. In the cubic centimeter = milliliter equality we have the link between distance and volume. And now it gets even more interesting. One cc (or 1 ml) of water weighs 1 gram. Now we have a direct connect between distance, volume, and weight.

1 cubic Centimeter = 1 Milliliter = 1 Gram of water

A thousand milliliters of water equals 1 liter, which is very nearly a US quart (1.06 quarts). One liter of water weighs 1000 grams or one kilogram. A kilogram (or kilo) is equivalent to 2.205 US pounds. You could give your weight as 90.7 kilograms instead of 200 pounds. A metric ton is 1,000 Kilograms or 2,205 pounds.

The US is the only country in the world that uses our goofy and idiosyncratic system of measurements. The entire planet has gone metric except for the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar (Burma). We lost one Mars probe because the scientists at NASA confused meters with feet in their calculations. We live in a global trade environment with one system of measurement. Using a different system of measurements makes us less able to compete in foreign markets. If a company is making anything for export, the company simply must use the metric system. There are no 7/8th inch wrenches abroad.

Most of our measurements could be converted to the metric system within a few years. We could buy gasoline and ice cream by the liter, bananas and potatoes by the kilogram, rope and fabric by the meter. We could adopt metric clothing sizes with little trouble. We could change our road signs and speed limits to KPH (kilometers per hour) with little fuss. We could report temperatures in Celsius, where water freezes at zero degrees and boils at 100 degrees, instead of Fahrenheit, where water freezes at 32 degrees and boils at 212 degrees. Body temperature in Celsius is 37.0 degrees. None of this would be overly difficult.

The hardest part of the conversion will be in the building trades, where everything is in US measurements. We have 4 foot by 8 foot sheets of plywood, 3/4th inch pipes. But 2 x 4’s are not really 2 inches by 4 inches. Some conversions will require adapters, such as a water heater built to metric standards will need pipe adapters to fit legacy pipe dimensions. Some items such as floor tiles will create difficulties. Currently tiles come in sizes such as 18 inches square. These 18 inch tiles will be needed for some time to come as people do remodeling projects. But when new floors are laid the contractors may use comparable metric tiles that are 500 centimeters or 1/2 meter square. Again, the building trades will have the most difficult metric conversions. But other countries have done this and we can do this here as well.

Metric conversions will take some time and effort on our parts, but in the end we will be much better served. We need to adopt the world standard of measurement or be left behind.

A watershed moment that goes far beyond LGBT issues


Supreme Court

June 26, 2015 is a date that will go down in history. On this date the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage across the whole country. This is a great victory for the LGBT community. But even more, it is a watershed moment in the campaign for religious liberty. This decision represents a severe blow to the religious right who would seek to impose its religious beliefs and morality upon the rest of us by force of law.

In 2008 the right to same-sex marriage in California was affirmed by the courts. In response to this development, the Catholics and the Mormons teamed up in an odd and unholy alliance to create and promote Proposition 8. Such politicking by tax-exempt religious groups was done in defiance of federal laws, and in violation of the their 501(c)3 status. The Proposition 8 campaign was successful, resulting in the elimination of same-sex marriage in California once again. But in the larger picture this campaign became a lightning rod for gay rights across the country. Proposition 8 energized the movement for gay rights and eventually lead to this watershed moment in our history.

Today’s Supreme Court’s decision is a smack down of biblical fundamentalist, and of self-appointed right-wing religious organizations that claim to speak for God in all matters of public morality. It is a total smack down of the Catholic Church and its self-appointed role of society’s moral guardian and rule maker for all forms of gender roles, sexual expression, and reproductive rights.

The Supreme Court’s rejection of the tyranny of the religious right will have ripple effects far beyond the LGBT community. It will hinder the fundamentalists attempt to replace science in our schools with their own religious mythology.

It will eventually cause us to remove the Ten Commandments and other religious documents from our court houses and public chambers. As a pastor I can tell you that the Ten Commandments is a totally cultic expression of faith that has no place in American civil government. The First Commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me,” is in direct opposition to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

America is not a Christian nation. Christianity came to America as a colonizing force, destroying native cultures and religious traditions. Those Christians coming from Europe were religious dissidents, seeking freedom to live and worship in America as they chose after having endured centuries of religious warfare and persecution in Europe. Christians do not own the country. We are a pluralistic society representing many walks of faith journeys, and people with no spiritual journey at all. The Judeo-Christian Bible does not speak to the breadth of all of our religious traditions. And even within the Christian tradition there are many interpretations. I resent it deeply when anyone tries to impose their understanding of the scriptures upon me as if they speak for God. And, as a Christian I refuse to accept that Christianity has as its core values ignorance, bigotry, hatred and fanaticism as many vocal so-called “Christians” would have us believe.

America belongs to all of us. We are Christians, Jews, Wiccans, Buddhists, Muslims, and Sikhs. We are the religious, irreligious, atheist and agnostic. We are blacks and whites and browns. We are the athletic, the able-bodied, and those with special needs. We are young and old, healthy, sick and injured, and those facing death. We are straight and gay. We are stupid and smart, ignorant and educated, wise and foolish. We are rich and poor. We are all a part of this great nation. The Fourteenth Amendment gave equal rights to all. And no preacher or politician can ever change that basic truth.

Ted Cruz and Liberty University


 

Ted Cruz

 

 

I cannot imagine a more appropriate place for Ted Cruz to announce his candidacy for the President of the Unites States than the infamous Liberty University. Liberty University was founded by Jerry Falwell, the poster boy for religious tyranny and oppression. Falwell was the wannabe fundamentalist Ayatollah of America.

But even more than that, this so-called university teaches creationism. It claims that the world is 6,000 years old, and its creationist museum teaches that all surviving land animals descended from Noah’s Ark. Is it any wonder that Cruz is so proud of his ignorance in the natural sciences?

And, of course, is Cruz’s politics. He takes great pride in shutting down the federal government, and in trying to defund the Department of Homeland Security as punishment for Obama, and at a time when the ISIS threat and a slew of home-grown terrorist acts are on the rise.

Are there not any normal people left in the Republican Party? Why do their string of candidates look like a clown-car parade?